If you logged online at any point during 2016, you most likely saw the term “dumpster fire.” The idea of 2016 being awful became a meme in itself, but not one that was particularly funny. There’s not much of relaying all those gritty details to you again – you can turn on cable news for that. Everyone will take their own lessons from that pivotal period in history. For synth-pop duo Sylvan Esso, it meant realizing that they had some growing up to do.
The group’s new album, What Now, is not just about the 2016 election. That’s more of a catalyst than anything. It’s a record about love, technology, identity, and being honest with yourself. That last point is key. Talking with lead vocalist Amelia Meath and producer Nick Sanborn, it’s clear they have no fronts and no fucks to give. Even in an interview, they’ll challenge each other’s opinions and try to uncover the truth. Whether that’s debating existential ideas like love or even their own songwriting process, they quip like friendly sparring partners. That energy is what makes What Now work so well.
Sonically, the album expands their sound further into a maximalist, pop direction. Meath has never sound more self-assured than on lead single “Radio,” singing pointed criticisms of the pop music industry like “Now don’t you look good sucking American dick?” Their humor and insight are their greatest assets and they’re more than willing to put themselves in their own crosshairs as well. We caught up with Meath and Sanborn to uncover the ambitious themes of their new record and the process it took to land on the final product.
VMP: You released your self-titled debut in 2014. How soon after that did you begin on new material?
Amelia Meath: Like a year into our self-titled [album] cycle. We never really got into full seriousness until January 2016. That's when we started started straight-up working.
Nick Sanborn: Like not doing anything else.
But prior to that you were throwing around ideas?
NS: I think we had a couple songs, but it's really hard for us to write on tour. I don't know how other bands do that, but it doesn't make any sense to me. It's like an impossible feat. We're gonna try and be better at it this time. It's such a different headspace to be in. I don't know how anyone makes any kind of relatable material while on tour. So yeah, not a ton. We had a couple songs, but not a ton. The bulk of it was all in that last year.
There's that saying that "you have your whole life to write your debut" and your sophomore album has to come much quicker. But you guys were only a band for about a year before you released your first record. With the bulk of the record being done in a year, do you feel like you thrive on moving quickly and following impulses?
AM: I mean, I wish! That would be cool. It doesn't feel like that.
NS: It feels like it takes a long time to us.
AM: But it really doesn't, if you think about it.
NS: I think we always want it to be going faster than it's actually going.
AM: Which might be why we're fast.
NS: We take a long time with...
AM/NS: [in unison] everything.
NS: I'm really glad to hear it doesn't sound like that to you. Everything is very considered. We don't really have a formula, ya know? We can't just sit and crap something out. We really have to go looking in order to find something that we think is good. Even then, it can take over a year for a song to go from the first idea to the finished thing. The opening song on this record was completely done in an afternoon and there were other songs that 18 months later we finally figured out what they wanted to be.
What’s that lengthier process like? Is it tinkering or is taking the time to get the inspiration? What are you guys searching for when you talk about that?
AM: It's all of the above. What it really looks like is me singing two lines over and over to myself all day, every day until another line appears. Or us working on the energetic structure of a beat. Or listening to all of the bass sounds in the world. Or wandering around with tape recorders and recording drills in downtown Durham, North Carolina.
NS: Or sitting down and listening to other records. I think there's a certain amount of waiting for inspiration, but the bigger part of it is putting yourself in a position to do something about it when it shows up. You can wait to get hit on the head with a rock, but it works a lot better if you go stand underneath an unstable mountain, you know what I mean?
AM: I love that the goal in that is getting hit on the head with a rock.
NS: There's still a lot of work in what seems like it's just waiting. You're poking the edges of your universe, trying to wait for something to shake loose. I think that's probably the best way I can put it.
A lot of this album was birthed out of the tumultuous politics that permeated throughout 2016. Did you feel obligation as artists to respond?
NS: I'm not certain that we totally did. I think if you're making music that's honest, there's no way for that music not to be a reflection of who you were and what you were surrounded by when you made it. So when I listen to this record, I hear the anxiety that I was experiencing and I think that Amelia was experiencing in the year that we made it. That had to do with so many things, including our country burning to the ground around us. But it's just kind of a record about growing up and realizing that nothing really ends and that no fight is ever over. No success is gonna save you. I think that's really what I hear. When we named [What Now], which we did after the election, it was because that really felt like that put a point on a really sad and depressing point on this lesson we felt like we kept coming back to.
There's definitely a sense of self-awareness on the record. You recognize the problems out right. Have you always been comfortable calling things out directly for what they are through your music?
AM: I think honesty is the most important policy. That's probably my favorite thing that my mom taught me how to do. The cornerstone of communication is being open and honest and that's what being in a band is about.
NS: Yeah, music is just hopefully the highest, most immediate form of communication.
AM: Particularly pop music which is distilled so it sticks in your head. And then if you make it mean something, then you win [laughs].
NS: It's always a huge thing for us to just make pop music that doesn't simplify how complicated being a human being is. We'd rather play that up than pretend like it doesn't exist, like a lot of other records we listen to. So the duality of all of every situation you're in is always going to be more interesting than picking a hard, black and white stance on something.
**AM: **How many songs are about, "You broke up with me and I'm FANTASTIC and YOU'RE an asshole." Which is like, this isn't true. That's the hardest part about breaking up is that you have to look at your shit in the face and be like, "oh... I probably did those things."
NS: Those reactions are ultimately just more reflection of you needing to create your own narrative to make yourself feel better and get yourself over the hurdle of actually realizing what you need to change about yourself. That's a more interesting song. That's more real.
You tackle that idea head-on on the song "Radio". It's kind of meta in a way because it's a really great pop song. If it's in the background it sounds catchy and makes you feel good, but then you listen closer and you realize the song's critiquing the whole pop method. Was there any nervousness putting out a song that's so meta and blunt?
AM: Not really. Yes, in that I was worried that people were going to think that's what all of our songs were gonna sound like, 'cause it was the first song that we put out that's on this record and I was worried that people were gonna be like, "Cool! Sylvan Esso's putting out a full-on, major pop thing!" Luckily that didn't happen, which I'm happy about. Or maybe it did happen!
NS: That song also implicates ourselves in that.
AM: That song was born out of frustration with myself too... I'm essentially shitting on everybody in that song, but I'm also critiquing myself for being in it and playing into it.
NS: And the strongest expectations were your own.
As you're coping with all these large ideas, do you think it's important to include yourself in those big questions and ideas?
AM: There's nobody to include other than myself because I am myself. I find that the most interesting songs are about inner dialogue and struggles that you have or questions that you're asking yourself. So a lot of the songs that I write are kind of thoughts.
Is that something you talk about together? What topic or subject you're going to cover or does Amelia come with an idea and bring it to Nick? How involved are the production and the lyric writing between the two of you?
AM: It changes all the time. I write the lyrics and the melodies of the songs, but at the same time... When we were trying to figure what this record was, we talked a lot about subject matter. We hang out, legit 24/7.
Do you think it's been helpful for your process spending so much time together?
NS: I think we'd just be a different band if we hung out less. It's tough to say. It just is part of our process. It's almost impossible to figure out if it'd be better or worse.
AM: Exactly. It's not like this is a conceptual art piece where we're like, "Let's shut ourselves up in a room..."
NS: "...Let's see what happens when we stop being polite and start being REAL."
The arc of the record feels very intentional, the way it eases in and builds as you go. Was that something you were thinking about?
AM: Yes. From the whole time. We still write for records. Every time we wrote a new song, we would try to think about its placement in the record. I don't know if that is a dying [idea] or not. I think about it so much and I wonder if it's gonna be an Easter egg for people. Like, is it gonna be an Easter egg for 19-year-olds who are like, "I love listening to this record on shuffle!" And then all the sudden they listen to it in order.
NS: I mean we think about it down to sides [of the record] and emotional arc. Our goal on both of these records was to make records where each song can exist entirely on its own, but would make so much more sense in the context of the record and where it's at. That's kind of always the goal.
What was the main arc or narrative you were trying to convey?
AM: There are a couple different arcs on the record. A lot of it has to deal with people slowly disappearing into technology. A lot of it has to do with how we create or personalities from media.
NS: And realizing that's not a new phenomenon... In general, it's a record that we wrote as we felt like we were making a step in growing up. Anytime you think you're growing up, you take a look around and there's usually a combination of anxiety and calm. You try to help out your ability to look forward by looking back and looking at your present. That's what I hear when I hear the record. That story and that year unfolding. Even from the start we wanted it to feel like the natural next thing that would happen after the last song on our first record. That song ("Come Down") was kind of an abstract lullaby and I think we wanted something that would feel like you were waking up in a new day. That things were different and things had grown, but was undeniably that feeling of blossoming and coming out of a dream. It's mostly that – that taking stock of our lives at this really strange moment in history.
Looking at the some of the production choices you've made. You've incorporated acoustic guitar on songs like "The Glow" and "Sound". I know you guys have some background in that genre too. What drew you to bringing that element in?
NS: When songs feel like they're more based in nostalgia and reminiscing, I naturally tend toward more acoustic sounds. I think that acoustic guitars played a certain way sound really intimate to me. They remind me of my childhood and they feel really safe. It's like a quilt. So I think they lend that emotional feeling to anything you put them on... You listen through the song and the pieces of the song, which are just parts – they aren't necessarily tied to an instrument, and then you start thinking to yourself, "How can we present these parts with an instrumentation or production that makes the most sense for this song and this message and this time?" Then you fully start trying to answer those questions as best you can and try to make the instrumentation choices as full of meaning as the lyrical choices.
When I first heard "The Glow" for the first time, to me it sounded like a computer trying to play guitar. Was that something you were going for?
NS: I like stuff like that where it feels like the human and machine are not fighting with each other, but they're having this friction filled conversation. I think that's really interesting. Especially on our record where we ended up talking a lot about our relationship with our machines and how we use them to be different versions of ourselves, I think moving that conversation into the production is a good thing. Why would we not?
Dusty Henry is a Seattle-based music journalist. His work has appeared in Consequence of Sound, Seattle Weekly, CityArts Magazine, and more. He also operates PRE/AMP, a music blog and zine dedicated to emerging artists in the Northwest.