INTERVIEW

Made of Oak’s Nick Sanborn and Mountain Man’s Amelia Meath have made one of the most underrated, unashamedly accessible, cliché-free pop albums of the year

SylvanEsso

Like the mystical computer game creature from which the band take their name, Sylvan Esso’s ascent has been nothing short of superhuman. Belied by an assured sound, the still-infant project grew out of a chance collaboration less than two years ago. Multi-instrumentalist Nick Sanborn was approached to remix a track for vocalist Amelia Meath, and the rest, as they say, is fairly recent history. In those short months, however, they have managed to craft one of 2014’s most acclaimed debuts.

As soon as I encounter them, the electricity between the pair is remarkable. The ease with which they relate to each other is noticeable from the off, with most conversations degenerating into mock fights and guffaws of laughter, and I get the sense that they’re already itching to get stuck into album number two. But while their dynamic seems relaxed, it isn’t to say that they’re taking their chance for granted. “I feel successful already,” says Sanborn, in one of our conversation’s more solemn moments. “I mean, we’re here on tour with tUnE-yArDs, we get to do this whole thing for six more weeks and we have another headlining run that brings us back through Europe and the States in the Fall.” He eagerly rhymes off a list of ways in which his life has improved over the last few months before the situation’s biggest advantage dawns on him. “And I don’t have to bartend right now, which is awesome! If it stays right here I will be totally and completely satisfied.”

For those unfamiliar with their backstory, Sylvan Esso are somewhat of a supergroup, if duos can be classed as such. Meath, in another life, forms one third of Vermont vocal trio Mountain Man, while Sanborn creates his own brand of Four Tet-esque electronica as Made of Oak, as well as playing as part of psych-folkers Megafaun. It’s hard, though, to imagine that either of them could have more fun working with anyone else and when I ask if it just clicked, I get a resounding chorus of, “Yeah!” Besides, working as a duo, Meath quickly pipes up, is, simply, “easier.” She goes on: “Also, Nick is good at everything that I’m abysmal at. So the roles are easy to see because we both have our strengths. And arguments are just infinitely easier to have because there’s only two sides instead of this weird rogue that’s chiming in.” They laugh, but it’s clear that there’s an earnestness to the mutual appreciation. “I really trust her opinion and I think she trusts mine,” says Sanborn. “So when Amelia disagrees with me, my first reaction isn’t, ‘Fuck you,’ it’s actually, ‘Oh, well, maybe I might be wrong about that.’” The Sylvan Esso gossip isn’t quite as juicy as I’d hoped. “Well we are really good at fighting,” Meath grins. “And there are personal insults.”

The singer claims she knew they were on the same wavelength from the moment she saw Sanborn dance while performing as Made of Oak. “The dance itself can only be described as herky-jerky and totally dorky, but it was that he was so into it that he couldn’t help but move around. It involves a lot of whole torso jerking around. I thought I should at least buy this guy a drink and hang out!”

Sylvan Esso’s music is simultaneously soulful and danceable, in the vein of Hot Chip, SBTRKT or T.E.E.D, but if you paired the sultry rawness of Fiona Apple’s voice to Modeselektor at their synth-driven best, you might begin to get a more accurate picture. It’s music that’s firm in the treatise that an absence of plaintive guitar strings doesn’t translate to a lack of feeling. Of course, there are more fractured, tender moments, but in the main this is a confidently modern pop album that roots itself very much in the present rather than affectedly grasping for some hackneyed rehash of a classic sound. “We figured out quickly that that was naturally the kind of music that we made together,” says Sanborn. “And once we figured that out we decided to totally go for it, and do something that was unabashedly accessible.”

Meath is also keen to align Sylvan Esso’s music with modern pop, a genre that many musicians are either afraid to touch, or wrongly insist that they are. Cerebral music, she asserts, can be catchy. “Pop’s become a dirty word, which I understand to an extent because now pop’s become synonymous with fancy watches or selling cars.” Sanborn’s love of pop sensibilities spills out as he laments the lack of quality in recent years. “We just really wanted to make a pop record that we would like, but we often talk about how we’re overly forgiving of pop records because we want to like them so bad. So I overlook atrocious lyrical choices and really cheesy, polished production choices because I want a pop record to like.” Thankfully, they’ve stayed away from the awkward sexual metaphors of, say, Justin Timberlake or Robin Thicke. “Yeah, it’s moments like that! We wanted to make the other kind of pop record, where there was more to chew on the more time you gave it.”

As 2014 pans out before them, and with their first LP barely pressed, Sanborn and Meath are determined to keep listeners guessing as to their next move. “We purposely made the choice of putting ‘Come Down’ as the last song on the album because we purposely wanted to…” Quick as a flash, Meath finishes her partner’s sentence: “…To keep the door open.”

That track is a gorgeous, almost-Appalachian ballad, entirely a cappella but for a static background buzz that grows stronger as the song builds and splinters with light-fingered restraint.  “I’m a huge fan of albums that end on a question mark,” says Sanborn. “Hopefully no one would listen to this record – including us – and say, ‘I know exactly what their next record will sound like’.”

“It’ll prepare the world for our metal album!” says Meath.

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