By Al Kaufman
Amelia Meath and Nick Sanborn are like oil and water. They do not mix, but when they try lots of pretty swirling colors are the result. The duo that comprises Sylvan Esso came to be when Meath, who was singing in the Appalachian band Mountain Man, asked Sanborn, who was playing bass for the psychedelic folk band Megafaun, to mix a song (“Play It Right”) for her. Already an accomplished electronica producer, Sanborn created something from Meath’s song that completed what both had been striving to do for a long time. What that is, is unclear, but it just felt right. It is indie in the true sense of the word, in that there is nothing else like it.
Sylvan Esso’s debut CD is full of Meath’s plucky folk songs (like those of Feist, or a less smarmy Kate Nash) to which Sanborn adds loops and various items that he might have stolen from a junkyard, creating a sort of electronic-folk sound.
Sanborn loops Meath’s voice and adds buzzes on “Hey Mami,” in which Meath seems to feel envy and sympathy for the girl who “don’t know the gravity she owns/ As she pulls on the eyeballs of all the kids standing tall.”
The single, “Coffee,” which they recently performed on The Tonight Show, is full of discordant bleeps and blips, and even a bit of toy xylophone, as Meath laments how nothing in life and love is permanent; how the players change, but the game remains the same.
Meath sings of society and modern man (“Wolf”) with both a world weariness and a sense of wonder. Just when things begin to stagnate, the duo throws in a song like “H.S.K.T.” (head, shoulders, knees and toes), which begins with what sounds like Sanborn hitting a pipe with a wrench. It’s what the indie crowd would consider a bonafide dance number about the joys of travel (and the comfort of knowing that wherever one roams, there will be a television there).
Such music would not seem to translate well to the stage, but Sylvan Esso shows have become must see events. Meath dances across the stage like a marionette led by a puppeteer on crack, and the crowd follows in kind. There is an energy to their show that is missing from most indie bands and a soulfulness that is often lost in most electronica acts.
Before their upcoming sold out show at The Earl, Sanborn took time out to answer questions about the band’s growth so far, including performing on The Tonight Show, and the role that Foreigner played in creating the band’s sound.
How does a folk singer from Vermont meet up and form an electronica band with a psych-rock bassist from North Carolina?
We actually met at a show in Milwaukee, where I lived before moving to North Carolina. I opened for her band, Mountain Man, while they were on tour and we became friends and fans of one another. About a year later she asked me to remix a song, we were both so into the results that we decided to make more music together and it just kind of snowballed.
When most people think electronica, they think dance. You are more of a folky electronica. Was that a conscious effort?
Nope. Outside of deciding we wanted to do something accessible we tried not to make any preemptive stylistic decisions. Honestly, it’s weird to me that people give us the “folksy” tag — it just sounds like pop to me.
Electronica often does not go over well live. But you two have some of the most dynamic live shows around. How do you make that happen?
Amelia has such a unique dance style on stage. How did it evolve?
I hesitate to speak for her, but if I had to guess I’d say the evolution was Sesame Street > Muppet Band > Thriller > Spice Girls > Aaliyah.
Did you think “Coffee” would take off the way it has?
Not at all. We liked it but it’s such a bummer of a song that we figured it would be one people got into later on (as opposed to an entry point). Then again, I suppose most of the songs on our record are bummer songs when you get down to it.
What was it like playing The Tonight Show? Is Jimmy Fallon as sweet as he seems to be?
Absolutely surreal. And yes, he rules.
This band is a different sound for both of you. Have you brought some of your fans from your old bands along with you? How are the fans for Sylvan Esso different?
I think there are definitely some Mountain Man fans that have stuck with us, but most of the faces we’re seeing are new ones, which is really exciting for two people who have been touring as long as we have.
Most electronica strives to keep the beat flowing. You seem to consciously enjoy throwing the occasional discordant sound in there. What are you striving for when you do that?
I’m really into the friction point between human and machine, and obvious imperfections or non-electronic textures in otherwise electronic music. I think I just love music that sounds human and honest, whether it’s electronic or not.
How did you make the change from playing bass to playing buttons and knobs?
The first iteration of Sylvan Esso was just Amelia singing Foreigner songs while I played wicked slap bass solos. It was cool, but ultimately ahead of its time, and we had to make a change.
Sylvan Esso plays The Earl with Dana Buoy on Friday, August 15th. It is sold out.