I recently got the chance to sit down with Amelia Meath and Nick Sanborn of Sylvan Esso while they were in London to discuss their latest album, interpretations and misinterpretations of art, the conflation of the personal and political in the Trump age, and how cool PWR BTTM and End Of The Road festival are.


Congrats on What Now, it's one of my favourite albums of the year so far. I was quite a latecomer to your self-titled in 2015, but I fell in love with it. What was the recording and conceptualising of this album like compared to your self-titled?

Amelia Meath: Well in general, it was a totally different beast. Just because when we first started, nobody really cared about us.

Nick Sanborn: We had no idea what we wanted to be really.

AM: The whole first record is us just trying to write pop songs, whereas with What Now we knew what, and we were two years mature then, and we'd developed our songs through touring as well.

NS: Yeh I think we were just so much more confident about how we wanted, and what we wanted.

AM: Exactly, the majority of the work was us convincing ourselves to not be babies.

NS: It's interesting, there's a moment where we were trying to figure out how did we do this last time. We hadn't really written for a while when we started writing this one, we'd just been touring and don't really write on the road very much.

AM: Which we're going to try to change.

NS: We'll see...

AM: We'll try...

NS: And we're like, what did we do last time, and all of a sudden we're just like totally different people from what we do last time. Because I just have very little in common with that guy, which was like a freeing realisation.

What changed, what makes you different and how has that influenced your songwriting?

AM: Well, you know how you can look at a photo from two years ago, and you don't feel like you've changed, but you look like a baby in that photo? That's what it feels like. It's not like there's a lot of massive life experiences we've had.

NS: Our lives are hugely different now.

AM: Yeh our lives are hugely different, but I can't point to any specific experiences, other than the fact that people have started listening to the band.

NS: Well I think that might be an overly simple way of looking at it. I mean, a lot of stuff comes with that. I think that it's not a singular thing; our lives are completely different from a career perspective, and I would see that's personally as well as professionally. I just feel like we grew up a lot in those couple of years.

So has these changes been the lyrical or thematic inspiration for the album? What are you trying to say, being crude, if anything at all?

AM: Yeh there's a lot of things we're trying to say. In general, the record itself is about how life continues and how no defeat is ever final and how no victory is ever final either. Everybody's always trying to shove themselves into this narrative, because we all want that because it's neat, and that's not real. And I've personally found that trying to put myself into a narrative has actually led me to be bummed more often than not. So that's there, and also the performance of personality in that cyclical thing.

NS: Yeh I think it's a snapshot of where we're both at at this time of growing. Every time there's a change in your life, it touches and reflects upon these developments. I feel like it's all about everything shifting and figuring out the main lesson you're learning, and you take stock of everything that's happening around you. I feel like each song looks at the taking stock as it happens around you.

I can definitely see that. On that note, it was quite interesting looking at the reception to your singles, 'Radio' and 'Kick Jump Twist'. A lot of people view 'Radio' as almost a slate against people who might be in your position, the sell-outs. Is there some degree of truth in that?

AM: No, I wrote the song from the perspective of me talking to myself, saying that we're obviously playing into this game. I mean, trying not to, trying to fight against it; but also enjoy it. That's what it's about. I'm always fascinated how people like to create invisible complexes. Like, we've been told many times that the song's about different bands, and that's just not true. It's like Drake versus Meek Mill.

NS: Yeh, it's "Sylvan Esso have released a diss track". Do we seem like a diss track band? It's funny.

Well, music journalists, we need to write about something don't we, even if we have to invent it.

AM: That's true.

NS: Yeh, no conflict on 'Radio'. Internal conflict though.

AM: Yeh, lots of internal conflict.

I think that comes through quite well, the internalisation. Obviously it's quite a difficult process , as you say, in coming to terms with changing as a person so radically in such a short span of time. Slight tangent if that's okay, to the production of the album. Quite a significant aspect of your first album was how you used Amelia's voice as an instrument itself, how you distorted and syncopated it, and superimposed it on itself to create a mood, atmosphere or sonic effect. What appeals to you about using your voice as a device in line with the synths and drum machine.

AM: You take this one Nick, this is your signature move.

NS: This is my signature move? I didn't even realise that.

AM: No but like the impetus to do that came from you.

NS: That's really true!

AM: Yeh, because he was having difficulty remixing a song for my first band Mountain Man. It took him a year.

NS: Right, haha it did, it took me a solid year. When we first started the band, 'Play It Right' was originally a remix I did and Mountain Man was mostly acapella band, and part of the magic of them was that it was all singing. And with remixes you normally take the vocals and change what was happening behind the vocals; the music. But with Mountain Man it was a lull? So there was a period where anytime I added anything to it was sort of subtraction by addition, where I was ruining what was special about it by forcing myself on it. And then a breakthrough happened where I started taking their voices and turning it into something that tied the track together. So it started there, and I think more than that, was what I realised from that, is that when you imbue the track part of the song with the same humanity which the vocal has, it makes the whole thing feel more human, like you can reach out and touch it. And what I love about electronic music is that it's kind of imperfect, textural, like humans. I think that line where you can feel the machine rubbing up against the person who's using it, that's kind of the most interesting place for those sounds to live. To me it sounds soulful.

You touched on my next point there. What I like about your music, and what makes it quite distinctive, is how panoramic it is. How it can be vulnerable and intimate, but also quite defiant and poised at the same time. You quite enjoy using silence and minimalism effectively, so what value do you see in using quiet spaces in line with everything else?

AM: Silence is so important.

NS: It's just another important part of a composition. An absence has the same value as a note, you know?

AM: And I think it takes a lot of bravery to give something what it deserves. I think you see that with great actors, and the bravery to give space and time for something to sink in, and to take that time is really important.

NS: I think when listening to the first record now, and then the second, I think we felt a lot more open on the first record, a lot more space. Whereas on the second record, the world was just a more anxious space, so I feel that naturally there's a little less space, but where there is space, it's deeper than the first record. Especially on 'Slack Jaw' and 'Sound', the first and second-to-last tracks, have so much even more room than anything we ever gave to anything on the first record, because you want them to feel like a chasm. Which is how the empty spaces on this record felt to me.

In what way do you mean, they felt to you?

NS: I think I was just a more anxious and emotional person in 2016 than I was in 2012. So where we use a clustering of sounds, it was to mirror how life felt, to mirror a constant, the constant of how intense life is right now I think is reflected on a lot of songs. When I have a moment of peace or sadness or loneliness, they feel deeper or more lonely or more spacious or more empty. I think the space is used to different effect on this record than the last is what I mean.

I completely agree, I was just curious to hear your take as the creator.

NS: Oh thank you! You know it's weird, you make this shit and you have no idea how someone's going to think about it. Obviously no one's going to think about it as much as we think about it, but you make these choices which are deeply intentional, and then you release it to the world, and the vast majority of people are like "it's got a beat and you can dance to it" which is a perfectly fine way to interpret music, but it's really nice when you put that stuff there and it is picked up on.

AM: We're contending with that right now, where we're unsure about getting our dos, where people think we're a nice pop band.

NS: Which we also are!

AM: Kind of, not really though, it's very different. It's weird though, because we created the band with the conceit of "we're going to make pop music and talk about real shit" and people keep on pointing to the pop music and say "and sometimes they say smart stuff".

What's the strangest question or point an interviewer has raised with you?

AM: There's this new thing where people decide what our music is about, and apparently our music is usually about them.

NS: Like the 'Radio' thing,

AM: Yeh people decided it was a dig against Lana Del Ray, because there's a line in it which I talk about blue jean; and I had no idea about that song, I was singing about fucking David Bowie, I wrote that song after Bowie died.

NS: But it's like this thing where when it's out there, the song's not really yours anymore.

AM: Yeh, which is totally true, but the Lana thing pissed me off.

With that, it's quite interesting, because almost every album review you read or every piece of music criticism is trying to frame every piece of art within Trump and the rise of the Right, trying to project things which aren't there at all. I find interesting this bizarre way people try to create so much meaning from stuff that never had the intention, and I'm bad for it as well!

NS: Definitely, or on the flip side, as bands you try to imbue something all this meaning, and sometimes someone listens to it and is just like "oh yeh!" Either someone's seeing meaning in something which isn't there or, God, like that Lorde 'Green Light' thing?

AM: Oh yeah! That was beautiful.

NS: I happened to catch this weird moment on Twitter where Lorde released that song 'Green Light', but right away someone on one of Lorde's fan accounts had posted this thing about the green light in The Great Gatsby and the resonance as this shining beacon in the novel and how this resonance worked with her song, and there's this deep literary tie-in to this thing, and then Lorde responds to that with "no, actually just like a traffic light, thanks guys." Way to go Lorde, that's a bold move and hilarious.

I love that, like what happened with Kendrick and DAMN, when a Reddit thread posted a theory that he was going to release another album on Easter Sunday.

NS: Yeh yeh!

And he was like; nah. I love that though, overanalysis is one of my favourite things about music writing. It's interesting, I find myself becoming more and more inclined to enjoy music that's about the personal stuff on behalf of the artist rather than grandstanding statements. Like, my favourite album of the year so far by a distance is PWR BTTM's?

NS: Yeh we love those guys!

I think I saw a photo of you guys together, and had a mini fangasm!

NS: For sure, those guys are amazing.

With PWR BTTM and in music in general, there seems to be a big shift where really cool bands are putting forward progressive politics, progressive ideals, without making it overtly political. Just trying to be enthusiastic and taking pride in yourself, and I feel your music plays into that. I'm curious to get your thoughts on this shift, how the personal might be the most important perhaps?

AM: Well the personal is political, the idea that it's so much easier to put a point across to put into practice rather than just yelling it; just like PWR BTTM does.

NS: Exactly, in PWR BTTM songs; every song is a distillation and reflection of their emotional reality.

AM: Yip.

NS: Which politics is inherently tied into, cause how could it not be for any of us? And I feel the same way with our songs. Like I don't think we'd ever make an overtly political, single issue-based record, because that's not what we really like writing about.

AM: Also going back to the Trump thing. I think there was a moment where everyone in our country was so fucking heartbroken that they wanted everyone to know exactly how they felt, so they shoving against this move, which we're keeping on doing, but a lot of it became really convoluted, because it was all about how sad everyone was. Yeah, we're sad, but we have to keep doing things.

NS: We've got a lot reactions to that in our personal lives, and social media lives, and marching and stuff like that, but in a band sense, our biggest thing was in realising the title of our album was What Now. And I think that's the way our band works. And I think it encapsulated this lesson where we realised we'd been learning about growing up. It was the final piece where we realised that that's what we'd been talking about this entire time.

That never struck me actually, the significance of the title.

NS: That's the thing, it's not something that snapped into focus for us, it's more about our emotional lives. When you're going through what the universe is trying to teach you something it tries to do so in three different ways in succession.

Going back to the music, you mentioned previously how you're trying to pick up on the contrast between the quiet and the noise, and the...

NS: Sensory explosion.

Exactly! That took a part in 'Coffee' and 'H.S.K.T.' most predominantly on the last record, but then through your singles for What Now, it's become quite pronounced in the lose-your-shit dance refrains and breakdowns. They're almost club floorfilling bangers now, there are three or four songs songs on the album you can imagine coming on in a club.

NS: That's the perfect idea, three or four club bangers and three or four sad ones.

AM: Definitely!

Yeh, just one after the other! Is this a direction you can see yourself going in the future.

NS: They're fun to make!

AM: They're fun to make, and you have to do it. Making pop songs is like puzzling, it's like solving a puzzle because you need five things in order for it to be successful, and the push and pull of energy is really hard. When you do it, you know it, when it clicks into place, that's really fun to do. I'm not sure yet. I'm not sure what place we'll be in when we're done with this record.

NS: Every song we make feels really different to the last song we made, to us, it's hard to tell. For this record it was mainly the highs felt higher and the lows felt lower. On the first record the range was a little lighter, whereas here the range was a little deeper, probably because that's how we felt emotionally. It starts at a low point, before going into this overly exuberant age, then gets back to the afterparty. That arc was important for us this time, I'm not sure where we'll be next time.

Going back to this idea of uncertainty playing against each other; I remember reading an interview about how everyone constantly tries to condense you into a dream pop band or a folk pop band, and you said the next person who calls you that you'll kick the shit out of them! Discussing genre is quite trivial these days, it all just seems to overlap with one another, do you identify with any aesthetic? Or do you just pick and choose with what you think would work in the context?

AM: I don't identify with any aesthetic necessarily, because we both just have so many influences. In general, I say we strive to make pop.

NS: Yeh, which is pretty open...

AM: But so are all of the other ones! Like, rock, what the hell is that? Or... folk?

NS: I think for us, pop is a nice thing to say because it suggests accessible music?

AM: And it sticks it to the man. Let's make weird music, you know.

NS: We aren't a band who decide in advance what kind of song we're about to make, so whatever song emerges is just what the band is at that point, we try to follow the song rather than putting ourselves on the song. So the what-genre question, that all comes after the writing of the song. I'm sure there are bands that are like "we're a disco band, we're going to write ten more disco songs", but that's just not how our band are ever going to be.

Yeh, fair dos. I guess one of the last things I'd like to ask you is what sort of conversation would you like What Now to galvanise or create?

AM: Honestly all I want is for people to make it their own and incorporate it into their lives. Any piece of music you write, you want to touch people's lives with it. Oh, and have it be a nice relief or safety zone. And it would be cool if people thought it was smart as well! But if not, you know, oh well.

NS: I would like it to remind people of the grey areas away from the dualities, and the internal ying-yang conflicts of life are natural, and not everything needs to be polarised. I think a lot of the songs have to do with internal conflicts, like 'Radio,' it's looking inward and looking out at the same time. There's an inherent contradiction there, but that's okay.

Definitely. Lastly, what are you listening to at the moment?

NS: The new Kendrick, on repeat.

AM: Yeh the new Kendrick, the new PWR BTTM too. Did you see them in London when they did the tour?

Ha, I had a ticket but I'd injured myself hiking and couldn't go.

AM: Oooohhhh bummer.

I'm seeing them at End Of The Road to make up for it.

AM: Oh we love End Of The Road!

NS: It's the best festival.

AM: I can confirm it's the best festival. We haven't played there yet, but Mountain Man played it twice.

NS: We went the year War On Drugs were playing, and loved it. Yeh, but mostly spinning Kendrick, and one record I really want recommend is from an African artist, her name is Awa Poulo. It's this beautiful African vocal record, that's just really accessible, and really cool, and the harmonies are so good, so good. Those are the two albums we can't stop listening to. So, people please go listen to those two!


Sylvan Esso's new album is out now via Loma Vista Recordings. Check out their forthcoming tour dates: 6 Nov - Birmingham @ O2 Institute2 / 7 Nov - Bristol @ Trinity / 8 Nov - London @ O2 Shepherds Bush Empire / 11 Nov - Manchester @ Gorilla / 12 Nov - Glasgow @ Art School / 13 Nov - Leeds @ Brudenell Social Club.