Breaking Out: Wye Oak

wye-oak-spin-sept09.jpg
Photo by Jimmy Fontaine
WRITTEN BY
Ellen Carpenter

Many bands endure the galling process of getting grades from critics (A for "next Radiohead," D for "next Nickelback, if they practice harder"). Wye Oak is one of the few to be graded by actual professors. But drummer-keyboardist Andy Stack, a recording major at University of Maryland Baltimore County, opened himself up to this when he decided to turn his and singer-guitarist Jenn Wasner's second album into his senior thesis. "I had a little bit of clout," says Stack, 24, referencing their deal with venerable indie Merge Records. "So people were willing to work with me on it." The end result, The Knot -- a gorgeously hazy mix of folk and shoegaze -- gives the term "college rock" new, hypnotic meaning.

Stack and Wasner's partnership began in high school, when they played in a band named for an obscure character in The Big Lebowski, Knox Harrington. "Somebody after one of our shows said we sounded like a local Fuel," says Wasner, 23. "I think he meant it as a compliment." They went away for college but ended up moving back to Baltimore and joining forces -- both as band and couple. ("It kind of all came together simultaneously," Stack says.) Named after Maryland's honorary state tree, the duo recorded their debut, If Children, more or less as a present for friends, but after the blogerati gushed over Wasner's dreamy vocals and Stack's reverb-drenched production, Merge offered to rerelease it in 2008 so non-acquaintances could enjoy it as well.

Next came celebrated performances at South by Southwest and U.S. and European tours, where audiences marveled that two people could produce so much sound. Rather than hire a backing band, Stack learned to play drums with both feet and his right hand while tapping out a keyboard bass line with his left. "I was skeptical," says Wasner of her partner's multitasking. "But he proved me wrong."

Stack's thesis also proved to be a success. "I think I got an A," he says with a modest chuckle. "You passed with flying colors!" cheers Wasner. So what is he going to do with his crisp new diploma? Stack and Wasner explode with laughter. "This is where my laziness comes into play," says Stack, whose degree isn't quite complete. "I have to test out of a piano skills class first."

LISTEN: Wye Oak, "Mary Is Mary"

WATCH: Wye Oak, "Please Concrete"

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