Have you ever heard of Sword & Sorcery?
No, probably not. At least I hadn’t until (squints at calendar) May 15. Even still, I somehow already knew the name of Sword & Sorcery characters integral to what Wikipedia describes as an “indie adventure video game.” The name of said characters are Sylvan Sprites, and the reason the name is familiar is because of the band Sylvan Esso.
“I just restarted [playing the game],” Nick Sanborn says, finally on the phone with me after multiple sliding doors caused a slight delay.
“I’m actually learning how to be a dungeon master for Dungeons & Dragons,” Amelia Meath chimes in. “It’s great to think about on tour. It helps you think about a bunch of scenarios.”
Sylvan Esso is the formation of this very power couple – Meath and Sanborn – based in Durham, North Carolina. After one listen through their music catalog, the reason they bestowed a reference to a fantasy video game upon their band name becomes immediately apparent.
The sound is electronic at its base because of Sanborn’s background. His studio tinkering pulsates and radiates waves of energy, sometimes in the form of distorted beeps and boops, and also in ambient noises like a collage of what you’ll hear on a busy street. All of this builds to when Meath whispers, then bellows, and then whispers again, at once reminding you of the flesh and bones behind these intimate collections.
“I think the best part about it is [fantasy] can be anything you want it to be,” Sanborn says. “Really, it’s about storytelling and improvisation with a group of people. It’s really a specific skillset that is deeply creative.”
This approach is also an accurate description of how Sylvan Esso tackles music, as the creatives have enjoyed a lifetime of molding sounds. Meath grew up in a “singing family” in New England who did a ton of driving around, vocalizing whatever was on the radio. She also enjoyed singing in a sea shanty group titled The Rebels, who would perform music based on “whatever culture the director picked that year.”
For Sanborn, his love of all things electronic didn’t get kicking until he was just exiting high school. The Midwesterner was introduced to a range of works from England to Detroit, and simply put, they all resonated with the teenager.
“I didn’t want to go to college for performance, I wanted to go for composition,” Sanborn says. “This is a way that I could express my interest in composition, and it started slowly but never stopped growing.
Meath and Sanborn met in Milwaukee in 2013, and their musical chemistry was palpable and essentially immediate. This like-mindedness was something each wanted to capitalize on. The two are also married, which lends itself to an extremely seamless dynamic.
“I think with anybody, there’s no way to extricate the two things,” Sanborn says. “I think the way you make music with each other is honest, because that’s the way you connect with those people. Bands are a reflection of the dynamic of those people. We’re always shooting for something that feels accurate.”
Because of the constant communication between the two, every moment has the opportunity to be a songwriting moment – whether on the road in a bus roaming from state to state or in their home in Durham.
“There’s not really a formula,” Meath says. “Sometimes it’s me coming up with an idea, and sometimes I write a whole song. Our jobs are slowly becoming one job, because we’re always communicating. It’s not like I have a stack of lyrics.”
The duo is currently on tour for their 2017 release, What Now, which according to Pitchfork “offers a biting, withering take on pop music, full of crisp humor while still finding real moments of tenderness.”
The two also released a recent post-apocalyptic summer single, “PARA(w/m)E,” which is accompanied by an oxymoronic upbeat video, featuring Meath and other dancers wandering the scorched earth in an offputtingly cheery manner.
“We wanted it to feel really happy, but for the lyrics to be really devastating at the same time,” Sanborn says. “It’s the hit song for the willfully ignorant. There’s already that sort of conflict and tone. These people are having a super joyous dance party through this torn up world.”
As for what now after What Now, the band is in a creative space, even bringing a studio rig with them on the road. Despite the yearning both have to create music, Meath says there’s no pressure to hurry another project out the door.
“We’re just starting to think about the next record, and it’s really fun to be in a creative space again,” Meath says.
Sanborn adds, “We don’t have prerecorded notions. The process itself is rewarding and cathartic, even if it’s nothing.”
Check out Sylvan Esso when they headline The Anthem on July 27. Tickets start at $40. For more information about the band, visit their website at www.sylvanesso.com and follow them on Twitter @SylvanEsso.
The Anthem: 901 Wharf St. SW, DC; 202-888-0020; www.theanthemdc.com