Posts

Photo: Shervin Lainez
Photo: Shervin Lainez

Sylvan Esso brings Emotional Electronic Pop to The Anthem

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

Photo: www.brokeroyals.com
Photo: www.brokeroyals.com

Rock Music with a Brain: Broke Royals

“He was building a studio and knew I was performing at coffee shops on campus, and he asked me to come in and work on some songs.”

Philip Basnight tells me this on a three-way call with the “he” he’s referring to: Colin Cross. The William & Mary alums came together to form the band Broke Royals during their collegiate years. The Virginia outfit has nothing to do with May’s British royal wedding, and no, we’re not writing a story about them to capitalize on the likely spiking SEO results from folks searching the term “royal” either.

We’re writing about these two fellas because, like a marriage between two overwhelmingly famous people, their union is working. Only instead of producing Instagrammable photos and fashion hot takes, they’re creating local pop music.

“We have a lot of respect for each other,” Cross says. “We come at it from different angles. I come at it with experience and technical knowledge, and he has a nuanced musical knowledge. We’re always willing to try different things.”

Basnight got his start in music on the piano because his dad was the de facto music teacher for his neighborhood. The Broke Royals vocalist tells me he was easily the worst piano student his father had. A love of guitar came shortly after, and so did a reputation as the “music guy” at his high school.

“I didn’t know how to talk about sports or anything like that,” Basnight says. “Anytime I met new people, I would try to shift the conversation toward music. Even if people don’t consider themselves music lovers, there’s always something under the surface, whether it’s nostalgia or just a fleeting feeling.”

Basnight discovered a kindred spirit in Cross. Before the two met, Cross had already lived the life of a touring musician, traversing the Midwest in a pop punk band. Though he enjoyed performing, he wanted to switch his focus to production.

“I settled down and moved out here to finish school,” Cross says. “I learned a lot about studio work and had seen the workflow from a musician’s perspective, and I leaned toward that process. That’s when we started working together on technical stuff.”

By 2014, Cross had set up a studio and figured he’d need some demos to tout his production talents, so he enlisted fellow student Basnight. After recording a few songs, their chemistry and similar musical sensibilities were undeniable. The latter revolved around an adoration for pop and rock music, including stalwarts like David Bowie, Prince, Spoon and Wilco.

Over the past four years, Cross and Basnight have continued to concoct songs while establishing a consistent aesthetic.
In photos, you’ll find the bandmates both dressed in white dress shirts tucked in neatly under black vests. Their music is sultry and smooth, sonically gathering from a multitude of influences and instrumentations.

“I think it’s really natural,” Basnight says. “We use Apple Music so we can see what the other is listening to. We want to use all the sounds that are exciting to us. We’re not trying to find weird things. These are the sonic influences we have in our day-to-day lives, and that’s what is exciting for us. It’s a fun guessing game to see where certain aspects come from. I think everything we do is an amalgamation of what we love.”

Because of their shared palates, they give each other the freedom to throw in any and everything they want to try before they strip away what doesn’t work. Last year, the duo released their first full-length LP, a self-titled work that seamlessly incorporated Basnight’s easygoing vocals and Cross’s production know-how. The two recorded the album in one short burst, tucked away in an upstate New York cabin.

“I wouldn’t call it closure, because when you get your album out is when the work starts,” Basnight says.

With music videos, singles and shows galore, the album only served to spark a chaotic season for Broke Royals, and the two seem to relish in this busy space.

“In the interim, we’re writing a ton of music,” Basnight says. “We are definitely in a recording period again.”

But don’t fret, they’re still playing live. Catch the band at AdMo’s Songbyrd Record Cafe and Music House on June 28 at 7 p.m. Tickets are $10-$12. For more information on Broke Royals, visit www.brokeroyals.com.

Songbyrd Record Cafe and Music House: 2475 18th St. NW, DC; 202-450-2917; www.songbyrddc.com