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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: Gus Black

Eels’ Mark Oliver Returns From Hiatus

After a four-year hiatus from the record business, Eels frontman Mark Oliver Everett – known simply as “E” to fans – is ready to road test the tunes from his richly textured new album, The Deconstruction.

But while the eclectic indie pop singer-songwriter feels good about the fresh songs, he wasn’t exactly brimming with bravado in an interview with On Tap in advance of his band’s June 12 date at Lincoln Theatre.

“Make no mistake, I never feel fully confident about anything,” Everett admitted.

After releasing 12 albums and touring consistently over the past two decades, the introspective multi-instrumentalist suddenly pushed pause on his career in 2014. The undefined break turned into a four-year respite punctuated with occasional flourishes of songwriting and recording.

“I didn’t even know I was making an album for most of those four years,” Everett said. “My goal was just not to work at all. Once in awhile, if I was really inspired to write and record a song, I would. Then it might be six months before the next one.”

The result of that long, drawn-out creative process is the most well-curated, cohesive – and yes, confident – collection of songs that Oliver has ever assembled. “Bone Dry,” a hip-shaking but haunting rock tune about a difficult ex-lover serves as the record’s first single, while the title track finds Eels in swirling orchestral territory.

A loose collection of L.A. musicians known as The Deconstruction Orchestra and Choir weave gorgeous strings and harmonies throughout the electrified rock album. The overall effort is dedicated to Everett’s late dog, Bobby Jr., referred to as “our fallen brother” on the band’s website.

“From people I’ve been talking to, the response has been very positive,” Everett allowed of the new album. “I feel good so far.”

A Fairfax County native, Everett proclaimed DC among his favorite cities to play live shows – but not for the reasons you might think.

“I don’t have a lot of fond memories of [DC] because of all the tragedies and stuff that happened,” the longtime Los Angeles resident said. “But I love playing DC. It’s the only time I ever go back there. It’s always a good experience. I judge every city by the audience, and you always have nice audiences in DC.”

The tragedies Everett referred to include the deaths of his emotionally remote father, a famous quantum physicist who worked at the Pentagon and died of heart failure when Everett was just 19; his beloved sister, who was troubled with mental illness and committed suicide in 1996; and his mother, who contracted lung cancer and died in the house he grew up in in 1998. Everett’s close cousin, a flight attendant, was on the plane that slammed into the Pentagon on 9/11, adding yet another layer of grief to his hometown memories.

Everett recounts these sad chapters in his life – as well as happier episodes – in his highly personal and sometimes laugh-out-loud funny memoir, Things the Grandchildren Should Know, released in 2009. Often sporting a dark beard and sunglasses, the musician has a reputation for sometimes being inscrutable in interviews. But he leaned into a question about how he keeps his music buoyant and life-affirming despite the emotional wreckage he’s had to deal with in his life.

“There was this big moment when all of these tragedies were happening, and I was back in my mom’s house in Virginia and was getting overwhelmed by it all,” Everett recalled. “I was just lying on my bed, and I saw a blue sky in my imagination. That crystallized it for me. I was like, ‘Wait, there has to be a bright side to all of this, too. There has to be something healthy.’ And that was the birth of making the Electro-Shock Blues album 20 years ago.”

He added that he was lucky to have had that epiphany and has a very positive memory of making the 1998 album.

“It was the one great thing that was happening to me at the time because I was being super creative and making this new music that felt hopeful in the face of all these tragedies. It was like this warm blanket I wrapped myself in.”

That’s not to say life is all rainbows and unicorns for Everett now. He announced the release of The Deconstruction on the Eels’ website in April by proclaiming, “The world is a mess. This is just music.”

While the world is indeed a mess – and U.S. affairs seem to be in a state of permanent upheaval under President Donald Trump – don’t expect Eels to go getting all political, not even for the politically savvy Washington audience he enjoys so much. As Everett sees it, politics is a minefield for musicians.

“I’ve always actively avoided [politics] as much as possible,” he explained. “John Lennon was a lot better at singing about his mother than empowering the people. There are exceptions and it can be very subtle and great like with Ray Davies (of the Kinks) doing ‘Shangri La’. It’s beautiful when it happens, but it is so rare.”

Eels’ live shows have earned a reputation as freewheeling, even exuberant affairs that can involve audience interaction and onstage antics. But Everett has also been known to strip the live show down, allowing the music to take sole possession of the spotlight as he did on The Cautionary Tales of Mark Oliver Everett, the band’s last release and tour in 2014. He declined to give clues as to what fans can expect on the new tour.

“I wouldn’t want to say because that would take a lot of fun out of it,” Everett said, while acknowledging that “anything approaching a fervor” would be a welcome reaction.

“I’ve never had this long of a break between tours, so it’s simultaneously daunting and exciting,” he added. “I do feel very fortunate that I’ve been doing it as long as I have and that I have an audience. That’s just a very lucky thing.”

Catch Everett and Eels at Lincoln Theatre on Tuesday, June 12. Tickets are $40. Learn more about the band at www.eelstheband.com.

Lincoln Theatre: 1215 U St. NW, DC; 202-888-0050; www.thelincolndc.com

Photo: Colin Medley

Dynamic Duo Partner Rocks DC

Lucy Niles and Josée Caron, better known as Partner, a Canadian rock duo with hilariously relatable lyrics and guitar chops for days, graced the DC9 stage Wednesday after making waves on the SXSW circuit in March. Ahead of their show, I sat down with the duo to talk inspiration behind their debut album, In Search of Lost Time, what it’s like working alongside a close friend, and how others can draw from their example to trust in their creative work.

Niles and Caron’s subject matter has an undeniable everyday appeal. With songs about making the most of weekdays off from a hectic work schedule on “Personal Weekend,” the paranoia that comes from being high in public on “Everybody Knows,” and the excitement of a new crush on “Play the Field,” listeners will find at least one relatable song on their first full-length album. The band says their inspiration for these songs comes from common threads amongst their lives.

 

Both on and off the stage, Niles and Caron have a palpable and cohesive energy that many duos spend entire careers honing. In addition to the two on guitar, an equally talented three-piece band joins them for live performances. While they were in college, Niles and Caron spent time in and out of different projects before they formed Partner in their post grad years.

“Everyone in the other bands moved away and it was kind of just me and Lucy. We were living together and it kind of was just exactly the right circumstances,” Caron says of the band’s eventual creation. “One day we were hanging out and there was this guitar beside me and I just started yelling words.”

“It was around when she was getting into weed, so we would just smoke and talk about childhood memories and stuff like that,” Niles adds.

Forming the band led to an eventual permutation of old friends, and with each tour and recording session, their relationship becomes deeper.

“It’s a really fast way to grow as people. I think our bond is stronger now,” Niles says.

Caron is quick to agree.

“We’ve been playing together pretty much since we met, casually at first, then we started touring together but not as seriously,” she says. “It just sort of built up, but we also live together so we’re together all the time anyway.”

While their sound is distinct and decidedly self-assured, Caron and Niles say they find their inspiration from a host of artists.

“It’s all over the place,” Niles says. “Sound wise, we’re influenced by Ween, obviously, because they’re pan-genre. We’re kind of more influenced by attitudes and energies or whatever.”

“[We’re even influenced by] people that aren’t known really at all,” Caron adds. “We love to discover.”

“Pretty much anybody that seems like they know exactly what they’re trying to say and… they sound like they’re free, that’s what inspires us,” Niles says.

The duo also draws inspiration from many non-musical places.

“We’re really obsessed with the Enneagram personality test,” Niles says.

“It’s kind of spiritual, so it’s like we’re on some kind of path,” Caron muses.

Niles agrees, adding, “We’re trying to improve ourselves and shit.”

Caron emphasizes that recently, reality TV is “for sure” a huge inspiration.

This attitude translated beautifully into Wednesday’s live show, where Caron impressively belted Lady Gaga’s “A Million Reasons” after telling the audience the recent Netflix documentary on Gaga’s life “changed everything” for her. They also covered Melissa Etheridge’s “I’m The Only One” and sang a new song that was inspired by a poem written by Caron’s boss. Both band mates smiled through the entirety of the song, as if no one in the world was ever going to have as much fun as they were in that momentexcept maybe for their audience.

One of the most refreshingly unexpected aspects of their album are the skits—seven in total—scattered throughout. Consisting mostly of recorded phone calls, the skits make perfect sense in a world of songs about the band’s everyday life. Perhaps the most hilarious are the ones including Caron’s supportive and funny dad. I asked her how she managed to get such great soundbites of her dad, and she tells me the band played a bit of a trick to get them.

“We knew we had to get him when he didn’t know he was being interviewed, and then we asked for his consent later,” she explains. “But it’s also my dad, and obviously from the record you can tell he really wants me to do this kind of thing.”

Niles adds that “We definitely would not have gone forward with it if he hadn’t been okay with it.”

The band knew they wanted skits to be a big part of the album, but the better parts of it came together later.

“We knew we wanted to have skits from the universe and stuff of our album,” Niles says. “We wanted people to feel like they were having a whole experience. We didn’t really have any ideas for a skit, and then we just smoked a bunch of hash.” 

Caron says the band “wanted to show our life and everyone who was involved in the record and everything getting made.”

Niles adds, “We definitely didn’t realize how the skits would be received. But then we came out with the skits, and a lot of people said that they loved them and a lot of people are like ‘we love your album, but we hate the skits’ so it’s like completely 50/50.”

While their subject matter and energy is carefree and playful, the powerful and positive example they set as talented women telling the stories of their everyday lives is not lost on the duo. I asked them for advice they would give to any young creatives who are afraid to put themselves out there.

“I don’t wanna say there’s nothing to be afraid of, but you deserve to be allowed to take up space if you want to. In that way, you don’t have to feel like you’re not allowed,” Niles says.

“I think that when you make something that you love, you can feel safe in your creation, and can look for that feeling of being supported by your art,” Caron says. “That will give you the strength and the momentum to  put yourself out there in whatever place makes sense for you. It’s really about finding your voice.”

For more information about Partner, click here