Electronic Duo Talks New LP, Vulnerability – Billboard
Written by GRB on 14/08/2022
In the thick of an L.A. heatwave, Amelia Meath and Nick Sanborn are posted up at a table on the roof of a Koreatown hotel on a Wednesday afternoon. She’s drinking wine (white), he’s drinking beer (in a can), and as the sun beats from the characteristically cloudless sky, waitstaff and patrons buzz around the patio while the pair — who together form the indie pop/electronic duo Sylvan Esso — day drink in the shade.
It’s a very different version of Los Angeles than the one which facilitated the thing that’s brought Meath and Sanborn — a married couple based in Durham, North Carolina — back to town. In early 2022, they road-tripped across the U.S. to L.A. with plans to make music with friends. Then omicron crippled the new year, and instead of socializing, they posted up in the house they’d rented in L.A.’s Echo Park neighborhood and made music together. They weren’t trying to do anything specific other than to make each other laugh.
“It was literally just like, ‘What’s fun right now in this 20 minutes,’” Sanborn says. “And we just ended up working so fast, and really trusting the first thought that we had on everything. And it was it was just so fun.”
“That’s why we wanted to put it out so fast, too,” Meath says, “because we were like, ‘Well, it’s about this three week period of time. So let’s just just put it out.’”
Thus, nine months later they’re back in L.A. to mark the release of No Rules Sandy. Out Friday (Aug. 12) through Loma Vista, it’s an album they weren’t planning on making, the title of which nods to Sanborn’s nickname and the feeling of limitless they felt during its creation. Here on the roof, they both attest the LP’s tight timeline is light years faster than the process that’s delivered their first three albums: Sylvan Esso (2014), What Now (2017) and Free Love (2020), the latter two of which earned Grammy nominations for best dance/electronic music album.
Completed in their Durham studio, No Rules Sandy was catapulted into existence partially by the success of Free Love and their tour behind it, which “kind of got rid of our fears about feeling like we needed to sound a certain way or do a certain thing. It just reminded us that like, if we do it, it’s going to sound like Sylvan Esso.”
No Rules Sandy certainly does, with Meath’s clear, singular voice floating over clever, playful and often challenging productions that lean further into IDM than previous output. The pair agree the album is the weirdest thing they’ve ever made, and also the one that feels most like them.
It’s also coming in a busy moment. Meath just released her debut album with Mountain Man’s Alexandra Sauser-Monnig as The A’s, while Sanborn launched GRRL x Made of Oak, a techno project with fellow North Carolina producer James Mapley-Brittle. On July 24, Sylvan Esso debuted No Rules Sandy at the Newport Folk Festival, then days later began their gig opening for ODESZA on that duo’s summer amphitheater tour, which they’d signed on for before deciding to put out the new album. (They’ll tour behind No Rules Sandy in 2023.)
While they both attest that too much happening at once, this afternoon they both seem mostly mellow and excited about it all. Here, Meath and Sanborn talk about selling out (or not), vulnerability and the new album as “the random detritus of this scrapbook moment.”
You’ve mentioned that Free Love felt like the end of a trilogy and No Rules Sandy is the start of a new era for Sylvan Esso. How does that feel true?
Meath: The first one was about experimentation, the second one was about feeling terrified and kind of contending with the success of the first. And the third one felt like we had figured out how to — the third one came very easily, Free Love. The release, of course, was really sad because we put it out during a pandemic. But all of a sudden, this thing that we’d been struggling trying to figure out how to do, make records, was so easy to do. We knew what the formula was, not the formula was, but…
Sanborn: I think there is a bit of a formula though. I think we were still operating within the idea of like, “What do we perceive Sylvan Esso to be? What are our goals with the band? What are we trying to do with this set of songs”? All those ideas were still in the room when we were making it. And in a lot of ways, with Free Love it felt like we shot our shot and said the things we wanted to say and kind of perfected the ideas that we started thinking about on the first record. And even the end of that record to me, even lyrically, loops back to the beginning. It references the first song we ever made together. It kind of closes a loop.
You guys have always been in but not entirely of the electronic music world. Do you anticipate this new album will shift your position in this space at all? Does that even matter?
Meath: I’m interested to see. I hope so. Because Nick is such an excellent electronic musician. I think partially because we’re a female-fronted band and partially because we write like pop songs, that has been kind of obfuscated. I think a lot of times, when you’re a male/female duo, people think they know what it is.
Sanborn: And also, we’re not terribly self-serious in the way we present ourselves all the time, which I think in that [electronic] world doesn’t always resonate, you know what I mean?
Meath: Oh, that’s a good point.
Sanborn: I think, as a person who’s very in electronic music, it’s a pretty serious, usually self-serious genre. Even in the EDM world, the cotton candy, whatever, that’s still serious and kind of tough in a way. I think the the versions of ourselves we show to people includes silliness and ridiculousness and vulnerability in a way that I don’t think makes total sense in a lot of that culture. Does that make sense?
Meath: I’m learning this thing about our band, that it’s always been about vulnerability. And that really shakes things up, it doesn’t fit in very many places. I think that’s one of the main spirits of the band, and usually when people see that, it either makes them very interested or it’s completely off-putting.
Sanborn: Going back to the idea whether or not this album will put us in with the electronic people or with whatever, maybe, but honestly, I feel this is the first record we’ve ever made where maybe it will, maybe it won’t, but it doesn’t matter. We got to make a thing without thinking about who was going to like it or not. The more we talk about this kind of stuff, the more I feel like, if we’re gonna get on the radio, the radio is gonna have to come to us. If we’re gonna get in any of these places, they’re gonna have to be okay with what we’re doing without thinking about their platform. I think that’s the kind of the ultimate lesson of the whole thing to me.
Meath: Yeah, and we’re tired of waiting. I think for a long time I thought that some, like musical mommy or daddy would appear — a record label or a major or something would be like, “Come, let me give you this career.”
Sanborn: Like, “This is how this works.”
Meath: But DIY till we die. F—ing lifers. We’ve been touring collectively for 30 years. We’ve always done it on our terms. And no one’s gonna save us.
There’s no secret launchpad they lead you to.
Meath: I mean, there is. But I think we’re too ourselves to be offered it.
Sanborn: We’ve been offered versions of it and we’re like, “No, that looks like s—.” …There are obvious things you can do to like, encourage the gatekeepers to be into you.
Meath: And major labels have wanted to sign us.
Sanborn: There’s like, 100 versions of that [launchpad] thing.
Meath: I have a complete death wish to make Sylvan Esso the biggest band it possibly can be, but I keep on shooting us in the foot with my personality. [they laugh]
Is there truth in that?
Tell me what that means.
Sanborn: I mean, it’s not even that, I just think there’s a need to be ourselves. A couple of times a generation there’s a Beyoncé or a Harry Styles or a whoever that — they already have the thing where they are the gravity well in the room, and they brighten everything. They have that thing. That’s a couple of people. Everybody else is trying to play some version of a game to get past the gatekeepers into like, the greater critical mass sphere of things. And if you’re gonna be if you’re not Beyoncé, or Harry…
Meath: Bless up, love those two.
Sanborn: Love both of them so much. But I think there’s a huge group of people all jockeying for position and trying to be the thing that those formats think they want and trying to appease all of the people who work in all those places. And I think for us, having seen it all…
Meath: Having muscled our way into rooms with all of those people, somehow.
Sanborn: But like, every time we’ve come up against a, “Well, you could do this, and it might lead to this,” we’re always kind of like, “that just doesn’t look like fun.”
Can you give me an example?
Meath: Play your stripes! When we were like, brand new babies, we got offered a sync ad campaign for a major retailer. It was a holiday campaign, and the idea was that we would rerecord “Play It Right,” one of our first singles, and turn it into “Play Your Stripes” because this company had a lot of shirts with stripes on them. Pajama sets. And they were offering us more money than God.
Sanborn: Especially at the time.
Meath: It was more money than either of us had made it a year combined. And we couldn’t do it, because how could you record “Play It Right” into “Play Your Stripes”?
So many people would say yes!
Sanborn: Right… It’s like, what do you want your career to be about, and how malleable is the thing you see in order to fit into all these other gatekeepers’ versions of what it could be.
What do you want your career to be about? And do you feel you’ve accomplished that thing thus far?
Sanborn: Weirdly, I feel like that’s kind of been the lesson of the past few months. There have been all these situations where we’ve come up against these realities of like, “What are we working on? What are we doing? And who cares?” The answer, and I’m so grateful for it, because every time it’s happened, I’ve never wished I was doing something other than what we had done.
That must feel great.
Sanborn: To me, the thing we’re focused on right now is breaking free of all of these things. Not even just creatively — it’s like with our label, trying to bring more voices into that and extend the musical family outwards and see how that can be a part of championing new voices. And through that, even selfishly, finding new people to inspire us by being a part of a thing that feels real, rather than part of a thing that feels performative. I think that distinction has really been the lesson of this year to me. Every time we lean towards the former one, it feels like we’re on the right path, even when it doesn’t work.
That’s well said.
Meath: I also think, particularly with this record, every time we were writing something we were trying to impress the other. Because of that, we made a lot of wild, strange choices. For me as a melody and lyric writer, I left in a lot of stuff I normally I wouldn’t have.
Meath: I wrote a love song to myself on this record called “How Did You Know” that’s about my relationship with myself as a songwriter and as the person who’s taking care of me as I move through the world, and how it’s such an intimate and magical relationship and I’m so grateful. It’s an incredibly vulnerable, strange thing to talk about. But I find that every time I share things through songs that are something I don’t feel has been talked about in any way, other than braggadociously, I find that it connects. Also, when I wrote it, I didn’t want to put it out. In fact, I wrote it in kind of a fury, then had kind of a hissy fit about it. I didn’t like it, didn’t want anyone to hear it.
Sanborn: I was immediately super into it. And she was like, “Well, don’t get married to those lyrics. I’m changing all that.” And I was like, “Okay.” Then she came back with this totally rewritten version of it.
Meath: Which I thought was cool. It was about people in a diner. It was very romantic.
Sanborn: Didn’t matter. She sang it, and I literally was like, “I’m gonna play you both versions of this, and tell me the first one isn’t better.”
Meath: And the first one was better.
Sanborn: And she was so mad about it.
Meath: I was very mad.
Sanborn: But that’s kind of the hallmark of everything we were doing on this one. I think we were keeping each other’s honesty in check and always trying to lean into the thing that would make someone feel more seen and closer to what we were doing — always having it be more real and about us, even if that was embarrassing.
Meath: And going deeper, and simpler and more.
That’s hard, but it must be so juicy.
Meath: It’s really juicy. I’ve never had a record that I felt so excited for people to hear. There’s always one song on the record that makes me embarrassed, and there are none on this one, which is funny, because I’m overall embarrassed about the entire thing. [laughs]
Sanborn: It’s true. It’s more macro-embarrassment. [laughs]
Meath: It’s also so fun to put a record out while we’re still discovering what it is. It’s so immediate. Two of the interludes we put on there hours before we sent it to mastering. I “yoo’hoo’d” into the yard at [our studio] Betty’s, and then we put it right into the record and sent it away to mastering. We were making huge changes to it right up until the last moment.
That’s brave. It must’ve been like, “Well, I hope we don’t change our minds later.”
Meath: That’s the whole thing! No rules.
Sanborn: Like, “Does this feel good? Do it. And stop worrying about it.” The whole thing is about right now. Every other record, we would’ve meticulously combed over, but the more we made it feel pasted together, and the more the seams of the whole thing were visible, the more intimate and close to it we felt. So it was like, “Let’s lean into that.” That’s where all the interludes came from. Like, “Let’s play the audio of TJ between takes. Let’s play the awesome voicemail that Alex left Amelia.”
Meath: Or my father debating Peter Gabriel lyrics on my voicemail.
Sanborn: Just all the random detritus of this scrapbook moment. Why not just this? I kept recording voice memos all the time in the studio, just to get us talking more. And I had one on for over an hour and had forgotten about. We had decided to name it No Rules Sandy, and [our manager] Martin came in and we were telling him what we were going to name it. And I accidentally recorded Amelia telling him that and him reacting to it. And right before we sent it in, we found this soundbite and we’re like, oh, that should be the penultimate track.
Meath: And it’s all it’s all of us saying like, “It’s so f—ing cool and exciting!”
Sanborn: Which is also embarrassing.
Meath: So dorky.
Sanborn: But f— it. Who cares.