Wye Oak's Andy Stack talks one-handed drumming

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The irregularly touring Explosions in the Sky are certainly enough reason to head to Monday's sold-out First Avenue show, but the Baltimore duo Wye Oak are great reason to show up early. Jenn Wasner and Andy Stack released their stellar third album Civilian on Merge Records earlier this year, and the album has pushed them into a much larger national spotlight. As recently as April, the band was only playing the Turf Club, but now they've graduated to the big leagues as they hit the First Avenue mainroom Monday.

Wye Oak's performance style as a duo is unique though: Stack performs with his right on the kit and left on the keyboard to cover the bass lines, giving the band an enormous sound for a guitar and drums duo. Naturally, he's heard just about every Def Leppard drummer joke you can think of. In advance of the concert, Gimme Noise spoke with Stack about his unique drumming approach and his reaction to the band's success.

How did you develop your playing style, with one hand on drums and the other covering bass on the keyboard?

I developed it specifically for this band, and it was something I never really tried in any serious way before we started playing as a duo. We both were in several other bands with more people before this one, and we kind of got accustomed to having a nice full sound. When it got to be just the two of us, we still wanted to be able to create a really big sound, so I kind of proposed that idea to Jenn without even knowing if it was really possible on my end. I think she told me that I was out of my mind [laughs]. So then I took the keyboard into the basement and just kind of worked on it like you would any other instrument. I started with simple parts on each instrument and broke them down to build up the motor memory.

I think that motor memory is 90% of what being a drummer is. It's hard to get to any creative part of playing until you can actually get all of your limbs to work in tandem. And that's the same on keyboard. So, it started like that, basically growing out of the start of this band. We've been touring so much in the last few years that I've been able to really advance my ideas about to perform this way, and sort of expand my palette.

That motor memory idea is absolutely right. Did you have trouble with the keyboard element of playing, since it's based on finger independence rather than limb independence?

I mean, there are a couple of things there. I'm not really a keyboard player, not nearly to the degree that I'm a drummer. When I play two-handed piano parts, I'm a mess. I certainly would consider myself a drummer first before a keyboard player. But also, even more than I am a drummer, I'm a bass player. I've played a lot of bass, and the start of my playing style was just combining bass lines with drum parts. Any bass player or drummer knows that those two instruments are married and are really integral to each other. I end up thinking more like bass than drums, though.

More recently I've started sampling sounds with the keyboard, where I'll have a couple different sample capabilities with different keys. In that case, I'm playing parts sort of, but I'm also triggering samples, which makes it more of a percussive thing. I'll just have a couple different fingers doing different triggers.

Learning to play both keyboard and drums at once was like learning any instrument. There were some initial hurtles to get over, mostly with the coordination. I've gotten to this point where we can play and I'm pretty good with improvising and being able to put stuff together on the spot. Usually in every song we work up, there's something where I have to tell Jenn just to leave me alone for 15 minutes so I can just slow it down and work on it piece by piece.

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Photo by C. Ridenour
Stack's set-up allows him to cover both bass and drum patterns, using a keyboard underneath his hi-hat.

When you practice drums, do you practice with keyboard too?

I used to do that a fair amount, but now I do that a lot less. Well, for one thing, just having any chance to practice that's not in some regimented show setting is a pretty big luxury at this point, just because we've touring so much. We're home so little that it's not a big option. When I am home, I get really excited to just play two-handed, like a regular drummer. Playing one hand can definitely be pretty limiting. I also feel like I get back from tour and then my regular drumming abilities have atrophied a little bit. Like my left hand won't remember how to play with a stick anymore. I do look forward to when I can just focus on one instrument at a time.

Have you ever considered adding a third person to the band?

We've talked about that consistently over the years, but I think that this group has always been just the two of us. If we were to add somebody else, it would be a totally different group. We're both working on different projects too, so that allows us to explore other ideas that we don't with Wye Oak. I think we both feel that there are a lot of changes that we could make just within the confines of the duo. If we get to a point where that gets to be boring, then we'll add somebody else in.

I've always been impressed by how much sound you get with just two people, both live and in the studio.

Well yeah, the studio's the easy part. We can just pile stuff on there. I think we often find that it's more difficult to sound sparse in the studio, to kind of reign ourselves in and not add that 12th guitar track [laughs].

You also manage to get a really loud sound live, especially with Jenn's guitar. Do you think you'll try to harness that sound in the studio at any point?

You know, our first record we did a lot more in that regard, and even our second record had a fair amount of that as well. We sort of have been getting away from that, but for me, there are still moments on our last record that hit really hard.

That album, Civilian, has received tons of positive press, and it seems like the album has really put you into the spotlight, more so than your previous efforts. Does Civilian feel particularly different for you, compared to your older records?

Well, I think it's our best record. I was very pleased that we made a record that we both felt was our strongest and that we felt most excited to share with the world. It's great that people actually took notice of that. I think we felt a little bit more in control when we were making that record.

The first two records were really important learning experiences for us, but we got signed to a label on our very first album. When we made that album, there was no real expectation that it would be widely available. We self-released it and just made a bunch of CD-Rs. You know, we were just getting started, and we were very unsure of the type of band we wanted to be. I think it shows on the record, because stylistically, it's all over the place.

And then, on the second record, it was the same deal. I recorded and mixed it, and I'm pretty proud of what I did with it, but I'm not a professional record producer or engineer. I think when we went into this record, we had a much more defined idea of how we wanted to make it, how we wanted it to sound, who we wanted to work with. I think every came through with a little more confidence and determination on this record, and I guess that came out in the music.

It definitely seems like the whole album has a unified sound and mood, like the songs are together for a reason.

Yeah, I guess it didn't surprise me that this record caught on as much as it has. Also, you can't underestimate how helpful it is when to play as many shows in a year as we do. We'll close out the year with almost 200 shows under our belt in 2011. When you hit it that hard, you hope to see some results.


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