Right after the release of their Grammy-nominated album, What Now, Amelia Meath and Nick Sanborn of Sylvan Esso felt a little stagnant. Sanborn said they’d gotten too wrapped up in the minute details of production and “lost sight of the forest for the trees.”
“I think it’s easy, especially for a band like ours, to get lost in what the songs sound like instead of what they actually are,” Sanborn says. So they broke the songs all the way down. Instead of coasting on the success of the album, Meath and Sanborn took a group of musician friends out to the mountains to see what the electronic pop duo might sound like as a full band. And it worked. They ended up recording a few songs for the Echo Mountain Sessions, and Meath and Sanborn are about to hit the road for Sylvan Esso’s WITH tour, a short tour with a much bigger band, that will finish up in the Durham Performing Arts Center with performances November 22 and 23.
“It’s kind of this fun experiment of seeing what the band would sound like as a 10-piece instead of a two-piece,” Sandborn says.
Sanborn says that the songs won’t be unrecognizable, but he and Meath are very open to seeing what comes out of the upcoming rehearsals. “As far as we could stretch the songs, they still sounded like the songs,” he says. “I’m kind of curious myself to see how it goes.”
Sylvan Esso was born out of the same kind of adventurous collaboration. A few years ago, solo artist Meath thought it would be fun to see what Sanborn would do with one of her songs, and now, as the duo Sylvan Esso, they have two successful albums, a near-constant tour schedule and a Grammy nomination. Sanborn said they both believe that experimentation is crucial.
“Collaboration is such an integral part of our lives,” Sanborn says. “We each feel restless if Sylvan Esso is the only thing that we’re doing, which informs the stuff that we’re doing together. So it’s this beautiful thing where everything is kind of cyclical.”
Meath and Sanborn’s involvement in other projects and genres might be what gives Sylvan Esso such a cross-genre appeal. Many Sylvan Esso songs are exactly the kind of bouncy electronic pop you’d want to hear during a workout or a night out. But sing along for long enough, and you realize the songs are not always what they seem. That fun bop about the radio? It’s also a meditation on the artifice of performance, even in everyday life, and the cost of attention.
“When we were writing that record, and still to this day, we were struggling with the layers in between ourselves and other people that we kept putting there,” Sanborn says. “We were trying to understand the ways that technology, something as simple as our phone or a Twitter account, is a certain kind of noise that you have to reach through to hear somebody.”
Sanborn said the next album, which is due sometime next year, follows many of the same themes of striving, image and our relationship with technology—plus a few love songs—but it’s still too early to be too definite about the content. Before the last album came out, different songs were released on records hidden all over the world. Sanborn said they won’t play that exact same game with people for the next album, but they will do something fun before the release.
And the bigger Sylvan Esso gets, the better for our local music scene. In addition to finishing a record, Meath and Sanborn are currently building a recording studio in Chapel Hill. Sanborn said he loves that there are musicians operating in North Carolina, who create everything from bluegrass to indie rock to hip hop, that give aspiring artists something to look up to.
“To me, we’re a deeply North Carolinian band,” Sanborn says. “One thing I love about the creative community here and the music that comes from here is that everyone is operating on a very high level, and they’re all doing completely different things.”
The duo hopes to encourage the local music scene with this studio, and Sanborn says they intend to make it a place where “things are always happening, but you wouldn’t need to worry about whether or not it would turn a profit.”
“It was explicitly to keep that kind of vibe going, where the rising tides could raise all the ships,” he says. —Shelbi Polk
8 p.m.; from $45; 123 Vivian St., Durahm; dpacnc.com