Had the awesome pleasure of interviewing the amazing electronic pop duo, Sylvan Esso.
Below, Amelia Meath and Nick Sanborn talk about their song-writing process, performing live and more.
Synth History: How did you meet and form Sylvan Esso?
Amelia: We met at the Cactus Club in Milwaukee. Nick was playing first of three, in a three band bill. It was Made of Oak, his solo project, and Mountain Man, my three part harmony folk band, and we were both opening for Mr Twin Sister. Nick was just really good. It's rare to be on tour and to be on a thrown togethe
r bill and to have the first of three be really excellent. So then we became friends on Twitter, when Twitter was kind of a nice place to be.
Synth History: And you just hit it off?
Amelia: Yeah, we did. We were friends. We texted jokes back and forth. And then when Mountain Man needed a remix, I asked Nick and it took him for fucking ever. A year after I asked, he sent in the remix, and it was really good. It was like a madman remix for a little while and then we were like, “wait, but it could be our band’s song.” And we turned it into a Sylvan Esso track.
Synth History: How do the two of you approach songwriting?
Amelia: It really changes all the time. The way that Nick and I write songs, like sometimes I don't have a primary instrument, I write in the air, usually, which means that I tend to write like melodic structures or time signatures that are strange. Sandy [Nick] plays multiple instruments and is very deeply in the modular synth world right now.
Synth History: When you're coming up with melodies, is it sitting down starting to write a song or do they just come to you when you're doing other things?
Amelia: It's both. More often than not now, I could sit and be like “Alright, we are working now.” Then one will appear or it'll be like on our latest record, Nick will start jamming and I will just respond with lyrics and a melody. I write both at the same time so they just king of appear and then we build songs from that.
Nick: I mean Amelia kind of covered it, it's always different you know? We don't really have a formula and I think if we did, we would probably hate it. Part of what gets us going is that we really inspire each other, to do something cooler than what we just did. And so a formula kind of inherently fucks that up, you know? So it's always kind of different. We do a lot more jamming now than we used to, where we'll just start making things and then iterating and moving through stuff, based on whatever we're thinking about or listening to at that moment. And that's been really exciting.
Synth History: Do you each have a favorite memory in the studio, doesn’t have to be good or bad. Just something that sticks out in your mind?
Amelia: On this last record [No Rules Sandy] there was a moment when we were writing “Moving”, the opening song on our record, we were doing this kind of nerdy thing where we were giving ourselves constraints. We were trying to go towards happy hardcore, honestly. How can we write something that's like so frickin' fast? So Sandy started building something, and then all of a sudden, he made like three changes and the song fully clicked. I wrote the whole melodic line, which is really quite simple. It's basically like one line. And then we recorded that. He ran the whole thing through the stereo field and all of the sudden it was like we hopped three lily pads into this crazy dreamscape. It was so fast and frenetic. And it was, you know, it was like one of those magical moments where you feel like you're making something bigger than yourself. You're just like woah!
Synth History: Are there any favorite memories on stage that you can recount?
Nick: I don't know if this is a favorite one, there's only been a couple of times in our whole band's career where we've had a full scale meltdown. One of them was at ACL in 2015. And then one of the only other ones was just the other night. I have a new tech working on my rig and it was his first night running the show by himself. We were in Phoenix at an outdoor amphitheater and it was 113 degrees that day. During the show, the laptop basically had a full meltdown. He had to come on stage and try to fix this at his first show! This was like the third time in our entire career this had happened, and it's on his first night. He was up there for like four straight songs. I have all these photos of Brandon, this dude who is so good at his job, but on his first night standing there with his hands on his hips, looking frustrated at the laptop rack in between the two of us on stage in front of like, 50,000 people. I felt so bad for him. But it was also an amazing trial by fire. He had a positive attitude after that. And I was like, oh, this is going to be fine.
Synth History: Did everything end up working out?
Amelia: It did. Relatively.
Nick: We got there. The show happened.
Synth History: Do you have a song that you look forward to the most playing live?
Amelia: Right now we have this new song called “Alarm” that is so fun to play live. The lights feel really good. It's more of a dance song than we've ever done, so the vocal part is really simple, but also in a much lower register for me, which is super fun because I just kind of get to sort of pace around the stage in a different way than I normally do, which I like a lot.
Synth History: What’s your live set up like?
Nick: It's cool. Right now half of it is kind of an Ableton session. It's like a really intense DJ setup, basically, that sends clock and MIDI to all these different instruments. So there's a modular synth piece that's doing a lot of drums and samples. I have a Juno. A drum machine that kind of gets swapped out, but right now it's a Tempest. A Moog Minitaur that I can flip to for the bass, and then I have all these tracks where I can take Amelia’s voice and send them out to the modular or sample them in loops. I can kind of add to the tracks or replace whole parts of them or kind of rearrange what's happening. Then, kind of smear the whole picture and snap it back into focus. It just feels like an ADD playground at the moment.
Synth History: That sounds awesome. Do you have any current favorite synths that you really like using in the studio, and do the synths change when you perform onstage?
Nick: It changes all the time. Right now there's the Moog Matriarch that is just, I think, one of the coolest fucking synths that anybody has ever made. It's like they deconstructed the Voyager and gave you all the parts. It's just so strange, but it can also be very tame. That's the only way I can talk about it. It's like they deconstructed a classic and it feels like a totally new instrument. It's beautiful.
Synth History: What were you listening to in your middle school days and do you still listen to it now?
Nick: I was listening to a lot of They Might Be Giants in middle school, who I still think are one of the greatest songwriters / songwriting bands in America. I still listen to them a lot. I love They Might Be Giants. They're kind of the most economical band that has maybe ever existed. I love them.
Amelia: In middle school I made the transition from listening to NRBQ and Foreigner to listening to top ten hip hop radio. Like Ma$e, Notorious BIG, Tupac, Ashanti and Aaliyah. Actually, really any beats that Timbaland made I still listen to, like all of those Missy Elliott records, the Q-Tip record Amplified, I listen to all the time still. I think it's like one of the greatest. We recently found out that Dilla did most of those beats, like Q tip did half of them and Dilla did the other half, which makes so much sense. And then after middle school, I transitioned into Animal Collective, Modest Mouse, Radiohead, those things.
Synth History: Do you have a piece of advice for somebody starting out in music who is not really quite sure how to approach songwriting?
Amelia: I find that a song is like a puzzle, in general, because the parameters are whatever you make them. Maybe it's like drawing? Maybe what I would actually say is, look at a song that you really like. Maybe look at three songs because if you're a huge fan of Phoebe Bridgers or something, those songs are stories a lot of the time. So look at three pop songs and figure out, when are things repeated, when are they not, what is the structure like, when is the verse, when is the chorus, and then use that as your roadmap to create it. Make different bubbles that you have to fill with lyrics. Do that and see what happens.
Nick: I think what Amelia said is really good advice. Even when I was in composition school, the vast majority of what we did was an analysis. And it was just analyzing, breaking down and charting out what other people had done as a way to understand the way something could work. I think it takes this idea that is really abstract and heavy and daunting, like, “oh, writing a whole song about my feelings”, and turns it into this thing where you can see it as something that's accomplishable. I feel like getting out of your head about that kind of thing, at least for me, is such a big part of it.
Synth History: My best friend Mo turned me onto Sylvan Esso, back in 2014, we shared a little studio in Brooklyn, and Sylvan Esso would always be on whenever I came in to work. I asked Mo to come up with a question. Here it is: The song “Hey, Mami” is about getting catcalled, something a lot of people can relate to. Do you get a lot of Sylvan Esso fans that share with you their stories of feeling empowered or unity from your music?
Amelia: That’s so nice! I do. Yeah, a lot of people talk to me, particularly about that song, about how that made them feel like someone was on their side. Which is the dream of music. To be a friend to people you haven't met yet. That's my dream.
Synth History: If you could recommend one album that everybody should listen to at least once in their life, what would it be?
Nick: I mean, everything I would pick I would hope that everyone has heard, but if there's someone out there who has not listened to Nick of Time by Bonnie Raitt, they should. I would feel so bad if somebody made it to their deathbed without having been obsessed with Nick of Time. That would be a tragedy on so many levels.
Amelia: Yeah, I mean, in all honesty, my other two most listened to records other than Nick of Time are the Buena Vista Social Club, which I listen to all of the time. There's also a Self-Titled Willis Alan Ramsey record that I really, really love.
Nick: You know what, can I say one more thing since we're on Synth History? There is this one record that, when the pandemic hit, me and Amelia used it as our wake up music for like seven straight months and it's just one of the most beautiful albums I have ever heard. I still listen to it all the time. Suzanne Ciani’s Buchla Concerts 1975. She recorded five that weren't released until just a couple of years ago. It's like the dream of synthesized music. It's just a truly unique voice at a different time. It's transcendent and utterly singular.
Sylvan Esso's No Rules Sandy is out now.
Synth History Exclusive. Photos via Brian Karlsson.