Shervin Lainez

Sylvan Esso And The Art Of Disassembly

How the North Carolina duo built the intricate electronic songs on new album ‘What Now’ from the ground up

As he composed Sonic the Hedgehog 2's fizzy, nimble score in the early 1990s, Masato Nakamura reportedly worked solely from screenshots of each level of the video game for inspiration. For the ninth level, "Sky Chase Zone," Nakamura opened with nine triumphant synth blasts befitting the gameplay, as Sonic leaps from one soaring airplane wing to another.

So, too, goes the chorus of "Die Young," from electronic band Sylvan Esso's new album, What Now, which boasts jet engine–size synth gales as singer Amelia Meath delivers the hook, "I was gonna die young / Now I gotta wait for you, honey."

Since Meath and her cowriter, Nick Sanborn, founded Sylvan Esso in North Carolina in 2013, they've made it paramount to construct their songs from intricate, unusual sounds. The pair build from the ground up, whether sampling a malfunctioning CD player for a galloping rhythm or interpolating an old pop song to color a heartbreak ode. Maybe, I thought, they sampled Sonic for "Die Young" to evoke heroism, or perhaps as a callback to childhood. But no, this particular reference was all in my head, they assured me.

"I'm almost bummed that I didn't know about that Sonic the Hedgehog track," Sanborn, the group's primary beat maker, told MTV News recently. "We really give a shit about everything being super intentional."

While that sound was neither an intentional reference nor a sample, on "The Glow," the track with the skipping-CD noise, the stuttering effect is the entire emotional center, implanted to kindle "that feeling of nostalgia and discovery," Sanborn said. "I feel like now I'm hearing skipping CDs in a way that I didn't when I was younger," he added. "To me, it feels like this beautiful artifact of that time and almost an instrument unto itself."

As he created the instrumental, Meath worked on a separate song; the pair later fit the two together to finish "The Glow," one of the best songs on What Now (out today on Loma Vista). The song's title references the Microphones album The Glow Pt. 2, which Meath used to listen to on CD, of course. Lyrically, she affirms that a song about a "glow" in 2017 can actually focus on something other than the constant illumination we get from our device screens: "It wasn't from a phone / And I knew I wasn't alone."

When Meath and Sanborn played a showcase at South by Southwest this year, they found themselves awash in technology: Nearly everyone in the first few rows had their phones held up to capture the performance. You can see them clearly in the video NPR released from the show; an armada of spectators point their camera phones directly at Meath as she bops around at the edge of the stage, some of the viewers using a free arm to sway to the beat while some remain stone-still.

The clip resembles most modern concert experiences. It's simply how live events are processed now. But for the band (and, I would guess, many other performers), it's admittedly a little peculiar.

"I don't want to dictate how somebody else should have a good time," Sanborn said. "But there is definitely a part of me that thinks, Man, you're in the front row. Is this the most present we can all be together?"

Meath agrees. "What it reminds me of is when something awesome is happening and your neurotic friend would be like, 'Oh my god, I want to remember this forever,'" she said. "And that's when you get to say, 'We're here! Don't worry about it!'"

Speaking as a fan who takes at least a few photos at every concert I see, it's probably unfair to linger on this point. People will enjoy live entertainment in whatever way they choose. But at least half of the 45 minutes I spend on the phone with Meath and Sanborn is spent talking exclusively about this topic, likely because it feeds into larger issues about how we engage with culture and the way we share what we feel we own. Or, to quote comedian Hannibal Buress, "You don't get to see what I see except for when you're looking at pictures of me seeing that shit!"

"I do kind of worry that we're turning every experience into something that is only a real experience once it's been validated by people who weren't there," Sanborn said. "But at the same time, I don't know what it's like to be 19 right now."

There's also the fact that Sylvan Esso make electronic music, so, in my head at least, a conversation about smartphones totally fits the mood. Then there's reality, which reinforces that though Sylvan Esso's music plinks and bloops, it thematically aims higher than merely singing about the usage of modern devices. Their songs rail against catcalling and offer meta-commentary on the state of music-industry gatekeepers, and the new album's opener is literally called "Sound" (not to be confused with "Song," which comes later). It's a neat trick, presenting a concept and the musical representation of that concept, then dismantling it — and often reassembling it — in the skeleton of a three-minute pop song. And then making an entire album that way.

"For [2014's Sylvan Esso album], it was mostly Nick in a room and me in a room, and then we could come together for half a day, but we were mostly working apart. For this, every time we were working on beats, I would be there," Meath said. "We'd be working together and talking about sound and feel. Mostly the energetic structure of songs and finding the right sounds for that, so each sound is leading to the song finding its climax and ending."

What Now delivers 10 songs fashioned like this, with specific sounds exploding with metaphors as fertile as those found in Meath's lyrical wordplay. On "Radio," a frenetic dance pulse helps the song race against itself, gunning toward its allotted three-and-a-half-minute runtime; unpack the cluttered refrain of "Kick Jump Twist," an otherwise minimal dance number, and you'll discover textures that fit each of its three title verbs. In creating this world of sound, Sanborn said he's externalizing the noise he finds within.

"The thing I get most excited about is finding new ways of generating things, finding new ways of making sounds no one's ever made before that really feel like me," he said. The rest just needs to be heard — headphones recommended.