Bull City Records, Durham
As we careen toward a dystopian world of crowds and noise, there are few better places to be alone with one’s own brain than Marfa. The tiny West Texas town has become an unlikely haven for artists, musicians, and abstract thinkers, not only because of its desolate natural beauty, but also because of its almost supernatural isolation from pretty much anywhere else. American urban hubs are increasingly augmented by bucolic townships, perfect for quick little bouts of creating before returning to city life.
But in Marfa, there’s no city to go back to. You are really fucking far away from everyone—just you and the cleansing enormity of desert and sky.
For Andy Stack—composer, working drummer, musical polymath, and dream-team band mate—Marfa was not just a place to live and work, but a liminal slice of space-time in which to be alone and finally make his own record: Release the Dogs, recorded under the name Joyero, which Merge Records will release on August 23.
“It’s just totally this island,” Stack says of Marfa. “I was pretty isolated. That’s kind of what this record came out of.”
Like the meticulous drummer he is, Stack was precisely on time for our coffee meeting on an absurdly hot day in Durham, his home for last eighteen months. You likely know Stack as half of Wye Oak, but he’s also the touring drummer for the indie supergroup EL VY and the beloved Merge band Lambchop, and he brings precision and skill to an ever-expanding roster of musicians, including Helado Negro and Thor Harris.
When accused of being a serial collaborator, Slack reflects on his experience as a semi-recent arrival to Durham. In comparison to a Baltimore scene driven by art-school mystique, the Triangle feels like an open, welcoming exercise in mutual inspiration and admiration.
“It’s been a really positive experience moving here and being exposed to the community, which is extremely unpretentious, very earnest, and dedicated to musicianship and craft in a way that is really refreshing,” he says. “I’m playing with people who I feel elevate me, making adventurous music. But it’s not my music, so I can relinquish the anxiety of, ‘How are people going to receive this?’”
When he’s not helping his peers process their musical instincts, Stack composes music for television and film—a more solitary enterprise, but one that’s nonetheless beholden to something beyond his own vision.
“It’s still a creative application,” Stack says. “But you have to work at it from a much more logical and less egocentric place. It’s a weird thing, because you’re a technician that’s in service to the emotional pull of the piece that you’re doing.”
But there’s no one else to fall back on in the deserts of West Texas. Without a squadron of colleagues and collaborators, Stack had to rely on his own ideas and instincts to create projects that felt vital to him, one of which was Joyero.
“I think the isolation and the solitude made me get in touch with some versions of my musicianship and my creative self that I could have continued to brush off,” he says. “It’s kind of ironic that somebody in a two-person band would want to trim down even more. But I think it’s really nice to be able to be on my own.”
That “two-person band” would of course be Wye Oak, one of the most nimble and imaginative groups around. If you’ve seen the Baltimore-bred, Durham-based duo, you know Stack’s calm, confident presence, drumming with one hand, triggering a multiverse of tweezed and processed sonic wonder with the other, creating a finely layered space inhabited by Jenn Wasner’s potent, inimitable voice and guitar.
Even behind the incandescent Wasner, Stack is fascinating to watch, constantly multitasking, coolly in control of his gear. The pair has developed an almost psychic ability to communicate, which Wasner calls “musical shorthand.”
“He’s the ideal collaborator,” Wasner says. “Versatile and egoless. He can play pretty much anything he can get his hands on, and he’s willing to take notes and work together to find the part that’s right for the song.”
This precision is all over Release the Dogs, as are all the mutable colors of Stack’s playing. On “Alight”, the opener, it takes Stack just under ninety seconds to do the following: introduce an insistent, dubby drum-and-bass pattern, tweak its tempo, add an organ’s ebullient hum, crank up the delay, push the whole thing toward oblivion, gently pull it back from the brink, and introduce us to his voice with the lilting couplet, “I told you I wanted / To be part of it.”
If this sounds like a frantic beginning, somehow, it’s not. It’s exhilarating but controlled, even when the only thing keeping it from slipping into chaos is Stack’s softly commanding voice, the quietest aspect of Release the Dogs, but arguably the most captivating.
“I had lost this fledgling version of myself as a singer,” Stack says. “Making this record was a process of discovery for the emotional connection to singing and the pure physicality of singing.”
That process leads to some haunting places. Lyrically, the record is contemplative, with moments of ache and sadness. On first single, “Dogs,” the chorus paints a picture of lonesome aimlessness: “While you’re away / I wait outside the house / Lift an ear to every sound / I sleep all day like a dog whose master’s out / I don’t know up from down.”
Talking to Stack, I struggle to find an appropriate word for his lyrics, so he does it for me, breezily describing some of the album’s thematic material as “dark.” But sonically, it’s marked by moments of ferocious, effervescent joy.
On “Steepest Stairs,” a warbling keyboard suddenly erupts into arcs of melody that seem to ascend endlessly. The energy is thrilling, woozy, and romantic, cut through again by Stack’s voice, gently assertive, steadily intoning, “And the hours will pass / With your breath on the glass / Looking in on the last / Of the old dream.” The layers drop out suddenly for the swooning chorus, which only makes their prismatic return more triumphant.
Durham musician Jay Hammond, aka Trippers & Askers, is Stack’s former Berklee School of Music classmate. They reconnected in Durham and started improvising together, picking up a musical relationship they had left off ten years before. Even after playing with Stack, Hammond was struck by the complexity of Joyero, amazed that it was the work of one person.
“But the thing that’s not surprising to me is just that it’s very beautiful,” Hammond says. “It’s very tender, very sincere music.”
“To be both intimate and expansive at the same time is a tough one,” Stack says. “But it can definitely be done.” For him, the record’s lyrical and musical juxtapositions are about capturing feelings of ambivalence. “Ambivalent” might seem like an odd way to describe such a vivid record, but it makes more sense the more you listen to it.
Spinning “Steepest Stairs” for the tenth time during the heat-induced psychedelia of a run through Durham’s backstreets, I could hear what Stack meant. It’s an ambivalence born not of apathy, but of experience—the calm that comes when you find yourself in the desert with no one to record with, making peace with the fact that you’re just going to have to do it yourself.
Joyero is about to go on the road, an enterprise that naturally has been informed by Stack’s penchant for collaboration. On a recent tour with multi-instrumentalist Thor Harris’s group, Thor & Friends, Stack ended up sitting in on saxophone with his tour mates.
“I just totally fell back in love with saxophone, which I played in school and then didn’t touch for like ten years,” he says. He pauses as I grapple with the fact that he also plays the saxophone alongside the six hundred other things he seems to have mastered.
“I’m not like the guy who’s gonna rip some jazz licks,” he says with a laugh. “But I’ve really enjoyed playing it.” He’s incorporated the instrument into Joyero’s live set, where it meets an electronic-processing engine—what Stack affectionately calls “the meat grinder”—and ends up “creating these synthetic textures out of organic materials.”
That place where the digital meets the acoustic, and where creating alone melds into creating with others, is at the crux of where we find Andy Stack on Joyero, and where he finds himself.
“It’s a work in progress,” he tells me, with playful solemnity. “On many levels.”
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