The title of the Durham electro-pop duo Sylvan Esso’s Grammy-nominated second record, What Now, was more apt than anyone knew.

After releasing it in 2017, Amelia Meath and Nick Sanborn felt a bit disconnected from what they had done and unsure about where they were going. So they started teaching the songs to their friends, first just for fun, then for a “visual EP,” Echo Mountain Sessions, in which they reinterpreted What Now songs with an ensemble at an Asheville studio.

The climax of the minimalist duo’s maximalist adventure was last December’s WITH tour, in which they whisked a 10-piece band (including Wye Oak’s Jenn Wasner, Hand Habits’ Meg Duffy, and Meath’s other band, Mountain Man) through a week of sold-out shows in legendary halls like New York’s Beacon Theatre and Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium.

Raleigh production company Remedy filmed the rehearsals and the two spectacular homecoming shows at DPAC, which resulted in an hour-long concert film that premiered on YouTube last night and a live album that label Loma Vista Recordings surprise-dropped this morning. 

But the most important result might be yet to come. In the process of teaching the songs to their friends and taking them on tour, Meath and Sanborn reconnected with What Now and gained an insight that will shape their new album—they’re mixing it now and plan to release it this year—and all to come: that Sylvan Esso can be anything as long as they’re at the center.

INDY: Walk us back to the origins of the WITH tour.

NICK SANBORN: After the second album, we were kind of in this weird space where we lost sight of what the record was. It happens to a lot of bands, right at the end of making a record, when there are a lot of decisions that aren’t really musical, like how the bass drum fits into the mix. You kind of lose the forest for the trees. We had this idea to get our friends together and teach them the songs. It just seemed like a fun excuse to hang out, but then it reminded us what the songs were in the first place, why we wrote them.

We would get offers to do something like this and be like, yeah, it’s logistically impossible. But we had a year coming up where we were just writing and playing a bunch of shows, and our manager was like, this is actually a time when we could put this together if we just do a handful of cities.

AMELIA MEATH: So instead of booking our normal venues, which are usually all-standing, 2,000 or 3,000 capacity clubs, we decided to do it in theaters with everyone seated.

Why seated?

SANBORN: It felt more appropriate to that kind of ensemble experience—at least how we planned it, even if it’s not quite how it turned out. We didn’t think it was going to be very loud.

MEATH: Yeah, when we planned it, I worried it was going to feel really stuffy, so I was like, well, we can’t have them standing [laughs].

And so everyone wound up standing up in DPAC.

SANBORN: The Echo Mountain Sessions, which started this whole thing, was relatively muted, so that’s what we were basing these decisions off of. But I’ve been to a lot of theater shows recently with livelier, bigger bands. We’ve just seen that David Byrne American Utopia tour, both at a festival and a theater, and it worked in both.

“The loveliest part is that it showed us Sylvan Esso can be whatever we want it to be.”

Was the idea to turn WITH into a concert film and live album there from the beginning?

MEATH: No, not really! We hoped we might get a live album out of it, and we’re trying to get better at documenting, so we had Remedy film our rehearsals and our friend Graham [Tolbert] document the whole thing with photos, which is also the album artwork. But we weren’t like, we’re going to make a doc.

From effortless to arduous, what was the process of arranging the songs like?

MEATH: We were really lucky that everyone we asked to be in the band are such pros. We sent out an initial email, like, we want you to learn these 21 songs, and made suggestions of parts people could cover with different instruments. But then everybody not only listened, but also thought about the songs. The first day, we sat down and went through “Wolf” together, and it was almost there already. So in some ways it was pretty effortless.

SANBORN: We tried to tell everyone what to aim at while making sure they knew we asked them personally because we trusted them artistically. We were trying to walk that line of making sure everyone was focused on the same point but could get there however they wanted.

You put together an interesting palette, with two drummers and a saxophone.

MEATH: We wanted to cover all the bases in drumming, so we got Matt MacCaughan, who’s incredibly metronomic but also very versatile, and Joe Westerlund, who’s super lyrical.

SANBORN: Some of it was just logistical, too. Before we asked anyone, we went through every song and figured out how many musicians we’d need to make it happen, and then we honed that master list that’s got to be 800 people [laughs].

MEATH: I also just kept asking people that I liked.

You’re used to touring as a more streamlined duo. What was it like with all these people?

MEATH: It was a totally different experience to go to an airport with—how many people? We had 44 checked bags. It was like being on a school trip.

SANBORN: You know when you see the college basketball team at the airport? It felt like that.

MEATH: We should’ve made matching jackets.

SANBORN: We usually have a pretty big crew, but there’s only two of us. We have a family on the road, but this tripled it. It felt bigger and wilder and somehow more comfortable at the same time.

Did the shows feel consistent or were there highs and lows?

MEATH: The tour was so short, seven days instead of two weeks, that I can remember each date, which is super rare. We got good at the songs practicing in our garage and then immediately flew from our studio to Walt Disney Concert Hall.

SANBORN: Literally, our garage to the LA Philharmonic.

MEATH: And having a band—normally, when there’s a problem, it’s just turning to each other like, fix this thing, you.

SANBORN: That’s really how we talk to each other.

MEATH: It was amazing to have the work of being a band be communal. The second night in New York was totally transcendent, and both nights at DPAC were, too.

“It feels a lot different from the last record to us. It’s simultaneously more dance-y and also much sadder. It’s the best record we’ve ever made.”

Did this experience alter the way you think about your trajectory as a band?

MEATH: The loveliest part is that it showed us Sylvan Esso can be whatever we want it to be. I was worried that we were going to accidentally turn into a different band, and that didn’t happen.

SANBORN: Or that it’d just be gimmicky. You know those old CD compilations of, like, bluegrass covers of Radiohead? I was worried it would have some flavor of that. The craziest part was that the shows felt exactly like Sylvan Esso shows, the same energy and feeling in the room. We were kind of rounding third base on our new record, and I was like, oh, I don’t have to worry about what we’re supposed to sound like, because if the two of us make it, it’ll probably sound like we made it. Sylvan Esso can be anything. So it rejuvenated us to finish songs and write new things in a way we wouldn’t have otherwise.

Do you know when the new record will come out?

MEATH: We did do, but now … [laughs]. I hope that it’s released this year.

SANBORN: It’s definitely going to be released this year. The only thing that changed is we’re not locked into a day, so we get to think about how we want to release this record in this climate.

How are you feeling about the new record? Anything you can tell us about it?

MEATH: It feels a lot different from the last record to us. It’s simultaneously more dance-y and also much sadder. It’s the best record we’ve ever made.

What about Betty’s, the studio you’re building in Chapel Hill?

SANBORN: It’s just about done. As people who spend the majority of our time and make our whole living on the road, it’s serendipitous, in a certain way, that we’re forced to stay home right as this purely creative space becomes active. Most of the projects are going to be things that I or Amelia or our friends brought there. This first year or two, we’re interested to see how it grows naturally without trying to push it too much.

So the coronavirus shutdown is delaying your album release; how else is it affecting you?

SANBORN: Brian, we had such a good plan.

MEATH: We had such a beautiful plan!

SANBORN: It’s the least of disasters, but yeah, we canceled everything for the entire year. Lots of festivals, pulled tours, big hometown shows. We’re thinking about new ways to connect to people who care about what we do, and how can we challenge ourselves to break out of our routine and make this resonate?

Is it worth trying to do a virtual thing that won’t satisfy anybody or better to wait it out?

SANBORN: Exactly, these are the things everybody’s trying to figure out right now.

MEATH: I don’t want to do an event that just makes people sadder, because music is about community. The saddest for me is that we were going to announce a show at the old Durham Bulls park, and I’ve been wanting to play there since we moved here. It’s one of the reasons I’m so grateful we did document WITH, just to be like, this happened, and it’ll probably happen again; we’ll be able to be together!

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