We caught up with Sylvan Esso by phone to talk about their music and their Durham fan base.
"They heard it, thought it sounded cool, and then they went."
Nick Sanborn is describing a release party for a 12" single his band Sylvan Esso threw a year ago at the The Pinhook in Durham. They weren't a well-known band at that point. They weren't yet being reviewed and recommended and interviewed by The New York Times or All Things Considered or Stereogum or Elle. They were just a two-person band born as a side project to the two members' full-time bands – Megafaun for Sanborn and Mountain Man for his partner Amelia Meath. But, for music fans in Durham, that didn't matter.
"We thought there would be 40 of our friends there, which would have been awesome. But there were like 200 people and we didn't know any of them."
Sanborn is speaking by phone on May 23, 2014 as he and Meath drive from Durham to Boise, ID to perform. Five days ago they were playing in Paris; this tour will take them from Utah to New Orleans to Montreal. More tours will soon follow – between May and October, the band will only have two weeks at home. "The iron is hot," Sanborn says in a grand understatement.
Between the single release party and the Boise show, Sylvan Esso recorded and released their debut, self-titled album on Partisan Records. It pairs Meath's dreamy, folky vocals with Sanborn's electronic production. There are hints of Appalachian melodies, hip-hop beats, and plenty of pop savvy blended together into swirling soundscapes.
It's a unique sound born of the band's strange beginning. Mountain Man, a folk trio that often performs a cappella, was playing a show in Milwaukee and Sanborn was booked to open with a solo electronic set. It was a booking that didn't make any sense, Sanborn told WUNC, but it led to a meeting between Sanborn and Meath, which led to Sanborn remixing the Mountain Man song "Play it Right." The remix became the first Sylvan Esso song.
A year later the two relocated to Durham, where they found a community that embraced their music and allowed them to perfect it.
"It's like track and field," Sanborn says, "you always want to run with somebody who's a little bit faster than you because it makes you faster. I was surrounded by so many people doing things that really impressed me, but they were also things that I didn't want to do. It was so them. It really made me want to do something that I was really proud of."
Sylvan Esso is certainly an album to be proud of. It's full of the personality and artistic seriousness that Sanborn loves about his adopted hometown. It's the kind of album that gives listeners a hint at what Durham is like, at what kind of people can find a home here. In fact, if you listen closely to the sounds on the album, the creaks and the closing doors, you're listening to the sounds of the Durham home the band recorded the album in.
Sanborn and Meath may not be back in Durham for a while – the demand is high for a band as well-reviewed as theirs – but you can bet that Durhamites will turn up at their next show whenever they are.
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