Sylvan Esso Think You Look Great Today
They also throw the best birthday parties (and make pretty great music).
Photo by DL Anderson
It’s been a big week for Sylvan Esso. Not only have they released their self-titled debut album, but they’ve also just started a six-week tour with tUnE-yArDs. The run of shows will see Amelia Meath and Nicholas Sanborn draping their impossibly soulful, innately danceable, and emotionally raw electronic pop across Europe and North America, via one of the most charismatic, endearing live shows we’ve seen in years. We grabbed them for a much-needed, jet-lag demolishing coffee at London’s Rough Trade East ahead of their first night to talk unicorn parades, the joys of catcalling teenage boys, and mushroom foraging.
You started making music together over email. Where were you both based at the time?
Amelia: I was on tour with Feist singing back-up.
Nicholas: She was everywhere. And I was in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, which is where I lived for 11 years.
At what point did you decide to get together and do it in person?
Nicholas: I had just moved to Durham, North Carolina because I was playing bass with this band called Megafaun, and they all lived there. We met up a couple of times when she was on tour with Feist and I was on tour with Megafaun over here [in the UK], at Green Man Festival and a couple of festivals. And the more we hung out and the more we talked about what had already happened over email, we got excited about doing more. She had a two week break coming up right after I had moved to Durham, and I was like, ‘why don’t you just come, there’s this music festival. We’ll hang out.’
Amelia: Soon after I was off tour with Feist, and I was like, ‘why don’t I just move to Durham?’ I wanted to find a place where I could live off of the Feist money that I’d made for a long period of time, and Brooklyn is not that place. Durham is.
What does a good night out in Durham consist of?
Amelia: House parties. We roasted a whole lamb over a firepit for our friend Sebastian’s day-long, Odyssey-themed, scavenger hunt surprise birthday party. We’re huge on birthdays.
Nicholas: The Odyssey the epic poem.
Amelia: There were seven different stations, and we sent him running all around downtown Durham. I was a siren on the top of an unused parking lot. Nick played the accordion and was a sailor that I had wooed. Sebastian was at the library downtown, so the minute I started singing from the top it was reverberating through the whole thing so you could hear it through the whole town.
Nicholas: The cool thing about Durham is that you can kind of do what you want. As long as you’re not messing with anybody, as long as it’s a fun cool thing that you’re doing, it’s pretty much laissez-faire.
And what do you do for hangover brunch?
Amelia: We’d drive to Raleigh and go to Joule. They named a drink after us!
Nicholas: It was the most exciting thing ever.
What’s in it?
Nicholas: Gin, cucumber, lime, and seltzer. Oh and cilantro. It’s a lovely daytime drink. We’re big fans of daytime drinking.
There’s lots of dancing in your videos and at your shows. Who do you think are music’s greatest movers?
Amelia: Kate Bush. Sinead O’Connor is incredible. At the Grammys in 1989? She just does this (Amelia gets up to do a side to side shuffle demo) and she’s totally alone…
Nicholas: …in overalls
Amelia: No, it’s even hotter—it’s a black sports bra with baggy mom jeans and a t-shirt hanging out the back and a shaved head. Billy Crystal introduces her, and she walks out and sings Mandinka, totally alone, and kills it.
What’s your favorite music to dance to?
Amelia: what did we dance to at my birthday?
Nicholas: LCD Soundsystem’s 45:33.
The whole thing?
Together: The whole thing.
Nicholas: There were breaks to flip the records, because it’s like, three vinyl, so there’s a lot of flipping.
Amelia: There was also a unicorn parade that night.
Nicholas: Well she said all she wanted for her birthday was a pie instead of a cake…
Amelia: …a strawberry rhubarb pie.
Nicholas: So we had that organized. Then she wanted a bunch of unicorns to follow her around, which I think she meant as a joke, but I took as serious.
Where did you source these unicorns?
Home Depot. You can find a lot of unicorns at Home Depot. I just cut up mop heads into tails we could all tuck into our belts, and spray-painted the ends pink. We clip-clopped down the block and sang 'Happy Birthday.'
Have you ever suffered a dancing related injury?
Amelia: I was teaching a visiting teacher at my college how to rollerskate by holding his hands and rollerskating with him. He fell on me because we were doing a twirl. I sprained an ankle. It sucked. For the rest of term all I did was listen to the vinyl of 'The Pygmies from the Ituri Forest’ in my room.
Do you remember where you first met?
Amelia: At the Cactus Club in Milwaukee. One of the best bars ever, particularly if you’re a fan of the Packers and like to watch football. Mountain Man [Amelia’s other band] was playing a show with Twin Sister headlining, and Nick’s solo project, Made of Oak, which is loud, sad, instrumental hip hop, was put on the bill. I instantly knew that we would be friends because we both dance in the same way when we’re onstage.
Which is how?
Nicholas: Unrehearsed, lets just say.
Amelia: I think that he thought I was a total weirdo because I was super into his set, dancing and staring him down.
Nicholas: It was my second show, and I had only heard one Mountain Man song on the Internet. But I was floored by their show. It was one of those gushy conversations that you have with a lot of musicians after shows, like ‘dude you are so good’ and they’re like, ‘no dude, you are so good.'
Your song ‘Hey Mami’ is about catcalling. Why write about that?
Amelia: First of all, the idea of catcalling someone in general is a really interesting impulse: Sometimes I think it’s super cowardly because in order to acknowledge your potential attraction to someone, you’re really intimidating them without any consequences because you’re lashing out. But sometimes it’s really nice and that struggle for me is really hard. Sometimes I want to catcall people!
Amelia: Oh yeah!
Nicholas: You’re a pretty blunt catcaller. You’re more of a cat talker.
Amelia: It’s super fun to yell out of a car window at a group of young boys, like ‘wooo hoo, sexy boys!’ Have you ever done that?
No! What kind of response do you get?
Amelia: Usually dismay. But just telling people that they look nice is a really nice thing to do.
Nicholas: We both do that all the time.
Amelia: Saying, ‘you look really great!’ when you walk past someone. We call it boosting.
Nicholas: We used to do it on tour all the time when I was with other bands. We’d have a notepad and write ‘you’re a babe’ on it and hold it up to a car. It’s nice to do it in a way where there’s nothing threatening about it. Like, ‘just so you know, in case you’re having a shitty day, you’re a babe.'
The first part of the Sylvan Esso name comes from a computer game. Are you avid gamers?
Amelia: I’m playing this really pretty game called Monument Valley right now. It’s a beautiful puzzle perspective game made by indie programmers. You can get it on the iPhone. Most of my games are on the iPhone because I tour so much. Same with Swords and Sorcery, which is what Sylvan Esso is named after.
Nicholas: We just got really into this game called Broken Age, which is this beautiful dual reality game where you keep switching between these two characters, one of whom is in a spaceship.
Amelia: And the other is a female lead who’s evading an evil monster who eats virgins. It’s a really funny game.
Any other current obsessions?
Amelia: I really want to be a mushroom forager. I think about it a lot, and every time I’m in a bookshop I look at books about mushroom foraging.
Is there any hope of doing that on this tour?
Amelia: No—I’ll just be foraging for sandwiches and places to go to the bathroom.
Leonie Cooper lives in London and is catcalling teenage boys right now, too. She's on Twitter - @leoniemaycooper
Want more cool interviews about cool music? You're in luck!