Nick Sanborn and Amelia Meath of Sylvan Esso have just landed at Milwaukee’s General Mitchell International Airport. “A preemptive apology: We might have to stop and restart this interview,” Sanborn says. “We’re waiting in the airport to be picked up by my mom.” Sure enough, Sanborn’s mother arrives moments later. “Give me 10 minutes to get on the highway, and I’ll call you right back.”
It’s an adorably low-key welcome for a band that, in less than a year, has arguably become one of the most talked-about groups in the country. Sylvan Esso’s self-titled debut, released this past May on Partisan Records, has received near-unanimous praise from the national press, leading to an exclusive stream on NPR, a high-profile opening slot for Tune-Yards, sold-out headlining shows, a glossy profile in Interview magazine, and even an appearance on Last Call With Carson Daly. The album—filled with Meath’s wide-eyed vocals and Sanborn’s kitchen-sink beats—will surely land on countless critics’ best-of-the-year lists. Amidst the buzz, the two will play their first Milwaukee show as Sylvan Esso this Saturday at the Burnhearts/Pabst Street Party. They’ll return September 5 for a show at the Cactus Club.
For former Milwaukeean Sanborn—who moved to Durham, North Carolina in 2012 after years of playing in bands like Decibully, Megafaun, Headlights, and more—the past few months have been an unexpected whirlwind. “I don’t know if there’s been one point. It’s been a series of small shifts,” he says when asked about the moment he and Meath realized their project was becoming, you know, a thing. “The most recent one was our New York show for our upcoming headlining tour. It sold out two months in advance, and we had to add another New York show. We’re not huge, but we’re way bigger than I’m used to.
“It’s been a bunch of things like that, where we think something will be cool and then it’s way cooler than we thought it would be. It’s crazy. It’s not even real to me.”
The genesis of Sylvan Esso can be pinpointed to an exact time and place: July 18, 2010, at the Cactus Club. Meath was playing a show with her band Mountain Man, a female vocal trio that specialized in sparse, Appalachian-indebted folk music. (Meath has said Mountain Man is currently “sleeping.”) Sanborn was also on the bill, performing under his glitchy, beat-obsessed Made Of Oak moniker. Despite the stark differences in their musical styles, the two instantly hit it off. “We had such a rapport right away,” Sanborn says. “I had that weird thing where you meet someone new and you’re like, ‘Oh, man. There’s totally a chance I’m going to know you for my whole life.’”
The fateful encounter would soon lead to the two collaborating on various songs via email. It wasn’t until Mountain Man was on tour with Feist in 2012 that Sanborn and Meath decided to work face-to-face. “Feist was on tour when Megafaun was on tour in Europe, and we were both playing a lot of the same kind of festivals,” he says. “We hung out because we had been trading tracks on the Internet and already had stuff we were working on. During those festivals, we realized she was going to have two weeks off right after I moved to Durham. So she decided to fly out and record for real.”
The product of those sessions is Sylvan Esso, a 10-track collection of fully formed synth-pop gems that represents the unlikely sweet spot between its creators’ sensibilities and talents. Meath chirps and croons over hypnotic vocal loops on the catcall-shaming opener “Hey Mami,” while Sanborn’s handclap beats and sundry sound effects expertly fill in the gaps. Later, on the terrific “Coffee,” Sanborn provides a fragile, sparkling sonic foundation while Meath slyly digs into a “Get up, get down” chorus and a “My baby does the hanky panky” outro. It’s an album that sounds instantly familiar but unmistakably fresh, and one that deserves any and all accolades thrown its way.
It’s also an album that’s proudly pop-minded and listener-friendly. Sanborn says this was by design. “We both realized in talking to each other that we wanted to do something that was unabashedly accessible,” he says. “We started getting into these conversations about how so much pop music was accessible at the expense of making you feel dumb for listening to it. That’s a generalization, of course, but we wanted to do something that didn’t assume the person listening to it was an idiot.
“But at the same time, we didn’t want to do some heady, exclusive, ‘you have to be in the know to understand the reference points’ kind of bullshit. We just wanted to do something where if you knew where we were coming from, you could get more out of it, but if you didn’t, it wouldn’t affect your ability to enjoy it.”
Those decisions have paid off in Sylvan Esso’s live shows, with crowds feeding off the duo’s populist vibe and unembarrassed stage presence. (Marvel at those dance moves!) “It’s been great. We are both, let’s just say, excitable people,” Sanborn says. “I think that there might be some element of letting everyone know it’s okay to have a good time. I’ve noticed that when I go to shows, a lot of the time I feel everybody in the audience is just waiting for someone to give them permission to look dumb. So I think that seeing two obviously over-excitable adult children on stage maybe allows everyone to let go of their personal hang-ups and have fun.”
“Let’s not discount booze,” he adds. “That’s probably been helping, too.”
Since playing their first show in the spring of 2013, Sanborn and Meath have experienced a year that would be crazy by anyone’s standards. (“There are a couple of little things coming up that I can’t talk about right now that are even crazier,” Sanborn hints.) Still, Sanborn is glad to be back in Milwaukee, and sees Sylvan Esso’s upcoming shows here as having special significance.
“For the two of us, [the September Cactus show] will be an interesting full-circle thing, just because so much has happened since that night four years ago,” he says. “But I still feel that Milwaukee is my home, and the Cactus Club is easily my favorite place to play. I couldn’t imagine a world in which I came back to Milwaukee and didn’t play the Cactus Club. It’s the same with the Burnhearts party. I worked at Burnhearts on opening night. I was there opening day when the coolers broke and we went to Walmart and bought beer coolers and bags of ice. I even worked ‘security’ at the first Burnhearts fest, and I worked every other one when I lived in Milwaukee.”
“So to me,” Sanborn adds, “that’s a whole other homecoming.”
Sylvan Esso will play the Burnhearts/Pabst Street Party Saturday, June 28, around 5 p.m. Brothers By Choice, Collections Of Colonies Of Bees, Head On Electric, and GGOOLLDD will also perform during the free fest, which begins at noon.