Sylvan Esso: No Rules Lately
photo credit: Brian Karlsson
When it was time to introduce their latest album to their fans, Sylvan Esso made sure not to overthink it. It was almost inevitable that something which came together so quickly would be born into the world before almost anyone even knew it existed. And so, during a mid-afternoon set on the final day of this summer’s Newport Folk Fest, the indie-electro-pop duo unleashed No Rules Sandy in its entirety—the culmination of a creative process that had begun just months earlier.
“It was a high unlike any I’ve had in a long time,” reflects Amelia Meath, beaming in the corner of a cozy hotel lobby in Manhattan’s Lower East Side. The singer is referring to not only the full album reveal, but also Sylvan Esso’s busy Rhode Island weekend as a whole, which included three disparate sets over three days. (Meath also performed with fellow Mountain Man singer Alexandra Sauser-Monnig as The A’s, and Sylvan Esso showcased their new label, Psychic Hotline, which they launched last year.)
“I would’ve loved to do one fewer thing,” Nick Sanborn, Meath’s husband and Sylvan Esso counterpart, says with a laugh, while seated in the corner booth to her left. “It was crazy to do three days in a row of totally unique, new sets. It was too much fucking work.”
“We keep on doing like three too many things,” Meath agrees. “But it was really fun.”
At times, the decision to debut the new record in full at Newport seems like almost an afterthought for Meath and Sanborn. The couple admit that the bulk of their preparation for the festival was focused on their label’s showcase, building bands for, and practicing with, each artist slated to participate in the performance. The album reveal came more easily and, Meath notes, very much mirrors the surprisingly rapid emergence of the album.
“It’s just one of those things—this fucker isn’t about waiting,” Sanborn concludes.
In early January of this year, not too long before Sylvan Esso surprised their fans with the new tracks, Sanborn and Meath, found themselves at a rental house in Los Angeles—across the country from their home in Durham, N.C.—having driven there, in part, to attend a Grammys ceremony later that month that ended up getting postponed. With nothing on their schedule, the two started to write.
“All of the hurdles were out of the way,” Sanborn says. “It was like, ‘Oh, this is for us; it’s just us here. Let’s hang out and try to surprise and impress each other, and see what happens.’”
Flash-forward four months to early May, and Sanborn is already submitting the final mixes and track listing for the album. And then, two months to the day after the duo received the final master of No Rules Sandy, they were already onstage at Newport, sharing it with the world.
This was quite the departure from their previous album-cycle experience—for 2020’s Free Love—which included a prolonged creation period and an even more prolonged wait before they were finally able to support the record on the road. (The album was released in September 2020, and the ensuing tour didn’t kick off until the same month last year.)
“Getting to be back on the road was really incredible,” Meath reflects. “I didn’t realize that, for me at least, the record isn’t done until we’ve played it in front of people. So it was kind of a record release.”
“We spent a year and a half writing and recording [Free Love], and it took forever to be able to play shows,” Sanborn remembers. “Then we got here and it’s like, ‘Let’s just fucking do this.’”
“Also, because we wrote it so fast, it’s more honest,” Meath adds. “There’s no mugging in it. Honestly, there’s a lot of stuff in it that’s a little embarrassing for me to look at too hard. And that makes me feel like we’re on the right track. If something doesn’t feel exposing, then maybe it’s too presentational.”
For Meath and Sanborn, the more abridged, direct approach was partially shaped by a newfound—or perhaps refound—ethos and direction for the band. Naturally, after they were forced to take time off during the pandemic, they both saw a potential roadblock as a fresh start for Sylvan Esso. But their work just prior to the pandemic already hinted at a foundational shift.
“That whole period really felt like a chapter change,” Sanborn says, referring to the completion of Free Love and the WITH tour that they embarked on in the fall of 2019. (The latter project found Sylvan Esso teaming up with a full band of musician friends and experimenting with an expanded live show.)
“We were closing something and trying to figure out what’s next,” Sanborn continues. “And the [WITH] band stuff was really informative because it externalized our own music for us, you know? That experience felt so rejuvenating. It eliminated all my fears about what the band needs to be; I realized that all it needs to be is the two of us. If we make music together that we both like, it’s going to sound like Sylvan Esso. And that’s this unbreakable thing.
“Then there was all this time where there was no output—we’d finished all this work before the pandemic and then we were just home studying, woodshedding, really working on our crafts in a focused manner. So when we started writing this one, we jumped off from a new place.”
No Rules Sandy Cchronicles Meath and Sanborn’s effort to return to their creative roots, making music, first and foremost, for reaching others. And while the album features some select guest instrumentalists—saxophonist Sam Gendel and drummer TJ Maiani both appear on a couple of tracks, and a string arrangement by Gabriel Kahane augments another—there wasn’t a question whether Sylvan Esso would rehash the full-band experiment in the studio.
“Sylvan Esso, to me, is always me and Nick,” Meath explains. “It’s fun when we do other things, and I love that the band is now flexible. But I think that there’s a thing that people do quite often when they get self-conscious about how their fan-ship is growing, and then they get more people in their band. And it actually obfuscates the thing that people reacted to.”
Both Meath and Sanborn agree that No Rules Sandy is already their favorite of the four studio albums they’ve released—for many reasons, maybe the most telling being that it’s the first time since their 2014 debut that they’ve felt free to do what they want, not what they think others may want.
“We’re lucky that we’ve never had to adhere to a major-label system, and when we were doing our first record, it was so much more exploratory—like, ‘What does it look like when we make sound together?’” Meath remembers. “So that pressure wasn’t there; the pressure really appeared on the second record.”
“The last two, we were thinking about keeping the thing going, playing shows, getting on the radio, [trying to] get a Grammy,” Sanborn adds. “And this time, with all of that shit getting canceled, it was the two of us, chilling out in a weird rental house, trying to make each other laugh. And it was awesome.”
The name of the album, Meath notes, started in typical Sylvan Esso fashion. “Someone comes up with a joke,” she says. “Then, it stays.” But “no rules” quickly became more of a motto than a project title, leading to the free-flowing, maddash creation process. It also encouraged Meath and Sanborn to open themselves up to some different creative approaches. Most notably are the interludes peppered throughout the tracklist—a mixture of voicemails and short audio clips captured while Sylvan Esso were recording and then mashed up and presented as a sort of found-sound collage.
“We’ve always been intentional with the amount of silence that was on the records, in between songs,” Meath says. “I think it’s one of the most important things: Before you hear a song, how long are you not hearing something? But because of the speed and furiousness of this record going out, I didn’t want there to be much silence in it. I wanted it to feel as if everything was coming at you all the time.”
“The whole thing felt so pasted together, and we wanted to emphasize that because there’s a vulnerability there that we really liked,” continues Sanborn, who explains that the interlude idea began with them wanting to show a bit of the process behind the songs. (The one that plays before club-ready single “Echo Party” features a simple vocal track from Meath that Sanborn warped and sequenced almost beyond recognition until it became the base of the ensuing song.) “It was interesting to show it getting built, to further this feeling of collage-y elasticity. Then, the more we did that, the more intimate it felt, and we were like, ‘How can we lean into that?’ So Amelia thought, ‘Let’s make it like a scrapbook.’ I think it feels like a diary entry more than any of our other records.”
One of those scrapbook moments comes in the interlude “(Vegas // Dad),” which features a voicemail of Meath’s own father offhandedly asking if she thinks the lyrics in Peter Gabriel’s “Sledgehammer” are “show for me” or “chauffeur me.” (Meath is decidedly in the “chauffeur me” camp.)
Another example of the liberated feeling surrounding No Rules Sandy comes in the form of, the unmoored, ethereal single “Your Reality,” which finds Meath repeating variations of the lines “No rules for me/ No rules baby/ No rules lately/ No rules Sandy.” It also happens to be a track that she and Sanborn disagree on—in a good way.
“That was maybe the third song that we wrote, and it immediately felt so free of constraint,” Sanborn says. “Even to the point that we figured out, after she wrote the lyrics, that we each hear the downbeat in a different place. We don’t hear the song the same way. And we were like, ‘Let’s not resolve this. Let’s lean into it.’ So we arranged it in such a way that both of our ideas for what the downbeat should be are emphasized and validated.”
That song kicked off the “no rules” motto, becoming, as Meath puts it, “part of the fabric of everything that we were doing,” and leading the duo to make decisions based on the songs’ needs rather than any perceived end goal. No Rules Sandy, as a whole, is a true journey. It comes in like a lion (with the frenetic, glitchy opening track “Moving”) and goes out like a lamb (with “Coming Back To You,” an aching, acoustic tune that’s unlike anything that’s been on a Sylvan Esso record previously).
“I love the idea that somebody’s been on their phone—dealing with this intense ADD experience of being on your phone—then decides to listen to the new Sylvan Esso record, and ‘Moving’ is the first thing that happens,” Meath explains. “And it acknowledges exactly what’s been happening to them up until the moment that they hit play. [The refrain of the track is: “How can I be moved/ When everything is moving?”] Then, the whole thing pulls you through this whirlpool and spits you out the other side, with sensitivity. It acknowledges you, sees you, and then calms you down. And, hopefully, after that, the rest of your day is a little more centered.”
“Coming Back to You” points to the organic, human aspect of Sylvan Esso’s music, which has always been there, though it’s usually not as obvious. Meath’s voice—even when Sanborn runs it through a sequencer, pitch-shifts it, clips it and whatever else—is always a grounding, natural element in a heavily electronic atmosphere. But Sanborn’s approach is also rooted in his desire to convey a personal touch. He prefers either “organic sounds that you can tell have been sequenced by a computer” or “electronic sounds that sound like the sequencer’s broken,” because “they both acknowledge that humans did those things.”
“It’s a Borg band,” Meath quips with finality—referring to a race of organic/machine hybrids from Star Trek, an appropriately nerdy allusion from a band whose name comes from a video game.
Lately, Sanborn and Meath have been injecting a lot more of the “human end of the spectrum” into their career, launching Psychic Hotline and inviting old friends and new artists to join the label. They have also started opening their North Carolina studio, Betty’s, to a mix of musicians, encouraging cross-artist collaborations and releasing the results as part of an ongoing singles series.
“The whole thing feels so broad to me now,” Sanborn reflects. “It just feels like every part of it is feeding this greater thing. I look at people who are way more successful than we are, and they don’t have half of the things that we have in our lives, community-wise. And I feel bad for them. I almost want to be like, ‘You could do all this cool shit too!’ At the end of the day, I think that community is such a vital part of the whole thing. The more you put into it, the more you get out of it.”
It’s hard not to be happy for the duo, who have carved out their place in the music industry and the real world as well, all while seemingly sticking to what brings them joy in both areas. Even ignoring all that, their innovative music and explosive live performances speak for themselves.
“It’s like this funny art project we made—this weird pop band—was so successful that I accidentally forgot it was an art project for a little bit,” Meath muses. “And with this record, I feel like we’re back to where we started, in a lot of ways. I’ve seen a lot of different kinds of success in this industry, and I like the one that we have.”