Music News & Reviews

Durham’s Sylvan Esso, on the rise, make their way home

Amelia Meath and Nick Sanborn are Sylvan Esso.
Amelia Meath and Nick Sanborn are Sylvan Esso. Shervin Lainez

Sylvan Esso is blowing up. “Die Young,” the Durham-based duo’s moody and catchy synth-driven single from the group’s second album, “What Now,” is in heavy rotation on XM’s alternative channels.

The act, comprised of vocalist Amelia Meath and multi-instrumentalist/producer Nick Sanborn, is noting the bump in its base while touring behind its electropop.

“It’s weird since it’s abstract,” Sanborn said while calling from Nashville. “We’re in this vacuum. It’s not like we hear the song on the radio. But more and more people are coming out to see us, and we’re playing cooler venues.”

They’re headlining a concert Sept. 30 at Shakori Hills in Pittsboro that also features Helado Negro, Wye Oak and Tune Yards as openers.

Meanwhile, Sanborn and Meath are on top of the world in Music City. The act’s newfound popularity has allowed Sylvan Esso to headline the storied Ryman Auditorium, which opened in 1892.

“It’s amazing to be able to play a place like the Ryman,” Meath says. “So many amazing recording artists have played the Ryman. Who doesn’t dream of playing a venue like this?”

Sylvan Esso is quietly becoming famous, even though the mainstream has yet to connect with the band and they’re headlining large theaters.

“We’re where we are because we have some hits, but (contemporary) hits aren’t like hits of the past,” Sanborn says. “The way hits used to be was that everyone knew the song. Everything is different today.”

Sanborn nails it. The critically acclaimed Car Seat Headrest has a few satellite radio hits, such as “Fill in the Blank” and “Drunk Drivers/Killer Whales.” Like Sylvan Esso, the band is headlining similar venues, but they’re not a household name.

“That’s very similar to our story,” Sanborn says. “It’s a cool thing. We’re playing exactly what we want to play and people are showing up for our shows.”

Radiohead inspired Sylvan Esso’s moody, atmospheric electropop, Sanborn said.

“Radiohead’s ‘OK Computer’ had a huge impact on me,” Sanborn says. “The same goes for (Radiohead’s) ‘Kid A.’ I remember going out to the record store at midnight when ‘Kid A’ was released. That album changed so much for a lot of musicians. If you play ‘OK Computer’ and ‘Kid A’ today, those albums still blow you away.”

Since Sylvan Esso’s second album dropped in April, Meath and Sanborn haven’t been home much.

“We’ve been in Durham for just two months so far this year,” Sanborn says. “That’s a good thing. We’re looking forward to coming home for this show. We hope to provide a show in which we can just take people away for a period in which they didn’t have to think about anything that’s going on in the world. There will be no fear, just hopefully joy at our show.”

Sylvan Esso, which hasn’t played Durham since the summer of 2013 when it headlined at the Pinhook, decided to play a larger venue for its hometown concert. They’ll hit the stage as the headline act at 9:30 p.m.

“We tried to play the old Durham ballpark, but that didn’t work out,” Sanborn says. “So we decided to play Shakori. We wanted to play a space that could hold 8,000 to 10,000. It’s beautiful there.”

Meath and Sanborn miss hanging out in Durham, where they’ve lived for the last half-decade.

“It’s fun to bar hop there,” Meath says. “I like going to the Littler on Monday night for oysters. I like going to the Pinhook. We love where we live, but we have to be on the road. That’s not a bad thing since it’s going well for us right now.”


Who: Sylvan Esso. Tune-Yards, Wye Oak and Helado Negro will open.

When: Sept. 30. Gates open at 11:30 a.m. Music is on two stages starting at 3:30 p.m. A late night party follows until 2 a.m.

Cost: $50 in advance. $60 at the gate.