Sylvan Esso was in Singapore, not at Madison Square Garden, when Kraftwerk beat them out for best dance/electronic album at the Grammys last month.
“Every time something big happens for us, we’re not there to experience it,” says singer Amelia Meath, with her wry Northeastern resignation.
“The first time we went to Coachella, we got invited by Skrillex to a party,” her partner Nick Sanborn explains.
“He, like, wrote it down on my hand,” says Meath.
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“We got a block away and got turned away by police,” Sanborn says. “It was like the most ‘us’ thing that could happen.”
“We missed Paris Hilton’s DJ set. I just know because I was reading Pitchfork the next day,” says Meath. “It was the most epic reminder that, yes, we are still those losers.”
Not true, exactly. They were scheduled to play on “Jimmy Kimmel Live!” a couple of days after our interview in January, and Singapore was the start of the Laneway Festival with other big names in indie music like Father John Misty, The War on Drugs and two of their other Grammy category rivals, Bonobo and Odesza.
Meath and Sanborn talk about their perch at the edge of big-time, not like they’re feeling sorry for themselves nor as though they deserve to enjoy their success any more than they actually do. It’s more like gratitude that they’ve come as far as they have.
“We’re only talking about this because people started listening to our band,” says Meath.
We’re sitting in the kitchen of a cottage in the woods, set back from a skinny dirt road just west of I-40 and south of 15-501 near New Hope Commons. You could fit but two Lambeau Fields between here and the backside of the Bed, Bath and Beyond at Patterson Place.
The house was built in the ’60s. The wood cabinets, painted white, and the speckled formica countertop are clean and intact, and it’s not hard to believe they’ve been here since the beginning. Stacks of acoustic guitars, road cases and Sanborn’s keyboard workstation line the walls.
There’s no dining table, just a high-top desk with tall stools. Meath drags a chair in from another room, and Sanborn sits on an aluminum stepladder.
“North Carolina and Wisconsin are very similar places, which is why I think there’s a lot of crossover between the two states,” he tells me. “There’s not a lot of pretentiousness.”
Sanborn is part of a Wisconsin contingent of creatives that are helping to shape the New Durham.
I don’t think anybody here realizes how special it is to have just the average person listen to music and pay to go to concerts.
The Sylvan Esso pair don’t live in this cottage, just work, but drummer Joe Westerlund lives just down the way. Sanborn knew him from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, where Sanborn shared a hallway with Westerlund’s sister Kate, who was also Brad Cook’s girlfriend at the time.
Before he left Milwaukee to play with Brad and his brother Phil in the RDU folk-rock band Megafaun, Sanborn performed a set of his electronic hip-hop on the same bill with Meath’s touring vocal folk group Mountain Men.
Meath soon joined him here after a stint as one of Feist’s background singers, and Sylvan Esso was born. It became yet another string in a Tarheel-via-Cheesehead web that includes Cook’s own Grammy-nominated producing career, his brother Phil’s solo work, their sidemen support for M.C. Taylor in Hiss Golden Messenger and the brewers and foodies behind Ponysaurus and Pie Pushers.
Phil’s wife Heather is active in local politics and social justice. Brad’s wife Stella and her friend Donna Orr work as stylists for bands, brides and musical festivals through their evolving vintage brand, Dear Hearts. Westerlund’s brother Yan and the rest of the Canine Heart Sounds also migrated from the Midwest, and not a few weeks can go by around here without some or other of them performing, collaborating or consuming music at one Triangle nightspot or another. This month, they helped Phil Cook celebrate in an opening slot for Mount Moriah frontwoman H.C. McEntire’s debut solo release on Merge Records.
Sanborn says he and Meath and their buddies from Wisconsin are just building on the scene that had already been established here, mentioning the evolution of Superchunk and Merge Records.
“I remember being a kid in Wisconsin and that being a hopeful story,” Sanborn says. “I never wanted to live in New York or LA or wherever. There are so many people like Phil and Brad who are doing indispensable things. But is it a chicken or egg thing?
“The thing about this place is that it gives talented people like that a microphone,” he says. “I don’t think anybody here realizes how special it is to have just the average person listen to music and pay to go to concerts. Everybody here wants to be part of a great thing happening.”
Jesse James DeConto is a musician and writer in Durham. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.