Interview Upbringing: Sylvan Esso

Upbringing: Sylvan Esso

We caught up with Nick Sanborn to talk early musical obsessions and experimenting with instruments.

2016 was a pretty turbulent time, and Amelia Meath and Nick Sanborn – better known as electro-pop duo Sylvan Esso – weren’t immune to its effects. Even the title of latest album ‘What Now’ ponders where the world is heading after the tumultuous events of last year. 

It grapples with some of the most pressing issues of contemporary times and distilling them within a very personal sphere, balancing keen observations and a little dose of wit with moments of tenderness. It plays with the idea that progress and change can be fleeting, but does so in an even more confident and vibrant manner than their self-titled 2014 debut. 

‘What Now’ is therefore another huge step in the development of the duo’s music, but Nick has already come a long way from his days as a child, dabbling in violin and saxophone. Now known for creating shimmering and sometimes glitch-ridden synth melodies, he recalls being initially struck by REM and They Might Be Giants. 

Ahead of their performances at Latitude and Citadel this weekend, we caught up with Nick to delve deeper into these first musical experiences, and his other obsessions.

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What was the first gig you ever went to?

My dad took me to see Michael Hedges, who was this great instrumental guitarist that somehow was both wild and kinda smooth-jazz-y. I remember thinking at the time, with great clarity: “This is a pretty vibey choice for my first concert. Not sure how I’m going to sell this later on to make it sound cool”.

Were there a good supply of venues in your hometown?

Not really, but we didn’t seem to mind. I grew up in Madison, Wisconsin, and the university there would put on great shows that you didn’t need to be 21 to get in to. When I started playing in bands later on, we just booked shows wherever they’d let us play since the 21+ clubs usually wouldn’t let us in. Our go-to venue was this place called Cafe Assisi, which was a quasi-revolutionist hippy coffee shop above a punk record store. We’d haul our own PA up the stairs and move all the tables into the hallway and play in the corner for our friends and it ruled. 

What was the first song you developed an obsession for?

Probably REM’s ‘Losing My Religion’. It was the first song I remember hearing on the radio and being stunned by immediately.

First song you ever bought with your own money, and why?

The first music I can remember buying on my own was a cassette copy of They Might Be Giants’ album ‘Lincoln’. A friend had given me a dubbed copy of Flood and I completely lost myself in it, probably the first full album I remember falling in love with. Once I had played it on repeat for a few months I finally went to the record store to see if they had any other albums, and found a lonely copy of ‘Lincoln’. I didn’t get it at first listen, but that lead track ‘Ana Ng’ slowly became my favourite song for a good chunk of my childhood. It’s still great.

What’s the story behind your first instrument?

I’m actually not totally sure what I’d consider my ‘first instrument’. I was always obsessed with music even as a little kid, probably because my dad is a great guitar player. He taught me a bunch of chords when I was little, but I didn’t get really into guitar until much later. They let you join orchestra once you were in fourth grade, so I joined and played violin. Then they let you join band in fifth grade, so I did that and played saxophone. I guess that was he first one that really stuck, I ended up playing most of the saxes and eventually focused on baritone. I wish I still had one. 

Worst musical habit?

Laziness. Not just musical.

What inspirations outside of music have an impact on your songwriting?

Tough to say. I love hiking and very remote camping. I love making food with people I love. Just trying to live fully in the present.

Best advice you’ve ever been given as a musician?

Just fucking do it. Don’t wait for someone to ask you to do it. You have everything you need.

If you could be in a band from the last two decades, which would you pick, and why?

I can confidently say that I would ruin any of my favourite bands if I joined them. But quietly watching Autechre work would really be something.

‘What Now’ is out now via Loma Vista. 

Sylvan Esso will play Latitude (13th-16th July) and Citadel (16th July) where DIY is an official media partner. Tickets are on sale now. Visit diymag.com/presents for more information.