Illustrated and Explained: Jenn Wasner of Wye Oak on Her Pedalboard Priorities

Frustrated with a heightened focus solely on her guitarwork, Wye Oak’s Jenn Wasner distanced herself from six-strings in 2014. The result was Shriek, Wye Oak’s fourth album and their first sans-guitar. A divisive record among critics, it marked not only a creative rejuvenation for Wasner, but opened up the bi-coastal duo to a new sense of limitless possibilities.

Finding comfort in bass and synth, Shriek showcased both Wasner and bandmate Andy Stack’s natural instincts as multi-instrumentalists and producers. Simultaneously, Wasner was laying the groundwork for 2016’s If You See Me Say Yes, her first solo effort under the Flock of Dimes moniker. As FOD, Wasner continues to explore her left-of-center recording techniques and instrumentation.

Shedding the weight of expectation, Wasner seems to have activated new creative muscles, with both projects now producing their most fully realized work to date. We caught up with Wasner at home in North Carolina to talk gear, how effects inform her songwriting process, and the dreaded pedal malfunction during a live set.

Jenn Wasner's pedalboard. Illustrated by Sunny Eckerle

Which pedal in your setup do you rely on the most?

Well, on one hand there’s one that’s just on all the time—that’s the Prelude reverb, which I’ve starting using in place of my built-in amp reverb. (For WO I play through a Fender Twin and for FOD I play a Vox AC15.)

But as far as one that I use more actively, that’s probably the good old DD-6. Just your basic digital delay pedal, but I know it so well at this point that I barely have to think about it. I do a lot of super present, timed compositional delays with this (meaning that the part was actually written around the delay being as loud as the original signal—so it would be half a part without it).

I’m also really loving my new Moog MF Drive distortion pedal. I used it a ton in-studio for a lot of the guitar solos on the new record. It’s got an EQ filter in addition to a basic tone knob, so the control over boosting/cutting specific frequencies is like nothing I’ve ever used before. It’s so incredible sounding and versatile.

Do any hold specific sentimental value?

The TC Helicon harmonizer/vocoder pedal was a gift from my friend Aaron Roche when we were working on If You See Me, Say Yes. I brought him on board in the late stages of record-making when I was losing perspective and wasn’t quite sure how to finish the thing. He injected so much life into the record and it truly wouldn’t be the same without him.

We tracked the song “Sometimes It Is Right To Have No Answer" at his place in Brooklyn, and this pedal of his was featured heavily. After we finished tracking, he insisted on giving me the pedal to keep (I protested, but there was no arguing with him). That song later came to bookend the record as a shortened intro and extended outro. And Aaron later played in my band when we toured on the record release.

How often do you re-configure your board between projects? How do you approach that task?

Not often, but I actually pretty much just doubled my pedalboard very recently. I was hoping to settle on something that would house both bass and guitar chains, and also work for both Wye Oak and Flock of Dimes sets. It worked beautifully for the solo FOD tour I did earlier this year, and I just finished my first short Wye Oak run with it.

I’m a little split on it at the moment—on one hand, it’s really exciting to have more options, but on the other hand, I often feel like having more to work with is actually more of a distraction than it’s worth.

Tips for new songwriters starting to incorporate effects into their rig?

Honestly, like I was just saying, sometimes having too many options can be a distraction. If you’re just getting started, learn to distinguish between something that actually feeds your creativity—singling out inspiring sounds that contribute to your productivity—and something that you just think you’re supposed to have.

You can do a lot with very little. If something is standing in the way of developing your individual voice or style or making it more difficult to get into a state of creative flow, axe it.

Tell me more about the Prelude pedal. Who makes it and how did it wind up on your board?

Quiet Theory is the name of the company, the pedal is called the Prelude. I was actually given this by the founder of the company, Bryan Laurenson. As of right now, it’s the only pedal they make. It’s got both delay and reverb—I usually save the delay for when I need a nice, short slapback (I use the DD-6 for longer/timed stuff) and the reverb is just so lush. I use it live, and it’s actually all over the new Wye Oak record, too.

Where in your songwriting process do you start thinking about effects? While writing? During overdubs, etc?

Sounds and ideas are inseparable for me because I’m almost always producing the music I make as I’m writing it. (It’s way more rare that I just sit down with a single instrument and write something, although that’s certainly what I used to do.)

Now, it’s much easier for me to be inspired if I’m discovering new sounds and letting them take me in new directions. It’s more free and exciting (and less intimidating) than just sitting down with a guitar or a piano and saying, “Write something amazing now."

What are your go-to shops/independent makers for new gear?

Lately, I’ve acquired a few EarthQuaker pedals, which I love. Their selection is so crazy and exciting and well-designed. It’s definitely one of those companies where everything looks so cool that I get nervous that I’m going to end up with a pedalboard the size of my entire studio. Fortunately, I’ve managed to use some self-control… for now.

Wasner's signature Reverend JW-1

Also, gotta give a shoutout to my folks at Reverend for making guitars that I love, and for slapping my whole aesthetic onto one, the JW-1. Oh, and also to Moog, of course—one of the coolest things I’ve ever done was at this year’s Moogfest, where I was invited to build a semi-modular drum machine, the DFAM, from scratch. I learned how to solder and everything.

I was a total beginner, but I learned so much about the mechanics of analog synthesis and how electricity turns into sound. They were so generous to invite me, and everyone involved was such a great and patient teacher. Plus, I got to keep the DFAM, and now I use it a bunch.

As far as aspirational acquisitions, I’m currently saving up money to eventually buy something from DSI/Sequential Circuits—probably a Prophet 6, but I’m a bit tempted by the OB-6, so decisions, decisions, I guess. But yeah. They make the best-sounding stuff.

And this winter, I have plans to piece together my first little modular synth. I got a few lessons from my buddy Nick (from Sylvan Esso) while we were on tour together and immediately was like “Okay, I just have to accept that this is going to swallow my life for a while." So I’m getting a few things from Make Noise that I’m super excited about (especially the Phonogene). Baby’s first modular rig.

What was the worst pedal malfunction during a live set you've had? How do you bounce back?

Oh man, there have been so goddamn many of these. It’s inevitable. Shit breaks! But one thing that I try to remember is that, oftentimes, these nightmare moments are the things that are most meaningful and memorable for an audience. It’s so much more impactful when people see you as a fallible human being—it makes the recovery that much more inspiring. I mean, it sucks when it happens, but people really relate to it. And isn’t that the whole point?

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