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Sylvan Esso is razing the bar 

Durham-based electropop duo soars past expectations

Nick Sanborn can remember when his life changed last year. He and his Sylvan Esso bandmate, Amelia Meath, were in a lighting store when they got a phone call offering them a spot as the Europe and U.S. tour opener for Tune-Yards for two months. Sanborn says that's the moment he knew he could finally quit his bartending job.

"I knew I would have enough money to pay my rent. That was gigantic," Sanborn says from his Durham, North Carolina, home. "Anyone who can do their creative passion for a living ... Every step along the way has been surprising."

It wasn't long ago that Sanborn was making ends meet through that bartending gig and playing bass with psychedelic-folk band Megafaun. Meath, on the other hand, was singing in the folk trio Mountain Man. Neither one of them could foresee that a 2010 meeting and song remix would lead to the eventual formation of electro-pop duo Sylvan Esso, which is now selling out shows across the country — including a Jan. 16 concert at the Neighborhood Theatre.

"Neither of us has been super successful in the bands we're in," Sanborn says. "We thought [Sylvan Esso] might do better than the bands we were in before, but it's been above and beyond anything we might have expected — especially just from the first record. It's definitely gone a lot faster and higher than we initially thought it was going to do."

Sanborn and Meath met at a 2010 Mountain Man gig, where she asked him to remix her song, "Play It Right." His electronic solo project Made of Oak was the opening act.

When the two met up again in 2012, Sanborn had a new band in mind. He wanted Meath, or someone like her, to join but was hesitant to bring the idea up because of her commitment to Mountain Man. One of the first things she said to him, though, was, "We should do more of this. That [remixed] song sounded awesome." With Megafaun and Mountain Man both going on hiatus, the timing couldn't have been better.

The two started writing songs together in 2013, and Sylvan Esso's eponymous debut was released in May 2014. Things haven't been quite the same since. They've appeared on the Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon and have constantly been on the road until recently.

The duo took three weeks off around the holidays to work on new songs. It was the first block of time they've had to try and write something new.

"I'm not one of those people who constantly has songs pouring out of them," Sanborn says. "We each have pieces of things we like. I have a beat I like, but that doesn't make a song. She might write vocals over a loop of that and we can start massaging that into something we both like. There's no formula. We also have no goal in mind, which is the best way to do it."

Sanborn says for the first album, they simply tried to "make each other smile" through their upbeat songs. Though making people dance wasn't necessarily the goal, they're hoping the second album will have the same result.

"When we did the first album, I was spending 45 hours a week busing tables," Sanborn says. "Now, we don't have a deadline and don't have other jobs. The pressure should be more on, but it's more off. Our biggest goal is to have one or two songs to play out this spring."

Sanborn says one of the biggest differences between Sylvan Esso and most dance music creators is that he and Meath have backgrounds in bands and know how to create a cohesive sound. While on stage, they pay attention to what the other person is doing, and they are familiar with the grind of touring and physically playing a show — how all of the pieces fit together for a live performance.

"My experience with touring [over the years] has been an invaluable part of me becoming an 'adult,'" he says. "Put that in quotation marks because I'm a 31-year-old who lives in Durham."

So how did Sanborn go about quitting the bartending job he had for roughly two years? The way any artist would.

"I did the classic musician quit, which was giving up all my Fridays and Saturdays, but telling them I wanted to stay on the schedule," he says with a laugh. "Keep a foot in the door in case everything else crashes. Every moment is a temporary one."

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