Analogue Music | David Wax Museum

David Wax Museum

By John Barber

David and Suz can feel the scales tipping. The world is changing around them. Their lives are changing, too.

What’s a successful party band to do when the political world is crashing down around them? What are songwriters to do when mental illness comes screaming back into their lives? What are parents to do when their children are growing up in the chaotic environment of touring musicians? Well, if you’re David Wax Museum, you write a new record that, somehow, encompasses all of those things.

David Wax Museum has been on the scene for over a decade now, and their blend of Mexo-Americana music has a way of not only entrancing you with it’s unique and beautiful harmonies, but also getting you on your feet and moving—even if you’re a stick-in-the-mud like me. I was able to chat with David Wax and Suz Slezak (David’s wife and musical partner) about their new record, Line of Light.

This new album might come from a stripped-down sonic place, but it lacks none of the power of a David Wax Museum record. And from the first line of the first song (“I refuse to live in fear,” from “Uncover the Gold”), you can tell that you’ll be getting an album full of songs that tackle heavy subjects.

Analogue: You guys are one of those bands that I’m always introducing people to, and the question I always get is, “What’s the deal with the band name?” Can you help me out that one?

David Wax: There’s not really a good story or answer here. It’s almost more of a joke that anything. Just a play off my name. The friend who suggested it, a teacher friend of mine from Harvard, claims that she’s the person that suggested to Evan Dando that his band should be The Lemonheads. So I thought, "Well, she’s got a track record at least, and if she’s the one who came up with The Lemonheads band name, then I should take that seriously."

When we started the band, all I was doing was listening to old field recordings. I’d burned out on modern contemporary music and I’d just got back from living in Mexico, studying Mexican folk music, and listening to field recordings, and all I wanted to listen to when I got home was American and Mexican field recordings. So, the idea of the archival nature of the project in the early days and thinking of it as a museum resonated with me and what head space I was in in that moment.

Credits: Anthony Mulcahy
Credits: Anthony Mulcahy

Analogue: And you put it on a poster and were stuck with it, I guess.

David: We got these opening gigs with The Avett Bros after we’d just been playing together for nine months, so having this big break early, it was harder to reinvent yourself. I had transitioned out, and that was my way of dealing with the culture shock. I came back from Mexico and, once I was back in the Boston scene, I was just soaking up as much of what I could in the Americana rock, indie world and I was very quickly swept away by that scene and that world.

Analogue: I’m really interested in the creative process. How do the two of you go about songwriting? What are you trying to accomplish when you sit down to write?

David: I’m been doing this since I was 13, and now I’m 37, so I’ve thought a lot about the process, about what am I trying to say. What are the roles of these songs and the fans? And you know, the trick of it, is that when I’m trying to actually generate material, and that voice that knows anything about songwriting, or is critical, that voice is not helpful in the process at all, in the early stage.

It’s really trying to tap into the feeling I had writing songs when I first got started, where you’re just not self-conscious about the project at all. I feel like the tapping into the subconscious and trying to create a space—that has been really key. A lot of times, it's just having an instrument in my hands and trying to lose myself in some groove or melodic hook that I’ve been singing in my head, playing it over and over, just riffing and improvising over it. A lot of ideas come from Suz hearing me do that and identifying what’s promising.

I’m at a stage where I can get in a zone with it and I’m too close to it to evaluate it, and so it’s great to have a creative partner that is listening to it from the outside to see if there’s something in it that is interesting or sparks their interest or a cool hook. A lot of songs have come out of her just having an ear out, being able to identify what’s promising. I guess I appreciate more and more that there’s this interesting nature of the collaboration. I’m trying to get to a space where I can’t evaluate and turn off the voice that would criticize what I’m doing or bring judgment to it, but you do need someone else that’s in a position to hear and receive and evaluate what’s going on. So a lot of the songs come out of that process. And then later, there’s time to think about what the song’s about and craft every word exactly like I want it, but that’s much later in the process.

Analogue: So how does it work between the two of you? When you get to the final product, you both have input, but it starts with you?

David: Yeah, I think it’s interesting that with this record, Suz took a bigger role in shaping what songs we were going to do and what was going to the vibe of the arrangement. She got more comfortable articulating her vision for a record of ours. This record is unique and stands up to the others because it’s more informed by her vision. Like in any collaboration or partnership, there are different moments where one is taking the lead.

What’s the role of music? And what’s our role as artists? And how can we put forth a more positive vision that makes people feel like they’re in something together, that we have this shared emotional experience?

Analogue: One of the things that always stands out about you guys is the vast array of influences that come in instrumentally. I think about a song like “Touch of Gold” on this record that goes from a blues track to a doo-wop kind of thing in the middle to the Mexican trumpet that comes in. Obviously you guys have influences from all over, and I’m curious about how those things get melded in to cohesive sounding arrangements.

David: Some of that is leaning on the producer or the engineer to help make sure that, sonically, it all gels. I think that, for a song like Touch of Gold,” you’re going to have this pretty short song, but you want it to have all these different moments where there’s either a release from what’s happening or where it’s stepping up to another level, like having this emotional crest and a slow wind-up. So we were almost cinematically building something there. I think it’s a metaphor for the whole process of trying to take the listener on a journey. If you can kind of boil that down into a song... sometimes that happens from the different stylistic elements that help shift so that when you do go to a bridge, and it changes stylistically a little bit, then it can open up, like the song is blossoming to this whole other scene.

I’ve always loved that approach to arranging in the studio and the creative process of building the arrangements. I think of that in cinematic terms. Thinking about the styles that we draw on, [it's good] as long as they are coming out of a real interest and passion for the stuff, like some kind of pastiche. We’re in a day and age where we all stream a huge variety of music. We can listen to music for an hour and it can so easily be from all these different genres and parts of the world, so I think our brains are just getting really cultural with bringing all those different styles together—as long as you can make it feel like it’s not forced, like it’s coming out of a genuine, authentic place.

These are just the tools we have. We love these styles of music and we have all these instruments lying around and so, maybe, on the bridge on “Human Chain,” we’re going to feature the Mexican instruments. And that’s where we build the bridge that’s based on a Mexican folk song and we shift gears in that moment of the song. In “Janaree,” there’s a certain vibe to the verses, and in the bridge, there’s a whole different palette of Brazilian chords and colors. I love that stuff, and songs evolve and grow over the course of the song and different stylistic choices help us do that.

Analogue: I listened to the album 3-4 times through before I read anything abotu it because I wanted to hear it cold and the song that resonated with me the most was “Janaree.” Who is Janaree?

David: She was one of our biggest fans. She was the mother of a dear college friend of mine, and she got introduced to our music in college when we played on campus. She was one of these fans that would write us these extremely long and poignant emails, and we developed a rapport through that. She was such an advocate and champion of ours. She lived in the middle of the country, in Lincoln, Nebraska, so not a place we got to very much. We were moved by her fandom, and her son, who was a friend of ours, reached out to me to say that she was in the hospital with these complications. They thought it was going to be routine surgery and then all of a sudden she’s in a coma.

So they wanted to know if there was anything we could do. They had us Skype into her hospital room to do a mini-concert for her while she was in a coma. When they realized that she wasn’t going to come out of the coma and they followed her directive which was to take her off life support, they played Carpenter Bird which was her favorite record, while they took her off life support. When they wrote that to us, it was so moving to hear that, and I just sat there and started writing that song. It’s one of the few songs on the record that came all in one rush. I was really moved by her spirit and wanted to honor that.

Analogue: The first line of the first song is “I refuse to live in fear.” I’m curious about why you led off with that. You guys are from Charlottesville, so there’s some politics wound up in this. Where did you come from thematically on this record?

Suz: I love the messages. They feel so profound to me. I think that’s one of the most important possible message we can be sharing right now. Just staying calm and focused and loving in our bodies right now. It’s paramount to being able to live through challenging times. So I feel like the messages of these songs are so deep and important.

David: I think it’s hard for me to imagine wiring a topical song about what happened in Charlottesville, but I experienced what happened there in a particular way. We had this event that was a traumatic event in our town. We thought about it as parents. How are we going to be able to explain this to our kids, and not get too depressed or walk on the dark side of it, and to focus on what’s our community’s response, and where’s the duty and positivity in how our community is going to respond to something like this.

We’re in this very fraught political moment where there is a lot of division. What’s the role of music? And what’s our role as artists? And how can we put forth a more positive vision that makes people feel like they’re in something together, that we have this shared emotional experience? I’m just thinking about how art or songs can be a force for good and positivity in the world. So it felt like a really natural thing to be talking about. So we were trying to respond to those things that our hearts were thinking about.

Suz: David is someone who is very politically attuned. I grew up in a family that was very politically attuned, and I always knew that that was not an interest of mine and I couldn’t understand it or relate to it. As I’ve gotten older, I certainly care about the political situation in any given state or country or community and, of course, I’m affected by what’s happening in that realm. I personally am not able to live in that realm because it is it’s too violent and depressing and so I’ve chosen, as a survival tactic for my heart, to focus on much bigger things and live in a bigger realm, a more universal place.

I also focus on the very small: the people that you’re with and the placement of your body, and the smells and the colors and the textures, the sounds that you’re listening to, the music that you’re creating with people in a room and the very tactile, visceral ways of being human. I feel like music really speaks to both of those realms. It speaks to the energy exchanged between people who are listening and performing. And it also speaks to these greater human and universal scenes.

We blindfold our audience and seat them in the middle of the room and then we make everyone feel like they’re in the front row.

As a young person in a political family, I feel very comfortable in a political world, and so, it’s been liberating for me to say, I’m an artist, I don’t talk about legislation. I’m so happy people do and I support them and I will vote in every election, of course, and I teach my children to vote, but it’s not a realm that I understand or can relate to. So I’m going to be working in these other realms.

Analogue: With all of that in mind, how does that impact the new record?

Suz: I tried to choose songs that I’m attracted to that are about these bigger themes. For example, “How do you know if you’re dreaming?” I love living in that space of consciousness. We really don’t know here, people. So don’t get caught up on the evil things that the people in charge are doing right now. This all may be a dream.

It’s not that I’m saying it doesn’t matter; I think it matters immensely to live calmly, with kindness, and doing beautiful, kind things in the world, because we don’t know any more than that. But I think we do know that. These songs speak to these really big issues. There are songs about death. tThey are songs about the moments before birth, which is “Little Heart.” And there are songs about good and evil, in the biggest sense of those words.

Analogue: I read a thing on your website about Concerts in the Blind. Can you tell me about that?

Suz: It’s this experimental concert concept that we created with our friends Lowland Hum. We blindfold our audience and seat them in the middle of the room and then we make everyone feel like they’re in the front row. And then we play a concert for them, mostly acoustic and we move around the room and paint the sound around the listeners. We whisper in your ears and we have harmonies coming at you at all angles. We have surprise instruments and mystery guests. It’s been incredibly transcendent for people. They wake up after the show, coming out of this experience they can’t even talk about. They’re really moved by it.

We are living in such a distracted age that to just focus on one sense, to listen for one hour is very rare right now. When we’re watching a movie, we’re also checking texts and grabbing a drink and snuggling with our partner in bed—doing all these other things besides just watching. And we certainly don’t listen to music with our eyes closed fo an hour. So I think that heightened focus has been extremely rare for people, and they are just head over heels for it. We’re trying to figure out how to do it more. It’s so personal for everyone, it feels so private, but we’re all in it together.

VISIT: David Wax Museum