David Wax Museum: A Melting Pot Full To the Brim

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The David Wax Museum  is touring with so many instruments that “our 15 passenger van is packed right now,” says singer and band namesake David Wax. “We’re trying to do without a trailer, but I’m not sure how much longer we can do without it.”

The band, which many are starting to describe as a Mexo-American folk duo, has just played its first show in support of its new album, Knock Knock Get Up, 48 hours prior in Denver, Colo. and is about to drive to Lincoln, Neb. The gravelly sound of awakening mid-R.E.M. cycle still lingers in Wax’s voice, and it is singer and multi-instrumentalist Suz Slezak’s birthday, to boot.

Still, Wax takes the time to chat in between shaking off that groggy feeling and heading out to celebrate with his bandmate and friends. The David Wax Museum, led by Wax and Slezak, released its fourth full-length album earlier this month and is adapting to lots of changes at once, including welcoming new touring musicians who met on the first night of the tour in Denver. “We were flying by the seat of our pants,” says Wax, laughing, but not even kidding.

The new album itself represents the most drastic change for the band that first established itself by being “super folky.” And that change manifested itself in a number of different ways; with Knock Knock Get Up, Wax and Slezak experimented with different songwriting techniques, evolving styles of music and a crowd-funded record release.

Like a number of other high-profile artists including Ben Folds Five and Amanda Palmer, the David Wax Museum used PledgeMusic to engage with their most dedicated fans and fundraise for Knock Knock Get Up. “We saw a lot of other artists using PledgeMusic and it seemed like it was helpful to have something specifically designed and tailored to musicians,” explains Wax. While gaining in popularity, crowd funding is an inherently risky endeavor and “our goal was only about a third of what the record is costing us,” he stated. The band ended up meeting that figure and covering the rest out of pocket. “I don’t know how we could have done it without [PledgeMusic],” he says incredulously. “We would have major credit card debt, otherwise!”

The band also donated 10 percent of the extra funds raised to The Farm School in Athol, Mass. The non-profit organization works “training young people that are interested in becoming farmers and then also bringing kids from urban spaces out to the farm to get them exposed to farm work and sustainable agriculture,” explains Wax.

He continues, “Stable agriculture is really important to everybody in the band…It’s a common thread outside our interest in and passion for music. Suz grew up on a family farm in rural Virginia and grew up farming that land. I didn’t grow up with a farming background, but I went to school that was on a farm on a cattle ranch in California and spent summers doing agricultural development work in Mexico when I was in college.”

Wax’s time in Mexico during college wasn’t his first introduction to our southern neighbor. And since then, he’s turned his fascinating and storied relationship with Mexico into an incredible catchy sonic interpretation of said adopted culture.

“It was a long, drawn out process in terms of my interest in Mexican folk music and the way that it’s shaped the band’s sound. But it started basically with me moving down to Mexico the summer of 2001,” Wax begins. Later, he went to Harvard to major in Latin American history and literature and continued returning to Mexico during breaks and summer vacations. “I was in these communities where they had real thriving folk music scenes…I got interested in the music, but just as a fan and as a musician, just sort of appreciating the music. I never thought I would actually play it myself or learn it,” he reminisces.

But when Wax graduated from college, he, like so many other young adults, found himself wondering what to do next. Luckily for him, Harvard offers their young alumni a competitive postgraduate fellowship that awards a select few students the opportunity to pursue fully funded, year-long independent research projects.

“I proposed this idea to go down there and learn to play the music and they approved it,” says Wax. “Then I had the opportunity to live there for a year and actually try to learn the music and find teachers and go to folk music events and sites and concerts and festivals all over the country for that year and learn new instruments.”

His experiences seem to evoke a 21st century Alan Lomax—collecting songs and field recordings from a marginalized community—but Wax took that inspiration and those experiences an extra step by translating them into what became the David Wax Museum. When he returned to the United States and met Slezak in Boston, the two found a mutual appreciation of traditional folk traditions (from the bluegrass and old-time music Slezak grew up with to the regional Mexican music Wax transcribed and internalized). “People were responding really positively and passionately to the songs we were playing on Mexican instruments,” he says.

Those positive reactions have only continued and grown from album to album and tour to tour, leading them around the world—from a cultural exchange program to Shanghai, China to an upcoming U.K. tour with the Carolina Chocolate Drops this fall. And most recently on Knock Knock Get Up, their sound has reached a perfect balance that should appease both the band’s old fans and curious new audiences. This marked, integrated sound is immediately apparent on opening track “Will You Be Sleeping?” feels like it could have been a mariachi song in a former life. Later, “Vivian” shakes to polyrhythms and according to Wax, lead single “Harder Before It Gets Easier” captures a specific style of Mexican fiddling.

And so it comes back to the instruments currently filling up the David Wax Museum’s 15-person van. Between Wax’s jarana (Mexican guitar-like instrument) and Slezak’s quijada (donkey jaw bone used for percussion), an accordion, violin, piano and electric bass, in addition to acoustic and electrics guitars and drums, the band has incorporated all of those sounds, textures, timbres and cultural influences and woven them all into an intellectually and sonically pleasing musical tapestry. As Wax concludes, “I’ve had a lot of experience playing music in another culture, but I think it’s still really amazing to have that reinforced that the power of music to connect people across cultures—and how the spirit of music translates regardless of whether someone understands the lyrics or knows the tradition that it’s coming from. That’s not necessary for people to enjoy and appreciate and be moved by music.”

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