Interview: David Wax Museum on staying in your ‘Guesthouse’, life on the road, and building communities
By Rob Duguay
For musicians, the touring life has its ups and downs. It takes a lot of hard work and determination to build up a following beyond your hometown, then rolling through the same place every three months while hoping that more people show up each time you take the stage. Everything becomes a commodity and being economical becomes the essential way of living. You have stories that stick with you forever while also dealing with the daily trials and tribulations that life throws at you. After getting their start in the Boston area, David Wax Museum, a folk act influenced by the sounds of Mexico, have been traveling all over and doing it on their own terms.
But David Wax Museum aren’t your typical cookie cutter folk band; they push the boundaries of the genre with innovative rhythms that have a habit of energizing any room that play to. Started by now-married couple David Wax and Sue Slezak within the vicinity of Harvard University in the late 2000s, the band has garnered acclaim through constant touring and a bare boned DIY work ethic. Following up last weekend’s performance at the Columbus Theatre in Providence, David Wax Museum are back in New England this weekend with a homecoming show at Cambridge’s The Sinclair tomorrow and a trip down to Newport at The Parlor Bar & Kitchen on Sunday as part of their current expedition with Providence psych prog glam rockers Arc Iris.
Vanyaland recently had a chat with Wax about the band’s beginnings in New England, coming from a small city to a bustling metropolis, his Mexican folk influences, David Wax Museum’s brand new album Guesthouse and building a community with their music.
Rob Duguay: What was the landscape like when you were starting David Wax Museum in Boston? Was it difficult at the beginning to gain a sustainable following?
David Wax: While I was a student at Harvard, I wasn’t really playing that much music. It wasn’t until after I graduated that I went to Mexico for a year and then moved back to Boston and that’s when I got the band started. In general, I think it worked out really well for the band to get started in Boston. It was really easy for me to find great musicians, I connected with Sue right away when I moved back to town and I felt that there was a simpatico between the music that we were making and the potential audience. People who were interested in folk and Americana but with an ear for indie rock and for world sounds. Like any band it took a little while to get it going. I was surprised with how quickly it clicked to be completely honest.
That must have been convenient that instead of struggling to find people to play with you already had a crew ready to go and ready to rock.
You grew up in the small city of Columbia, Missouri. When you first started living in Boston, did it take any major adjustments for you to acclimate yourself to your surroundings?
Yeah, it did. I grew up in a small college town and there’s a resonance of that in places like Cambridge with it feeling like home to me. After I left my hometown I went to school for a couple years in California on a ranch in the high mountain desert. Then I spent a year after that living with my Grandfather in Minnesota so from coming from those three experiences and then landing at Harvard in Boston it was a good bit of a culture shock for me. It also felt right to live in a big city and taking advantage of that. Boston is such a cultural mecca and I felt really sustained by that when I was there.
Going from a farm in California and the winter weather of Minnesota to a big city like Boston must have taken some getting used to. What made you want to go down to Mexico in the first place? You’ve mentioned in the past that David Wax Museum’s music is very inspired by the music you encountered while living there.
At first, I found myself down there doing volunteer work in central Mexico in the summer of 2001 after my freshman year of college. I studied Spanish in high school, had Spanish-speaking friends and I knew that I wanted to get down there. Then this opportunity fell in my lap where I could live and do community development projects in a rural village. During that time in my life it was the perfect way to spend a Summer. I didn’t go down there with any expectations or knowledge about anything related to Mexico but to be immersed for a summer at that age where you’re just so open to life-changing experiences everything just clicked for me. I lived in a house of a musician and there was such a thriving folk music scene in the area that I was living in. A lot of things kind of started coming together for me that I wasn’t even aware of at the time. It took a while even before I started actually playing the music, it just sparked an interest. I had a real curiosity about Latin America, just trying to get my mind around a different culture and one that has such a deep and problematic relationship with the role the United States has had and still has in effecting people’s lifestyles there.
Speaking of music, David Wax Museum released their fifth studio album a week ago titled Guesthouse. It’s the band’s first album in three years and the groovy title track’s lyrics describe a bit of the touring lifestyle. If you had to say what the nicest place is that you’ve gotten to crash at while on the road, what place would it be?
We’ve stayed at a lot of nice places on tour so I’ll have to think about it. A friend of ours put us up last summer in this beautiful guest house on Martha’s Vineyard. He was gone so he left us the house and the guesthouse. It was with the whole band and their girlfriends were able to stay there on this little split of land between the ocean and a lake on the top of Martha’s Vineyard. That was a pretty exceptional guesthouse situation for us which was fairly recently.
Must have been pretty nice being right by the water so there had to have been a nice, cool breeze and everything.
Each one of David Wax Museum’s previous albums have been self-released by the band with Guesthouse being distributed through the Nashville based marketing company Thirty Tigers. What made you want to originally self-release your albums rather than signing to a label and what advice can you give to an up and coming band to might take a similar route.
With the new record it’s a little different because we are working with a group like Thirty Tigers. I don’t feel like we’re doing it totally alone this time because the people at Thirty Tigers are really helping us. They’re kind of filling that intermediary role that labels used to do but it’s much harder to find these days because of the transformation of the music industry. Once again we’ve relied on our community and did band funding to pay for a good part of the record. That’s always been a really organic part of having a musical project that at its core is connected to community and building community.
We’ve thought that there’s a real thread throughout the way we’ve been funding the record, putting out the record, touring and building an audience. I think now more than ever you can do that outside of the traditional label structure. I think a label can be a helpful tool but it’s certainly not the be all end all. You can find your audience but it just takes a lot of hard work. It really comes down to getting on the road, getting in front of people, starting creative ways to really connect to the audience in authentic ways and being true to who you are. We’ve been doing this now for around eight years so it’s been a real slow and steady journey but it feels sustainable and it’s our model going forward.