Interview: Suz Slezak of the David Wax Museum
If you haven’t yet caught wind of the fast-rising David Wax Museum, here’s a quick primer. The Missouri-born David Wax and his Virginian bandmate, Suz Slezak, started playing together when they met right here in Boston, crafting their unique sound in the smallest of area clubs. Before long, they had won a spot in the line-up at the prestigious Newport Folk Festival and snapped up a 2010 Boston Music Award for Best Americana Artist.
In this era of slashes and subgenres and everything-wave and something else-core, “Americana” doesn’t quite fit the the Museum; but they’re OK with that. Their true sound is a mix of rootsy folk and traditional Mexican Son Jarocho—a genre they’ve dubbed Mexo-Americana.
Harmonious, driving and audience-inclusive, the Museum is basically the most unlikely party band ever. The band hits Oberon on Thursday for a release show of grand proportions for its latest, Everything is Saved. We could get more into that here, but Slezak (who plays a mean donkey jawbone) explains it better in the conversation below.
TOB: What’s the CD release show going to be like?
Suz Slezak: Well, really insane. We’re actually going to have an 11-piece band including a horn section, three percussionists and almost all the people that we play with in our cohort of musicians. Our moms are flying in from Missouri and Virginia, respectively, and we’ll have a lot of family there. The idea is that we want it to be a full experience. There will be food, and interesting things can happen with lighting and video because it’s such an epic theater. It’s going to be a whole experience for the senses.
That’s quite a change from playing at smaller, low-key places like Club Passim. Do you think this kind of bombastic tour is a representation of where you guys are going musically and performance-wise?
I think that it represents this new excitement and complexity in our sound and performance—a new direction we’re trying to head in. We started more in the traditional folk genre with Mexican influence, but we feel now like we’re caught somewhere between the folk and rock and indie genres. The new record certainly has many more layers and complexity than Carpenter Bird. That was a more straight-ahead rootsy sound.
What do you think has brought about this new sound?
Working with Sam Kassirer was one of the major factors in that expansion. He is a brilliant producer and wanted to pull out the essence of David Wax Museum and bring that to the foreground with this new record. He wanted to really put everything thing on display—the harmonies, the Mexican rhythms that we bring to it.
What went into making the new album?
We spent 11 days in rural Maine at Sam’s Great North Sound Society, which is actually a farmhouse turned into a studio. We could really live and breathe the album for that week and a half. As I said before, Sam’s influence on us and the songs was tremendous.
Was that a lot of pressure—thinking you only have 11 days to do something? The “Be creative—right now!” thing is always tricky.
The songs were already in such a good place. We’d been playing most of them for over a year already. I think we were just itching to do it. It didn’t feel like pressure. We had an amazing, talented group of people so it felt inspirational and fun and fresh and alive the whole time. It didn’t feel forced in any ways.
You’ve been playing live a whole lot. Does the live performance impact you when you’re writing songs?
One of the really special parts about the Mexican son and the influence we have from that tradition is that a lot of the songs are call-and-response, so they have a lot of built-in audience participation. They’re meant to be played in a crowd with lots of singers, passing the lead voice from person to person, or having one caller and then rest of the chorus responding. We love performance so much; we love using the spaces that we’re in and going out into the audience and making them a part of the experience.
Have you ever had any sort of pushback from traditional Mexican artists? Or are people generally excited to have you adopting parts of that culture and making it into your own?
That’s something that we’re really sensitive about. We’ve gotten all sorts of different feedback. But in general, the people that play Son Jarocho are totally enthusiastic that a gringo is learning their music and playing it. We’re not trying to mimic it or copy it; we’re trying to do it in a sensitive and respectful way. David spent a full year on a fellowship studying the Son Jarocho style, mostly in Vera Cruz, Mexico. It comes out of a love of the songs and then energy and joy that they have within them.
You won a Boston Music Award and you’re having your album release show in town. What’s it like to be a part of the Boston music scene?
It’s been such an amazing place for us. The number of incredible musicians that are centered in Boston and the number of small venues really helped us grow and develop into a nationally touring band. It was really special to get that recognition from the BMAs, since we really do feel like Boston is our home base.
If the David Wax Museum were a real museum, who do you think the wax figures inside it would be?
I think the first exhibit would probably be a little sampling of musicians throughout history from the States and Mexico—Gillian Welch, some of the Son Jarocho masters, Hank Williams, the Wilco guys, Uncle Tupelo. And the next room in the museum would be a collection of the people that we play for now, our audience. That’s what really gives our museum life. I think it’s really incredible to go somewhere and have a crowd full of people that we don’t know. That feels like we’ve reached a new level. Getting to play music for a living is the most incredible gift and we both feel that everyday.
The David Wax Museum plays at Oberon on Thursday, Feb. 3.