Interview with Suz Slezak from David Wax Museum

Liftoff–-it’s one of the most exciting times in a band’s career. The point where the band is hitting its stride, not only has its members honed their crafts, but the audience seems to be in lockstep, loving what they’re doing while the ever fickle Muse decides to stick around.

That is where the band David Wax Museum is right now. Where’d they come from? Lead singer David Wax’s past includes Missourian back roads, an unconventional college that doubled as a cattle ranch, summers in the Mexican countryside and Harvard University.

Next is Suz Slezak, According to the band’s website, she is the band’s “anchor to American roots music and helps fashion its distinctive sound with her fiddling and harmony vocals.”
Her path is just as interesting. She was home-schooled on a small farm in rural Virginia where music, especially traditional Irish, classical and folk, were all a large part of her upbringing.

She graduated from Wellesley College, traveled the world and landed back in Boston. That is where she met David. He asked her to track down a donkey jawbone, and join his band. Together they have been the core of the band since 2007.

A donkey jawbone is a traditional percussion instrument from Veracruz. You’ve probably guessed by now that this is not a typical rock act. They are also not typical singer-songwriters, folkies, or run-of-the-mill anything for that matter. All of the attributes listed above can be heard in their music, which sounds both novel and familiar as it hits the ears.

Also in the air is the feeling that all of these things are coalescing in this young band’s art. Listening to their three albums (soon to be four) reveals a band that is feeling its way around and getting to know itself through the paths they have taken.

Gene: “Everything is Saved” and “I Turned Off Thinking About That” (the first album): There’s a big difference between those two albums. What’s immediately noticeable is harmony and rhythm. Would you talk about the growth of the band over time?

Suz: That initial album was one that David made with his cousin, Jordan Wax, right when he got back from Mexico, before he’d even put together the band. So, as soon as David got back in 2007, we put the band together and really from then on, we had a wonderful array of musicians that we worked with. So you can really tell on the newest album there’s input from a lot of the musicians that we’ve been playing with. The newest album also, we did with producer Sam Kassirer.

Gene: He’s in Josh Ritter’s band, right?

Suz: Yep. He’s in his band and also produces his albums. And so “Everything Is Saved” was really the first album of ours that we worked with a producer. So it has his artistic vision combined with ours.

Gene: Did you internalize his vision?

Suz: I think it’s really his goal as a producer to help draw bands out of themselves and help us sound more like David Wax Museum. And for him, and for us, that meant really emphasizing the percussion, as you noticed and mentioned. It’s about emphasizing the harmonies and the kind of group chorus effect you might have noticed on that album. There’s a lot of songs that have a kind of chorus of voices coming in, which is something we also do in live performances, kind of get everybody singing together.

Gene: On your website you talk about museums, and how they show something familiar and traditional, while documenting innovation. That sounds like a good definition for folk music. It puts you in a continuum where you learn from the past and then you make your own link in the chain to pass on. Is that along the lines of what you’re thinking?

Suz: Absolutely. I think that’s a great interpretation of that. I think, in some ways people look at what we’re doing as unique, that we’re taking these Mexican folk songs and using them as inspiration for our own Americana or Mexico-American sound. But I think you’re right, you hit the nail on the head in that all folk music is taking from the past and putting it in a modern context, or reinterpreting these old sounds. So I think what we’re doing is something that people have been doing for years and years.

Gene: How do you attempt to make music that’s new but yet sounds familiar and traditional?

Suz: Well, in some ways, because we’re using traditional instruments, both from America, the fiddle and acoustic guitar, and these Mexican instruments like the donkey jawbone, and the Mexican guitar… because we’re using those instruments, that draws on those traditions. And a lot of the song structures, the way David writes songs, using inspiration from the traditional Mexican songs, that also plays into the traditional part of that question. But, we are living in 2012 and we’re listening to contemporary music. We are listening to Josh Ritter. We’re listening to The Low Anthem, we’re listening to The Avett Brothers, Jessica Lea Mayfield and other contemporary bands. So we’re definitely influenced by what’s happening now in our environment.

Gene: What from the past inspires you?

Suz: It’s a big range. We look back to early country and Hank Williams. David gets a lot of his lyrical inspiration from Bob Dylan and Paul Simon. We really love a lot of the music that’s being written today, bands like Wooden Dinosaur and Rusty Belle are big inspirations for us as well.

Gene: Bob Dylan, especially in the most recent albums, it’s not only the music. It also feels like it’s part of him. Or the way Tom Waits’ art seems to be more than the music. This reminds me of the way you guys come across. Is your art more than just the songs? Is there something more overarching?

Suz: That’s a really great question. I think that, for me, what I’m doing living a life as a musician is definitely more than the music. It’s about trying to live a creative lifestyle, trying to live outside the box, outside the normal 9 to 5 corporate box. We’re living a very humble living. We don’t earn a lot of money, but we are not beholden to any record labels. We’re releasing these albums ourselves with the support of our fans and our community, which is something that I think a lot of people—young people these days—are striving to do, to do real things, and dig their teeth into real art, and real connection with other people, and not have it be prescribed to them or have it be mediated through the television or the big corporations. I think that we are trying to be examples of an alternative lifestyle, but one that’s real. Early in our days, we did a lot of house concerts because the venues would rip you off. You know, you couldn’t really make money at the venues in your early days. So we said, all right, well just play in people’s backyards and have people pay us directly. We were able to support ourselves in large part in the beginning because we played in all sorts of alternative spaces. So I think you’re right. We’re trying to create a lifestyle, and be examples for a kind of creative, alternative path.

(Interviewed last summer) 

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