An Interview With David Wax Museum on “Guesthouse”
I love Mexican music — the rhythms, instruments, song structures, and melodies. But for this record, I tried to focus primarily on the quality of the songwriting and then brought all of our influences to bear on shaping the sound of the record. The Mexican sound was a piece of that but not necessarily the defining element this time around.
Entering a self-described Technicolor world, David Wax Museum’s new album ‘Guesthouse’ (Oct 16, Thirty Tigers) melds the band’s strong acoustic sound with synthesizers, layers of percussion, and adventurous sonic processing to create the band’s boldest studio album to date. Since recording their last album over three years ago, he’s married his band’s co-creator Suz Slezak and the two have started their own family with the arrival of daughter Calliope (named after the Greek muse of epic poetry). Thematically, the album celebrates the changing circumstances of life and paints a brilliant picture of how the stakes have been raised – a sentiment that has had a huge impact on how the band makes decisions.
Recorded under the direction of producer Josh Kaufman (Josh Ritter, Craig Finn) and with the core of the band’s touring line-up from the past few years, ‘Guesthouse’ captures the rock energy of the band’s live show. The band is moving beyond it early career “folk” and “Americana” tag and pushing into new territory, incorporating new arrangements, instruments and recording methods and toning down its Mexican influence.
The album opens with “Every Time Katie,” a whispered come-on that roils and pulses with gorgeous call and response vocals before delving into chamber strings, psychedelic vocal filters and explosive drums on the next song “Dark Night Of the Heart”. Other standout songs include “Young Man” an earnest musing on growing older and the title track, which draws musically on several traditional Mexican songs for a tongue-in-cheek reflection on the life of a traveling musician hunting for a free place to crash.
Praised for a “lively, unique style” (NPR) that “defies easy definition” (NY Times), David Wax Museum has supported The Avett Brothers, Langhorne Slim, The Carolina Chocolate Drops, Buena Vista Social Club and is headlining their own tour this fall.
Metro Asheville’s J.C. Tripp sent David Wax some email questions, to which he graciously responded below
Metro Ashevile: You had a successful Indiegogo campaign to release Guesthouse. How does this change the way you release your music? Does it give you more freedom?
David Wax: Honestly, I’m not sure. We’ve only ever put out records on our own label and with support from our community, so I don’t have a real point of comparison. This band really got its start in a grassroots way, playing house concerts and building organically one fan at a time, so fan-funding has felt like a natural extension of that.
MA: You are now a married couple with a young daughter and are dedicated to touring. How do you make it work?
DW: With lots of help from our wider community. We often have Suz’s father or a friend/helper on the road with us to help with our daughter during soundcheck and during our sets. It seems like being away from one’s family is one of the biggest challenges that touring musicians have to face, and so we feel very fortunate that we don’t have to confront that. Suz has always dreamed of a life where family and work life were integrated, and so this is a real fulfillment of that vision.
I’ve become a little less guarded, personally. And artistically, I think I’ve become more confident. I felt like I didn’t have to dress up the lyrics in poetic language to hide what I was trying to say, which is a technique I used on previous records.
MA: Your live show is a big part of what you do. What do you like most about performing, and touring?
DW: We love the transcendent experience of art that can occur at a concert, when you’re transported somewhere else, when time is suspended and you are completely in the moment. There’s a certain kind of communion that occurs in a concert, and that is what sustains us. We love touring because we get to have that type of experience night after night, all the while seeing our extended family and community all over the world.
MA: You’re distancing yourselves from any labels that might’ve pigeon holed you. What are your thoughts about labels like Americana?
DW: In general, I think “Americana” is kind of a silly term that is not that very descriptive or meaningful. It’s become a catch-all for roots music that doesn’t fit into another category, so maybe that is useful to a degree. I certainly like the Americana community. However, I find the Americana world to be not particularly diverse. The indie rock world seems to have a larger space to incorporate world sounds. That might be why I’ve recently felt more affinity with that world, as opposed to the Americana “folk” scene.
MA: The Mexican sound is subtle on Guesthouse, how do you impart your music with that influence and keep it true to your sound?
DW: Well, the Mexican sound is certainly tied up in our identity. It’s what inspired me to begin this project and has been a thread throughout. I certainly felt liberated on this new record, less beholden to some idea of the band as “Mexo-Americana.” I love Mexican music — the rhythms, instruments, song structures, and melodies. But for this record, I tried to focus primarily on the quality of the songwriting and then brought all of our influences to bear on shaping the sound of the record. The Mexican sound was a piece of that but not necessarily the defining element this time around.
MA: This record seems very personal and straight from the heart. How is it to open up about your life in your music?
DW: Songwriting has always been a cathartic act for me. It’s how I process my rawest, most conflicting emotions. It’s been a way of tapping into my subconscious. The writing process wasn’t especially different on this record, however, I was in a different place in my life. I’ve become a little less guarded, personally. And artistically, I think I’ve become more confident. I felt like I didn’t have to dress up the lyrics in poetic language to hide what I was trying to say, which is a technique I used on previous records.
MA: How did your time in Mexico impact your view of things and shape your music?
DW: It shaped my worldview in profound ways and changed the course of my life. It opened my eyes to the (often very negative) role America plays in the cultural, political & economic landscape of other countries. Living in Mexico helped me connect to a rural way of life that I think has, in large part, been lost here in the States. I was able to see folk music played in a context where it was a vital part of community life.
Over time, the Mexican music I learned and fell in love with gave me a new lease on life as a songwriter. I felt reengaged as a writer, introduced to a new world that I could draw on for inspiration.
MA: I hear hints of Paul Simon on Guesthouse, is he an influence?
DW: He’s one of my biggest influences. From people’s reaction to the record, it seems like his influence rears its head quite strongly on this record. He provided a template of incorporate world sounds into American pop music that I think is still the gold standard. If you have a foot in that world, you’re inevitably going to contend with his influence.
MA: You are pushing the sonic envelope on Guesthouse, with new arrangements, instruments and recording methods. What was the impetus for this?
DW: It’s felt like a natural evolution over the course of our last 3 records (Everything Is Saved, Knock Knock Get Up, and now Guesthouse). I think we just reached a new level of ease with the whole recording process and so were able to more fully embracing that experimentation. This was our fifth record, and we had little desire to repeat ourselves. To keep making record, I have stay interested and curious about the whole endeavor. I think that desire drives the evolving sound of the band. And, we brought in a fantastic new producer for this record, Josh Kaufman (Craig Finn, Josh Ritter, Bob Weir). He was steering the ship through a lot of that process.