The life of a musician is not easy. Between fighting thousands of other artists to find gigs and the fact that said gigs tend not to pay well, plus the ever-increasing cost of traveling and finding a place to sleep, the reality is that it’s just plain hard to stay healthy on the road. It’s no wonder parents often cringe when their children say they want to grow up to be rock stars. Usually the parents encourage them to have a backup plan. But for Suz Slezak, who sings and plays fiddle for David Wax Museum, her outlook was exactly the opposite: music was the backup plan.
“I didn’t anticipate being a musician as an adult, but I remember thinking, ‘Well, it’s always something I can fall back on. If nothing else works out, I can always do music,'” Slezak laughs.
This sort of outside-the-box thinking is what has helped make the band such an engaging project. Having started out as a folk duo, they have progressed over the years to become something far more complex and interesting. Some can say that they have dipped their toes into the world of indie rock now that they have a fuller band, and it is not simply Slezak and her husband David Wax leading the way. As their most recent record, 2012’s Knock Knock Get Up, suggests, they have largely evolved into a band who focuses on a beguiling , self-coined Mexo-Americana sound.
The quick, rhythmic playing of Wax’s guitar on numbers like the striking opener “Will You Be Sleeping?” gives the album a lively, dramatic flair, while the lumbering percussion and electric guitars on “All Sense of Time” effectively mash Americana and Mexican tones together with ease. And the closing track, “Refuge,” combines dizzying Mexican guitar with raucous percussion to make for one of the album’s most foot-stomping, hand-clapping moments. But it’s on tracks like “Harder Before It Gets Easier” that the band’s colors come out most vividly, with Slezak and Wax’s vocals intertwining melodiously as the song sounds like a rustic effort from a mariachi band. This fact is also played out in the song’s video, which is a vibrant mix of paint, people, and stop-motion shots.
“That was an incredible three-day experience of getting every color of face paint you can imagine in your ears, nostrils, and eyes,” Slezak laughs. “One of the exciting parts about being in a band is that we get to make these videos, which really turn over the artistic direction to other artists. They listen to the music and find their inspiration in that, so we kind of put up with [the painting] for the sake of art because we knew it would be a great product.”
One of the creative forces behind that video was Sam Kassirer, who produced this album as well as their previous album, 2011’s Everything is Saved. Slezak credits Kassirer with helping the band evolve their sound these past two records, particularly on Knock Knock Get Up.
“It was a chance to really be experimental with Sam,” says Slezak. “He knew us, he knew our music, and he was really instrumental in helping us figure out our sound, and developing this idea of Mexo-Americana music, which is a term we kind of created. He helped us make sense of what that sound was.”
The timing and location of the recording process also played a part.
“It was exciting because we went back to the same studio [as Everything is Saved] in rural Maine,” Slezak says. “And we went again in the dead of winter, which may or may not have been the best option, but it certainly made for a focused endeavor.”
While the duo continues to tour behind Knock, 2014 has largely been a year centered on scaling things back. Slezak and Wax are new parents, so they have decreased their touring commitments somewhat. And they’re working on material for their next record, but on the whole things are more laid-back for the band than they have been for a long time. Slezak, for her part, embraces the new, relaxed approach.
“This has been the mellowest year we’ve had in recent memory,” she says. “We’d spent the previous five years touring really hard, so this has been a chance to write and regroup and focus on baby and take it easy. I think we only have 10 shows this month, which is a slow month for us.”
So Slezak and Wax seem to have it all. They have a family, and they get to consistently engage in their creative streaks in a professional and ongoing basis. Odd as it sounds, for all intents and purposes, Slezak’s initial thoughts about music were slightly off. Music is not a fallback plan; it is the plan. And considering how she grew up, maybe it should have been the plan all along.
Slezak says simply, “I grew up singing and playing. It was part of my childhood. I was homeschooled, and one of our two tasks every day was to practice our instruments and do a math lesson. Music was something that just happened every day and was the norm. It was not something to be questioned. It was just three meals a day and playing your instruments.”
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City Paper has been bringing the best news, food, arts, music and event coverage to the Holy City since 1997. Support our continued efforts to highlight the best of Charleston with a one-time donation or become a member of the City Paper Club.