The Lumineers aren’t the only catchy, finely crafted roots rockers in town this week. Like the act behind the hit single “Ho Hey,” David Wax Museum is another trending group that got their start on the house party circuit. The duo not only blends American and Mexican folk, but their new album Knock Knock Get Up showcases rich new texture, instrumentation, and ambient warmth.
The band’s singer/guitarist David Wax released his debut, I Turned Off Thinking About in 2008, after spending time in Mexico writing a dissertation on different Mexican musical genres. He later teamed up with percussionist Suz Slezak a year later, though the one-time bluegrass player was initially hesitant about a partnership.
“He invited me to his first house concert and admittedly I was not completely taken with the music, but he said, ‘Come on, let’s just play together,'” Slezak says from the duo’s hometown of Boston. “We started singing together and that felt like a great fit. That convinced me to join his band, which was the third band I was playing in at that time. I wasn’t sure how I fit into it, but a couple years later it was the one that was still going strong.”
Wax invited Slezak to join him on quijada, a traditional Latin American instrument that’s no more than a dried-out lower jawbone from a donkey or horse. She says she wasn’t thrown so much by the idea of playing a jawbone, explaining that she “grew up on a farm.” It’s just that she’d never played a percussive instrument before.
“I’ve just picked it up little by little,” she says. Five years later, Slezak can say that she’s one the most well-known quijada players in the U.S., if not the world.
David Wax Museum released Carpenter Bird that first year together in 2009, and followed two years later with their breakthrough, Everything is Saved. The Boston folk scene nurtured them in the interim, offering their next opportunity after they graduated from house shows. The big break came in 2010 courtesy of the famed Newport Folk Festival.
“We had been touring for almost a year when we were chosen as one of the finalists for the Newport Folk Festival,” Slezak explains. “Basically we had collected enough email addresses and made enough fans from our touring that they were able to vote us in in an online competition to play at the Newport Folk Festival and that put us on a national stage. NPR heard us and invited us on, and things started rolling even more after that point.”
Knock Knock Get Up is their second consecutive album with producer Sam Kassirer (Josh Ritter, Joe Pug) and the familiarity worked to their advantage. The new production touches and approach are powerful and alluring. In some ways, Knock Knock sounds like the product of a different band.
“Unlike the first album we did with him, where we’d already been playing the songs for a couple years when we went in there, with Knock Knock Get Up the songs were fresher and rawer, so we were able to go big experimenting with different textures and sounds,” Slezak says.
The songs themselves are also evolving into a more heterogeneous mishmash, from the jangly rain ode “All Sense of Time” to the atmospheric dream-folk of “Wondrous Love” and the beachy, steel drum closer, “Refugee.”
“In our earlier stage we would play music that was traditional American songs, like a traditional gospel song, or a Mexican folk song that David translated the words,” she says. “But the new album is such a fusion you’re less able to say, this is a Mexican song, that’s an American song. We’re trying to create our own sound.”
They’ve taken another step in that direction with new members bassist Greg Glassman and drummer Philip Mayer. The new additions have allowed Slezak to slide over to keyboards and accordion on occasion. But they still get acoustic at times, gathering around a single microphone to perform, bluegrass style.
“We feel very comfortable without microphones or playing face to face with people and we still do that in our own sets if we’re in a room where we can jump off the stages and gather people around and play acoustically,” Slezak says. “A lot of the Mexican music that we play really lends itself well to that kind of setting, just stomping your feet on the wood floor and singing directly to people.”