Even in a world of hyphenated musical genres, “Mexo-Americana indie-roots-rock” is probably going to stand out a bit, and that’s not even the full scope of what David Wax Museum does. The band, which has varying lineups but centers around the duo of David Wax and his wife, Suz Slezak, does indeed include Latin rhythms and horns and passionately strummed leonas, and the majority of the songs on their most recent album, 2012’s Knock Knock Get Up, were conceived in southern Mexico. Heck, they even included field recordings from the city of Santiago Tuxtla in Veracruz. But there’s a lot more going on in the band’s music than just Latin influences.
David Wax Museum has released four albums since forming in 2007, and each one has pulled further and further away from the simple “Latin indie-rock” tag into something harder to define. On Knock Knock Get Up, Wax and Slezak weave tight, symbiotically connected harmonies around a musical mix that includes a kitchen sink’s worth of instruments: fiddle, accordion, autoharp, organ, and all manner of percussion, all played by Wax, Slezak, and Greg Glassman.
Given the amount of elements within each song, it stands to reason that the band’s approach to arranging is collaborative. But the way the group collaborates is just as idiosyncratic as their music. “I write the songs for the band, in terms of the lyrics and the chord structures,” says Wax. “But Suz edits everything. So the songs go through a couple of different phases with Suz as a second, third, and fourth listener, before the band hears them. And then the arrangements are collaborative with the full band. And the producer’s voice has been an important part of figuring out the arrangements as well.”
When it comes to his songs, Wax says that Slezak helps refine them in various ways. “Sometimes she’ll hear me as I’m just starting to make stuff up,” he says. “I started as a jazz musician, and even though that hasn’t stayed with me in terms of the music, I think there’s something about the philosophy or the approach of improvising that is a part of how I write. So sometimes it’s just Suz in the other room saying, ‘That’s the thing! That’s worth pursuing.’ She latches onto something. I’m just kind of spewing things out, and she’s someone that can catch it and see what was of any value in that process.”
David Wax Museum worked with producer Sam Kassirer on their previous two albums, but they decided to end that collaboration on their just-finished new album. Wax says that decision has given them some new ideas about what they want in the studio. “We have a new perspective on how production can work,” he says. “I think that it’s been important for us to have someone who we feel intuitively understands the band and where we’re coming from, and who brings skills that complement ours. And for us, that’s meant producers that have had more of a foot in the indie-rock world. It’s music that we love and listen to, and we’ve been taking the band more towards that on the last couple of records. So it’s been helpful to have a producer more strongly in that camp that’s helped us bring that aesthetic to what we’re doing.”
For Wax, songwriting and then arranging are very different processes that pay very different dividends. “Personally, what feeds me on a daily basis is writing,” he says. “And that particular craft is, to me, very solitary. I don’t view it as ‘fun’ per se, but it’s the most fulfilling daily task I can do. The arrangement is the most collaborative aspect, and therefore the most synchronous. Everyone is bringing something to bear on the song, and that’s one of the reasons that I do this. I always wanted to play music and have a band, because of that process of the songs becoming 3-D and technicolor. That transition from when they’re just this idea in your head to them being actualized in real, vivid colors and sounds … there are very few experiences that are as fulfilling as that. But they’re both essential parts that make the whole picture.”
Given the amount of instruments, voices and source recordings in play, perhaps it’s not surprising that the band approaches their live performances differently than their studio work. But Wax says that some aspects of their songs become more elemental, and others become more polished in a live setting. “We strip the songs down live, in most cases,” Wax says. “For example, when we play in Charleston, we’ll be playing as a four-piece, and you can do so much with a four-piece when you have a rhythm section and a groove there. A lot of the melodic structure is still there, but what you’re lacking in terms of horns or some of the lush textures that you can achieve on a recorded project, you’re compensating in other ways. You can get by with less, because you’ve got so many other things going on; you’re interacting with the audi ence and with each other.”
But when it comes to the harmonies between Wax and Slezak, he says that onstage, the pair’s singing is actually better than they are in the studio. “I think that in [a live] situation, the more polished version comes across, because we’ve been singing together for so long and we’re so locked in, and Suz is such a natural harmony singer,” Wax says.
“It’s like breathing for us to sing together,” he continues. “And I think the more experimental element comes when we’re working with three-part harmonies [in the studio], and there are a lot more choices you can make. But when it’s the two of us, it’s a lot more of the Gram Parsons-Emmylou Harris vibe in terms of being locked in and pure.”