A lot can change in nine months.
The last time the David Wax Museum came to town—for the CD release show for their landmark album Everything Is Saved, back in February—they didn’t have the rabid national attention they’re finding now. They were bubbling up to the surface—particularly in Philly, where they’ve long cultivated a fervent fan base through sweaty West Philly house concerts. But they hadn’t yet been featured on WXPN’s nationally syndicated “World Cafe,” or the long-running radio programs “All Things Considered” or Mountain Stage, hadn’t played a soaking-wet Philly Folk Festival, and hadn’t sold out D.C.’s vaunted 9:30 Club.
It’s been a busy year.
“We’ve been on tour now since the end of June with just a couple of days off,” says David Wax on the phone from somewhere in the middle of Ohio. Wax fronts the band with musical partner Suz Slezak. “As much as it wears us down, it’s heartening that there’s interest in the music, and that we can tour all over the country and there’s an audience there.”
As the Museum has trekked its infectious blend of Americana roots and traditional Mexican folk across the continent (including Canada), Wax has seen audiences grow slowly and steadily not through hit singles or massive radio play (although the country’s NPR affiliates have been kind), but through good old-fashioned hoofing from town to town, coming back to the same cities time and again, and seeing crowds multiply with the most social kind of networking: word of mouth.
“We played in Ithaca last August and 100 people came out, but we started out playing to just four people there,” says Wax, rattling off a list of cities like members of an extended family. “We can get 25 people out in Atlanta. There’s no press in Atlanta, but they’ve heard about us or followed us, or maybe a lot of people down there heard about us from a friend in D.C. or Boston.” Johnny Brenda’s, where they play this week, boasts double the capacity of their February gig at the Tin Angel.
Sometimes the numbers sound clinical, but in other instances, they tell a unique story: “We played to 10 people in a bar in Chattanooga,” Wax says of a recent show from the tour. “We mentioned that we had the next night off, and these fans at the show decided to host a second concert the next night out. They ended up bringing 50 people, and it was a great show. Normally you have to wait six months to see that. To see it overnight made it feel like we’re really on the right track.”
In its breathless live sets, the band makes a concerted effort to connect with audiences by wandering out into the crowd and playing in the middle of their fans, whether in a small bar or out in the fields at the Newport Folk Festival. That connection is one that Wax learned the value of while studying at what’s maybe the country’s most unique, most prestigious, weirdest college—a secluded 26-person school out in middle-of-nowhere California.
Deep Springs is a two-year, all-male college located on a cattle ranch and alfalfa farm a stone’s throw from the Nevada border, about four hours from both Reno and Las Vegas. The students, who run the school and act as the admissions committee for their future classmates, get up at dawn to milk the cows and tend the farm before spending all day discussing everything from philosophy to mathematics to how to generally save the world. After two years, graduates typically go on to some of the world’s most prestigious schools; Wax followed up his time at Deep Springs by going to Harvard. But those two years in the California desert proved formative for Wax in figuring out why he would pursue music as a career—and how he could justify a profession that at first glance could seem somewhat self-serving.
“There’s a lot of discussion at Deep Springs about service to humanity,” he says. “When I was part of a very small community, I was able to see that I could play a very particular role as a musician in that community.”
When he got there, he says, he was more politically than musically inclined. It took a while to see how music could be a service, a way to contribute to the greater good.
“I was certainly passionate about music, but if you have an inclination in the academic world and you love being in school, it’s a big jump to think about a career in the arts,” he continues. “I needed a lot of help and encouragement in that department. Playing a lot for that community, I saw in a real immediate way the impact that it had on people. Being in that environment helped me see art as service in a way that helped me justify what I’m doing with my life. In that sense, it was critical in seeing the value of art and seeing myself as an artist.”
He gets the same kind of encouragement now—but it’s more indirect: Facebook and Twitter messages, fan mail. “It’s a different experience,” he says, “but it’s positive reinforcement. And it still feels real and meaningful.”
David Wax Museum play Fri., Nov. 4, 9:30pm. $12. Johnny Brenda’s, 1201 N. Frankford Ave. 215.739.9684. johnnybrendas.com
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PW's Music Issue 2014