Today’s Feature – July 12-13: The David Wax Museum

July 13, 2008 at 3:13 pm (Today's Feature)

Talk about learned music – Dave Wax and his museum (aka: The Dave Wax Museum), are bringing sounds and textures to the scene that haven’t been heard before and are completely packed with purpose. Taking in lessons at Harvard in poetry and Latin American history, Dave Wax has used the influences of his education on the Cold War in Latin America, the Mexican Revolution, and the novels of the Latin American boom to create powerful tones you probably haven’t heard before – a style called “Mexican Son,” a bit of Mexican rural folk music.

Dave Wax actually lived in Mexico to study this music for a year, “most interested in being part of a vibrant folk music culture.� He saw folk music playing such a vital role in the communities where he lived. �It just blew me away,� he recalls. And Mexican Son really hit a nerve because “it was so mysterious. Something about the music hit me very deeply, I was extremely moved by the music, but I couldn’t decipher it.”

You can sample this unique offering on his release, “I Turned Off Thinking About.” There’s an interesting formula behind it, using Mexican folk instruments and rhythms and melodies to build what basically becomes American folk songs. Dave calls it a “North-and-Latin-Americana hybrid.” If you’re ever around the Cambridge area up north, by all means check out a performance. The band tries to bring out a new tune with every show (as Wax continues to write nearly a song a week). The list is together to produce the next album, so expect something new in the spring of next year. Get into the XXQ’s to learn more

July 12-13 The Dave Wax Museum XXQs: The David Wax Museum (PEV): Living in Missouri to California to Mexico – How did the The David Wax Museum come together in Cambridge?

Dave Wax (DW): Well, I am from Missouri but have been in Cambridge, Massachusetts, on and off for the last couple of years. It really wasn’t until I got back from Mexico in the Fall of 2007 that I decided I wanted to be playing music full-time and get a band together. I knew the bass player from when I had previously lived in Cambridge in the Harvard Dudley Co-op. I heard the dobro/mandolin player Jiro at the Cantab Lounge, which hosts a bluegrass night here in Cambridge. And I connected with Suz, the fiddler, through an old friend who I went to school with in California. It all came together pretty naturally, unlike my Mexican folk band — we found each other on the Internet.

PEV: What were you listening to growing up?

DW: I grew up listening to James Taylor, Yanni, American musicals, and TV theme songs. This was the music of my parents.

Like many singer-songwriters and musicians, my earliest personal influences were The Beatles and Bob Dylan. I decided to buy a guitar after I heard “Rocky Raccoon.” I think there’s certainly something strange but very revealing to the fact that it was these British musicians imitating American honky tonk that really turned me on to country music. The Beatles led me to Dylan in junior high.

The more interesting influences came in high school when I started listening to Uncle Tupelo (who used to play in my hometown in Columbia, Missouri, quite frequently, and continued to do so in the Wilco and Son Volt projects of Jeff and Jay). In Uncle Tupelo, I felt like I was hearing the soundtrack of Missouri. I felt a sense of ownership about it that I had never felt before. The mid-Missouri bands that also influenced me were an alt-country outfit Trailhead (now Celandine), a bluegrass quartet called Ironweed, and a jazz trio led by Tom Andes.

PEV: You went to Harvard to study poetry and Latin American history – What sparked this interest?

DW: I was mostly interested in studying Latin American history because of my fascination with the modern-day Zapatista movement in Chiapas. I was particularly excited about a social, political movement that used literature to communicate its ideas. I majored in History & Literature and focused on Latin America. While I remained a strong supporter of the Zapatistas, my academic interests led me to other things: the Cold War in Latin America, the Mexican Revolution, and the novels of the Latin American Boom. I studied poetry so I could maintain a creative outlet. I took workshops with Jorie Graham, Peter Richards, and Sam Witt, all wonderful teachers. Poetry seemed like the most directly relevant classes I could take at Harvard for songwriting. And what I learned doesn’t translate directly to my songwriting, but it has certainly informed the way I write, what I read, and my obsession with and belief in the power of images.

PEV: You lived in Mexico for a year to learn about their rural folk music – What specifically about Mexican folk music grabs your attention?

DW: Well, I was most interested in being part of a vibrant folk music culture. That’s not to say that such a culture no longer exists in the U.S., but I think it’s getting more and more scarce. My cousin, for example, studies Missouri fiddle music with Ozark fiddlers. So this does exist in the States. But I had worked for two summers in Mexico while in college and I saw folk music playing such a vital role in the communities where I lived. It just blew me away. I wanted to be a part of that, which is certainly a little weird as a white kid from the Midwest. But I wanted to learn folk music and be a part of a musical community in a place where folk music mattered.

Mexican son — which is what I play — particularly struck me because it was so mysterious. I could listen to it but I couldn’t quite get inside it. I couldn’t just figure out the rhythms and the way of singing and the meaning of the lyrics by just being a bystander. Something about the music hit me very deeply, I was extremely moved by the music, but I couldn’t decipher it. I didn’t want to over-analyze why it moved me but I did want to understand how to play it. I just felt compelled to play it.

PEV: Was there a certain point when you realized that music was going to become more than just a hobby?

DW: Well, I had my first inkling of it at Deep Springs College, where I completed my first two years of university. It’s a small, agricultural college in California. And I mean really small – just 26 students. So you have 50 people in an isolated desert valley the size of Manhattan. It was there that I started to value my role as a musician. Music was often what brought us together in positive circumstances. I began to see that it was a very tangible and comfortable way for me to contribute to that community. I previously hadn’t valued it that way.

But it was really in Mexico when I was writing songs and learning Mexican son as a full-time endeavor that I realized this was ideally how I wanted to be spending my time. That it was a sustainable thing, at least emotionally and intellectually. I know that might sound funny to a lot of people. But for me, someone who was always very academically-centered, I somehow assumed I would get bored just playing music and not working in a scholarly setting. Being in Mexico, though, really showed me that playing music wasn’t just a hobby for me. It was a way of engaging with the world that I wanted to devote all my creative energy to.

PEV: When you hit that creative roadblock, how do you work through it?

DW: I often make word lists or I force myself to do stream-of-consciousness writing or I just listen to a lot of music and try to find something that excites me. Then I’ll use that song as a model. Sometimes, if I can’t write any lyrics, I will find a poem and start playing something and try singing it. This can often help me generate some good ideas. Sometimes I reach a point where I just decide not to try and force it and so I focus my energy on learning a new song by someone else, tweaking old songs, or working on the Mexican music I play.

PEV: If we were to walk into your practice studio right now, what would we find?

DW: A stack of poetry books (James Wright, Yehuda Amichai, Neruda, Denis Johnson), a steel-string guitar, a classical guitar, a pump organ, a jarana jarocha, a jarana huasteca, a huapanguera, a stereo, and a yerba mate gourd.

PEV: When you sit down to write, what kind of environment do you surround yourselves in?

DW: I like to work at a big table where I can spread out everything in front of me. I usually work best for the first three hours of the day. A lot of songs are written in response to other songs or poems, and so I surround myself with great poetry and lots of old folk CDs (the Harry Smith Anthology, the Smithsonian Folkways CDs, Antologia de Son from Discos Corason). I find that drinking yerba mate is the best creative stimulant I can use, so I usually brew mate and drink it all morning while I’m writing.

PEV: What can fans expect from your release, “I Turned Off Thinking About?”

DW: Some surprises, especially when I play the Mexican folk instruments and use Mexican rhythms and melodies to build essentially American folk songs. My uncle Jack told me he liked the CD because it sounds real. It’s a home-made album made by three musicians who really love to play music. I mostly play a $30 classical guitar I bought in Ecuador, my friend Taylor had a magical, old (almost antique) upright piano, and I play hand-made Mexican folk instruments that I picked up in the countryside from the guys who made them. Most of these songs are ones I worked on over the last four years and have been endlessly tweaked. Some were brand new and were finished the day before they were recorded. Hopefully the listener can tell we put a lot of thought into the instrumentation and when we decided to incorporate accordion, fiddle, and percussion.

PEV: What does this collection give to the music scene that can’t be found anywhere else?

DW: I think the North-and-Latin-Americana hybrid is its most unique contribution. Certainly, other bands are bridging this gap. Calexico comes to mind, although their interest seems to be more in Mariachi and northern Mexican music. I haven’t heard anything else that draws on these particular currents of Mexican son.

PEV: How has “life on the road” been for you? You, after all, “wandered the U.S. on a Greyhound” for a while.

DW: Life on the road has been okay. I wouldn’t necessarily recommend traveling for four months on the Greyhound to anyone, but it is a great way to see this country and hear a lot of interesting stories. In general, it’s exhausting, though, and I think Greyhound is an awful and disorganized company. Having a monopoly on bus travel means traveling by bus in the U.S. is so much worse than bus travel in Latin America, which I usually find to be a wonderful experience.

PEV: In all your travels, which city do you think offers the best scene for music?

DW: It’s hard for me to say because I haven’t necessarily been a part of the music scene in all the towns I have traveled to. I know Boston the best because it’s the only big music scene where I’ve invested a lot of time, and I think it’s a great place to be. I also really love Minneapolis.

PEV: What can fans expect from a live David Wax Museum performance?

DW: Well, I make a point of trying to incorporate a new original song each performance. As our gigs are getting more regular, that becomes a bit more difficult, but I basically write a song a week and have a back catalog of songs that the current iteration of the Museum hasn’t heard yet. So there is always new material for us to work out.

I’d like to think that our performances leave an impression on people, that the audience ideally remembers each song. The stylistic range of our songs, the different instrumentation that Jiro and I use, and our refusal to just play filler songs hopefully makes each performance a memorable experience.

PEV: Before a show, are there any pre-show rituals you do or is it just go out there and perform?

DW: I don’t have any pre-show rituals. I like to have lots of time to set up, sound check, and just relax before a show.

PEV: Do you have a dream collaboration?

DW: Not really. Sometimes I just wish I bring the band in Boston together with my friends back in Missouri who I grew up playing with and with whom I recorded I Turned Off Thinking About.

PEV: Is there an up and coming artist out right now that you think we should all be looking into?

DW: Los Cojolites, Annie Lynch & the Beekeepers, and Sonex. Los Cojolites and Sonex are two innovative son jarocho groups from Veracruz, Mexico.

PEV: What is one thing we’d be surprised to hear about the members of The David Wax Museum?

DW: Jiro was in a Japanese bluegrass band back in Osaka. Jack wrote his college thesis about sacred harp singing. Suz helps teach yodeling. I crochet hats and sometimes sell them at shows.

PEV: When you are not touring or performing, what can we find the band doing in their spare time?

DW: Well, Suz, Jiro, and myself all play with other groups. So a lot of time our time not spent working on the Museum is given over to the bands. I spend most of my spare time going to hear live music in Cambridge/Somerville.

PEV: In one word, describe David Wax Museum.

DW: Latin-Americana.

PEV: So, what is next for David Wax Museum?

DW: We have all the songs for a new CD and are just trying to figure out when exactly we want to get back into the studio to record them. I am imagining a 12-song CD that would be released in the spring of 2009.

For more information on the Dave Wax Museum, check out


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