Eclectic Americana: David Wax Museum to perform at Duke Gardens Wednesday
The first impression a new listener might get of David Wax Museum is the sheer range of sounds. The core members of the ensemble are Wax -- who plays guitar and jirana, a Mexican instrument that resembles guitar -- and Suz Slezak, who plays violin, keyboards, and percussion instruments.
Everyone who performs with the band in the studio or in concert is a multi-instrumentalist, Wax said in a phone interview en route to a date in their home base of Boston, where they were scheduled to perform before Wednesday’s performance in Duke Gardens. Greg Glassman, guitar, and Philip Mayer, drums, will perform with Wax and Slezak at Duke.
The group performs variously with horns, accordions, electric instruments, and is constantly experimenting with sound. Slezak plays a percussion instrument called the quijada, a donkey’s jawbone. On a video on their website documenting their recent recording “Knock Knock Get Up,” Slezak uses knitting needles to get a different sound from the violin strings, playing them like a hammered dulcimer.
The songs and compositions defy category, reflecting Wax’s interest in Mexican folk music, as well as bluegrass, rock and other strains of American music.
Wax first got exposed to Mexican music in 2001, when he was living in a rural part of Mexico. “I fell in love with Mexico … and ended up studying Latin American history in college,” Wax said. He kept returning to Mexico, and in 2006 received a fellowship from Harvard to travel to Mexico, where he dug in and studied the folk music of that country.
The band’s eclecticism is grounded in a common interest in old folk field recordings, Wax said. That interest “prepares your ear to find those sounds that are kind of strange, acoustic sounds that are otherworldly but natural at the same time. I think we’ve always been attracted to that sonic landscape,” he said. For practical reasons, the Museum has to limit the number of instruments they carry on stage, but at Wednesday’s concert the audience will still hear “some of those varied textures,” he said.
In 2010, David Wax Museum was named the Americana Artist of the Year at the Boston Music Awards. As a result of an online fan competition, the band got the chance to perform at the Newport Folk Festival that same year, which National Public Radio called the highlight of the weekend, and they were invited back to the 2011 festival.
All four of their recordings – “I Turned off Thinking About” (2008), “Carpenter Bird” (2009), “Everything Is Saved” (2011) and “Knock Knock Get Up” (2012) – have been self-released.
Boston producer Sam Kassirer (who also has produced Josh Ritter and Langhorne Slim) did the production on the two most recent recordings at his homey recording studio in Maine, called the Great North Sound Society Recording Studio. Wax called him a good match for their sound. “We just loved the work that he had done that we knew about,” Wax said. “When we started talking to him, we felt he understood the band.” He created a style that was “not on the clock” and allowed Wax Museum to dig into its recordings. “Sam really works hard to remove that stress from the process, and that has really attracted us,” Wax said.
He has a new set of songs that Wax Museum is rehearsing, and the band plans to record another release in the winter, Wax said. For now, the model of releasing music on their own, with crowd funding and other resources, works. “A luxury we have is we can create this music that’s hard to categorize and put into a box,” Wax said. “It takes longer to reach people, but in the long run it’s more rewarding and more true to ourselves, and in the end that’s ultimately what matters.”
Go and Do
WHAT: David Wax Museum
WHEN: 7 p.m., Wednesday
WHERE: Sarah P. Duke Gardens
ADMISSION: Tickets are $12. To purchase, call 919-684-4444 or visit www.tickets.duke.edu.