Boston-based band David Wax Museum melds traditional Mexican music with American folk
President Barack Obama visited Mexico in early May, appearing with his Mexican counterpart, President Enrique Peña Nieto, to highlight a new focus on economic cooperation. If our man Barry O. ever needs a cultural ambassador south of the border, however, he'd be wise to call on David Wax Museum, a Boston-based band that traffics in a spicy blend of Americana and traditional Mexican music like "son jarocho." David Wax Museum — with core duo David Wax and Suz Slezak — aren't just stiff-shirted ethnomusicologists plying their Mexo-American fusion trade. Instead, the band's four independently recorded and released albums are full of up-tempo foot-stompers, breezy tropical head-bobbers and heart-wrenching ballads — oh, and modern methods of playing traditional instruments, like the jarana and the quijada, which is made in Mexico from a donkey's jawbone. Folio Weekly chatted with Suz Slezak about the band's multicultural roots, its recent maturation and its DIY streak.
Folio Weekly: When David Wax Museum first formed, did you set up with the knowledge that you were going to tackle a heretofore-unexplored genre?
Suz Slezak: We didn't set out with the conscious intention of doing this Mexo-American fusion thing. But once we started performing the Mexican-inspired songs that David had been writing, we really found that the audience's response to those tunes was incredible. So the energy we got back from the audience led our choice to focus more on that side of things.
F.W.: The band's last album, "Knock Knock Get Up," came out in 2012. Will your current tour be more of a career retrospective?
S.S.: It's always tricky when you first release an album, because the fans don't know the songs yet. One of the best parts of touring [a year after the album came out] is that our fans now sing along and get excited when they hear "Will You Be Sleeping" or "Harder Before It Gets Easier."
F.W.: Does the album feel like the major evolution that critics hailed it as?
S.S.: It does feel like an album of growth for us. When we started the band, we were drawing on Mexican traditional music, which David had studied, and American folk, which I grew up playing. So we basically just played acoustic instruments on stage with a folk flair. But now with "Knock Knock," we're really experimenting more with electric instruments — guitar, bass and keyboard. Although we still do our gospel and Mexican songs, it's really fun to include these new sounds.
F.W.: You play the quijada, and David plays the jarana, two traditional Mexican instruments. How hard has it been to master these?
S.S.: We are by no means experts. But because they're folk instruments, they're meant for anyone to be able to play some chords. I've been playing the quijada for five years, and I have a way to go; similarly, David has spent time studying to play jarana and definitely has basics under his fingers. But I think it takes a lifetime to really play them expertly. You have to grow up listening to them and, in some ways, have them in your blood. So we're just novices in that regard.
F.W.: After catapulting to fame following appearances at the 2010 Newport Folk Festival and 2011 South By Southwest festival, do you feel like the band has reached a plateau?
S.S.: We never thought we'd get to where we are so fast. But it's definitely a long road, and there are still plenty of places around the country we've never been; this tour is only our second time in Florida. So there's so much more growth to be achieved. And that's exciting — who would want to be at the top of their game? That would be no fun.
F.W.: David Wax Museum has released all of its records independently. Have you received no interest from labels?
S.S.: We've had interest, and we're not opposed to going with a label in the future. But there's a lot to be said for doing it independently: We own the music, we have total creative liberty, and it's been wonderful to get our community of fans involved in financially supporting our record-making. They're really involved in a way that lends a sense of ownership and excitement about the process.
F.W.: Have you all ever considered traveling to Mexico and recording an album with local musicians there? Are there even local musicians working in the same traditional vein as David Wax Museum?
S.S.: It's one of our fantasies to take the band and a producer to work with Mexican musicians and do a record down there. And we've all immersed ourselves in Mexico before, which is inspiring. There are a lot of young musicians who are interested in "son jarocho," one of the styles we draw from. I wouldn't call it a renaissance, but there's definitely growing interest among young people in these old styles of traditional Mexican music. That's really exciting, for them and for us.