Talking origins with Suz Slezak of XPN Artist-To-Watch David Wax Museum (playing Johnny Brenda’s on 11/29)

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We got to gab with Suz Slezak of Boston’s David Wax Museum while the South-of-Americana group inched closer to Philadelphia for its November 29 show at Johnny Brenda’s. We talked mostly about the origin of things – from Mexican folk music to the group’s instrumental choices to the funding for it’s newest self-released album, Knock Knock Get Up.

The Key: The new album is called Knock Knock Get Up. Is that a play on an old knock knock joke?

Suz Slezak: Haha, that’s funny. It actually came from the third song on the album “Harder Before it Gets Easier.” The song is based on an old Mexican folk song where the chorus says “tong tong “which, in Mexico, means “knock knock.”  The idea is that it’s a call to action, encouraging people to get involved in their community and get up and dance at our shows. To be aware and active.

TK: Most of your lyrics are about sad people going through hardships, but your songs are upbeat, fluid, and energetic. What does the contrast mean?

SS: I think that there’s a lot of music out there now that is pretty somber and what we’ve always strived to do in our performances is to bring energy on stage. That being said, I think it’s true that the lyrics talk about more serious and important issues but do so in a playful way so that if you want to hear the music as kind of a dance party you can, but if you want to hear the lyrics more carefully, then there could be a more serious message behind them.

TK: You have an eclectic set of instruments that serve as the basis for many of your songs. Tell me about them.

SS: I grew up in kind of an old time music community in Virginia and there were a lot of people playing fiddle and banjos so I grew up playing in festivals. In high school I studied Irish music at a small Quaker school. At that time I was just playing the fiddle, but we really needed another Mexican instrument because my fiddle wasn’t making sense in some of the Mexican songs, so I found myself a donkey bone and started playing that. We were trying to create some really lush, sonic textures for this album so we ended up using the autoharp and distortion pedals for some of the weirder sounds, as well as electric guitars and the pocket piano, which is a small synthesizer.

TK: Did you use these instruments as a way to separate yourself from other pop-folk artists, or was it something that came organically after immersing yourself in so many different cultures?

SS: I guess I’d say the latter. When we first started the band 5 years ago a lot of our songs were in either the folk camp or Mexican genre. We’d play the Haryana and jawbone. But as we’ve grown and matured as a band, those two main influences have really started blending in new ways, so now on some songs David will play the Mexican guitar and I’ll play keyboard and Greg will play electric bass. We’re kind of mixing and matching the sounds so that on the new album it’s harder to say that one song is directly influenced by this or that. It’s more of a blend and its all part of finding our voice.

Our producer, Sam [Kassirer], was a great influence in the studio. He helped us break out of our first instincts and made some really wonderful suggestions while we were recording in terms of mixing things up. The song “Vivian” on the album, when we first started playing it we used the fiddle and guitar it was kind of a blue grassy folk song, but when we started recording it, Sam said, “Why don’t you play the Haryana?” and it really turned into a  whole new song right there in the studio.

TK: How do you think your music would be different if David never left the United States?

SS: Gosh, that’s hard. I feel like that was such an important seed in the creation of the band. I think because of the internet and the access to lots of different music that we all have now, I think that all kinds of bands are drawing on influences even if they haven’t been to certain countries to study, but I think that the Mexican piece has been such a core piece of this band I don’t think we would be the same band without it.

TK: All of your albums are self-released. Are you actively looking for a label, or are you actively independent?

SS: [Being independent] is a great way to grow because we own all of our own recordings and have that ownership and control. And our fans, they helped fund over a third of the cost of our record [through pledgemusic.com]. I think if there’s a point in time when a record label could offer us something we couldn’t provide for ourselves, then that’s a possibility.

TK: What effect do you believe your grassroots efforts–from playing free house shows to self-releasing albums to regional tours–have on the heavy media buzz and accolades you’ve received over the past few years?

SS: We did a lot of house shows in our early days but we haven’t been doing as many, although we did play some as one of our [pledge] incentives. For large donations, we did house shows as a “thank you.” Other incentives included hand-knit and crochet hats, because David crochets and I knit. They sold out the first day. We also did a little “road trip survival package” because we have so much experience packing for road trips. We made a mix tape of some of our favorite music that we’re listening to, exclusive t-shirts, a donkey jawbone signed by the band. We did postcards from the road, so 10 fans who pledged received postcards. Some were from China. Some of these grassroots approaches helped us feel very connected to our fans because we’ve played in their living rooms and they invited their moms and all of their friends, so we’ve become part of their community. That means when we need help, [for instance] when we needed people to help vote to get us into Newport [Folk Festival], like we did a few years ago, we not only have their email address but we were part of their lives in some way. We are friends with our fans. I think that kind of intimate connection with people has been a great help on our path.

TK: How long have you been on the road?

SS: Three years and three months. I quit my job to do something else and I figured in the meantime I’d go on tour, but during the first tour we decided that we were having so much fun and this was working so it stuck.

TK: What job did you quit?

SS: I was working in the fundraising office at a mental institute near Boston. I wore a business suits and high heels. Now my high heels are bright blue and my stockings are sparkly!

TK: Do you think a lot of the know-how you used to fund the album came from that position?

SS: I feel like what you learn working in a fundraising position is that people want to be connected with what you do. They want to know about it, be a part of it learn about it, and that’s what makes people want to help and support you.

David Wax Museum plays with Radio Jarocho at Johnny Brenda’s on Thursday, November 29. The 21+ show begins at 8 p.m., you can find tickets and more information here, and WAIT BEFORE THAT don’t forget to cast your their way for the Boston Music Awards, where the group is nominated for “Artist of the Year” and “Song of the Year” for “Harder Before it Gets Better.” Voting ends November 19th at 11:59pm.

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