Wax Chattels are an Auckland three-piece that has hit it hard since forming less than two years ago. They made Top 10 on alternative stations across the country and gained a rewarding last-minute addition to the Going Global 2017 showcase gig, got signed by US label Captured Tracks as well as Flying Nun, have toured through China, Japan and Taiwan and are about to release their self-titled debut album. The band has even been tweeted about by X-Files actress Gillian Anderson – something the trio swears to NZM’s Joel Thomas was 100%, not a deliberate PR move.
“What? People think we lined that up?” asks Amanda Cheng, bassist of the three-piece Wax Chattels in a shocked voice.“
Yeah,” I reply. “Some people think it was a marketing ploy.”
“That’s hilarious,” responds Peter Ruddell, keyboardist in their ‘guitarless guitar music’ band.
“It’s amazing they think we could’ve lined that up,” Amanda adds.
We are chatting over coffee in the dark waiting area of Capitol Cinema on Dominion Rd at drummer Tom Leggett’s suggestion. They’re far nicer about my poor punctuality than they might have been and talk with me through half an hour of their practice time, a testament to the gentle nature of a band that makes rather invasive and certainly not-so-gentle music.
Their debut album due out mid-May is full of robotic vocals, alert drumming, screaming bass lines, a razor-sharp synth and some hard-hitting truths on songs like Facebook.
According to Tom, a big part of their songwriting process is in “…trying to create a kind of forward momentum, or energy, between songs and trying to make people move in some sort of way.”
The band’s progress through the scene seems to be mirroring this methodology, there’s always something happening, they’re always hitting new markers and moving forward.
The trio’s journey started at Fuzzy Vibes, a DIY venue that used to exist on Auckland’s K’ Rd. This is where they rehearsed, hung out, watched SpongeBob, and also where they put on their first ever gig, unexpectedly cramming the small space full of people.
“It was crazy,” Peter says. “That never happens for a new band playing their first show so we kind of hit the ground running, I think.”
“I don’t think anything’s been expected, I think we’ve just pushed real hard,” Amanda adds.
I relay suggestions others have made that a part of Wax Chattels’ success is that they are the sort of band that Auckland needs, a super tight band of trained jazz musicians experimenting with form and genre, proving to others that you can break from the norm. Peter shuts that idea down quickly.
“Nah. I think bands are forming all the time that are rad. Like, think of The Mint Chicks when they started, you know, they were doing crazy shit. That shit happens all the time. Die! Die! Die!, they were doing crazy shit.”
“Have we done an interview without one of you mentioning Die! Die! Die!?” Amanda cuts in with a laugh.
Alongside Wax Chattels’ sometimes crazy experimentation with form, there is an unusual tightness. This is ripe in their debut album, the shape of the songs move sharply and fluidly, the grooves are heavy and trancelike, but also fresh and interesting, a design that’s always with intention. The band forces you to focus.
“I kind of feel like often bands who do try and push a certain thing, push everything all at once,” responds Peter after a moment’s thought. “And if you’re doing one weird thing you gotta have something cohesive to push it. If you’re playing around with tempo and time or whatever, if everything is crazy, the chords are crazy, this is crazy, it becomes chaotic… it doesn’t work.”
Amanda expresses the importance of restraint, which she says perhaps stems from jazz school.
“That restraint of like, self-control and belief that this one thing is interesting enough to focus on.”
“I think when you break down most of the songs, though, they’re pretty similar in terms of like, it has a form and it’s followed and there’s a verse and a chorus, you know what I mean?” adds Tom.
“Like just typical things that work in terms of music and have worked for thousands of years. There are definitely some things that we stay true to in our songs. Like one thing we definitely do heaps is like shorts and longs, just providing contrast… I don’t know, is that texture? I think lots of our songs do have that, which is kind of like, not that hard of a concept, but then when you take that thing and put it on an odd time signature, it’s like, ‘Woah what is that?’”
Their self-titled debut album is definitely full of textures and dynamics, each section tugging or pulling you with different energies. Seventh track Career is a good example of intricate and eerie instrumental arrangements layered around a simple chord progression and vocal melodies that wouldn’t be able to stand alone. It’s the simplicity of those parts of the song that makes it work when a heavy and constantly shifting soundscape is applied to them.
Building on the topic of the form of their music Amanda says they write in tight sections rather than layering arrangements.
“We close off the section before, and we come in tight, and then we play the next crazy sounding section… There’s more tidiness.”
Their developed songwriting and unique sound each definitely contribute to the success, and having things move so quickly has had its own different effects.
“I’m crazy busy these days,” Peter sighs.
“I have to literally flip my life upside down soon to do this tour overseas. It’s increasingly really affecting the rest of my life. The background being that I work in a big corporate law firm. Up until this point I’ve been able to be like, ‘Oh yeah I can get that Friday off so we can go play in Wellington, great.’ But as time goes on I’m becoming more senior, with more responsibilities at work. Now having to be more available for the band, with less planning ahead, I have to draw a line somewhere… You know, having to have these discussions with myself and with the band in terms of what are our plans, how much notice do we need in order to sublet out flats, or not sublet out flats…?”
Peter proposes a counterpoint
“I also think that we’re young, shit will work itself out. These kinds of opportunities don’t come up every now and then to go tour the States or tour Europe or whatever, and like yeah, I’ve gotta make some changes, but I’ve got to do it.”
“We’re definitely doing this” Amanda agrees. “We’ve just gotta make everything work around it.”
Tom doesn’t seem too fussed.
“I’m pretty much just sitting around waiting for the tour. Someone’s like, ‘What are you up to this month?’ and I’m like, ‘Just waiting for next month.’”