David Wax and Suz Slezak started the folk group David Wax Museum in Boston a decade ago as friends. Since then they have released multiple critically acclaimed albums and toured internationally as both a full band and a duo. Today they are married with two children. While their music draws on many influences, including Mexican and American folk, pop, and rock, Bob Boilen of NPR described it simply as “pure, irresistible joy.”
They are currently touring as a duo, and will perform an all-ages concert at the Katharine Cornell Theatre in Vineyard Haven on Saturday, May 20, at 7 pm. I got a chance to catch up with David Wax on the telephone and talk music, family, and touring.
You draw from a lot of different influences. What are some common threads you find in your music regardless of the genre?
That’s an interesting question. I think I’ve always been interested in contrast. Some of it is about the relationship between the lyrics and the music. We have a lot of really bright, uplifting music that we are playing along to, but the lyrics have kind of a darker undertone. There is some part of me where as soon as it starts getting too cheery, I have to kind of undercut it in some way. As a lyricist, I’m always playing with that. I guess in my mind it’s an effort to make sure that the music kind of represents what it is to be alive and that those things coexist all the time. You have joy and sorrow. Sometimes I’m playing with that concept in the music and sometimes internally with the lyrics. All of the music has this brightness because it’s drawing on Mexican folk music, so a lot of the instrumentation comes from that. There is a syncopated rhythm and a certain buoyancy that is inherent with that music. I’m embracing some of that, but those influences are going through my own personal filter of growing up in the Midwest and being kind of an alt-country kid. There are very different influences that come through American and Mexican folk music, and a lot of time I’m playing them off each other.
Have you had a chance to play any shows in Latin America since releasing the EP “A La Rumba Rumba”?
We haven’t. We put out the record in November, then we had the baby in March. We had a brief U.S. tour in between, so we haven’t gotten to do that yet, but we are always scheming. We’ve been playing these songs for a long time, though, and playing them for a Spanish-speaking audience in L.A. and the Southwest. We have Spanish-speaking fans across the U.S., so we feel like we’ve gotten to play this particular batch of songs for an audience that understands what we are saying and where the music is coming from.
When you are performing as a duo, as opposed to a full band, what are the challenges and what are the rewards?
The duo show in a way is a lot more work, and that of course ends up having its own rewards. When it’s full band I often feel like I’m riding a wave. The rhythm section propels the song and I’m just trying to feel it in my body. It’s definitely about the whole sound and groove, and I think sometimes that overshadows the songs and the lyrics. That’s the price you pay. It’s a balancing act. When it’s stripped down to just the two of us, it’s so clearly about the harmony and the song. It’s really zeroed in on me and Suzanne singing to each other. It’s more intimate for us and it’s more intimate for the audience. Some of our fans prefer that, so it’s cool to be able to do both. We put a record out, and we toured with a full band for a year and a half, so now we’re in that transition period before the next record comes out. That gives us the opportunity to go out as a duo. It’s so streamlined and so easy. It’s just the family and a helper, and there is some aspect of it that’s really relaxed.
That segues to the next question. Is there anything about touring as a family that has surprised you?
It was really hard to imagine. It wasn’t part of some master plan. I mean we always wanted to have a family, and we hoped we could do it as touring musicians. We saw people doing it, so we thought, “Yeah, we are going to try to make this work.” We often have someone on the road with us to help us with the kid, well now kids, but we’ve also had to rely on this really wide community. We’ve been going out on the road for 10 years as a band, so we have a really far-reaching community. It’s amazing how supportive people have been. They have really gone above and beyond to help us out. You have this hope that if you take a certain risk, your community will support that. We’re really fortunate.
What is the last cover song you learned? For performing or just for fun.
One that I’ve been messing around with lately is “Calico Skies” by Paul McCartney. It’s been stuck in my head.
What’s one place that you’d like to tour that you haven’t yet?
Well, Suz and I have been in Mexico City and done small informal shows, but we’ve never had the full band in Mexico. I would love to do that.
What musician (dead or alive) would you want to have a day to play and write music with?
One of my biggest influences is Paul Simon. I would love to see how he works up close, lyrically and musically in the studio. That would be so illuminating. His work has been so impressive across his entire career, and he is still making great music. I think his last record is brilliant, and to still be doing that at 70-plus years old is inspiring.
David Wax Museum will perform at the Katharine Cornell Theatre on Saturday, May 20. Doors open at 6 pm, show starts at 7 pm. All ages welcome. Tickets are $20 presale and $25 at the door. For tickets and more information, go to tpspresents.com or davidwaxmuseum.com.