“Everyone in my family except me died at 21. When death follows you around, it helps you live. Darkness helps you see the light.” With that, my Uber driver pulled up outside of Kiss Kiss in Balmoral, Auckland with a flourish. The garish neon sign briefly illuminating his face.
Light, darkness, odd social situations, a pointy octopus and the intrusive drum track to Uptown Funk were to become the underlying themes to my interview with Amanda Cheng (bass, vocals), Tom Leggett (drums) and Peter Ruddell (vocals, keyboards) from Wax Chattels.
Awkwardly bidding the morbid (but cheery) Uber fellow goodbye, I met the band at the bar, and shortly after, the octopus and the Funk at the exposed-brick studio of the Auckland Drum School above. The octopus was an impressive work of pointillism in progress by artist Lauren Eagle on the studio wall. The Funk was supplied by an impressively tenacious drummer in the booth of said studio, apparently determined to master the song down to minute detail.
Given such a heady mix of competing stimuli, I could be forgiven for not quite knowing where to put myself. This was probably an appropriate mindset to bring to Wax Chattels themselves, whose apocalyptic sound strikes audiences equally as confronting, varied, and perplexing.
“Lots of people describe our live shows as punishing” offers Leggett. “It’s not necessarily a pleasant experience” says Cheng. “I mean that in the nicest possible way! It’s not something you’d take your date to be like, “Oh, this is so much fun.”
“I don’t know” I said. “My partner and I were on a date and thought you were awesome….it wasn’t our first date though- I’d be pretty hesitant to take a first date…”
“Mind you, then you’d know what kind of person they were” continues Cheng. “It could be like make or break, like “Do you like this? If you don’t, maybe like, let’s not bother.”
“Or, if you guessed they liked it, and you hit it right on the money. It would be very impressive” I finish.
They all nod approvingly.
“Our first date was The Shocking and Stunning. That was pretty heavy”….. I feel myself beginning to blush. “Like, the band I mean-not the-“
We all dissolve into laughter.
Superlatives aside, Wax Chattels have undoubtedly made a name for themselves from visceral live performances that bristle with the grit, grime and hopeless joie de vivre of K’ Rd at 2am. With hazy slacker bands seemingly a dime a dozen in the alternative music scene at the moment, it’s refreshing to have a confrontational live experience. They’ve rung every bit of their beautifully jagged dynamic energy into their brilliant self-titled debut album.
“Long before we were signed, I had [being signed to Flying Nun] as a goal for this band” says Ruddell. “I think it’s a good fit for us to be on Flying Nun. It’s also kind of a historic New Zealand… cool-shit label, basically. They’ve done a bunch of cool stuff over the last year. So, I was really thrilled to be involved in it. And kind of the same thing for you, Amanda, for Captured Tracks?”
“Yeah, cause Captured Tracks is my dream label. So we’ve both done quite well- we both got what we wanted” says Cheng.
With Leggett’s then-impending move to China, they had to act fast to record their album, recording the album between the hours of 8pm and 4.30am over two days in a windowless, dimly lit studio. “We didn’t have an option to be honest!” laughs Leggett. But it had its advantages.
“Working with restrictions is great. Being like… okay, we’ve got three takes- let’s just move on to the next. But I can see how bands can sit in the studio for months.”
Striking the balance between the word-of-mouth hype of their live shows and their recording was important to the band.
“It’s cool that when you see us live it’s different from the record, but it’s also similar enough that you’re not one of those bands that’re like – “oh, go listen to the CD,” or vice versa, where you’re like… “Oh, it’s not as good on CD, come to our show. Like, you get both” says Amanda.
“I think we kind of wrote songs according to a good set, a good live set. And the album kind of reflects that” muses Ruddell. “You’ve got a kind of variation going on there. And the way we tracked it as well. We recorded all these instruments live, we limited all the kind of post-production layering tracks and wizardry and stuff.”
The album was produced by local legend Jonathan Pearce (The Beths, Artisan Guns), described by Cheng as “a hidden fourth member of the band.”
Bring in like the house plan, and we’ll build it together and decide where the couch goes.
“He had such good insight with suggestions for how to approach the recording, if we got stuck on something, he really understood us – because we’re such old friends. I’ve known him for over ten years. It wasn’t like bringing in an outside person that’s “Producer vs. Band” where they have a different vision. He was very much someone who tried to understand what we wanted and present us ideas of how we could do that, and vice versa.” she elaborates.
Leggett adds “When I was looking through Pitchfork [reviews], I was looking at other albums, and looking at the number of people that contributed to an album, a lot of them… a lot of debut albums as well, I was like – “Holy shit, they’ve got like forty people on this album,” I was thinking of ours, and… there’s Amanda, there’s me, there’s Peter… and Jono.”
When it comes to song writing, they describe it as a group effort. “Someone will plan out – bring in like the house plan, and we’ll build it together and decide where the couch goes” explains Leggett.
“We’re all such, busy people, and it’s difficult to get studio time. Unless you come with something, you spend half the time fucking about. And you don’t achieve anything. So we went in there with a plan” says Ruddell.
Dude, I wanna fuck, right now, why are we beating around the bush?
“It is basically about the female libido and how it’s so suppressed and like… we have to pretend that you wanna be coy and teasing and bullshit. And I think there’s so much slut shaming” says Cheng. “It’s like, “Dude, I wanna fuck, right now, why are we beating around the bush?” and pretending like there’s got to be more. But it’s from a dark place, it’s not from an I-love-you place. So it doesn’t really matter who the ‘you’ is, that’s my perspective on that.”
“And it comes back to the whole dark thing, eh? The perspective’s quite dark” replies Ruddell.
“It’s quite violent” agrees Cheng. “It’s very literal and graphic, and then Career I wrote that about women sacrificing youth, mental and physical health for success, for a career. I think we were on the road in China. I was getting really sick and I was losing my voice, and I’ve got this stack of documents that I’ve gotta review later tonight, and I really want this music career to work out. I also really want my other career to work out, and it’s such a struggle separately, let alone together. And the expectation is you just don’t say no, you keep going. The line where I say “I’m giving up ten years of my old age for a year with you now”, it’s for a year of success now, as I’ll probably be real shit as an old lady.”
“….I should sugar coat it I guess.” Cheng says ruefully
“No you shouldn’t” I reply. “Far too many bands sugar-coat things nowadays.”
“I asked Peter the other day “Have you managed to conceal some love song metaphor in there that I’m not aware of?” And we were like, no, actually, we’ve gotten through a whole album and there’s no like “I love you” or “Longing for you”. None of that nicer side of the sappy stuff. It’s feelings, but not the warm fuzzies” she laughs.
Despite their “guitarless guitar music” label, the band is hesitant to describe their own music.
You’ve got your own bank of memory, your own bank of influences and stuff, and you can hear things popping out.
“I enjoy reading people’s description of our music because I don’t have that in mind when making it. So I’ll let someone else describe it” says Cheng.
“Totally! You don’t think about it. You just play shit that you like” interjects Ruddell.
“Exactly” agrees Cheng. “So I don’t like trying to describe it. Because people who then have preconceived notions of what post-punk is, or what no wave is. So when I read [reviews], I’m like, “Oh, yeah! I can hear that!” for that, whereas if you’d asked me – I would never have put it that way, if that makes sense? I take enjoyment out of reading reviews where people describe us, and I can go “I think I get where they got from,” and it’s very much influenced by what that writer listens to, I think. Or their idea of what these genre names mean, as well.”
“That’s part of the cool thing about music” adds Ruddell, “That you’ve got your own bank of memory, your own bank of influences and stuff, and you can hear things popping out. And that’s going to be different for every person. That’s awesome.”
“In your review of our album, you were like, Yeah Yeah Yeahs and Crystal Castles. And I was like, “Those are two of my favourite records ever,” and two of my favourite bands” enthuses Cheng. “And now you’re wearing the [Yeah Yeah Yeahs] tshirt- it’s clearly what you listen to, you’re a rocker chick, you just bring that.”
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Released: 08 Jun 2018