Let’s consider the band name for a second: David Wax Museum. It’s a play on words, referencing founder, frontman, vocalist and song stylist David Wax. But what else do we take away from the moniker — specifically, the Wax Museum part? Normally, that defines a room where works of art are eerily frozen in place for posterity. That’s where David Wax Museum, thankfully, doesn’t live up to its billing.
For close to a decade, Wax has forged a voice for rhythm-savvy folk music that regularly hops across borders — as in geographic ones. The narratives of his songs frequently align with Americana-based folk. But the instrumentation and melodic frameworks skip over to Mexico, where Wax began journeying for sounds and inspiration while attending Harvard University.
“The main thing was the rhythm,” Wax said of his attraction to what has been termed Mexo-Americana. “There is something so compelling about hearing this music. There is much more interesting syncopation going on than in simple American folk music. Then, on top of that, it presents folk in a context where everything was relevant. Historically, it just seeps into every aspect of life. It was being part of a community with this music that really attracted me.
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“In a lot of ways, I’m really a novice. I mean, I have been studying and playing this music for a while. But it has such a deep, rich tradition that I’m really just scratching the surface in so many ways. The more time I’m down in Mexico, the more I’m playing these songs and learning these songs and using that as a jumping-off point for my own writing. The more time I spend with this music, the more it delivers just in terms of surprises and possibilities.
“Now I’ve been in the band for going on nine years. When I hear a new sound, it’s like, ‘What could the band do with this?’ Now that we’re touring as a five-piece band, there are all these possibilities. As soon as I’m playing something on the (guitar-like) jarana, it blossoms in so many different directions. As I’m getting to know the music better, my relationship with it deepens.”
Along with performance partner — and now wife — Suz Slezak, David Wax Museum began its Mexo-Americana journey with the 2008 debut album I Turned Off Thinking About. By the time a fifth record, Guesthouse, was released in 2015, another element was weaved in: a fabric of electronics artfully constructed with the help of producer Josh Kaufman.
“We chose Josh for a reason,” Wax said. “He’s been sitting in on sessions from time to time with us on electric guitar and added a whole cosmic, psychedelic dimension when he played with us live. So we were really game when we brought him on board and were excited about adding that dimension to the songs.”
When Wax, Slezak and the touring version of the Museum visit Phoenix Park on Friday night, with Frankfort drummer Jordon Ellis sitting in for the band’s regular percussionist, Danilo Henriquez, the border-crossing music will probably reach its largest Lexington audience yet after frequent visits to the WoodSongs Old-Time Radio Hour and the defunct Natasha’s Bistro. Wax welcomes all fans, but he doesn’t see audiences as a numbers game.
“I don’t think my goals were ever super-ambitious,” he said. “Maybe I was just trying to be realistic, but it was gratifying just to have the band accepted with a certain level of legitimacy in the music community. We’ve built an audience up in a way that has been slow and steady and sustainable, and that feels really honest to me. If we do have a moment where the music reaches a wider audience, I think we will come at it in a real grounded way. We’ve been at this long enough that I think we have realistic expectations. We know if we find a way up, we can just as easily come back down.
“Really, I wouldn’t trade our career with anyone. We’re not doing Top 40 music here. We’re doing kind of a weird niche thing to some degree. Our songs have the potential to reach a wider audience, but that’s mostly out of our control. In terms of what we can control, we feel very satisfied with what we’ve been able to do.”