When I first heard California’s Wax Idols around 2015’s American Tragic album, I was sure I’d discovered a modern band as catchy as and with as well-written songs as The Pretenders, if Chrissie Hynde, James Honeyman-Scott, et al. were way more goth. That sounds perfect, right? It really is.
This band, led by the spirited and brave Hether Fortune, were so much more than an pastiche of whatever influences random listeners may project on them. In the time since and leading up to current banger Happy Ending, the most pointed, emotionally nuanced and all around best record I have enjoyed thus far into 2018, the group have managed to become one of my all time faves. I am so nostalgic I am celebrating Blade being on Shudder like Jesus just came back, so I can certainly see myself rocking out to their spacious post-punk anthems that linger like hope or cigarette smoke when I am seventy with a generator after society falls. Seriously, I wish I could give them a million dollars just to see what they would do with it.
It was wonderful to interview Hether Fortune, one of the lyricists and people I admire most in rock, leading up to the band’s triumphant regional appearance at this year’s Basilica SoundScape 2018 on the weekend of Sept. 14. Please support them and make them last forever. (Editor’s note: Just after Morgan filed this column, the band announced they were going on hiatus, so Fortune will be appearing up in Hudson as a solo act. Morgan says it’s still very much worth making time for.)
Morgan Y. Evans: I love how the new album Happy Ending starts with “Heaven Knows” — that commanding bass line and drum pattern that could almost be Big Black before your melodic vocals sweep in. Wax Idols are so rewarding because each record is versatile song to song, despite it having a consistent “you” vibe. What was your goal with the latest release? It sounds like you had a lot of stuff to emote.
Hether Fortune: Thank you! Well, the musical goal was to integrate Peter and Rachel’s ideas and style into the band more completely, rather than it being the sort of glorified solo project that it was on other records. So with songs like “Heaven Knows,” what you’re hearing is true collaboration, specifically on that one with Peter. He came up with that crazy bass line and we developed the song around it. It was a really exciting day — we manifested that song entirely within an hour or two and it felt really rewarding to hear the final version of it. Emotionally, I was attempting to work through a lot of my issues circling around death and loss within the framework of fiction. Fiction can be a really productive vehicle for processing feelings buried deep within a writer’s subconscious and that’s what I needed at the time.
MYE: How was your recent tour of Mexico? Any revelations? It looked like a lot of fun from your Instagram.
HF: Touring Mexico was amazing and really fulfilling for me in ways I had not previously experienced. The people were incredibly kind, supportive and welcoming. The biggest revelation for me was seeing for the first time how far our reach is and how much of an impact the band has had on people even though we’ve previously been confined to the United States due to financial restraints and other reasons. There were some young women that approached me at shows with demos or CDs of their bands and they expressed such a genuine passion for Wax Idols and gratitude for my influence. It was really humbling and moving. I had no idea.
MYE: The also-absurdly talented Zola Jesus was tweeting about the commercialization of music and streaming having choked a lot of creativity out of the mainstream. How does it feel to be part of Basilica SoundScape this year? With bands like yours, Insect Ark, Lightning Bolt, Usnea and Spelling (among others) it is a literal refuge for people seeking weirder, more meaningful shit.
HF: It feels great. Basilica is probably the best festival in the game these days and I’ve always loved the way it’s been curated and the fact that it doesn’t have any corporate sponsorship. There is a little bit of nepotism involved, as Brandon Stosuy [one of the founders and curators of Basilica SoundScape] is one of my mentors/closest friends and also manages the band. Sometimes it takes a person in a position of power to push those kinds of doors open for people who have been previously locked out and I’m really grateful to Brandon for making that a priority, and not just as it pertains to me or Wax Idols. We’ve been more or less excluded from the festival circuit for the entirety of this band’s existence. I don’t necessarily want to complain about that, as I’ve always been pretty outspoken about the poisonous nature of corporate sponsorship and capitalism in art. The festival world doesn’t really align with my convictions. However, we are trying to get by as a band and I am trying to survive as an artist just like everyone else. It’s a really hard balance to find — there is always the risk of contradicting or compromising yourself when money gets involved. So yeah, it’s nice to be included in a festival as highly regarded as Basilica that doesn’t compromise my beliefs or the stands I’ve taken over the years as an artist.
MYE: That’s one of my favorite things about you. Also, one thing I admire about your solo stuff is the sense that you vibe like a lifer. Not that any artist is required to create songs forever but it feels like you really throw yourself into every recording, whatever the scenario. Was it daunting when you started doing solo shows outside of Wax Idols? I really love “Gravity and Grace.” What was the George Harrison connection again? Didn’t you have a vision or something about him?
HF: I am definitely a lifer, whether I like it or not. I can’t remember a time in my life wherein music was not the thing I loved the most in the world. I started singing when I was 2, performing when I was in fifth grade, playing instruments by the time I was 12, etc. Music is completely entwined with who I am as a person. I’ve never really fit in to one specific genre or scene because I just love music so thoroughly and completely that I am constantly absorbing it from all angles, synthesizing and integrating my vast influences into my work.
I’ve only done two solo shows with this new, non-Wax Idols material and yes it was daunting as hell. I hadn’t played solo or in more experimental ways in years, which is sad because that’s something I used to do a lot before the band became such a “thing.” I’m still figuring out how to get back that place, a place where I was perhaps more free and willing to fail or be imperfect in a live setting. Wax Idols is like a machine at this point. It’s scary to step outside of something like that and be vulnerable again.
The George Harrison thing is pretty trippy. I watched a documentary about him and right as I was falling asleep afterward I thought to myself, “I wish someone would give me my own mantra” and then I had a dream wherein George walked up beside me and whispered a mantra in my ear. I woke up in the middle of the night and ran downstairs to my studio to record it before I forgot. So that recording is the vocal loop that runs throughout the entire song and the song was written around it.
MYE: More than a lot of bands I feel like your lyrics tell poetic stories or offer glimpses of your feelings about modern life or personal stuff within fragments you reveal to various degrees. Your song ‘Bad Future’ comes to mind. Or the great lines, ‘I was dancing alone at the edge of the world/I was singing my own praises to an audience of stone.’ Those are obviously from your older song ‘When It Happens’, one of my favorites. A lot of your lyrics like that one or ‘Scream’ or the great ‘Everybody Gets What They Want’ seem to be about weathering storms of criticism or the harsh noise of the apathetic. One thing I love about you is you seem to be able to push aside self doubt or fake ass people and it is pretty inspiring. Thoughts?
HF: Thank you for paying attention to the lyrics and having this feedback for me! I often feel like lyrics aren’t important to the general music listener, which sucks because I pour so much of myself into them. So I really appreciate that.
The reason my lyrics seem more poetic than perhaps other lyricists is because I am a poet. I was writing poetry before I ever wrote songs and I finally released my first proper collection of poetry earlier this year. … You definitely hit the nail on the head for EGWTW. That’s what I was going through at the time, dealing with intense criticism, competition and betrayal and feeling generally exhausted by it all. It’s not as easy to shrug off as I make it seem. I have really intense insecurities that are rooted in the abuse I endured as a child and even into adulthood, because we tend to gravitate toward what is familiar to us. In the past I’ve found myself in a few abusive romantic relationships and some really twisted, dysfunctional platonic ones as well. … The song is me basically asking my abusers and detractors, do you want my blood? Will you only be happy when I am dead? And then offering that up as a fantasy by writing from the perspective of being recently deceased. Luckily, it’s just fictional resolve. There is definitely something in me that is stronger than all of that conditioning, something that keeps me growing and moving forward as a person and with my work regardless of how I am opposed.
Check out the band at waxidols.bandcamp.com/album/happy-ending