Wax On

The Waxwings are the best band you've never heard of, even if you've heard it all

Dean Fertita had lots of time to kill and plenty of willing assassins; he was, after all, in a record store. A drop of the needle could either chase the blues away or invite them to stay awhile, depending on his mood and which Stones record was on the turntable. The snowstorm had made his job irrelevant to almost everyone in Detroit, staying warm ranking much higher on their list of priorities than buying records.

Everyone, that is, except for Bobsled Records' Bob Salerno. Visiting from Aurora, Illinois, Salerno was stopping by local record stores to meet the buyers, helping convince them to stock the album he was about to release by Adventures in Stereo, which also happened to be the first release by Bobsled. As Salerno waited for the storm to clear, the conversation revolved around exactly what you'd expect--music in general, Detroit specifically. Fertita told Salerno about The Go and The White Stripes and a handful of other local bands, but neglected to mention one important group: The one in which he sang and played guitar, The Waxwings.

"He was really inquisitive about Detroit and what was going on there," Fertita remembers, calling from Seattle, where he's finishing the last few dates of a tour with fellow Bobsled bands Adventures in Stereo and the Chamber Strings. "I didn't tell him anything about what we were doing, and it wasn't until a few months down the line that I just decided to see what this guy thought, you know, because I thought he had good taste in music and liked what his idea for the label was and everything. We just kinda hit it off from there. We were just sold on the way he wanted to do things, and kind of felt like we were developing the same way he was as a label, so it would probably be a good fit."

The Waxwings keep it Low to the Ground on their debut album.
Jeff Tisman
The Waxwings keep it Low to the Ground on their debut album.

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September 28 at Club Clearview, with Tahiti 80 and The Deathray Davies, and September 29 at Rubber Gloves Rehearsal Studios, with Lynx

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In retrospect, it makes sense that The Waxwings' relationship with Bobsled--which resulted in the release of the band's debut, Low to the Ground, a few months ago--began at the record store. After all, that's where Fertita's relationship with The Waxwings started a couple of years ago when he formed the group with fellow employee Kevin Peyok, now The Waxwings' bassist.

But Fertita and Peyok's record store experience has an even more direct effect on Low to the Ground than just a cute-meet story and a record deal. They play rock music like you'd expect former record store clerks would, keeping in only the good parts, and leaving the rest in the cutout bin. You can hear it on every note of the album, a 40-minute history of rock and roll that doesn't sound like one, mainly because they remember to include the sweat and the cigarettes.

Like Wilco (fronted by another former rack jobber, Jeff Tweedy), The Waxwings' respect for the past doesn't mean they are willing to merely build from the same blueprint. They can't decide whether they want to be Rolling Stones or the Stone Roses so they split the difference. They filter The Byrds through The Plimsouls and back again until you can't tell which direction they're heading. They play like the Davies brothers and sing like the Beach Boys. They do all these things, and yet, somehow, it still sounds like something new.

Which is all part of the plan, what there is of one. In any case, Fertita expects criticism for leaning too hard on his record collection, letting Mick and Keef and John and Paul and everyone else do his talking for him.

"I totally expect that," he admits, before the complete question is even posed. "I worked in a record store, I know how cynical people are. I expect that, because I was like that too. At the same time, it's something that we believe in, and we feel like if we keep doing what we do and try to make records that we like a lot and play like crazy, that people will come around and get it. I don't concern myself with it too much, because I know it's not like us just trying to capitalize on something that's kinda having a resurgence or something, or that all of sudden people are interested in making records that sound like that or whatever. If we keep doing what we do, that will go away.

"When I go back and listen to how those bands developed, when you go back and listen to the Rolling Stones' first record or whatever--a lot of covers, really wearing their influences on their sleeve," Fertita continues, hitting upon a comparison he likes. "Over the course of eight or 10 records, they really develop into making totally unique sounding things. But at the same time, you can see the procession of where it started from. And that's what I hope happens with us as well. We're just getting to know each other and the way we play and the way we write and all that stuff right now. We're a pretty young band as far as how long we've been together. I just see that as trying to learn, using things we really love listening to as a starting point."

The starting point for The Waxwings was originally a solo gig for Fertita. Even when the band started to come together, it wasn't serious at first, or at least, it wasn't supposed to be. Initially, it was an impermanent arrangement, just a guy with a few songs (Fertita), his childhood friend (drummer Jim Edmunds), and a couple of loaners from another group (Peyok and singer-guitarist Dominic Romano)--a situation that changed as quickly as it happened. But when you're talking about a fledgling band that had a gig scheduled before they'd even been in the same room together, you expect things to happen fast.

"A friend of mine had an opportunity for me to come play a show in New York," Fertita explains. "I was going to do it just to get out of Detroit and start working on some ideas I had or whatever. When it got closer to the time to go, I mentioned it to Kevin, you know, to see if he would wanna come out there and play a show. I lived with Jim; I'd known him since I was like 13. So it just fell together pretty quickly. Kevin and Dominic played in a band together. He called him up, we had two practices and went." He laughs at the memory, at how fast it all happened. "And it went pretty well. When we came back, we were pretty much settled that we were going to make this a permanent deal, but Jim and Kevin and Dominic had other things going on. It took about six months before everybody was free of the other obligations they had and stuff."

By that time, The Waxwings were ready to make an album, with a handful of demos and several conversations about what to do next (send a tape out to a few labels or just put it out themselves?) under their belt. Thanks to a snowstorm and a conversation, that question about the band's future answered itself, with Salerno coming on board to produce and release the album. And much of the next year is planned as well: more touring, followed by a brief break to record album No. 2, and then more touring. Which Fertita says will be followed by even more touring.

"We don't want to be lazy in any aspect of it," Fertita says. "We don't want to take too long in between releasing records. We don't want to not go out and play places a ton of times, and go out and meet people. I just don't think enough bands do that anymore. Even when we're playing to five people, it doesn't matter. It feels like the right thing to be doing."

Another thing that feels right to Fertita is staying put in Detroit. For better or worse, it's home. And to hear Fertita tell it, it's only getting better.

"You know, it's not really easy, because you don't have a whole lot of opportunity there," Fertita admits. "It's a pretty small city. But for the first time in a long time, there's a real good community of musicians that support each other and really like what everybody's doing. And for that reason, it makes it a great place to be. It's pretty inspiring, you know? You go to shows all the time and you see people that you think are really talented making good music. I just like being a part of that."

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