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= Wax Fang
It's Thanksgiving Eve 2008 and Headliner's Music Hall is filling tightly with the scene's family and friends. It's been a while since a local band has drawn so much attention in one evening. My Morning Jacket's freshly shaven front man, Jim James, is leaning against a sidewall, while drummer Pat Hallahan, bear-like as usual, entertains a few fans by the soundboard. Just a few months earlier, the two were playing to a sold-out Radio City Music Hall, but they've taken a break from touring the world to show support to their one-time tour mates.
Members of the dance/rock machine VHS or Beta occupy a side room, sipping drinks by the bar, while local rockers, the Broken Spurs hold their front-and-center spot. The group was featured in Spin Magazine just a few months earlier, but tonight they attempt to stand firm, while being sandwiched between the stage and the rest of the brewing audience.
Propped trees are positioned in the corners of the stage, while neon colored, stuffed-animal monkeys hang from their limbs and fake snakes line the amps. A full-moon-shaped projection is displayed on the backing-wall just above the massive drum kit. Wax Fang takes the stage dressed to impress their family and friends by donning throwback dress-suits.
Singer Scott Carney approaches the microphone and addresses his audience:
"Happy Thanksgiving Eve. Later we're going to go around the room and tell everyone what we're thankful for."
One could suggest by the smiling, screaming and applauding of the audience, that the people of Louisville in attendance were thankful for Wax Fang and proud to be apart of this particular Thanksgiving eve. Just two weeks prior, Wax Fang's second album, La La Land, had been released nationally and found a spot in Ear X-tacy's top-ten selling albums of the year, but according to the band, the psychedelic dream that is Wax Fang hasn't and still isn't coming easy.
Before there was a Wax Fang, it was just Scott Carney. Locked away in a house his parents had allowed him to occupy. Carney had just moved back from Pittsburgh, where he had been studying filmmaking at the Pittsburgh Filmmaker Institute and playing drums in the groove/rock band Shopping.
"(Shopping) was coming to an end and I just had to get out of Pittsburgh," Carney said, while sipping on a bourbon and Coke at a tucked-away table in the Back Door in late January. "The winters were a little brutal. It's f***ing cold there."
Carney continued to explain that he believes he suffers from a seasonal disorder as the gloom-ey, mid-Sunday sunlight barely creeps in from the windows in the dark bar.
Once returning from Pittsburgh, Carney began writing and recording material for what was to be a solo project.
"During that time I was doing a lot of drinking and smoking pot. I've been known to indulge – you very easily overstay your welcoming. I became heavily depressed and had serious anxiety issues. All the sunshine was gone."
Carney claimed he has always been a songwriter but learned other instruments so that he could play and provide a foundation for his songwriting. Prior to Wax Fang, he played drums in several bands and it wasn't until he recorded the song "Cash Is Fine," with Shopping, that his first vocal performance was published. The familiar Carney growl sits in the background of a bridge late in the song.
"The other guys in the band pushed me into it. I really didn't want to," Carney said. "But I realized I could sing better than I'd thought. I'd never really tried."
With an added confidence and an opportunity to live rent-free for a few months, Scott returned to Louisville, acquired minimal equipment and started recording his songs. While he wrote most of Wax Fang's two albums during that time, some tracks were written years before.
According to Carney, the first track on Black and Endless Night, "Sound Observations," was written four years earlier, while "Oh Recklessness," which appeared on La La Land, was written in 2000.
"I work really slowly. I want to try out every idea. I've been working on not being as much of a perfectionist as I once was."
Carney spent the next two years recording every track for Black and Endless Night, while simultaneously writing the majority of what was to be La La Land.
"The tracks on La La Land were songs that didn't fit on Black and Endless, Carney said, with his upper lip tightened slightly toward the right side of his mouth.
The singer only has 15 percent hearing in his left ear. According to Carney, he has no ear canal in one ear, but the eardrum itself works.
"I've never really been into the idea of hearing out of that ear. I talk crooked cause the right ear's the ear I hear out of," he said with a small grin. "It's like being a photographer that only has one eye. Maybe they'll just have robot ears in the future."
Most would think that the odds are somewhat slammed against a musician with partial hearing, especially if that musician happened to sing, but Carney isn't a complete stranger to set backs.
He recalls being diagnosed in eighth grade with a minor case of scoliosis, which is an abnormal curvature in one's spine that usually causes severe back pain and difficulty breathing. The condition became severe within the following eighteen months.
"Surgery was the only option. I had a 49-degree curvature that resulted in 16 surgeries and two titanium rods in my back," Carney said, while dropping his grin and tightening his tone. "It's been a challenge. There's chronic pain, but I've finally started to feel alright."
During Wax Fang's last show at Headliner's, Carney's performance seemed unaffected. As the group began its first song, "Can You See the Light," the singer remained still as he sifted through his Danelectro's feedback, while drummer Kevin Ratterman, and bassist Jake Heustis thundered through the head-rushing intro.
With an immediate crowd response, Carney began to rock back and forth, throwing his greased hair erratically, almost acting as a mirror to the audience's enthusiasm. As Heustis scooted around the stage, low-tones from his rig shook bark from the trees and the enormous, stuffed-lion's head attached to Ratterman's kick, nodded in agreement.
"Around and around and around we go/ where we'll stop/ no one knows," Carney sings in a pub-style-shout with his eyes sealed shut. "Our star once was bright/ the sparkles in your eyes ignite/ can you see them now/ burning through the crowd."
While in high school, Carney and Heustis first crossed paths at a mutual friends house, where different musicians would come and go.
"There were different people playing in our friends basement just about every night of the week. It was a place for people to make noise and do drugs," Carney said. "We just developed a circle of friends."
The two even formed a non-serious band called the "Silver Dot Filter Kings," which Carney claimed was what they imagined to be a fake brand of cheap cigarettes.
Upon graduation, Carney left for Pittsburgh and Heustis decided to school at Murray State, where he helped to form the college, pop/rock group Cabin, which still has a steady draw today.
According to Heustis, he and Carney would occasionally visit each other and, during their summer breaks, the two, along with a "close circle" of friends would reconvene in Louisville.
"The summer of ‘99, to put it bluntly, was rather debauched. We'd breaking into pools and go skinny-dipping – smoking cigarettes and drinking beer," Heustiss said, while sitting on the Monkey Wrench's rooftop deck, drinking a rum and punch he had persuaded the bartender to make without flavored rum.
While lounging in an abnormally cool July evening, Heustis said, "We were all still under age. There was still some sort of innocence there. This was before the whole bar scene ruined it."
Heustiss claimed the song "Cannibal Summer," from La La Land was somewhat about those few months, nearly ten years ago, but Carney's lyrics on the track carry an oddly opposed vibe.
"What a terrible evening/it's been, a cannibal summer/everybody's eating themselves up over nothing/ what a wonderful moment/ staring off into space/ everybody's running in their places going nowhere," Carney gently sings over-top soft, plucked guitar notes before a running cello, played by Ben Sollee, introduces a frantic collection of rushing tones.
"Cannibal Summer" is introduced with what sounds like a thousand bees angrily buzzing in unison, but Carney claims the sound comes from a kazoo that happened to be lying around the studio during the tracking of the song.
"I think we were looking for an outlet for a melody and we found the kazoo," Carney said. "I'm a big fan of alternative, non-traditional arrangements and when writing, melody dictates a lot. I just try to make it interesting so that it doesn't get old when playing it live."
During the band's Thanksgiving Eve set, several people wearing clear, kazoos in hand, took the stage and proceeded to perform the intro before the band proceeded into the wild stomp.
"Let's get high," Carney screams to his audience in a rare moment of deviation.
At this show and every other, Carney is separated from his microphone by a line of nine guitar pedals, all to be used at certain points throughout Wax Fang's set. Ratterman has a laptop sitting at his side and Heustiss has an array of instruments at his disposal.
According to Heustiss, he's unsure as to how Carney is able to create the music he does live.
"He's pretty much doing three people's jobs during our shows."
Carney claims to be equally impressed and satisfied with his band mates.
"I don't ever have to doubt that those guys won't be there constantly. If I f**k up (during a show), I know they're going to be there," Carney said. "There's a whole lot of trust between us and I think that's why it works.
The members of Wax Fang have had several years to develop trust between each other.
Heustis recounts the first time he heard the demos Scott was working on – the tracks that eventually came to make up Wax Fang's two albums.
"He let a few of us have a copy of the demos he was working on – modestly, ya' know. I really, really liked what I heard," Heustis said smiling and staring into the clouds above. "I always had sort of this unfaithful feeling of wanting to spend the night with Scott's music."
While Scott was digging away at the demos, Ratterman, who had played in the established and heavily touring rock band Elliott, was running his own recording studio dubbed, "The Funeral Home," where Cabin had chosen to record its debut. It was during these sessions that Heustis, who was still playing bass for Cabin, and Ratterman formed a relationship.
"Early on in Wax Fang, it was like being in a really stagnant relationship and meeting and having new sex with a much more adventurous girlfriend," Heustis said in an excited tone, while sitting up in his chair, pulling down the loose strands of his full mustache and positioning his nearly face-covering sunglasses. "They (Carney and Ratterman) were my mistress for a while. It was a blast getting together, being loud and just having fun."
When Scott finished tracking Black and Endless Night, he sought the help of Ratterman to mix the album.
"I realized I had gotten in way over my head and needed help," Carney said. "I was totally exhausted."
During the mixing process, Scott asked Ratterman if he'd play drums for him. Ratterman agreed and Heustiss joined after a few jam sessions.
Jeffrey Lee Puckett, longtime Courier-Journal music critic, offered insight into the formation of the band.
"When I first stumbled across Scott doing a solo show at Seidenfaden's, well before Wax Fang existed, I was immediately intrigued by the songs and his inimitable vocal stylings. The guy just stood out, and his Black & Endless Night EP then blew me away from every angle," Puckett said. "When Scott hooked up with Jake and Ratterman there was some instant and serious alchemy, real Merlin-esque s**t.
According to Puckett, Heustis and Ratterman "exploded the band from the inside out."
On November 4, 2005 the group played their first show at Portland's Nelligan Hall. According to Carney, the show went really well and the group managed to get a crowd to come out from the highlands.
Heustiss elaborated: "I'm sure the performance wasn't the greatest, but it felt good," Heustis said. "Scott's Mom was there and I remember her being really concerned that I might have hurt my neck, ‘cause I was head banging so much."
While Carney managed to form his own, local super-group, he also happened to run into Jim James one evening and passed along a demo of songs that appeared on both Black and Endless Night and La La Land.
"A couple months after I gave Jim the demo, I got an email from him saying that he really liked the song "Majestic"" Carney said.
About six months later, James mentioned Carney in The New York Times and The Fader magazine.
"I got a MySpace comment that said something like, "Nice job on The New York Times,"" Carney said. "It was neat as s**t."
The singer paused and gazed around him, seemingly in deep thought.
"Jim has helped us out more than anyone else, aside from girlfriends and family,"
Because James mentioned Carney in The Fader, the magazine decided to do a follow-up article on Carney, Heustis and Ratterman.
The group, which had been playing under "Scott Carney and Heavy Friends" for the better part of the previous year, decided to come up with a more unifying name.
With a deadline looming for The Fader article, the band came up with "Wax Fang" the night before the article was to be submitted. Carney described the idea behind Wax Fang.
"It's threatening, but not. It's also fictional slang for a phonograph needle. Kind of like Andy Warhol – ordinary made extraordinary."
Support from Jim James continued in Nov. 2006, when he asked Wax Fang to tour with My Morning Jacket in support of their album, Z.
While on tour with the Jacket, the groups stopped in Atlanta to play the Tabernacle. Opened in 1910, the Tabernacle used to be a three-story church that has wrap-around balconies and a large organ set-up behind the stage.
Members of Wax Fang claimed that the Tabernacle show ranks among the best experiences they've had in the band.
"The vibe is what did it. They (the crowd) were there to f**kin' throw down." Carney said. "The sound was great, we played well and the venue was cool as s**t."
Carney, with widened eyes, described fans hanging over the balconies, dancing and screaming: "At first we decided to get f**ked up and have the best time together. Then we thought, "oh s**t someone's going to die.""
No one died. Wax Fang finished the tour and within a few weeks began recording the follow-up to Black and Endless Night.
The majority of La La Land was recorded at the famed Ardent Studios in Memphis where some of the industry's biggest names have recorded.
The album, which opens with "Majestic," the song that caught the ear of James, received rave reviews in many circles and established Wax Fang as one of Louisville's biggest local acts.
According to Puckett, his expectations were "probably unreasonably high," but La La Land, was just as good as he expected it to be.
Still, despite all its successes and continued touring with bands like, The Whigs, Dead Confederate and The Features, Wax Fang hasn't been awarded a major label record deal.
Carney talked about his ideas of Wax Fang's situation.
"It's a sign of the times, that or we suck and it's all been a big joke. We live in the worst f**king time and I certainly don't think we're the best band of all time, but if we were younger, we'd be doing fine," Carney said. "It's like trying to get an airplane with too much luggage off the ground."
Heustis had a similar explanation.
"We've been together for three years and we were all pretty confident that someone would be interested in what we're doing. It's the state of the industry. Everyone involved is s**tting their diapers," Heustis said. "In the ‘90s, there were all kinds of music. Kids were in their basements writing good songs, making good music and they were getting signed. Now they (major labels) have to have a sure bet – whatever the definition of that is."
Seemingly disturbed, the bassist proceeded to shake his head.
"I still think there are a lot of s**tty bands getting paid to make music, Heustis said. "We really did feel like La La Land was a pretty great piece of work and for a new band that was doing this all by themselves, it was pretty apparent that we were self-sufficient.
The members of Wax Fang don't seem to be the only people surprised by the bands lack of major label attention.
Puckett elaborated: "Despite having seen a few hundred talented bands ignored by the industry over the last seventeen or eighteen years, I'm still amazed that Wax Fang is unsigned," Puckett said. "They have it all — incredibly fresh and instantly memorable songs, stage presence to die for, unreal musicianship and, just as important as any of those things, a coherent and beautifully executed aesthetic. There's no mistaking a Wax Fang song."
According to Carney, he understands that Wax Fang is doing much better than many local bands and is very appreciative but still has trouble understanding why they're not able to support themselves with the music their making.
"I don't know," Carney said while raising his brow, shutting his eyelids and taking a deep breath. "I don't know what the f**k I'm doing."
Along with having played a handful of shows more recently, including Summerfest (the world's largest music festival) in June, the band is planning on playing Louisville again around Halloween and working on its third album, which has yet to be named.
According to Carney, after a two-year writing hiatus, he began constructing new songs in June 2008 and now has twenty songs ready to be recorded.
"I think we might have shot too far with La La Land. Black and Endless was very pop, while La La Land had sort of a classic rock vibe. I think the new album is going to bridge the two," Carney said. "I'm not as interested in sounds. I'm focusing more on the songwriting."
Carney said Wax Fang plans to record the album at Ratterman's Funeral Home beginning in October or November.
"The vocals have taken a forefront that they've not taken before," Carney said about the new demos. "I've been experimenting with my voice as an instrument - trying to test what it can do."
Heustis's face brightened when asked about the new material.
"The new stuff gets into your pants a little bit," Heustis said. "La La Land fooled around above the waist and this is going below."