Note: This piece first appeared in Australian Guitar #134. Subscribe to our print edition here!
On the cusp of total world domination, vibe-punk Brisbanites WAAX have mustered up one of the strongest debut albums in recent memory, one laquered in personality and bursting at the seams with punchiness. Matt Doria cannonballs into the choppy seas of Big Grief with frontwoman Maz DeVita and guitarist Ewan Birtwell.
It’s a simple fact of life that every relationship has its ups and downs – the same is true for all your favourite bands. Those cheesy, oversaturated press shots where they’re all laughing and slinging their arms over another’s shoulder? That shit happens maybe 0.3 percent of the time, tops. Though their timeline has been studded with milestones and accolades, Brisbane quintet WAAX have bumped over their fair share of potholes on the road to success. And that, in part, is why their debut album – the bold, biting and boisterous Big Grief – makes an earthquake of an impact; the traumatic fallout is audible in every battered wail and gristly scream that frontwoman Marie ‘Maz’ DeVita spits.
She fills us in: “The whole album is about exploring loss. It’s not about death or anything, more just people coming in and out of your life, and how you cope with that. And the evolution of the band – it’s been quite a rollercoaster for us so far, so this album represents a bit of a grieving process for that as well. And for the wider state of the world – we’re in a really strange place as a society, and I just kind of feel bad for it. So it’s sort of sad, but it’s also a very colourful album; we wanted to play with that juxtaposition of having some pretty dark themes in there, but also having its upbeat moments and its colourful moments. There’s a lot to unpack; I think people are going to be really surprised by it.”
The elephant in the room – this is, after all, Australian Guitar – is that right before the album was announced, WAAX revealed the departure of longtime lead guitarist (and primary songwriter), Chris Antolak. The news was entirely unexpectedly – Antolak had posted excitedly of the record and WAAX’s upcoming Australian tour, until a sudden drop off the digital radar – the band’s announcement was entirely void of an explanation as to why Antolak would be stepping down. Rhythm guitarist Ewan Birtwell becomes notably uncomfortable when we attempt to learn more. “I’m sure in the future something will be said, but I don’t really know how to tackle that one right now,” he stutters – we’re assuming the waters surrounding the topic are, at present, particularly muddy.
Nevertheless, Antolak’s presence is felt heavily on Big Grief. Much like for 2017’s EP Wild & Weak, he and DeVita teamed up to hash the bulk of the record out, Antolak assigned to scratching up the vibe and DeVita to wreaking the emotional havoc atop it. Where the album differs, though, is in how much WAAX have grown since their breakthrough release; the creative contributions of producers Nick DiDia (Bruce Springsteen, Rage Against The Machine, Pearl Jam) and Bernard Fanning (ex-Powderfinger), too, added a certain maturity.
“We just got a little bit faster at working out what sounds we liked and what we didn’t like,” DeVita explains, “And the way we’d construct the songs came together a bit faster as well. And then having Nick and Bernie in the studio helped us add another kind of flavour to it. I think we really balanced each other out, because we went into the production being like, ‘We want everything to be super new and contemporary, and crazy and weird,’ and they would go, ‘Okay, cool, now let’s put that into practise.’ But working from the backgrounds that they’d come from, we were able to add some of the older flavours that we wouldn’t have come out with if we weren’t working with them.”
With how much success Wild & Weak gifted them, it’s surprising how long WAAX took to follow it up – they needn’t have struck while the iron was hot, because that iron hasn’t stopped rising in tempreature since the EP came out, but one would assume they’d be eager to double up quickly on the hits in their repertoire. The delay wasn’t for a lack of trying, though; the band had been tinkering away on Big Grief since long before Wild & Weak made it to shelves, but decided not to rush it, instead letting the songs mellow and ferment until they’d reached the perfect flavour.
“I’m really stoked with how it all worked out in the end,” DeVita gushes. “I like watching the evolution of a song unfold. You might start working on a song and think it’s one thing, but if you keep workshopping it and mulling it over for a couple of months or whatever, it becomes a whole new thing and you start to see it in a different light, and you might come up with ideas that you wouldn’t have if you’d just rushed into it. So I think [the elongated recording process] was a good thing for us – it gave us a lot of time to work through the different parts of every song.”
As far as the riffs go, Birtwell and Antolak were keen to explore new territory. “A lot of it was just changing up what we’d done in the past,” Birtwell says. “We’ve always tried to be a really dynamic band with the guitars, so we just wanted to sort of accentuate that a bit more. A lot of it is about feeling, which comes from Maz’s lyrics and her melodies, so our process is mostly about finding the right parts, and the right musical phrasing to create something that sounds awesome with what she’s got to say, and having a really strong interplay between those elements.”
Ironically, though, while Birtwell and Antolak sought to expand WAAX’s arsenal of tones, the pair did so with considerably less experimentation than employed on their first two EPs. Gone were the mountains of delay and avalanches of overdrive, and the Radiohead-esque signal chains with every pedal you could possibly think of.
Regarding their respective studio rigs, Birtwell clarifies, “I reckon we were just feeling a bit more conservative than we were for [Wild & Weak]. I feel like we’d gotten to a point with our pedals that we were able to craft a bit of consistency across our boards. There was a bit of experimentation, but y’know, the Crowther Hotcake is just the most amazing overdrive pedal in the world, so we’d start with that and build our way up from there.”
In true WAAX fashion, of course, the guitars themselves were no less than first-class. “Nick had this old sunburst Fender Stratocaster that I was playing quite a bit,” Birtwell says. “I’ve always been a bit of a strat dude, so when I saw that there and I saw that it had a bit of age to it – a bit of history and a few stories of its own – I was like, ‘F***, I need to play that!’ Bernie had a Nashville Tele that I used a bit as well... It was a lot of Fender stuff, which has always been a pretty big staple for us.”
“My first guitar was a Strat,” he continues, a nostalgic twinge in his tone buzzing over the phone. “It’s the guitar that a lot of my favourite players have always used, and I don’t know, it just feels right. It’s just a really well-designed instrument, and the palate of sounds you can pull from them gets so varied when you start adding things like pedals and amps into the mix. You can make it sound as delicate and clean as you like, or as loud and fuzzy and f***ed up as possible.”
Despite the bumps along WAAX’s journey thus far, the future looks blindingly bright. Antolak’s replacement has been announced as the downright phenomenal James Gatling, and with tickets to their Autumn tour being snapped up like ravenous dogs offered kibble, there’s no need to fear about the future of the fivesome.
“It’s been a really weird and rough year for us,” DeVita sighs, “But it wouldn’t be us if it wasn’t – we’ve never not had our ups and downs. And y’know, everything happens for a reason. The journey so far has been amazing with James coming in; we weren’t planning to have a fifth member again, but he just gelled with us so quickly and we’ve been working so well that we were kind of like, ‘Y’know what? Let’s just go for it!’ It just happened very quickly, and we’re already working on new stuff together, which is really exciting.”
Thursday August 8th - Mojos Bar, Fremantle WA
Friday August 9th - Jack Rabbit Slim’s, Perth WA
Saturday August 10th - Jive, Adelaide SA
Thursday August 15th - The Triffid, Brisbane QLD
Friday August 16th - The Triffid, Brisbane QLD
Saturday August 17th - Corner Hotel, Melbourne VIC
Sunday August 18th - Wrangler Studios, Melbourne VIC
Sunday August 18th - Corner Hotel, Melbourne VIC
Friday August 23rd - Cambridge Hotel, Newcastle NSW
Saturday August 24th - Oxford Art Factory, Sydney NSW
Sunday August 25th - The Zoo, Brisbane QLD