WAAX Are Not Going To Be Fucked With Anymore
“I'm not going to be fucked with anymore...I've found myself the doormat of a lot of people, and I'm so sick of it. I'm done.”
It’s early evening on Friday August 23, and Brisbane band WAAX are working their way through a soundcheck.
They’re playing ‘FU,’ the second single from their debut album Big Grief. Even in this informal setting, the song carries a frenetic intensity most bands couldn’t match at a proper gig. With its snarling guitars and its expletive and vitriolic chorus, the song has become one of their most popular.
“Nobody hurts me,” sings vocalist Maz DeVita, her voice running slightly hoarse due to the wear-and-tear of the tour, but still cutting through with clarity. “Fuck you for trying.”
For all intents and purposes, it’s a song that is being played in the right place at the right time. Not only is today the day Big Grief is finally released after several delays and red tape, tonight marks the first time the band have played Newcastle’s Cambridge Hotel since Easter Sunday — a show DeVita remembers for all the wrong reasons.
Hours after that performance, the vocalist took to social media explaining she had been groped by an audience member while singing from the front-row barricade. Moving too quick to be able to target them at the time, DeVita instead wrote an open letter chastising the assailant.
“I don’t know who you are, but you know who you are and I want you to know that your disgusting behaviour is not welcome in our music scene,” she wrote. “You wouldn’t grope someone in the grocery store, on the bus or in your workplace. So what makes this situation any different? What am I to you?”
It’s the starting point of conversation as WAAX convene in the greenroom. Although somewhat fatigued by the day of travel — traffic out of Sydney was nightmarish due to a fault on the train-lines — DeVita remembers the night all too well.
“I was so cut up about it,” she says. “I had to say something — and everything’s changed. I haven’t experienced anything like that on my end ever since, and I’d like to think that’s so because I spoke out.”
“I haven’t experienced anything like that on my end ever since, and I’d like to think that’s so because I spoke out.”
Discussion turns to the creation of Big Grief throughout the course of 2018. Behind the boards was producer Nick DiDia, an American expat who has worked with some of the biggest names in rock music — Bruce Springsteen, Rage Against the Machine and Alice Cooper to name but a few. Closer to home, however, was co-producer Bernard Fanning — someone you might know from his 18 ARIAs, seven number-one albums and multi-platinum sales. Being native Queenslanders, having someone like Fanning involved in the making of Big Grief was certainly a huge deal.
“He was so great,” says DeVita. “He taught the band a lot — same with Nick. They’re a real tag-team of production wizardry. They were such a pleasure to work with. They’re so humble and wise. We learned how to not be limited by our boundaries by working with them. We were encouraged to try everything, which was really refreshing.”
DeVita points specifically to her own performance on the album, which was shaped by one-on-one sessions with Fanning. It was the encouragement to step outside of the box that ultimately drove DeVita to sing and vocalise in the way she did. “When we were going in, I had this very regimented idea of ‘I should do this, and I shouldn’t do that,’” she recalls. “Bernard basically sat me down and asked why I’d put up these boundaries. ‘Why don’t you try this?’ he’d ask. ‘Why don’t you see what happens?’ I think it was something I really needed to hear.”
The album was preceded by the release of single ‘Labrador.’ The snarling, enraged song quickly gained momentum, ending up as one of the biggest Australian rock tracks of 2018. It scored number 88 in triple j’s Hottest 100, plus the top spot in 4ZZZ’s Hot 100. It’s now the set-closer, and the closest thing they have to a signature song. DeVita, however, didn’t foresee any of that when writing it.
“I knew I was proud of it,” she says, “and I knew people were coming up after shows and saying ‘That song’s mad.’ Nick liked it, too — he wanted to bring us into his studio to record that before we’d even talked about an album. At the time, we didn’t have any other contenders for a single, so it just seemed like the hot ticket.”
As the song’s momentum rolled out over 2018, any uncertainties WAAX had about ‘Labrador’ quickly subsided. By year’s end, DeVita could stop singing at any point during the song and have a makeshift choir screaming the words back at her.
“I’m so glad there are people out there that feel the exact same way,” she says. “I always had moments of defeat — like, ‘I give up. You win. What more do you want from me?’ I thought I was the only one, but apparently a lot of people get that way. When we’re singing together, it’s like we’re all saying ‘Fuck it all.’”
Outside of the harder-hitting rock tracks, Big Grief also offers up a unique sense of vulnerability in its quieter, more introspective moments. There’s the mournful waltz of new single ‘History’, as well as the acoustically-oriented ‘Changing Face,’ which recalls You Am I’s classic ‘Purple Sneakers.’ While it may seem like these songs have come out of nowhere, DeVita insists that there are plenty of precursors in the WAAX canon that never saw the light of day.
“For one reason or another, they just never fit in with everything else we were working on,” she says. “With [previous EP, 2017’s] Wild & Weak, we wanted to make sure the songs were just ‘banger, banger, banger, banger.’ We didn’t really have enough time to let it breathe. With Big Grief, we were finally able to explore. I’m now finding it easier to write slower songs than fast ones, which certainly wasn’t the case in the past.”
“Everything we do as a band is really just trying to encapsulate what Maz is trying to say in her words and in her vocals, using our instruments.”
Guitarist Ewan Birtwell, who’s been nursing a beer on the couch, makes his way over to the table where DeVita is sitting. As one of the band’s three founding members alongside DeVita and drummer Tom Bloomfield, he’s had first-hand experience in how WAAX’s songwriting has developed.
“It all revolves around Maz’s emotions and her melodies,” he says. “She’d bring in the skeletons of these songs as phone recordings, with the songs like 90 percent there on her part. Everything we do as a band is really just trying to encapsulate what Maz is trying to say in her words and in her vocals, using our instruments. We’re all trying to propel one another forward. We’ve never been afraid to let each other know when something isn’t working, either. We’re very open. The number-one rule is that it’s for the song.”
Prior to the album’s release, it was announced the band’s lead guitarist and main co-writer Chris Antolak would be departing from the band. Having already written and recorded Big Grief, his exit came as a surprise to those outside the immediate WAAX camp.
For those within it, however, the schism was a long time coming due to ongoing friction and inner-band tension. “I was an emotional wreck,” recalls DeVita. “It was really hard for us to recoup. We’re in a really good place now, thank God, but it was a tough few months. Talking about the album every week has had me thinking about it a lot, and thinking about him a lot. It was not a good environment. It was difficult, and messed up, but it had to happen.”
Originally planning to stay a four-piece, WAAX unexpectedly found a suitable recruit in the form of James Gatling. The Brisbane-based guitarist has been around the scene for years, playing in bands like Colts and Rattus Rattus, and was already a big fan before they’d asked him to temporarily fill in. When it came to asking Gatling to officially join, it came in humorously-awkward fashion. “They took me out to dinner,” Gatling says, “and everyone was being real quiet. I was like, ‘…are they planning to kill me?’”
DeVita cackles at this — “We were so awkward that day!” she says. “I had to get Griff [AKA bassist Tom Griffin] to do all the talking!”
Gatling soon played his first WAAX show at Crowbar in Brisbane, where they performed a secret set under the moniker Mazda666. “We got the traditional Crowbar couch photo afterwards,” he recalls, “and that was when I knew this was for real.”
“I was an emotional wreck. It was really hard for us to recoup. We’re in a really good place now, thank God, but it was a tough few months.”
Although Gatling didn’t play on Big Grief, he immediately bonded with the previously-unfamiliar songs as he geared up for his first tour as part of the band. “When they sent me the Dropbox link with all the new songs in it, I was so excited,” he laughs. “It was as if I was in on some sort of secret, even though I’d joined the band. I loved the album — you could still completely tell it was WAAX, but it was working on this level I’d never seen them at before. As I was learning all the new songs, I was really sensing an emotional depth from them.”
In just over an hour, WAAX will take to the stage to perform new songs for the first time since the album officially came out. The room is packed, ranging from old friends of the band to a teenage girl that idolises DeVita, screaming every word in the front row. More importantly, the night goes off without incident. WAAX have fostered an environment at their shows that is energetic and rowdy, yet still respectful and entirely supportive. It’s into this realm that Big Grief has been released, and Birtwell could not be happier to let these songs go.
“It’s relieving to have it exist for everyone else,” he says. “All this emotion, all these things we’ve been working on… it’s all out there. We can share it with everyone. We can let this music do what it needs to do for other people. That’s what music is, y’know? Music has that power. Hopefully, this album has that power as well. This album did a lot for us, and I can only hope it does the same for others out there that might need it.”
Near the end of the conversation, DeVita is asked what the most important thing she learned while making Big Grief was. It’s not an easy question; nor is it an easy answer. She’s silent, blowing her breath in order to calm her nerves. Eventually she speaks up — looking straight ahead, her voice shaking but her gaze as focused as ever.
“I’m not going to be fucked with anymore,” she says. “I’m trusting myself. I’ve found myself the doormat of a lot of people, and I’m so sick of it. I’m done.”
“I’m not going to let that happen anymore.”
WAAX’s Big Grief is out now via Dew Process.
David James Young is a writer and a podcaster. It is what it is. Yeah, it is what it is. Find out more at www.davidjamesyoung.com.
Photo Credit: James Hornsby