Fly boys

Red Wings mania sweeps through casa Waxwings. Watching the otherwise sensitive and introverted four band members gathered around a television set whipping up the testosterone is as peculiar as it is baffling.

Boys who pen songs about their fear of heights, who named their band after a graceful bird, who openly praise effeminate-sounding male singers, who appear to be completely dedicated to their girlfriends — some of whom are either in other bands on tour or live in different states — this frat-house show of sport faith is an odd sight indeed.

“We save up our testosterone for this one,” ventures lanky front man-guitarist Dean Fertita. On the coffee table in front of him is a mess of beer bottles and pizza boxes. “Anything that you dedicate 300 hours of your life to is …” His voice trails off. He turns his head quickly to the television screen in the corner. Suddenly the roomful of band members and friends lets loose with fist-hoisting whoops. The Red Wings score. Beers are emptied.

The Waxwings house is situated in Detroit’s lovely Woodbridge neighborhood. The digs are spacious, and, strangely, well-kept. Antiquated chairs and couches on wood floors, and rugs, lamps and artful objects placed around the rooms lend a sense of aesthetics. Framed thrift-store gems-turned-art mix with Gram Parsons imagery and photos of band members’ relatives.

There is a sense of community that floats throughout the house. This sense of mutual respect is detectable in the band’s songwriting. It is the sound of four guys who completely trust one another, who are able to play off one another’s strengths without so much competitiveness.

“I mean, we live together when we are off the road,” says Fertita. “I think that is a testament.”

Later, the band assembles in the living room for conversation and shots of whiskey. Each guy looks like what would result if you mixed a beat poet with a Paris hipster without the affectation. Thin with floppy fringe, corduroy, denim — and no shortage of inward gazing.

The guys are slow to reveal details about themselves, preferring war stories from 12 months spent touring in support of the debut Waxwings album (2000’s low to the ground). They go on about the merits of weed and the low road of eat-shit day jobs.

Drummer James Edmunds plops down an old Fisher-Price portable record player and puts on a Dylan album.

“We take this thing on the road so we can listen to music,” Edmunds says, placing a quarter on the tonearm to keep the record from skipping. Despite a near-debilitating torn ligament in his wrist, the drummer’s demeanor is gentle, matching his pop-star looks. Edmunds is the band’s pinup. “This is how this record should be heard,” he says, dropping into a chair.

The personal lo-fi player and Dylan album say volumes about how the band perceives and ingests pop music. If anything, there’s an organic quality to the Waxwings brand of rock ’n’ roll.

On the inevitable comparisons to midperiod Stones, Buffalo Springfield and Neil Young, Fertita says, “I don’t think we’re intentionally trying to be retro, it just so happened that we love those records and that period in music. Our intention is not to be derivative but to bring something else to the table.”

The band’s latest disc (in stores June 11), Shadows of The Waxwings, is a thing of beauty. It is less guarded and, in a sense, less controlled — albeit less sing-songy — than the first record. But the songwriting has hit a level of maturity and reveals a progression and a love of pop’s past. The guitars are at times louder, the rhythms bashier, but the songs take more chances. Most of the tunes are christened by pristine three-part harmonies and well-arranged counterpart vocals. The majority of the record — written in a cabin in the Ozarks, fueled on myriad cases of beer and jugs of wine — rocks without testosterone.

The leadoff track, “Wired that Way,” is a four-and-a-half-minute pop elegy that serves as a kind of me-and-the-boys band anthem, a song of unbridled dedication to one another. It sets the tone of the disc; four guys who’ve made the decision that nothing in their lives can get in the way of the songs or the band.

“Yeah, I guess it’s about the making that decision,” explains Fertita. “I don’t know, I’m no good at explaining what the meanings to songs …”

The Stone Roses-cum-Gram Parsons gem “Look Down Darkly” swells gently, guided by cellos and violins that mourn like a looming monsoon. “Rifle Through,” is a reedy tune bolstered by bassist Kevin Peyok’s Beatle-y bass and droning lines. “Clouded Over” tackles, sans satire, guitarist-singer Dominic Romano’s fear of heights.

“It really is about that,” says Romano nodding earnestly, “it really is.”

One half expects Nico to drone over the top of “Brilliant Grey,” a well-versed hat-tip to the Velvet Underground, “All Tomorrow’s Parties” specifically. Insect-y sounding guitars and shakers drive “Crystalized,” double-tracked, purposely sloppy-sounding vocals over gnarly rhythm tracks.

“Into Tomorrow” is remarkably restrained, a song about dealing with the fear of the future from the position of being lost in love. Sung by bassist Kevin Peyok, the song’s restraint and haunting harmonica part give it a poignancy unmatched anywhere else on the record or, for that matter, in most of contemporary pop music.

The album’s loveliest moment lies in “Almost All Day,” a song of Harry Nilsson proportion on an airy blanket of acoustic guitars, strings, and piano. Romano’s sweet croon builds to a place that sounds like personal delivery, a somber loss-of-innocence song of compunction and woe.

The band chooses a decidedly tactful route when answering questions concerning the scathing (and well-storied) e-mail sent out by its record-label boss, Bob Salerno. The note was sent to the band after the its recent record-release show at the Magic Stick; it’s a wordy e-mail scathing to the point of seeming satirical. The missive got out and made countless Web sites and discussion boards around the country. A bit of the lengthy e-mail:

Your set was not even close to tight! And you think you should be getting the attention The White Stripes get?? What a fuckin’ JOKE!!! What you did that night was the furthest thing from Rock ‘n Roll I have EVER witnessed in ALL my years in this business!!! How you could not take that show seriously absolutely baffles me! You want your artistic freedom? Fine, then show me whatcha got and lay it the fuck on me …

The subject of the e-mail is a sore one. Yet the four Waxwings shrug it off, saying that they are gonna work the new record as hard as humanly possible. The band members say they have no idea how the e-mail was made public.

“The deal so far is we are disappointed that the letter got out,” says Fertita. “But we don’t feel like we need to respond to it.”

“What e-mail?” interjects Edmunds, eyebrows raised.

“As far as that [record release] show goes, personally, I had a great time,” says bassist Kevin Peyok. “To us it was a party. … We may have had a few too many drinks. … We hadn’t played a live show in months.”

A recent Waxwings show at Jacoby’s revealed a band that is quietly accomplished; a swaggery self-belief belies the band’s shy off-stage manner. Live, the new songs take on a swingy confidence. Complex harmonies are nailed perfectly; guitars ring, drum parts swing and the packed dance floor sways.

In Detroit, it would be safe to call the Waxwings the proverbial bridesmaid, never the bride. With local bands negotiating major-label record deals and millionaires made of “garage” rock, the Waxwings show no signs of envy or bitterness.

“We shouldn’t be measuring what we have against all that others have,” deadpans Fertita. “I think it’s awesome that bands like the White Stripes are so successful.

“Then again, there are always moments when money comes into play,” he continues. “Things like health insurance … I think if we keep doing what we are doing, other people will catch on.”

Still, the band is thankful.

“I feel grateful to just be in a band with my friends and being able to just keep making records,” says Fertita. The three others nod their heads in agreement. “In five years we will still have that. We will no matter what.”

The Waxwings kicks off a monthlong U.S. tour at the Magic Stick (4120 Woodward, Detroit) on Saturday, June 8. Also on the bill are the Witches and the Warlocks. For information call 313-833-9700.

Brian Smith is Metro Times’ music editor. E-mail him at [email protected]
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