Wax Mekanix is a Philadelphia-based multi-instrumentalist and songwriter whose lyrically inventive album Mobocracy insists, among other things, that some aches can’t be muzzled, that we’re all freaks, and that the devil’s got two left feet. He’s been around the block a few times, perhaps most notably serving as a founding member of the cult band Nitro in the late 1980s. Given his long and storied career, I dropped him a line with a few questions…
What was your role in founding Nitro?
When I joined forces with central PA guitarists John Hazel and Brian Homan, as well as bassist Brad Gensimore in the summer of 1980 as the drummer, we were barely Nitro. Within a few months, we were playing covers and aspiring to be a bar band. Full stop. We barely saw the ends of our noses at that point and were happy to be doing that. Jump to sometime in ‘81, Homan exited the band and Dana Confer was asked to be the voice of Nitro. He was the best frontman in the area and we were stunned that he accepted.
It was around that time that John and I started to write some original tunes to sneak into our growing sets of covers that we were playing at gigs. I have no recollection of what prompted us to start doing it, so it must have been casual and subtle thing. There was no demarcation line of “today we’re going to start writing original songs!” Most of the time, John would play me his newest crushing riff and I’d leaf through my notebooks full of obtuse snatches of thoughts and poems, find a vocal melody to lay against his snarling changes, and then we’d bring it to a rehearsal to show to Dana and Brad.
Thank god that Dana would level withering criticism of the weirdness I was asking him to howl over our slamming thrashing tunes, because it made me think more critically about what I was writing. Mostly that I was writing for him, and that he was….”not going look like an ass singing any of your weird bullshit while my friends are in the crowd!” At that stage, like brothers who never really came to blows, we’d argue about what we didn’t like the others were doing and slowly arrive at some equilibrium for that song. It was Darwinian in that way.
Being an athlete all of my life, I remember feeling as if being the drummer and songwriter in Nitro was more of a sport than an art. I was/am the youngest member, and definitely felt like the strange little brother, always in the shadow of my cooler older siblings. Over time, we learned each others strengths and weaknesses, coalesced as a tight performing, writing, and recording gang of four. We were always refining and focusing or mission statement to be loud, aggressive, heavy merchants of original Americanized European rock. It was glorious and felt like we were doing something fresh, exciting, and important. The more I worked on my duties, the more Dana, John, and Brad seemed to respect and count on me. That vibe was like a runaway reactor and jet fuel for me. I started to feel like I’d found my purpose and calling.
Your new album is called Mobocracy. Do you feel like we’re living in mobocratic times? If so, how?
By definition, mobocracy is rule or domination by the masses. As I was putting the record together between 2015 and 2020, times sure felt that way. By any measure, the “masses” in America and across the world were thrashing around and growling about society, politics, economics, art, wokeness, personal affronts, perceived and real suppressed grievances that they were convinced were falling on deaf ears. It was permeating everything as we all clumsily and adolescently wielded our new-found high-tech megaphone to spew every barbed and unfiltered yammering notion to the intoxicated online world. It seemed as if thoughts sparked in the deepest, darkest, angriest parts of our reptilian subconscious went straight to our smartphones without slowing down by passing through our brains for any throttling. To me, it felt like a global Red Bull-slobbering, snotty shitshow wrapped in a clusterfuck contained in a dumpster fire. So, I’m actually kind of surprised that the record isn’t more angular, sharp, emotional, defensive, and angry.
Is there anything we can do about it? How does music fit in?
By nature, I’m a sunny-side-of-the-mountain kinda person, so what I described above was offending my delicate sensibilities, for sure. It absolutely influenced how I made my records and other art.
I’m a firm believer that we are the masters of our emotions and we can conquer just about anything if we want to. So it’s all about societal will, in my opinion. When we are sick and tired of being sick and tired, things will change. History shows us that this is possible and is the way stuff like this works. I’m assuming that, for now, as a species on this rock, we all are enjoying what is going on and want some more of it. I’m pretty resilient and am kind of hunkering down while humans are throwing this fit, but I’m thinking it’ll pass in a reasonable amount of time. A look through history shows that we have been way pissier than this before, and hope that we’ll get past it. Until then, it’s going be a lot of, “doc, it hurts when I do this!” Honestly, I’m the last one to tell anybody, “holy fuck, then stop doing that!”
That said, music, along with any art, can serve a role in a very simple way. If done well, art does not dictate from on-high. It can make the ordinary extraordinary, and/or make the extraordinary ordinary in ways that reveal some universal truths to people until they come to their senses, find the good in themselves and others, then realize that there are better ways. I’d never attempt to tell anyone how to live their lives. Artists always comment on the times they live in, so I’m just commenting on mine now through my records like Mobocracy Deluxe.
Mobocracy has a cool vibe. It’s metal, but what I’d describe as a kind of “rootsy” metal – highly energetic and bombastic without being overproduced, too slick, or overly compressed. I can hear the room, if that makes sense. How did you come to this sound?
Thanks for the kind comments. It’s such a team effort that it’s a bit of a stretch to call it a solo record.
In general, I wanted it to be heavy, sound contemporary, and have some ear-candy pop qualities that ebbed and flowed a bit to give it some overall dynamics. That describes many of my favorite records, so I wanted to create that experience for my stuff. I learned a long time ago to give the tunes some space and let them kind of tell me what they want to be, if that makes any sense. I was more following the songs than leading them anywhere, frankly. I appreciate that it sounds a bit arty-farty to those who don’t make records, but this is enjoyable on a lot of levels and works well for me. My new record that I’m carving out now is proving to have its own, and different character as a direct result of this approach.
My “method” is that I invent the ideas for the tracks, then I get some really generous and talented musician friends to execute the playing of the songs, and finally, I have an amazingly skilled pair of pals that perfect it sonically.
Although I “collaborated” a bit in the writing as is noted in the credits, it’s basically a solo record. So, I’m responsible for the ideas, I guess. Once I have the songs written, I pass them by my producer buddy, Philadelphia’s Max “Lectriq” Laskavy. Lectriq is an awesome talent who helps me to optimize them from a songwriting perspective.
You recorded the album in a number of studios throughout the Philadelphia region—as well as in your car and basement. Do different recording spaces bring different vibes or energy or sounds to your projects? Do you have a favorite?
I’ve been in and out of studios all over the place for decades and thought I’d kind of seen it all. For some reason, I’m easily spooked creatively in studios, and none were ever really comfortable places to create. Too much pressure due to cost, time, the clinical design of the spaces, and sometimes a general through-put attitude of staff that saw things as a money making vehicle, not something to be nurtured and cared for. That all changed when I started to work with Lectriq.
With no deliberate grand flourishes, and in very subtle friendly casual ways, regardless of the many studios we worked in around Philly, he’d cultivate an atmosphere that was conducive to optimizing whatever abilities I brought to a session. He was the Wax-whisperer, for sure. I have come to find that he does that for all of his artists. It’s his natural style. This is extremely rare since so many producers are swinging around their humongous egos and resumes. Not Lectriq. It sounds hyperbolic, but he’s a serious music-making wizard and absolute prince. It’s not exaggeration to say that he’s really spoiled me for any other producer. The bar has been set crazy high by him. He can write songs, engineer session, produce and arrange vocals, play a number of instruments, sing, and most important….has a ferocious appetite for fucking finishing strong! I can’t overemphasize how important and rare that is.
He drives a song to be the absolute best it can be and then gets it across the finish line. I have never met anyone like him and I’m just blessed to have him helm my sessions. Everyone seems to love him, his work, and artists fall over each other to get time with him. He makes me feel like I’m the most important artists he has. I know it’s not true, but I feel that way when I’m working with him. So, yeah, I recorded anywhere and everywhere I needed to as long as Lectriq was watching over me. What does Noel Gallagher say about people he really likes…. “He’s a proper dude.” Lectriq is a proper dude and he’s right here in Phllly.
You play guitar and drums throughout your album. Which tracks do you tend to lay down first? Do you have a process for going from song idea to finished product, or is it different every time?
*Once the songs are Lectriq-approved, to get things to take shape, I’ll usually start with laying my guitar parts, my drums, some percussion, then lead and backing vocals. If we have a solid general structure and direction, I begin asking some of my excellent and breathtakingly talented friends to play on the songs. The core for my past few records has included guitarists and bassists like Tom Altman, Crobot’s Chris Bishop, Wendell Sewell, and Nitro’s John Hazel. Lectriq and I will usually be joined on backing vocals by Brandon Yeagley, Marissa Wolner, and Mason.
I can’t overstate how grateful I am for their work and friendship. Sheesh, I’m a lucky guy and I’m always trying to surround myself with people better than me. I could not have made such high-quality records without them. Full fucking stop.
Once the performances are in the can, I’ll get with Lectriq and legendary producer Gene “Machine” Freeman to mix the records. Machine has done serious records with Clutch and Lamb of God, so I’m always high and about 3 inches off the ground simply knowing that he works on my records. The truth is that Lectriq and Machine are the real sonic architects of my recent releases, and are the reason they “sound” so good. Their care, patience, professionalism, and attention to detail is amazing. They did such a top-shelf job on Mobocracy that when it was released in 2020, it was Grammy ballotted. I was stunned by that, but it’s a real testament to the unmistakable exceptional skills and talents of my cool friends. Has very little to do with me, but I’m happy to be part of it.
Given all of that, I’m definitely not all structure and regimented work. I’m a huge fan of serendipity and I am open to some seriously weird approaches to writing and recording songs if that’s what the tunes “ask” me to do. “Manchester Strawberry Blonde” is a perfect example. It’s just vocals and drums, nothing else. No melodic instruments at all. I recorded the vocal in my car in a Wawa parking lot using my phone, took that to the studio, pounded out some cool drums along to it, and then included a snippet from that horrific terrorist bombing in Manchester UK that inspired the lyric. Lectriq was all in for this zaniness and guided me through it to the finished master.
Lyrically, you employ a number of incredibly sharp images—there’s the devil I mentioned in my intro, a man in a long, black coat, a three-legged dog. What do you look for in a good song lyric?
I don’t think I can give a monolithic answer to that. Unlike great rappers that free-style from start to finish with every word being instant clever percussive wisdom, lyrics usually don’t come to to me in one complete package. Like I described earlier about my songwriting for Nitro, I have always had a “bank” of thoughts, poems, and words that resonate with me on some level. Since I can remember, I have been encountering these ideas, and feeling my head resonate or hairs stand on end. That’s the way I understand that some kind of “muse” is telling me to stop what I’m doing and make sure I pay attention to it. When I start writing songs, I will refer to the bank and see what jump out at me relative to the music I’m playing with. It’s usually there or sparks me to develop a lyric that’s not in the bank. I certainly don’t wake up and say, “Today I’m going to write a song about Ghostland!” Those specific lyrics evolved over a few months where I’d get somethings from the bank and then that would set me off thinking about something that would result in new ideas that landed in the song.
I keep doing it because it’s really fun and rewarding to let creativity lead me around like that on this great adventure of discovery. It’s like seeing a hill and wondering what’s on the other side. Then going over to find that it’s interesting stuff that you’d never have imagined. It’s part catharsis, part self-psychoanalysis, and part transcendental meditation all wrapped up in playful childlike wide-eyed meandering.
I know that sounds weird to those who don’t experience it, but that’s what has been happening to me since I was a child. I don’t know why or how, I don’t care why or how, I just accept it as a wonderful little gift from the universe. Describing this is always a double-edged sword since I can’t articulate it properly to satisfy those who don’t do it, and I usually come off sounding pretentious and arty-farty. My thinking is, those who understand what I’m driving at, don’t need my explanation, they just know.
The Beatles, Bob Dylan, Neil Young, Woody Guthrie, Rush, Robert Johnson, and Pink Floyd freed all of our minds when it comes to writing lyrics, so I’m just being a link in that chain of no-boundries or rules. I’m going to “let my freak flag fly” like Croz.
Your bio lists a number of creative pursuits, including painter and photographer. Do your pursuits in various media influence each other?
For me, creative stuff all comes from the same place. Dylan welds, he paints, he writes books, wins the Nobel for literature…oh, and he’s written a few tunes, so I’m a link in that chain, too.
Painting, photography, and making music is inextricably intertwined for me. Specifically, for each of my recent records, I’ve tried to demonstrate exactly this by presenting my audience with the art made while I was making the records. The records and the art feel connected and I offer that notion up to anyone that is interested in me.
The art I’ve been creating while making my new record is so much like the music and unlike the art made while I was hacking away at making Mobocracy and my other record, Blunt. My trip is to make sure that none of it is contrived and is a true representation of my creativity at that point in time. I love it and I think my audience appreciates how I roll with all of that. Again, it’s exciting to think about what’s over the horizon creatively. Inevitably, when I make music I make other art…and vice versa. Honestly, I feel that the universe has blessed me with this wonderful gift that keeps on giving. I wish that for everyone.
You’re a founding member of the band Nitro, which means you’ve been making music since the late 80s. Who have been some of your favorite musicians to work with over the course of your career?
That’s a long list, so I’ll try to focus it. I’ve already gushed over Lectriq and Machine, and the guys in Nitro who are really family and all that it implies. Next, my mind first goes to guitarist Tom Altman. Tom is all over my recent solo records on guitar and bass.
Tom and I have been friends for decades, but never really worked together in a concentrated way until I started putting Mobocracy together in about 2015. We are about the same age, have similar musical tastes, share influences, and a common experience of playing in bands from the late 70’s until today. Connective tissue that is strong and helps to define us as a team when working together.
Tom is a Swiss Army knife in that he can take in my vague, half-formed, wildly exotic references and instructions about a track I’m jamming, and translate it into wonderfully deft results that are nothing like I imagine possible, but seem so perfect for what I’m after. He gets me, he knows me, and usually knows where I’m headed before I know it myself. He never fails to impress me and others with his playing. The breadth and depth of his influences, skills, and talent on guitar and bass are a joy for me. He’s a real gem of a pal and colleague. We’ll make more cool records together if I have anything to say about it.
Mobocracy also includes some backing vocals by Philadelphia legend Tommy Conwell. What’s your connection to him?
Tommy Conwell is a legendary Philly institution and we all know his history and pedigree well. I was putting together the song Victorious with Lectriq and was thinking of what cool local artists would be on my fantasy list of participants. Tommy was at the top.
This is how awesome, authentic, and cool he is. Remember, we are not pals, or ever met. I contact poor Tommy out of the blue and he responds right away. Whatta guy, right? I explain the who trip I’m on. He’s digging it and says, “yes.”
We meet at Lectriq’s studio around Christmas 2019, hang out, talk about music, and I’m doing my best to not be a fanboy, but fail at that. Tommy steps up to the mic and belts out his trademark vocal stylin’ in a few short takes. We hang some more, play some guitar together, then it’s time for him to go, hugs are all around, and away he goes.
A few texts to let him know what’s up with the record, and that’s that. It was such a cool experience for me to have him on the track and is a testament to what a “proper dude” he is. I’ll trying to grow some balls to ask him to be on more records, but really need to eat my Wheaties to muster up the courage. Tommy, if you’re out there, thanks, brother. You are welcome on my tunes anytime. Philly loves you.
Given the scope of your career—not to mention the constant changes in the music industry—what’s worked for you in terms of finding an audience for your music?
I’m going to give you an honest answer that I hesitate to put out there since it has to be received in the way it is offered…with sincere love and respect.
I don’t think about finding an audience or cultivating an audience. In the age of social media where eyeballs, clicks, likes, blah blah blah matter, that’s blasphemy, career suicide, and will probably stunt my growth like a ten-year-old smoking Lucky Strikes. This kind of thinking will get me dropped from any record label not brave enough to walk that talk. It’s a price I’m willing to pay.
But I honestly think that the audience should find the artist, not the other way around. In the final analysis, it’s mostly about creative freedom. I’ll explain. I want the artists that I admire to show me what their take is on the world. I want to know what they are channeling. I want to enjoy their unique vision of whatever is on their minds and passes through their prisms.
I am not strong enough to resist and counter outside influences so I don;t go seeking them. It takes all I have to keep my own bad influences away from the pure creative spark that excites me. So, I ain’t going looking for trouble.
I loved all of the versions of The Beatles, every stylistic deviation of Dylan is awesome, Neil Young is a ferocious advocate of this and I’m thrilled by his work regardless of genre. The flip side of that is, AC/DC. Goddamn, I love that band and every record they make. They are part of my DNA and it’s glorious what they do. That’s their trip and their audience accepts it.
Last thing I want to make absolutely clear is that, although I have this posture about the artist audience relationship, I am genuinely thrilled by, and appreciate anyone that gives me a listen. There are 100,000 songs released daily on the internet and I’m asking people to drink from the firehose and taste me in there somewhere. What are the chances? I’ll just say thank you and hope they understand.
What keeps you going as a musician?
I’ve thought about this for decades and it boils down to two things.
1. The horizon.
Meaning, what’s next for me creatively? There’s always the promise of something fresh, new, reinvigorating, and different. This little gift I’ve been given is evergreen. It’s a wonderful notion that has sustained me under some seriously bleak circumstances. Without concern for success or failure, commerce or accolade, the creative horizon is an opportunity for a pure restart that is self-sustaining and requires nothing but an open mind and spirit. It’s boundless in scope and plays by no set of rules or constraints that would limit imagination. I’ll take that any day and every day, thank you.
2. I’m convinced that my best work is ahead of me. That needs no explanation, and reminds me that I’m the master of my own fate and destiny. I’ll also take that any day and every day.
Thanks for taking the time to answer my questions!
Marc, this was really fun, so thanks for asking, brother!
You got it!