The inception of Wax Chattels occurred rather rapidly. Several years after completing jazz school together, Peter Ruddell and Amanda Cheng reconnected at a Preoccupations show in 2016 at Auckland’s legendary Kings Arms Tavern. The pair quickly decided that they wanted to create some noise together, and wrote a few demos before enlisting drummer Tom Leggett. It wasn’t long before Wax Chattels were up and positively running, becoming a fixture at local haunts and dive bars with their punishingly abrasive, yet polished, live set.
The band were a week shy of embarking on their 2017 DIY tour of Japan, China and Taiwan when they played a set at Auckland’s independent festival The Others Way. Captured Tracks founder, Mike Sniper, happened to be in the room for just two songs of Wax Chattels’ set, before he had to rush off to another venue. As it turns out, those two songs were proof enough for Mike Sniper and Ben Howe to co-sign Wax Chattels to Captured Tracks and Flying Nun Records on the spot. The band played an unscheduled set at an industry showcase the following night, which allowed Mike to fully comprehend what he’d got himself into. As the band have since said, “We want to play shows that make people feel uncomfortable. The goal is to leave the audience feeling slightly altered, like they have experienced — not just heard or seen — something.”
It is universally agreed that Wax Chattels are a must-see live act and their eponymous debut album captured this perfectly. Their hypnotically sinister debut was released in May 2018 and was supported by six months of relentless touring: a NZ tour, two tours of Australia, a stint in the UK and two major North American tours. The album reached #7 on the Official New Zealand Album Charts, and album release week saw the title feature as #1 in Rough Trade’s ‘Top 20 New Releases’ and AV Club’s “most anticipated album”. The album’s success at home and abroad led to the well-deserved nomination of Best Alternative Artist at the 2018 New Zealand Music Awards, as well as the band’s inclusion in the coveted shortlist of finalists for the Taite Music Prize and Auckland Live Best Independent Debut Award. After a knock-out debut, the anticipation that surrounds their sophomore album, Clot, is immense.
New Zealand has four levels of coronavirus lockdown. Level 4 is the highest, super restrictive — you can’t go anywhere except to the supermarket and for a walk. We’re on Level 3 in Auckland [at the time of this conversation], which means you can get takeout food, but not much else. Level 1 was when we could have shows. Actually, you could have shows at Level 2, but they needed to be seated and X-amount of metres apart, so no one played shows then.
Our single came out in early July, so after we went into Level 1 we thought, “Maybe we can see about booking an album tour, but that’s quite far away, so do we wanna play a show before then?” We played on a Friday, at a venue called Whammy Bar, which is attached to two other venues. On the following night, there happened to be a mini-festival called Deep Dive Fest, which was cool because it meant that some friends from out of town who were playing it were inAuckland for our show.
I was quite nervous — both Tom [Leggett, drummer] and Peter [Ruddell, keyboardist] have other projects that they’ve toured with in the last year — but I haven’t played since almost a whole year ago. It was kind of terrifying to me. We hadn’t played the new songs in front of anyone, only recorded them. I can’t remember being that nervous for a long time, but it was really awesome, and it felt really lucky to get to play shows. But, now we’re back in lockdown.
Apart from a couple weeks where people were feeling a bit weird about things, Level 1 in New Zealand was basically a hundred per cent back to normal — which in hindsight feels really naive, I guess. It’s pretty wild to think back now — I definitely felt really complacent, like, “Oh, it’s gone down to Level 2, now it’s Level 1,” and after a bit of hesitation, life was largely back to normal again.
The way NZ is dealing with coronavirus is that the borders are closed except to returning citizens. Until recently, the government would cover your roughly $3,000 worth of fees per person to be in managed isolation. Once you arrive, you’d get taken to a motel and you’d have to just sit there for two weeks. So it was pretty strict, as far as we were aware. There were stories of people escaping to go to the supermarket, but on the whole, we’re pretty isolated from the rest of the world so we didn’t really think about it — until there was community transmission. Then it was suddenly like, “Oh, shit.”
I think for a number of reasons, it didn’t feel like any other show. For one, we hadn’t played as a band in maybe 10 or 11 months, so there was a fair amount of anticipation from the audience and from us. I know there was a lot of stress on my part — I was like, I just gotta get two songs in and I’ll be fine, to sort of break the ice.
And then — I don’t know if it’s Kiwis in general, but we’re kind of slow ticket buyers. Even for an established artist who you expect is going to sell out, people sort of dawdle. So it was like, “Well, tickets aren’t really moving, but we just announced it and we’ve still got two weeks to sell them.” And then suddenly the tickets were gone and people were texting, “Are there gonna be door sales? Can I get on the list?” — you had two weeks to buy a ticket! But it was really great in the sense that it felt like we went from zero gigs to playing a packed room.
It was strange, because I hadn’t really gone to shows in the two months that shows were back on. Peter works at Whammy/Wine Cellar as a bartender some nights, so he’s very used to the gig environment and had already played a solo show early on out of lockdown, whereas I just hadn’t been to shows. I wanted to, but it just felt weird — I think some people felt similarly, but a lot of people didn’t have the same reservations. It was a lot for me, as the venue is in a basement and it’s got a low ceiling, it feels like you’re really cramped in.
We have some October dates booked for our New Zealand tour. We’re just sitting back to see what happens. Last week we were like, “Should we do a group call to see what we wanna do?” And this sounds brutal, but my stance was, realistically, what are we able to do at that stage? The way I feel about it is: Just because you can, doesn’t mean you should — it has to be taken in moderation. There’s going to be a lot of assessment, because a tour would be a lot of travel. We’d be flying, but Wellington, if we drove, is nine hours away. It’s a lot of space geographically, so it’s not the kind of trip you want to do even if we were allowed to, if things were still sketchy at the time of announcement.
People are annoyed about lockdown and there’s a lot to be said about how it should be dealt with better, but the few times I’ve been outside people have been wearing masks. I think it’s easy to self-distance in the sense that we’re not super populated — there’s so much physical space, you kind of have to make an effort to go up to people.
So far, it feels like a lot of focus has been on artists — how we feel about not playing shows, and what this means for artists’ mental health. I think that more attention needs to be given to those that are the would-be “audience”. Live shows are only part of the equation, and artists and their audience definitely vibe off each others’ energies — that’s what forms a community. People are also missing things like the social bonding and stress release that comes with attending shows, and I think these are just as important.
I don’t want to get overly fatalistic about the future of live music, but I’m pretty pessimistic. No one thinks it’s viable to shut down the country every time there’s a handful of cases, but at the same time, if you want to maintain some kind of balanced state, there’s going to be a lot of distancing. We’re not the kind of band that could do a sit down gig. It’d be so strange.