The first time I tried calling Wax Mannequin — born Chris Adeney — he was on a train with his family. Not the kind you could find a stranger on or push momma from but the recreational kind you can take a couple of kids on, like Adeney was doing with his wife at that moment.
Doing the interview from there didn’t quite work; believe or not, most any train is noisy, and if you try jumping off one to talk with a young Regina guy about music as Adeney did, sometimes the kids you are with will cry a bit.
“Never know what you’re going to get on a train ride,” says Adeney when I catch him a short while later.
Adeney is often looking to make spontaneous and unusual moments for people. Live, he’s known to split open a chrysalis filled with balloons or toss power gems into the crowd. (Or power crystals? I have one at home, and I’m having trouble remembering which it is. Apologies.)
His music matches that unusualness. The Hamilton, Ontario native — and newish father — has transformed from electronic-influenced folk artist to epic rock god, which came to a peak on 2007’s Orchard and Ire, and back to folkster on his last two releases, 2009’s Saxon and his new album, No Safe Home.
From opener “Black Bells” on down, his latest is filled with foreboding, sweetness and insight, captured in its natural form by producer Nick Johannes, also known as the solo artist the Kettle Black.
I talked with Adeney about his new album, what’s changed since he’s become a father and his latest bit of merch, a candle of his head with a USB stick of his music inside. When talking about that last one, he sounds genuinely delighted to have found a way to frustrate his fans. Check out the interview after the jump.
Wax Mannequin plays tonight at O’Hanlon’s.
You’re a new father. What influence has his being around had on your music and the kind of songs you’re writing these days?
I’m certainly writing more songs that have to do with relationships and people and the twisted parts of love and stuff. With my last album and to a certain extent this album, I do a lot of soul searching around being a traveling musician while also having a steady home I’m very devoted to. I really enjoy the travel and the music, but I also like the comfort of home and family. Those thoughts crop up in my songwriting.
You’ve definitely had periods of your musical career where you’ve been hitting the road very hard, coming through Canada coast to coast several times a year and that’s changed. What effect has that had on your music when you’re going into the studio and trying to come up with new songs for a record?
I try to keep busy performing, even if I’m not touring at a given moment. I still try to arrange shows frequently around Ontario. It keeps me in practice at any given moment. But when I’m not traveling, I find the writing is a little easier. While I’m on tour, I come up with a lot of ideas for songs, but I can’t finish things as much until I slow down a bit.
These past few months have been very good for me finishing and writing things. Some of that has made it onto the newest album and some of that is still in the pipeline, but I’m feeling really productive these days, in terms of my creative stuff.
You going into the studio with Nick Johannes makes a lot of sense. You seem like kindred spirits in the kind of music you make and how you make it. What was it like recording this album with him?
It was really suitable. We’re old friends, and have toured a fair amount together, so we know each other’s music quite well. I like how relaxed his studio was. Similarly as with Andy Magoffin [producer for Saxon], we focused a lot on room sounds and trying to capture things in the moment. Celebrating those really great magic moments but also flaws that can be charming but also interesting noises we can make with the things that just happen. Really being less clinical and sterile about the process and being more open to the moments of innovation.
Is that a reaction to the more precise sounds you had an album like Orchard and Ire, for example?
I think so. I’m really proud of some of the songs on Orchard and Ire, but I really blew out a circuit in terms of conceptually what I was going for. It’s been a real treat for me — I write songs the way I write songs, so there’s still a lot that’s consistent, especially lyrically and melodically between my older albums and my newer albums. But I think the tonality of things has changed with these last two records. It’s been a really refreshing thing for me. I think towards the end of my newest record, I hint that I might bring out the rock again with the coming changes.
I very often present songs differently live than I do on the recording, but that’s just a natural evolution of things.
What would a return to rock ’n’ roll for the current version of Wax Mannequin sound like?
Darker and crustier. Maybe a bit more math-y. But that’s neither here nor there. Right from the get-go, I thought of myself as a folk musician and even when I was making louder stuff I thought of it as folk music because it came from my travels and responding to the stuff that I experienced on the road. This record, maybe a lot of it’s more overtly folk music. People have called it any number of styles that I touch on, but I think that folk influence remains whether I’m loud or harder or soft or serene with the songwriting.
[Here, Adeney has to leave the phone for a minute as a kid is wailing in the background that he has to look after. He comes back a minute later.]
Have you thought about what your son will think of your music when he’s old enough to appreciate it?
Not really. I hope that he likes music and makes some of his own. He certainly likes music when he hears it. You know, he’s only 20 months. He’s not even two yet. He likes music for sure.
One of the things the press release mentioned was that you’re bringing back your head-shaped candles and this time you have a USB stick with your first five albums on it on the inside. What made you decide to do that?
I wanted to release my old albums. I didn’t want to press a huge batch of them and I was tired of making them by hand. Not tired of it, but — I don’t know. I thought this would be a good way to do it that makes the music both accessible and inaccessible.
I’d been planning on doing up another batch of candles but changing up the process a bit so it wasn’t so labor intensive. I’m making them in a different way that doesn’t take me as long. The old ones, it’d take me an hour to make each candle. I kept selling. I didn’t want to sell them. I wanted to keep them around, but people kept buying them. That’s why I’m having kids — so I can start a candle-making sweatshop.
That’s not the worst idea I’ve heard.
Not the worst. One of the worst, but not the worst. Fair enough.
I’ve never had the opportunity to see one of your candles, but what struck me about it was that if you used it for its intended purpose, you wouldn’t have this very nice object around. Now, with this new batch of candles, to get at the USB stick inside, you have to destroy it.
Yeah! Although that was the fear with my old candles, like, “What if people don’t use them as candles?” I just like making little conundrums like that, frustrating my audiences. Maybe that’s why I’m not world famous — because I like to piss of my audiences a little bit. I think it’s all in good fun.
That seems suitable, given your music. There’s a lot of destruction and elemental battles in your songs.
Thanks for noticing. I feel like I’m fighting with myself with all of this. You make stuff through fighting, not literally necessarily. Maybe. You fight those opposing forces within and come up with a song out of it. At least that’s how I write. I think the candle making is a good outlet for me that reminds me of songwriting. Trying to be authentic with my merchandising.
That struggle has been more overt in your previous work and No Safe Home, it’s a lot more subdued and under the surface.
It’s all in there in the lyrics. The way it’s presented in this album, it’s maybe not as confrontational. A little more understated in some of the tracks. Lyrically, I think I’m expanding on a lot of the ideas I’ve been writing about all along.