Interview: WAAX Grow Up With “At Least I’m Free”

Although WAAX has been busy brewing the sweetest tastes between post-punk and alternative rock from their native Brisbane for the better part of the last decade, the band’s latest release “At Least I’m Free” symbolizes almost what feels to be the turning of a new leaf. From its surface, “At Least I’m Free” can be categorized as The Breakup Album for your later 20s. Rather than having its lyrics peppered with the expected “fuck you, you hurt me” angsty attitude, the new WAAX record feels grown-up–a story told by a narrator who has loved and lost, and took those experiences as an opportunity to mature and let go of sentiments of ill-will.

The album opener, “Mermaid Beach”, which captures well the overall themes found in the record, acknowledges those feelings of pain and makes space for a reminder to be “thankful for what I’ve got/That I should be careful with who I love.” More reflective than bitter, “At Least I’m Free” illustrates some of the most “adult” decisions we can make, making peace both within ourselves and towards those who have hurt us in the past. “Man Like Me”, the third track from the record, perhaps states this idea most clearly in the chorus: “I hope you learn to love yourself.”

Vocalist and primary songwriter Marie ‘Maz’ DeVita delivers honest and powerful vocals from the opening to closing track on this 11-track record as she’s supported by well-seasoned musicians James Gatling (lead guitar), Ewan Birtwell (rhythm guitar), and Tom Bloomfield (drums). The album also features knockout songwriting collaborations with K. Flay on “No Doz” and Linda Perry on “Dangerous”.

We sat down with James Gatling for a chat about his rather sudden introduction into the band in 2019 before the group’s North American run, the songwriting experiences behind the new record, and the making of the music video for standout track “No Doz”.

“At Least I’m Free” is out now via Dew Process.

What’s your go-to gas station order?

Go to gas station order: I always like to get the crappy coffee that you get, they’re the kind of ones where you press the machine and it kind of spurts out. We always go to a on-the-side-of-a-highway gas station. There’s always like, these really kind of stupid novelty hats, which have like stupid slogans on them, like “fish fear me, women love me”, kind of thing written on the hat, and I love buying those as well.

Prior to joining WAAX, you’ve gathered up considerable experience while playing for other bands. Taking all of those experiences into consideration, how has your involvement with WAAX stood apart from your other music endeavors? What were you able to bring to the table?

Good question. I think it’s funny because me playing music has been almost the same amount of time as WAAX has been a band. So, we’ve been doing this simultaneous thing in Brisbane for the same amount of time, but the obvious difference is that WAAX has released albums and people were really liking them. And I was just like…I was playing to 10 to 13 people in a gross club at one in the morning trying to just play. And then I joined WAAX, and my first show was in New York. So I was like, “Well. That’s completely different.” But I think that I had a good work ethic. And I was rehearsing all the time, and playing all the time. And I think I brought sort of a fresh energy, with a work ethic of someone whose bands hadn’t quite been making it. But I wanted them to make it, if that makes any sense. Does that make sense?

Because you kind of joined the band a little bit last minute, like you said, you kind of had to pick up everything and learn how to play all the songs right before the North American tour, right?

Yeah. It was like a month before we flew out to New York to play that summer stage show. So it was like, I had to learn everything. And I had to sort of… I didn’t know anyone in the band as well. So I had to sort of become friends with them, learn all the songs. But I mean, if you’re being forced to do anything in the world, I was pretty happy to do that, to be honest.

This is a bit of an outdated descriptor, but your drummer once described the band as “something spicy, like a really hot burrito.” Do you think this description is still true? If not, what sort of food does the band sound like now?

I don’t think it’s necessarily true. But I reckon if you got anyone in the room in WAAX to eat a burrito, they would. But we’re probably more like a burrito bowl, you know? Lose some of those carbs, you know, you can pick and choose what you’re having at a time. I think that’s probably more likely, more like a burrito bowl. You still have the same essence, it’s spicy. But you can kind of choose your own flavor a little bit. You’re not just eating one big hunk of burrito like that.

How would you describe your songwriting relationship with Maz and the rest of the band?

With my songwriting relationship with Maz, it’s actually a really strange thing. So we don’t really talk about our songwriting very often. We get into a room and we sit across from each other and we ask each other how we’re doing, and talk about our day and what music we’ve been listening to recently. And we probably sit down for like three hours. And without really talking about it, we somehow slip into writing music, and just playing, and sort of throwing ideas back at each other. So we have this really natural…She’s like my sister, you know, in life, but also in songwriting. We just kind of have a telepathic thing, which is really nice. And then I think that the rest of the band sort of just trusts that we will bring something good next band practice. They trust that it will happen. So if you don’t bring anything for ages, then it’s not really an issue. And no one’s really worried about it. I think it’s all based on trust and love, and this kind of familial vibe.

Kind of almost second nature at this point.

Yeah. We never really like to struggle too hard writing a song. Because I know that sometimes if you’re really struggling to find an answer, you’ll settle on the first thing you can come up with, as opposed to, like, if you’re letting it just happen naturally, then if it doesn’t feel right, you kind know not to take that path. Because if you’re really struggling, you’ll want the out, you know.

Your latest release, “At Least I’m Free” has been climbing several charts such as the International Top 50, Australian Top 50, and even scored #1 in Vinyl. What would you say was the magic recipe for this albums success? How are you celebrating?

Wow. We found out that about those great things about getting Number One in the vinyl and getting the Australian Top 50 and all that kind of stuff. We were actually on this beautiful island called Stradbroke Island, which is just off Brisbane, because our guitar player is getting married in two weeks. So we were there, all of us were there, for a buck’s weekend, a stag do, if you like. And we found out… the sun was setting, and we were having some beers, and it was the most beautiful thing in the world.

I don’t know how you define, I don’t know… When we think about this album, and when they talk about it in comparison to “Big Grief,” the first one, they feel like it imparts more of their own personalities onto it. The first album, I think the others in the band were talking about how they kind of were writing for a sound or writing for a genre with, you know, it being guitar riff music. Whereas this time, we didn’t really write for a particular genre, we just kind of wrote and played. And it felt more natural happening, and I think it imparts way more personality and emotion in it. So I think hopefully, that kind of thing, is why people maybe like it. It’s hard to tell why people like things anymore. I’m really close to it, as you can tell.

“At Least I’m Free” could be labeled as a ‘breakup album’, but Maz has said before that there was a lot of focus on the drama and relatability found in the record to take the songwriting further. How do you think the record succeeded in sounding more than just your standard breakup album?

I think Maz has talked about it before, where this album feels… “Big Grief,” was really immediate, right? You know, it was kind of straight up, and what you hear is what you get. This album is a breakup album. It basically is, but Maz’s is lyricism and melodies just show, like, this perspective. It’s maturity, maybe where she’s like… instead of saying what’s probably the most first reaction, it’s almost like she bites her tongue and comes up with something that sort of has more maturity about it, and has the benefit of hindsight. It just feels mature to me, it feels like a late twenties album as opposed to an early twenties [album]. And that’s only something you would know if that’s where you’ve been in your life, you know. Like, it’s grown up.

Listening to the album and to the lyrics, I can definitely pick up that there’s a lot of that nuance that you kind of discover as you grow older and that everything is sort of multi layered.

I think nuance was exactly the right word, because I love looking at Marie’s songwriting–Maz’s songwriting–because I can see what she’s done differently, you know? In the first album, she wrote, “Nobody hurts me, so fuck you for trying.” And then the second album, she goes, “I hope you learn to love yourself. I hope you find peace. I hope you remember me.” All these kinds of things. And it’s just like, that’s basically saying the same sort of thing. It’s like, “Get the hell out of my life.” But it’s like, one of them’s kind of nice, in a weird way.

The “No Doz” video takes us through a joyride in a shopping cart and ends with a big spill of caffeine pill boxes. How did the video come together and what was the filming process like?

It was kind of ridiculous, actually. We knew we had to make a video, because we’re gonna release the song. And we’ve been really busy with everything else. We were on a Zoom meeting, and we’re like, “Oh, my God, what are we going to do?”. And then Maz just goes, “I don’t know, what if I’m in a shopping trolley?”. And then everyone was like, “Okay.”

We worked with Phoebe Faye, who directed basically everything but “Most Hated Girl.” She directed all of them. We worked with her and Jonathan Oldman again. They’re incredible and work really well together. They’re really creative. And like, two days later, they came back with his treatment filled with a mood board and a basic story. And we’re just like, “This is perfect.” It kind of, like, mirrored the song in a way where it’s kind of–in a weird way–childish, but it’s fun. I don’t know, that’s just the way it was. We were like, “Let’s not overthink the idea. Let’s put Marie in a shopping trolley and just push her around.” And that was it. And to be honest, I think it was a really, actually, it’s kind of a striking music video, in my opinion. I think it’s one of my favorites that we released. And filming, It was easy and fun because we got to just run around terrorizing Maz as we go around the streets of Toowoomba, which is just outside of Brisbane. It was really good experience.

What can we anticipate from WAAX in the future?

Well, we’re doing a huge Australian tour at the end of this year. We’re doing 22 shows over two and a half months. And then our general focus is to get overseas. I know Maz is going to move to LA for a few months next year, to write and see if she can speak the band’s name overseas. We definitely just want to get in front of as many people as possible. And we want to, you know, come visit people like you, not in Australia. That’s the general plan. Other than that, just keep rockin’, you know?


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