Wax Chattels are Auckland post-punk band Peter Ruddell (organ/vocals), Amanda Cheng (bass/vocals) and Tom Leggett (drums). Wax Chattels don’t waste time. They enjoy effects pedals, loudness and using the words “fuck” and “smash” a lot.
“I am restless,” says Amanda.
We’re at Wax Chattels’ sold out show at Whammy, the Friday night conclusion to their national tour and working week. The Taipei-born, take-no-prisoners bassist seats herself at the bar in a leather jacket and black high-heeled boots, cautiously eyeing the incoming traffic. Since forming in 2016, the same year she scored a “big ass corporate job” as at a top tier firm, things have been pretty much non-stop for the Auckland jazz school graduates, playing a string of gigs and laying down their first tracks within the first three months. “If we were gonna do it, we were gonna push hard,” she says, “otherwise what’s the point?”
Yeah, what’s the point? For Wax Chattels, make a record and play as much as possible. Two overnight recording sessions in a “tiny windowless room” with “an overhead drum mic taped to the ceiling” were quickly churned into their moody self-titled debut, recorded, mixed and mastered by an old high school friend Jonathan Pearce, whose apparently known as a bit of an “Auckland legend.”
Wax Chattels are like the gloomy little sister of their bright, upbeat siblings The Beths, Sea Views and Two Cartoons, friends’ bands they’ve shared bills round the city. While recording the album, Jono even put a bunch of flowers in the corner in attempt to brighten things up.
Released by NY-based Captured Tracks and Flying Nun Records last month, Wax Chattels is a noisey confrontation of sharp mood swings that catapult from sexual desire to emasculation, celebrity crushes to digital anxiety. A wild organ dances with screaming vocals crunched through guitar effects, chaos is built and stripped back to stark simplicity, agitated basslines and ferocious drum rolls from Tom’s tom-less kit are punctuated by the violent hiss of “The Stack” – a cobbled melange of broken cymbals that have been shattered and stuck back together. The tightly wound intensity of the band’s brief incubation and urgent emergence is unleashed. In band speak, they just “smashed it out.”
Punters pour in from K Road, Auckland’s most eccentric meeting point of middle-class wealth, immigrant services and destitute homelessness, a mash up of vintage clothing stores, cheap Asian restaurants, sex shops, African hair braiding, cafés, bars, galleries and street side poverty. Wax Chattels started out jamming in at Fuzzy Vibes, a now defunct art space on K Road. Tonight, with the ongoing support of their music friends, they’ve got a sold out show at the most dedicated venue on the strip.
Peter and Tom are on the door where Wax Chattels is available on vinyl, CD and cassette. Being a new Flying Nun band has brought them all kinds of exposure, from Dargaville dads sending their daughters to the Dunedin show, to Rough Trade picking Wax Chattels as one of the best albums of the month with a follow up tour of the UK and the US.
“It’s not real,” says Amanda the bassist-lawyer Gemini, emotionally mangled by dream state exhaustion and home show nerves, “I’m basically crying.” (NB: Amanda seems like a hardass bitch who would never cry.)
Halftime excitement electrifies the dank smoke hanging in the crisp air below Whammy, as a herd of halftime punters sprint back up the stairwell through the ribcage of St Kevin’s Arcade. Durries discarded, drinks retrieved, an exalted voice cries:
“Wax Chattels will change your life, they are not a band, they are a satanic belief system!”
The show was loud, fast and intense. No fancy lighting, no gimmicks, just true to your stars, guitar-less rock and roll. Squished up front by the stage-less stage, the crowd was a mix of stoners, glam girls, Asian hipsters, ageing rockers and curious birds from the Flying Nun flock.
Dodging head bangs and flailing bass jabs, a sniper-like photographer in a Miss June tee shimmied across the stage, flattening himself against the PA to take a shot while fanboying about how much he loved the song NRG.
A delightfully bogan woman occupied the pit front and centre, “I saw them at Laneway last year,” she yelled into my ear, “they were the first ones to play and the best part of the whole bloody thing.”
They might not have guitars but they make up with it with effects, purely guitar effects. Peter first began messing with pedals while playing in Deer Park, where he’d play his saxophone through a delay and used an impedance converter to flatten the sound, a technique he now uses for his vocals. Alongside a string of Death by Audio, Amanda’s pride and joy is a one-of-a-kind Axe Juice fuzz by Owen Electronics in Manchester which she picked up secondhand in Dublin, “we cracked it open cos it started smoking midway through overdubbing for the album,” she says, “but he refuses to make another one.”
Touring is the make or break of a band. Last year, with Peter’s contacts in Japan, Amanda’s Taiwanese roots and Tom’s stint in Guangzhou, Wax Chattels executed a largely self-organised tour of Japan, China and Taiwan. With nothing to lose and everything to gain, the Wax Chattels Asia Tour was essentially a month-long intensive training session of “blood, sweat and tears,” which Tom describes as “the most consistently tired I’ve ever been in my whole life.” The Wax Chattels dojo.
Nothing prepares you for booking 42 train tickets on a Chinese app on shaky wifi in a Kyoto hostel, or weeks of back-to-back shows coughing through backwater venues filled with cigarette smoke.
Of course, there were high points – their first crowd surfer at the final gig of Rozz-Tox in Guangzhou, the southern leg which was organised by legendary DIY doctor Howie Li of Qiii Snacks Records, praise from a crew of Insta-famous Korean tattoo artists in a random town, seeing a Brazilian guy shove a fire extinguisher up his ass… And though touring Asia plunged them to the deepest ends of their relationships, “we really grew as a band because we loved and hated each other so much,” says Amanda.
i have never been asked by someone who is not an asian woman what my star sign is
— amanda cheng, gemini
For Amanda, the tour also confronted her with her foreign Asian identity, facing outright racism and sexism on the road, a far cry from the treatment of her visibly laowai bandmates. Rage with male sound engineers who would ignore her explanations of the band’s unconventional technical specs, or bewilderment with train ticket attendants who would ask to see her Taiwanese passport – there can be nothing more alienating than being a slave to your appearance. “Nice looking white dudes just get treated really well,” says Amanda, who is fluent in conversational Mandarin, “so the contrast was more in my face than had I been travelling alone.”
Tom, who also drums in Miss June, jumped at an opportunity to teach drums in Guangzhou after graduating in 2016, just shortly after joining Wax Chattels. “I’d wake up and learn ten new words every day, practice them before bed and just repeat them at people,” he laughs, “I ended up teaching drums in Chinese instead of English.” While Tom had learned some basic Mandarin with apps like ChineseSkill, it was Amanda’s family background in it as well as Hokkien and Chinglish that kept the tour train rolling.
“Amanda was a miracle,” says Tom, “I cannot even stress how fucking incredible she was, both with the language and also in terms of a general TM (tour manager) perspective.”
Tom: 你最喜欢吃什么？ Kiwese: 我最喜欢吃火锅，你呢？ Tom: 我更喜欢麻辣烫。 Kiwese: Oh shit you know dat shit.
As a self-managed band, Amanda says the key is to “think what people need and give it to them before they ask for it,” skills she’s learned as a finance banking solicitor. With their email game down pat, the US tour is in the bag.
However you shake it, Wax Chattels are always one beat ahead. That’s the fancy time signatures doing their job. “We take away aspects, a bar here or there, to keep you on your toes,” says Peter after the show, packing his Nord organ into a custom rifle case, “yeah, it’s just a fuckin’ jazz thing.”
Listen to the new Wax Chattels album here: