Waxwing Is Back, Better than Ever

Waxwing dissolved after its members took flight. Now the punk band returns with skill and perspective.

A few years ago, Rocky Votolato found himself in a frustrating, and familiar, creative space. A solo artist known for his earnest balladry, the thirty-something Seattle musician was penning songs that didn’t fit into the milieu of the acoustic-guitar-toting songwriter.

“I would have ideas come out and I would think, This isn’t going to sound cool on a Rocky record,” he recalls. “I was really just getting the feeling that I wanted to do something louder and more aggressive.”

Fortunately, Rocky had a history with louder, more aggressive fare. As the lead singer for punk quartet Waxwing in the late ‘90s and early ‘00s, he established himself as an angsty, impassioned performer, leading a raw and powerful band that featured his kid brother Cody on second guitar and childhood friends Andrew Hartley and Rudy Gajadhar locking down the rhythm section.

It was while in Waxwing that Rocky first struggled with creative constraints. But back then it was the opposite problem. Rocky found himself writing contemplative songs that wanted more to be crooned than shouted, songs that weren’t going to sound cool on a Waxwing record. In order to give those songs a home, Rocky decided to begin a solo career. That turned out to be a fantastic decision. Since 1999, Rocky has released eight full-length solo albums, building a loyal fanbase while managing to quiet his angst through metaphysical discovery, a journey chronicled in his last two records, 2010’s True Devotion and 2012’s Television of Saints. But as Rocky’s solo career and Cody’s new band, the artfully punky Blood Brothers, began to take off, Waxwing was left behind. Performances dwindled until they were an annual affair. Then, in 2005, the band decided to hang it up.

“Rather than letting the band fizzle and die, we thought that we should just put a cap on it and go out on a good note,” Cody recalls. “There was no drama; there just wasn’t a lot of time available for it and we didn’t want to half-ass it. … I think at that point in time, we really thought that was going to be it.”

It almost was, until Rocky started having his songwriting problem again. In need of an aggressive outfit through which he could channel his edgier material, he first considered starting a new band. He called up Cody and the two put together a short list of musicians who might be interested, including former At the Drive-In bass player Paul Hinojos. But the prospect of launching a new project was daunting and ultimately unappealing for Rocky, who was resolute in continuing his solo career. So he began to think about getting the band back together. He reached out to his old bandmates a few times, but schedules were always conflicting. Then late last year, Rocky took Cody along for a tour of Germany during an uncharacteristic lull in the younger brother’s schedule. For fun, they added three Waxwing songs to the set list—“All of My Prophets,” “Kill the Messenger” and “Where Did the Time Go.” The songs were well-received, and, more importantly, they felt good to play. When the Votolato brothers returned to the U.S., they reconnected with their old bandmates and, perhaps more insistent than before, managed to make the schedules work.

“We decided to organize a practice,” Rocky recalls. “If it goes well, we’ll go down this road. If not, we’ll talk to some other guys.”

The rehearsal, which started with a rusty rendition of “All of My Prophets,” went well, feeling a lot like the early days of the band.

“The only real difference was that we were all a little better at our instruments,” Cody says. “The energy was very similar to what it was like when we were in our prime.”

Since that rehearsal, the bandmates have been squeezing in practices and making plans, not only for the reunion show that will take place this weekend at the Vera Project, but for a slew of new songs and even a new album.

While finally giving life to all those new rock songs, Rocky has also been re-examining Waxwing’s four albums. “I do very much resonate with the songs,” Rocky says. “If I didn’t, I wouldn’t be able to do the band. It would be just like trying to relive a dream. It doesn’t feel that way at all; it feels very fresh and vital and new. I always felt that there was a hopeful idealism in what Waxwing was doing and as I listen to the songs, I am surprised that those old songs had this voice that really resonated with who I am now, again.”

mbaumgarten@seattleweekly.com

 
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