Find relief in the anxiety-inducing music of Wax Teeth

The instrumental quartet, which formed amid the tense days of the pandemic, is set to play a release show for its debut EP at Cafe Bourbon St. on Saturday, Feb 24.
Wax Teeth
Wax TeethCourtesy the band

Wax Teeth formed in the early days of the pandemic, with Mike Stokes and David Jost gathering to make noise and blow off steam, having little intention of actually starting a new band. But even in those more exploratory days, the sounds the two began to create emerged as something of a response to the larger environment in which they took shape, their dual guitar riffs practically vibrating with anxiety, their jams injected with a live-wire urgency and a sense of momentum that were often lacking at a time when parts of society remained at a standstill.

“I definitely think there’s something to that for sure,” said Stokes, who joined Jost and bassist Sebastian Olsson for a late February interview. (Drummer Michael Neumaier completes the band’s current lineup, which will be on display at an EP release show at Cafe Bourbon St. on Saturday, Feb. 24.) “There was just that pent-up boredom of the moment, honestly. There were really no other forms of expression available, and you couldn’t even really hang out or talk with people, and so I think a lot of that was sort of spilling out.”  

Over time, Stokes and Jost slowly began to sculpt these amassed riffs into jagged instrumental tracks, the two musicians drawing inspiration from bands such as Drive Like Jehu, At the Drive-In, Sonic Youth and other like-minded purveyors of guitar noise. Then, about a year ago, Olsson stepped in and helped to introduce some finality to the process – an aspect that self-described tinkerers Stokes and Jost could struggle with on occasion.

“And part of my perspective on it, too, is that until we decided we actually wanted to make this a band, there was no pressure for us to finish, and we could have a bunch of things sporadically splattered around,” Stokes said. “Then we had to kick in gear and figure out how to cohesively put these things together, which having [Olsson] join the band as that outside ear was great, because he could come in and sort of hear things objectively.”

There were times, Stokes said, when the writing process could mimic the Pepe Silvia meme from “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia,” popularized by a photo of a crazed-looking Charlie Day positioned in front of a giant conspiracy pinboard. 

“We’ll try to write out the songs [on a dry erase board] and we’ll have the names of all the parts written out,” Stokes said, and laughed. 

“It’ll be like, ‘A times four, B times two, then back to A for two, and then we’re on to C for one,” Jost said.

“And then God help you if you get into any count variation on those,” Stokes added.

The songs that emerged from this process, such as “Constant State of Suspense” and “Maximum Interrupt,” can come across chaotic, building on passages that mirror the pulse-quickening sensation of slipping into a panic attack. But it’s also a carefully controlled chaos, with all of the parts virtually machine fit, leaving no room for onstage improvisation. This added to the delays in the writing process, since moving a single part could force the musicians to rework the track wholesale, like moving an image a fraction of an inch in a Microsoft Word document only to have four pages of type shift in irreparable ways.

“At this point, when we play them live, we don’t jam on them, and there’s not that point where someone is going to turn around and be like, ‘Hey, keep this section up,’” Jost said.

“And it’s all going to fall apart if we do that,” Stokes said.

A lack of any kind of front person allowed the musicians to build these intricate instrumentals more freely, absent any concern of where a vocal melody might fit. “And because there’s no singer … I can play all the ugly, fucked up, augmented riffs that I want,” Olsson said.

Regardless, the musicians were careful to embed moments of relative calm and beauty, creating a sense of tension and release that somehow makes those more abrasive passages hit harder. “For me, it’s definitely a way to give people that moment to breathe,” Stokes said. “You don’t want the whole experience to be anxiety and negativity, because that’s not all there is.”

But Stokes, who is also a member of Playing to Vapors, comes by these harsher vibes honestly, sharing that the music is, in part, a reflection of the internal anxieties with which he has long struggled, and for which the guitar has evolved into a needed pressure release valve. “I used to suffer from panic disorder, and still struggle with anxiety and things like that,” he said. “So, yeah, [the sound] is definitely shaped by experience. But it’s interesting how playing something that is so shaped by anxiety can bring so much relief, too.”

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