"I think Wax Mannequin is really just laughing at all of us." Producer/engineer Andy Magoffin is discussing his friend and client Chris Adeney's alter-ego, a strange and compelling figure whose new album Saxon, is one of the sharpest bursts of surreal folk-rock to emerge this year. For nearly a decade, Hamilton ON's Wax Mannequin has toiled in relative obscurity, bringing his amalgam of electro-folk and post-modern classic rock to different continents and as many real and makeshift venues as possible. That hard worn, roundabout path brings us to the masterful Saxon, an earnest batch of songs, most of which are performed on classical guitar and blend Wax Mannequin's trademark theatricality and darkly humorous perspective like nothing he's ever issued.
"I feel like I've made a great fucking record," he states boldly. "For the first time, I haven't got ahead of myself aesthetically. I think I've worked carefully within my limits instead of pushing them; it took me a long time to figure out the difference and why one is sometimes more preferable over the other."
Dichotomy and deduction are important aspects of Wax Mannequin, a name that possesses wholly distinctive connotations from one individual to the next. In feeling out his public place, Adeney has drifted from the mechanical folk of early recordings like 2002's And Gun to the full-on hard rock flirtation found on equally stellar releases like 2003's The Price and 2007's Orchard & Ire. "I think I pushed some kind of limit with my last record," he admits. "Some of the over-ambitious, self-sabotaging circuits in my brain have been burnt out. Saxon's a bit of a manifesto for the damaged, but more persistent me."
In between such documentation, Adeney has transformed himself on-stage, occasionally appearing as different people in the same town. Tour mate and collaborator Jenny "Omnichord" Mitchell fondly recalls her first encounter with Wax Mannequin, hosting a show for him at her father's thrift store in Guelph. "He was doing this persona of 'the Awkward Businessman.' He put on a suit, jogged around our parking lot, drinking bottled water, and then sang in this stiff way. We were all just staring at him during this awkward silence. Then he started meowing and I was the only one who laughed. I felt really bad because I thought he was being serious and I laughed. I know people who saw that show and never went to see him again.
"The next time I saw him, he was the 'President of the Indie Rock,' wearing a white wife-beater, frayed jeans, and a handlebar moustache," Mitchell continues. "It was the two sides of Wax Mannequin, and I've never seen a performer that requires you to go that far to understand him."
Adeney acknowledges that his artistic impulses are driven by an inherent disparity; a fight between his quiet, brooding, introspective ego, and the bizarre, over-the-top, aggressive id that surfaces so forcefully. Growing up in his Hamilton household, Adeney interpreted normalcy differently than his peers. "My mom's an artist and she makes boxes out of clay with bolts and chains and things," he recalls. "Throughout my youth, I'd ask her what she was doing and she'd just explain that she was making a box with worms that are being cut open, or tying up a plastic baby inside of a smoke-fired clay box. I think I instinctively picked up on the whimsy of what she was doing - that it was dark and disturbing but somehow was not to be taken entirely seriously. That's informed what I do to a certain extent."
In his second year of art school, Adeney lost interest in his studies and took to music, capturing melodies and lyric fragments floating through his head with the aid of a guitar. Artists like Don Ross, Bruce Cockburn, Robert Fripp, and even Stan Rogers inspired Adeney to play out more. While working in Ottawa as a telephone salesman, he conjured his vivid moniker. "I came up with the name when I was reading a lot of philosophy in university and watching old re-runs. The 'Wax' comes from Descartes - something to do with wax melting but retaining its essential form. And the kid's show, Today's Special, had a mannequin where, if you put a hat on his head, he'd start dancing around. I've been wearing hats at my shows in honour of that."
Slowly gaining confidence, Wax Mannequin went back and forth from Ottawa to Hamilton for gigs, including hometown opening slots for artists like ....And You Will Know Us by the Trail of Dead and Mecca Normal. "I kinda figured that I could do what these guys were doing," Adeney explains. "Tour hard for a while all over the place and then stop and see what turns life took."
For his first cross-Canada tour in 2003, Wax Mannequin quit his job, programmed backing tracks on a drum-and-bass sequencer, and turned himself into an odd one-man show. The auspicious trip was the first of many he'd relish making across Canada, Europe, and Australia, as touring became an integral aspect of his work. "You come back sharper, drunker, and able to make everyone dance," he says. "It's like Dungeons & Dragons where you go on adventures and go up levels. You get better at totally unrelated skills just because you get experience points for doing other things."
In time, Adeney recruited like-minded souls in Mark Raymond and Aidan Campbell, musicians who, until recently, would sporadically form his band. Now, with the release of Saxon, Adeney can't imagine Wax Mannequin without them. "That's why I credited this album to Wax Mannequin and Black Blood. Y'know how in Evil Dead 2, when shit really starts going down and Ash starts going crazy and awesome and all this black blood starts spraying all over his face? That's where I'm at now; things are more rabid, fierce, and indestructible. And that's how working with this band makes me feel."
Indeed, Wax Mannequin's Saxon may be markedly focused and invigorating, but it was still borne of absurdity. "It seemed like the process was extremely funny to him," engineer Magoffin reveals. "When Wax was working on lyrics or testing out ways to sing, he was giggling to himself, like he was in on some joke that a lot of people will never get. He would giggle, as though he was a first-time listener of his own music; it amused him to ponder the affect that it would have on people. He's called it 'persona rock,' what he does, but I think there's bits of the real human Wax Mannequin poking through here and there on this new record. It's a lot easier to take it the right way on its musical merits without having to figure out what this guy is all about."
As for Adeney, he simply hopes to do Wax Mannequin justice with Saxon. "I just want to represent this album as true as we can. It's the record I always wanted to make or knew I'd make eventually. Through all the turmoil I've gone through musically, it's all been leading to this."