Ahead of the Now of Never shows, Devolution caught up with The Wake’s frontman, co-founder, and mainstay Troy Payne about the band’s legacy; what fans can expect live; and Payne’s response to gossip and controversy surrounding the shows.
A Brief History of The Wake…
Formed in Columbus, Ohio by Troy Payne (vocals: 1986-present) and Rich Witherspoon (guitars: 1986-1996 / 2007-present); by the late 1980s The Wake settled on their definitive line-up, enlisting James Tramel (bass: 1987-1994 / 2004-2013 / 2016-present), and Daniel C. (drums: 1989-present).
Others have also left their mark along the way: Scott Rozanski (drums: 1987-1989), Rob Brothers (keys: 1990-2009), Steve Creighton (bass: 1995-1997), Mark Gamiere (guitars: 1996-2000), and the late JT Murphy (bass: 1997-1998).
The current lineup, however – Troy Payne, Rich Witherspoon, James Tramel and Daniel C. – represents the core of the band’s “classic” incarnation from 1989-1994. Following the return of Tramel and Witherspoon to the fold between 2004 and 2007, Troy described this iteration of The Wake to Dominion Magazine as “the most productive unit in our history, and the group that is credited by most as the embodiment of The Wake sound”.
Between the late 1980s and early 1990s, The Wake emerged as leaders of a goth rock renaissance in the US, breaking the mold of their deathrock predecessors: Propaganda crediting the band with going on to “shake the very foundations of the death-rock underground”. On the live circuit, The Wake earned their stripes playing support to Skinny Puppy, Nine Inch Nails, And the Trees, Alien Sex Fiend, and Rozz Williams’s Shadow Project; while also becoming notorious for their own headline shows between Ohio, Chicago and New York.
During the same period, the band released their first self-titled demo tape, the ‘Harlot’ and ‘Sideshow’ seven-inch singles, a live video, and incalculable compilation appearances, all under their own label imprint Blaylox Records. Their lyrics appeared in Neil Gaiman’s Sandman comics, and their early releases inspired journalist Dave Thompson to coin the infamous term, “Gothic as Fuck”.
Signing to Cleopatra Records, in October 1993 the band released their highly influential debut album, Masked: “considered by many gothic rock fans as a landmark release” (Terrorizer). The album was followed by a headlining nationwide tour of the US in 1994, by which time The Wake were being heralded in the Alternative Press as spearheading an international “new wave of modern Goth bands”, alongside the UK’s Rosetta Stone and Nosferatu.
During 1995, The Wake played two insanely popular sold-out shows in Mexico City, followed by the release of the Christine remix CD (featuring Rosetta Stone) and its titular single and video (directed by David Glass of Christian Death et al), finding success as an alternative dance club hit. The sophomore album, Nine Ways, produced by Ministry’s Keith ‘Fluffy’ Auerbach, appeared in 1996; followed by two more nationwide tours during 1996 and 1997, along with the band’s return to Mexico, and their first visit to the UK.
In between, however, longtime bassist James Tramel had left the group in 1994, followed by cofounder and guitarist Rich Witherspoon in 1996. Beleaguered by label pressures, the rigours of touring the underground club circuit, lineup changes, setbacks, disappointments, and outright tragedy with the sudden death of then-bassist JT Murphy in 1998, The Wake withdrew from live performance following one last show in 1999.
A near decade of silence followed, although Troy is quick to point out that behind the scenes, The Wake were not inactive. Between 2004 and 2007, James Tramel and Rich Witherspoon had each rejoined the group, ahead of the Blacklist CD and DVD retrospective for Cleopatra and MVD in 2008. New singles ‘Emily Closer’ and ‘Rusted’ followed between 2010 and 2013 on The Wake’s own Blaylox Records label, while Cleopatra began a series of much sought-after vinyl and CD reissues of the classic albums Masked and Nine Ways from 2019 onward.
It was not until 2020 drew to a close, however, that The Wake released the gargantuan Perfumes and Fripperies – their first new studio album in almost 25 years. Quickly becoming Bandcamp’s top-selling goth rock album of all time, Perfumes and Fripperies was praised as “their best album to date, and the best Gothic Rock album of 2020, bar none” (Darkest Wave), and saw the band increasingly acknowledged in the press as “Goth Rock Legends”.
Between 2020 and 2021, Perfumes and Fripperies meanwhile produced further singles ‘Hammer Hall’, ‘Break Me Not’, and the stunning video single for the eponymous ‘Perfumes and Fripperies’; followed by the acclaimed Mixers & Elixirs remix EP, marking the album’s first anniversary.
You’re about to play The Wake’s first live shows since 1999, which will also be the first shows the current lineup have played together since 1994. After all this time, what’s it like getting the live band “match fit” again?
“I’m not sure that I’ll ever feel like there isn’t room for improvement, but I think we’re going to be in pretty good shape for the Now Of Never 2022. We’re definitely ready to get after it. The key (for me at least) is to be master of all the adrenaline – and not vice versa. As far as what it was like getting to this stage of readiness – it was a challenge. There is truth in the old adage “use it or lose it”. Of course, there is a certain amount of muscle memory embedded deep within, but it takes a substantial commitment in order to grow that muscle to the point of usefulness.
There were many practical challenges as well. One example: We’re a quartet now, without a keyboard player. So how are we going to play live? The answer to that riddle was backing tracks. I tried a couple different hardware and software combinations, before ultimately deciding to go with a standalone multi-track playback unit. A side benefit to using backing tracks is that I get to have some backing vocals on a couple songs, which is great and a first, because no one else sings in this band. The downside is now we’re tied to a click track and playback for about half the songs in the set. I think we’d all prefer that wasn’t the case, but it all comes down to tradeoffs and compromise. The playback rig doesn’t take up a seat on the airplane and doesn’t complain about the per diem.”
Since the days of classic 1990s goth rock albums Masked and Nine Ways, your most recent studio album Perfumes and Fripperies has been hailed as a significant progression for the band, while still sounding like The Wake. What do you see as the key differences between The Wake now and then; and what do you think are some of the core threads running through everything you’ve done?
“I think our sound is the common thread that runs the breadth of the catalogue. You know who you’re listening to. Lyrically, things cut in both directions. Darkness is common to both then and now, but a case can be made for the current work being more introspective, resolute, and melancholy vs the earlier material that I see as more questioning, searching, and angry. The contrasting voices and sentiments of an angry young man fighting against the system vs an old salt who’s learned there’s no way to win while you’re still playing the game. I’m not saying I’m either of those characters. And I’m not saying I’m not, either.”
How do you decide on the balance between older and newer songs for your live sets, and what sort of mixture should audiences expect?
“If all goes well, fans can expect a pretty even split. We made a conscious effort to include songs from each record. Popularity, and joy of playing, along with practicality, rounded out the considerations for the setlist. Getting an order that flows the way you want is maybe the biggest challenge.”
You recently shared a video from The Wake’s rehearsals, playing your early breakthrough single ‘Sideshow’ sounding incredibly polished and, arguably, even stronger than the original. How does the band tackle the challenge of keeping songs you’ve been playing for 30+ years vital and fresh? How does your approach to playing older material evolve and develop over time?
“Kind words. Thank you. It’s true that you get tired of certain songs, or that they don’t carry the same meaning for you that they once did. But it is also true that certain songs retain their spell over many years. I think Sideshow probably falls into the latter column for me. I also feel, that after half a lifetime, I’m finally figuring out how to sing. So, using new techniques on old songs – with learned wisdom – also helps keep them fresh. It’s rewarding when you hear what you intended.”
Late last year you released the remix EP, Mixers & Elixirs, featuring Kill Shelter, Agent Side Grinder, SINE, Andee Blacksugar (KMFDM), and Matt Hagberg. Back in 1995 you’d also released the remix CD, Christine, but aside from the band’s own mix of the title track, it seemed like The Wake came away from that overall remix experience somewhat disillusioned. What was the appeal behind diving back into the remix arena last year? And how did you approach it differently?
“I don’t know that we came away disillusioned from the experience in ‘95, more likely we entered the experience that way. For one, it was not our idea. I also think there was a bit of the feeling among us of “if we wanted it to sound different, we would’ve made it different”. From my perspective, Rosetta Stone did an excellent job, and I think they were probably ahead of their time with those remixes in ‘95 actually. I still enjoy listening to the Christine EP.
On Mixers & Elixirs, the remixes were our idea, and we knew what to expect. The goal was to get something totally different that would reflect the brand of each of the contributing artists, while also staying true to the essence of the original track. I believe we did that.”
Following the final confirmation of your New Jersey and Madrid shows, there was some controversy on social media about the cancellation of other planned shows in the UK and Europe. Some of that response seems to have been fueled by rumors and assumptions behind why that happened. Care to set the record straight?
“Sure, but if you don’t understand after reading what we’ve already said about it, and you’re still seething 4 or 5 months after receiving your refund – then there’s probably not an explanation that is going to satisfy you. Bands of all sizes and stripes have to (and do) cancel shows and whole tours almost daily for every kind of reason. Check your Twitter feed. Rest assured that we did what was necessary based on all of the information available and circumstances at the time the decisions were made. When you start taking all of the risks, assuming the consequences, and paying all the bills – then you can make the decisions for this band. But until then, kindly zip it. Yes, I channeled your parents for that last bit. Prove otherwise.”
You’re joined on these live dates by supporting acts Caroline Blind in New Jersey, and NU:N in Madrid. How did you decide on the opening acts, and what can fans expect from them?
“Yeah, stoked to see both of these acts. Caroline Blind is a friend, and we go way back. The Wake and her old band, Sunshine Blind, played shows together all over the country at different times – NYC, Asbury Park, LA, San Francisco, and Chicago. More recently, she and Rich collaborated on several tracks for her latest album, The Spell Between, as well as tracks on Voidant’s self-titled release. Caroline was kind enough to help us setup the show in Newark. She and I were discussing ideas for openers. I asked her if she would open, and she graciously said yes. I know she will be terrific live, as she has been working hard and sounding better than ever.
NU:N came to us via Endemoniada Promotions (promoter of the Madrid show). They are fellow inhabitants of the underground from Portugal and play what I would describe as atmospheric epics in the realm of Fields of the Nephilim. They’ve been doing some touring of their own this year, have lots of fans, and are sure to be great on the big Nazca stage.”
Bassist James Tramel has indicated that these could be his final shows as a member of The Wake. Does that bring an anticlimactic element to the upcoming shows? Or does it make them even more special, as both the first and last chance to see this line-up together on stage in such a long time?
“Depends on your perspective I suppose, but for me and the rest of the band I think it’s more special – if not bittersweet. We’ve all been friends for decades, and James is part of the Wake family. Wherever life takes him, we wish him well.”
Having been around a while, you’ve existed as peers and contemporaries of many other artists at different times. Mixers & Elixirs made it clear that you’re still paying attention to what’s going on around you, when others of a similar vintage might have defaulted to comrades from the old days. Who are some of your favorite artists currently working in the goth rock / post-punk / darkwave and adjacent fields? And what are some of your favorite releases from the last two years since Perfumes and Fripperies came out?
“So many great bands and music out there to discover and enjoy. I tend to spend a lot of time these days in what most would probably consider solidly adjacent or completely non goth, but to me it all has some thread of darkness that appeals to my inner being. You sometimes find treasure when you expand your horizons. Just a few from the last couple years that I’ve been digging:
Psychedelic Furs – Made of Rain – great record, love “No-one” and “Wrong Train”
SHEAFS – A Happy Medium – great post-punk album, amazing debut.
Starbenders – Love Potions – lots of good stuff from the glam realm, love “Holy Mother” and “London” also “Blood” and “Time Stops” from Heavy Petting. And the single “Seven White Horses” from this year.
Billy Idol – Bitter Taste – great single from 2021, have always loved Billy’s voice.
Anna von Hausswolff – Mysterious Vanishing of Electra – 2017 (close enough) love this track and video. Crazy Live also.
Cevin Key – Anger is an Acid (feat. IAMX) – love it, cinematic with soaring vocals.
Black Label Society – Set You Free from 2021, and A Love Unreal from 2018 – glorious chunka chunka guitar! Two of my favs in heavy rotation.
Kid Kapichi – Houehold Shame – single from 2020. Also love Sardines and Glitterati from 2021, and I.N.V.U from 2022.
And least I forget, Viagra Boys – Ain’t No Thief, Baby Criminal, and Punk Rock Loser from 2022 Cave World.
I could go on, but you get the idea!”
Going forward, you’ve indicated recently that you want to come back to Europe in 2023. Does that mean we can finally put the rumors to bed that these shows could spell the end for The Wake? What else is on the horizon?
“Wow, the rumor mill must be running double shifts… The Wake will outlive us all. It’s immortal now and that’s kinda been the point all along. The plan (my plan at least) is more records, more videos, and possibly more shows. But the Magic 8 Ball says, “the future is cloudy – check again later”.