We sent Ex-Cult singer Chris Shaw to have a chat with his buddy Hether Fortune—the one-time White Lung member and the driving force behind Wax Idols.
I first met Hether Fortune in Memphis, Tennessee when she was visiting a mutual friend for the weekend. Fifteen minutes in and Hether was already giving me life advice and discussing her philosophies on everything from what makes a good band to what makes a bad friend. Many questionable decisions later and I still remember that weekend vividly. That's just the kind of effect Hether has—her ability to seemingly sum everything up into a neat little package and put a new spin on it isn't easily forgotten. While she may have gained a great deal of international exposure thanks to playing in White Lung for the past year or so, those of us who have been paying attention know Hether was a rock star long before teaming up with Mish Way and co.
As the creative force behind Wax Idols, the Los Angeles-based musician has released two records that married dark and nervy post-punk tendencies with a lean towards pop. The latest Wax Idols album will be released later this year and while she repeatedly refused to tell me who is putting it out or what it will be called, it was still a blast catching up.We talked about touring with White Lung, the new Wax Idols album, reclocating from SF to LA, and how radical life changes, depression, and manic episodes have bled into her art.
Noisey: First off, how did you even find time to write this new album with the amount of touring White Lung did last year?
Hether Fortune: I started touring with White Lung in November of 2013 and by that point I had already started writing the next Wax Idols album, so really it was just a matter of time management. There is a lot of down time on tour, as you know—lots of time spent sitting in vans and green rooms. I tried to utilize that as much as possible to work on lyrics, ideas for melodies, art direction, production techniques I wanted to explore, etc. I would sing ideas for parts into my phone as voice memos and carried a notebook around with me everywhere. I am an extremely manic person so it really isn't that difficult for me to always be working creatively on something, no matter where I am, or what else is going on. My brain is constantly firing, so much so that it’s hard to sleep and this creates extreme anxiety. In between tours I would write at home or take trips to San Francisco to demo in the studio.
It seems like in 2014 White Lung played every place that had electricity. Was there ever a moment on those tours that made you stop for a second and pinch yourself?
Definitely. We shared a lot of crazy experiences together, things I will never forget. Walking onstage in Japan at Fuji Rock was definitely one of those surreal moments. Going to Russia was hands down the coolest thing I've ever gotten to do in my life so far. Speaking of electricity, when we played in St. Petersburg, we blew the power out of the venue. While we were waiting for it to get figured out, kids were yelling things like "WELCOME TO RUSSIA!" and everyone was laughing and bringing us vodka shots to pass the time. It was such a joyous, welcoming environment. I was truly moved by the people we met there and the experience of just being in Russia. I mean, who fucking goes to Russia? Maybe I'm naive but I honestly never thought it was possible because the political atmosphere seems so intense and uninviting, especially for a woman like me. But hey, I didn't get arrested or sold into slavery. Surprise, surprise. The media is not entirely accurate!
We got to hang out with Ice-T and CoCo for a little while at Fun Fun Fun in Austin, which was completely hilarious and strange. I managed a stage dive of epic proportions during the Descendants set that night, as well as a stage dive during Cro-Mags that resulted in me cracking my damn head open (I was too high to care, luckily I didn't die). Mish and I spent some time in Greece between tours with our friend Yasi and I actually cried when we got out of a cab in Athens and I saw the Acropolis in person for the first time. Those are just some of magical moments, but it would take me hours to detail all of them, not to mention the hilarious moments. The best thing about touring with White Lung was how our senses of humor meshed so well and how much fun we were able to have in any environment because of that.
Where and when did you record the new album and whom did you work with?
It was recorded in San Francisco at Ruminator Audio, the same place I've made almost all of my records and with the same producer as well—Monte Vallier. It was recorded throughout 2014, whenever I was able to get up there, and I finished it in January. The current Wax Idols drummer Rachel Travers played on most of the album, but otherwise it was just Monte and I doing everything. I needed to keep this one close to the vest.
Do you still plan to work with Slumberland or is there a new label releasing this album?
I signed to a new record label recently, but it's not announced yet so, I can't say.
What made you want to relocate from SF to LA? It seems like there has been this great migration over the past few years from San Francisco down south.
I left because I felt like I had gone as far as I could go in the Bay Area. I lived there, in San Francisco and then Oakland, for six years. It was an incredible place for me during that time, which was like a creative incubation and then birthing period for me. I met a lot of people who inspired me and helped me develop in many ways and I am extremely grateful to those people, that place and to those experiences. But you know, I also endured a lot of traumatic experiences while living there. It just felt like it was time to move on and give myself some new space to breathe in. The cost of living in the Bay Area didn't influence my departure as much as it seems to have influenced other people’s. I lived in a rent-controlled apartment in Oakland and my landlord was a fucking saint. I did well for myself financially on my own terms and had a solid community support system to rely on. I just wanted to push myself and move outside of my comfort zone. LA felt like the natural progression for me, especially because I was specifically seeking more SPACE. It's such a huge city. You can be seen when you want to be seen and hide as needed.
How much of your personal life is reflected on this new album? Between going through a divorce and traveling extensively, what kind of emotions came out once you got into the studio or the mindset of writing this new album?
The new album is 100 percent self-centered and intensely emotional. When I started writing it, I didn't have any solid intention or direction. I was just writing in an attempt to heal myself. My desperation to find answers, closure, strength, and the ability to move forward with my life is what fueled the creation of this record, so I suppose those feelings are likely to come through to the listener at certain moments. I had a nervous breakdown last year after enduring a series of wild panic attacks brought on by all of that exhaustive touring and the divorce that left me feeling like a complete mental patient. I rode a psychotic wave of confusion, terror, delusion, mania, paranoia, and intense isolation for several weeks and have been slowly figuring out how to manage the problem since. So there are definitely extreme highs and extreme lows on this album. Having now been diagnosed with and having gained a better understanding of this serious panic disorder I have, in the wake of said nervous breakdown, as well as my lifetime battle with depression, it's easy for me to see which songs were written as the result of manic chest-puffing episodes and which songs were written from the absolute bottom of the despair pit. It's a wild ride. However, there is a pretty cool bigger picture that I can see in the album now that I am outside of it. I believe that I've made some kind of sonic survival guide: How to Experience, Endure, Process, Conquer and Transcend Pain in Nine Extremely Difficult but Rewarding Steps. [Laughs.]
What’s the most ridiculous question you've been asked in an interview now that it's pretty common knowledge that you are a professional dominatrix?
I honestly don't believe that I have been asked any ridiculous questions. I try not to be too high and mighty about the subject. If someone asks me a question that seems kind of stupid to me, I try to remember that they are probably coming from a place of limited understanding and genuinely do not know what to ask. It's probably a struggle for those people to wrap their head around the idea of being a dominatrix in the first place, let alone find the courage to have a discussion with one. Humility is the best approach.
Lets say you can pick any band to tour with in support of this new album, who would it be? You've got a time machine, so get as obscure as you want.
Roxy Music circa Eno.
Would you consider doing a White Lung / Wax Idols tour in support of the new album? Does the idea of doing double duty on a nightly basis appeal to you or is it important to keep the projects separate?
Helllll no. [Laughs.] I have to be really careful with myself nowadays. My body and my energy levels have entered a new phase. I'm actually not playing in White Lung anymore in order to re-focus completely on my own stuff. I was only ever supposed to do a few tours with them but it worked so well and was so much fun that we kept it going for as long as I was able to.
Anything else you'd like to add? Anyone piss you off lately that need to be called out in this fine publication?
Look out for Yasi Salek and Hether's Krautrock Boy Band. Otherwise, nah. I’ve decided to keep my current beefs private and am trying to resolve that shit within myself for a change. It's too toxic. I'm such a fighter by nature that if I allow myself to get wrapped up in resentment or hatred, it's really hard for me to get out of it. Plus it ramps up my stupid panic disorder. There are a few people out there who have seriously wronged me but they know who they are and have to live with themselves, which is a worse fate than any thing I could send their way. Enjoy that!
Chris Shaw is the singer in Ex-Cult. Listen to their music—it's sweet.