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Dean Fertita, songwriter and lead guitarist for Detroit-based pop group the Waxwings, might be the least career-minded musician this side of Guided by Voices' Bob Pollard to make a great album. Fortunately, he has luck on his side -- as evidenced by the chance way in which his band wound up signed to Bobsled Records, an Illinois-based label with a small but brilliant roster of neo-classic pop acts. Bobsled's founder, Bob Salerno, personally serviced retail outlets with his label's music when he started the company; his path crossed with Fertita's in 1998.
"I was working at a record store in Detroit," the thirty-year-old Fertita says from his home in Ferndale, just north of the city. "Bob had been traveling around setting up his first single, for Adventures in Stereo. There was a snowstorm, and no one else was in the store, so we talked." But Fertita didn't mention his band to Salerno. Instead, he passed along a copy of a disc by then virtually unknown Detroit scenesters the White Stripes. About six weeks later, Salerno called Fertita to tell him he'd enjoyed the disc and that he'd learned on his own about the Waxwings while further exploring Detroit's potent unsigned talent.
"It was another year before we made the album," Fertita says. That disc, 2000's unabashedly tuneful Low to the Ground, was illustrative of the band's patient approach to its own development. Two years passed between Fertita and Salerno's meeting and the Waxwings' debut for the label. In the meantime, Fertita recruited Kevin Peyok, guitarist Dominic Romano and drummer Jim Edmunds to perform his songs. Now, another two years later, the band has released a follow-up album titled The Shadow of the Waxwings and is back on the road, revisiting many of the same cities it stopped in on last year's high-profile jaunt with the VonBondies and the White Stripes.
"We're just coming to realize who we are as a band," Fertita says. "The first record [which Salerno co-produced] was such a learning experience. It wasn't until we were physically in the studio that we bonded as a band. The last year on the road has done that even more."
Four years ago, Fertita was writing songs on his own. "I'd played in bands, but there was never anything that gave me a sense of 'This is what I should be doing,'" he says. "They didn't touch on the influences that affected me. Occasionally, I was trying to write for these groups, but I don't feel like I did much, because I never had a definite vision. I wanted to work out some of these ideas I had, so I was going to play an acoustic show, just to get out of the shell of sitting in my bedroom working on stuff. A friend of mine in New York suggested that I come out there and just do it. She said it would be more anonymous than doing it in Detroit, which turned out to be the right motivation factor."
At the last minute, Fertita got cold feet and decided he'd prefer having other musicians back his material. "I called Dominic and Kevin and said, 'Hey, do you wanna go to New York for the weekend?'" Fertita says. "And I'd known our drummer, Jim, since I was twelve. They were in bands already, but we went and played the show really quick."
The seven songs the still-unnamed Waxwings played -- including "Ten O'Clock Your Time," a highlight from Low to the Ground -- convinced Fertita that the combination of musicians was what he'd been looking for. But, typically, it was a year before the band recorded its first demos. The process owes its relatively lengthy passage in part to Fertita's reluctance to allow dormant material to stick around.
"I'm bad about not editing," he says. "I work on things but throw them away because I can't listen to them anymore. When we got together, I started completely from scratch. Dominic is a brilliant singer, and that's made me think of how to approach songs more quickly, writing for his voice."
The Waxwings are part of a Detroit scene that is more musically vital now than it has been at any time Fertita can remember. "We've wanted to bring Detroit to people," he says. "It's a small representation, but a really good one. There's diversity in sound. I'm sure a lot of people wouldn't expect us to play with the White Stripes, but there isn't that kind of separation. There's a purity in the isolation Detroit's scene has from what everyone else is doing. You kind of grow up with this feeling that people aren't going to be coming to Detroit looking for the next musical thing, so there was never that pretense. I want to hold on to that purity as long as I can."
Playing for what Fertita describes as a "small group of friends and critics," the Waxwings have been able to feel out the boundaries of the band at a relaxed pace. Some members continued to play with other groups or go to school even as they moved in together. "It wasn't until the album was completed that the other commitments were gone and we were concentrating on just this one thing," Fertita says. "We've given up our jobs now. It's a real struggle, but we all motivate each other. There's just enough competition in the band. It's comforting, the way the guys put their personality on the outline of the songs and we mutually support each other."
Fertita says the group will head back to the studio in August. All of his new demos have been for the band, and the other members will likely contribute more writing this time. "Our second record isn't going to sound like our first," Fertita says. He doesn't want the group's '60s-slanted sound, which fits neatly among the lush sound of Bobsled's other bands, to become an albatross for the Waxwings. "We don't want to restrict ourselves to a certain sound to be part of something."What the group remains part of is the new Detroit -- not Rock City, but Smart Pop Suburb."