Waydown Wailers meld genres, chart a new course in music industry
Even as they grow in popularity nationally and internationally, the Waydown Wailers have landed more performances locally due to their rising stock on musical charts and reviews from across the world.
The band has had a busy summer. They performed as an opening act for the Charlie Daniels Band at the St. Lawrence County Fair in Gouverneur on Aug. 2 and opened for Jerrod Niemann at the Franklin County Fair on Aug. 13. But the largest-to-date act for the Canton-based group of mostly 50-something rockers took stage Aug. 5, when they opened for hit country music group Lady Antebellum at the Watertown Fairgrounds. We sat down with two members of the Waydown Wailers last month for a conversation about how a group of friends has gone from playing local bars and clubs to landing shows that some only play in their dreams.
NNYB: How did this all come to be, the band the Waydown Wailers?
MIKE: Well, Dave and I were in a group, and I was booking us on more of the festival circuit at the time, and we were also playing the club scene in Northern New York, doing covers and trying to do originals. And when I started putting us on the festival circuit, it became apparent that that was a good spot where I thought we belonged and David agreed. It kind of started from that.
DAVID: Once we decided to disband that other band, Mike and I got together and looked at the festivals we had been playing. It’s a different groove from what we’ve been laying down. I said, why don’t we find our niche? It was right in my wheelhouse, basically. I could write songs that will help us get jobs at those kind of venues. He said, ‘Yeah, OK,’ so at that point, I brought my brother, Christian, in. My brother and I had always talked about being in a band. Christian and I would routinely get together and just jam. Never with any purpose in mind, except to have fun. Once I brought some songs in, he liked them, Mike liked them. We started to work on them and got a little groove going, got a bass player added into the mix and then really concentrated on starting to get our first job.
NNYB: How long ago was this?
MIKE: It goes back to spring of five years ago, so that’s 2011. For our first gig out we played the Made in New York festival in Sackets Harbor. Our goal was to be nothing but original, so we had to concentrate on trying to get enough songs so we could go out and do that. That was at least 30 minutes for most shows; starting out that was our goal to just get those and play. We were playing out for an hour at some places.
DAVID: We had to do some cover songs to do that length of time on stage.
NNYB: You’ve got two other band members. Who are they?
MIKE: We’ve got Christian ‘Mo’ Parker, Dave’s brother. Connor Pelkey plays bass guitar.
DAVID: Christian plays guitar also. You could call him the lead guitar player.
NNYB: How did you settle on the name for the band?
DAVID: We were really trying to coin a name for the kind of sound we were putting out there. We bounced names around for weeks and months. One day I saw this poster that said ‘Waydown Moses.’ I looked at that and thought that was pretty neat. I said to the guys, ‘What do you think of that name?’ And they said it sounded a little too religious possibly. But they liked the name Waydown. … Then my grandson was born, and I talked to my son on the phone and he said, ‘Dad, he’s a wailer.’ And I said, ‘He’s a waydown wailer.’ And that’s where the name came up.
NNYB: In five years, how did all this come to pass with you getting so well known — internationally even — from the festival circuit?
MIKE: Doing originals, there’s nowhere for us to perform. I won’t say nowhere. There are certain places … where it takes some time to prove yourself. So we basically had to find those places and prove ourselves. So with the help of starting at Made in New York for our first show, and going to The Westcott Theater in Syracuse, we’ve been trying to build the band more of a fan base. Our fans are from this area and really don’t drive that far on a Wednesday night to go see a local band. So it’s been tough building that fan base. As we’ve grown outside the box, and by using media and promoting ourselves as strategically as possible using radio promotions and what not, it’s built us outside the box, and now it’s starting to come toward the center. Plus the band is strong, the music’s strong, and all of the other local fairs and festivals are taking more chances bringing us in because we have a local following. It’s working.
NNYB: You had a busy summer this year, opening for some international artists. You opened for Lady Antebellum in August as part of the DPAO Concert Series in Watertown.
MIKE: That was fantastic.
DAVID: Yeah, Lady Antebellum. Before that, we opened for The Charlie Daniels Band. And this all happened within a two-week time span. We had Charlie Daniels and Lady Antebellum in Watertown. And then Jerrod Niemann at the Franklin County Fair in Malone. And what that did for us, was to put us in two weeks in front of I estimate between 7,000 and 9,000 people who hadn’t heard of us, or heard of us but never heard us, and that immediately put a whole bunch of people in our life. Which was really great. Previously when were just starting this up, the only way we could get jobs was to give them recordings of our performances. And they were like, ‘What kind of music do you have, where can we see you, go see you play?’ We didn’t have any of that; we were just building it. It was a long frustrating process. Longer than you’d think. Several times you’d say, ‘Is this really worth it?’ In the end you just keep plugging along, keep getting work.
NNYB: How did you manage to get the Lady Antebellum show?
MIKE: I’d been working at trying to get shows to open for for five years, maybe even before that with the previous band. And it just came. We were very fortunate. They were willing to take the chance. We are a strong band. We have a fan base. I just kept after it. But we still had to go in front of Lady Antebellum’s management before they’d approve it. You have to have your website up to date with pictures. You have to have a video presence. There’s so many key things that have to be done before some of these shows will even look at you. We also finally got a publicist for the first time. Our record label suggested the next move was for us to hire someone to push radio for us, and before she would even look at us, there were about 15 things we had to do to step up to a professional level. We were already moving toward that, but it kind of pushed us a little more to get these key things in place. And they took us on. We are not a national touring act and this woman who is our publicist only looks at national touring acts, but she liked who we were and we proved ourselves and she liked our music and now it’s actually working in her favor and in ours.
NNYB: So define the sound. You’re a mix of blues, even something called swamp rock, Americana, and a dose of Cajun. Are you trying to hone in on a specific genre? Are these all similar genres?
DAVID: This sound we’re trying to create is done on purpose. We found that through our varied interests in music and backgrounds — me being a rocker, a solid rocker and writing rock-type beats and music — and Michael coming from the same kind of background. Mike and I have been in a band together for the last 30 years. And my brother comes from the folk part of that but has a grand love for country sounds and country music. Also I must add my brother’s vast interest and knowledge in older equipment. Vintage amps. Vintage guitars and vintage sounds. That kind of sound is something he brought into the band. So me as the rocker, him with the folk/country background and my big interest in alternative country — or music from the outlaws of country that just never would get put on the regular pop radio. We took that kind of sound with our interest and tried to re-create it. And with that, it immediately brought people’s ears around. What are you guys doing? What is this called? What is this? We couldn’t coin it. We just said a mix of Americana, country, rock, blues, outlaw jam.
NNYB: This is an amalgamation of many different sounds and genres, if you will, but what is the inspiration for carving out your own unique niche within this wide range?
DAVID: The inspiration is this: After doing bars and cover songs for so long, it was either get out of it or do something different. To do something different would mean to totally change everything you’re doing and basically go right back to square one. And when you do that, you find there’s more energy in things you want to do because it’s not that every day, ho-hum, same old deal. You actually have to create something, you have to cut your own path.
MIKE: Our producer, Aaron Hurwitz, who is called ‘Professor Louie,’ is from Woodstock and also is a co-owner of Woodstock Records. He has also helped us be ourselves in a lot of ways. We come in and record in two days. That’s the old-school way of doing things. Everything is recorded live. We don’t change hardly anything in the process. That I think is part of our sound, too. He also helps us with the other things that he arranges and on the album itself and he puts down some keyboards, which eventually we’d like to add when going out live and performing. We’re still growing. It’s been an honor working with him because he worked with Levon Helm and Bob Dylan.
NNYB: How did you hook up with Louie?
MIKE: That’s an interesting story. We play at The Westcott Theater in Syracuse, and I’m grabbing as many shows as I feel fits our style and so we got a show to open for New Riders of the Purple Sage — old school — which is similar to some of the styles we have. I got talking to the guys in the band, and they kind of liked our material and we talked to them about who their record label is, and they said that he might like our material. So I called the gentleman — Louie — and he said send us what you’ve got. Send us some CDs. All we had was live recorded stuff so we sent it down to him. He said, ‘I can work with this. I like the sound.’ Next thing we know we were in the studio recording.
NNYB: Are you guys on a faster than typical trajectory as a band? Two CDs? You’ve got lives and families, How challenging is all this to have two albums out and get the recognition you’ve gotten and traction you’ve gained in less than five years?
DAVID: I’m the guy who likes to get things done quickly. I need to see progress fast. This has been the hardest project I’ve ever been involved in because it moves so slow. So slow that you think nothing’s going to happen. And for us to come out with two albums in a couple of years, with all of us owning our own businesses, having our own families, doing our own thing has been very difficult. It’s quite a juggling act, but one well worth it, of course. Now that we’ve done two albums, we’ve got a third to come out. They want us to put one out back to back. A 2015 release. A 2016 release. And now they want a 2017 release, so we’ve got to come up with eight to 10 songs that are acceptable to lay down as tracks. And put them down within the next five months.
NNYB: It seems as though you’re progressing at a really good pace.
MIKE: One thing Louie has said is the first one, we got it out, got it recorded, production is good. Second one, production’s better. And it just has to keep getting better and better. As we mature as musicians and working with each other, and keeping the same bass player (Connor), which is something else — we had gone through a number of bass players in the beginning — keep all the same people and the same sound. And we have to work with Connor over the internet. He lives in Pennsylvania, so we came up with a system. We bought a device that goes on the internet — and it’s not flawless because sometimes it doesn’t always connect properly — but we’ve been able to keep him. And another thing. Because we’re just not taking every gig that comes along to us — we’re kind of looking for gigs that are going to help us grow, not turning anything away but at the same time we’re not a cover band playing every Friday and Saturday — so we have more time really to take the time we need to work on originals and not go out and play as much.
NNYB: What are you striving for with your songwriting and lyrics? Are you reaching back to your own life experiences? How would you describe your writing and its influences?
DAVID: The songwriting part of it is something I have been intensely studying for the last eight years of so, watching people who are great songwriters lay down the lyrics. Not just the melody, but the lyrics. Why do people want to listen to what the words are in the song? I’ll draw from past experiences, I’ll draw from present experiences. If I have a conversation with somebody I’ve met on the street or somebody I know and they’ve told me an intriguing story, I’ll write about it. Rarely have I had to go and actually study on a subject to actually write a song, but there have been occasional times I’ve had to read articles to get an idea for what I’m trying to say and then project that kind of information into lyrics and onto paper. It’s a conglomeration of things. I try not to write too politically but when you come out with an album called ‘State of the Union,’ you can’t talk your way out of that. Those are personal observations.
NNYB: A lot of music media people, when they’re describing bands, say, ‘So and so is going to be the next Led Zeppelin or the next this or the next that.’ What’s your aim? Are you just trying to be the Waydown Wailers with your own unique sound?
MIKE: I don’t really think about it. I just let it go where it’s going and be happy to be on the ride and excited when we see someone in the audience knows the words to the song. To me, that’s awesome.
NNYB: You are proving the opposite of this question as mostly older musicians. Is the music industry a young man’s game?
DAVID: I don’t care what age you are. You want to listen to music at any age from 8 to 80, 90 or 100. We’re playing music that our peers like to listen to, also older and younger.
MIKE: As far as music, I don’t think there’s an age limit.
DAVID: Some of our heroes are still alive, playing, and we’re still going to shows to see them play.
NNYB: The whole business model in music — iTunes turned the industry upside down selling individual songs — and the instant delivery of music, what are you getting out of that?
MIKE: Because we’re affiliated with a record label, he goes through a company that’s a digital distribution warehouse. Once the product is in their hands, it goes out to all of them, such as iTunes and Spotify. It’s marketing. That’s how it works with the digital network. It’s about getting your product out to get people to listen to you, where before nobody would hear you. It’s not about the money coming from that as much as getting the product out there.
NNYB: If that’s the goal — to get more and more people to listen to your music — has the benefit in that respect outweighed the downfall of the previous business model?
MIKE: Absolutely. Long term, it would be nice to make a few bucks. Or retire. The thing is, it gets the music out there. If nobody hears the music, we may not get that festival, we may not get that opener. Those help us get to the next step on the ladder of playing: performing.
DAVID: That’s what keeps us going. Everywhere we go, we’re making new fans. As long as it’s still sustainable, we’re in the game. If not, we could just go back to the studio and hang out, write songs, have a beer and have a good time.
NNYB: You’re getting reviews from other parts of the world; more opportunities are coming locally, you’re rising on the charts. This is not something that would have happened under the old model.
MIKE: No, because you couldn’t have gotten in with the big shots in the big studios. Now that the industry has changed and it’s a service industry anymore, you have more opportunities to get in, but you’re paying your way in a lot. I don’t like using that word. You’re investing.
DAVID: You’re putting the money up front and then trying to see what kind of return on your investment you get out of it.
NNYB: So if someone’s just starting out, getting the garage band together, kids jamming out. What advice would you give them?
MIKE: I’ve got a son who is trying to put a garage band together, and I tell him first: ‘Have fun.’ It’s going to change. Enjoy your company with each other, get to know your instrument and write the songs.
DAVID: Find what kind of music you like and learn from the masters. Study them. See what they’re doing. With that intent, start your dream. Be true to it .Never think you’re above anything and always be humble.
NNYB: For you guys, if this experience is keeping the dream alive? What’s the dream?
MIKE: It could be for each one of us, different things. For me, I get enjoyment out of doing what we do and getting to perform with the performers we perform next to. For me, that’s a dream. It’s not about the money — it would be nice — but it’s never been about the money. This band is about the music, the stages and getting out and performing.
DAVID: What I want, what my dream is for this band, is to make music my friends would love to come and see. My friends. Their friends. People like us. That’s my dream. That they’ll come and like what we’re doing. That’s good enough.
— Interview by Ken Eysaman. Edited for length and clarity to fit this space.