Overcoming a crushingly bizarre ordeal around her last album, the leader of the mystifying Bay Area post-punk band taps into the supernatural. And the 'guiding light' of a vital friendship.
They say you should never meet your idols. Or worse, that you should kill them. Hether Fortune did pretty much the opposite, and it’s worked out just fine.
Last night, her band Wax Idols surprise-opened for legendary post-hardcore good guys Thursday, playing their 2002 breakthrough Full Collapse front-to-back in San Francisco. It was the opening date of a North American tour celebrating the 20th anniversary of the band led out of the New Jersey basement scene by galvanizing frontman Geoff Rickly. By all accounts, the show was amazing: You don’t get to doing sold-out 20th anniversary punk shows without knowing how to assemble a killer bill. Wax Idols’ soon-to-arrive LP Happy Ending, features some of the most catchy, captivating, frost-coated post-punk you’ll hear, an essential complement to Thursday’s passionate fury.
Before they were sharing the stage, Fortune was right up against it. Growing up in the middle of rural Michigan, she would hitchhike up to 200 miles to the closest cities -- Detroit, Lansing, Flint -- whenever Thursday came through, obsessed with Full Collapse and the emotional catharsis of seeing the band perform it. “Biggest dork fan” and “lurker teen” are the descriptors she chooses: “I would bring poems I was writing to their shows and wait until I saw Geoff,” she remembers. “He would read them and give me feedback… technically he was my first editor.”
For an artistically-inclined, tomboy-ish kid raised in “buttfuck nowhere," this is the sort of rare spark for one member of a graduating high school class of 46 to leave town and break the sheltered, working-class mold. Over time, Fortune was such a fixture in the front row of Thursday shows that the whole band came to know her, and always saved a spot for her on its guest list. Their relationship never approached toxic band-groupie territory; Thursday recognized Fortune’s supportive spirit and years later, her passion manifested in not just exploring her own musical projects, but taking charge of them, in all aspects.
Happy Ending, Wax Idols’ fourth album, arrives May 16 on Etruscan Gold Records, an independent label Fortune started herself in 2017. Her first move was to re-release Wax Idols’ previous LP, American Tragic, after the band found itself label-less following some rather… irregular circumstances. Wax Idols was one of the first artists signed to Collect Records, an ultra-promising, artist-friendly label started by Rickly, with whom Fortune reconnected shortly before her previous label, the veteran Bay Area indie Slumberland, declined to release American Tragic. As luck would have it, Wax Idols was also the last artist to release on Collect.
In Sept. 2015, a month before American Tragic was scheduled to drop, the public learned of a grotesque figure named Martin Shkreli, the infamous “Pharma Bro,” who’d recently purchased and promptly price-gouged a medication commonly used to treat AIDS and cancer. Shkreli, himself a Thursday devotee, also happened to fund Collect (though he took no profit from it). Shocked by the revelation about his benefactor, Rickly quickly severed ties and his bands sounded off in a chorus of support; "I personally 100% am NOT FUCKING OK with this guy and his business tactics,” Fortune wrote. They escaped with their integrity, but Wax Idols again found themselves label-less. For a gripping album largely inspired by the tumult of Fortune’s own divorce, it’s hard to fathom a more absurd distraction.
Speaking to Fortune earlier this month, though, she sounds deeply re-energized. The new album she’s been talking about in interviews since 2016 will soon arrive from the pressing plant. She’s relocated from Los Angeles to the band’s original home base of Oakland. She’d worked on American Tragic while on the road, pulling double duty as the bassist in the L.A./Vancouver-based punk band White Lung; this album, she wrote with Wax Idols her lone focus. And though she still co-produced it, she ceded some instrumentals to the band’s crack players: Peter Lightning on guitar, Rachel Travers on drums, Marisa Prietto on bass (since completion, Greer McGettrick replaced Prietto for live shows).
Billboard chatted with Fortune about finally unveiling the new LP, doing it through her own Etruscan Gold Records, how she got the label off the ground -- and of course, about Geoff Rickly and Thursday. Within our Q&A, you’ll also find the premiere of “Too Late,” the latest new track off Happy Ending (available for pre-order here).
Listening to the lyrics on Happy Ending, it sounds like the idea of existing outside your body is really important to you. How come?
Hether Fortune: A lot of it has to do with my experience in this body, in this life. And there are privileges that have come with it. I'm a relatively attractive -- by society’s standards -- white person, so it's not all bad. But being a woman and being somebody who is more androgynous, with the personality and the mind with the body that I’m in, it's been quite difficult to exist in a way where I feel safe, empowered and comfortable, and like, "It’s okay for me to be who I really am, which is my mind and my spirit, without my body and the way I appear influencing how I’m perceived."
So that's something I struggled with my whole life, and I’ve gotten to a point at the ripe age of 30 [laughs] where I really want to find ways to explore and express those ideas artistically, rather than railing against it violently.
It sounds like it's really important for the music you're making to reflect what's going on inside you and not just, you know, the attractive outside that people see.
HF: Yeah, or to some people, the unattractive outside. I think I’m somewhat of a polarizing figure. I’m at the point where I want the music that we make and ideas and beliefs to be focused on more than the crazy outfits I wear. Or the fact that I was a dominatrix. Or the fact that I have opinions about things and people go, “Ohhh, she said what?!" I really want to refocus and redirect the conversation to, "I'm an artist, and I have something to say." I would like the opportunity as a band to be taken seriously that way.
On the song we’re premiering, “Too Late” -- you sing about not being about to turn back at heaven’s gate. A good deal of Happy Ending seems to deal with these moments right before and after death.
HF: Yeah, it does. [On “Too Late”], I was trying to put myself in the headspace of somebody at that moment of death and transcendence. Perhaps they’re experiencing regret. In a way I’m singing to somebody, saying it’s too late — you can’t go back and change the things you did. Whether someone believes in heaven and hell or whatever, I use those metaphors and mythologies, because they’re the most universal way humans try to imagine what happens after we die.
What are your personal beliefs on the afterlife?
HF: I don't necessarily believe in an afterlife faith, but I believe pretty strongly in the transference of energy, what some people interpret to be reincarnation. We as humans, and all living things, contain huge amounts of energy, scientific-style energy -- I don't think that disappears. I don’t know where it goes, but I think that energy goes somewhere.
Energy has to go somewhere.
HF: In my life, I’ve experienced that when people I’ve been very close to, or even animals, pass. I feel like some of their spirit, their energy, comes into me, and I carry it.
When my uncle died last year, my cousin Keith was there... He saw and felt the energy leave his body, and he felt some of it go into him. Keith and I had this conversation that formed and cemented a lot of my beliefs.
Between writing the music, producing, and self-releasing on Etruscan Gold, what was it like being involved in so many sides of releasing this album?
HF: It's exhausting. But it's also very rewarding, I like hard work. I’m a worker. I was raised in a low-income working class family where I started working when I was like 13, and my mother instilled a very strong work ethic in me. I watched her grind and grind, day and night, my whole life. I get tired and overwhelmed, but my bandmates and our management help me. You gotta work for what you want. That's what I've always believed.
I always hear how difficult it is for independent labels to get vinyl pressed, since there are only so many plants, and major labels have so much sway. Have you had to deal with any of that?
HF: Well, I've heard those stories too, but I would be a liar if I said I had any difficulty because we're doing our record through Pirates Press, which is a pretty huge [independent] vinyl company based here in the Bay Area. I used to work there, in the flexi disc department, operating the machines. I know the people there, so I was able to just be like, “Hey I'm starting a label, can you help me?” And they did.
You gotta make sure the test pressings are correct, that all the art proofs are right, then hope it all gets shipped on time, without getting damaged. You then have have to assemble everything, mail everything out, get distribution, etc. The details are where the work really is.
What advice -- perhaps something not said enough -- would you give to someone starting their own label?
HF: You have to work your ass off. You gotta stay organized, keep track of numbers and dates. Spreadsheets are your friend.
Be prepared to not make any money for a while. You have to love music more than anything in the world to start a record label, or do any of this shit. People will think it’s all fun and games -- you're just partying! No. It's work.
Practice what you preach. You have to engage and support other people. Get your of your house, take your earbuds out, and go to a goddamn record store. Buy albums, that’s my advice. Buy albums.
How does your friendship with Geoff and your time working with him at Collect influence what you’ve been doing with your label?
HF: He is one of the many lights of my life. He has been a guiding light and influence for me since I was 13, 14 years old. When Collect went under, he gave me back all the rights to American Tragic immediately. He's done everything in his power to make the transition as smooth for me as possible, despite all the shit he’s had to go through.
After a decade-plus in the industry, I can say with the utmost certainty that it is rare that your expectations of a person in music match the reality of who they are. Geoff is that exception. He is the rarity. What you see and what you hope he's like based on him as a performer, the way that he writes, the things he talks about -- that's really who he is. And it takes its toll. A lot of what he presents is pain and suffering… He has indeed suffered greatly in his life. But he is an incredible person.
When you were going to Thursday shows in high school, was this around when you started performing, doing what led to Wax Idols?
HF: No, no, no. I had no ambition for doing a band when I was a teenager. I was quite fully insecure and awkward. Never in a million years had anyone paid attention to me for any reason.
I wanted to be a producer. I was going to a summer camp for production and my plan was to go to college for audio production -- which I did do, but I had to drop out once my scholarship ran out, because I couldn't afford to continue, and my family couldn't afford to put me through school, either. I didn't start Wax Idols until 2009, so four years after I left.
So what was it that gave you the confidence to get onstage?
HF: I have no idea how I ended up here. I don't know. It just happened. I had been writing poetry since I was 9, and I’d been obsessed with music my whole life. I was interning at a recording studio in Chicago when I was 18 after I had to drop out of college and I just started writing songs. My friends would hear me playing them and they’d be like, "These songs are good!" I’d be like, "Really?"
So I started doing open mic nights and stuff when I was 19. I’d play like three originals and a Mazzy Star cover, “Fade Into You.” I was like, "This feels right -- this feels what I’m supposed to be doing even though it’s terrifying." Eleven years later, here we are.