“I’ve never been so sad, but I’ve never danced so much.” In eleven words, Brisbane five-piece WAAX capture a universe of heartbreak and excitement, loss and freedom, pain and joy. Delivered by frontwoman Maz DeVita at the end of “Mermaid Beach,” the invigorating introduction to the band’s sophomore album At Least I’m Free, it’s a line that encapsulates the spirit of WAAX at this exact point in time: Worn down, world-weary, but, in spite of it all, still fucking dancing.
To some, a baseline of ‘alive and kicking’ is nothing to celebrate. Not so for DeVita and her bandmates: There was a point, around the release of WAAX’s 2019 debut Big Grief, that she thought there may never be a follow-up. After forming in 2013 and spending the next seven-odd years touring, releasing, and grinding through the Australian music industry, WAAX had finally found some kind of stability, with Big Grief set to be the jewel in the crown of the band’s early years, which had seen them place in the Hottest 100, tour the States and play SXSW, and play triumphant sets at UNIFY and Splendour In The Grass.
Life, as ever, had other plans: faultlines began to appear within the foundations of the band and DeVita’s main writing partner departed WAAX before Big Grief was even announced, let alone released. “I almost thought, ‘Well, I guess the band’s done’,” DeVita recalls. “I didn’t really want to move forward, because there was too much pain in the band, and I was completely depleted.”
Determined to move forward, spurred on by a voice in her head telling her that she still had a spark somewhere in her, DeVita began writing songs with James Gatling, the band’s new guitarist. In Gatling, she found a dramatically, inspiringly different collaborator than she had ever worked with: “With Big Grief, the writing process was quite painful and hard,” DeVita recalls. “With James, it’s just really fun — it was really fun making an album just because we love making music.”
Revitalized, the band committed to a new version of WAAX — a more ambitious, higher-reaching version of an already beloved punk band. DeVita flew to Los Angeles to write songs with legendary songwriter Linda Perry as well as renegade rapper K-Flay, resulting in two of At Least I’m Free’s most striking songs, the Perry collaboration “Dangerous” and K-Flay-featuring “No Doz.” Upon returning, she continued hammering away at songs with Gatling and the rest of the band, before reuniting with Bernard Fanning and Nick DiDia — this time semi-remotely, during peak COVID — to record.
The resulting album contains some of WAAX’s most vibrant, emotionally nuanced songs to date — scream-your-heart-out punk tracks that, nonetheless, are generous and empathic in a way that’s reflective of DeVita’s emotional state while she was writing the album. “I feel like with our last record, it was all ‘Fuck you’,” she says. The breakup that inspired this album, on the other hand, was due to faults on both sides — perfect fodder for some of DeVita’s most subtle, emotive songs to date. “I don’t want to hate people — I feel like as I’m getting older, I just don’t have the time to hold on to grudges.”
You can hear that kindness seeping through on songs like “Read Receipts” and “Man Like Me,” the latter song’s chorus of “I hope you learn to love yourself/I hope you find peace” providing one of the album’s most striking moments. And you can hear it, too, on the galvanizing “Most Hated Girl,” on which DeVita counters the outlandish self-laceration she would dole out as a 16-year-old while acknowledging the ways the system fails young women. Best of all is “Same Bitch,” a song that finds DeVita embracing the glorious messiness of her own personality, and was partially inspired by the unapologetic chaos of the stars of The Real Housewives of Melbourne: “Darling, you know me, I’m still that same bitch!”
You might consider At Least I’m Free something like a second debut album for WAAX — a creative and emotional rebirth that’s resulted in some of the band’s finest, punchiest songs ever. Awash in samples and programmed beats as well as gargantuan riffs and, of course, DeVita’s spine-tingling howl, it’s a record that telegraphs the band’s ambition to step beyond ‘Australian rock’ and into a weirder, wilder landscape. Listening to At Least I’m Free, that ambition doesn’t feel misplaced. WAAX have been to hell and back and, now, they’re charging forward — with clear eyes, a fighting spirit, and, most of all, the freedom they’ve always craved.
Lead image photographer: Finnian Mullen