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Q&A: Axe and the Oak's Sander Willig on Postpunk Twang and Yo Gabba Gabba

Axe and the Oak epitomize an aesthetic all their own: twangy in sound, dapper in dress, pure in pursuit. Their debut EP was long-awaited and toiled over till perfection. Then two picks from its six-song track list -- "Vampire" and "Dancing on the Grave" -- were released on a limited-edition 45 on Record Store Day. That marked both the potential beginning of a Radio-Active Records record label and the band's foray into new territory: one in which we get to hear more of its dark, danceable Americana, which sounds like velvet. The genres to which they've been pegged are accurate, and yet they are excellent at blending them, breaking out of all of them, renewing them. All three are skilled, deft musicians. It's unsurprising they've made "rockabilly" or "postpunk" or "surf" too complex to pin down and define.

Ahead of their show at Grand Central with Pretty Please and Fight Like Animals -- and because we're so happy we can finally hold a physical version of their music in our hands -- we were prompted to interview guitarist/vocalist Sander Willig about the release, their reputation as perfectionists, and, perhaps, another record.

New Times: Tell me a little bit about how Axe and the Oak came to be, what you guys were working on before you came together as a group, how it all evolved.

Sander Willig: I began writing music the moment I picked up the guitar -- no covers, no lessons. I have been in bands with both Myles and Fernando in the past. Myles and I both started off playing in a punk band when we were about 14 years old. I played guitar, and Myles played bass. We were hardcore skaters, and so were the singer and drummer; skateboarding was the true beginning of our exposure to punk and hardcore music.

A few years and a variety of music projects later, I ran into Fernando, a very well-rounded percussionist already. I took on singing as well as guitar and songwriting, added a bass, violin, cello, and clarinet player, along with Fernando on drums, to form the band Sift. This was a complex mix of goth and jazz reveling itself in mostly introverted ways. This was the last serious musical venture before Axe and the Oak, and for the time in between -- almost a decade -- I didn't set foot on a live stage.

Fortunately an invitation to play a solo acoustic set a few years ago cracked open the coffin and emerged the rock 'n' roll zombie that is Axe and the Oak.

There was no recruiting -- just "Hey Myles, hey Fernando, wanna start a band?" I started focusing on the extroverted and crooning potential in my voice. Now I'm mustering the courage to pay homage to the likes of Dave Vanian, David Bowie, Morrisey, Peter Murphy, and Lux Interior. It is a humbling experience. This approach is important because it not only allows me to be bold but allows the entire band to be bold. A new honest look at my love for surf and rockabilly really rounded out the gloomy, '80s post-punk and goth side of my songwriting and subsequently has led Myles and I on a serious quest for the holy grail of guitar tone. Myles is extremely talented at figuring stuff out. Fernando has developed an intensity in his attack that solidifies the intended intensity of the music and also playfully contradicts his amazingly gentle nature. This is a trio that prides itself on combining the rawness of simple rock 'n' roll instrumentation with the dark depths of the postpunk era. We always strive to add to the grand tradition of all things spooky and twang. It's postpunk twang! So, here we are.

The combination of your influences has resulted in some mighty powerful stuff. You've been playing music since you were a kid, and now you're paying homage to the greats, but there was a long journey in between. How has the local music world -- or the artistic landscape overall -- shifted since you started playing? I know from an interview with Myles that your first show was one Raffa [of Raffa + Rainer] put together, so you've always been part of a local family, but do you find that it functions differently or offers more opportunities for exposure now?

In the '50s, Miami was the place to be if you had anything to do with rock 'n' roll. That South Florida heyday was long forgotten before we were born. When my friends and I first started playing instruments and forming bands, it was the tail end of the '80s. Our influences stemmed primarily from the hardcore scene. DIY was the mantra: Start a band with your friends, teach yourself to play, teach yourself to play loud and fast, stand for something, make your own shirts, magazines, and posters. Not only did hardcore bands have plenty of all-age venues in Miami such as the Cameo, the Thrashcan, the Junkyard, Grove Cinema, and of course Churchills [but] live venues were often pool parties, skate ramps, parking lots or even the spare dining hall of a mental institution.

College radio, independent record stores like Y&T, fliers, and mail-order catalogs were the main methods of communication. The internet is obviously the most profound difference between now and then.

That was our miniheyday. The scene disappeared for a while. Then a handful of us decided to create a music and art scene from the ground up by DIYing everything, from the recording studio and record label to the art gallery. This led to another mini-underground heyday, followed by another brief lull. Now, people like Lolo from Sweat and Mikey [Ramirez] from Radio-Active are kickin' it old school with vinyl, supporting local bands and finding ways to use the internet to build the indie music scene rather than tear it down. A genuine enthusiasm for live music and physical media is growing and counteracting the effects of things like iTunes and MTV's crossover from music television to "reality" television. Things are looking up even if at times they are looking up from the bottom of a well.

When Abel Folgar reviewed your album, he wrote that he was relieved you guys released something, given your reputation for being perfectionists. Another interview referred to you guys as "eternal tinkerers." Can you talk a little bit about what it took for your work to finally culminate in a physical album?

Well, we have careers and families. It is still for fun, but at first the band was really only for fun. Many of our first songs have changed or have been pushed aside by new material before ever getting recorded. I am plenty fond of my first batch of songs written, but it took some time to feel the urgency to start releasing music. The first self-released EP mostly offered a way of putting into perspective who we are as a trio, particularly the process of recording in a studio for the first time as Axe and the Oak. The 2011 Record Store Day seven-inch is a direct result of Radio-Active Record's support for the band. Both Mikey and Richard [Vergez] have been incredibly enthusiastic about our music. Radio-Active's interest in extending their reach from store to label has blessed us with our first vinyl. "Tinkerers" we are not. Perfectionists? Absolutely. With our current set and new material in the works, the momentum and excitement to release more records is growing fast.

That is exciting -- can you talk at all about the new material? What are you working on?

We are still an unsigned band. As far as future records, the if is definite; the how is yet to be determined. The new material reaches out a little further and pushes aspects of our music that deserve more attention. Not much more can be said as of yet, but I am confident our listeners will be pleasantly surprised without feeling betrayed by their expectations. Is that vague enough?

Shifting gears a bit, since you already touched upon your musical influences -- and especially since I saw you guys play alongside the film Rumblefish at Cinema Sounds -- could you tell me what else influences you and your sound or what you've simply been enjoying as of late? (Films, book, music...)

I think everyone in the band has become more tuned in to subtle influences. Originals are always relevant, so music, style, and attitudes from the past are often topics of conversation. Personally, I am pretty keen on aspects of individual character. I'd have to say Atticus Finch (To Kill a Mockingbird), Brobee (Yo Gabba Gabba), and Vince Noir (The Mighty Boosh) offer a good balance of influence and enjoyment. This is how I would like to relate to the world anyway.

Axe and the Oak. With Pretty Please and Fight Like Animals. 11 p.m. Friday, May 13, at Grand Central, Miami. No cover; 18 and up. More info available on the Facebook event page.

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Monica Uszerowicz