1988 (L-R): Troy Payne, Rich Witherspoon, James Tramel, Scott Rozanski.
Report by Michel
Formed in: 1986
Location: Columbus, Ohio
Members: Troy Payne, Rich Witherspoon, Daniel C.
Alongside bands like Screams For Tina or Mephisto Walz, The Wake were part of the first wave of American bands in the bona-fide ‘gothic rock’ style to emerge during the mid-late 1980s, thence to dominate the genre for much of the 1990s. As such, The Wake and their generation of American goth bands were distinct from the earlier US ‘deathrock’ groups, whose advent had run parallel to the early UK dark post-punk/proto-gothic scene of the late ‘70s and early ‘80s. Indeed, during the early ‘90s, Propaganda Magazine described the band as one who “would go on to shake the very foundations of the American death-rock underground”, while The Wake had become the first known band to be termed “Gothic as fuck”. Coined by noted music journalist and historian Dave Thompson of the Alternative Press to describe the sound of their album ‘Masked’ (Cleopatra Records, October 1993), this quickly became the favoured motto of the band’s label, Cleopatra, and the rest, as they say, is history.
But where their US gothic rock contemporaries often favoured a slightly noisier, guitar-driven approach, The Wake took stronger cues from the more immediate, catchy hooks and arguably more commercial songwriting of UK bands like The Sisters of Mercy; sometimes drawing criticism as being overly derivative of the Sisters’ sound. Over the years, however, the band have proven time and again that their formula for streamlined, accessible goth rock is not only a popular one with fans old and new, but one that they do in fact put their own unique spin on, not least because of their penchant for blending in more ethereal atmospheres and textures. The band’s most recent single, ‘Rusted’, remixed by John Fryer of 4AD staples This Mortal Coil, perhaps best exemplifies the marriage of these elements, creating what is arguably The Wake’s strongest, most innovative work to date.
The Wake formed in 1986, when vocalist Troy Payne and guitarist Richard Witherspoon began to collaborate in Columbus, Ohio, having been friends from highschool since 1983. With session players on bass and drums, the pair entered the studio as The Wake for the first time to record ‘Procession’ at the Recording Workshop in Chillicothe, Ohio in 1987. The session also marked the beginning of a long-running collaboration with the Recording Workshop’s resident production engineer, Zane Eric Brown (Eric). Eric became a big fan of The Wake, and would go on to produce almost all of the group’s recordings between 1987 and 1995.
The addition of James Tramel on bass and drummer Scott Rozanski completed the band’s line-up later that year; Rozanski played an original Simmons electronic kit, which Troy and Rich felt matched what they were doing at the time. In 1988, the new four-piece recorded initial versions of tracks including ‘Burial’, ‘Sheila’, and ‘Locomotive Age’, again with Eric at the Recording Workshop, laying the foundations for what would become The Wake’s signature sound.
Soon afterwards, however, the band concluded that Rozanski’s drumming was no longer the ideal fit for The Wake going forward, and made the decision to look for a replacement. After six months of searching, acoustic drummer Daniel C. came aboard in early 1989. Rich says that finding Daniel “changed everything overnight; it was exactly what we were looking for – the core of The Wake”. Propelled by Daniel’s drumming, the band moved substantially towards a more rock-driven sound.
1989 also saw the band pulling together material for their début release. Returning to the Recording Workshop, ‘Locomotive Age’ was re-recorded with Daniel C. on drums, alongside new tracks ‘Harlot’, ‘Nazarene’ and ‘Reverend Mother’. Together with the original version of ‘Sheila’ (featuring Scott Rozanski on drums), these songs would comprise The Wake’s self-titled demo tape later that year. Meanwhile, the song ‘Burial’, another out-take from the earlier sessions with Rozanski, had been released on a compilation tape accompanying local fanzine Sprogg, making it the band’s first official release. Sprogg was published by Nick Wilson (alias Nick Sprogg, Pappa Happ or Nicky Illiopolis), who worked with Rich Witherspoon at local record store, Magnolia Thunderpussy, and ran the short-lived Ohio label Sprogg Pop Records.
‘The Wake’ demo tape was released in November 1989 on the band’s own label, Blaylox Records. Named after their mascot cat, the Blaylox label was founded as a vehicle with which to promote and distribute the band’s output far and wide, whilst retaining their independent status. The Blaylox imprint would also become an important platform for Rich Witherspoon’s artwork, design and photography, which has featured on all of The Wake’s releases ever since. Although the self-titled demo was issued in 1989, the tape’s J-card listed it as a “Blaylox Records ‘90” release, simply because it had appeared so near to the end of the year.
The Wake very quickly grew a live following around the Ohio club circuit during these early years; regular haunts included the Newport Music Hall and a club called Staches in Columbus, as well as the Phantasy Theatre in Cleveland where they even opened for the likes of Skinny Puppy during 1988’s VIVIsectVI Tour, and NIN’s Pretty Hate Machine Tour in 1989. One of the more memorable highlights during this period from the band’s perspective, however, was when The Wake played at Staches supported by Lestat from Cleveland, and local band Martyr Colony, where around 400 people crammed into the tiny club causing total mayhem. On another occasion the Fire Department showed up expecting a fire, due to the excessive amount of fog from the smoke machine spilling out onto the street.
In 1990, keyboardist Robert Brothers was brought in to augment the now firmly established core sound. Buoyed by the sales of their demo, The Wake in turn hit the NYC goth club scene (the Pyramid Club in particular), armed with copies of their new 7” vinyl single ‘Harlot’ (Blaylox 1990), from the same Recording Workshop sessions as the self-titled demo. The following year also saw the release of the band’s live video, ‘On the Ghost Train’, capturing performances from the Agora Ballroom and Phantasy Theater in Cleveland, the Newport Music Hall and Staches in Colombus, and the Vampire Circus in Chicago, Illinois. The Wake also supported English goth stalwarts And Also The Trees during the latter’s tour of the US in 1991.
In 1992, the band released their next 7” single on Blaylox – ‘Sideshow’, as well as a digitally remastered reissue of the original self-titled demo tape. ‘Sideshow’ also caught the attention of Vertigo/DC Comics artist Neil Gaiman, who featured the song’s lyrics in an episode of The Sandman, depicting a character dressing in his room while listening to The Wake. Having no idea who the cult graphic novelist was, the band had nearly passed up the opportunity when Gaiman first contacted them for permissions, thinking it was “just some kid making a comic”. It was also around this period (1992-1993) that The Wake played a number of shows with Rozz Williams’ post-Christian Death band, Shadow Project.
1993 (L-R): Daniel C., Troy Payne, James Tramel, Rich Witherspoon, Rob Brothers.
The popularity of the ‘Harlot’ and ‘Sideshow’ singles in particular, combined with the tenacity of influential New York DJ, Patrick Cusack, soon led to the band signing with the newly formed Cleopatra Records. Cleopatra label boss Brian Perera had travelled from LA to NYC to check out the local scene, hooking up with DJ Patrick while in town; a long-time fan and supporter of The Wake. One proverbial thing led to another, and The Wake’s full-length début album, ‘Masked’, was released on Cleopatra in October 1993. Jo-Ann Greene in The Rocket heralded ‘Masked’ as “The only thing worth dying for… since the Batcave closed”, while Dave Thompson of Alternative Press described The Wake, succinctly, as “Gothic as fuck”. So far as can be ascertained, this is the earliest known use of what has since become the rallying cry for gothic rock diehards the world over. Asked recently, Dave Thompson initially thought that Brian Perera of Cleopatra may have coined the phrase, but on drawing his attention to the quote in question, Thompson replied, “oh… maybe it was me, and I’m just remembering Brian’s reaction to it. I just remember how much we loved the expression!”
In an article for Propaganda, Patrick Cusack and Max Roy decribed The Wake’s music as “moody yet powerful, visceral yet intelligent”, and called ‘Masked’ “a truly monumental piece of work”, which promised to “redefine the direction goth is to be headed in as we approach the millenium”. The article went on to note that, while oft-compared to the Sisters, “they have much more going for them than that”, pointing to broad-ranging influences including Peter Murphy, Motörhead, Revolting Cocks, Cocteau Twins, Modern English, Psychedelic Furs and Red Lorry Yellow Lorry.
Antony Burnham of Soft Watch fanzine wrote that tracks like ‘Nazarene’, ‘Sideshow’ and ‘Locomotive Age’ “pitch straight for the dance gland”, likening the sound to Bauhaus “at their most motoring”, and Joy Division on the song ‘Watchtower’. Despite suggesting a lack of originality, Burnham considered that fairly unimportant: “It’s Gothic Rock, plain and simple. If you’re into this genre, and like a lighter, more commercial sound, give it a go. If not, then I leave the choice to you.”
Katherine Yeske of Trouser Press wrote: “The Wake does its best to modernize Bauhaus/Sisters of Mercy-style goth and, for the most part, succeeds”. Yeske praised the band’s “unique sound, simultaneously ambient and sinister”, their “carefully arranged and executed songs”, and “densely layered, tightly intertwined melodies, which drape elegantly over the [rhythm section’s] resounding, slightly tribal work”, but described Payne’s vocals as sounding like “a weary disciple” of Andrew Eldritch. Retrospectively, Miranda Yardley of Terrorizer Magazine correctly assessed the album as one “considered by many gothic rock fans as a landmark release”.
Rich also told Propaganda how much the band were “looking forward to taking the new material on the road. We’ve always considered ourselves to be primarily a live band. Although we do enjoy recording and working in the studio, our strong point has always been playing live.” The ‘Masked’ tour ensued, but following its completion in 1994, the band parted company with bassist James Tramel, to be replaced by Steven Creighton.
Despite no new releases from the band during 1994, a steady stream of appearances on compilations from Jungle Records, Zoth Ommog, Nightbreed Recordings and Cleopatra (among others) kept The Wake’s name and sound in circulation ahead of the ‘Christine’ EP’s release on Cleopatra in 1995. Whereas the band had by now become well known for their classic gothic rock sound, ‘Christine’ was to all intents and purposes a pseudo-industrial remix CD, containing no less than six dancefloor-friendly remixes from Rosetta Stone; a move initiated by Cleopatra, ever-hungry for more new releases.
Notwithstanding, The Wake and Zane Eric Brown produced their own single remix of the title track, which broke into the top ten of the Alternative Press ‘Dance Club’ charts and remained there for several months. The popular video clip for the single was also filmed in and around Mexico City, where the band played two sold-out shows during the 1995 tour in support of the EP; footage from which would later appear on the ‘Blacklist’ retrospective’s bonus DVD (2008). Other notable tourdates from 1995 included the first annual Convergence ‘net.goth’ festival in Chicago.
The following year, The Wake entered the studio to record their next full-length album, ‘Nine Ways’, at both Chicago Trax and the Chicago Recording Company with producer/engineer Keith “Fluffy” Auerbach, known for his work with the likes of Ministry, Revolting Cocks, Lard, Pigface, My Life With Thrill Kill Cult, The Electric Hellfire Club, Armageddon Dildos and related projects. As well as featuring the definitive version of ‘Christine’ and an array of new tracks, the album also included new versions of the early Wake tracks ‘Procession’ and ‘Reverend Mother’, and for the first time, a studio recording of the song ’16 Days’; a cover of the track originally written and performed by Modern English, and later by This Mortal Coil, both from the influential UK label, 4AD. The Wake had been performing ’16 Days’ live for some years, with one performance having previously appeared on the band’s ‘On the Ghost Train’ video. Speaking of the impact and influence of 4AD’s releases, Rich says: “I was really into 4AD in the mid ‘80s. The guy that started the Cocteau Twins fan club lived in Columbus and they played here in ’85; one of like four shows in the States. Troy and I played on the same stage like a week later. I would buy anything at the record store that was 4AD at the time. Huge influence on me. John Fryer [of This Mortal Coil] was like an unknown god to us.”
Response to the album was mixed. While Allmusic’s Jason Ankeny would later dismiss ‘Nine Ways’ as sounding “like nothing so much as an American Sisters of Mercy”, others, like Katherine Yeske of Trouser Press, saw the band’s return to an “all-gothic format” as making up for the “uninspired, monotonous, soft-industrial… gaffe” of the earlier remix CD, describing the tracks ‘Christine’, ‘Reverend Mother’ and new song ‘Curtain’ as “bold, commanding offerings”. Yeske also praised Steven Creighton’s bass playing for bringing a “more forceful quality to the scheme”, and the band’s “subtle sense of self-confidence that hadn’t been evident before”, surmising that the remix CD may have “confirmed the band’s original instincts that goth, although currently a much less accessible/acceptable genre than industrial, is its true way”.
Shortly before the album’s release, however, guitarist and co-founder Rich Witherspoon had decided to leave the band; having recently finished art school Rich wanted to pursue his work in visual arts further. Mark Gamiere was enlisted to take over on guitar, with Rich even taking the time to help teach Mark the songs before leaving. In the Fall of ‘96, the band embarked on a promotional tour of the US and Mexico in support of ‘Nine Ways’, and the following year, travelled to the UK for the first time to play at the still-popular annual goth festival, Sacrosanct, in London. Steven Creighton was replaced on bass by J. T. Murphy in 1998, who was in turn replaced by a hard-disk recorder in 1999. In 2000, The Wake song ‘Sideshow’ was used in the soundtrack to the ‘Republican Vampire’ scene from an episode of the Cartoon Network show, Mission Hill (Series 1, Episode 5).
Although Troy Payne and the remaining members endeavoured to keep The Wake active as a live band during this period, the latest round of line-up changes would eventually signal an end to the group, at least in the short-term. The post-Witherspoon incarnation of the band released no new recordings, eventually calling it a day in the year 2000.
Following an extended break, however, in 2008 Troy Payne was rejoined by long-time bandmates James Tramel, Daniel C. and Rob Brothers. The group began writing new material together as The Wake again, while also preparing the ‘Blacklist’ CD and DVD for release; a “best of” compilation including rarities, previously unreleased tracks and live footage as bonus content. Prior to the compilation’s release through MVD and Cleopatra, Troy and James asked Rich Witherspoon to return to the fold. Feeling that the timing was right, Rich at last agreed. As Troy later remarked, “When Rich rejoined the effort, the circle was completed.” The Wake followed ‘Blacklist’ with the online release of their next new single, ‘Emily Closer’ in 2010 – the first new studio recording released from the band since the ‘Nine Ways’ album in 1996.
In 2011, Troy explained to Dominion Magazine, “The Wake has [been] comprised of several different line-ups, both in the studio and live. The motivation for reforming the 1989-94 line-up for a new release was simple; this is the most productive unit in our history and the group that is credited by most as the embodiment of The Wake sound.” He went on to add, somewhat prophetically (albeit partly in jest): “Our situation is such that it makes every part of the process a challenge. There are few certainties concerning this band but whatever we do, it will be difficult, take four times as long, cost twice the budget and all end in tears”.
Although met with an excited outbreak of anticipation from old fans, ‘Emily Closer’ was followed by another lengthy silence, until the end of December 2013 when the band released their next internet single, ‘Rusted’, via Blaylox Records and iTunes. The single was accompanied by a remix from long-time 4AD artist, producer and “unknown god” John Fryer – co-founder of both This Mortal Coil and The Hope Blister alongside 4AD label guru Ivo Watts-Russell. By the time of the ‘Rusted’ single’s release, both bassist James Tramel and keyboardist Rob Brothers had departed once more, leaving the nucleus of Troy Payne (vocals), Rich Witherspoon (guitars) and Daniel C. (drums) in their Wake.
2014 (L-R): Daniel C., Troy Payne, Rich Witherspoon.
At the time of writing (August 2014), Rich Witherspoon is also one half of the dark, ethereal-influenced duo, Hamsas XIII, alongside songstress Robyn Bright of Canadian dreampop/ethereal/shoegaze band, Cockatoo. Rich also provided guitars in the studio and cover artwork for Cockatoo’s album-length début, ‘Present’ (November 2013), and sometimes appears as a live member; most notably at a killer show supporting The Mission at Lee’s Palace, Toronto in September 2013.
Meanwhile, Troy, Rich and Daniel continue their work together on new material for The Wake, and are currently preparing for their next release; tipped as a collaboration with English guitarist David ‘Wolfie’ Wolfenden of Red Lorry Yellow Lorry fame, whose credits also include Expelaires, Rose of Avalanche and The Mission. Some twenty years ago, Wolfie’s guitar work was being cited in Propaganda as another important influence on the band, making this project the latest in a series of collaborations to see The Wake elevated to the standing of peers among so many of their long-time heroes. It’s a level of recogntion for the band’s importance and stature within the gothic rock canon that is not only deserved, but hard-won, and long overdue.
The Wake: Gothic as fuck.
1989: The Wake – Cassette EP (remastered version 1992)
1990: Harlot – 7” single
1991: On the Ghost Train – Live Video
1992: Sideshow – 7” single
1993: Masked – CD & Cassette Album
1995: Christine – CD EP
1996: Nine Ways – CD Album
2008: Blacklist – CD, DVD & Video compilation
2010: Emily Closer – digital single
2013: Rusted – digital single