Wax Trax: An Interview with Duane Davis

It’s hard to imagine a Denver without Wax Trax. More of an institution than a record shop, it began in the mid-‘70s with Jim Nash and Dannie Flesher who eventually sold their Denver storefront and moved to Chicago where they started the Wax Trax! Records label—whose roster included Ministry, Front 242, and KMFDM among others. Duane Davis and Dave Steadman assumed control of the Denver location in 1978, beginning with a humble collection of new and used records and eventually spanning across four storefronts on Thirteen Avenue. Through the years, the Davis and Steadman immersed themselves in the music they sold—even running their own 1980s label, Local Anesthetic, which showcased local post-punk and hardcore bands like Frantix and Defex and even poet Allen Ginsberg. In the '90s and '00s, the store continued its tradition of supporting local music and zines, giving independent bands and authors an avenue with which to promote and sell their art on a very reasonable, very accessible system of consignment. And though Wax Trax has had to bare its brunt of hardships, it has endured all the ebbs and flows of the record industry. We can only hope it continues to do so—a Denver without Wax Trax would be so devoid of culture and character, it’s painful to even imagine.

Yellow Rake: You’ve been in business now for thirty years.
Duane Davis: Yeah, or as I like to tell people, we decided that even though we’d only been in business for 10 years, we’d say 30 years—it just sounded more impressive that way. Actually, that’s not true—we started in the first week of November 1978. Wax Trax itself, of course, was already established. It had been there with the original guys for a year-and-a-half or two years.

Are these the guys that moved their operation to Chicago?
Jim [Nash] and Dannie [Flesher] were the primary guys, and yes, they went on to Chicago where they started a store and the Wax Trax! Records label, which was hugely successful—at least for a while. Jim died [in 1995], but Dannie is still around as far as I know.

So you bought the store from them?
Dave Steadman and I did. At that time, Dave and I were both social workers, case workers with Jefferson County Social Services. We both worked in Adolescents in Crises units and had done that for a little while. Then we decided it would be more fun to corrupt adolescents rather than try to save them, because that was pretty much a thankless job. Dave was much more into music than I was. His basement was like a miniature Wax Trax; it was filled with racks and albums. He was a junk store fanatic at that time—and still is. He went out and bought up all kinds of stuff as cheap as he could and squirreled it away until the day he could get a store going. He and I were pretty well lubricated out at the Jefferson County Juvenile Probation chili and beer blowout they have once a year, and Dave says, “Why don’t we get a store?” About a year later, we did.

Did you have any idea it would last this long?
No we didn’t. Since Dave and I have never been in any kind of business—our adult jobs were primarily working in social services—we didn’t really have any benchmarks against which to measure success, growth, or what to do. We entered into the slipstream of commerce at just the right point for a music store. In late ’78, the punk movement was already going on both coasts and in England, but in Denver it was just starting to catch on, and there was a small contingent of people that were involved in it. We didn’t have a whole lot of stock right at the beginning. We had $100 of new records and a few racks worth of new records. From that, by plowing all the money we did make back into the business, it was able to grow pretty fast. Based on the excitement of the punk, post-punk, and new wave, from that point all the way up until the late ‘80s, and even in the late ‘80s, the grunge movement came along and that jacked everything up. And then the CD revolution pushed sales through the roof as people sold off their vinyl collection in order to go into CDs. That was also the handwriting on the wall for the death of the local record store. But at the beginning, it was pure excitement. People were so excited about the music. The music was so great. It was a wonderful time to be involved in the whole thing.

And you became very involved in the local music scene in the 1980s, didn’t you?
We did. In one sense, this was pre-internet, pre-computers. In order to find out about music, people would go to their local record stores. And they would go to a record store where they felt they were getting good information to find the stuff they had been hearing about. Or they would just go to be told what might be good or what might not be good. We had a variety of people coming into the store: A lot of them young, a lot involved in alternative music, new wave, and post punk. At the same time, we would have grandmothers with blue-tint hair and bowling shoes buying Elvis bootlegs. And we would do parties with bands. We had a lot of kids that worked for us that were in bands. We decided to start a label of our own—which was very small of course—called Local Anesthetic, which I stole from Gunter Grass’ novel of the same name. We started putting out some records by some of the kids whose bands we saw on the weekends. Everybody knew everybody. Everything was done on a handshake—actually there weren’t even handshakes. You would just do it. It was all very casual, very do-it-yourself. To this day, I have no idea what we put out or what the quantities were—all that stuff that record collectors love to know. We just kept doing it until it had run its course at a certain point. It never made money, of course. It was part of being in that community.

You have a lot of photographs on your website of the Misfits and Dead Kennedys playing at the Mercury Café, which was just right across the street from Wax Trax.
When the Mercury Café was here, Marilyn was a huge part of the success of the post-punk community in Denver. The first great show I saw there was Black Flag. They did an afternoon show there for all ages and then an evening show for the 21 and over crowd. It was mind-altering, like nothing I ever seen before. Henry Rollins hardly had any tattoos and he was skinny. He hadn’t bulked up the way he is now. In addition to the label, we also did a fanzine called, Local Anesthetic. I was taking pictures at those shows and then using them in the fanzine. We were distributing that in any record stores and book stores that would let us put them in there. It was just that synergy that was going at the time. And these bands would come across the street and hang out in the store.

Don’t you have a picture of X bumming change in front of Wax Trax?
 [Laughs] I just put that on there as a joke about them bumming change. They actually went out and posed for that picture for me. They later came in and did an in-store, which was unfortunately timed, because Exene and John Doe had just had a big argument and wouldn’t talk to each other. They had to be at opposite ends of the counter. They were acting like babies. You find that people are people no matter what. But back to Marilyn—Dead Kennedys played there on April Fools Day 1983 or something like that. Gun Club played there, T.S.O.L., Hüsker Dü. Hüsker Dü had crisscrossed the country and I remember one time I was going down to Marilyn’s and there were the three guys from Hüsker Dü sitting on the sidewalk under the window of Mercury Café. I stopped to talk to them and they said they were waiting to see if Marilyn would let them play that night so that they could get enough money to buy gas to drive to Salt Lake City. And she did. And that’s how casual a lot of that would be. All of it was done on a shoestring. They were out there doing it because that’s what they had to do.

Did the success of bands like X or Hüsker Dü surprise you at all?
Not too much. [Laughs] This will sound terrible, but we were really full of the music back then. And we really believed in it enormously. Part of the fun of being an independent record store geared towards what we considered to be the elite of musical taste was a kind of arrogance and confidence that was probably misplaced, and at times probably irritating as well. Because we really did believe this music was the best. And our concern was not that it was going to get big, it was, “Why isn’t it big now?” We thought, “Why would you listen to anything else?” We were wrong about that. There are plenty of things to listen to. A lot of it is good. And a lot of it depends upon what stage of life you’re in and what you’re getting out of it.

Have you ever seen the movie, High Fidelity?
DD: Oh yeah.

Did it remind you of yourself?
I certainly saw my employees in there: The nerd and the Jack Black characters. I just love those two guys because I’ve had variations of those guys work for me for 30 years. Dave and I thought we were getting out of social work, but that wasn’t the case. We were hiring high school dropouts. They weren’t even 18 yet. They were still in the throes of trying to figure out who they were, living the rock and roll lifestyle. Dave and I were old enough that we weren’t particularly living the rock and roll lifestyle, but we enjoyed it vicariously.

There’s a part in the book, High Fidelity, where Rob, the main character, discusses the state of his record store. He says, “The shop smells of stale smoke, damp, and plastic dustcovers, and it’s narrow and dingy and dirty and overcrowded, partly because that’s what I wanted—this is what record shops are supposed to look like, and only Phil Collins’s fans bother with those that look as clean and wholesome as a suburban Habitat—and party because I can’t get it together to clean or redecorate it.” Based on the state of your store, do you think there’s any truth to that?
We have always maintained we are not afraid of dirt. And anybody who is won’t want to come into Wax Trax. Dave and I came from an era—mid ‘60s—where head shops were the place to be. That’s our model for the store. It’s not a new facility with bright, gleaming knobs and shiny displays. We don’t waste a whole lot of time or resources trying to look good.

What’s the future of the mom-and-pop record store?
Not good. I’m not sure that music is now as big of a part of a person’s identity as it was from the ‘60s through the ‘80s. We never felt we were selling music. We felt we were participating or helping people identify who they were to their friends. If a kid came in with a certain kind of haircut and a denim jacket, it was like, “Okay, we’re going to sell some U2 and Big Country to this guy.” If they came in and it was a two-foot high multi-colored mohawk, then it was going to be Exploited or GBH. If it was a shaved head and some tattoos, it was going to be Screwdriver or Black Flag—you’d find out when they came to the counter. Today it’s hard to find out what the micro-genres really are. What’s taken over is a modified Red Hot Chili Peppers look—a little goatee, some baggy pants, and a couple tattoos and I’m not sure where it’s going to go from that. But that’s the music. Music will always be around and bands will always be around. How music is going to be delivered to people who are the fans, that’s an interesting question. We did have a shot in the arm from vinyl resurgence, which despite the fact that it’s been touted in Newsweek and Time Magazine is actually true.

Did you see that coming?
My joke about the vinyl resurgence is that we were very well placed for it because we foolishly never stopped. We always had a vinyl store and we always stocked it as well as we could. Even when people stopped buying it, we were still packing the basements full of this stuff. Vinyl is our first love and we have a good atmosphere for it. It has given us a new lease on life. There have been some pretty bleak times with this. It’s sad to see people not as excited about what we do as they used to be. You lose a certain sense of validation within that. So it’s fun to have people coming back in and being excited about a record or a style of music.

Do you think Wax Trax will stick around for a while?
We are trying to find where our footing is—it has been a pretty slippery path to this point. It has stabilized and risen a little bit. But we’re no longer as confident that it will stay. Wax Trax, in one form or the other, is going to be there for quite a while. For one thing, my partner, Dave, he will die at the counter, buying quarter records. He can’t imagine anything else in his life. I think the vinyl resurgence—it will ebb and flow some—but it will always be there. Obviously the music can be digitalized, so it’s not just the music; it’s the artifact. It’s the twelve inches or the seven inches of vinyl in your hand that you put on the shelf or display on the wall. There’s something about putting it on the turntable, putting the tone arm down, hearing the little bit of hiss before it hits the groove, knowing where the pops and crackles are as it goes through. It’s like re-reading a good book, or watching a good movie again. It’s something you can do over and over. Music is obviously a repeatable experience. If I had to guess at how many times I listened to Bob Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone,” I couldn’t even imagine. And yet it still thrills me every time I hear it. And I think that there’s a small proportion of the population that’s like that. But it’s there and it will be there some time to come. So I think there’s still a place for Wax Trax.