Hether Fortune has presence, and not simply because she’s usually one of the tallest people in the room. As the founder and leader of the Oakland post-punk band Wax Idols, Fortune has become well known for her dramatic, powerful singing and forthrightness on what it means to be an independent artist in a world shaped by inequality and bias.
On a recent evening at the Royal Cuckoo, a dimly-lit organ bar in San Francisco, Fortune engagingly chats about Wax Idols’ upcoming fourth album, Happy Ending, which the band will perform in full on Apr. 14 at the Great American Music Hall, ahead of the record's May 16 release. Fortune speaks with clear focus about a key theme in her recent work, which she calls “post-body.”
“It’s people being able to retain consciousness, or to somehow express themselves purely through that, not via how their body presents them to the world,” she says, barely pausing to gather her thoughts. “I’ve always felt uncomfortable with bodies — not that there’s anything wrong with them. But there’s too much weight placed upon the suits that we’re wearing. I like fantasizing about being a floating orb!”
Happy Ending, Wax Idols' fourth album, is the band's first full-length release on their own label, Etruscan Gold. Owning a label has been a lifelong dream for Fortune, but the push to start Etruscan Gold came when Wax Idols got caught up in what the singer wryly terms “a series of unfortunate events.” Most notoriously, the band’s previous label, Collect, turned out to be funded by the now-imprisoned "pharma bro" Martin Shkreli — news that broke in 2015 just before the release of Wax Idols’ last album, American Tragic. Fortune emphasizes that the fault was not with Collect’s founder, Thursday singer Geoff Rickly.
“I will stand by that guy until I die,” she says. But when Rickly publicly broke from Shkreli and returned his money, Collect soon stopped functioning, and Fortune decided to go it alone.
“And the band really wanted to do it, too,” she adds. “We had other offers and they were like, ‘Nah, f-ck that!’ They really encouraged me to do it and they helped do it, too.” (Wax Idols’ roller-coaster ride continued into 2016, when the band left a tour with metal legends Pentagram, citing Pentagram’s bandleader’s allegedly unsavory, sexist behavior.)
The cover of Happy Ending is a painting by Oakland artist Lena Gustafson of a nude, abstract figure in mourning. Fortune says that, beyond wanting to transcend the physical, a nostalgia for lost moments drives the album.
“We started writing the record in the summer of 2016 and started recording it, then scrapped it all,” Fortune explains, referencing some deep personal losses that affected the band greatly. “When it came time to get back to it, nothing felt right anymore. It felt almost too funny, too light. Some of the original dark humor and sarcasm is still intact because that’s how I am as a writer. It was going to be a lot more conceptual before. Now it feels very real.”
Anyone intrigued by the spiky, dark charge of Wax Idols' earlier releases will find that spirit evident. Happy Ending stays true to the band’s '80s goth and post-punk influences, yet by the album's conclusion, the implied sauciness of its title — “Obviously meant to be tongue in cheek,” Fortune confirms — fully disappears in favor of a wistfully sad wish.
With Fortune as the bandleader and chief songwriter, Wax Idols once felt like a solo project, but in recent years, it's evolved into more of a team effort. Bassist Greer McGettrick joined after the band had already recorded Happy Ending, but guitarist Peter Lightning and drummer Rachel Travers have been in Wax Idols for three and six years respectively. Fortune is quick to praise them, as well as longtime producer Monte Vallier, for their collaborative work together.
“Peter [Lightning]’s not your average guy,” says Fortune, discussing their longtime friendship before he joined the band. “He’s primarily been in bands with women; that’s where he feels most comfortable."
Fortune singles out Rachel Travers for conceptualizing one of the new album's standout tracks, “Belong,” which contains the brisk, soaring energy of bands like the Cure and New Order at their punchy, anthemic best. "It should be a single, and I think we’re going to do a video for it," she adds.
But for now, the main thing on Fortune’s mind is Saturday’s show, Wax Idols' first time headlining Great American Music Hall. Fortune admits she's a little nervous, but then returns to the album's theme of moving on beyond the material world.
“When I’m on stage, I hope to be an avenue for escape," she says. "And there are times on stage when I notice I’m gone, where I feel like I’m part of the collective whatever-there-is. It’s not about me, on stage, my body, and you, looking at me. It’s something else — it’s more peaceful.”
For more information and tickets for Wax Idols' Apr. 14 show at Great American Music Hall, click here.