A couple of things set Knoxville's shadowWax apart from the other artists who are playing this year's Sundown in the City concert series on Market Square. It's the only local headliner on the bill, and it's also the only headlining act that isn't signed to a major label, or at least a major indie.
But that could change soon; shadowWax is a band on the rise, which is one of the reasons that Sundown promoters A.C. Entertainment saw fit to include it on a roster that also features better-known national acts like Little Feat, They Might Be Giants, and Gov't Mule.
"Tony Smith [Knoxville resident and former Metallica tour manager] was like a mentor to me," says shadowWax singer Eric Christopher. "He told me 'they'll come to you when you do what you need to do.' And everything he's said has proven to be true. Right now, we're talking with six major labels."
What did Smith tell him? "They (record labels) want to see how many records you can sell on your own, and whether you've taken over your own backyard," Christopher says. "Labels don't put their balls on the line for unknown bands anymore. You can't beg them to come looking for you."
They're hard-working, savvy fellows, these shadowWaxers. Christopher and longtime friend/fellow Middlesboro, Ky. native Khhriss Hamlet pepper their speech with references to record sales and sponsorships and spins. Spins, for the uninitiated, are a measure of how many times an artist is played on a particular radio station, and Hamlet notes with some pride they're getting 12 per week on Knoxville commercial rock station FM-94.3. "That's great for an unsigned band," he says.
But don't think ambition is their only virtue. On their debut full-length CD (following up a trio of local EPs) Invitation Karma Crash, shadowWax plies a particularly pleasing mix of pop and post-grunge influences—think STP with even more hooks, and without the poseur bravado.
The road the band took to becoming one of Knoxville's most popular local acts was a long, circuitous one, to say the least. It started in Middlesboro, where Christopher and Hamlet were childhood friends, and sometime-bandmates beginning at age 16.
In their late teens, the duo left home together, heading west to the Conservatory of Recording Arts in Mesa, Ariz., where they both planned to become recording engineers. On graduation, they both accepted internships on Nashville's Music Row, where they came to a couple of important realizations.
"To be blunt, I absolutely hated it, and I hated Nashville," Christopher says. "And I think we both realized we weren't meant to do our thing on that side of the glass."
Thus came their relocation to Knoxville—the closest equivalent of big-city living for a pair of Middlesboro boys—and, eventually, the founding of shadowWax's first incarnation some four years ago.
That first version was "a much angrier band, soundwise," Christopher relates. "The chemistry just wasn't there for writing songs. I like hearing a song breathe, and what we were doing sounded constricted."
Hamlet and Christopher parted ways with their original drummer and guitarist after about a year and a half. They laid low, for a while, but eventually reemerged with former Copper drummer Beau Baxter and guitarist Rocky Norman, whom Hamlet met while working at a local music store.
That foursome would eventually gel as the unit that released 2005's Invitation Karma Crash, a strong, slickly recorded opus that, according to the band, ranked as the No. 1-selling CD at Knoxville's Disc Exchange for eight consecutive weeks.
"We decided that if we were going to do this, we wanted to do it right," Hamlet says. "Let's make a record comparable to the records that are out on the market today. I still don't know how we raised the money, because everyone in the band is penniless."
In addition to having successfully pushed its way onto local FM commercial playlists—no small feat in the era of corporate radio—shadowWax is looking forward to picking up spins in Nashville and Chattanooga as well. The group also has sponsorship now, from the makers of The Beast energy drink. Throw in the impending Sundown showcase, and it all sounds like shadowWax may be a band on the verge of breaking out.
"We're really proud of (getting Sundown)," Christopher says. "We'll be the heaviest band to play Sundown, or at least the heaviest one in a while. I don't know; maybe we're their big gamble. Maybe there are lots of bets going down on this one. It doesn't matter. We're still thankful."