Wax Idols: The Hether Fortune Show
It’s rare to figure a musician will be important before their first LP even comes out. To be fair, it took a full listen to Wax Idols’ No Future for it to be clear. But it’s probably safe to go ahead and call it: Hether Fortune is a badass, and she’s going to be important.
She emits the vocal oddities, those sporadic screech accents, of Karen O, but can croon even more sweetly. And Fortune’s just as imposing as Karen O seemed around Fever to Tell. It’s probably a comparison she’d bemoan, but no matter, Fortune’s got the same too-cool but just weird enough magnetism that helped gain the Yeah Yeah Yeahs a place in the mainstream.
Even more impressive about Fortune is a sense of staying power, of a boot already planted firmly in a crevice of rock ‘n’ roll. Maybe we didn’t know there was a vacant spot, but she’s going to kick it in until it’s hers – whether we like it or not.
But thankfully, we’ll probably like it. On No Future, out mid-October on HoZac, Fortune showcases a wide range of already near-mastered niches. There’s the proto-punk guided “Hitman,” some girly Go-Go’s tinged New Wave on “Gold Sneakers” and even a pair of dark, brooding retreats, “Nothing at All” and “Human Condition.”
And best of all, it’s all pretty thoughtful. Unlike some of her punk-rock counterparts, Fortune presents a raw but comprehensive emotional spectrum, giddiness and introspection included, with a clenched fist. Turns out, Hether Fortune’s got more than solid melodies and repetitive riffs on her mind. She’s smart – street smart even, as dumb as that sounds. She’s self-aware, cynical and curious all at once. That petulant type of progressive attitude gives Wax Idols a bit of grit – like she’s carved this plan into sheets of sandpaper with a dirty knife.
“I’ve never had any trouble, but I guess I’m pretty thick-skinned,” Fortune says of her Oakland, Calif., neighborhood.
Some of Fortune’s harshness seems to come from her past, but she appears resilient by nature, too. But she’s not cold.
Earlier this year, Fortune tended to a preteen girl she found wandering around, covered in cuts and bruises, a few driveways from her house. She was barefoot and tiny, she says, and was hyperventilating.
“She had these red welts turning to bruise marks on her back,” she says. “Her mouth was all puffy. She looked like she’d gotten her ass beat.”
Fortune ended up taking the girl, Jessica, into her house while they waited for the police. The girl’s mother had “laid into her” after her sibling, who’d she’d been watching, fell off a bed. She told Fortune she was having an asthma attack while her mother taunted her with an inhaler.
“It was just a really heartbreaking, horrifying situation,” Fortune says. “She was a really sweet girl, and I eventually calmed her down enough and soaked her feet, made her tea. And we watched Pretty in Pink, which she’d never seen. I gave her some stuff of mine, a backpack and stuff like that, while we waited for the cops to come. And then they took her, and that’s it.”
Fortune says her own mother would “smack” her, but only when she “deserved to get smacked.” it “was never a life or death situation,” she says, clarifying that she never feared her mother and loves her. Even with a history like Fortune’s, that’s some kind of test of values: Do you help the girl or avoid getting involved?
“She was a little thing. I don’t even want to think about what would have happened to her if anyone else found her,” Fortune warns. “Especially out here.”
At just 23 years old (she’ll be 24 this month), Fortune’s surprisingly brimming with an old-soul feel. She’s got an unprecedented amount of depth for her age – either that, or a youthful naivety that makes her adventurous. Less than six months ago, she was an active dominatrix. Her interest was sparked from reading Marquis de Sade, and the aesthetics of S&M in general.
“I’ve always been into that, the way it looks. But I’ve never been sexually turned on to that kind of thing, so I never thought about being a dominatrix ever,” she admits.
Until the cosmos aligned, that is. Various friends had suggested, almost persistently, that she could earn a good deal of money – and that she’d be good at it. While on the phone with one of those pals at her job (at a consignment and record shop), a shopper chimed in. She offered help connecting her with the right people.
“I just felt this sort of weird, sort of cosmic thing,” she says. You can almost hear her eyes widen. “That’s too weird – this girl happens to be in here, randomly overhearing my conversation.”
Fortune was then trained by a woman she calls her Dom Mom, and together they came up with her new dominatrix alter ego: Mistress Eden. But, like a few other titles in Fortune’s life, it was eventually revoked. Because she was “too good looking.”
“That’s literally what happened,” she explains. “I intimidated the other girls. They thought that I was going to steal all their clients, then leave and go independent and ruin their business.”
In tune with a lot of things about Fortune, her stint as a dominatrix is startling. (Although, Fortune assures, it’s not technically sex work and anyway, in Oakland, it’s common. She even knows a few rent boys.) But the fact that she’s outspoken about it isn’t a shock – she’s not shy in the least. She’s avidly vocal through various mediums, especially Tumblr and Twitter.
Her latest outlet is a zine called Orgazm Addict, which she’s compiling herself but has several contributing friends helping out with. One of them is Alexis, a crossdresser who’s made a sort of personality for himself in California (and probably elsewhere, for more informed readers). Another name in the mix is Jennifer Finch of L.A.’s defunct L7. And, of course, Fortune squeezed in a tale or two from her dominatrix days. What zine would be complete without that?
It makes sense, though. Fortune seems fascinated by sexuality and gender. A lot of the zine is about personal sexual experiences. A question about feminism led directly to the subject.
“I feel like it defeats the purpose of feminist to focus on the fact that you’re a woman all the time,” Fortune says. “That’s my personal philosophy. I don’t think it helps anything to constantly reiterate that you’re a woman.”
She then details related beliefs about the “ultimate androgynous being.”
“I think men and woman are derived from one human species that, at one point in time, was both male and female. And I feel like that is the way it will be again in the end. Everything in between is just a bunch of Christian hubbub,” she remarks.
Religious or godless, however, there’s more than just hubbub between life and death. Fortune spoke in an obsolete, heart-like-a-bone way, but again – she’s not cold. “Gold Sneakers,” likely the peppiest cut on No Future, is a love song about an ex who died in January last year: Jay Reatard. She’d stayed with him in Memphis during the previous Gonerfest until he left for tour shortly after.
“I wrote him this little note thanking him for his hospitality and all the nice things he did for me, blah blah, and tucked [it] into one of his sneaks,” Fortune wrote in an email.
In a follow-up response, she clarified that the lyrics state “a few SIMPLE things I should have said.” She wrote that she should have “addressed…concerns, told him that I loved him and that I was there for him if he needed me. Instead of just saying, ‘I had a lot of fun! Thanks for everything, you’re awesome, blah blah.”
“Dead Like Me” is about Reatard as well – she wrote it right while coping with his loss, which for Fortune meant no sleep, “devastating dreams about him,” an inability to eat and little desire to leave her house. That’s about the time she was kicked out of Hunx and His Punx.
She’d met Seth Bogart, frontman for Hunx, through a roommate (Alexis, the crossdresser, to be precise). While she “felt like [she] was dead too,” she explains, she was pretty unbearable.
“I never fucked up onstage or did anything wrong, but I was an emotional disaster. Offstage, I was a total bummer to be around,” she says. “[Bogart] just couldn’t handle it, and he kicked me out.”
Though Fortune wasn’t with the late singer at the time of his death (they “weren’t romantically supposed to be together,” she says), he was someone she knew she’d be friends with forever.
“I just felt really close to him,” she says, “so when I lost him, I was fucking psychotic.”
But getting fired, essentially, was the impetus to ramp up progress with Wax Idols. She’d just started Blasted Canyons, a heavier, brattier punk band, “for fun.” Fortune mainly drums and sings. While that band’s still going, it’s Wax Idols that seems truest to who Fortune is. The LP grazes all sorts of emotional territory, slowing for contemplation on occasion but maintaining a nose-in-the-air bravado all the while – just like Fortune does.
“My friend has been telling me for years that I should write a book,” she laughs.
Committing absolutely to that now would be slightly preemptive, but her friend’s probably right. She should start outlining a rough draft.
Photo by Katie Miller.