Max Carmichael is a folk-rock singer/songwriter from Silver City, New Mexico. When we first checked out Max’s unique electro folk-rock sound we were really keen to interview him for Song Revelation so that we could showcase some of his work. Read the full interview below where Max discusses his musical background, his musical inspirations and where his favourite holiday destination would be.
Q: If you could use a tagline of less than 20 words to describe your music and who you are what would it be?
Rhythmically seductive electro-tribal folk-rock, surprising art and evocative writing, inspired by the mysteries of nature and the human heart.
Q: What is your musical background?
When people say they grew up in a musical family, they usually mean a family of trained musicians. But I grew up in a family of ordinary people who made and used music constantly as part of daily life. From the old Scottish lullabies our grandma sang us to sleep with, to the made-up melodies my grandpa whistled unconsciously while he worked, to our dad singing “I’ve Been Workin’ on the Railroad” or “She’ll Be Comin’ Round the Mountain” with us every time we were together. From the old-time gospel and mountain songs we sang and played with our uncles, aunts and cousins at family reunions, to the Bach my mom played at home on her piano and the jazz and world music of my parents eclectic record collection in the 1950s. So my earliest memories are of music not as a specialty or a career, but as a necessary part of everyone’s life.
In school, I played sax in the marching band, sang in a choral group, taught myself guitar, and started an award-winning rock band. From marching to dance, I learned the importance of music in motion at an early age – popular songs were what you danced to with your schoolmates. In high school at the end of the 1960s, I started approaching music more as an art form, writing songs and starting a group that was more like performance art, staging multimedia “happenings” and making films and visual art all over the rural countryside.
In college I took a hiatus from performing but studied classical music theory, listened to a lot of jazz, and continued to write songs. Afterward, I taught myself bluegrass guitar and banjo, but The Ramones and Sex Pistols were just exploding on the scene, getting us dancing again, and I picked up a Fender Jazzmaster cheap from a guy who was getting ready to burn his name on it – no joke! – and spent a year at art school in Los Angeles playing in a new wave band and writing dozens of angry pop songs.
By 1980 I was in the San Francisco post-punk scene, with everyone from Dead Kennedys and Flipper to Tuxedomoon and Rhythm & Noise. I put together an experimental art band called Terra Incognita using samples, synths and found objects as noisemakers, and took it to the streets. The SF scene also embraced world music, and I was lucky to meet and collaborate with prominent West African and North African artists from the beginning, in a series of spectacular multi-media events and all-night jam sessions. Inspired by the juju dance music popularized by King Sunny Ade of Nigeria, I developed my original blend of African and Appalachian instrumental styles and rhythms.
Terra Incognita morphed into an arty electric string band, played alongside American Music Club and Camper Van Beethoven, released an Africanized cover of the traditional gospel tune “Rank Stranger” that was praised in the Village Voice, and toured to New York, headlining a Friday show at the Knitting Factory. Several national record labels were courting us, but I was frustrated with my artist bandmates and rebooted again with pro musicians, playing dance shows alongside other world beat groups like The Looters and Zulu Spear. Then in 1989 the earthquake hit, destroying my home and studio, and I had to take a break from music.
I devoted the early years of the 1990s to studying more traditional music from Morocco, Nigeria, Mali, and the Pygmies of Central Africa, and writing new material inspired by this mix as well as by my adventures in the deserts of the American Southwest. I started a new band, Wickiup, with a raw, edgy acoustic-electric sound that presaged indie folk acts of the future like the Cave Singers and Port O’Brien. Our singer and bassist was Cherokee, and we performed a lot of Native American songs in addition to my African-inspired originals and old-time Appalachian repertoire. Local audiences loved us, but I changed course again, discovering Seattle grunge and second-generation punk, and lost the support of my band!
In fact, I always had trouble getting the sound I wanted with bands. I hadn’t figured out how to manage a team of creative people with sensitive egos. So I went on hiatus for many years while computers and the Internet were transforming music. I was in bad shape financially and ended up reinventing myself as a leading creative in the web industry. After the industry crash in the early 2000s, I had time on my hands and started digging through old boxes of tapes, discovering a treasure trove of original songs and riffs from all my previous musical incarnations, material that could be adapted to many styles.
The new music I was hearing on the radio really inspired me, from the indie scene as well as the growing field of electronic music, and I started writing songs again. I put together a digital studio and discovered that I could finally achieve my musical vision without depending on a band. I produced the two companion albums and punk single that are currently out there. And the rest is the future!
Q: How have the last 12 months been for you?
After my big release at the end of 2010, I had to put most of my effort into marketing and finding an audience. As a recording artist, I’m dependent on media to expose people to my music, and as others have noted, there’s so much music out there now in so many different channels, and people are media-saturated, so it’s almost impossible to get them to pay attention to something new and obscure. It’s been a frustrating year, but I’m so grateful to the media makers and fans that have supported me, and it’s been rewarding getting to know them as well.
Q: Who inspires you musically?
First and foremost, my family, followed by artist friends like San Francisco DJ Cheb i Sabbah and local New Mexico musicologists Bayou Seco. The music legends that have inspired me most include Ralph and Carter Stanley, King Sunny Ade and Alhadji Haruna Ishola of Nigeria, The Ramones and Sex Pistols, sampling pioneer Holger Czukay, Joy Division and New Order, Young Marble Giants, Meat Puppets and Penguin Café Orchestra.
Q: Which modern day artists do you look up to?
I respect Moby for blazing a trail – starting out like me playing in bands, then working in the dance club scene as a DJ, mastering studio production, studying old-time traditional music and integrating it with sampling and electronics to develop a crossover career in pop music. In the indie rock scene, I admire the work of fellow New Mexicans The Shins for their sophisticated approach to pop music. But my tastes are extremely eclectic, and I don’t tend to get fixated on individual artists that much. I tend to get my inspiration now from obscure tracks that I discover at random by listening to eclectic Internet radio from all over the world. The artists I respect most are the ones who are truly DIY, doing the most without relying on big record labels or big budgets.
Q: Is there anyone you would like to collaborate or gig with?
I’m looking to collaborate with DJs and with producers who can handle more of the technology so I can focus more on the composing and performing side. I love dance music, but the club scene needs to expand to include more collaboration and more live instruments. Where are my kindred spirits?
Q: What songs are on your iPod at the moment?
I set up a long playlist for holiday travel, so it’s super eclectic. This is just a small cross-section, of course.
A Star Shall Rise Up Out of Jacob by Jane Siberry, Andromeda by Pavel Dovgal, most of the album Birth of the Cool by Miles Davis, the new album Bouquet by Bayou Seco, Church and Law by When Saints Go Machine, Wasis Diop’s Defaal Lu Wor (an African adaptation of Talking Heads’ Once in a Lifetime), Druganaut by Black Mountain, Fire by Ms. Dynamite & Magnetic Man, Gloryland by The Primitive Quartet, Goodbye Girl by Squeeze, Grassfire by John Trudell, The Illustrated Man by James Hardway, Into the Sun by Lord Huron, It Will Find You by Maps, Jesus Just Left Chicago by ZZ Top, Kincardine Lads by Old Blind Dogs, Lake Erie by Boca Chica, Neu Chicago by Clive Tanaka, several tracks from the rare Old Pirate dancehall CD produced by “Gaddafi” Hart based on Bob Marley’s Redemption Song, several tracks from Jerry Goldsmith’s Our Man Flint movie soundtrack, the haunting Place I Know / Kid Like You by Arthur Russell, Rambling Man by Laura Marling, several tracks from Gnawa Halwa’s CD Rhabaouine, about half of Rocket to Russia by The Ramones, Sister Wife by Alex Winston, the beautiful Soqinomai Bayot by Sevara Nazarkhan, Tu Boca Lo Quita by Alex Cuba, and The Way You Look Tonight by Doris Day, which my dad used to sing in the bus with his Marine Corps buddies.
Q: What is your creative process for creating a track?
The genesis of a track is always a spontaneous inspiration of some kind – a riff that comes to me while improvising, or a strong feeling or mental image that comes to me while going about my life. I don’t sit down planning to write a song – the song comes to me unbidden. A riff could be an ambient sound or a rhythmic phrase on the voice or on any instrument or combination of instruments, like the sax and bass combination in my instrumental Cairo. If I like a riff, I’ll add a recording of it to my riffs library. Later, I may turn it into an instrumental composition, or maybe try improvising vocal lines over it. When lyrics start coming to me I’ll either write them down or record them on my phone or computer. Sometimes the lyrics for a song come to me complete, like the song Plateau that I wrote recently while camping on a mountain in Utah.
Once a piece gets started, I just add whatever it seems to need until it feels right. Some tracks, like Plateau, come together quickly. Other times I’ll put down a fragment and come back to it days or years later. One of the songs I’m working on now is a piece that I started 30 years ago and never finished to my satisfaction. I’ve performed and recorded it dozens of times, and some people say it’s my best song, but as far as I’m concerned it’s not finished!
I typically start something, then go about my life until I get a brainstorm, often while I’m out hiking, and capture an idea on my phone to use when I get back in the studio. My adventurous life helps me here, because mentally I can pick from an infinite variety of human and natural sounds – like, try a bagpipe, or the sound of running water. It keeps building sporadically, inspiration after inspiration, offline and in the studio, until it’s done. Arranging a song is basically problem solving – you get more and more excited about it the closer it gets, but you also notice more subtle things that need to be fixed, because the rest of it is sounding so much better!
You even end up making important changes to the arrangement during the mastering phase, because you sometimes need to subtract notes or phrases from specific instrumental parts to bring the “peaks” down, preventing distortion and highlighting more important parts. And finally, you need to reference it against similar tracks to make sure it has as much of an overall impact as your favorite work by other artists. When it stands up to that final test, it’s done!
Q: What’s more important, melody or lyrics?
Actually rhythm is the most important thing to me! I’m a total rhythm junkie, and of all the functions of music, dance is my favorite. As a composer and solo recording artist rather than a songwriter, my challenge is the entire arrangement, not just lyrics and melody. I have a few pieces that are more ambient or noise-oriented, but in general, I don’t think of melody in the traditional European sense. I tend to think like many Africans do, in terms of rhythm patterns you can feel with your body.
With that said, the music is more important than the lyrics. I’ve always enjoyed listening and dancing to world music in foreign languages because as they say, music is a universal language – you don’t need to understand the lyrics. But I’m also a poet constrained by the English language, which is very unmusical. I’ve actually put a lot of effort into crafting English lyrics that turn the voice into a rhythmic instrument, by choosing words so that the sequence of vowels and consonants is strong, musical, and fun to sing, like in my song Moundbuilding: “The old moundbuilder made a pile of stones…In the shape of a serpent, he covered it over…”
Q: Where are you based?
Silver City, New Mexico.
Q: What’s it like being where you’re from?
Quoting “Off the Map,” one of my favorite films: “New Mexico is a very powerful place. Often, when people first get here it’s a little overwhelming.” I think you need to be an artist who has actually lived in a rural community to understand what Silver City is like. It’s not upscale like Taos or Santa Fe. It’s a small mining and ranching town high in the mountains, in the middle of nowhere, remote and hard to get to, with low cost of living and an exceptionally high quality of life, college professors and hippies mingling with farmers and ranchers, and equal populations of Anglos and Latinos. It’s the most egalitarian community I’ve ever lived in, the kind of place where strangers smile and say hi as you pass on the street. On the other hand, as an artist trying to create cutting-edge contemporary music, I feel pretty isolated!
Q: What are you currently working on?
I’ve started a half dozen tracks that are all over the map stylistically, with no unifying theme. An old-timey country song, some electronic music with rock and classical elements, an up-tempo dance track. Since I have no interest in working within a single genre, putting together a cohesive album is a low priority – I’d just like to finish these tracks and start on others. But at some point you have to release them, and releasing an album or EP is more cost-effective than releasing a string of singles. But more importantly, I’m working on elements of a live act. As usual, I’m too ambitious, trying to master live looping and DJ and VJ technology at the same time I’m developing new tracks, so it’s going to take a while!
Q: What’s been the highlight of your career to date?
Having both my albums listed among the top 20 indie albums of 2011 has definitely been the biggest honor so far. That was by the Internet station NBT Music Radio in Berlin. Before that, I was just incredibly stoked to get the first recordings completed to my satisfaction and commercially released. Of course performing for an audience has always been the ultimate thrill, but it’s in the moment and doesn’t have the lasting value of a recording.
Q: What are you hoping to achieve in over the next 12 months?
Developing a live act is my highest priority, but it’s also a major challenge since I’m a solo artist in a remote rural area and my primary audience is probably going to be urban. It all kind of remains to be seen but definitely needs to be done. I’m trying to put together the simplest laptop-based setup with one or two live instruments that can be easily transported and quickly set up, plus some kind of video arrangement for my visual art. I was recently inspired by an artist from Denver named Laura Goldhamer who performs solo but tours with a huge computer-controlled drum kit and synced video projection, so I guess what I’m trying to do is not completely insane.
Q: Do you have any gigs or shows that you’d like to tell us about?
Q: What do you do to relax?
Actually, moving from a big city to a remote rural community was the biggest step I’ve ever taken toward relaxing. Even though it requires a lot of travel to get anywhere else, the time I spend at home grounds me and reduces my stress. When I do visit a city – even our relatively small regional cities – I’m more conscious of the traffic, population density, social and economic alienation, noise and light pollution, rampant consumerism, and the overwhelming manmade environment, that are all really stress-inducing. But I’m a workaholic, so relaxing is always a challenge! I love meditative chores that require me to be present and attentive without having to be mentally active, like washing dishes or cleaning house. I try to get a regular massage, and we’re blessed with a bunch of hot springs around here, so a soak is easy to find.
Q: Where would your favourite holiday (vacation) be and why?
That’s a no brainer. I always head out into the nearby wilderness. The Desert Mountains of the American Southwest are my playground, the environment I feel most at home in. In places like Peru, India, Greece or Egypt, you can see the massive ruins of failed civilizations, a testament to their hubris, but the Southwest is a place where small groups of humans thrived for millennia on a humble scale, leaving only sparse, harmonious traces that evoke their closeness to the land. It’s like the Garden of Eden, far better than any tourist-filled resort. Camping, hiking, studying wildlife, foraging for food and discovering precious sources of water, with my artist and scientist friends when possible. We’re so lucky here, you could spend many lifetimes exploring and never exhaust the possibilities!
Q: If you could give a little piece of advice for new or aspiring musicians what would it be?
In modern society, most parents and teachers share the unfortunate misconception that music is only for those with a special talent. In school, and in the music business, music is treated like a competitive sport. But music really needs to be part of a healthy life for all of us, not a quick path to fame for a talented few. Even if you’re determined to excel as a specialist, for example as a concert pianist or lead guitarist, you should always get into some kind of non-competitive, social music on the side, like a choir or a regular group jam session, so you’re less likely to get burnt out and lose hope. Follow your vision and follow your heart, and don’t let anyone discourage you. Ignore any criticism or judgment that isn’t constructive. There’s room in music for everyone. Much of the time, when people criticize you, they’ve got their own agenda, and what they’re really talking about is themselves.
Q: Is there anything else you’d like to let our readers know about?
When I moved away from the city, getting closer to my source of food was a big part of it. If we don’t take responsibility for our use of natural resources, our environment suffers and ultimately we suffer. Ironically, since moving to the countryside, I’ve become more inspired by urban music, and I’ve become more dependent on computers and the internet. These gadgets and media seem fun and empowering for artists, but I believe they have a dark side, like many technologies that people have welcomed in the past.
Editor’s Note: Max Carmichael utises evocative and experimental influences to create an unique, yet appealing, sound.
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