Max Carmichael is the kind of guy you’ll want to swap stories with at your local watering hole… but not the kind of gentleman you want to find yourself in an argument with. This man has seen it all… from just about every angle. His bio captures it well: he’s a “Stanford-educated rocket scientist, boxcar-hopping hobo, urban bohemian and desert survivalist” who also happens to have a knack for creating some really refreshing folk rock music. Max Carmichael is living his Oscar-worthy life on his terms.
PensEyeView.com (PEV): How would you describe your sound and what do you feel makes you stand out over the others in your genre?
Max Carmichael (MC): I’ve been calling it electro-tribal folk-rock, because that encompasses some of my dominant forms. But once people start listening, they’re going to be continually surprised. As a composer I don’t confine myself to genres – I might be working on an atmospheric instrumental at the same time as a punk song and an electronic dance tune. That’s one advantage I have over others who might be working in the folk rock or world music genres, from The Decemberists and The Cave Singers to Paul Simon and Vampire Weekend – no other artist is going to offer that variety, what some fans have called a never-ending musical journey. Another major difference is that I don’t have a band, a label, or armies of people working for me – I do everything myself, playing all the instruments, engineering the recordings, creating the album art, and doing all the promotion.
PEV: What kind of music where you into growing up? Was anyone your main influence?
MC: I grew up surrounded by music, from my grandma’s Scottish lullabies, church music and hymn sings, to my uncles’ old-time country songs, pop music on the radio, and my parents’ jazz, classical and world music albums, and I was into it all. Punk and post-punk gave me the DIY ethic and commitment to experimentation, and I was fortunate to work with and learn from prominent African musicians, but I have to say my biggest influence is still my family. They exposed me to the depth of musical tradition and the breadth of musical geography and showed me how making music is part of a healthy life.
PEV: Tell us about your first ever live performance.
MC: At the age of 12 I started a rock band, The Roadrunners, and we were asked to play in a pageant that was attended by more than a quarter of the population of our town. As we walked out on a big stage for the first time, my old music teacher patted me on the back and told me not to worry, it was natural to feel stage fright. Suddenly there I was at the microphone, in the spotlight, with hundreds of pairs of eyes focused on me. The drummer counted off, and we threw our little hearts into the song – but there was no sound, the power was out onstage! There was this big sigh from the audience, we all stopped playing and turned around in shock, and the sound guy was scrambling to figure it out. After that our show went well, but the best part was the after-party at the Elks Club, which was my first gig at an “adult” nightclub. There I was, this little 12-year-old in a smoke-filled room, belting out “House of the Rising Sun” at midnight to an audience of cocktail-swilling Elks!
PEV: What was it like for you when you first started out and making the transition to professional musician?
MC: Good question! Between my adolescent rock star dreams and my first professional gigs, there was a long hiatus that included adolescence, a revolution in popular music, hippies and the counterculture, travel, and productive time in the art scene and the urban underground during which I wrote and performed a lot of experimental music. I had become a really stubborn DIY, anti-commercial experimental type who was more comfortable in the alternative scene, playing lofts and galleries and doing guerrilla street performances.Then I was seduced by this really ambitious, aggressive girl who needed a songwriting partner. We formed a new band, and thanks to her relentless promotional work, within a couple of years we were in with the top national media and record labels.
PEV: Do you remember the first time you thought to yourself – “I am really onto something!”?
MC: The first thing I think of is that hometown pageant, followed by the Elks Club after-party. Despite that initial shock, as soon as we started rocking out, I felt like I was born for this! The stage felt like my true home. But I was not writing music then, we were just a cover band. It wasn’t until the last year of high school that I wrote and performed my own songs, developed a cult following, and realized that music was going to be one of my main art forms.
PEV: What can fans expect from a live Max Carmichael show?
MC: We’ll have to see about future shows, because I’m strictly a recording artist at this point and my live act is just in the exploratory stage. It probably won’t be much like my last band, which was an indie folk and world music hybrid using various tribal and traditional instruments. The new solo act is likely to be laptop-based and dance-oriented, and will hopefully integrate my visual art in some way. I may collaborate with a DJ, or even meet some compatible musicians and do it as a band project.
PEV: What is the first thing that comes to mind when you step on stage?
MC: I feel like I’m back home again!
PEV: What was the underlining inspiration for your music? Where do get your best ideas for songs?
MC: My inspiration comes from an epically diverse, adventurous life experience. And like I said before, my family inspired me to make music, not just listen to it. I’m inspired by the depth and sincerity of traditional music from around the world, but I’m also inspired by the creativity and experimentation many people are putting into new music. Many of my lyrics are inspired by my experiences in nature, which have what you might call a spiritual dimension. My best ideas for songs always come to me as a sudden inspiration, either a riff, image or lyric that just appears out of nowhere, maybe while I’m free-improvising in the studio or out hiking in the hills. Most of my music is dance-related – it’s in my nature to come up with unusual rhythms that unconsciously get you moving.
PEV: Tell us about your latest release. What can fans expect from this work?
MC: Releasing an album is a special challenge for me, because at this point in my career, I’m not interested in recording a bunch of songs in a single genre or around a cohesive theme. For the first release, I decided to put together two companion albums representing kind of a high-level breakdown of styles ranging across the whole spectrum. Promised Land is the more acoustic and ethnic-influenced side, whereas Take Me Up is more electric and rock-oriented. They both use a mix of live instruments, software instruments and samples, with different instrumentation on every single piece. Plus I released a punk single, “Great Wall of China." In general, expect a musical journey spanning many genres, alternating between instrumentals and vocals, with exotic rhythms and evocative lyrics.
PEV: Describe the kind of mindset you have to be in to record a song?
MC: For recording, you need energy, focus and concentration. But this can happen in different ways. For the really open-ended creative work, improvising parts, late night usually works best. Just shut down the mind and let the voice or the instrument guide you. But for the more mental, analytical work of arranging and mixing, I like to start early in the morning, setting aside a block of time with no distractions, so I can systematically identify problems and investigate solutions. Once I get in the zone, I’m good at shutting out distractions!
PEV: What’s one thing we’d be surprised to hear about Max Carmichael?
MC: When the punk scene began in the U.S., I was living in a suburban group house run by an older hippie guy. That was how I discovered punk, because he played the Sex Pistols and Ramones albums nonstop. He also introduced me to dumpster-diving, and I thrived for a year on food from garbage bins.
PEV: Was there a certain point in your life when you knew you wanted music to be a large part of your life, if not the biggest part?
MC: Not really – music was already a large part of my life when I came out of the womb!
PEV: What one word best describes Max Carmichael?
PEV: How is life on the road for you in the music world? Best and worst parts?
MC: I haven’t been on the road for a while, but currently the best part of music is creating new songs, and the worst part is promotion! When I was touring, one of the best parts was having a snowball fight with the whole band on 5th Avenue in New York. One of the worst parts was on the same tour, when my bandmates hooked up with some heavy metal guys from Manchester UK and went on a coke binge in our hotel.
PEV: Is there one area you wish you could travel around and play that you have not yet?
MC: Now that I’m living in a small rural town, I’m curious to see how my new sound will be received in my old urban stomping grounds like San Francisco and Los Angeles. But what’s even more intriguing is how a laptop-based act will be received in rural venues. My hometown has a DJ scene but not an electronic music scene.
PEV: How have all your friends and family reacted to your career? What’s it like when you get to play at your hometown?
MC: Friends and family have been mostly supportive, although there are a few diehards who wish I wasn’t doing “that electronic stuff.” My life has been compartmentalized at times, so some of my newer friends have never seen me perform and didn’t really know I was an artist until the recent release. They’ve mostly become big fans. And I haven’t played my hometown yet, but locals have been really supportive of the recordings.
PEV: What can we find you doing in your spare time, aside from playing/writing music?
MC: Wilderness hiking and camping are my favorite activities. That’s one reason why I moved here - we have more trails than hikers, so in the winter I frequently get to break new trail after a snowfall!
PEV: Is there an up and coming band or artist you think we should all be looking out for now?
MC: Pavel Dovgal is an experimental electronic musician from Ukraine, with an interesting mix of eclectic influences, that I discovered via a local DJ event. Russell Morgan is an English folk blues guitarist and songwriter with a really memorable voice that I discovered on NBT Music Radio. NBT also introduced me to Alex Winston, a singer from the Detroit area who puts a new twist on that classic 60s girl-group sound. Sevara Nazarkhan is an Uzbek singer that can send chills down your spine, and Norman Salant is an old friend and former saxophone innovator, based in New York City, who reinvented himself as a passionate singer-songwriter.
PEV: If you weren’t playing music now what do you think you would be doing as your career?
MC: I actually have parallel careers as musician, visual artist, writer, and web designer. You could say it’s job security, but really the other arts are things I’m equally compelled to do!
PEV: So, what is next for Max Carmichael?
MC: Right now I’m in danger of losing my home and studio, so getting that resolved is first priority. After that, working on the next release and the live act, plus a spring camping trip in the desert!