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Slow down as you approach the gate, and have your change ready....
There’s a side to Kevin Max that makes you feel that he enjoys being uncommercial. After all, when the band you’re a part of has sold eight million albums, you can afford to be indulgent. But in truth, Max is not strictly uncommercial. His first two solo projects had plenty of sharp, tasty songs on them: just take a listen to “Jump Start My Electric Heart” from The Imposter. Max’s “problem” is that many of the radio stations that supported his band dc Talk are not brave enough to tackle something that is both artistic and made with the creative sensibilities of an artist whose music is virtually mainstream taste in Europe.
It is not surprising that his work should be so accessible on both sides of the Atlantic, because, he tells me (in a cold echoing backstage corridor, after we have tried for about two hours to find some peace and two chairs for a chat) he grew up listening to the Beatles as well as Elvis, and Led Zeppelin as well as Bob Dylan. What’s more, his enjoyment of Jon Anderson’s voice and Pink Floyd’s soundtrack-like atmospheres means that he feels very much at home in England.
“I grew up with Zeppelin and Zeppelin to me were the epitome of a rock band that could groove. As a singer I tend to go to the blues when I’m singing. I tend to shift it around and do endless interpretations of it. Blues to me goes into middle-Eastern music as well. It’s like playing with the note.”
But tonight we talk more about America, the home of the music that fills his release The Blood. Admitting that his oh-so-distinctive voice is one that fans either have too much of or never enough of (“I think that what I do vocally is a bit different”), he explains that the guests on the new collection give his own voice space and make for a well-balanced sound.
He is keen to list the contributors, from Amy Grant and Vince Gill to Erica Campbell and Joanne Cash. I wonder whether this is a case of ‘old buddies’ or the right people for the right tracks?
“I chose people for this record,” he replies. “Chris Sligh, a singer from the top three of American Idol, was a big Max fan. He came after me to do something with his band and I said, ‘You know what? I’m doing this project, if you want to sing a song.’ But it’s more or less people that I know. I went after Mavis Staples, actually. I wanted Mavis to sing a Mahalia Jackson song, ‘Trouble of the World,’ but she was not available.”
In the end, he sang that one himself, lending his 21st century voice very effectively to one of several historic songs. Originally, he wanted to use songs that he considered prepared the ground for gospel music. “That blues influence is something that I’m bringing out with The Blood. I didn’t do a whole lot of golden-age gospel stuff because that came after these earlier tracks,” he explains. “I did a track from Blind Willie Johnson called ‘Jesus’ Blood Can Make Me Whole’. That’s one of the first big slide guitar records ever; it’s like him and Robert Johnson. I wanted to take that and show people that’s the beginnings of gospel music; the same with a lot of old gospel quartets. One of the songs that I chose was an old Kings of Harmony track.”
Somewhere along the way his original concept must have got frittered away, because he also includes pieces by André Crouch, Stevie Wonder, Prince and himself. What the album became was a spiritual Americana that Max wanted to treat stylistically as “pretty straight ahead” with “a little stamp of originality.”
In no time at all, Max starts talking enthusiastically about Nashville. That surprises me, because I remember reading how he wanted to get away from the place. “I did, he admits.”I got out of there about five years ago, and it was really great. It was a good time for me, but my wife had our second child. We were living in LA and we needed to move somewhere closer to our families, where there was more of a support group. We decided on Nashville because Nashville is very central. I know everybody. I can continue my business there and drive to both our parents’ houses.”
But living in the city does not mean that he has to play by all of its rules. Artistically, he agrees, he is still west coast minded. “Yeah, I’m a little bit of a square peg in a round hole there, but I like that. I think there’s enough diversity in Nashville; that’s not such an issue. Years ago that was very true. Now, I think you’re seeing a lot of really interesting bands. Kings of Leon are right around the corner from me, and with Jack White living there, things are looking up.”
What particularly puzzles me about Nashville is its machinery. The place has appropriated Christian music for itself, run it through the factory and squeezed out the artistic side. But industry normally has a tendency to follow the money. Does Max think that they have yet realized how many people are looking for original creativity? Isn’t he amazed that the listeners don’t say, “I’m sick of this. I want something fresh”?
“I think there’s going to be certain stuff that floats to the top and gets people going in a different direction for a bit, but overall in Christian radio, it’s probably going to stay in that Nashville thing, because these are the same players that play on every track. It’s kind of incestuous. Then you get into actual radio programming. Christian radio is a very strange format. I think people really have to toe the line. You can’t be too guitar-happy; you can’t be too drum-happy; lyrics have to follow a certain code, and that makes everything so banal.
“The listeners that listen to Christian hit radio are the kids of the parents that grew up with dc Talk. They say, ‘OK, if you want to listen to Christian music, here’s Way FM’. That’s the only option that the kid has. They just grow up being ignorant of the fact that there are other types of music out there until they are old enough to go out there and check it out. That’s always been a church culture that bugs me. Church culture in America, to my mind, protects the kids a little too much, as opposed to letting them figure it out for themselves.”
Contrasting the cultures of the UK and the USA, he continues, “It’s all about money. You get these big mega-churches that are throwing millions into sound stages for their youth groups. What happens is they end up playing the corporate game with record labels, because when that label looks at that church as a venue, and they think, ‘We could run our Family Force Five or whatever band, through there and make a little cash, and then play somewhere close. This is what happens. It becomes a Christian sub-culture, as opposed to branching out. It’s like that everywhere, but England’s always been a little more progressive.”
Always keen to know what is around the corner, especially if Max does not pop over to the UK for a while, I ask what he has planned for the next album. The maverick cannot be conventional for too long, so there must be a few creative muscles flexing in the background.
“I think my next record could go in lots of different directions. I started taking my first demos into a more electronic place, ‘cause I’ve not really done that yet. I want to come off a really organic record, which is The Blood, and go directly into something that’s really electronic – almost to the point where people go, ‘Oh, he really made a conscious decision’. I like electronic music. I bought it as a kid. I’m a piano player, so a synthesizer has always been something I hear and I get it.
“Then groove is going to be a real important part of this next record, because my first three solo albums and the spoken word thing I did with Adrian (Belew) are pretty white.
“My template, if I could - and this is a really stupid example: remember that George Michael record, Listen Without Prejudice, where it’s played with a lot of funk, played with a lot of groove, but he’s still really doing his thing? It’s not like he’s changing the way he sings or what he does. It’s underneath, more subversive. That’s what I want to happen.
“I’ve got a project in mind to follow the next pop record that would be another side project for me. That would be to do a Johnny Cash tribute record. Have you heard what Bryan Ferry did with Bob Dylan songs? Amazing. I’d love to touch one on Dylan, but it’s already been done. To me, Johnny Cash is a symbol of my childhood. The sky’s the limit in Nashville.”