Monday, November 03, 2008

A Conversation with Max Vernon

I am very excited and proud about this next post. A week or two ago I started exchanging e-mails with New York-based musician Max Vernon who had very kindly agreed to do an interview, the first time I've ever done one of these for Fong Songs. Max first garnered my attention earlier this summer with his piano/electro/doo-wop cover of Katy Perry's I Kissed a Girl and I quickly became a fan as I explored his original music on mySpace, a unique blend of jazz, classical, vaudeville, and pop.

Whether it's on his mySpace blog, YouTube channel, other interviews I've read, or our e-mail exchanges, I always get the sense that at any given moment we're getting Max Vernon unfiltered. That's to say, he speaks from the heart and often isn't afraid of saying things that may even be embarrassing to himself. As you'll discover in this interview, there's a lot more to Max Vernon than just a nice voice and a pretty face... ha ha, I forgot to ask him about it, but he did once enter an online modeling contest for fun.

Fong Songs: What were some of your earliest music experiences as a child and has being a musician been a long term goal?

Max Vernon: The first time I remember actually playing my own music was when I was five or six, and I would play Heart and Soul for hours on a cheap casio keyboard. I was really proud that I managed to figure out the melody on my own. I started taking piano lessons shortly after that, but my musical ear (I can play what I hear almost perfectly, but I can't sight read to save my life) turned into a crutch that prevented me from ever really dedicating myself to music theory- thus ending my potential career as a concert pianist haha.

I also remember driving with my Dad around Long Island listening to the radio- I'm not sure how old I was, but probably around ten or eleven- and Fleetwood Mac's Rhiannon came on the radio. My dad told me the song was about a Welch witch, and at the time I think I was going through some kind of poseur wiccan phase, so I was immediately taken with the song. It sounds ridiculous and fairly trite, but when Stevie Nicks hit that one really satisfying note in Rhiannon (the one she was always too coked out to hit when performing live) it was like a moment of clarity, and I knew I wanted music to be a major part of my life. Fleetwood Mac, Queen, and Mama's and the Papa's are the first CDs I remember owning...well those and TLC/Savage Garden.

Although I always loved music, and have studied piano and singing since I was six or seven, I never really saw it as a viable career path. I was really focused on my academics and was on a path to living a life that would have made me really unhappy in the long run- namely, getting a business degree. But, luckily I had a revelation around ninth grade that all of that was a big waste of time for me, and that I had to focus instead on my art. However, when I say art, I mean my visual art- which is where most people told me I had the most talent. Visual art was my main focus in high school, I was known as the artist in my grade, and a lot of people (including myself) assumed I would either go to a school like Cooper Union or RISD.

But then I started writing songs my senior year of high school and started to realize that that was a more effective, more immediate way of connecting with people- which is what I always wanted to do through my art in the first place. A really shitty art class I took at NYU during my first semester crystalized the idea in my head that emotionally I had somewhat moved past visual art and into music.

FS: I see that all of those artists (minus TLC and Savage Garden) are listed as musical influences on your MySpace. Were those CDs ones you bought yourself or were they given to you as gifts? When I was about 9, I remember discovering Queen when my mom gave a Greatest Hits CD to my dad for Father's Day. A few days later I popped it in the CD player and just sat there on the floor absorbing it. They've been among my all-time favourite bands ever since. Tell me about your favourite Queen song(s).

MV: Those CDs were all given to me as gifts. TLC, Spice Girls, and Savage Garden were the first cds I bought with my own money (don't judge!) Good Old Fashioned Lover Boy, Killer Queen, and Bicycle Race were and are my favorite Queen songs, but Freddy Mercury could have probably sung the dictionary and made it compelling.

FS: I read you're currently at NYU majoring in Music as Social Activism (correct me if I'm wrong). What kind of courses does that entail and has it changed the way you approach your songwriting?

MV: You're right about my major, though lately I've been calling it "The Politics of Performance". There aren't any specific courses at NYU that really delve into this as it is my own major I've created, but that somewhat vague name allows me to justify taking courses in a lot of different subjects across the board. In addition to music business/performance courses, I've been taking a lot of courses that deal with Social politics and community activism.

Some sample courses:
I took one course called "Lyrics on Lockdown" which was primarily concerned with dissecting/critiquing the Prison Industrial Complex, going to Rikers Island every weekend to lead arts workshops with some of the kids at Rikers academy. I took another course called "Aesthetics on Trial", which examined the history of controversies within the art realm (think Leni Reifenstahl, Serra's Tilted Arc, Nabokov's Lolita) and discussed ways to integrate art into the public sphere. Last semester I took a really interesting course on the history of gender and sexuality theory, which also peripherally delved into community organizing, and radical protest movements.

Taking these highly politicized courses has definitely influenced the kind of music I've been writing. I couldn't have written Politburo Technocrats for example without first reading Susan Sontag and learning about how "images anesthetize". It's probably made my music more confrontational, a bit more philosophical/analytical...hopefully not too much more obtuse. For instance, this semester I'm taking a seminar on 1968 with Karen Finley (famous, insane, awesome performance artist, youtube her). For my mid-term I took a poem I wrote when I was still taking the class on the Prison Industrial Complex, rewrote some stanzas to make it relate to the current Wall Street financial crisis, set it to a meter- and created a protest song that updates the kind of music that was being made in 1968 by people like Buffy St. Marie, Laura Nyro, etc.

Haha I just re-read what I wrote...can you tell i'm a college student? well, at least I stopped myself from talking about Michel Foucault.

FS: Besides Politburo Technocrats, Dear Democracy is another clear example where you don't shy away from politics in your music. Both songs seem to be a call for greater political engagement, but at the same time perhaps lamenting the inability to effect change. With the US election just over a week away [tomorrow!], any prophecies for the coming weeks? It may all be over by the time I post this interview, so your predictions may end up laughable or eerily prescient... By the way, our federal election in Canada just took place last week and set a new record for the lowest voter turnout in history. Yikes.

Max Vernon - Politburo Technocrats & Prophesizing Maniacs
Max Vernon - Dear Democracy

MV: Yeah, I definitely think that duality exists in all my songs. I recognize why it's so easy for people to want to disconnect themselves from what's going on around them, especially when it comes to politics. I would say to an extent I have that instinct too, but my music is one of the ways I motivate myself to fight against that. When it comes to the election, at this point I really feel that unless the election is stolen or sabotaged, Barack Obama will be elected. People talk about how it doesn't seem feasible that there could be voter fraud in our country, and yet we all know what happened in 2000, and in 2004 there were many reports on voting machines breaking down in pivotal battleground states. What I think disturbs me most is the recent republican focus on this so called ACORN "scandal", which is in a nutshell (hah) about how ACORN paid some poor kids [to turn] in voter registration cards for make-believe figures Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck (who can't vote without a passport anyway) to make a few bucks. By focusing on this incident, they turn attention away from the fact that many republican groups in battleground states have been advocating for voter roll purging, and in California very REAL voter registration fraud is being committed (see link). I have no idea what the political climate is like in Canada (hopefully the election had a positive outcome?), but voter apathy is an epidemic everywhere.

FS: In the past, you've been told by record execs that your music can't be categorized (i.e. uncommercial), suggesting it's somewhat avant-garde or something, yet I find it very accessible. How would you classify your own music?

MV: I've been told a great deal of many contradictory, almost non-sensical things by record executives. One told me for instance my music was "psycho-sexual, between broadway and billy joel...but very different from that". I mean I have no idea what that means...but that's definitely not a perspective I'm trying to write from. I don't think my music is so avant garde, so much as it is anachronistic. Over the past decade or so, the purpose of music has really changed. Whether the music now is indie easy-listening to play while you brew your morning coffee or it's some pulsating electro band, it's background; it's not something you really have to analyze to enjoy, but rather it provides an escape. In contrast, I think my lyrics, or maybe the way I sing is too confrontational to make for good background music. However, this is something I'm aware of...I know I'm often at risk with my music of being overly analytical or ranting politically or philosophically, so I try to throw pop hooks into my music to give people something to grab onto. I think this might be what you find accessible. I think some of my songs are more ambitious than others- many are pop songs, but some I think aspire to fall more into the category of "Art Song/Ballad" that people like Joni Mitchell and Laura Nyro were writing in the sixties.

FS: You're probably right about the "pop hooks" being a point of accessibility. I think upon first listen it's the music/melody I respond to immediately on a gut level with the message revealing itself on repeated listens. You recently took a trip to LA to record at Westlake Studios, where a little album called Thriller was produced. What were the circumstances leading you to record there and how was that experience?

MV: In a nutshell what happened was I was working on some music with someone in new york, but our relationship grew very toxic- he was emotionally abusive to me, and he did many things (that I won't delve into great detail about) that crossed the line of professionalism/legality, including trying to claim writing credits on songs I had copyrighted even prior to going into the studio with him. However, most importantly, he was taking my music in a creative direction I didn't agree with. So, I abandoned the project and went back to California to stay with my mom/lay low, since at the time I was somewhat concerned for my safety. Once I got back to California, my mom saw how upset I was about the whole ordeal, and offered to finance some new recording sessions, since I had no money left by that point. She asked around to see if anyone knew of a studio that had any availability, and incredibly this world class studio ended up falling into my time frame.

The experience was incredible, just 100% different than what I had experienced in New York. The recording technicians were very supportive and complimentary, and they just kind of left me alone to do my own thing. The room had an incredible grand piano with a very rich tone, and I got to sing into vintage Neumann microphone that really brought out the best in my voice. The atmosphere just felt right, which is why I think most of the songs on my demo were one take recordings.

FS: Let's talk cover songs for a bit. One of the Westlake recordings was your great doo-wop/jazz cover of Katy Perry's I Kissed a Girl, which of course is how I was first introduced to your music. I have to admit that I had somehow never even heard of Katy Perry, so I basically listened to your version as if it was an original composition. Like the best cover songs, I was naturally inclined to seek out your other music based on what I heard (and liked) in the cover. Now just recently you posted another phenomenal cover of Ace of Base's All That She Wants. First off, who's that singing back-up vocals and is she the same voice we hear in When Your Body Breaks?

Max Vernon - All That She Wants [originally by Ace of Base]

MV: Thanks for the nice words, I'm glad you like the new cover. The girl singing back up is my friend Caitlin Pasko, who also writes songs under the moniker, Lacrymosa. She's really talented and you should go check out her music too- you can find her in my top whatever on myspace. And yes, she is also the girl singing on when your body breaks.

FS: Both of the covers you've done may be considered "guilty pleasures", perhaps a phrase overused to describe legitimately good songs. I've had to reconsider my stance on Britney Spears' Toxic purely on the basis of some great cover songs. Why did you choose to cover those particular songs? In general, do you have a set idea in mind when approaching a cover song? Lastly, can we expect more covers Max Vernon-style in the future?

MV: Yeah, I agree with what you're saying about the guilty pleasures- You can't get something from nothing. My covers wouldn't have much to go on if the originals didn't have as much going for them. There's this continual argument of high art vs. low art- questioning the validity of pop music, that I think is very unfair to pop artists. I think a brilliant pop song can be as powerful, and much more far-reaching than an "art for art's sake" kind of song. Now, I don't really think I Kissed a Girl or All That She Wants are brilliant pop songs- I would save that distinction for the work of the Beach Boys or the Beatles. However, I'm not interested in covering brilliant pop songs- if the songs were "brilliant" the first time, then any new interpretation is probably going to pale in comparison. I instead look for solid hooks, and kitsch factor when choosing which songs to cover. I like to be able to add a level of musical legitimacy to songs that people might otherwise dismiss, and I like singing vacuous lyrics as if they contain some deep emotional revelation- it's a good acting exercise.

I try not to have any preconceived notions in mind when creating a cover song. Actually with my last two covers, they started out as songs I was trying to write for myself, and then as a joke because I had no lyrics yet, I substituted the lyrics of the more well known songs and then had a eureka kind of moment. I think that's probably why the covers seem a bit unexpected.

In terms of the future, I certainly like reinterpreting songs that I enjoy ("guilty pleasure" or not) and I'm sure I will cover something else down the road, but I think I'm going to cut back for now. I'm not trying to be the next Nouvelle Vague, and I don't want to be pigeonholed as a cover artist. I'm really grateful that through these covers a lot of people have discovered my music that otherwise wouldn't have, but my primary focus is on my original songs.

FS: So what's in store for Max Vernon: a debut CD? Tour? World domination?

MV: I licensed my Katy Perry cover to Engine Room Recordings for their compilation, "Guilt By Association" It's the second volume of the compilation, in which indie artists cover well known pop acts. The last comp had some pretty big names like Devendra [Banhart], Bonnie Prince Billy, Mooney Suzuki, The Concretes, etc. This volume will have My Brightest Diamond (who I love) and some other awesome people. The last comp. got written up in 70+ music publications (rolling stone, spin, pitchfork, etc) so I'm really hoping I'll get some good press which might lead to some kind of record deal or investor. I kind of don't even want a record deal, but I recognize that for me to actually make the kind of debut cd I would want to make, I would need lots of $. So we'll see....

right now i've just been sending out my music to 60+ college radio stations, hoping someone will play it so I can organize some kind of tour. I've never toured and I feel like I need that experience. World domination will have to wait for the moment being hah.

FS: Alright, one last question and I'll let you go. You say you're looking forward to touring someday, but tell me about the Max Vernon Live experience to this point. Also, any final thoughts you'd like to share with our readers?

MV: The live Max Vernon experience at this point is very unscripted. I love performing and the adrenaline and energy it gives me. I think that comes across. I become a very different person when I'm on stage- more outgoing and animated. I'm not going to say that's my true personality, but it's a personality I wish came out more in my day to day life. I hate it when I go to shows and the person performing just looks down the entire time and doesn't try to engage the audience; that being the case, I'd rather just stay home and listen to their record. Although I don't have big production values or even a backing band just yet, anyone who comes to see me perform live should at least expect that I will try to engage them in some way or another. I think some people might assume that I would be more aloof, but after shows I love meeting new people and talking casually.

As for final thoughts, I don't have an elegant conclusion or profound insight to offer, but I would say that I make music so I can feel like I'm a part of a community. I think the point of making any kind of music is to create a dialogue, or some kind of call and now I'm waiting for the response.


A massive thanks to Max Vernon for taking the time to thoughtfully respond to all of my questions. As mentioned, he'll be showing up soon on the latest Guilt by Association cover compilation from Engine Room Recordings, which I'm told has a digital release date of November 18th with a physical release probably in January. I'll continue to be keep a close eye on Max and his future endeavours and hopefully now you will too.

Max Vernon - Open Casting Calls

Max Vernon - When Your Body Breaks
My most played Max Vernon song, this was actually completed as a student project at NYU and features a 10-piece student orchestra. Love it.

Oh, Max also had this to say:

MV: just as a quick amendment, I just got an email from Brian Ibbott of Coverville asking me to cover a Squeeze song, so there is a good possibility I might attempt to do that. But after that no more covers! hahahaha

Max Vernon is all over the internet... check out his music here:

Since MySpace seems to have discontinued downloads, most downloadable songs are here, though you may have to log in:


Alex said...

hey, thanks so much for this; it's a great interview! I've just been getting into Max Vernon myself (after, like you, I heard "I Kissed a Girl" as if it were the original song; though in my case I was deliberately avoiding Kate Perry) and I'm so glad you focused on him.

Yuriko said...

That is all the i want to know,
great interview!
i'm so happy that you
play the piano in that way
i can't believe
that is the firs compositor
pianist that i adore
so much
"There is great talent without great will"♥

with love:
Yuriko Wong♥