Sometimes the historical context of a written piece can change so entirely in the process of composition that the words mean something other than you imagined just in the time it takes to finish. So it is perhaps with this interview with upstate songwriter and producer, Chris Maxwell.
I was really enchanted with the first song I heard Chris’s newest album, New Store No. 2—his second legitimate solo album, after participation in many bands and collaborative projects, most of them mentioned below. It was the title song from New Store No. 2, and it was a thing of sophistication, of deep feeling, remarkably perceptive, and featuring very moving lyrics. Maxwell sits right in a spot where the most important rock and roll songwriting of the last generation has sat, where you might find Elvis Costello, Leonard Cohen, Joni Mitchell, or Joanna Newsom, with sparkling melodies, complex harmonies, a hint of jazz and soul, and then these rather huge sentiments: loss, grief, remorse, the need for growth, the requirements for survival.
Maxwell grew up in Arkansas, and a hint of Americana hovers around the songs, a wistful acoustic guitar, flawlessly plucked in the rear of the mix, but the sound of the album is much more contemporary than the slightly disagreeable term “Americana” would suggest—see, for example, the artist’s discussion of the revolution at the low end in contemporary hip-hop. There are synth pads, drum machines, and some truly sterling lead guitar. Maxwell’s album takes multiple lessons to yield up its emotional complexities, as with the best records—and by this I refer to the thing as a whole, the whole album. Here it takes you on a journey, and it is therefore not a collection of songs so much as a panoramic look at the agonies of adulthood. I can’t think of a recording so far this year that has moved me with the same emotional urgency that this album has.
That we conducted this interview by email before the great flight indoors as a result of the public health emergency this spring only lends more poignancy to a discussion that orbits around what it feels like inside to make and write songs. Maxwell’s compositions are often interior, subjective, and these are feelings I’m having these days, in the battle of self-isolation. I’m glad I have Maxwell’s album to go back to here at home, an artist who knows what it’s like when things go blue. New Store No. 2 is available on all the streaming services, and you can learn more about it at his website.
The Rumpus: I’d love to begin at the beginning. I was a fan of the very first Skeleton Key record. It was like a bit of secret learning at the time (the late 1990s). You had to really know about the NYC musical world to be ahead of the curve on that record. And one cannot help but notice the idiomatic contrast between Skeleton Key and what you’re playing now. I’m wondering if you’d mind talking about how you got involved in that project initially and how you came to leave.
Chris Maxwell: Before Skeleton Key, I was living in Little Rock, Arkansas where I cut my songwriting teeth on bands like Squeeze, The Replacements, Big Star, Costello, etc. I had a band called the Gunbunnies. The producer Jim Dickinson produced our record, and it was released on Virgin in 1990. After the Gunbunnies, I left Little Rock and moved to lower Manhattan in ‘94 and landed a job booking bands at the Knitting Factory. To come from a fairly conventional songwriting background and wind up in the sonically warped world of the Knitting Factory was a game changer for the way I approached music. Skeleton Key came along around this time. Erik Sanko, who I was familiar with from The Lounge Lizards, approached me after hearing about my solo shows where I was earnestly trying to deconstruct my little ditties. I agreed to join his band as long as I could contribute my own songs and sing them; he agreed as long as I followed the blueprint that he had laid out for the band’s sound. I really wanted to burn everything to the ground that I had been doing up to this point, so this was a perfect opportunity.
In terms of form, Erik’s songs were just as conventional as what I had been doing, but the way they were harmonized and arranged was an exciting new thing for me. Things like screwing a door knocker to my guitar and turning it into a drum wasn’t just theatrics; it was a new way of making sound. I really loved playing the character of insane guitarist in that band, but after a few years, other things were exciting me. I left Skeleton Key and formed a weird musical hybrid with Phil Hernandez called Elegant Too. I wanted to get out of the heavy, guitar-based music Skeleton Key and other bands we were playing with—like Girls Against Boys, Helmet, The Melvins—were doing. I was more attracted to bands in our scene like Cibo Matto and Soul Coughing, and how they were integrating sampling into their songs. Phil and I did live shows but we got more into doing remixes and producing for bands like They Might Be Giants and The Blues Explosion. Phil and I were experimenting with sound in a completely different way than what I was doing in Skeleton Key. Eventually we stopped playing live and focused on scoring, which is what we still do as a team for shows like Bob’s Burgers. One of the projects that not many people know about is the band we formed with writer Jonathan Lethem and Walter Salas-Humara called I’m Not Jim.
As far as songwriting goes, it all came full circle when my son was born in 2007. I had started out writing songs with an acoustic guitar back in Arkansas and had continued to do it even though I didn’t pursue recording or playing them live. The combination of getting married, the birth of my son, and the quality of life in the Catskills triggered me to start writing songs that really meant something to me. It was no longer about what I could do with sound or how could I musically destroy the song. I wanted the stories I had to tell about the people and events in my life to live in a musical setting that I was familiar with from my childhood. That autobiographical storytelling of the 1970s has always resonated with me in a huge way. After listening back to the record I just made and the one before it, Arkansas Summer, I realize that I’m using all those things I learned in Skeleton Key and Elegant Too; they just aren’t out in front of the singer and the lyrics.
Rumpus: I’m really interested in the Jim Dickinson allusion above, especially because of the legends that orbit around that name. How did you come to be in contact with Dickinson? Do you have any stories from those sessions?
Maxwell: Dickinson, by his own design, was like a mythological creature. When it was becoming clear that the Gunbunnies were going to get signed, my manger asked who my choices were for producing. I said T-Bone Burnett and Jim Dickinson. At that time in the late ‘80’s, T-Bone wasn’t as recognized as a producer as he is now, but I was a huge fan of his records and songwriting. I met with T-Bone’s manager in LA and it just felt like a silly industry dance that lacked authenticity. Dickinson was nothing if he wasn’t authentic. I loved the stuff he had produced and he lived in driving distance of the studio we were recording at in Memphis. Unfortunately, the record that came out of that experience was not that good. A year or so later he apologized for ruining our record.
I think the problem was he had heard my 4-track demos and that’s what he was into. He didn’t really care about the band so much. It was true that we were a hot mess, but we were a band, meaning this weird unit that was greater than the sum of its parts. The wobbly fucked-up-ness helped my developing songwriting out by giving it some levity. Dickinson took all that out and made us sound like a more expensive version of my home demos.
But, I loved Jim and he taught me more about making music than anyone else I can think of. He came in every day, in an outrageous outfit, around 11 a.m. Then we’d roll joints and we would get extremely stoned. He would tell these crazy stories, like how Paul Westerberg, while he was doing takes in the vocal booth at Ardent, was throwing up in his hands and tossing it up onto the ceiling of the booth. He talked about how Alex Chilton sabotaged his music, like the time when John Fry, who owned Ardent Studios, walked in and heard Big Star playing “Downs” and declared, “That’s a hit.” As soon as Fry left the room, Chilton deflated a basketball to use as a drum and recorded the anti-version, which is what ended up on the record. Dickinson told the story about the recording of “Holocaust” and how the gospel singers they had hired to do the backups after one take asked Jim if they could leave because the sound of Alex singing that song scared them too much.
Jim had mojo and voodoo and all of that—he made us feel connected to our Southernness. We learned how to look for the good mistakes, how to make stories worth listening to, and how to play more honestly. If he hadn’t been so reverent about capturing my songs on tape, I think we would’ve made a really good record.
Rumpus: And what was memorable about booking for the Knitting Factory? What were some of the best shows you saw then? I have another friend who had the job, I think probably five or ten years after you, and it seems to have been incredibly formative for him, too. A real lesson in New York music.
Maxwell: I was not really the prepared for the kind of music that was playing at the Knitting Factory. Before taking that job, the only “out” stuff I was familiar with was The Lounge Lizards and John Zorn’s Naked City. I got the job by getting a former employee that didn’t really even know me to write an over-the-top letter of recommendation. But probably more than that was agreeing to work for pennies. I also lied about my knowledge of the downtown music scene. Obviously I just did a lot of homework and got up to speed.
One of the first gigs I remember seeing in that tiny upstairs room was Charles Gayle, Sonny Murray, and William Parker. They recorded the show to put out on Knitting Factory Records and Dorf, the owner, asked me to photograph everyone for the album. Not only was I not a photographer, but I didn’t even own a camera. Dorf gave me his little point-and-shoot and so I went to the show that night. I had never experienced that much energy coming off a stage. After the show I went up to legendary Sunny Murray and said, “I need to take your picture for the album.” He said okay, and then I pulled out the tiny point-and-shoot and he stepped back and said, “I’m not letting you take my picture with that thing.” It was a little humiliating. Fortunately, a real photographer from the New York Times was there so I got his info and gave it to Dorf the next day and said, “You should pay this guy for photos.”
Once when I was working the door, Lou Reed and Laurie Anderson walked up to pay. Having just gotten to NYC and not really use to seeing celebrities, especially not heroes like Lou and Laurie, I just stared with my mouth open and said, “Am I suppose to charge you?” They laughed and paid the cover. There was so much incredible stuff, like seeing Marc Ribot, Thurston Moore, and Keiji Haino, just three guitarists creating a wall of guitar noise. Or Cibo Matto playing one of their first shows. John Zorn’s band Masada was another unforgettable show. So many….
Rumpus: What motivated your move to NYC in the first place?
Maxwell: Following a girl. She got a job at small clothing boutique in Soho and I had done about all the damage I could do in Little Rock, so we moved.
Rumpus: Was there any motivation having to do with NYC being at the heart of the music business? Were you wanting to be part of the adventurous sounds you’re talking about at the Knitting Factory?
Maxwell: No, the industry was the last thing on my mind. Going on a musical adventure was very interesting to me. I had started playing in bands during that post-punk/new Wave era in the early- to mid-1980s, had moved on to songwriters like Richard Thompson and had thoroughly devoured every thing the Pixies were spitting out. After the Gunbunnies broke up I got hooked on Brazilian songwriters, both bossa and the more experimental stuff from the Tropicalismo movement. So I was always hungry to push my songwriting. After being signed and dropped by Virgin I felt stuck, and along came an invitation to live in the greatest city in the world—how could I say no?
Rumpus: I’m interested in your wanting to leave Skeleton Key because you were tired of really aggressive bands of the period, and I’m wondering what your attitude was, for example, with respect to songs and songcraft then?
Maxwell: Yeah, I was tired of the aggressive thing. I was always looking for where I could inject humor into what we we’re doing. I was a bit of a clown with a guitar in Skeleton Key. I had every intention of kicking ass but I wanted to do it with a laugh and some swagger. We’d play a show with Helmet and there would be five hundred dudes there with their shirts off, and not a single woman in the room. I didn’t like that; too much testosterone.
What the Dust Brothers had first done with the Beastie Boys and then with Beck was informing a whole new wave of music. Nonlinear songwriting and sampling had become an art form. Rick Lee, the junk percussionist in Skeleton Key, and I had made these crazy battery-powered music workstations out of vintage suitcases. We’d put Casio and Roland samplers in with a Discman or a battery-operated turntable and make crazy beats while we were on tour with Skeleton Key. It was groovy, fun, funny, surprising, and my girlfriend dug it. It just felt like where I wanted to hunt for my next song.
I’ve always been nerdy about songcraft; in fact, the songs I brought into Skeleton Key sounded nothing like how they ended up. Listen to the song, “All the Things I’ve Lost” on Skeleton Key’s record and then compare to “I’ll Miss You the Most” on the album Great Big Diamond by the Gunbunnies. The Gunbunnies version is from that wordy Costello place and the Skeleton Key version is not; I’m not sure what it is. But, yes, the development of moving beyond conspicuous craft and singing something that felt meaningful to me was something that took a long time and that I was always searching for.
Rumpus: One of the really salient influences on New Store No 2 is soul music, it seems to me, or black music, R&B, generally speaking, it seems to me. The melodies obviously have some country/Americana about them, but there is also, at least according to my ears, some of the Motown and soul melodic vocabulary, some pentatonic scales, some blues and soul moves. Can you talk a little bit about your relationship to songwriting influences that fall outside of rock and roll?
Maxwell: Mixing soul music and rock feels like a natural thing to me. Obviously, there’s a lot of crosstalk going on in rock and R&B and Country (all blues derivatives), but I love the way it comes across in the Southern versions of those genres. Listen to Lee Dorsey’s “Everything I Do Gohn Be Funky” and you hear this slinky groove but the bass is almost playing a country line: the root and the 5th alternate on the 1 and 3 like a country song but then they syncopate it and it slides—it’s both at the same time, country and funk.
Another thing that I love is how the lyrics in soul music can be heavy but the feeling of the music somehow makes it all feel hopeful. The Nilsson hit “Everybody’s Talking” is amazing and I’m heavily influenced by it and the melancholy of Fred Neil’s lyrics, but listen to Bill Withers’s version and the takeaway is entirely different. I love both but the world might need the Withers’s version right now more than Nilsson’s version.
The math and soul of blues is sown into the DNA of all popular music so I don’t really try to bring that out. It’s just there. Where I spend time listening to music outside of the kind of music that I make is jazz and the Great American Songbook. The challenge is how to work those harmonically complex ideas into a song without sounding like a bore. Al Green teaches a master class in how to pull it off. His songs are so complex but yet still feel like a trance.
Rumpus: Al Green is a good example of what I’m trying to point to in asking after the soul influences. And I guess the best on the example is “Walking Through the Water,” where the super-restrained horn chart has a real mid-1970s soul vibe, and, even, a little bit of smooth jazz. But the melody to me is really shaped like a soul song. Even the guitar solo on “Walking Through the Water” has a little bit of a funk figure to it, at the end. Rock and roll loves the blues, you’re right, but it doesn’t always love, you know, Grover Washington Jr., or Bill Withers. Not these days, anyhow.
Can we talk about the Great American Songbook a little bit? Because I want to get to the issue of writing lyrics some, and I’m betting, since you have cited the Costello model of literate post-punk as a jumping off point, that some of the greatness of the Great American Songbook is the lyrics. Can you give me an example that is particularly lasting for you?
Maxwell: I think my love for that period of songwriting probably started with my mother playing Ella Fitzgerald, Frank Sinatra, and Nat King Cole records. I still have her copies that I grew up with. McCartney’s “grandma songs” (as Lennon called them) borrowed from that music and were my entry point to the Beatles.
Then later in life, towards the end of high school, my friend Wade McCoy got me interested in jazz. He was a senior and I was a junior. I started taking jazz classes with him at the University of Arkansas in Little Rock. The summer he graduated we were in a car wreck, the car wreck I sing about on this album in “Cause and Effect.” Wade was killed in the the wreck.
I continued the jazz studies for as long as I needed to realize that I was never going to be a great jazz guitarist. As one of the professors said to me, “You listen to the Beatles more than you do Coltrane.” Yup, guilty as charged. But what I got from that experience was getting reacquainted with those classic AABA tunes like “My Funny Valentine” and “I Should Care.” Talk about craft. It’s just mind-boggling to me, the beauty of those melodies and how those lyrics really stand up over time:
Fly me to the moon
And let me play among the stars
Let me know what Spring is like
On Jupiter and Mars
In other words, hold my hand
That lyric takes you from macro to micro in four lines.
It reminds some of these lines from Costello’s “Beyond Belief”:
I might make it California’s fault
Be locked in Geneva’s deepest vault
Just like the canals of Mars and the Great Barrier Reef
I come to you beyond belief
Another one that I’ve thought about a lot is “My Funny Valentine.”
Is your figure less than Greek?
Is your mouth a little weak?
When you open it to speak,
Are you smart?
That fucking kills me. No one has ever written a better bridge. Every word in that song wrings the sentimentality out and leaves it with nothing but the clear and simple thought that in spite of your imperfections, or maybe partly because of them, I love you. It’s not clever. Those guys could be crazy clever. I mean no one was more clever than Cole Porter but it didn’t feel histrionic; it felt fun, or at least that’s the way I hear it.
Rumpus: I just saw a bootleg online of Costello/Attractions during the Get Happy!! tour. That’s a period where the soul music influence was uppermost for Costello. I always thought it was because of atonement for the heinous drunken remark about Ray Charles. Elvis was proving the black music was central to who he was, but it was really a very particular kind of soul music. It was an almost curatorial idea of soul music (which is why Get Happy!! wasn’t my favorite album by him—it was a little showoff-y about his smarts).
Get Happy!!, to me, was a writing exercise. It was so derivative. There are definitely some great songs on the record but not as uniquely Elvis Costello as the four I mentioned above.
Then, at some point, the cleverness of all of it became too much. Taking a break from that kind of songwriting for me was a very important moment in my evolution as a songwriter: I could work to become as muscular and prolific as Costello (which I was as likely to succeed at as becoming as funky as Prince) or I could focus on chasing something that felt honest and unique to me—my idea of beauty. The move to NYC was part of that plan.
Rumpus: I’m really interested in how story-oriented a lot of the songs on the album are. The story song is pretty well-traveled in old country music, but not terribly common these days, even in hip-hop, where you might think it’d be natural. But there are several songs on your record that are really narrative. Obviously, some of the Great American Songbook songs are narrative, because sometimes they served narratively in musicals. Where does the story impulse come from in you? Are you a person who’s a storyteller outside of song? And what’s the relationship between this story-orientation and the autobiographical footing of a lot of album? Does confessionality require a good story?
Maxwell: I do like to tell stories. It might be how or where I grew up. Instead of conversations, the people I grew up around told stories. I’ve also written songs for long enough to know my best songs say something. Having said that, I also love poetic, abstract lyrics if they have a sound that makes sense in the music, but that usually comes from a band. A band can get away with a lot because they exist in their own universe. When I was younger, I had no idea what Michael Stipe was saying, or Stephen Malkmus, but I loved REM and Pavement. And these days, who knows what Wilco or Bon Iver are talking about, but I dig it.
For me, though, I want to be able to play the song by myself and have it communicate something clearly. I find that very hard to do but very rewarding. It doesn’t have to be a story about people or places like “Cause and Effect” or “New Store”; it can be about a feeling like “The Song Turns Blue” which is about dealing with depression, or the feeling of frustration that is inherent in the creative process that I sing about in “Dear Songwriter.”
Stories in songs can also be really corny. No one likes to listen to anything that is too literal or lacks surprise. On “Cause and Effect” I wanted to see if I could walk that fine line between what I could remember (the literal) about the wreck and the awe I felt at having to live with a loss that seemed out of proportion with what caused it. I wanted to avoid the poetic abstractions and honor that memory in as plain a voice as possible. That is somewhat true of “New Store” as well. “Birdhouse” is something I doubt will ever happen again. I just wrote without stopping and never edited a word if it. I wrote it knowing that the person I was asking to come with me was never going to make the trip.
With regard to the story-orientation and autobiographical footing, if you mean do they have to relate, I’d say it’s all fair game. When my mother tells stories she never lets the facts get in the way. After all, part of the job is to entertain. I’m not writing confessionals; I’m trying to write hooks.
Rumpus: Do you put a lyric through a lot of redrafting?
Maxwell: Yes. Sometimes a song will go through an entire rewrite where I may only keep the first line or the chorus. Some of the lyrics continued to morph over the entire three years I was making the record.
Rumpus: And do you have a theory of rhyming that works for you?
Maxwell: I’m not sure if it’s something conscious. Just a feeling. I’m trying to find what feels good in the mouth. Once the trick of the lyric has been discovered then it’s a word puzzle; it becomes a fun game of making it as good as possible. A song like “Most of What I Know” was one of those songs that I kept throwing everything away except for the title. Then I think I read The Road by Cormac McCarthy and also started chasing that language and imagery of Revelations. The Woman of the Apocalypse inspired the bridge. I think a first pass might be more literal with some songs and then I start writing pages of verses and try to move the lyrics to something richer and more satisfying.
Rumpus: For an album of fairly traditional songcraft, the guitar solos on New Store No. 2 are really remarkable and inventive. Sometimes they are inventive in terms of timbre and sound, and other times they are just pretty unique just in terms of where they go as melodic figures. Can you talk a little bit about what interests you in a guitar solo, and how you thought about it here?
Maxwell: I love guitar solos. Ha! To me there’s the song and then there’s the solo and the solo can really be a whole other thing compositionally. It’s an opportunity to take the music someplace that a bridge can’t. I think maybe Shoot Out the Lights by Richard and Linda Thompson was one of the first albums that changed my head about how a solo can energize the music. Also the usual suspects—Hendrix, Page, May. The solo on “Whole Lotta Love” is one of the greatest moments in rock. Also, the words are a lot of work but a solo can add back in the element of spontaneity in a song.
I remember a jazz class I took we were suppose to study and write something about a live version of “Impressions.” It’s the one where Coltrane waves out McCoy Tyner and it’s just him and Elvin Jones and whoever was playing bass. It sounded like a mess to me at the time—I couldn’t follow it. There’s nothing melodic that my ear could hold on to.
The instructor played it again and he told me to stop listening for melody and start listening for energy, the way you take in a Hendrix solo. That changed my head about music, and about solos in particular. I had always imposed these criteria of melody, harmony, and rhythm on what I wanted to listen to. Very square. The first time he had played it I felt lost and anxious, but the second time I heard something else and I dug it hard.
When I worked at the Knitting Factory I saw Derek Bailey play. I’ll be honest; I don’t listen to Derek Bailey much, but when I saw him live it gave my brain another twist. This was around the time of Skeleton Key and I wanted to leave my past guitar influences behind. Seeing him introduced me to the guitar as a percussion instrument. Notes almost became secondary to all the other sounds you could make with six strings. That’s around the time I screwed a door knocker in to my Silvertone guitar. Erik Sanko, the band’s headmaster, was a good influence on me as well.
Side story on soloing: Listen to “The Only Useful Word” on Skeleton Key’s Fantastic Spikes record. Erik gave me that downtown trick of threading a cable tie between the strings. But the really insane part was the solo played a half step lower than the key. To be honest, I think I was just drunk and I missed the mark. But that band was great because instead of seeing it as a mistake, Rick Lee just added a laugh track and suddenly it became almost cinematic in a Fellini kind of way.
Rumpus: Can you talk about how the recording process worked for the album? The sounds are so lovely, so well-recorded, and there are so many beautiful studio touches. I think there’s maybe a drum machine here and there; is that right? And beautiful atmospheric keyboard pads. (I’ve already mentioned the lovely horn work.) Neither of these former two being hallmarks of, well, an Americana-inflected singer-songwriter album. How did you go about recording? Was this done as a long dive into studio perfection? Did you do basic tracks first, or how? What was the process like?
Maxwell: Yes! Drum machine in “Dear Songwriter,” and electronic drums in “Walking Through the Water.” Tons of 808. “Birdhouse” for instance has no bass guitar; it’s all 808. I think that is true of “Eloise” as well. I would say the specifics of how I went about recording each song was different every time. What they all share is the long dive. None of the songs on the record ended up how they began. “The Song Turns Blue” was probably the most explored. Jeff Lipstein, who played drums on most of the record, is also a producer and he helped a lot with the production of the record. On some songs, he and I would talk about the lyrics and try to extract what we thought was the right musical approach. “The Song Turns Blue” is a good example. It started out as a solo acoustic fingerpicking song. The original version is good but I got bored with it. I wanted it to have a soundscape that the singer was walking across. A movie was in my head of this simple beginning. The singer is dealing with depression but he is walking through the world and sees that his struggle is not personal but universal. It’s a journey and in the end he realizes that sadness is part of the fabric of life and connects everyone. You have to embrace it. The music needed to be a mountain; up one side and down the other. I did funky versions and I did happy versions but in the end we decided we had to leave the sadness in it.
“Walking” was a song that started out as a folky, Neil Young’s Harvest kind of song. But that kind of thing has been beaten to death. It originally had way more chords. The feeling of that song was heavy. I started writing that song about my brother when he was alive and struggling with addiction and then I finished after he died. I looped the first two chords of the song and sang the whole song. It was a trance. It felt soulful. I guess if there was one process that I used a few times in the record it was removing the song from the acoustic guitar and doing the chords with something else. Reducing it to a minimal sound. I would sing on top of that and see if it held up. The guitar brings a certain amount of “performance” into a song that can be distracting as I’m building the arrangement. At some point, after adding in placeholder percussion and low end, it becomes sturdy enough (hopefully) to hear where the thing wants to go. I may bring in help at that point, often times Jeff to play drums, or Aaron Johnston. It’s fun at that point because it feels good so all I have to do is not fuck it up. I add things and take them away. It’s not all over-thought. A lot of it is spontaneous moments. I leave the weird shit in and see if it sticks, which is often guitar. A lot of guitar stuff happens at the end.
The mixing is a whole other thing. I’m not a “mixer” but I know how it has to sound. I did a lot of research on how to improve in that area. That took months. I wanted to understand the low-end production of modern music better. Bass now is not the bass I grew up with. It was torture for anyone close to me at that point. It felt like I was never going to get there, but I did. Every song has a different story but the general approach was the same.
Rumpus: This bass issue is really interesting. What are the components of contemporary bass that are different, as you see it? Is the problem that we’ve all gotten use to synth bass and very low end? I think about history and drum sound a lot, how much I hate gated reverb on the snare and the tinny slap of double kick bass drum. An old snare sound seems so much richer, like Nick Mason snare. Is the bass problem similar, that is, having to do with contemporary studio technique?
Maxwell: I love how hip-hop has extended the low end, but I agree about certain sounds that are acoustic, that there’s a realism or natural quality that is missing from a lot of pop music. I like feeling like I’m in the space or can visualize the space where the music is being made. On the other hand, modern production is often about creating an environment “inside the box.” That is something I dig as well. A song like The Weeknd’s “Starboy” is a lesson in low-end production that I also appreciate. If you have a crazy, bass-heavy system like a lot of people have now in their cars or home stereos with subwoofers that go down to those sub frequencies, it’s pretty amazing to hear bass-heavy tracks. But then these productions are able to also translate that same musical take away to a set of shitty ear buds. That’s not easy. It requires balancing several bass sources that can cover all those different systems.
That never used to be a goal. In fact, think about how heavy a Led Zeppelin song is, how incredibly powerful Bonham’s drumming is and then actually listen in context with modern production. When Skeleton Key was making our Capitol debut, Dave Sardy talked about that a lot, that older music was originally having to translate musical power over AM radio where there was almost nothing but mid-range. That is also a remarkable achievement, how narrow the frequency range was, but that’s not the world we live in now. For my last two records, I was interested in making modern-sounding music but with the soul of the music that I grew up with and loved.
Rumpus: My last question is about “Eloise.” It’s sort of a miracle song to me, because of how many keys it goes through, how many really beautiful passing chords pass across its surface. I’m wondering if you can talk about the composition there. Did it start on guitar and migrate to piano? And is its pyrotechnical genius related to the words/subject?
Maxwell: “Eloise” had been kicking around for a little while. I always liked the idea of the song but I had never realized anything with it harmonically that held my interest. To answer the question, it did start on guitar (everything does for me). But I did a similar thing with it that I had done with some of the other songs where I just got it away from the guitar and laid down a minimal bed with the chords on synths along with drum machine. I sang on that just to see if the chords and the lyrics were working. I brought in samples that I manipulated with a little keyboard I have called an OP-1. I love the way working with samples can pull you out of a musical rut. I record random sounds, often times from early analog synth recordings and really mess with them until they are nothing like the original source. You can get the coolest accidental stuff that way. I think about how mistakes used to be part of the process of recording with a band, but when you’re solo, samples bring in a random element that you can react to as well. Here again, that hip-hop minimalism might not be apparent, but it’s an influence on me. How Dr. Dre can bring in sounds that skip across the speakers like skipping rocks across the water.
I don’t think I consciously thought about the lyrics and music necessarily speaking to each other any more than any other song of mine, but maybe like “Dear Songwriter,” the idea is similar in that the singer is talking about the creative process and trying to find his muse and all the while I’m trying to make the track as transcendent as possible.
Photograph of Chris Maxwell by Bobby Fisher. “New Store No. 2” video by Nancy Howell and Mark Lerner. “Walking Through Water” video shot by PUNKLE.