Meeting Josh Max (or To Hear Him is to Be Intrigued)

Last Thursday night, my wife and I stepped out to Longmont’s Dickens Opera House to take in some open mic magic. Part of my history is running open mics, and I have a soft spot in my heart for them. It’s great to hear music that’s happening in a truly local setting. Sometimes it’s rough around the edges; sometimes it’s unexpectedly wonderful. And for some, getting on stage takes a lot of guts. Kudos to them! Open mics often create a real sense of camaraderie among participants, and I certainly saw that in Longmont. I must say, too, that Dickens is a beautiful space.

But we weren’t just there for the love of an open stage. I’d taken an interest in the music of Josh Max, who has been a regular of late at Dickens. He played a rollicking, upbeat 4-song set that culminated in his playing both guitar and a djembe slung across his back while singing. He’s a very capable singer and guitarist. You can’t miss that burgundy fedora and Gibson Blues King. His picking style reminds me a little of Mark Knopfler’s (disclosure: big fan). Josh has a lovely tone to his voice, which can roll deep or fly high. He’s a very relaxed and commanding entertainer, who clearly loves to light up his listeners. Josh is also a freelance writer in the auto industry. Pretty interesting cat.

courtesy of Josh Max

photo by Mindy Delmez

I didn’t initially intend to do a Q&A style piece with Josh, but his attitude toward our local scene is so kind and complimentary that I thought my readers would really appreciate it.

SS: What brought you to the Front Range?
JM: I first visited Denver and Longmont in 2004 on a Harley-Davidson press junket, and I loved its loose flavor and the sanity of the place as compared to Manhattan. I had also, my whole life, been fascinated by by Francis Schlatter, a Denver-based healer popular around the turn of the 20th century, so I was glad to come visit and see where Schlatter did his hands-on work.

It was Longmont and Boulder that really attracted me this time around, though – the people were just so friendly and welcoming and appreciated what I was doing, more than any other place I’ve performed music.

I felt like the people at Dickens “got” me, and it allowed me to be completely free onstage.

Anything went, from collapsing on the floor at the end of a tortured Italian ballad to pulling out an Englebert Humperdink or an Al Jolson song, to the theme to “The Flintstones” on the harmonica if I felt like it, to my own songs. Even when they didn’t totally understand what I was going for, they were still willing to come along with me instead of turning off and shouting for Zeppelin as they might have in other places. The level of talent and passion for live music here is considerable.

I didn’t come to the Front Range directly from NYC – I went from NYC, where I’d lived my whole adult life, to Long Island to Philadelphia to Monte Carlo in the space of a year, then to Longmont last May, intending to stay for four days to do some work at a relative’s house. In this house were some very cool people who let me stay and decompress from all the bouncing around I’d done. My nerves were shot when I showed up but they let me alone and didn’t try to fix me. I did work around the house, cooking meals, mowing the lawn and helping out in whatever way I could.

There were also two dogs, a cat and a parrot in this house, all of whom greeted me every day and showed me what pure, unpolluted love and acceptance were, which I’d forgotten about in recent years. There is nothing like a dog who, when you come down the stairs in the morning, seems to say, “Oh, my God! You’re awake! YAY!!”

Then I started really playing from a place of depth in my opinion, and I got the idea for [a one-man, one-hour music/spoken word show called] “Binge Mode” after meeting a dancer who wanted to work with me.

SS: What’s happening musically for you over the coming months?
JM: I have “Binge Mode” sketched out and just need to secure a venue and a date, then put the promotion machinery into play, hopefully by the end of September. I write every day – stories and melodies and lyrics – and my next quick goal is a 5-song EP with my “I quit!” song called “You’re Gonna Have To Find Yourself Another Monkey” and others on it, then hopefully get some airplay … and have my original music out there for people to become familiar with. “Monkey” seems to be the “single” as I play it every time I play somewhere and if I don’t play it, people ask me to play it. Once I get the first Binge Mode up and running and performed and videoed and reviewed properly, then I can book it westward – Phoenix, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Seattle, etc. My best plan is to get an RV and head west to do this while maintaining a base near the Front Range. My problem is that everywhere I visit, I want to stay awhile and meet the people and absorb the flavor. But right now, the Front Range is where it’s at.

Let’s get Josh Max into the ears and eyes of Front Range music lovers. Find him here.

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Kyle Cox: The Plan, The Mess (review)

I wasn’t there to hear Kyle Cox.

In fact, before hearing him, I might have sized him up as the forgettable opener on a rock bill. But I didn’t because I’m not a big fat jerk and I hate being so, so wrong.

I looked up from my beer when I heard him sing … “I ain’t been lonely until I met you” … and with that we were off to the races. What struck me that night and now as I review “The Plan, The Mess” is that he’s devoid of pretense. His songs are well crafted, even beautiful sometimes, lyrically dripping sincerity, but NOT like the words of a writer who’s trying to drip sincerity. They’re just … true. Here’s Cox’s Facebook bio, verbatim:

I love my wife. I write songs. I have no clue what’s next.

I walked away from the gig that night with the “Songs to Sip On” e.p. Kyle received my invitation to review his forthcoming album. Sometimes I dive into background stuff, but this time the music is enough. I know he lives in Florida. He’s married. He writes a lot of music. His album was made in Nashville with producer Mike Marsh.

Stylistically, there is an aspect of Americana in Cox’s music, although I doubt he would exclusively classify his music as such. I really heard it in the instrumental flourish of “Honey, Let’s Run Away.” There’s a sweet section with piano, banjo, and electric guitar noodling to a train track shuffle. A dueling man/woman vocal adds a Johnny and June vibe. Lovely stuff.

The Plan, The Mess (cover)

I don’t know if “I Aint Been Lonely, Until I Met You” is a single or what, but it sure could be. You will interpret it as ironic or as straightforward, depending on how lonely you feel. Gracious, it’s such a good song. The lyrics lament a previous life of hard heartedness and isolation swept away by falling hard for his muse. But then, when that muse is gone, he’s left feeling lonelier than ever. I love story songs. Is this about a person? God? This tune has a solid hook and tasty harmonica. Gotta love it. If your interest is piqued, listen here.

“The Plan, The Mess” is 12 songs long. Thematically, it stays pretty close to the subjects of love and hope (right, Kyle?). “No Future” is one of my favorites. At the gig in Denver, Kyle joked that this song is about being in a relationship with a musician. Dig into the lyrics, though, and it’s a beautiful homage to love, decorated with the reality of not knowing where you’re going together. If I were friends with Kyle Cox, I believe I would find a lot of peace in his company. He strikes me as someone who has measures of contentment without a master plan.

How would I describe the timbre of Kyle’s voice? It’s wonderfully unpolished, and that’s not a backhanded compliment. The man can sing, and there’s an ungroomed space in his delivery that I love. It comes across well in the boomin’ and the soft moments across this album. Makes me think of David Lowery for some reason.

Ya know, with singer/songwriters, it’s often pain this and ache that. And as a human, I would expect that Kyle has had his share. But this collection of songs does NOT overwhelm the listener with the writer’s mood. It’s a very classy move on Kyle’s part, whether he knows it or not. This record invites the listener to sway into the melancholy moments but not to stay there. Too much hope, methinks.

“The Plan, The Mess” will be released on Sept. 30th. Say hi to Kyle here on Bandcamp while you wait.

Let’s end with a stanza from “Bring Us To Our Best” – it’s in the climb / and it’s in the crawl / it’s in the fear to lose it all / it’s in the fight / and it’s in the test / it’s not knowing what comes next / that’ll bring us to our best / 

On Tour and On Point: The Wild After

There’s a lot of fairy dust falling on Denver’s The Wild After just now. It’s a supergroup: Randall Kent (voice/guitar), Ryan Buller (guitar), Jesse Spencer (drums) and Tyler Rima (bass). Or you might know them by their other past/current band names – The Heyday, Breach & Bellow, The Northern Way, and Churchill. I saw them for the first time this week on opening night of their tour supporting Matt Hires (also performing as his band). Two thumbs up, not just out of a sense of Denver loyalty, but because of the joy that I felt in their tunes.

wild2

My report of their live show is this … drumroll, please … ready? … Go see them. If you like a big dose of crisp pop-rock with a wee slice of alt-country, this is the band for you. Finely tuned. I expected Kent’s acoustic guitar to get buried in the wahhh, but it’s big in the mix and complements Ryan Buller’s licks. (At least it was on Thursday – props Marquis sound guy). The rhythm section is having a blast, and it shows. I stood there smiling like a big goofball, watching the infectious fun breaking out on the back line.

Anyway, I won’t belabor the point. The Wild After is worth seeing and hearing. They’ve got an e.p. out now called “Lesson Learned,” and they’re on tour for three weeks across the Midwest/South, ending back in Colorado on June 11 at the Moxi Theater in Greeley. Let’s give ’em a proper welcome home.

Click here for a live video of their e.p.’s title track by the Greeblehaus blog.

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new music now: run spirit horse

When L.A. songwriter Aaron Ferenc rather nonchalantly stated a couple of weeks ago that he had just posted music as Run Spirit Horse, I was absolutely brimming with curiosity. The last I’d heard was his lyrically rich acoustic music, a long time ago. I made haste.

Result? The best decision I made this month. I’ve been listening for weeks – we’re talking heavy rotation – and I could not be more deeply touched by what he’s made.

Run Spirit Horse is both a musical moniker and label name. Aaron is interested in artistic community, and his website features not just his music but a hope to seek a deeper connection with musicians of like interests. “What I intended to create with Run Spirit Horse is a place to showcase recordings that I have had a major hand in creating,” he says. “I don’t think I would feel right representing an artist if I had not actually recorded them myself. I would want to be a collaborator …  to feel that a given artist was saying something musically that I wanted to help them represent in the world.”  

The War e.p.

The War e.p.

The Run Spirit Horse e.p. is called The War. You can stream it and better yet buy it with an exclusive extra track here.

I’m not sure I ought to describe it in detail, but it will connect with EDM fans who are lyric listeners. It’s electronic, linear, deeply melodic, striking, poignant, soaring, atmospheric, melancholy. If you can imagine a silent rave cohosted by U2’s largely unknown Passengers album and The Flaming Lips (hungover), you might get a sense of the slow trip ahead of you.

Aaron’s take? “Non-corporate confessional drag queen rock? I love wine? Wine and songs. Yes, that’s it. Wine and sounds.”

Oh how I love that.

we have all fallen back into the sea / we have all felt dreams we cannot believe / movement is true

I read lyrics. I listen to how they’re delivered. They’re as important to me as the music. When I can connect the two, my experience as a listener is complete. I’m the guy who reads every word in the liner notes. Aaron was nice enough to post the words of The War online. Treat yourself by listening and reading. Cancel your appointments.

As I’m famously tech-challenged, I was fascinated by the process of how Aaron created The War, and you bet I quizzed him on it. I’m including his comments here at length; I believe it will encourage others who seek a way to “let out” the music in their heads.

“About two years ago, I thought, ‘I want to make my own album.’ Then I finally got Ableton Live. Of course, there is quite a learning curve with software like that, so with every song I learned something more about how to organize and create within that framework. Then, about a year ago, I said to myself, ‘I am making an album,’ which meant that every time I began working on music, I wondered, ‘What the hell am I doing?’ Over the years I’ve learned that you have to remind yourself that you are doing something specific, or you will just endlessly create and nothing will materialize into a form that you want to show anyone. 

Then I got very frustrated. And in my frustration I decided to take off a month off work, do my taxes, live on what I had, and finish making this ‘thing’ I was calling an album. I had two very real song ideas at that point, and then I found something of a flow, and these other songs just came out that seemed to go along with the first two. There are four or five other ideas that I didn’t have time to complete, and I decided to pick the best of the batch and call it an album. It was just me alone doing all of this, and I am notoriously indecisive so this was quite a feat for me. I recorded all the songs into Ableton Live 8 using a Duet for an audio input. I used whatever I liked from the instruments that amazing program provides. I love tweaking sounds and creating atmospheric sounding stuff, so that part was always really fun. I also used a Yamaha SO3 on a few tracks because I really like the more analog sound it has. And I played a live bass on a few of the tracks because I mainly wrote those songs by creating a bass line first.

I almost never write lyrics first. I start messing with sounds and ideas for beats and so forth, and then somewhere out of the blue these words just come to me  (when they do), and I literally couldn’t force them to if I tried. I have always said, ‘I want to make music so that I can SING,’ and maybe that’s just why it works that way. I hope it never stops because it’s one of my favorite things to do in this world. When you begin to write a song and you find a melody or even a snippet of a melody, your subconscious mind automatically attaches certain feelings to that sound, which you are not completely aware of. I think that people find this experience to be something akin to a pregnancy because they were having these feelings for a while before they could take any real form, and then all of the sudden there’s this song coming out. I find making music to be very therapeutic in this sense.  That’s why I keep doing it!” 

It’s rare than I’m blessed with such an eloquent response to questions about creative content. I hope my readers are enlightened. I don’t always press like that, but The War is too beautiful not to hear the voice of the artist. And speaking of voices, here’s Aaron on who might connect with the music of Run Spirit Horse.

“I have a sense that anyone who has struggled with feeling they have a voice (or want to have a voice in a way that they don’t) might feel this music. Also anyone who wants to get a good night’s sleep? And anyone who makes music and is maybe intimidated to show anyone what they make. I hope they might feel like this inspires them a little.”

So, bedroom songwriters, ya been served. I’m such a fan of this music. Please take time out of your day or night, grab a glass of wine, and listen.

p.s. Aaron’s got Boards of Canada, Telephon Tel Aviv, Hot Chip, Gold Panda and lots of jazz in his headphones.

Plume Varia: Prize/Enable (review)

Good golly, I love the noise emanating from metro Denver these days. I tell you now: I have not been disappointed lately in the rich tunes this town is writing. And just when I think I’ve turned over most of the rocks, a husband-wife duo comes along and hypnotizes my face. As someone who also makes “spouse music,” it is particularly exciting for me to give the Stubborn Sounds thumbs up to Plume Varia.

Denver's Plume Varia

Denver’s Plume Varia

Unlike some of my other reviews, I deliberately did not contact Plume Varia to discuss anything or ask questions about their background or music. Something held me back, as if the more I knew about the band, the less objectively I’d be able to reckon with their sound.

This is what I know. Shon and Cherie Cobbs are Plume Varia. Denver-based. They self describe as a “dreampop/ambient/trip-hop duo.” Their single is a three-song e.p. called “Prize/Enable.”

I have to recommend lights out, no distractions, when encountering this music for the first time. Seriously, lie down, shut those peepers, and turn off that gosh darned phone. While only three songs, they sequence so well and probably make the most sense as a trio. If you don’t have any context for ambient, dreampop, or triphop, put those big scary descriptions aside in favor of a musical comparison. Shades of Portishead, smidges of Mazzy Star, snippets of Craig Armstrong. Sorta.

Cherie’s voice sounds the way a menthol cigarette lit up outside at zero degrees tastes: delicious. She takes melodies down paths that you don’t hear coming. There’s such a thing as singing it straight – sans mystery – but her voice is too complex for that. Whether it’s a dizzying background aaahhhh or a long lead note, there’s a depth there that your everyday pop singer lacks.

The Herb to these vocal Peaches is Shon’s skill as a percussionist and effects man, all generated by laptop and assorted gizmos. While Cherie is laying down lyrics and making a piano gently weep, he’s ensuring that the music bed is a very interesting place. Ambient is absolutely the right word. The beat is sparing, leaving room for synth, Moogishness, guitar and other splashes.

Lyrical content: not even gonna go there. They may write about being human and in love or they might not. What I take from their lyrics is a sense of urgency.

There’s no doubt about their individual talents, but the core strength of this duo is that hard-to-describe magic that flickers into flame when partners in life also share music. That’s not to say that one wouldn’t enjoy Cherie singing cabaret and Shon in the DJ booth. But what they pour into these songs together as Plume Varia is a drink that can’t be sipped alone.

On Tamkin: Cedar and Sound

Boulder’s own Dave Tamkin released “CEDAR,” his first e.p. since 2007, on October 1st. Ladies and gentlemen, you’re going to want to hear it. I’ve had it on repeat for a week and can declare it the best collection of local tunes I’ve heard in quite some time.  The Windy City claims Tamkin as a native son, but Boulder is undeniably his physical address, so fans in both cities can now rejoice at his latest musical offering and claim it as their own. CEDAR is an October treat – a perfect accoutrement to the changing leaves. In five songs that are over too soon, Tamkin and band paint a pensive, lithe musical portrait that listeners will interpret differently the more they hear. I’ve detected moments of heartache only to have them trumped by feelings of resilience and joy as I listened through the layers of the songs. It’s a very lyrical recording with genuinely beautiful performances. It doesn’t bog down. Dave Tamkin is one of these local musicians that I don’t get to see that often, so the release of CEDAR was the excuse I needed to catch up with him. The interview that follows is an exclusive take on CEDAR and all things Dave.   1235388_10151867501948944_1391301760_n

SS: Why CEDAR and why now? In the context of your whole catalog, the sound of this e.p. is instrumentally sparing and the lyrics hearken to love and regret.

DT:  I thought it would be fun to record some songs I haven’t touched in awhile and see if I could keep it simple. Drift and Missing On You got away from us a little as we kept adding parts. But Little World, Cedar, and Fly Me really capture a “microphone in the room” feel. I told each player to play what came natural. We took a few takes of each and built something I’m really proud of. I tried to let go of the percussive acoustics and really focus on getting the lyrics across.

SS: Where did you record the e.p.?

DT:  I’m very fortunate to have kick ass friends that I look up to as musicians. Brian McRae played drums. Most of the album was recorded in his studio, The Wrecking Room, up in Lyons. He also mixed Missing On You. We then sent tracks back to Chicago for Wesley John Cichosz to add his electric guitar flavor. Luke Halpin crushed the mandolin in his studio in Denver as well as Neil Ross on bass. Boulder’s Brad Huffman laid down his electric guitar in Jim Godsey’s studio back in Palatine, Ill., during a short Chicago tour. (Jim Godsey mixed tracks 1-4.) It was a nice bonus to have Jessie Garland belt out some harmonies on Missing On You while I was in the studio up in Lyons. Finally, Chris Webb opened up his studio to record the final vocals of most of the tunes. He is a great singer who has a fantastic ear to guide a performance.

SS: In Fly Me, you say you’re not going to “fight for us” anymore.

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Stubborn Sounds photo

DT: I was in a place in my life where I was trying to fix things more than I was accepting how things really were. Once I was able to see that in my relationships, my music, I was able to let go and make decisions on how I wanted to lead my life rather than fix the unfixable. Rebuild, if you will.

SS: What is success to you?

DT: Success is much different to me now than it used to be. I’m very fortunate to have played in front of 10,000 people, large venues and stages, and alongside some pretty well known and inspiring songwriters. But none of that is satisfying for me if I don’t have my Anne, my family, close friends and music lovers to enjoy that journey with. Those are the things that define me and give me the validity to write songs.

SS: So what IS your connection to Chicago?

DT: Chicago is my home, born and raised. It molded me into the player I am today. It’s a big city and you have to work your ass off! The House of Blues, The Metro, Double Door, Schubas were places that we called home after years of playing every gig we could on every night of the week. I will always be thankful for the lessons Chicago has given me.

SS: Are you the songwriter that you were 10 years ago?

DT: No way! I started writing songs to connect with people that felt the way I did. I was no longer alone in my point of view and neither was the listener.  As time went on I had to appeal to the listeners in the packed clubs of Chicago! Drinks flowing, nowhere to move, and loud! Lyrics mattered to me but I’m not so sure about the crowds we were playing to. It was more about the tight groove of the drums, soaring violin and heavy percussion of my acoustic. Colorado has taught me to slow down and ride the song. Take the time and breathe some life into each new tune regardless of their tempo and instrumentation. I hope that I can find a nice balance between the two.

SS: What’s next?

DT: First I plan on spreading CEDAR to every ear I can. For about five years, I was playing 200 plus shows a year. I might not be able to pull that off now, but I’m sure as hell going to try. I also look forward to building the Crowd Funding effort and recording a new project with producer Elliot Hunt in 2014. I was working on a song called “Empty Pages” with him here in Boulder. It has a feel unlike anything I have ever done. Mostly due to Elliot’s inspiration and push to change up the percussiveness of my playing. I really wanted to finish a few other songs with him but realized we would need a larger budget to do it. Crowd Funding! And Dubstep! I want to learn how to dance to Dubstep!

What Gives a Song Value?

I’ve been asking myself this question lately, after having written a song that I believe has value, although I’m not quite sure why. It’s the song in the video below. It was one of those tunes that just came streaming out of me in about ten minutes for and about someone I know.  The chords could not be more elementary and the lyrics are specific yet abstract in a way that might allow it to have meaning for more than its intended recipient. It’s not a majestic piece of writing or a particularly thrilling performance. It’s just a song.

Is it valuable simply because I wrote it? Does it matter because I wrote it with someone in mind? What if that person never had a chance to hear it? In this case, the person for whom I wrote it thankfully identified strongly with it upon hearing it. Does that give it value? Does it need to mean anything? Will it matter more if you like it? Would it have been less valuable if I hadn’t blogged about it, letting you know it exists? Is its exposure tied to its value? Does it matter if someone for whom it wasn’t written also finds resonance in it? When it was written, I felt a huge sense of relief, having been “pregnant with song” that day. Does that matter? Does sincerity give it meaning? To whom?  Would this song have mattered in the pre-Internet age? What about a commercially successful pop song written for a singer by a team of writers? Does that song have value?

What gives a song – any song – value? If you were in charge of issuing value to songs, what kind of songs would mean something to you?

 

Someone is living your life

Stealing the light from your eyes

Playing a tune with your instrument

A baby is lost in your dreams

A child that cannot be seen

Calling to her mother saying save me

And the money’s all gone

That ship is sailing on

You could have been a passenger

 

When it’s time for grieving

That’s what you better do

If you feel like dying

Nobody feels it like you do

 

Someone has taken your prize

Stolen in the dark of night

Telling everyone it belongs to him

A heart that you cannot repair

A voice that is silent now

Calling to her father saying save me

Will a messenger whisper to you?

The romance of hope, it’s true

The kiss of your lifetime

 

There is time for breathing

That’s what you better do

And when you are healing

Nobody knows it like you do

When it’s time for crying

That’s what you better do

When it’s time for crying