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Interview: Josh & Julie Max (The Maxes)

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I've been playing the Maxes' eponymous indy rock-'n'-lounge disc fairly frequently this month. The second release by this pair of retro-minded New Yorkers (the first being Make It Snappy), the disc's hot blend of Latin rhythms and rock sounds seem especially apt for a muggy June day. A busy duo (in addition to their life as a hotcha club band, hubby Josh writes a weekly driving column for the New York Daily News and free-lance writes for venues like Salon, while wife Julie does voice-over and parody vocal work for Sirius Satellite Radio), they still managed to find the time to fend off ten questions from yours truly. Let's go meet the Maxes.

So how would you describe your sound to the uninitiated?

Josh: We have both a "live" sound and a studio sound. Live, we're a power trio fronted by Julie and I and we share vocals about 50-50 unless it's a duet. Our show sound is Sun Records-period Elvis — stand up bass and slap-echo 1968 Gibson ES335 electric guitar played clean through a Fender Twin Reverb amp, and we expand music-wise into power pop, Latin and jazz. On the CD, it's more dense — 12-string guitars, flute, Hammond organ, accordion, congas, piano and mellotron.

How would you characterize your audience?

Josh: It's rock 'n' roll music any old way you choose it, so we get punks, seniors, anarchists, students, all types. Small children also play "Stand And Dig It" until the parents want to shoot themselves in the head, I hear.

What did you two listen to when you were kids?

Josh: Heavy, heavy on AM and FM radio hits of 70s and 80s. We also had a lot of Broadway records from the late 60s in the house — "Hair", "Hello, Dolly", and "Oliver!" I had, and still have, the ability to absorb and be able to play songs after hearing them only a couple of times, and I know about 3,000 tunes — everything from entire band catalogues to standards to what-have-you. My mother's radio was tuned 24/7 to classical — she doesn't like pop, folk, blues, Broadway, rap, or anything that has a drum or a guitar. So I was happily drowned in Mendelssohn, Rachmaninoff, Ravel and all the other dead white guys. My Dad listened to traditional jazz and I didn't get into that until I met my recent bassist, Chris Anderson. Now I have it on all the time when I work.

Julie: Growing up I was in an incredibly insular Christian community, and I listened to Sandi Patty, a Grammy-winning Christian superstar. I consider her my teacher. Rock music was strictly forbidden — especially anything with screaming guitars of any sort, AC/CD, Black Sabbath, like that. They even convinced us that the Eagles had backward masking and subliminal satanic messages, with lyrics like "They stab it with their steely knives but they just can't kill the beast." But I also listened to light 70s pop with my Dad, Barbara Streisand, John Denver and Kenny Rogers.

What’s in current heavy rotation in your digs now?

Josh: We're AAR — All About Rufus. Wainwright, that is. We've seen him 5 times in the last year or so, have all his albums and have met him twice on separate occasions, and Julie even got a hug and a kiss from him last time we saw him. We both would sleep with him if I wasn't straight and he wasn't gay and we weren't married or he wasn't single or vice versa, and if he liked big girls, although who the hell knows — maybe he does. Aside from that, we like The Bird and the Bee, Regina Spektor, Amy Winehouse, and I'm re-listening to Nuggets 2. And there is always Desi Arnaz and the Beatles.

How’d you two meet?

Josh: I placed a personal ad in a free newspaper in 1996 and Jules answered it. Our first date — blind, mind you, no photos — was supposed to be for coffee, but wound up being 16 hours long and only ended because one of us had to go to work, I forget who. We've been together ever since.

Recently, Josh, you contributed a size acceptance related essay to Salon and also earlier a song for the first group disc entitled "I Like A Whole Lot of Woman." It's obvious where your sympathies lie, but, working in an industry where appearance is so commoditized (witness the recent manufactured controversy over this year's "American Idol" winner), does Julie ever feel the pressure to be less curvaceous?

Julie: I come from a world where it's about the music, man. The audience that I'm after isn't a mainstream audience — it isn't the one that watches American Idol. I do feel pressure but also a sense of pride, that I represent the big girls. A lot of people have said, "You're up there, unapologetic and dancing around, wearing beautiful clothes — it's an inspiration." At the end of the day it should be about the music.

The Maxes made an appearance at a concert tribute to Nick Drake. Any other singer/songwriters that you’d like to do the tribute concert thing for?

Josh: I should clarify. We didn't make an appearance — I personally organized a concert in Central Park featuring Nick's music in July 2005, with me on guitar and Julie on vocals, two guests doing a couple of songs each, and Robert Kirby, Nick's schoolmate, arranger and collaborator conducting our 10-piece orchestra — plus a two bassists, backup singers, a pianist, and percussionist.

We got Central Park Summerstage to sponsor the show, and I borrowed 6 guitars from Gibson, each tuned a different way, in order to perform this music, and we flew Kirby in from England for the show. 3,000 people showed up, and it was one of the most significant nights of my life.

That said, I really have no interest at this time in playing anything but my music, the occasional cover, and the music of my Great Uncle Al Hoffman, but that's because I know something like 3,000 songs and have been playing others' music most of my life. I went through a period from 2001-2004 where I kept forming one-night tribute shows – I was Elvis Costello in a band called "Elvis Prestello and the Distractions", for example, complete with Elvis Presley Las Vegas '75 costume, and we performed Costello albums in their entirety. I also formed a Zeppelin band and a Beatles band that did really well for awhile.

The Nick Drake thing was the pinnacle of that period, and I officially closed the book on the tribute thing after that. If Cuba opens up again to tourists after Castro's death, we'll go over there with an hour show of Cuban songs, but other than that, 'tis over.

What inspired your rockin' "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds" cover?

Josh: I was messing around with the riff, decided to try it live, and it got one of the biggest reactions of any song we've ever played, especially as we speed up at the end. When we first recorded it, the riff was done on acoustic and there was mandolin in the choruses. Electric sounded more freaky, and mandolin was too hot-dang-I-tell-yuh-whut.

At this point, the Maxes appear to essentially be you two with a rotating set of back-up musicians. Are there any plans for a more "permanent" full lineup?

Josh: It's not on purpose. The biggest issue is we live in New York City, which has some of the highest rents in America, so if you're a full-time musician, you have to work constantly. Good musicians are usually very busy, and unless you can keep them working, they have to go where the dough is, and you can't blame them. Since we haven't played out with any regularity in the last two years, people come and go. But once the album starts to build momentum and we're playing out live regularly again, we'll keep the same guys. We have had the same drummer for 4 years. Actually he's in another band at the moment that's keeping him busy, so here we are again!

The act is basically Julie and myself, anyhow. We can do it as a duet, a trio or an orchestra or big band.

So… having covered "Cuban Pete" on your first group album, I have to ask: how does Josh look in a zoot suit?

Josh: I'm sorry — did you say something?

For information on the Maxes' upcoming performing schedule and more, check out The Maxes.

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About Bill Sherman

Bill Sherman is a Books editor for Blogcritics. With his lovely wife Rebecca Fox, he has co-authored a light-hearted fat acceptance romance entitled Measure By Measure.