“This next song is called John Henry’s Hammer,” Max Verna announced from the stage at the Wetlands Preserve in New York on June 4, 1997. “I actually originally wrote it on a banjo, put it to acoustic guitar… next thing you knew, full-fledged electronic rock ‘n roll!” Verna – then a member of the strangest bunch of mutants to ever devolve out of the North Country, the Ominous Seapods – was playing, along with Seapods’ bassist Tom Pirozzi, under the moniker Murky Currents. The day after the show, the duo would rejoin the band in the south to continue to never-ending tour playing full-fledged electronic rock ‘n roll that the Ominous Seapods continue to this day.
The ‘pods, though, are doing it without Max. In November 1998, Max announced that – following the band’s New Year’s Eve show at Styleen’s in Syracuse, New York – he would be taking leave of the group he helped found nearly ten years ago in upstate New York. Taking Max’s place in the band would be Todd Pasternack of Albany’s Mr. Ferguson Band (see Todd’s A Pod). In January, Max returned home to Albany.
His latest doings can be found on the Max Ominous web site, which Max maintains. Among the items on the site is a list of the songs Max has recorded in preparation for his first solo effort, tentatively due out at an undetermined date in the fall. Midway down the page is listed “4.) John Henry’s Hammer (banjo and vocals)”.
Over the course of April and the first part of May, I interviewed Max via email.
JJ: The obvious place to start: what’ve you been up to for the past three months?
MV: I’ve been trying to diversify as much as possible. I own my grandfather’s violin and a banjo, so I have spent some time getting my chops together on those instruments. I’ve also been doing solo acoustic gigs every Monday in downtown Albany. That’s been an ass kicker. There are many of my songs that don’t work with that platform and others that needed to be reworked to sound right. Playing solo acoustic is an incredible discipline that not only made me work on my guitar playing in new ways, but also my voice.
The other way in which I have been diversifying is in my song writing. Lately I have been more into telling stories. The Stephen O’Rourke trilogy was obviously a story, but I haven’t written like that in a long time. I was afraid that I never would because my psychoactive drug taking has dwindled down to almost zero. But lately my head has been filled with stories and music, so I have been putting the two together. Besides, the introspective thing is only good for so long. How many times is someone going to sing about themselves before everyone else is tired of hearing it?
I’ve also been playing in a cover band for nice easy cash. It’s been good for me because I haven’t done that sort of thing for a long time. Covering songs is another discipline that I have enjoyed lately. It’s stimulated a part of my musical brain that has been inactive for awhile.
Another musical venture that I’ve been working on for the past three months is pre- production for my solo album, which depending on gear availability, money, and time, should be available in the fall. The album will be a blend of original songs, new and old, and traditional songs, all old. Since it will be a home recording, my philosophy has been low fidelity / high intensity.
In my day to day living, I have just been trying to gain some perspective on the things that I have done for ten years (as an Ominous Seapod). A ten year roller coaster ride gives you little time to think while you’re on it and lots to think about when you’re done.
JJ: How has your songwriting process been altered or affected by the fact that the material you’re writing won’t ultimately be presented to a band to learn and play?
MV: I feel a lot more freedom. I don’t have to worry if the band I’m with won’t like what I’m writing and I don’t have to write specifically for a two guitar, bass, drum and keyboard ensemble. Many great ideas, or bad ideas that lead to great ideas, can get flushed down the crapper at the hands of band members if they personally don’t like what you came up with. I can be very selfish sometimes about my song writing, I only like what I like. I love to get input from others as long as the input is intended to improve the song, that way a song can mature and not just die in an instant. This is due to the fact that all of my music is a work in progress. I like to make simple adjustments to songs that are well established and I like to tinker with songs that aren’t working, sort of like buying an old car that doesn’t run and rebuilding it. It can be frustrating to be tinkering with a project and have your co-workers tell you that they plan to junk the whole thing, no matter how much time you’ve put in on it. Getting your tunes junked is one of the pit falls of being in a band that plays out constantly. You have limited practice time and every song needs to be a hit, otherwise you lose the crowd when you perform. If a song isn’t working right away, the safety mechanism is to scrap it and move on. Now I have time to let song ideas grow.
Recently I have been going through lots of old “junky” tunes and getting a fresh look at them. Some of my old tunes had integrity, but just lacked that one thing that would make them magical. Some times the magic lies in the way you play the song. For instance, slowing the tempo down and only playing it on the piano can really make a tune work. Sometimes a killer drum beat and bass line with only lyrics over the top can do the trick. I don’t like to place a band-aid on a hurting tune by adding some ridiculous part just to make the song more exciting. I’m more apt to simplify it and build it back up from there. These are things that work better and faster when you have a band to knock ideas around with, but I can still get these things accomplished in my apartment.
JJ: To continue the “rebuilding an old car” comparison: when you’re editing a song, where do new parts come from? Do you consider your unfinished songs as individual entities or as a pile of ideas, like car components, that you can draw from to help make a tune run more smoothly?
MV: I do anything and everything to make a song work. I always found it to be a cop out when I heard a teacher or an idol of mine say “just do what works for you”. At moments when I was seeking guidance and wisdom, that phrase used to crush my spirit. Now I find myself saying it more and more. I just do what works at the moment. Plenty of times I have taken parts, from songs that were not working, and placed them in other songs to make them shine. As long as the final product doesn’t sound all cut and paste. There are other songs that aren’t quite there yet and I am hesitant to take parts away from them because when I get the inspiration one day I might be able to get the song to work. But every day is different. I might be feeling good and I might be feeling down. So a song might live one day and die the next, depending on my mood. But a song that is good all days will stand the test of time.
JJ: As you said, no song is ever really finished. But how do you determine when a song is “done” enough to play out?
MV: This time I have a simple answer for you. A song is ready when it feels right. It can lose steam after awhile and have to go back up on the drawing board, but as long as it feels right and possesses that wet magical texture every time you play it, it’s done enough to play out.
JJ: In many aspects of your music, you’ve seemed to gravitate towards the folk tradition. You mentioned that you’ve recently been working on your banjo and violin playing — both instruments important in American folk music. Your songwriting has often made use of older elements — Leaving The Monopole, for example, borrows its chorus from an old jug band tune (and an even older figure of speech). The story of John Henry’s Hammer has been sung about in dozens of forms for nearly a century. In Murky Currents [Max’s now-defunct side project with Seapods’ bassist Tom Pirozzi] – and now, solo – shows you regularly cover older tunes like Long Back Veil or Don’t You Let Your Deal Go Down. What’s the allure of this type of music for you?
MV: In the same way that the popular music of today tries to reflect the feelings of the present generation, no matter how diverse that may be, old time music was a reflection of its generation. For me the allure of traditional music is the way this music seeps into my soul and makes me feel.
When I play and hear traditional music it take me places that I can’t go to and conjures up images that I don’t see in my day to day living. A good book can do the same thing although the feeling is not so instantaneous. Great songs and great stories are usually written during moments of purity and clarity. Their messages cut through when people are ready to absorb them. Traditional music has been cutting through for many generations.
I’m also drawn to classic stories. Shakespeare has taken up lots of my time over the past few years. It’s amazing to see that he drew from the classics of his time and people draw from him. “Romeo and Juliet” was already a poem by Arthur Brooke, which was an adaptation of a classic story by Matteo Bandello. Shakespeare merely put the story into a rich and image provoking play. Today we have the movie “Ten Things I Hate About You,” which, never having seen the movie, is obviously a take off of Shakespeare’s “Taming Of The Shrew”. Traditional music and traditional stories have clear cut themes and messages that everyone can relate to when presented in the right way, that’s what makes them so great.
JJ: The thing about Shakespeare as a borrower is especially interesting seeing as how Shakespeare himself has become something of a folk character — now more than ever with the success of “Shakespeare In Love”. With the story of a “Shakespeare In Love” as one example, a lot of the appeal of classic stories (for me) is the murkiness involved — there’s lots of open-endedness that one can easily shape. Like, no one really knows for a fact who John Henry was and what, exactly, he did. Because of that, the meaning the John Henry story can be bent any which way — it can be used a pro-union song, an anti-union song, or anything in between or outside. Do you see any of the popular music or popular culture of today as planting similar seeds for anything that might be considered a tradition? If so, do you see yourself as part of this tradition?
MV: Now I wouldn’t say that I am a “popular music” song writer. Popular music and popular culture are what is main stream at any given time and this is always changing. If the type of music that I write and my music in particular gains heavy public recognition, then that would be a different story. Right now I still only appeal to the jam band underground scene, a place that I am quite content to be.
I just finished an interview with someone on the subject of today’s popular music and what I basically told him was that I see this generation as very diverse and very complacent. There are no mass counterculture movements like we had in the 30s and the 60s. Nowadays we are more like the home brew generation. People are more likely stay at home and voice their opinions on the net than band together and start mass protests and marches. This is not to say that these things don’t happen, they do, but they are not a part of the popular culture. I find this generation to be more focused inward than outward. The home brew generation grows its own pot, brews its own beer, watches our wars on crisp satellite TV, surfs the net on a Saturday night and thinks about how to make their personal future better. While it creates an air of apathy, it also makes us wiser and more independent.
Today’s popular culture is very diverse, like I said earlier. Radio and MTV, being the most powerful forces for administering popular music, must remain as diverse as possible. Even with the amount of different stuff that they play, they still lose lots of listeners (people in the jam band scene for one). MTV and radio also need to turn over their music as fast as they can to keep their patrons happy and interested. This creates a stockyard full of one hit wonders. This stockyard is filled with music that is catchy and lyrics that are empty. Traditional music needs to speak to and about a generation or at least a driving force in that generation. Then it needs to speak to or hold wisdom for the generations that follow. So in answer to your question; no I don’t see the seeds of traditional music happening in popular culture and if my music or if any music in the jam band scene becomes traditional or even standard to a generation, it will be through a force unforeseeable at this time.
Just a quick bit about John Henry’s Hammer and the moldability of that song. If you were given an accurate account of what happened that day, it would never live up to the legend that the stories around that event have created. Like I always say, a good story is far more interesting than the facts.
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