Fires, floods, volcanoes, vision quests in the wilderness. Ya know, the typical musician stuff. Throw in science, technology and a stunning array of musical skills, and you’ve got a standard issue day for ambient electronic folk rocker Max Carmichael, whose first commercial release was praised by the Village Voice, resulting in a headline gig at New York’s Knitting Factory. With a style placing him in such varied and storied company as Paul Simon, Calexico, Moby, and U2, it’s no surprise that Carmichael’s work is continually surprising, yet comfortably familiar. It’s a truly unique blend of the Bohemian, the idealist, the nerd, and the adventurer. It’s the sound of a complex sophisticated nature boy with just enough dogma to keep him tense and just enough liberation to keep him potent.
Carmichael released two short solo albums in the Fall of last year. With different yet complimentary styles, Promised Land and Take Me Up are experimental, rhythmically complex collections heavily influenced by African, Scottish, Caribbean, Russian, and Latin cultures.
Songs “Afternoon at the Cave” and “Moses of Indiana” stand out on Promised Land, a light ambient half vocal/half instrumental album inspired by Carmichael’s love of nature, ethnic music & dance, and his constant longing to escape the city and connect with the wilderness. Take Me Up, then, is a fitting bookend, with an urban rock style that is alternately soulful and irreverent as Carmichael draws from his experiences in the Bohemian underground while working through themes of love, mortality, and transgression/redemption on “Come On Over Whitey,” “Nightcrawling,” and “Helicopter.”
How do you describe your music to people, Max?
Something I'm pondering right now is "electro-tribal-folk-rock". I really resist categorization but I understand it's important on some level. My lyrics are inspired by the mysteries of nature and the human heart, I sing and play a wide variety of instruments, I use samples and digital technology, and I create unusual rhythms inspired by tribal dance music.
Tell me about how you originally got into your craft.
I was born into the musical culture of Scottish immigrants in the Appalachians, and my parents were both frustrated musicians who exposed me to jazz & world music throughout childhood. I learned sax in grade school, taught myself guitar, and formed my first rock band in 7th grade.
What is your favorite thing to do in the whole wide world?
Creating art - music, visual art, writing, etc. - is the most rewarding thing I do. It's a paradox because it's sometimes hard to get started, and it's often a painful process, but when it's going well, and when it's done and you look back on it, it justifies all the hardship and makes you feel like you have a place in the world.
What is your biggest challenge when it comes to running your business?
Self-promotion. I was raised to be humble and modest and not to blow my own horn, and I grew up in a rural area, as something of a loner, so I'm shy by nature - until I get on stage!
When you were a kid, what did you think you were going to be when you grew up?
This changed from year to year and sometimes from week to week. Sometimes I was sure I was going to be an artist, sometimes a rock star, sometimes a scientist, sometimes a spiritual guru - yeah, I was a mystical kid.
In what way has your community impacted your development as a musician?
Good question. Heavy, heavy impact. Growing up outdoors in a rural area with a strong sense of history shaped the themes and lyrical content of my songs, and of course being surrounded by Scottish-American elders and their mountain music gave me both a respect for and an attraction to deep traditions. Much later in San Francisco, when I began meeting Yoruba musicians from Nigeria, their music struck the same chord and became a major stylistic influence. At the same time, I was part of the underground post-punk scene, which put a high value on free experimentation, so I had the best of both worlds - respect for tradition and no inhibitions!
What other artists out there do you love?
Among the living, Ralph Stanley is the most prominent exponent of the old-time mountain music, particularly gospel, that represents my deepest roots. King Sunny Ade, the Nigerian Yoruba bandleader, puts on the best live show imaginable. The recordings of the deceased Nigerian bandleader Haruna Ishola are my idea of the ultimate traditional music. The music of the Ramones, Joy Division, Young Marble Giants, Penguin Cafe Orchestra, James Blood Ulmer, and Meat Puppets has been a huge inspiration along the way. Currently I'm listening a lot to Delorean, Frightened Rabbit, The Shins, and Freelance Whales.
What does your future hold?
I've got roughly a dozen albums worth of unfinished musical compositions, so that will keep me busy for a very long time. I'm always striving for the perfect balance of pure creation, connecting with my audience, involvement with my community, living a more sustainable life, and exploring nature and the wilderness. But my life has been a continual process of discovery, so I expect to be surprised and learn new things about myself and my world, which may set me off on a different path. Right now I'm excited about new fans discovering my work. It would be great to fall in love again at some point, but that usually creates problems of its own!