Go Mad for Change at InLiquid’s Art for the Cash Poor 16, June 12 – 14, at Crane Arts. This week, we’re featuring work by artists who embody change by espousing beauty, liberty, affordability, and sustainability.
Local band Highwater makes a regular practice of translating honesty into rock and roll sound. They’ll be just one of four bands playing AFTCP16 Saturday.
Max Weingarten: It’s a weird collective. A guy who writes songs, and insists on his friends writing with him and recording with him all the time rather than doing it by himself. I think what happens is it gets better every time. I write a skeleton of a song and go down in my basement and record it, but then the bass player writes a bass line for it and the drummer comes and does a drum beat over it and the guitar player plays a lick over it and all of a sudden it becomes so much better than before. The more people that play with me the better.
How did you meet this particular group of people? How did you all end up playing together?
Max: Colin and I met in high school. It’s probably the oldest relationship in the band. Steve and I met not long after that and we were in a different band together. We stayed friends, and Steve learned to play different instruments that he hadn’t played at the time, so it was really a different thing – he now plays piano, cello, drums.
Steve DiGregorio: We started out in a metal band.
Max: And then Gabe here, I worked with a guy and became friends with him. And he was like you and my roommate would really get along. I feel like he set us up as bros. But then we did become friends, and Gabe taught me how to surf. I would write a song and then Gabe would play along to it. And then Gabe was also writing songs.
How did you each individually get into music?
Gabe McCall: I got a guitar for my ninth or tenth birthday. I started just playing around, then taking lessons when I was 15. Then I got into playing bass. I played bass mostly on my own. I had a bit of the theory and technique I was able to carry over from the guitar. But a lot of it I picked up from playing along with different songs.
Steve: My dad has always been really into music. He raised me on The Beatles and The Rolling Stones. And I feel like I gained a sense of musicality just from being exposed to all that at a young age. As I started to turn into a real person I developed my own tastes and diverged hugely from his. In high school I was completely into hip hop, and the more experimental and weird the better. And then in college I got into heavier, weirder music, metal. That refrain – the more experimental the better – eventually leads to noise music and 20th century classical music, and I got hugely into that. At which point I started playing cello, which is what I do now.
Max: My path to music was exactly what you’d think. The kid has a poster of someone on his wall. Getting into playing guitar is cool. How can I be in a band? It doesn’t even matter if they suck. I just want to be one of those guys. And then the first band you’re in is always ridiculously bad. You’re just in a garage somewhere. Hardcore music and metal music was huge for me, because it wasn’t mainstream. Like any adolescent, in a typical rebellious way, I thought that was cooler. This means I’m deeper or more exploratory or something. I got burnt out on a lot of that weird stuff and got into classic rock and more regular stuff and I went through a big Beatles phase later in my life. And then Tom Petty and The Band, I was just realizing it might be cooler than hardcore music. I was late to the game on that.
The fact that Max came from a classic background later in life, and Steve started that way, do you think that influences different approaches in your music?
Max: I think Steve and I are as different as can be with music, and that’s why I like playing with him so much.
Steve: The Beatles specifically are somebody that he’s really into and I grew up on. We have that point in both of our developments, but everything around that is swirling and divergent. We connected at this small point in time when both of us were into a very different style of music than we’re doing right now, and we formed a friendship. We continued moving on in our different directions, but we’re able to sit down and have spreads and work on music that isn’t necessarily the type of music I’d make myself, but we have a back and forth. It just works somehow.
On your Facebook page, I read that you describe yourselves as rock and other things. Can you tell me what other things refers to?
Max: We’re just a rock and roll band. But that’s of course not really true. I think I oversimplify it a lot. If I had to do the thing I don’t want to do – describe it – I would say we borrow a little bit from pulp music, from bluegrass, radio pop, country.
Gabe: When Max says other things, you can be sure it’s not an attempt to be mysterious.
Max: I feel a lot of what our art ends up being is the negative inverse of what I meet right now. And I think a lot of artists do that. They create a movement. You go through the blue period of your career as a reaction to what you’re sick of. It’s making a rock album, no special effects. It’s immature and I’m admitting that it’s immature. I feel like being plain and normal is out. You have to be on either side of the spectrum…No one wants to be a regular alternative rock band. And where I’m at in my life right now that’s really cool. I’m 30 now so I’m thinking about, what does it mean to be an adult, what does it mean to be an artist and not obsessed with being cool and counter cultural? It’s cool to be yourself. And not be afraid to make an album that your mom likes.
Steve: I was getting into experimental music for so long that I was trying to destroy any notion of traditional harmony or melody. And when I started with a cello, you have to come back and learn the language. It’s this strange opportunity for me to pick up more fundamental things, which are challenging to me.
In a way, you’re both saying the same thing in different ways. Because you’re both saying that traditional has become the new experimental.
Max: There’s this Dr Seuss story called The Sneetches. There’s only two different types of Sneetches, and they keep just going back and forth. Now this is in and now this is out. It’s very binary. The last person in the world who would like [a certain] song ends up teaching me how to play it because he knows how. Steve is a multi-instrumentalist and speaks a lot of languages. If we’re listening to The Beatles, he knows how to play every song. I know I can learn a lot from him. Gabe’s in another band called Trauma Bravo, and they’re more on the distortion side, but they’re also not afraid to sound like a rock band. One reason I became friends with Gabe is here’s someone who’s not trying to be the coolest guy in the room. Gabe is very comfortable being who he is.
Gabe: And Max, when you play music with him, he’s very honest. He’s not trying to sound like anything. And I appreciate that and bring it back to my own playing.
Max: Colin has a beard and works in a brewery, and people probably think he’s this perfect hipster guy with a flannel shirt, and he’s not that. He’ll be listening to an old Britney Spears song on the radio from when we were growing up. He’s really into Fleetwood Max, and he’ll listen to something cool that’s new. That’s one thing I learned from him. Don’t be afraid to take little things from what you like around the world and put them all together. That’s who you are. It’s never going to match someone else’s mosaic. Just take a little bit of everything.
It’s like the Oscar Wilde paradox. He said, whenever people agree with me I always feel I must be wrong. And now he’s the most popular, quotable guy. How do you avoid becoming that?
Gabe: If you think something’s cool, you almost assume the person you idolize is the embodiment of that image. And really they’re probably just a normal person who got there for other reasons. If Max’s band becomes cool, it’s because he was honest with it, and wrote the songs that people liked. Not that he was trying to fit into what was going to make it.
Max: It sounds cool to say this is my band and these are the songs I write. But what I’ll admit about myself is it’s not as clean as that. Because I am trying to avoid things that annoy me, or that I’m sick of, or that are all over the radio. If I was truly the altruist that I’m making myself sound like, I wouldn’t be bothered by that. But I am. I listen to the radio and it’s all droney and apathetic. You listen to the radio and songs aren’t about anything. I think feeling things is cool, and writing songs about things is cool, and that’s dead right now. Like Jackson Browne wrote songs about falling in love and breaking up.
It’s I heart you, never I love you.
Max: Exactly, it’s never let’s go on a date, it’s let’s hang out. It’s this neutered, not being vulnerable version of your life. And everything has ironic humor, which you’ll use to protect yourself in case someone makes fun of you. Our songs don’t have funny names, and our albums don’t have funny covers. It’s pretty sincere and honest. And if you don’t like it that’s fine. But I want to be in the category of artists who look like they were trying and making themselves vulnerable. I think that’s cool.
Gabe: I don’t know if people necessarily do that on purpose. You might just get caught up in the spirit of the times. You get caught up in so much of one type of music, that you just start writing and you realize it sounds like everything else. Maybe when Jackson Browne wrote songs in the 70s it sounded like everything else. Now it doesn’t, it sounds different compared to what’s popular now.
Max: Yeah that’s true not everything’s conscious. You’re afraid of something, you’re avoiding something. There were so many bands around The Beatles’ time that sounded like that, but didn’t get archived.
Gabe: IPAs are the most asked for beer in America right now. Why are they so popular now? And Corona was so popular when it came to America in the 80s and now everyone hates it.
Max: It’s the cycle. Whatever was cool yesterday, is not only not cool now, but it’s rotated into the last thing to become cool again. I feel like there’s a bell curve. I’ll just use cars as an analogy. If I have a brand new car now it’s going to be cool, because it’ll have blue tooth capabilities. I can say turn on and it’ll turn on. And all of my friends will get a kick out of that.
Me: You’ll be Knight Rider and it’ll be awesome.
Max: And if I have a 70s car, people will probably also comment on that. Oh cool car, this is vintage, it hearkens back to a simpler time. And everyone will take a picture and put it on Instagram. But if I have a car that’s ten years old it’s dorky, because it’s not old enough to be vintage and it’s not new enough to be impressive. And I think this band is trying to be that. I want to say this is a plain album, it might not blow your socks off but this is what I’m driving right now.
So your band is a station wagon.
Max: I just want to sound like what we sound like at band practice, which is a slightly 90s stuck in the past group of guys that are probably eating pizza. I like the mundane stuff these days. I feel like everything’s dripping with this adorable hipster quality that you just can’t get away from. I’d rather just watch Die Hard. It’s a regular old American movie. That’s what life is.
Do you do all your recording on your own?
Max: We just put out our third Highwater album, and we’re currently working on a fourth one, and they’re all home recording. I outsource someone to mix and master it. Because I always feel like whenever I’m done with it, I want someone to take it away from me, because I’ve been staring at it for so long. So I’ll pay someone $1000. I’ll put everything I have on an external hard drive, and they’ll pull it up on their Pro Tools, and rearrange it a little bit and they’ll email it back to me. And it usually ends up sounding better. The more people that touch the ball, the better the game ends up being. I have a lot of ideas, but they’re just ideas that need other people.
I don’t know anything about recording. I just hit the snare drum, and if it sounds bad I redo it. If it sounds good, I keep it. You do things the way that you know how to do them. There’s the old Johnny Cash quote, “I play slowly because I can’t play faster. I sing low because I can’t sing higher.” I think a lot of it, no matter who you are, is that. Your arms only reach so far, just having whatever is in your reach to do it. My house is the studio.
Steve: Max is compulsively prolific. He’s always doing the next thing.
How far along on the fourth album are you?
Max: I just broke ground on that. I like smaller albums. I think a 10 or 11 song album is better for this particular band. If you get to the point where you have diehard fans, people will listen to a longer album. I’ll have 18 songs conceptually, I’ll show them to everyone, it’ll be obvious that people start to have their favorite songs, and I start out with so many songs that I can afford to throw some off the boat. And then we’ll have 13 or 14 songs and I’ll say let’s record all of them. And we’ll do lead guitar, organ, and some of that might be a waste of time. There’s some B sides lying around. Ultimately you want to have the best possible 10 songs. Anything we stamp our name on and release, we’re putting ourselves out there. Going back to Jackson Browne, that’s what those guys were doing. There wasn’t irony in that genre.
More bravery than irony.
Max: Yeah, I think so. I’d rather put out an album that no one likes, but that I thought was good and was baring my soul. You’re a musician. You’re supposed to love this. You’re supposed to go out and sign autographs. I’m more inspired by people’s positivity and less by their coolness.
What are you looking forward to about AFTCP?
Gabe: I don’t know much about the festival, but I’m looking forward to seeing the different artists. I don’t know much about that scene, or even that section of the city.
Steve: I’ve been out of the loop for a bit, I just got back from traveling and moving out of my house. It was during that time I found out we had this show, so I haven’t been able to read into it too much. But I know some of the bands that are playing. They’re awesome. Just the name of it – Art for the Cash Poor – I’m sure it’s going to be awesome.
Max: All the bands are people that I know personally. To me, it’s a party. Also, what’s really cool is it’s free. You can tell people, come to the show, it’s free. Come hang out with me, come support my band, it’s not going to cost you anything for you to ride your bike over. I think that’s cool, you don’t get to say that about a lot of shows. Just stop by. It’s not a commitment.