INTERVIEW: Max Graham (2013)
Max Graham is quite the maverick, letting his tastes in music dictate what he plays and produces rather than being tied to any one specific subgenre. Even his record label Re*Brand is named for the way he reinvents himself over the years. With a loyal following and a popular weekly radio show, Cycles (which often trends on Twitter), Max Graham is busy in the studio working on his upcoming artist album due for release in 2013. I caught up with Max backstage at the Armada showcase during the Amsterdam Dance Event to find out more about his varied music career.
RS: Max, are you singed to Armada right now?
Max Graham: In 2008, I combined my own label ReBrand with one of Armada’s labels. Technically, I am signed to Armada, but through my own label because I only release on Re*Brand Records.
RS: Does the name Re*Brand have anything to do with how you have changed your sound over the years?
Max Graham: Actually in 2007, I was talking about rebranding myself and at the same time trying to figure out a name for the label. One of my friends, Alex K, who owns a club in Montreal called New City Gas, said to me “call it rebrand, it is something that you keep running into whether you are trying to rebrand yourself or not, it is kind of a word that fits you.” From there I had a good friend in Ottawa design the logo and he came up with the red star above the “re,” separating the two words so it fit perfectly. All of this happened over the course of 10 days, so I went from having nothing to having a label with a beautiful logo, it all came together and I was super happy.
RS: I have always seen you as someone on the more commercial side, not the cool kid side. I have always seen a mash for everything.
Max Graham: You are probably thinking about “Owner of a Lonely Heart,” which was the most commercial. I have always been more on the cool side and never really made that crossover, except for with “Owner of a Lonely Heart.” Ministry asked me to do a very commercial follow-up, and I said no because I wanted to do “Gone” with Jessica Riddle. They said that if I couldn’t go super commercial then they weren’t going to continue with the deal. “Owner of a Lonely Heart” was kind of an anomaly for me, it was almost like I made if for fun to play during my sets and it sort of took off without me. It has become such a big part of my career, even though it is not something that I put my heart and soul into. I have never denied it and have always been proud of it, but I have always been way more underground. I have had fans come to gigs and ask me why I wasn’t playing more ’80s remakes; I couldn’t get away from it!
RS: Have you ever thought about doing a project like that as more of a joke or a pseudonym?
Max Graham: I did, but that really isn’t where my heart is and I always want to do what is comfortable. From a marketing and a business standpoint, I haven’t decided where I want to go, which is one of the reasons why I have had such a strange, topsy-turvy career. I have been going with whatever turns me on, whether it was techno in 2004, electro in 2005, the more techy stuff in ‘06 and ’07, or rediscovering trance and progressive in 2010. I have been all over the place with that.
RS: I am hearing talk right now that after the Dirty Dutch scene fades away, the next scene coming is trance 2.0 which has a slower 120-to-130 BPM and is pretty melodic, but borrowing from all of the other genres, are you hearing that also?
Max Graham: That is what I am playing now and I actually call that progressive. To me progressive house was Sasha and Paul Van Dyk 10 years ago, which was very melodic and maybe a little bit faster back then, but I find that the 128bpm, like Anjunabeats, style of chunky progressive house with very trance-y strings and melodies to be progressive house. I know what you are saying and that is what people are calling it, though. As you slow down by bringing the trance down to that speed, you hear a fusion of the slower, sexier beats rather than the bang of the trance drum with a single note bassline; it’s sexier and more intricate now. You are right with the trance melodies, trancepads, the Anjuna sound really has that. I am playing more of that now rather than the John O’Callaghan-type trance. I actually consider myself a progressive house DJ, but unfortunately now the term progressive house is for David Guetta and it is all a big mess. I guess I am trance but I still see things the way I did 10 years ago.
RS: One thing that I really respect about you is that you honestly do your own work, what software do you use?
Max Graham: I used Cubase for years, and now I am an Ableton guy. I was DJing with Ableton for about four years and I went back to the pitch control. After about 3 years after DJing with it, I tried to use it to produce and fell in love with it. I am still not fully comfortable in the studio and I still don’t like my productions, it doesn’t come easily to me like with some people. I have always been like 80% DJ and 20% producer so I struggle in the studio, I think that I can write good music but I am just not a good producer and engineer. I almost need a studio partner to make my stuff sound phat.
I do always follow what inspires me in the moment and my managers don’t like it because they can’t promote my tracks one year and then again the next year because I am always changing. It works against me business-wise and financially, but I am a weirdo artist and I am inspired by whatever inspires me at the moment. One good example is that people ask me why I don’t play what I played 10 years ago, and I ask them if they have the same haircut, or wear the same clothing and listen to the same band or watch the same TV shows that they did 10 years ago, nobody does, everything changes. I am always changing and I think that I always have a Max Graham sound that is melodic, energetic, and chunky, and that has remained the same for 10 years. I am drawing from a lot of different places and I like to weave a story. On Cycles radio (which is 2 hours), you will hear me start with 128bpm, really melodic stuff but I will be playing drums and techno in the middle and then some trance and trance 2.0, as you call it. It is not necessarily that I am jumping on the bandwagon, but more that I am taking music that I find from all over the place that I am inspired by and trying to incorporate it into my set. If you have a fan that only wants to hear trance, it can work against you when you are trying to play a wide variety. I am super lucky with Cycles that I found a group of people that tune in every week. There are over 1,000 listeners live and that is just one of the small factors that we can see, we can’t see the other numbers, we can’t see the download numbers and there is a lot of interaction on Twitter. For a show that has everything from drum to silk records to Anjunabeats, it’s incredible, I think that being too diverse is what has worked against me.
RS: You just mentioned that you wished you had a partner or a producer, if you could pick anyone to work with in the studio who would it be?
Max Graham: Oh wow that is a tough one, I think that it depends on what I would want to make. Again it goes back to always being different. I think that I would like to bring someone like Ummet Ozcan into the studio to make the drums to my bassline with something really weird and put the melodies on top. Actually, the guy that I am working with right now, who is singed to the label, is one of the most talented producers out there, his name is Protoculture. We did a remix for Armin, and Grace which was at #1 for ten weeks on Beatport. He is the master of bass and drums and the relationship between them- which is a lot of compression- that is beyond my skill, on the other hand, I am great with strings and melodies and making the music work together to tug at some emotion. I can design the house but I can’t build it. He is the guy that I have been lucky enough to start working with that can really do what I feel that I am missing.
RS: In your sets, how much of your own productions do you think that you play?
Max Graham: Probably about 10-15%. There are classics that I always play like “Sun In The Winter,” “Nothing Else Matters,” “FYC,” “So Caught Up,” and the new one with Jeza and a couple others. There are some sets where I might only play 2, it really depends on the mood that I am in that night. I don’t have a preset list, but nowadays I almost have to throw in some of the classics because that is what people want to hear.
RS: What are you working on in the studio now?
Max Graham: I am working on a track with Jwaydan who did “We Control The Sunlight” with Aly & Fila , Kerry Leva, Tania Zygar (who is Canadian), Thomas Heredia, and others. I am working on an album for next year and doing bunch of collabs and getting inspiration from different people…
RS: I was going to ask you, what is your new album going to be like?
Max Graham: It will be out in spring of next year and it is going to be half vocal and half pretty bumping. The last one had a lot of downtempo and I wanted this one to be more for the dance floor. I think that everyone is moving back underground and getting back to telling a story, rather than just playing hits and that is the way that the album is going to go.
RS: I like that. You mentioned Twitter, is that the best way for your fans to follow you?
Max Graham: Absolutely, I have just hit 62,000 tweets and I would say that 90% of those are replies to people. I am very interactive with answering questions and being there. Kanye said it in one of his famous Twitter rants last year that it cuts out the PR people and the middleman and allows the artists to talk directly to the fans. In some famous people’s cases, it backfires, but in my case I think that it has been really strong and has actually helped me build the radio show and helped me interact. I am on Twitter every week and I book my flights around the radio show to make sure that I am on Twitter interacting and responding. I feel the music the same way that the listeners do, and Twitter allows me to convey that rather than being someone in a recording studio hiding out. I also use Facebook, but I treat it very differently, on Facebook I post a lot of stupid pictures which are part of my personality and Twitter is where I have most conversations. Twitter is @Maxgraham and Facebook is DJMaxGraham and obviously maxgraham.com is the hub for all of them.
RS: I have a few questions that might annoy you; if you were to do another ’80s track what would it be?
Max Graham: I think that they have all been done by now. There was a Kansas record “Carry On Wayward Son” that I wanted to do, but I am sure that someone has done it by now.
RS: Are you on the DJ list, the top 100 list?
Max Graham: I was in 2001-2007 and then I dropped out for a couple of years and now I am still on the list but not in the Top 100.
RS: What effect do you think that has on your career?
Max Graham: I know that everyone likes to bash the list but it actually has a huge effect on your career. Regardless of our musical talent or ability, a lot of promoters and, unfortunately, a lot of fans base their listening or bookings on the Top 100. I know that my fans from Cycles Radio and the people that have been listening to me for the last 10 years could care less if I was in the Top 100 or not, but unfortunately there is a large segment that do look at that and see it as an indicator of what’s good and what is not. The #1 on iTunes isn’t necessarily the best song in the world; it is just what has been marketed the best and played on the radio the best. Unfortunately, countless people will buy it because they believe that it is what everyone else likes. I think that we are super lucky that 95% of our fans are real music lovers and have been for 10 years. We are now seeing a huge influx of new fans that haven’t really figured out what they like yet and are still getting their feet wet so they will automatically like what is popular, when as they get to know it better, they will decide what they really love. That’s where most fans are at, but there is still a chunk that aren’t, I think that makes the poll a little weird and at the end of the day, it is a popularity contest and has nothing to do with talent and skill. I think that skill and talent will help you to become more popular, but there are plenty of incredibly talented guys who are not in the Top 100. It doesn’t really bother me and my fans definitely don’t care.
RS: What would you like to say to all of your fans out there?
Max Graham: In the previous question I gave them some props. I am so lucky to have a group of fans that allow me to be diverse and trust me. I have a two hour radio show every Tuesday on DI and I get to play everything from techno to trance to house and I have now added a bonus track on the download version which is drum and bass. I won’t do it live, because I don’t think that it fits in my sets, but I have a fanbase that allows me to be diverse and that is what I am so thankful for. I don’t like to call them a fanbase, I prefer like-minded music lovers. I have been doing this for 12 years and I’m still going and I still have a great career to travel the world, and it is all because I have found enough people that allow me to play what I want in the way that I want. I will always give back to them as much as I can, musically and through the radio show. I want to keep that relationship going because it is incredible, we would be nowhere without the fans.
Interview conducted during Amsterdam Dance Event 2012.