An Interview With Max García Conover: Stagger
When you’ve been listening to an artist for a number of years, it’s easy to get to a point where you know their tricks and tics pretty well, and can anticipate what their new work will sound like. I can say assuredly that has never happened for me as an avid listener to Max García Conover. After his brilliant first EP came out in 2011, it would have been tempting for Max to crank out album after album of deftly finger-picked ballads, but, as you’ll see in this interview, there is a restlessness in Max as a writer that just wouldn’t have been satisfied with that artistic approach. He has made a reputation for himself both around New England and across Europe, where he just returned from tour, as a songwriter in search of truer forms of telling stories. At each turn of how he tells those stories–whether on his lush album ellery or the intimate Motorhome, you feel like you’re in good hands. On Friday, he’ll release a new record, Stagger, which is a result of his really powerful weekly songs project. There is a release show at One Longfellow Square, which you should be at. We got to talk with Max about these new songs, his process, and trusting himself to write songs he likes. Read on.
RLR: You released your last album, Motorhome, last fall and I’m wondering how have those songs shifted or evolved for you as you’ve taken them on the road, or if it was a little different, given that some of those songs have had a longer arc than just as part of that record?
MGC: I recorded all those songs as part of my weekly songs project and then toured around for a year or so, and then came back and recorded them again for the label. So, the way they are on the record is pretty much how I play them live. Or, I don’t play them.
This new album is different in that way, because I haven’t played those songs much live and they’re different kinds of songs, so I might not play them live for a while. I’m sure they’ll end up changing and growing into themselves a little bit more.
RLR: It’s interesting to think about songs you play live and songs that maybe serve a different purpose–how do you think about that?
MGC: A big thing for this album is just about letting myself write whatever kind of songs sound good to me in whatever kind of way they sound good to me, and not adhering to what I thought people would think was cool, or what I thought was impressive, or what I could do live.
So a lot of the new songs have big synth parts and super simple chord structures that just repeat over and over again and kind of loop. And I don’t loop live, so I don’t play them live. I haven’t been writing them live either, and I think that’s a big difference, often when I write a song by just sitting at the guitar and writing, that will turn into a song I play live. And when I write a song by creating a chord structure and a backdrop for it and producing that, filling out the song, more like a puzzle–that usually ends up being one that doesn’t get played live, or I have to re-learn it to play it.
RLR: So continuing with this idea of writing songs that sound good to you…I remember the first time I heard “Streetlights” and it honestly caught me off guard. And I found myself thinking two things that I know are wrong: the first was: “Wow this is really different,” and I think that’s true and not true at all; the second was: “Max is heading in a new direction,” and that seems both really presumptuous and also stupid to think that you wouldn’t be heading in new directions or exploring new sounds. Maybe there’s a question there, maybe not, but that’s what I’m wondering about.
MGC: Yeah, I get that. And that’s kind of the reaction I was expecting, and that’s the reaction that I had, too, when I first made it. That song stopped me in my tracks. I was writing weekly songs, and I’d just got back from tour early last winter, and I sat down to keep going as I had been, and for some reason I wrote this synthy, upbeat, atmospheric song. And then I worked on it for like four months, trying to figure out if it sounded like me, and where I was in it.
And then I just keep coming back to that classic Mary Oliver [line]: “let the soft animal of your body love what it loves.” There’s something about getting older; I think when you’re a kid, you love what you love and as you grow up, you lose that in the name of being liked, or responsibility, or what you think you’re supposed to be; and depending on how strong your will is, or how suggestible you are, you can take a long time coming back to what you love, or maybe you never come back to it. For me, I’ve always been a pretty passive person. I’ve got a strong willed older sister and she always kind of told me what was fun and what was cool. [Laughs] So, it’s taken me a long time to recognize that I can just write love songs and it might sound saccharine or maudlin to somebody else, but if it doesn’t to me, then that’s enough. So that’s where “Streetlights,” and “Rainstorm,” come from, these songs that have a more poppy vibe to them–it’s just what I like.
RLR: But hearing them several times, I can imagine both “Streetlights,” and, “Rainstorm,” stripped down to an acoustic guitar.
MGC: I’m glad to hear that. I always want to write songs that hold up in that way. That’s what I think of as folk music: that, regardless of the production, you can strip it down and the song will still stand. I play, “Rainstorm,” pretty regularly. I’ve only played, “Streetlights,” once and it was kind of a disaster, but usually the first time I play anything it’s kind of a disaster.
RLR: You’ve talked about trying out new work, like writing “New Sweden” on a pizza box at Eureka Hall and then immediately playing it. Can you talk about what you get out of playing brand new work in front of an audience, maybe even before you know what the song really is?
MGC: Even if it’s just playing in front of one person, it usually allows me to be honest with myself about the things I already know to be true. My brain or my heart is telling me to ignore those things because I’m sick of working on it or it’s disappointing, but then when I play it for somebody–either a recording or live–you just know when it comes out of your mouth.
RLR: Probably in the sense of quieting your self-critic too. MGC: Yeah, yeah. “Rich Man” was that way because it kind of felt like the first song I’d written in my own voice, where it was exactly the way I wanted to sound. Somebody [at a show] called it acoustic rap, which was, you know, my greatest nightmare to be called that [Laughs]. That’s literally what I’ve been avoiding this whole time.
At the same time, people were interpreting it that way, people also responded to that song much more viscerally and sincerely than anything else I’ve made. And it’s a testament to the fact that if I sound the way I sound, there’s probably going to be more people who actively don’t like it and the people who do like it will like it a lot more, because I like it more.
RLR: On this record, you revisited a couple of earlier songs, reworking the lyrics for “Home” and coming back to “The Start of Fables” in a new way. And this reminded me of a comment from Charlie Parr, which is: “Songs are never finished.” I’m wondering what you think about that and also what you get out of this revisiting and coming back around to things.
MGC: Yeah, I love it so much; I don’t understand why other people don’t do it. A song is such a small window to see something; it’s bigger than a painting, but so much smaller than a novel. Maybe it’s because I share things quickly, and don’t let them marinate, but I really don’t think that’s it because the song will feel done to me, but the story won’t feel done at all.
“Holy Rider, Part 4,” is on the album and that still doesn’t even feel like the end of the story: four parts in, I’m still trying to write that song. And I almost don’t even want to be done with it, because it’s its own world to me. I really love novels; in many ways, they’re a bigger part of my aesthetic life than songs are, and songs often don’t feel like they’re enough to me.
And the Charlie Parr thing–songs are never finished–that is true, and it’s also true that when you do finish a song, it always feels like a failure. When you’re trying to say something that you feel, as soon as it comes out of your mouth, it’s diminished and it’s not quite the thing that you feel. Getting better at songwriting for me has been about failing less and having the song be closer to what I feel and experience.
RLR: So that’s really interesting that as soon as you try to say something you feel, it’s diminished. But there are a couple of instrumentals on this record, “Stagger, Part 1,” and “Stagger, Part 2.” So does expressing something just with music, does that give you a different sense of closeness to the mood you’re trying to communicate or the story you’re telling?
MGC: For me, it’s actually exactly the same. I have this excitement and this kernel, especially with both of those songs. I was kind of learning a whole new genre with those, and all new instruments I’d never experienced, and writing different parts and learning how composition works. The feeling of having this glimmer of light of true feeling at the beginning and going through and trying to get the song to the finish line was just as disappointing as it is every time. I can stand back from them and I think they are good and transmit something that feels true and useful to me. But they’re not what I wanted, and that’s why I keep writing more songs.
RLR: I’m stealing a question from Joe Pug: If you have a day to write, what does that look like?
MGC: I have a studio space and I’m usually working on three or four songs at once–they’re all in different stages of the process, and I just start with whatever one is most interesting to me. So I could be on my computer, mixing. Or I could go into my practice space area and just play around if a song is in its early stages. Or sometimes I’ll get on my bike and go down to the cafe, if I’m just working on putting words together.
RLR: How important is it for you to match the space to what you’re trying to accomplish?
MGC: Not that important. It’s better usually creatively and energetically to switch up spaces; I bounce around from the library to cafes to home. And I do a lot of writing while I’m on the road, and that’s often when I’m most excited about writing. I have a sweet little space right now, and it’s meaningful to me and I’m happy to have it, but it doesn’t matter to me in the creative process the way it might to some other people.
RLR: How has weekly songs project changed since you started it a few years ago? What led you to do an official album release?
MGC: I’ve been thinking about it a lot and there are a lot of answers to that. The main one is I would send out a volume every 10 songs or so, and that felt like a way of paying the group of patrons back for consistently helping these songs along–to make something tangible for them. A couple volumes ago, I felt like the volumes were better than the actual albums I’ve made and there was something about the way I was writing these songs, just back-to-back-to-back that made them, even if I didn’t think about song order and just slapped them right in order, it felt like it made sense and was more alive than anything else I’ve made.
So with this one, I decided to give it a title, and to have this ten-day window where people can become patrons if they want to get it, and I’ll do this release show in Portland. But I’m not going to send to any stores, I might put on Spotify, but I don’t know; I just wanted to give it a little bit more of a life, and to grow that patron community, and then maybe the next one will have a little bit more of a life too.
As far as seeing the weekly songs project change, I’ve taken the word ‘weekly’ out of it, hasn’t been weekly for a long time. When I started it, it just seemed like a really good life to me, to have that be my work every week, and if figure out a way to make money doing it, I could just go to work, I could write a song that week, and that would be my living, and it just seemed like the best sort of life.
It was really hard at first, getting it done in time, you know? And I just assumed as I went on, it would get easier, and I would do things more quickly, and I would have systems in place for recording and production. As I’ve gotten better, and learned about things, everything just takes longer. At this point, it would be impossible to do any of these songs in a week. I work with Pete Morse, who does some of the mixing and mastering, and he needs turnaround time. And every sound in the recording has to be taken care of in a way that it didn’t when I was just playing live into a microphone.
It’s also the writing: I’ve realized how important time is in writing songs, and you might spit out a song pretty quickly, but a perfect bridge doesn’t come for another couple weeks, and when it comes, it really is the perfect bridge. I’ve realized I have to keep multiple songs in the air and just keep ‘em going at all times. I’ve got songs that have been kicking around for a long time that I think are good, but I can’t find what’s missing with them yet.
RLR: Kafari is opening the show at One Longfellow Square—can you talk about his music and where you see the two of you overlapping and diverging in what you’re working on?
I just felt like it would be a good show. He’s opened for me before, and early on, I played a show with The Jaw Gems at One Longfellow, because I just thought it would be cool to see them play at One Longfellow. I don’t really want to put another male folk songwriter on stage with me, and I’m not at all tied to the folk genre in any way. It’s not really what I listen to very much, so I’m always looking for different things.
I’m also almost always bored at shows, and I don’t want people to be bored. And Kafari in particular has this softly inventive way of playing that’s so warm, and inviting, even though you don’t know what’s going on a lot of the time, and you don’t really know the the structures of what he’s playing, but it still feels like he’s playing it for you. I love that. If anything is going to make people accept my gravelly shout-singing, it’s Kafari playing beforehand [Laughs].
Photo Credit: Lauryn Sophia