I came across Max Paul Maria’s music during my holidays in Croatia, last year. Had I first heard him in the office, when I use music to block out the noise, maybe I wouldn’t have stopped in my way. But I was on a sofa with a glass of wine, windows wide open, listening to my friends talk about World War III on the terrace. So I heard him loud and clear.
That night I fell asleep to folk music and talks about the sea, anchors, Lisbon, all in a rough voice or accompanied by a harmonica. The first thing I asked my friend the next day was “-Who did we listen to last night? -Max Paul Maria. -Who is Max Paul Maria and how do you know him?” Google offered me some suggestions in German, Youtube offered me a handful of videos, a full album on Spotify and Deezer. “-But how do you know him? -From playing as the warm up act in a club in Berlin.” Which, as I look back, makes me think about Inside Llewyn Davis a bit. But, I hope, just a little bit. Although, in order to pay his bills, he does work in bars, that is, when he’s not singing in them.
The album Miles and Gallons is his first record and has gone through little mastering. It was recorded in his friends’ apartments but I would say that rough sound makes it honest and charming. You can focus on the instruments as well as the lyrics, as one should do with folk music. He makes you think of Tom Waits, Cohen, and, can I say it, even Dylan.
By the time of the interview, October 2016, he had released his second album, Figurines. A paradox record: although the sound is more refined, it seems to be wilder.
Cohen said that the first lyrics one writes are all about imitation, imitating the ones you admire and afterwards finding your style. Can you relate to that?
Cohen is right. In the process of finding your own voice it´s natural and important to experiment with the lyrical positions of other artists. In my early lyrics I did lots of variations (rather than imitations) of popular lines and metaphors of songwriters I admire like Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen or Tom Waits or writers like Henry Miller, Jack Kerouac and William Borroughs.
What’s your writing process like? How do songs come about? Do you write as a means to reflect or is it a narrative effort?
I always carry a small notebook with me, in which I write down whatever details and situations I encounter on the streets or whatever comes to my mind. At home I collect these fragments in larger notebooks and try to work them out into aesthetic units. When the time is right I piece these units together into verses and add whatever is necessary for the story I want to tell. In this sense I think it´s rather an exercise in how to approach the world in a poetic mode than to strictly follow a line of narration.
What comes first? The tune, the lyric or do they come together?
I often write music and lyrics separately. In a magic moment while strumming on my guitar, a line comes to my mind, sometimes just a word or a vocal melody. Then I gotta be quick and write it down or record it. It´s usually the first verse or chorus that comes in one flow. The rest is hard work: formulating the verses, finding the right images, refining the language. To me song structure and rhymes are often rather helpful measurements.
Which song took the longest to write and which was the fastest? What was different between the two?
Miles & Gallons came basically in one flow. I wrote it in about 20 minutes. I only edited some formulations.
No more love songs took me forever to write. When the songwriting process is taking too long you often lose the initial feeling and intention of a song. Finishing songs can be hard and complicated work.
Do you disregard lyrics or songs you write? What do you do with them? (Do you really throw them away?)
Are you the kind that polishes and repolishes his lyrics or do you let them unpolished (or seemingly unpolished, like Dylan)?
I keep countless notebooks filled with lyrics I haven´t used yet for one or the other reason. Some of them just aren´t good enough, others simply haven´t found their musical match yet. I also have quite a big amount of unpublished recorded songs and demos on 4 track tapes. I am quite impatient with myself so I usually edit my lyrics only to a certain degree but pretty quickly let them be the way they are.
When publishing an album I always print the original sheets of lyric including all of the sketches and mistakes on the inlay of the record, thus creating the illusion of the lyrics being nearly unpolished. I somehow prefer these lyrics to be looked at as script images rather than lyrics.
What motivates you to write a song? Did you co-write lyrics with others? Do you sing lyrics from other songwriters? (covers not included)
Songs come and go and some stay. I co-wrote several songs with friends although I prefer to write alone. I never sang lyrics from other songwriters to my music, but I love to cover good songs from time to time.
Of the art(ist)’s ability to convey a certain emotional authenticity, Federico Garcia Lorca says „All that has dark sound has duende„, „that mysterious power that everyone feels but no philosopher can explain.”, the soul of the music that Nick Cave has identified in the likes of Dylan, Cohen or Tom Waits. Is this authenticity – the duende – something you actively seek in your writing and performance and how do you summon it?
Authenticity is the the magic within, a glimpse of truth shining through a good line of lyrics, a soulful voice, a promise in the glance of an eye. This is the very core of the music I am interested in.
When did you start taking music seriously? When did you think it can bring you money? Does it today?
As far as I can remember, I have taken music seriously all my life. All throughout my teenage years I was playing in punk and hardcore bands. Fast and aggressive music, but in its intensity and truthfulness not too far away from folk music. Music somehow always is its own reward. Independent music business is pretty tough and really making money with music is now harder than ever. As there´s never enough money for good promotion – you have to play live as much as you can in order to reach people. Although I play in several bands I sometimes work in bars to pay the bills.
What was it like singing your own lyrics for the first time in public?
Why did you decide to go solo?
I´ve been doing this for a long time now, but looking back I´d say it´s both frightening and strong at the same time. You grow into it.
How did the recording of your first album go?
Recording Miles & Gallons was a mess. I was traveling through Europe at the time and recorded tracks in at least 8 different apartments in 3 different countries. My good friend Nico Rotter helped me a lot to piece the tracks together in the mix and turn it into a more homogeneous album. I like the way it sounds, I like the roughness, the dirt and authenticity of the recordings.
How are the recordings for your second album going? Why are you recording in LA?
I just finished recording and mixing my second album entitled Figurines which shall be released Oct 21st 2016.
I recorded most parts in my Berlin apartment, except for the drums and some loud guitars which I recorded in a friend’s basement. The picture you´re referring to was taken at Alex’s (of Seawolf) place in LA where some of the songwriting process took place. The album turned out to be more of a full band album and also features parts of my live band. It´s rougher and louder and more complex sounding than my first album.
How important is it for you how people take it and do you have any expectations from your audience?
I don´t really have any expectations from my audience except to be attentive. I don´t play this type of background music and I want people to listen closely. People are surrounded by so much stuff and information screaming at them – when I was younger I used to sing in punk bands and tried getting people´s attention by screaming at them. I think I found a quieter, more intense way to get to them now.
What type of music did you listen to when you were growing up as a kid? How did you get to learn piano, guitar and harmonica?
I grew up listening to my mother´s record collection which consisted mainly of Bob Dylan, The Rolling Stones, Iggy Pop, Talking Heads, Jacques Brel and lots of classical music. I think the first record I bought myself was Green Day´s Dookie, which was followed by a long phase of Nirvana. At one point I could play every Nirvana song by heart on my classical guitar, that´s when my dad bought me my first electric guitar. A little later my uncle gave me his old Hohner Bluesharp. I immediately started to imitate the harmonica sounds I had heard on the early Dylan records.
My grandma had an old grand piano on which I taught myself how to play A Whiter Shade of Pale by Procul Harum. Ha! These seem to be my musical origins.
What do you do beside music?
I try to spend as much time as possible traveling the world. I´m also into analog photography, building guitars and restoring motorcycles.
Name a few contemporary singer-songwriters that you appreciate.
I really like Jonathan Wilson, Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy, Andy Schauf, Father John Misty, Pete Doherty, Dawes, Wilco and Ryan Adams.
What’s your greatest ambition as a songwriter?
To do justice to this miracle of life.
Have you ever been to Lisbon? I lived in Lisbon for 1,5 years.
How long have you been smoking? 10 years.
Do you often drink with Tom Waits? Who else have you been drinking with? Once in a blue moon. Yonder Void is my favorite drinking partner.
The sea is an often met theme in your songs. Why? It´s mysterious, formless and dark like a man´s mind.
Who’s Robert and why is he running? Robert is a good friend of mine. He´s running from his shadow, trying to get rid of himself.
How are your imaginary landscapes looking now? Pretty good, thank you!
What is the story of the hat on the album cover? It´s Old Henry, the hat I used to wear during the Miles & Gallons travels and recordings.
Do you still die everyday to keep calm? Well, I try to.