Mike Rimmer has an in depth conversation with the ex-dc Talk man turned singer/actor, KEVIN MAX
Kevin Max is a Duran Duran fan! Currently he's hunting around in his CD wallet to find a disc that features some of that band's best music to play for us as we travel from Nashville to Memphis. Sadly he's picked up the wrong wallet so I won't have the experience of hearing Kevin do his best Simon Le Bon impression. Not that vocally he does impressions. During the journey I discover that he has been invited to join not one but two big name American mainstream rock bands as their new lead singer but he has more interesting work to do than revive the fortunes of classic bands.
One thing that can be said about Max's solo career is that it certainly hasn't exactly been conventional. 'Stereotype B' followed the end of dc Talk, and the arty rock album failed to find much of a footing amongst his previous Christian fan base. His second full album 'The Imposter' was a well crafted, artistically interesting pop rock release which again struggled to find a large audience. Whilst Max flirted with the idea of heading into the mainstream, he played regular gigs at the famous Viper Rooms in Los Angeles and engaged in stage work portraying the title role in the Joseph musical.
Most recently he has returned to his gospel roots by recording an album that took the most inspiring pre-'70s gospel songs that he enjoyed when he was younger and re-introduced them to a modern audience. "I started it as a side project when I was living in LA and it was something that I really wanted to do," said the singer. "I thought it would be a great thing to put together, like a cover record of the golden age of gospel and how that influenced me as a kid. I decided to go in deeper into what I felt was the beginnings of gospel music in this country; the music that really opened the door for rock and roll and then obviously anybody making faith-based music today."
Hanging out with Kevin is always an interesting experience. Not only is he an excellent raconteur but there is always the possibility of observing his interactions with others. We've been chatting and as it's time to leave the door opens and in steps Joanne Cash, the youngest sister of Johnny Cash, but also Michael Bloodgood and Stryper guitarist Oz Fox. There are cameras around and snaps are taken of the rock guys, Cash and Max together. 'The Blood' features some interesting collaborations including a duet with Joanne Cash. Max remembers, "We had performed a show together in Nashville and I wrote this song, 'One Way - One Blood' for Joanne on the record; I had her in mind the whole time. So when we brought her in then the domino effect started to happen and I said, 'Well why don't we get my dc Talk partners in here for one song?' 'Why don't we call up Mary Mary for this track?' And it just started happening."
The Mary Mary track is in fact Erica Campbell from the duo dueting with Max on the old Impressions classic "People Get Ready". Originally I listened to a pre-release copy of the album that had no sleeve notes and so it bugged me for a while that there was some terrific blues guitar on the track but I didn't know who was responsible. Talking to Kevin, I discover that it was Vince Gill! Kevin explains, "My producer on this project, William Owsley, actually plays in Amy Grant's live band and is really good friends with Amy and Vince so asked Vince to come along and do it. Vince heard the tracks and he came in for a couple of days and scratched around. It wasn't very hard for him to play this stuff! We wanted somebody that could really solo but not sound like Joe Satriani, you know?"
The Curtis Mayfield-penned "People Get Ready" is a very popular song for Max to cover and perhaps more obvious than you'd expect. "People here in the States are really familiar with the Rod Stewart/Jeff Beck version because that one became really big on the radio. The original Impressions version is heard once in a while. We wanted to do the version that would fit this project and what we were going for with other songs, so I think it fits nicely."
Sometimes I wonder if it must be a little frustrating being Kevin Max. How many times does he have conversations with fans of his former band and they want to know when dc Talk will get back together, record a new album, go on tour, blah blah blah. He's probably not helped himself avoid those conversations by recruiting his band mates to sing on the album. "I think they were both taken aback that I had moved back to Nashville. They were like, 'Wow, you moved back! We thought the West Coast would have you for ever.' I think there was just a natural excitement of me being back in town and working on a new project and when I told them what was happening they were both very into being on the project. I really was careful about how I wanted to do that because I didn't want to put dc Talk just on any song. I didn't really see them working out on some of the other tunes but 'The Cross' made sense. And I think 'The Cross' is probably the only really modern sounding song on the record so it fits into what we do."
So was Max a Prince fan back in the '80s? "Oh yeah, absolutely!" he says emphatically. "The funny thing about Prince is that, growing up in the Midwest, he was on the radio all the time. I grew up in Michigan and him being from Minneapolis, I think they played him two or three times on the hour. So growing up it was unavoidable. And especially my high school years in the '80s but I think 'Purple Rain' might have been my first make out song."
Hmmmm. too much information Kevin, I think! Back to the album he continues, "The song 'The Cross' always stood out to me as a gospel song and nobody really ever paid it much attention and I thought it was just such an amazing song. I was always let down that he never played it much live so I hope this resurrects the idea behind the song and what he tried to do with it."
Of course performing it with Toby and Michael will inevitably resurrect questions about a dc Talk reunion. He laughed, "Well, it's always shrouded in mystery." So can he un-shroud it for me? "I wish I could man! I think the mystery of it is kind of stupid actually. It doesn't need to be mysterious in any way. If three guys want to go out and make music together they'll do it, and if they don't then they won't. I've gone on the record several times saying I'm up for it if it makes sense; if we go out and we're doing it for the right reasons. In my mind I'd like to see some kind of creative effort put towards it, but it just seems like certain other people involved are not as interested or not as excited about doing that as I would be. But there's three different guys in the band, you know, and shoot, you know the score on bands; unless everybody's on the same page it doesn't really work. I think so many people have waited for it to happen that it would be a great way for a final farewell. Maybe putting something together, whether it's recorded or just a tour, to give back to the fans as opposed to just keeping them on the line every time. What bothers me is these little sound bites from different people saying, 'Well, it's comin' round the corner!' And all these people thinking, 'Well it's gonna be now!' And nothing's happened. It's getting to the point with me where it's just idiotic to say anything."
It is interesting that Kevin has gone back to doing a straight ahead gospel music album at this point, because for a long time the perception of him has been that he's wanted to leave that behind and just be a non-God-songs mainstream artist. "I don't really feel like I have to defend the motive behind it," he responded. "Like I've said, this is a project that I've always wanted to do because I grew up in gospel music. I think musically you're right; it's a bit different from what I've done in the past. That was a conscious effort. I just feel like trying to make gospel music sound 'arty' just starts to sound really weird. I don't think gospel music has ever really been that. The most powerful thing about gospel music to me is just the emotional feeling of it. That's why we went for Blind Willie Johnson, where it's kind of guitar/vocal; and it's really about the feeling even more so than the lyric. We just tried to tap into the original thought of gospel music and the original feeling of gospel music, and on a few of those I think we really hit it right on the head. And then on a couple of those I think it went a bit country but we had some country players in the room and I'm in Nashville, Tennessee now and it seemed like a fun thing to do. But I will say to anybody listening that is interested in my career; this is probably my final foray into the world of country music!"
I can almost hear the sound of a collective sigh of relief as Max says that although you can never say never can you? For a moment my mind projects forwards 20 years into the future when Kevin Max is 65 years old and singing at a Gaither Homecoming event. Kevin laughed at the suggestion, "Oh no!" he exclaimed. "I don't think it'll happen man! But you're right; you can never say never. I surely appreciate some of the older country artists like Johnny Cash and Hank Williams Snr and what they brought to music. It's almost like you can't even categorise those guys even though they are known as country artists. They kind of transcended the genre and that's what any great artist hopes for; to transcend the little box that people want to put them in."
So did he ever meet Johnny Cash? "Yes I did. I met Johnny Cash on one of the first days I moved into the first home that I bought in Nashville; over in east Nashville. We were moving stuff into the house and I noticed two long black limousines, very old-style limousines, parked out in this church across the street. So of course my interest was peaked; 'What's going on?' And I walked over and they were filming a kind of biography thing on him and he was doing interviews sitting in the church pew. So I waited for him to do his thing and I said, 'Hey, I'm moving into the house next door.' It used to be the house linked to the church. It's was like the parsonage. He was like," Kevin adopts deep Cash-esque tone, 'My name's Johnny Cash.' I said, 'Wow! Yeah I know!' I ran across the road and actually had a Johnny Cash record on vinyl, brought it over, had him sign it to my dad and that was that. Amazing!"
These days, Kevin has moved back to East Nashville and it's a place where he feels at home. The area has its share of interesting shops, cafes and an artistic community just hanging out in the area. On a warm spring day I'm sitting in his TV room, sipping a cold drink and getting caught up. His two small red-headed children periodically escape the watchful eye of their mother and make forays into the room, interrupting the conversation with their curiosity. Kevin has spent the afternoon songwriting with Canadian artist Joel Auge and shows me the basement area that will soon be transformed into a studio space.
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