About Max Carmichael
Fires, floods, volcanoes, vision quests in the wilderness. Ya know, the typical musician stuff. Throw in science, technology and a stunning array of musical skills, and you’ve got a standard issue day for ambient electronic folk rocker Max Carmichael, whose first commercial release was praised by the Village Voice, resulting in a headline gig at New York’s Knitting Factory. With a style placing him in such varied and storied company as Paul Simon, Calexico, Moby, and U2, it’s no surprise that Carmichael’s work is continually surprising, yet comfortably familiar. It’s a truly unique blend of the Bohemian, the idealist, the nerd, and the adventurer. It’s the sound of a complex sophisticated nature boy with just enough dogma to keep him tense and just enough liberation to keep him potent.
He grew up in the forested hills of the Appalachians, surrounded and inundated by music since his earliest memories of attending Sunday hymn sings at his Great-Grandfather’s farmhouse at age 2 or 3. The elders of his family were the keepers of tradition and music in the church, while his mother was the keeper of the baby grand piano in their home where Max hung out as a toddler, banging on the keys as soon as he was big enough to climb up onto the piano bench. His childhood musical experiences were created in both the spiritual and the secular, singing in a Holy Roller church with his Mamaw where music was a tool of spiritual instruction and evangelism, and then returning to the non-religious environment of his immediate family home, where it was music for the sake of beauty and exploration and fun. From being in both musical contexts at such a young age, Carmichael got the best of both worlds, learning to respect tradition and spirituality while gaining the freedom to make his own rules and to love music for what it is, not just what it can do.
Exploration and experimentation became the hallmarks of Carmichael’s early music as an adult artist, but only after living a cloistered, straight-laced small town life. He excelled in science as well as music, art and writing, and unable to find work in a bad economy, he went for an engineering degree. But breaking out of those demanding expectations as an early 20-something in the late 1970’s, he dove heart first into exploring the world, climbing mountains and experiencing mystical visions, jamming in dark basements with the upcoming stars of the international art scene, and soon found an outlet for his restless creative energy in the Post Punk Scene of 1980-81, where he threw himself into making edgy, experimental art, poetry, and music. “This was a time when 20-somethings were treating music as an experimental art form, the first time in contemporary music when people tried using sampling instead of real pianos and drums, using industrial tools like drills and saws as instruments. This deeply inspired me. It changed me from being a musician into being an experimenter.” His eyes then open to a vast artistic canvas, the boy with his roots in Old Time Country Gospel found the complimentary force of his defining musical core in traditional West African music. The complex rhythms and dance elements of the Yoruba Tribe captivated Max as singularly as the Gospel harmonies and histories did. Shortly after relocating to San Francisco in the early 80’s, he began collaborating with a group of Yoruba natives living in The City and explored first-hand the musical history he felt so connected to.
The shine wore off in the early 90’s, however, as the rising cost of living made it harder to be an artist in the city, and Carmichael’s frequent desert camping trips turned into a full-fledged back-to-nature obsession. He learned primitive survival skills and moved to the wilderness for a year-long vision quest, living as a hermit and slogging up rugged peaks with wildlife biologists in search of endangered mountain sheep.
Reluctantly returning to the city with more questions than answers, he found himself broke and in debt, with no career. But with his engineering degree, living near Silicon Valley in the early 90’s was the prime vant age point to see the oncoming digital media tidal wave. He carved out a new career as a leading creative in the web industry, while never losing sight of his dream to live in the desert. After the dotcom crash he used his plentiful free time to gradually get back into music, listening and writing and doing the occasional open mic, while on weekends he worked as a volunteer restoring native habitat on national parklands. His web career eventually picked up and enabled him to move to his present home, a remote ranching and mining community in New Mexico, where, working as a volunteer with a mixed crew of farmers, Baptists and rural artists, he started a wildly successful Harvest Festival to promote local agriculture and a sense of community, and resumed his own creative life as a mature artist.
Speaking of where’s he at now, “I think of myself these days more as a composer than a musician or experimenter. My primary focus is making my music as accessible as possible. Experimental music is amazing, but it can be alienating to the listener. I want to make music that explores sound and is also something people can listen to.” And he’s done exactly that, releasing two short solo albums in November of 2010. With different yet complimentary styles, Promised Land and Take Me Up are experimental, rhythmically complex collections heavily influenced by African, Scottish, Caribbean, Russian, and Latin cultures.
Songs “Afternoon at the Cave” and “Moses of Indiana” stand out on Promised Land, a light ambient half vocal/half instrumental album inspired by Carmichael’s love of nature, ethnic music & dance, and his constant longing to escape the city and connect with the wilderness. Take Me Up, then, is a fitting bookend, with an urban rock style that is alternately soulful and irreverent as Carmichael draws from his experiences in the Bohemian underground while working through themes of love, mortality, and transgression/redemption on “Come On Over Whitey,” “Nightcrawling,” and “Helicopter.” Though already a stunning flood of new material when considered on their own, these albums are just the beginning of a series of releases pulling from a massive collection of hundreds of previously unreleased original compositions.
Max Carmichael is that rare artist who can follow an idea from inspiration to experiment to experience while not being a pretentious boob. With him, it’s authentic, and it makes sense. “My music comes from a long lifetime of passionate exploring and
experimenting. I don’t thrive by isolating myself. Keeping emotional space between the world and me does not inspire me. I thrive on the world being right up against me, around me. That’s how I explore, how I stay adventurous. That’s how I live.”