Nov. 24, 8 p.m., $35-$50, Infinity Music Hall & Bistro, 20 Greenwoods Road West, Norfolk, (866) 666-6306, infinityhall.com.
Years before anyone used the word "jamband," Connecticut’s Max Creek was one of the only acts in the area playing original improvisational rock. This year, the band celebrates the 30th anniversary of Drink the Stars, a live double-LP recorded over several nights at Hartford’s Cell Block 11, way back in 1982. (It will be available soon on iTunes, Amazon and Spotify, marking the band’s first foray into digital retail.)
The Advocate spoke to guitarist Scott Murawski about what was happening back in 1982 with Max Creek, the influence of punk and New Wave music on his songwriting, and what’s going on now. They’ll play a show on Nov. 2 at Toad’s Place in New Haven with special guests the McLovins, then again on Nov. 24 at Infinity Hall in Norfolk. (This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.)
Q: 30 years after the shows that yielded the Drink the Stars album, what do you recall about that period in the band’s history?
A: I remember updating my gear, because I knew that we were going to be recording an album. The guitar I was using was a Travis Bean, which had an aluminum neck and wouldn’t stay in tune. There was a lot of writing going on at that point in time. We had a lot of stuff that we had just written that we wanted to get on the album. We recorded for three days at a place called Cell Block 11 in Hartford. We did either a Thursday-Friday-Saturday or Friday-Saturday-Sunday. I don’t think we used any of the first day, and then we picked selected stuff from the next two days. They were pretty much sold out shows. We made a big deal about [the recording]. That’s why those shows were so well attended; we advertised that we were going to be recording for an album, “Come make lot of noise.”
Most of the stuff on the album we’d been performing for a while. It wasn’t that we were writing specifically for the album. We were doing a lot of new material live and we decided there was so much good stuff, we should record it. We had done two studio albums previously, so it was our first foray into actually creating a live album.
Q: There’s a general perception that 1982 wasn’t a particularly fruitful time to be playing improvisational music. Would you say that you felt that at the time, or on the local level was there a great thirst for it?
A: In 1982 and the next few years following, we were one of the few bands in the country doing it. The jamband scene hadn’t really kicked in too hard. There were a couple of Grateful Dead bands that I remember out of Long Island, but they were strictly cover bands. It was that time period when cover bands were huge. They would call them “clone bands.” That was the term. We were up against a lot of that… There was the Blushing Brides, a Rolling Stones clone band. Every classic ’70s band you can think of had a clone band associated with it. They had kind of labeled us a Grateful Dead clone band, which we really fought adamantly. In fact, there was a while there when I refused to play any Dead songs just because we had been labeled that.
There weren’t many bands playing improvisational music, and the ones that were had the entire audience for improvising bands. In between Grateful Dead tours, which didn’t happen often on the East Coast -- once or twice a year -- people had no other place to see live improv music, really. There were very few choices. I think we had an advantage.
Q: In 1982, everyone was wearing skinny ties and digging New Wave music. What was your feeling as a band about that kind of thing?
A: It’s funny you should say that. Being the youngest member of the band at the time, I was listening to all the New Wave stuff and incorporating elements of it into my writing. On Drink the Stars, there’s a song called “Pissed Off,” which is directly influenced by the punk scene. I try to remain open to all influences and incorporate them into what we do. So, at that time, I can’t speak for other members of the band, but I was very appreciative of the punk scene and enjoying it and stealing from it as much as I could.
Q: Was there a desire to play something with more of an edge? Or was it more by osmosis, letting stuff seep in as it was going to?
A: I let it happen. Before I became enamored with the Grateful Dead, I was listening to heavier music: Led Zeppelin, a lot of blues. People are always going to draw comparisons, but my style of playing in general is edgier than Garcia’s. I tried to bring that influence into my writing. I was writing songs that I considered at the time to be punk rock songs. I don’t know if you could look back on them now and call them that. But at the time I considered that stuff punk rock. And actually, it’s kind of funny too. I recorded the songs on my home studio as just a joke, to see if I could do it, and the other band members heard it and said, “Oh, we should do this stuff.” I was like, “Really? This is not our style.” But they said we should. It rocks, and it’s fun.
Q: Fast forward to now. You are at a particularly strong point in the band’s history. You, Mark and John are still together, but now you’ve got drummer Bill Carbone and percussionist Jamemurrell Stanley. What are the particular strengths of that percussion section? Is there a new energy they bring?
A: Absolutely. They bring in the youthful energy. When [percussionist] Rob Fried left the band, we didn’t replace him. We didn’t get another percussionist. We were single-drummer for a while. Then we went with two drummers for a while, which was great. It definitely has a sound to it. When Jay started coming to the shows and bringing the percussion element back in, he was very, very laid-back at first. He was way too laid-back, I would say, just feeling out the situation. Within the first four or five months, he started coming out of his shell, playing with dynamics, really hitting things back there. It brought back an element that’s been missing for quite a few years. I love having the percussion there. I think it’s a great addition.
The double-drummer stuff [two full drum sets] is very powerful, but it’s also resistant to change... If you talk to Deadheads, it’s like the difference between the single-drummer Grateful Dead and the double-drummer Grateful Dead: the improv for the single-drummer stuff is very free. They can turn on a dime. It’s much more easily changeable, whereas the double-drummer stuff is a little heavier, more groove-oriented. But I think having Bill and Jay there, they are a great mix playing together... They play together in many, many different projects outside of Max Creek as well.
Anytime you change an element of the band, you are going to bring in stylistic changes, and that’s going to change how everybody reacts to it, too. Again, as an improv unit, you are playing off the energies around you. So when you change elements like that, it has a huge impact on everybody’s playing and the sound. But the energy and enthusiasm they bring is awesome.
Q: Let’s talk geeky improv stuff for a second. When I listen to jambands, there seem to be these different trajectories you can take in a jam. There’s a sort of "0-60" trajectory, where from Point A to Point B, you know it’s only going in one direction, in terms of intensity, dynamics, even the players going up and up in register toward a climax, then the head of the song re-enters and the song ends. That’s what Phish does really well. Then there’s a type that dips and comes back up, dips and comes back up, as though the players keep giving it more chances to prove itself. There are also simmering, mid-energy-level jams, where the interaction between the players is what’s interesting, over a stable bed of dynamics and intensity. Sometimes those jams are the most interesting to listen to, because they don’t really try to go anywhere. Where does Max Creek fall in there? When is it time to cut a jam off and move on?
A: It’s such a subjective thing. It’s funny, too, because I’ll be in one frame of mind when I’m playing, but when I listen back, I’m like, “Oh, geez, I should have ended it there.” What’s interesting about Creek is that there definitely are differences in each person’s goal in terms of what they bring to the thing. And I think it’s that conflict that creates some pretty interesting moments within Max Creek. I have a tendency to push jams longer, and Mark has a tendency to make jams shorter. That push-and-pull creates a dynamic.
Again, improv is such a sensitive thing. You could be feeling one way about the way it goes, then you might be feeling a completely different way. The audience reaction makes a huge difference, what the room sounds like makes a difference. If the audience is going crazy and the sound seems to be soaring within the room, then we have a tendency to push things up higher. If the audience is more introspective or we are in a smaller, more intimate space, that may inspire us to be more exploratory. It’s a completely variable thing.
Q: When I heard you at the Gathering of the Vibes [in Bridgeport] this summer, there were moments when I found myself wondering what each of you was thinking. I especially remember looking at [bassist] John [Rider] and thinking to myself, “Okay, he’s thinking about where he’s going next.” There were other moments when I couldn’t tell any of you were thinking about where to go next. Those were the parts that were really clicking, the moments that made me forgot to wonder what you were thinking about. Is there a dynamic between thinking and not-thinking when you are in the middle of a jam?
A: There are a number of struggles as an improvisational musician that you deal with. One of them is intensity versus relaxation. Another is the one you mentioned, thinking as opposed to pure feeling. I find myself thinking about what I’m doing and thinking about what I’m playing, and in those moments it feels like I am trying to get this thing to work. And the more I try, the more it fights me, the harder it is. Sometimes the best thing I can do is to look up, away from the band, away from my guitar, into the crowd or out into the room and find whatever. It’s easy at festivals because there’s tons of people, people dressed up in costumes you can look out, or balloons. There’s so much to look at. If I can my brain off of the guitar and out into something that I can play off of, that’s when it happens.
To me, music is about expression. That should be the bottom line. You can’t really think about music and express anything. You need something to express. If you can play off of somebody, or if you can close your eyes and play off the memory of somebody, or if you have some sort of emotional thing going on inside you to latch onto, to express it through your instrument, that’s when I think it works best. When you’re in a festival situation, like at the Vibes, where there’s no soundcheck, you have just about an hour to play and it’s a high-pressure situation -- there are tons of people out there, you set up really quickly, maybe the monitor’s not working right, maybe your guitar isn’t sounding right -- there are so many things that can distract you and take you away from being in the creative moment, forcing you to focus on the sound or what people’s reaction will be, the wrong things. It’s very easy to get yourself into the wrong frame of mind.
There’s more pressure. People might be seeing you for the first time. There’s all these other musicians on the side of the stage. That’s the worst-case scenario. The worst frame of mind is, “I want this to be really good.” The best stuff happens when you really don’t care, when you really don’t give a shit. Again, it’s another one of these struggles you go through. The more you care, the worse it gets. How do you not care in front of 15,000 people? How do you get out of the frame of mind of “this really needs to be great,” you know?