Max Ater, the award winning Pop/Country phenomenon is set to release his new EP, Small Town, on October 12, 2018 via Prudential Records and produced by Karl Anderson at Anchour Studio in Windham, Maine. The EP features singles “Easy” and “Light Up This Town“.
Music Madness had the opportunity to chat with Max Ater about his sound and upcoming EP release.
Max: I was doing the math the other day actually, it’s a long time coming for this release. It’s been two years now I think and we’re finally two weeks out, it feels so good.
Music Madness: You were like…I want to be a musician, I have something to say, and then you’re like shit there’s this whole other part of it.
Max: Oh totally, totally yeah. It’s funny too because when I first started I was in my home studio in my parents garage, I could be super impulsive and do whatever I want, and then the further up you get the more calculated things become and the more you have to have patience for stuff, but the payout’s bigger too, so that’s really cool.
Music Madness: On the upcoming EP release, you had quite the supporting cast on it. How was it working with Jason, Greg, and Karl? How did all that come about?
Max: I started working with Karl about a year and a half before I even heard the name Prudential Records. We worked on a four or five-track demo funded by my family. I was really excited. He lives up in Windham and I am from Bath, so, he was only 45 minutes from me.
We collaborated; we made a few tunes, and then, after they were mixed and mastered, I was like, “All right, I’m going to send this out online, see if anybody likes it.” I just happened to come across Prudential Records. They were one of those few labels that had a submission button, and I was like, “That’s awesome”.
I sent in the music, and I think either it was the same day, or the next day, I got a call from Jason Hartless. He was like, “I’m Ted Nugent’s drummer,” and my heart almost stopped, because he was the first person I’ve interacted with, who was that high in the music industry, for me. I freaked out, and I was like, “Oh, my god, that’s awesome.”
We talked for a while, then we did four months of negotiation, and then, I signed with them. They were like, “Listen, we love Karl Anderson’s work,” and I was like, “yeah, me, too.” We took the EP that I was going to put out before I signed with them, we went back, and we said, “All right, how can we make this better? What can we do different?”
Hartless was like, “I’m drumming on this.” I was like, “You’d better.” It was weird, though, Hartless did fly out to Maine a couple times to come into the studio, and he did play drums just for the hell of it, but not for the recording. He actually tracked out in Michigan, at Pearl Sound Studio, and then, shipped the tracks over to Maine.
I got to see him, on his GoPro, and stuff, do it. He just reenacted what we laid down for samples, but he put this energy into it that was just … You could not get anywhere else, besides him.
The same goes for Greg Smith. He was on tour, at the time when he laid down the tracks for this. I know, in the future, I’ll probably be able to work with them, in person, but just to have these guys just send in these files to the studio, and have me, and Karl listen to them was just so exciting. It definitely brought an element of liveliness to it, and professionalism that I was just so excited to hear.
Music Madness: Jason is a machine for a young guy.
Max: Unbelievable. He has been able to lead me as a teacher and it’s just been so much information. He is just full of it, and I learned so much from him. It’s great.
Music Madness: He has his hands in a little of everything in the music industry. Business savvy, a kickass drummer, and he’s still in school.
Max: Yeah, huge inspiration.
Music Madness: Tell me about your single, “Easy.”
Max: Yeah, I actually … Long before I met Jason and signed with Prudential, I wrote that song with Karl, it was about a year and a half before I met the label. We were in the studio and I had a simple chord progression, and Karl had this idea for a rhythm, and we laid it down.
The lyrics for it stemmed from just a rough patch in my life, which I have plenty of those. Everybody does. It was the first song, for me, that I wrote, where I thought, “Okay, hang on. This is the vibe. This is the energy. This is the style that feels the most authentic to me, and the most true.
When we hit the chorus, we looked at each other, and we’re like, “Okay, okay, we really got something here.” We spent just days getting this song down perfectly.
Like I said, in my press releases, for me, it’s a crowning achievement, as far as just spending so many years trying to write music that I feel means something, not only to me as a human, as a songwriter, as an artist, but also, I feel I can sing, and know it’s connecting with other people. As a songwriter, I think it means a lot to me, just because I feel proud of it. I have plenty of songs that I just end up putting in the trash, because I don’t feel that energy with them.
The exciting part about this EP is that each song, Karl and I worked on, and as a group, we all worked on, we have a strong connection with. We don’t feel like there’s any weak points in this. That’s what has gotten us all really excited is that we were able to kinda strike gold with each one.
Music Madness: Very cool. What has been the most difficult part of establishing yourself as a musician, your biggest struggle?
Max: I think it’s been performing live, in Maine, and, in New England, in general. My whole life has been right here in Maine. There’s hot spots in Maine. There’s Bangor, there’s Portland, and there’s Ogunquit, but to play, to perform at a rate, every week, where you’re making progress, and you’re building up your name, it’s a challenge.
It’s possible, and I’ve done it, and I’m doing it, but it’s definitely been a challenge. I think it’s not only the distance, but the dynamics of these groups that form in these basically small cities, and getting yourself into them. I remember when I first started, when I was 16 and 17, I wanted to start playing fairs and festivals. I kinda strayed away from doing the bar scene. It was a huge challenge and you had to grind every day.
I think, as far as playing live, that has been the hard part for me, up here. It’s also distance. Some people, get booked for a gig, and then, all of a sudden, you look it up, and it’s three and a half hours up north, which, when you’re dedicated to it, and you love it, that’s not a big deal, but compared to somewhere like New York, it’s a little different.
What has excited me so much over the past year is talking with Jason Hartless, and the different opportunities they’re talking about, and we’re seeing it from either get out, beyond Maine, and going out to Michigan.
We’ve been talking about forming a group out there, and rehearsing, and then, doing one-offs, or a small tour. I’m gonna, hopefully, be pulled out of Maine, and to a new direction with these guys. That gives me a lot of hope.
Music Madness: Let’s face it, at the end of the day, the live experience will always make or break a band.
Max: Right. There’s no other feeling in the world. Online you don’t get that euphoric rush of playing in front of people. When I first started, that was what really, really hooked me. It was just open mics, and maybe a fair, or festival, right when I first started, just a few of them. I was like, “Man … being able to play my tunes in front of people, who aren’t walking away, that’s awesome.”
Music Madness: Or when they sing your songs back to you.
Max: Yeah, it feels so good.
Music Madness: What are the plans with putting a band together? Would Jason be joining you on tour?
Max: How it’s looking right now is I don’t believe so. We’re trying to handpick people. The other day, Hartless sent me a guitar player that he thought would be a good fit. We’re still in the beginning stages of it, but we’re looking at a three or four-piece band.
Also, I love playing solo shows, too. I think we’re gonna see which one ends up being a little bit more successful; Is it these solo shows, or is it a three or four-piece? Hartless has talked about it in the past, being a part of the band. I wouldn’t want anyone else in the world, besides him to do it, he’s just so great. I think we just have to see what happens.
Music Madness: Do you have a favorite part of the creative process: recording, playing, videos, production?
Max: Yeah, it happens to be writing lyrics. I have always been a writer, since I was like six. I’ve always loved writing, I found out I could sing, and I kinda put them together. I was like, “Okay, here we go.”
The hardest part for me is the lyrics, because I suffer so much with it, in a good way, because in the end you get a big reward. Sitting behind the piano and finding the lyrics is the number-one thing that I love to do.
Recently, I’ve been getting into production, it’s a distraction, because it’s very time-consuming, and I should be leaving it to Karl to do those things.
For me, just having- finding the message in the song, and really using my brain, and frying my brain, and breaking down with nothing, and leaving the studio angry; that’s my favorite part.
Music Madness: Nice. I can only imagine that being a perfectionist or finding those perfect lyrics can weigh on you.
Max: It really does, yeah. The great part is when you get it; you know you’ve got it. That’s so exciting, especially, walking into the studio with the lyrics. When we worked on the other single from the EP, called “Light Up This Town,” we wrote that, maybe a dozen times. When I finally walked in with the right lyrics, Karl was like, “Okay, there it is. That’s final.” It’s definitely a struggle, but once we got the right lyrics to the song, it was meant to be, so that was pretty cool.
I used to dissect, and be like, “Okay, well, how did this one come about, and why? Can I recreate the inspiration?” You gotta just be patient, and be behind the piano, and be waiting for it, because it’s gonna strike; it’s just a matter of time. It’s hard to push it.
Music Madness: These days it seems like you need to have a crystal ball to know when to release one’s music. Had it been 6 months earlier you may have struck gold.
Max: I saw this guy, Bobby Tomberlin, I think his name is. He was this national songwriter, and I was doing this writing course, down in Nashville. It was just a one-night thing and he said that. He said that lots times, songwriters will have a great song, and by the time it’s put out, that phase of that genre has already passed. You always have to be two steps ahead.
Music Madness: Yeah, it is crazy. Do you have a favorite track that you enjoy playing live, or a favorite track on the new EP?
Max: An older song that I always love playing live is a song I have, called, “The Long Way Home.” I wrote it years ago, but it really fits my voice well. It’s kind of a power ballad. Again, it was my first delve into country with that song.
“Small Town,” the title track off the new EP, is so much fun to play live. I think mostly because my confidence in playing it live is so high. The other songs, like, “Light Up This Town,” even, “Easy,” to a point, the production of it is so rich, that to sit down at the piano, and play them, it’s so naked, and it’s like, “How do I convey this song …?”
I’ve been constantly working on workshopping these songs to make the solo versions of them be anything close to the full production of them. I think I’ve succeeded, to a point, but “Small Town,” When I sat down to write “Small Town,” I came up with the arrangement on the piano, first. When I play it live, it comes completely natural to me. There is a story behind it, and it’s in a great key for my voice.
Music Madness: The new EP’s coming out in a couple weeks and you are putting a band together. How soon are you looking to get out on the road?
Max: Yeah. There is kinda two paths going on right now. Since they’re out in Michigan, they are incredibly busy on their own, and I’m up here in Maine. In the spring and summertime up here in Maine, I get a good deal of shows going at the fairs, festivals, and some theaters.
From what I’ve heard from them, after the release, our next goal is to get a group together, and also look at getting on a tour with another artist, or going out on my own and booking venues. I definitely think that’s after the release and we’ve done all the promo for that. Our next big goal is to look at getting me outside of Maine, on the road, and playing live.
Music Madness: All right, cool. So have you always been a country music guy?
Max: No. It’s so funny, when I first started out, I was kinda like a weird jazz, folky, not really a certain genre, a singer/songwriter sort of sound.
It was a very conscious decision, with this latest EP, to push it towards the pop/country sound, mainly because the single, “Easy,” had this vibe to it that we really thought we could expand on. When I talked with the label, we just asked, “What do we want this album to be? What do we want Max to have, as a genre?” We’re like, “Okay, here’s this kind of darker, but neat, fresh look on pop/country,” so, we’re like, “Okay, let’s go that way.”
I think, before that, there was always an element to me that was pop country. I think it’s just in my voice, and maybe in my playing style. It was never as voluntary as it was when it came to sitting down with Karl, at the studio, making these decisions that led us down this road of pop and country, in our own way.
I think one of my goals and my visions with writing music is writing popular music, music that people can relate to, and that I have fun singing. We wanted to write music that was enjoyable to as many people as possible. I know that’s kind of a sad commercial, industrious thing to say, but it’s a fun challenge to use your creativity in a mainstream fashion.
Music Madness: Sounds good. Thanks again for your time and best of luck to you.
Max: Hey, thanks so much, Steve.
Stream “EASY” on SPOTIFY! https://spoti.fi/2pcww4X
Pre-Orders for Small Town EP Available at https://amzn.to/2xonLID
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Interview by Steve Carlos