[ soulfest 2004 | interview by becca tuttle ]
Kevin Max is late, but as I swivel in my padded chair I'm perfectly content to wait. My perch on the backstage balcony gives me a unique look at the inner workings of New Hampshire's Soulfest, not to mention an excellent view of the sound check that's keeping Kevin from our interview. Best known as a member of the phenomenal dc Talk trio, news of KMAX has been scarce (at best) since he and his friends Toby Mac and Michael Tait took an "intermission" from the group to pursue solo ventures. I'm excited to get a chance to catch up with the poetic artist, and hope I can glean some information about his upcoming CDs.
The music stops, and I absent-mindedly wait for the next snippet of a song to start. But no, this time KMAX sets his microphone down and turns to wave farewell to the small crowd that gathered for the impromptu show. Delayed by a group of girls, he pauses obligingly to take pictures and give autographs before continuing into the building. I offer my introduction, and he greets me with a suave, albeit sweaty, hug.
Motioning him to the lounge upstairs, I get my first good look at Kevin. I'm struck first of all by his height, as he's not much taller than my 5'4" He's wearing a black tee-shirt and black jeans: which, for his eccentric character, is an almost disappointingly normal outfit that had made him difficult to distinguish from the stage technicians just minutes before. However, up close, my eyes fall on his snakeskin-patterned boots, and I can't hold back a smile.
"How long do I have you for?" I ask, setting up my tape recorder on the exotic-looking couch he picks for the interview.
"For as long as you want me," he says, an impish grin tugging at the corners of his mouth. I flash him my list of questions with a chuckle, warning him that I'm equipped to take him up on his offer. He raises an eyebrow in mock surprise. "Maybe not all of them," he admits with a laugh.
"You've recently been doing a bit of acting in Joseph and the Technicolor Dream Coat," I begin. "How has that experience been?"
"It's been educational for me because I'm first and foremost a stage performer—but from the rock n' roll sense, you know? I've definitely done a bit of theatrical [work] before, but never this serious. So it will be an interesting experiment to see how things go. Right now we're just starting."
"It's not open yet, is it?"
"It hasn't opened yet, I'm still in the middle of rehearsing some of it. It's kind of too early to tell how it's going to be. It opens August 20th."
He pauses a minute to wipe his face, commenting on the heat. Unsurprisingly, the ski-lodge turned artist-lounge doesn't seem to feature air conditioning. Kevin's already sweaty from his earlier sound check, and I can't help but sympathize with him.
"You just released an EP called Between the Fence and the Universe. But you're also planning to release a full length, CD, right?" I ask, uncertainly. He nods. "When is that scheduled to come out?
"The brand new full length is going to be out at the beginning of next year."
"Does it have a title yet?"
"It's not titled yet, no. Between the Fence and the Universe is obviously titled and out there as an EP, but as far as the brand new music goes, no."
"So what is the brand new music going to sound like?"
"We're just kinda writing it right now," he admits. "It's rock, but it's still got a new wave, almost an 80's influence to it. It's kind of interesting. I think we're trying to put a little bit more rhythm into the music now, to get to the point where people might be able to get up and dance a little bit more."
"Would you say it's more concert-oriented then?"
He considers the question for a moment before responding. "Not necessarily concert performances, just stuff that has a lot more rhythm," he concludes. "The stuff that I've written in the past has not been really rhythmic, it's been more British, and the British stuff is a little more straightforward, like anthems. This is going to have a little bit more of an R&B underbelly to it, but definitely still in the same vein of what I do.
I nod, remembering the sound check. "Even the new songs I just heard you play sounded more rockin'."
"Yeah, the EP is a little more rock n' roll than Stereotype Be," Kevin agrees. "And we do play quite a [few] songs that are more live now. We've angled it more towards rock n' roll."
"Did you have to overcome any obstacles to record the EP?"
"Not really. I did six demos in Nashville [for the EP]. I actually had thirty or forty songs at the end of Stereotype Be, and I decided, 'you know what? I'm gonna start working towards the next project'... In the process of getting people to listen to the new songs those [six] kept popping up, so we decided to put those to tape. And I've [had] many, many new songs since then that I feel like need to go on a whole other project."
"Wow," I gape, impressed. "Thirty to forty!"
"At least!" he laughs. "To me, right now, it's [all about] writing as much as possible."
"So do you usually write your lyrics first? Or do the music and the lyrics come together?" I ask, wondering exactly what type of "writing" he's focusing on.
"I write both. Sometimes I'll write a melody and then I'll write a lyric. Or vice-versa. Sometimes it's a poem, or something, and I'll turn that into a melody. It depends on where I'm at, the place and time."
"In the past you've emphasized the importance of finding creative outlets outside your music," I say, continuing with the writing theme. "Are you working on any books or poetry right now?"
"I've worked on a book—actually, the new book of poetry is done. I'm just getting ready to release it on the website and everything. It's called Divine Erotica, and it comes out, I believe, within a month or so. So the book is actually completed; I just have to manufacture it and put it out there."
"Is it going to be sold in stores or just from your site?"
"I'm not sure, we might try to put it in the bookstores," he says uncertainly. "Right now there's talk about me doing a deal with Relevant Books for their re-release of At the Foot of Heaven which I put out in 1994. This new poetry book that I had out—called Detritus of Dorian Gray—I've been selling over the website, and that's done really good [on the site] and at live shows. But [Divine Erotica]? I'm absolutely trying to get a deal for it and trying to put it out there as much as we can."
"The cMusicWeb motto is 'a different approach to music.'" I prompt, returning the conversation to music. "How would you say that applies to you?"
"I feel like my music is traditionally experimental because we try to mix [as many] different styles and different arrangements into a song as possible. Lyrically I think that I write music that's a little bit outside of what I think the normal radio format might be…or the CCM format."
"Definitely." I nod enthusiastically. 'Different' certainly jumps to mind as his music's key descriptor.
"'Cause I'm not really a CCM artist, I'm not really a radio artist, and that in itself is a bit original these days because everybody seems to be going that way, you know? Writing their songs to radio…"
"...Yeah, to be 'radio-friendly,' I supply. "So, with more rock on your upcoming album, do you think there are any tracks that could end up on the radio?"
"I definitely think there are some songs on this new record that are a possible radio format, but I think radio will have to..." he stretches his hands apart as he trails off, indicating a broader scope.
KMAX suddenly looks across the room and I follow his eyes to see one of his back-up musicians from Luna Halo, Aaron, wandering up the stairs. He and KMAX briefly discuss the earlier sound check before KMAX shoos him away. "Make sure you guys find some food," Kevin calls to Aaron's retreating back, explaining mournfully that they haven't eaten since morning.
"What is your goal as a musician," I begin again, "and what do you want your audience to come away with when they see you?"
"My goal as a musician is to create the best music, the best art, that I can possibly create and to hopefully provide people not only with entertainment but with something that they can take home and feel close to, feel familiar with. And at the same time, in a small, subtle way, for it to be challenging, for [my listeners] to be inspired to create their own work, or in a scenario where there [are] people who aren't musicians or that aren't artists to just take something from it that makes them happy or inspired about life."
"One of the hot topics in Christian music right now is artists that are 'crossing over' to try and appeal to a more mainstream audience. What's your opinion on this, and what audience to you think Christian artists should be targeting?"
"I think an artist is an artist and he should [find his own] focus. If his focus is to make music for the church, to make music for other believers—for the Christian 'bent'—then he absolutely should. But if that artist is making music for everybody, or making music that's not necessarily spiritual but more social or personal, than that should be his focus."
"If somebody has what it takes to speak to another audience then they should. But if they don't then they shouldn't push it just to sell more records. They should literally be who they are!" Kevin pauses, and I half expect him to break out in a chorus of "Be" before he continues. "I think trying to be something they're not always ends up flat, and not so relevant. And then you have all these people out there that are [confused]. And that's why I've tried to establish myself—yeah, I was in a Christian rock band, but I'm an artist, I don't make "Christian music" and I don't make "secular music"—I make music! People that want to come out and hear what I do—great! Hopefully it'll cross all those boundaries."
"And I think Christian music has a place. Absolutely," he affirms, looking suddenly worried that he might have given me the wrong impression. "There are people out there that are hurting that want to buy a record that is going to uplift them, spiritually, and talk to them about a spiritual scenario, talk to them about the scriptures, talk to them about putting the Scriptures into action—that's great! But there are also artists out there that are better at communicating on a broader plane, and more subtly, you know? They can actually touch more people if they do that."
"You're not on ForeFront anymore, are you?" I probe, taking advantage of the conversation's direction.
"I've not been on ForeFront, no, I've not been on a label for a while. I'm actually getting ready to sign to a brand new label for this new music—but I can't tell you which label it is." He shoots me an apologetic look, then decides to elaborate a little. "Basically, I've got two deals on the table, and I've got to decide which one makes more sense to me."
Aaron reappears at the top of the stairs, this time flanked by three other guys and bearing a large platter of pasta.
"Hey, you guys got food?" Kevin calls. Aaron flashes a smile, motioning towards the platter in his hands. "What is that, sauce on bread?" he exclaims, somewhat disappointed. "Chicken parmesan!" Aaron yells, but KMAX doesn't offer much of a response, his eyes lingering over the plate. I decide that he probably would wolf down a plate of sauced bread just as eagerly as the pasta.
"Did you want to wrap this up so you can go eat?" I offer, supressing a smile.
"Well...." He begins. He's reluctant to cut me off, but I can almost see the whimper in his eyes as he turns away from his band, now chowing down on the meal.
"Sorry, my mind's kinda outta sync right now," he apologizes. "Give me one or two more big questions."
"How important are live performances to you?"
"Live is interesting when the music is ready to be performed live…" he trails off, and his cynical tone gives me the impression that he speaks from experience. "When people don't know the songs as well, it's not as fun. Personally, now I'm feeling that I really love creating—I love the process in the studio now even more than performing live, but that could change. Performing live is very emotional for me, [whereas] being in the studio is not so emotional so I can actually concentrate, and I can put myself into the work a little bit better."
"Okay, last question," I announce. KMAX smiles gratefully, eyes flickering towards the table. "I realize that dc Talk is a bit of a taboo subject, so I'll let you off easy. I've been hearing that both you and Mike went to record vocals for Toby's new CD, Welcome to Diverse City. Can you...?"
"Elaborate?" He suggests. "I sang on about two or three songs on Toby's CD, and I think Mike sang on a couple of 'em. One of them I know for a fact that all three of us sang together. It didn't sound really dc Talk to me—it sounded like a Toby Mac track with dc Talk singing on it—so it'll be interesting to see how that unfolds. But I think I'll give you a little bit more than that and just say that I think it'll be a scenario where we can make music together at some point soon." He acknowledges my suddenly wide grin with a wink. "Hopefully," he adds, sounding slightly less convincing than before.
We shake hands and exchange thanks before KMAX joins his band at the table, protesting when he discovers that the chicken in the chicken parmesan has already disappeared. At Kevin's invitation, I hang around for a few minutes to hear the band devise and run through their set. I feel reenergized as I head out after the private concert, excited about the interview and the night's performances, and eager to see what the future holds for dc Talk. But most of all, I'm excited to hear the copy of Between the Fence and the Universe that Kevin gave me, confident that, whatever it holds, it will be as unique, thought-provoking, and interesting as the man behind it.
- Becca Tuttle
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