Interview: Max Ochs
Tomorrow night the Velvet Lounge offers a very special treat: Outsider folk hero Max Ochs will celebrate the release of his new album, Hooray for Another Day, which features all-new instrumental recordings and poetry from the 67-year-old Annapolis native.
Along with John Fahey and Robbie Basho, Ochs was among the East Coast Blues Mafia that ushered in the tradition of "American primitive guitar" in the '50s and '60s. Along with his influential recordings on "Contemporary Guitar '67" — the first compilation on Fahey's Takoma recordings — Ochs also composed a piece entitled "Imaginational Anthem," released via the Fonotone label in 1969. The recording was unearthed by Tompkins Square label-head Josh Rosenthal, who contacted Ochs and asked him to re-record the track for a compilation honoring the American primitive guitar tradition, which would also bear the name Imaginational Anthem. Now in its third volume (the latest of which was released earlier this year, along with a box set containing all three), Imaginational Anthem offers a fascinating document of guitar music past and present, revealing the links between luminaries like Ochs, and the newer crop of pickers like Jack Rose and Cian Nugent.
I recently caught up with Ochs via phone to talk about the new record, his life in Annapolis, and his musical evolution over the years. You can read more about Ochs via the previous City Paper feature, written by Mike Keefe-Feldman in 2005, or chat with him yourself tomorrow at the Velvet Lounge. Details for the show below, Q&A after the jump.
Kuschty Rye Ergot
Thursday, December 4th
What was the recording process like for your new album?
I kept going up to a studio in Baltimore, with this guy Ty Ford, he's very good. I liked Ty because so many sound guys want you to do the vocal and the sound separately, but I had complete freedom — they'd asked me what I wanted to do next, and you know, I'd put a lot of thought into it. I worked so hard on that record, because he kept saying, do you think you could do it better, and I'd do it again, and then he'd say now listen to both and see which one you'd like. and it was very hard to concentrate on which one was better — they were just different. I listened to that tape so much that I got completely sick of it, I couldn't stand to hear it. So after I finished recording it, it was like a year and a half before I could even stand to hear it again. So it's just been in the last month, since Josh said it was coming out, and sent me four copies of the new record, and now I'm playing it, and — I like it. But I got so close to it, and I listened to it so repetitively, that I guess I can't stand to hear the same thing over and over again, I get bored right away.
How long were you recording for the new record?
I'd say it was a little over a year, because I would go up there and record one or two songs, and I was working at the same time. I was working at the anti-poverty agency, Head Start — I worked with low-income people in Anne Arundel county. I was also the Executive Director of the County Conflict Resolution Center, where we trained mediators. And now I teach community college, I teach conflict resolution to mental health workers, I teach a few guitar lessons, and I do some freelance work. But I'm actually collecting social security now, and I'm no longer working full-time.
Has your music since picked up?
Yeah, it has picked up; I've been enjoying my music more and more and getting better and better — I'm playing better than I've ever played in my life. Although when I'm listening to older recordings of me, I realize that when I was younger, I played faster. I also played with finger picks, which are slippery, stainless steel, plastic and they slide over the steel strings at a very rapid pace. But somewhere along the line I lost the picks, I decided — especially after learning from Mississippi John Hurt — that it was better to play with your fingers. It's a much more personal way of playing — it's just my body and the guitar, without those pieces of plastic or steel getting between me and the guitar. But I lost speed — not to mention aging will also slow you down — but I lost that repetition that you get with finger picks. Once and a while I'll stick the finger picks on just to see if I can still do it. But I don't care about showing off now, I just care about bringing out the beauty and the feel of the music.
Well, talking about that emphasis on "feeling": I actually put on Hooray For Another Day on a drive through the mountains last month, and it seemed cultivate an autumn-like air — everything from the tone of your guitar, to the direct references to November in your poems. Did you have Fall in mind when you were recording the album?
I can't say that I had a particular season in mind, because if you listen to it in the winter, then you might remind you of winter. Certain ragas, you know there are morning ragas and there are evening ragas, and there are probably autumn ragas and summer ragas too. I can't just answer yes, I had a feeling of fall, because I don't really know.
In the poem "Muse Sick" [featured on Hooray For Another Day], you emphasize the inspirational powers of scenery and surroundings, and you paint a vivid picture of Maryland farm life in "An Apple Place in Annapolis" — how has life in Maryland influenced you creatively, and how does it work itself into your art?
Well, "An Apple Place in Annapolis" is definitely a Fall poem. As for the scenery, I just thought it was funny, because I knew this person and they kept saying, "Oh look at that sunset, look at those clouds, look at that water, look at those trees, look at those leaves." And I started thinking, you know, they're really getting a lot of meaning from this scenery — why is it that scenery so important to you? But it is, it is to me too. It's definitely a big part of our life, and if you have a waterfront view, you can definitely charge more for your house. [Laughs] So yea, all that stuff is very biographical, and I did sell fresh local produce for a while. I've done so many things ... I don't if it's typical or not — typical of a hippie.
"An Apple Place in Annapolis":
Were the poems featured on Hooray For Another Day written recently? Why did you choose those four for the record?
I chose about 10, and Josh [Rosenthal] pulled out those four. I keep working on my poems over and over again. I guess now that they're on the record, I have to leave them alone, because it's like they're published. I think I've already changed "Crows." They just go through these incarnations, they evolve. But rather than keep on re-writing old poems, I write new stuff all the time, I'm constantly writing. I'm putting together a book now called "Caws," because I think of my poems as like sounds — sound is very important being a musician, and sometimes I write more for the ear.
Do most of your poems involve Annapolis?
I like to bring in the place a lot; I like to bring the world into my poems. I like to have things be a story that you can hear, and understand, and be understandable. I'm trying more and more to be accessible. I think in the '60s and '70s, a lot of my poems got way out there, maybe like "Take me disappearing through the smoke rings of my mind" — they got a little too obscure, and the symbolism was like personal symbolism, and you couldn't really expect someone to understand what you're talking about. Then again, we give people permission just to make these sounds, and call it music, and nobody has a problem with that. But when it comes to words, it's like numbers, you know? You want to solve the problem and have it come out right, you want it to make sense ... It's like logic, you know? You want to say, "if this, then that." So with words, you kind of have this expectation that you're going to come out understanding something, and maybe take you from here to there in your mind. So I've tried to be more understandable, more accessible, honest and not just go off on some jibberish of jabberwokky ... although I can do that too, just a pure ear poem that makes no sense whatever. I can get into pure sound, without caring at all about "sense," but I like to balance it. That's what poetry is — words trying to become music.
"In Christ There Is No East or West" was originally arranged by Fahey, and even "Imaginational Anthem" was a tribute of sorts to Fahey. Can you tell me about your relationship to Fahey?
Yeah, I knew John, and I admired him — I was a little younger than he was. When I lived on the farm in Annapolis, he would come down to our house and sit in the chair, and we would just sit on the floor and watch him, and ask him to show us how he did stuff. He had already put out Blind Joe Death, the first album. He was a haunted man. There was something — a deep sorrow that ... you know, he was very friendly, and very nice — a really sweet guy. But I had a feeling that I would never know how to get really close to him. There was some kind of sadness that ... and he drank a lot; the few times I was around him he was gulping down lots of bourbon, or he usually had a bottle of whiskey of some kind that he liked. And that just came with the territory, that came with John Fahey.
But I would shyly, hesitatingly come up and show him my progress on the guitar, though I was mainly adulatory, and just would tell him how much I loved "Transcendental Waterfall," or "Some Summer Day" or just how much I loved his music and how moved I was by it. It was very, very influential on me, and I just drilled my thumb for thousands of hours so that it could be like a Fahey thumb.
"In Christ There Is No East Or West":
Like Fahey, your music is drawn particularly from the blues, old hymns and spirituals, and even on your new album you have an interpretation of a Fahey arrangement that's more of an African American spiritual. How did that come to get into your playing, and how has it effected your music over the years?
I'm not very good at keeping things separated into categories or genres. I like what Duke Ellington said, "If it sounds good, it is good."
I grew up in Annapolis, and there was a lot of music coming out of the black churches which were very close to my house. One night I heard this incredible sound of singing, shouting and tambourines in the summer, I was probably 14, and I started walking to it and it was getting louder and louder and then I was standing in front of it — the Mount Moriah African Methodist Episcopal church. The music was like this magnet that drew me upstairs, so I went upstairs and there was all this really high volume gospel singing with a choir, tambourines and it was really hot — ladies had fans and were fanning themselves. I was the only white guy there, and I had the audacity to sit down in the back, thinking maybe they wouldn't notice, and the preacher just went "It's okay, you're a white guy sitting back there, and it's OK, you are welcome, this is God's house, we love everybody," and he basically just shouted me in, and it was beautiful. There was something so direct and honest about that music, and the feeling that everyone had — they were not ashamed to show their feelings, and not ashamed to clap, or laugh, or shout "Amen," and I thought it was the most wonderful thing — I was completely happy to participate in it.
How have you seen Fahey's American primitive style represented in today's generation of acoustic guitarists like those featured on the Imaginational Anthem compilations?
Well I thought it had kind of faded away, and that I was one of the few people still around that liked it, and kept it alive. I didn't know aboutl the Jack Roses and the other people that were still doing it. What I did was take a cue from John Fahey — he was like a bridge to these old Charlie Pattons and Mississpi John Hurts and all these people. And I thought, "I'm gonna do what John Fahey did — I'm going back to the source." The source being all those old records. So I just immersed myself in the old tapes and '78s, and tried to learn directly from them. Because Fahey was really an interpreter and a golden bridge to that; what he did was teach us how to hear that, how to listen to that. And from there we could step over the bridge into the very territory that he got it from and listen to it ourselves.
In your playing, you also do a lot of ragas and use different tunings. What led you to experiment with incorporating Indian classical music into your sound?
Being the son of a doctor in America, 1955 — here I am, a teenager with an allowance, I had a paper route, I could earn money to go down to the record store and buy these records. I bought Ravi Shankar and Ali Akbar Kahn, and just played those records over and over, I must have had about 9 or 10 Indian music LPs. I was just listened to them incessantly, along with E. Power Biggs playing organ. I was having a music orgy or something, just rolling around and wrapping myself in all this great music, loving it and letting it form my brain cells, it was going in my ears and changing the shape of my brain or something. I just loved it so much.
Touching on the access that recorded music allowed to the other genres that influenced you back in the '50s, what do you think of the current state of digital music, and the unprecedented access that the Internet has allowed?
I think it's wonderful, and I think it should be free. I have lots of cassettes of myself playing at a coffee house, of me playing at somebody's house or at a gig, or at bar, or just sitting in the living room with a bunch of guys and somebody turns on the tape recorder and made a copy for me. And I have a ton of homemade music that I would love to post to a Web site and be like Radiohead, you know, what they did with their last album where they said to download and pay us whatever you think it's worth. If you wanna take it for free, if you wanna give me a dollar, fifty cents, whatever, it's fine. And I would really be quite content to do that.
"Cryin' Sometime" (home recording, previously unreleased):
As far as musicians making a living off of selling a record is concerned, do you think that particular model of digital distribution is a good direction for music to be taking?
People are going to get their music one way or another — they have a hunger, an appetite for it. They're gonna find music and there's so much of it now. I mean, the Beatles are never gonna disappear — Beethoven, Bach, Blind Willie Johnson, John Fahey — they're never gonna disappear, they're here for the rest of civilization's existence. So it's a cumulative thing, new musicians will come up and find ways to get their stuff on iTunes that can be downloaded.
But people say, "Don't you wanna get money for your CD's?" Well actually, I would be happy if people were listening to my music, at least to the extent that people would invite me to come play at a concert. But even when I wasn't playing at gigs or at venues, I was still sitting in my kitchen playing for my dog, or on my back steps — I just love to play. I'm not worried about the music industry, it will find a way, it will sort itself out. There will be ways for musicians to make money, you'll get played for playing when you go to a gig, and the musicians will sell their records at the gigs, and maybe musicians will adopt that Radiohead mode where they put it on the internet and if people want their music, they can download it and pay what they think is fair to pay, what they think it's worth.
But here's the other thing: You're talking to a non-typical musician. Most of the time when you interview a musician, they're doing it for a living, they've committed themselves full-time and they're really brave leaping into that experience where they're going to try to see if they can make it as a musician. I never had that much faith in myself, that I could be that competitive in the market. I play just because it brings me great joy, and I'm just grateful that people like to listen. I worked in the anti-poverty agency at a steady job and when I could find the time I would practice my music and write a song, and if I was lucky, I would get a gig. That's how I bumbled through decades, and all this that's going on now is wonderful and interesting. It's like now I've been validated to the extent that it seems people enjoy listening to me, and it's amazing, and great, and I'm so happy that they do.