Admission of personal bias: I think Max is awesome, because I've seen Max do Max's thing in Max's band (Exist) and Max's band is awesome. I once described Exist's music as not metal so much as a rad jazz quartet that decided to plug in and rip it up all loud-like. Those proggy death-flecked jams got Mr. Phelps hooked up with Cynic's Paul Masvidal and Sean Reinert to augment their band for some tour dates. That association led to his being tapped as vocalist/guitarist to fill Chuck Schuldiner's legendary shoes on the 12 dates of this year's Death To All tour. Last Friday, April 26, DTA stopped in Max's Maryland stomping grounds and played Silver Spring's Fillmore, and the the beautiful space filled with trooer-than-troo metalheads craving some thrash-death of the gods. I won't spend time describing the experience - I leave that task to Philly Decibro Chris Dick - but I will say that the atmosphere of the show was fun and fulfilling. Anciients opened strong, surprise guests Exhumed doused the audience in unexpected ferocity and gleeful gore, and Human-era Death made an earnest stab at honoring the legacy of some truly trailblazing music.
Before the show, Max and I sat down to talk about the tour and his non-Death activities. Here's what he had to say:
How are the shows going?
Great. A little rough on the voice but I’m getting through it.
Because you’re not used to [growling] as much, or as often?
For as often, and it’s an hour and a half, and I think the other thing is it’s that specific kind of old school death metal… I don’t know how you’d describe it, but it’s that very specific sound, and it’s kinda throaty…
Are you doing something different with this voice than you would do with Exist?
Yeah, I would say it’s different.
Harder, or just different?
A little rougher, maybe, on the voice but I’m using this throat coat stuff and drinking honey in between songs. [laughs]
How has the vibe of the shows been? Is it different than when you were out playing Cynic music?
Yes, definitely. It’s metal as shit. Obviously with Cynic there’s not as much moshing, maybe you chill out and you watch it more and just absorb it. It’s different for different shows. Montreal was crazy, they were just really…
Yeah, totally. LA was actually the same way. It’s different from show to show, but the reactions are great. People really, really love it.
How about among the guys on stage? You’ve played other stuff together, so does it feel any different between you guys when you’re playing?
I’ve never played with Steve [DiGiorgio] before, but with Paul and Sean there’s definitely a thing that I’m used to, especially with Sean’s playing – he likes to pull back a lot. It took a few shows for us to really get into the groove. There are little subtleties and we start to feel out what’s gonna happen here or here, ‘cause it’s a lot different than just rehearsing to the recording or something like that. Obviously the music’s a lot different, but there’s definitely a familiar thing there because they’re the same players.
How much did you guys rehearse beforehand?
I went out [to California] and rehearsed with Sean and Paul for a little less than a week, maybe 5 or 6 days, and then Steve flew out for the last day. I live on the East Coast, those guys are in LA, but we talked through the internet or on the phone: “Okay, you take this part, for this let’s try to do something like that.” Of course, half of that shit doesn’t really [make it to the stage], you have to get in the room to really [work it out].
Have there been any surprises on the tour?
Well, we opened up in LA with the most Spinal Tap thing everEverything’s been sound checked, we figure all the equipment’s good, but it’s the first show, so we don’t know exactly how it’s gonna go yet. We’re still working out tightness and everything. So we’re all prepared to go out there, and Sean does his drum intro on “Flattening of Emotions”, and then we come out after he’s been playing for a few bars, and we kick in. So Steve gets out there, realizes that something’s wrong with his rig, so he’s standing there with the guitar tech and they’re trying to eliminate every problem – look at all his pedals, [find out] what’s wrong here? So Sean’s just playing this intro, and it’s kind of an indefinite thing – it can go for as long as it needs to – but it gets to be a little bit of a long time. So Paul and I just start making noise, just some trippy sort of shit and just jam around. We can make this work, whatever, no big deal. So we’re doing that, and it’s going on [and on], and it turns into a Cynic show, right? Eventually it goes from, “Cool, we can deal with this,” to “Okay, this is getting really awkward.” Sean, after a while, was like, fuck it, and stops and we just walked off stage and went back out again once they got it [working].
It was pretty funny. It was one of those things, at the time it was kind of like, oh my god, of all the things that could happen… But it was actually kind of a nice ice breaker. It was legitimately funny.
What do you gain creatively for yourself playing this music as opposed to Exist or Cynic?
There’s not really a lot of creative input because it’s basically just learn [the parts]. I guess my job is trying to emulate things, for the most part, pretty verbatim and try to create that experience, make it feel as [authentic] as possible. You can never be somebody else, you know, and it’s foolish to really try to, but within what’s possible, just really trying to make it feel like a Death show. There are things that fall to interpretation; like the solos, there are certain things that I’ve just ended up interpreting myself and maybe doing a little more of my own thing. But for the key things, there are definitely these important melodies or ideas that you definitely have to play. Any time that you’re playing any kind of music, you’re expanding your vocabulary… Even just with the chops thing, the trem[olo] picking, because I haven’t done that sort of stuff in a long time.
Another thing, I think, is really just letting loose a bit, because it’s a fun gig. It’s been a little bit of a lesson, too, on stage presence and just partying, just kicking some ass and having fun and not to think a lot. And we feed off of the crowd’s energy too, which makes it really fun.
[At this point, the VIP meet ‘n’ greet takes over the room, after which Max and I duck in and out of rooms to find a place to finish the interview. Eventually we make our way to the tour bus to wrap our discussion inadvertently oust guitar tech Scooby from his comfy perch away from the venue’s pre-show hubbub. Further conversation (and a ventilation system impersonating a jumbo jet at liftoff) enused.]
I was interested in when you first got into Death, and what Death record first excited you.
The first album I heard was Human, actually. I played in a band in high school that covered – well, we never really did it, I think two of us learned it and the other guys didn’t – we were hypothetically going to cover “Lack of Comprehension”. It was me and Anup Sastry, he drums for Jeff Loomis right now. So Human was the first one, and then Spiritual Healing.
What else were you listening to at the time, and how did that fit in?
Then? I was a prog-head and a metalhead in high school, so probably a lot of Opeth, Nevermore, Emperor, Rush, Tool, maybe some King Crimson. The Opeth and Death stuff was a segue into more death metal.
And now for some totally non-Death questions. How far along is the work on the new Exist record?
It is so close. It’s being mixed right now. I’ve been hearing rough mixes, and what’s kind of cool is that we had these two days off when we were passing through Iowa which is where our mixer lives – he lives in Des Moines – so I actually got dropped off and spent a day working on it with him, which was pretty cool and a nice coincidence. So it’s out of our hands, it’s all in the mixing and mastering now. There’s a lot of logistical stuff we have to figure out. We don’t even know how we’re releasing it yet; we don’t know if we’re going to try to maybe go with a label or just DIY it, which is definitely a big possibility right now. We are going to try to have a song up [at the Exist website] pretty soon, so stay tuned.
Have you guys [in Exist] played any shows since you recorded?
No. The recording was stretched into this long process that ended up being way crazier than [expected]. That always happens. Anything in music with deadlines is unrealistic, always. It ended up getting stretched over a really long period, which is why we just finished it. That’s kind of our fault, too, ‘cause we get really nitpicky. We’ll have a session just trying to dial one sound or make some weird effect where we’re breaking glass and recording it backwards and putting reverb on it… It’s basically done.
How much music is on the record [keeping in mind that the In Mirrors EP was a half-hour set]?
It’s pretty long. It’s pushing an hour, maybe 55 minutes or something crazy like that. Given, there are two re-recorded EP songs on there, but we tried to do some different stuff with them; there are those sections that are improvised. There are re-recorded versions of “Writhe” and “So We Are” which were originally intended for the album. The EP was kind of an accident, we just wanted to record something, and it just ended up being so long. [The new one] is not just one big thing. It’s [got] songs. It’s got the improvised stuff, but we’re trying to make it accessible, and maybe we can stretch out more live
And you did one other Exist album before. Is that around somewhere?
Yeah, the band name [on that other album] is Exist, but it kind of formed out of another band, and it’s a completely different lineup. It was me and a good friend of mine I grew up playing with, Alex Rüdinger, he actually plays for the Faceless now, and then a bass player. I actually have pressed copies of it. I’ve never really talked about it. It was one of those things we did and then thinks kind of fell apart and we were getting into different stuff. It’s around. I don’t know if we’ll ever really try to release it. It’s very different. It’s death metal, definitely.
Do you have plans to play Exist’s music at some live shows soon?
I don’t know how soon we would. The big thing right now is figuring out how we’re going to release the album, and I’m doing this [Death To All] right now, and Weber, our bass player is actually playing for Loomis right now on that Soilwork tour, but he’s actually getting back around the same time as me. I don’t know. We might book some sort of Baltimore CD release party or something like that. We’re all juggling a lot of different things, so I don’t know how soon we’d really be playing shows, but it’s definitely something we want to do. We want to take Exist and see if there’s a demographic out there for that and see what happens. I’m excited about it.