When Nirvana released Bleach in 1989, it was obvious there was greatness afoot. No one knew when that greatness would reveal itself (Nevermind provided the money shot two years later), but without question it would happen. See Neil Young’s first solo album (1968). Think Black Sabbath’s debut from 1970. Something’s happening here but you don’t know what it is, do you Mr. Jones? Each time, a seismic shift was in the works. The skeleton just needed a blood transfusion. The moon and the stars would finally align and everything would change because it had to. The ground would crack and all the musical dreck and detritus would fall to its justifiable death. It wasn’t a matter of whether it would hit, it was a matter of when.
Enter Max Gomez. Gomez has the potential to create yet another seismic shift. His debut, Rule The World (New West Records), is Americana roots music, without a doubt. A guy with an acoustic guitar singing of love and loss. But dig deeper. Any expectations of been-there-done-that will completely unravel. All the subtleties have sharp hooks. Grit and polish get bound up together. The blues and folk tradition gets a sharp new suit of clothes and even a certain hip hop sensibility (‘Ball And Chain’). Every single track will beg you to turn up the volume, sing along, and write home about it. The songs don’t tell you what to do; they ask what you would do. They walk in your shoes. They’re mysteriously obvious.
Max Gomez has dynamite in one hand and a burning match in the other. He’s just biding his time before he burns this mother down. Rule The World isn’t just the title of the CD. It’s apparently what Gomez intends to do. Gird up for the seismic shift.
I had the good fortune to speak with him in January.
Max: Hey, Michael, how are you doing?
Michael: Doing good, man. What’s going on?
Max: Oh, not much. Just in Austin, Texas for the weekend.
Michael: I thought maybe you’d be home in New Mexico.
Max: Yeah, I should be, but I ran into some crazy travel trouble yesterday and landed in Austin.
Michael: Well, if you’re gonna land somewhere in Texas, that’s the place to do it.
Max: Yeah, no kidding. How’s Kentucky treating you, man?
Michael: Cold as hell. What’s the weather like in Texas?
Max: Oh, it supposedly has been cold, but today I’m getting ready to take off my long-sleeve, ‘cause it’s probably about 65 degrees out.
Michael: You lucky dog. Oh my God. It’s like 25 degrees here, man.
Max: Oh, it’s rough. In New Mexico, where I live, it’s probably less than that. It gets down in the negatives at night.
Michael: I’ve never been to New Mexico, so I don’t know a whole lot about it, but I generally think of it as being a hot state. Am I wrong?
Max: Well, I think the majority of the state is–a lot of desert and old sort of western…mountains and such, but the northern part of the state where it borders Colorado can be as mountainous and cold as anywhere in the U.S. And that’s where I’m from.
Michael: Taos, New Mexico?
Max: Taos, yeah. A little town that sits at 7,000 feet and the mountaintops over 14 [thousand feet]…
Michael: I looked it up yesterday and isn’t Taos the home of Dennis Hopper?
Max: Yeah, one way or another. He’s from Kansas, actually. And the reason I know that is ‘cause my mother is from Kansas and she brags about whoever is from Kansas. But he lived in Taos for a long time…I don’t even understand his family, it’s real complicated, but I’ve got a lot of friends I grew up with in Taos with the last name Hopper. And it comes from him.
Michael: Well, you’re about to be one of those famous people from Taos. Isn’t Robert Mirabal from around there?
Max: Yeah, Robert Mirabal is from Taos Pueblo.
Michael: I love him, man. I love that guy. Are you familiar with his material?
Max: Yeah, me and him know each other, man. We’re buddies.
Michael: Indians Indians…and what’s the one he did with Mellencamp’s band? It may just be called Mirabal…
Max: ‘The Dance’. Yeah, that was like a hit, man. That was awesome.
Michael: I’ve never been to Taos, so tell me what it’s like growing up there.
Max: Well, it really was and probably still is, comparatively speaking to most of the country, kind of like the Wild West in a lot of ways. A little town, the rules are pretty loose. You can run across any kind of person in Taos. I mean, it’s a really diverse place. It’s a great place, man. It’s a beautiful little mountain town. It’s really got a nice art community. It’s kinda like Santa Fe, but smaller and more quaint and prettier with the mountains and all. It’s really a nice little town.
Michael: Since you’re on tour so much now, do you get back home very much?
Max: Not as much as I should. I’ll tell you that much. You know, I feel more at home in a hotel room than my own place. That’s a weird feeling.
Michael: I talked with Shawn Mullins about a month or so ago and he speaks quite highly of you.
Max: Oh, you talked to Shawn?
Michael: Yeah, Shawn’s a great guy.
Max: Yeah, he is. He’s a great friend, too. We’ve become friends over the last few years. We write a lot of songs together. He’s one of my favorite people in the music world.
Michael: He’s a really nice dude, too.
Max: Yeah, he is. Did you do an interview with him?
Michael: I did. We were supposed to have no more than 20 minutes, but we spoke for an hour because we have a lot in common, you know? I know you did some work with him on Light You Up.
Max: Yeah, that’s his last record. We met shortly before that and started writing songs. The original idea was to write some songs for me to take back to California and record. To try to jump start my career. And we wrote 3 or 4 songs, and Shawn ended up putting pretty much all of them on his new record.
Michael: Which ones are those?
Max: We wrote 4 at that point, and recorded all 4 of them, but only 3 of them went on the record. One called ‘Love Will Find A Way’, which is also on my record. Did you get a copy of my record?
Michael: Yes, I did. I’ve been living with it for the last month or so. It comes out Tuesday, is that right?
Max: Yeah, Tuesday the 22nd.
Michael: Are you excited? This is the first one.
Max: Yeah, it’s the first one, man. I’m really excited.
Michael: I’ve seen a few reviews of it online and every single one of them is good. They’re all glowing.
Max: That’s good to hear. I think I’ve only seen one review so far. They’re all coming in right now. A lot of stuff’s happening fast in terms of the press and whatnot.
Michael: Well, get ready. Your life’s about to spin out of control.
Max: Yeah, no kidding.
Michael: I was watching TV about a month ago, Parenthood on NBC, and a song popped up and I couldn’t quite place what it was, and the very next day I was listening to your record, and it hit me: it was ‘Ball And Chain’. And it fit the show just great.
Max: Yeah, that’s wild, isn’t it? Yeah, I was so happy. That’s the very first—they all them syncs—that ‘s the very first one I’ve ever gotten, since I’ve done this record and all that. The first real one that I’ve ever gotten. I was really excited.
Michael: Yeah, that’s a hit show.
Max: I know it, man. They said millions of people watched it.
Michael: I don’t really know how that works, though. Do you know about it before they air it? How does that work?
Max: Yeah, actually they have to get your permission and they buy the rights to use it, stuff like that. It’s a whole deal. We knew they were going to use it. It was kind of a wild deal, being the first time I’ve ever done anything like that. I was nervous about it. We thought it was going to come on in January sometime, then all of a sudden we get this letter that says ‘Oh yeah, by the way, we’re gonna air the song tonight on tonight’s episode.’ What in the heck? All right… So we tivoed it, stayed up, and watched the show. It was pretty cool.
Michael: Well, congratulations on that.
Max: Thanks, man.
Michael: I’ve listened to the record for the past few weeks and I hear strains of different people in there. I hear Jackson Browne, I hear John Prine especially, I hear Kristofferson in there… Are those your influences? Am I on the right track here?
Max: Well, you hit the nail on the head with John Prine. Jackson Browne, I think that’s just kind of a natural thing somehow. I’ve never really listened much to Jackson Browne, other than just the radio. I think if anything, we just kinda…the same sort of ideas and genre or something. I know he’s a great legendary artist. I met him once in California. I met all these great people at this Woody Guthrie tribute. I met Graham Nash and he was so cool, so funny. He was awesome.
Michael: Have you had that starstruck moment yet? You know, met a hero you’ve always wanted to meet?
Max: Yeah, I get that around a couple of people. I met John Prine a couple of times and I get it big time around him. And Kris Kristofferson, too. He’s wild to hang out with. He’s one of the nicest guys you’ll ever meet, you know?
Michael: Shawn told me the same thing about him.
Max: Yeah, Shawn knows him well. He knows him a lot better than I do, ‘cause when he had his first hit record out, he had a cover of ‘Sunday Mornin’ Comin’ Down’ on it. And he sold like a million copies of it. He made Kris a good paycheck, I guess.
Michael: Yeah, bought him a house.
Max: Yeah, no kiddin’.
Michael: Do you have a favorite John Prine record? I’ll just tell you right now, my favorite is The Missing Years from…
Max: ‘92. That’s my favorite one, too. I got a funny story for you.
Michael: Lay it on me.
Max: Well, when I was first playing music, I played this bar called the OBL. It stands for The Old Blinking Light, in Taos. I was sorta ‘the kid’. I was really young, 15, 16. And I used to play when the main attraction guy would take a break. I’d get up and play during his breaks or sit in with the band a little bit. That was my job. And the owners there told me to learn some more songs, more country hit songs and stuff, ‘cause that was sort of the party they had going there. That’s what drew the crowd in. So I went home and learned a John Prine song—off the new John Prine record at the time, Fair And Square, a more recent one of his—and I learned a song on there called ‘Long Monday’. And I came up that next week and said, “Look, I got a new song. I learned it off the John Prine record.” And the headliner there, he goes, ”Oh, good. A buddy of mine’s here tonight from Memphis. He wrote some songs on that record with John. He’ll be sitting in and playing with us tonight.” And sure enough, he had written ‘Long Monday’ with John.
Max: Anyway, his name is Keith Sykes. Over the years, Keith and I have become friends and we’ve actually played a lot of shows together. And we’ve actually started writing songs together more recently. So that’s a real surreal thing, because he actually wrote 2 or 3 songs on The Missing Years with John Prine. And then there’s one more little thing I want to tell you about that… After I made the record in L.A., my A&R guy put this band together for me to do a session. And he called this guy named Phil Parlapiano. And Phil shows up…and anyways, me and Phil hit it off. And Phil plays a lot of shows with me now and we’re good friends. But Phil played squeezebox and various other things on The Missing Years. And he was in John Prine’s band for a long time. His nickname is ‘Mister Squeeze’. There’s actually a lyric in one of the songs about him. On ‘The Sins Of Memphisto’, if you know that song, it says “looking at the babies and the factories/and listening to the music of Mister Squeeze”.
Michael: Every song on that record, ‘All The Best’…Oh my God, every note on it.
Max: Oh yeah, no kidding, man.
Michael: What’s your favorite record of all time, non-John Prine?
Max: To be honest with you, it’d probably be the Unplugged Eric Clapton record. Tom Petty, Wildflowers is another all-time favorite. The Unplugged Clapton record is such a masterpiece. It’s like a life’s work. You can sit there and dissect the different elements and skills and it’d take your whole life to figure out what’s going on on that record.
Michael: I always like to ask that question because I think it’s revealing as to where you’re coming from, whether you realize it or not.
Max: Yeah, I hear you.
Michael: Correct me if I’m wrong, I’m going to go out on a limb here. Your songs are really not straightforward. They don’t tell you what to think, do they?
Max: No. I like that idea, the idea of songs being that way. I sometimes make a conscious effort to try and write that way. I don’t know if that’s necessarily good or bad. I’ve definitely written in different ways before. But that’s something I’ve sort of learned over the years, that a lot of the best songs don’t really lay out the story for you. They lay out lyrics and phrases and things that make you create your own story, so to speak.
Michael: When I’m listening to them, I automatically start interpreting into my life. So you set me up for that.
Max: I hope so.
Michael: I guess that’s the point, isn’t it?
Max: I like that. That’s what I’m trying to do, to be honest with you. Rather than be told what’s happening in song, I think it’s better that the listener can create their own story or their own scene and whatnot.
Michael: That’s kind of the Dylanesque philosophy, you know? Being unclear, for lack of a better word, and setting the listener up for applying it to your own life.
Max: Yeah. To me, the very best songs are the ones you could listen to for 5 or 10 years and revisit them over and over and each time you do, maybe you unveil another layer of what it might be about. Or have a different perspective on it, that sort of thing. Now I don’t know if that’s a skill that can be taught. I think in the great songwriters, that’s just something that sort of happens magically, you know?
Michael: Right. How did you end up being a singer/songwriter, a guitar in one hand and a pen in the other? I play piano and I got started because my Mom made me go to piano lessons, God bless her. So how did you end up with a guitar in your hand?
Max: Well, I come from a family with 4 brothers. And I’m the youngest one by 7 years or so.
Michael: My sympathies to you.
Max: Yeah, I used to get beat up pretty good around the house, you know?
Michael: Purely out of love.
Max: Yeah. I’m 25 and today it’s my oldest brother’s birthday, he turns 35. They’re all about 7 to 10 years older than me. And you know, it was a rowdy house, to say the least. We always had a piano in my house, an old player piano. We used to pump the foot pedals, roll the scrolls, and play classical music and stuff. Well, one of my older brothers got a guitar when I was about 8 or 9 years old. He was sort of like the ‘cool’ brother. I always looked up to him. I ended up playing that guitar more than he did. Just kind of thought it was too cool, you know? it was a black Les Paul with gold pickups on it, and I just thought it was the coolest thing in the world. And he was into really great music, unlike any of my other brothers. They were listening to pop or whatever’s popular, country music. And this brother of mine named Zac, he would listen to B.B. King records from the sixties and stuff. And he played that black Les Paul guitar and I just thought it was coolest thing in the world. And I never have put it down. I’ve played guitar ever since.
Michael: What are you listening to right now? You know, you’re driving down the road, what’s on your iPod? What do you throw in the CD player?
Max: Oh, man… I kinda keep going back to all the things that I love… You know who I’m listening to a lot of? This blues singer named Snooks Eaglin. I never knew about him until recently. I don’t know if you’re familiar with him, but if you listen to him and then you listen to the way Eric Clapton sings, you’ll hear an uncanny resemblance. And it’s because Eric Clapton studied the way Snooks sings.
Michael: Is Snooks a smooth blues singer?
Max: Yeah, real smooth. But it’s old style. He made records in the fifties, early sixties.
Michael: As opposed to a gruff singer like Howlin’ Wolf or something.
Max: Yeah, he’s just like a master vocalist. There’s actually songs that Eric Clapton recorded that he literally lifted nuance for nuance the way Snooks sang. And you listen to him and you go, “Oh my God, look what he’s been doing.” You’re studying this stuff…to me, that’s real rewarding, to figure that sort of thing out.
Michael: If you’re going to lift something, lift from the best.
Max: Yeah, no kidding.
Michael: Tell me about this song ‘Season Of My Memory’. Is that only available on Facebook?
Max: It’s available in iTunes. It’s a B-side to the single ‘Run From You’. So it’s available on iTunes as the B-side to that little package, just a two-song deal. Sort of a seasonal thing, you know? This total Prine-esque sort of thing. I took off writing a song that was somewhat about Christmastime.
Michael: Speaking of ‘Run From You’, tell me where that one came from. I hear a little bit of Tom Petty in that. It’s always nice to hear a pedal steel, too.
Max: Yeah, we got Greg Leisz to play pedal steel on the record. As far as I know, he’s the best that’s around these days. He actually just got picked up to play the 2013 U.S. Eric Clapton tour as Eric Clapton’s pedal steel player. So I mean, it’s just too cool. Great guy, too. For a few years, I’ve been getting together with Jeff Trott and writing songs. Jeff is a great songwriter and a great record producer alike. We got together to write a song one day and we’re just messing around and he had this idea where he’d take the song from the root to a minor chord afterwards. That didn’t really make sense. It broke all the rules of music theory, you know? That’s one of Jeff’s strong points. He’ll make a song just different enough that it’s not an ordinary song. It’s cooler than that. And he put that minor chord on there and I took off some lyrics and we suddenly had a song. We wrote it really quickly. I wrote pretty much the lyrics. Jeff helps guide me. He’s a real great pro songwriter. The song is pretty well a true story, you know? Most of the songs are. It just kinda came about during a co-write session with Jeff. Jeff really liked it and it took me a while to come around to it. I wasn’t sure if it was a good song or a bad song for a long time. And it took a lot of people telling me that was a really good song before I finally came around to it. It used to be a little different. It used to be more like a T Bone Burnett kind of production. Sort of a truckin’ along smooth song. An then when we went to make the record, Jeff decided we should turn it up a bit, rock it out a little bit. Thinking that maybe it could be a radio single or something, you know?
Michael: It works.
Max: Oh, I’m glad to hear that, man. I’m glad you like that tune.
Michael: I’ll tell you what, my favorite song on the record is ‘Black And White’. The lyrics are really good, but it’s one of those songs where I have no idea what you’re talking about and I know exactly what you’re talking about. You know what I’m saying? It’s a fine line and you nailed it.
Max: [laughs] I love that. Yeah, I do. That’s great. I’m glad to hear that. That’s one of the oldest songs I have that I still play.
Michael: Never stop playing that song. It is absolutely a masterpiece.
Max: Oh, thank you, man. I’m glad to hear that.
Michael: How’d that song come about?
Max: It started off just as a rock guitar song, actually. There’s no piano in it. We used to play electric guitar and just kind of chuck it along. The lyric was “black and white” over and over and over. It would be “walking down the road/wondering where we go/it’s just black and white; all the people on the street/staring at their feet/it’s just black and white”. Over and over and over. And then I got together with this record producer, a friend of mine named Lee Miles from California. Lee’s a really talented guy and now a good friend. We got together and he started trying to play the piano instead of the guitar. And then he decided, “Well, you should change this ‘Black And White’ lyric. It’s too repetitive.” So he changed that up and then wrote a bridge to it, and that was basically the song. It came to full form. And it opened a lot of doors for me. That’s how I met Shawn Mullins. He heard that song and said, “Yeah, let’s get together and write some.” It helped me out a lot. It took me out of the bedroom, so to speak, and brought me into some recording studios.
Michael: I also like ‘Cherry Red Wine’ a lot. That one is really simple. It almost sounds like a Willie Nelson song. It’s very country-oriented.
Max: Yeah, it’s so funny, sometimes you write songs and you don’t know whether they’re any good or not. At least that’s how I was when I was younger. I wrote that song one evening, just sitting around my Dad’s house, still living at home. I didn’t think anything of it. It’s real sad. I thought people won’t like this. It’s too sad. And the one day I pulled into a restaurant where a good friend of mine’s playing a show, a great songwriter named Jed Zimmerman. And Jed’s played these bars and restaurants as much as anyone. He saw me walking in and he took it as an opportunity to take a break. “All right…Max is here, everyone.” He gets up off his chair and throws the guitar at me. And so I’m sitting there going, “Oh great, what can I play that Jed hasn’t heard before?” Then I played ‘Cherry Red Wine’. And that’s years after I’d written it. And afterwards, he was blown away. He couldn’t figure out who wrote the song. You know, “It’s not a Townes song, it’s not a Guy Clark song, who wrote that song?” I said, “I wrote that song”. I was so flattered by what he said, I started playing it more and more. And people really took to it and to this day, it’s quite possibly the most powerful song I have when I’m playing a show. It’s so simple. Three verses, three B sections that are almost exactly alike, just a few lyrical changes. It’s very John Prine-esque as well. You can tell, I’m sure, by the way I play the guitar and sing that. It’s just a simple folk and country kind of song.
Michael: Isn’t simple the hardest thing to do?
Max: It can be, that’s for sure. I find that if you start trying to write a simple song–as simple as you can–by the time you get to the big finish, you’ve got one hell of a complicated song on your hands. It’s a good idea to me to start as simple as you can and by the time you get the thing done and if you get it in a recording studio, anything goes.
Michael: What are you working on right now? Are you writing new songs or just touring or recharging your batteries?
Max: Yeah, I’m getting ready to do a lot of touring. I still write as often as I can, but not near as much as I have in the past. I’m trying to decide what kind of songs to write. I’m sure you can tell just by the record, my songwriting is not necessarily very consistent in terms of style. I’m all over the road sometimes. I’m trying to kind of hone in on something a little more consistent. I don’t know whether that’s the right thing to do or not. I worry a little bit, because I’m the middle of writing a song that sounds like a ‘70s singer-songwriter or something. I don’t know if the record label would like that or not, you know?
Michael: You know what they say, though…you’ve had 25 years to work on your first record and then 6 months to do your second.
Max: Exactly. I worry about that a little bit, but at the same time, I got so much to do. I’m getting ready to go out on the road with Shawn [Mullins] and Buddy Miller and Jim Lauderdale.
Michael: Funny you should mention Buddy. I may have an interview set up with him for next week. I’ve never met Buddy. I’m looking forward to it.
Max: Yeah, he’s really cool. They’ve got a radio show right now on satellite radio that’s pretty cool. [Buddy’s] a great guy and a real talented musician. It doesn’t get much better…
Michael: Just so you know, I love every song on your record. And that’s a very rare thing, to love every bit of it. So I have to tell you, be proud of this record. It’s a really good one, man.
Max: Oh, thank you, Michael.
Michael: You’re welcome. I don’t think you have anything to worry about coming up with your second record, ‘cause you’re doing what’s in your heart, right?
Max: Yeah, I couldn’t have found a better home for the music than New West Records. They’re so great.
Michael: Listen, that’s all the questions I’ve got. Let me apologize for taking up so much of your time. I didn’t mean to.
Max: Oh, Michael, get out of here, man. It’s been great talking with you.
Michael: Listen, you need to talk to Shawn [Mullins] and the two of you work up some kind of package show and come to Bowling Green. He was here…in November, maybe early December.
Max: Yeah, I’ll try to get on with that, man. I’d love to get down there. I’ve never even been to Kentucky.
Michael: Come to Kentucky.
Max: Yeah, I want to get down there and try some of the good bourbon that they don’t sell out west, where I’m from.
Michael: Yeah, that’s Bardstown. That place is awash in liquor.
Max: Well, I’ll have to get down and taste me some.
Michael: All right. Be careful in Austin, Texas. Don’t get in any trouble.
Max: Oh, I’ll try not to.
Michael: And be careful out on the road.
Max: I will. Thanks a lot, Michael. It’s a pleasure chatting with you, man.
Michael: It was an honor and a pleasure. I look forward to talking to you again sometime.
Max: All right. Thanks a lot, Michael.
You can purchase Max Gomez’s Rule The World at all digital retailers (amazon.com, iTunes). Visit him at:
~ Michael Franklin
Michael Franklin is the Media & Reserves Specialist at Western Kentucky University’s Visual & Performing Arts Library (VPAL). Michael is also a professional musician and sound engineer. He is currently recording his 6th CD with his best friends Screenlast 6.0 and Audacity Sourceforge. He thinks Iggy Pop is the greatest singer in the history of music. If you disagree, you’re wrong. You better ask somebody.
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