- From left: Max Allen, Shaan France and Dace Robie.
If Max Allen hopes readers learn one thing from this story, it's that he's no longer a blues guitarist. Not that there's anything wrong with playing the blues. It's how he got his start, way back in his teenage years.
But he finds it weird when people come up to him saying they haven't seen him for 10 years. He's been around, after all. Playing new stuff. Growing up. Getting married.
"It's humbling to know that people still know your name, even if they're skewed on it," he explains in his stoner drawl while driving his dad's minivan to a West Lafayette gig. "I feel like everything that I've done has only gotten better over time. I feel like, when they find out what's going on, they'll be delightfully surprised."
What's going on today is the Max Allen Band has a gig at Purdue's Memorial Union. Allen's long-time drummer Shaan France, a sarcastic, dreadlocked realist, rides shotgun during the trip from Indy, filling in gaps in the band's story while Allen loosens his voice by singing scales. Bassist Dace Robie, the band's book-smart composition major, sits in the back beside this reporter. The configuration makes sense — the band's elders in the front, the newcomer pulling up the rear.
It's been a gradual transition away from the blues for Allen. He burst on the scene at the beginning of this century as a sort-of prodigy, a local version of Jonny Lang. He styled himself after Stevie Ray Vaughan, and, by some accounts, sounded a little like him — or at least he didn't embarrass himself with the name check.
But then, as he tells it, he started listening to "cooler shit:" funk, jazz, rock; Funky Meters, MMW, John Scofield, Galactic, Phish, Charlie Hunter. He connected to a lot of music from New Orleans. And he started playing something other than the blues in concert. There was a throughline, though: "I also noticed that there was a lot of blues in that music, so it was right up my alley," he says.
France was instrumental in helping Allen make the transition. A classically-trained percussionist who can handle complex orchestral work as easily as four-on-the-floor, France brought with him an R&B and funk feel when he joined the band more than five years ago. At 37, he's the oldest (and perhaps wisest) band member, 10 years elder to Max's 27.
The most recent addition to the trio is the bassist, Robie, who looks like he might be into gangster rap, what with his fitted Phillies cap, Jay-Z shirt and wispy beard. And he is, but the 24-year-old is into a whole lot more as well. He's a recent graduate of Butler University's School of Music, where he studied composition under professors Frank Felice and Michael Schelle, and jazz under now-Ball State head of jazz studies Mark Buselli, who helped him get this gig. Robie's brought new ideas to the group, as well as the talent to implement them.
"All of us can play at each other's level now," France says of the current lineup. "You don't have to worry about playing stuff in 7/8 — we don't even worry any more. The band that we have now really allows us to go where we want to go. That's the biggest change I've noticed, being in the band over the last five years."
And where do they want to go? Just about everywhere. They call their sound "rock fusion." Allen defines it as "a cluster fuck of musical genres." "With a rock feel," France adds. Allen: "We'll do anything..." France: "Except klezmer."
That exchange somehow degenerates into the band's singing of the chorus to "Warewolf Bar Mitzvah" ("Boys become men / Men become wolves"), a fictional parody record which won a Grammy for Tracy Morgan's character on 30 Rock. And that leads, indirectly, to another point Allen wants to make: that he's making "simple music for simple people."
Yeah, the Max Allen Band is very, very talented. But they're also fun. They try to make music that's easy to dance to. Allen's lyrics are goofy. They don't call their stuff jam music because that's become a wank-y sounding title; Allen takes solos, but they tend not to lose their direction.
It's good jam music, in other words, and it's accessible to the crowd they'll play in front of at Purdue (lots of kids and older townies) as well as hardcore improvisational music audiences like those that gather at The Mousetrap, one of the band's favorite local places to play.
Five minutes from my house
To be clear, the Max Allen Band has its own van. Allen's dad was once his manager, and he still contributes some funds and equipment to the band's cause, but it's only on a special occasion that he also contributes the ride. But while the band made it back this week from a mini-tour around Michigan's Upper Peninsula, the van didn't fare so well. It broke down somewhere in Michigan's hinterlands, where they spent the night before being rescued by Dad and his minivan.
Still, the tour was a success. The Max Allen Band may have as many fans in Michigan as in its home state. It's by design; the group doesn't want to over-saturate the local market and is looking to increase its name recognition in concentric circles around the city — first the state, then the Midwest, then the world.
But, as France puts it, "The downside of that is people ask us, 'Where are you guys from?'" when they're playing a local show. "I am five minutes from my house!"
We're about an hour from their houses now, rolling into West Lafayette on a sleepy summer day. France is talking up the band's new record, recorded with producer Gary Mielke at Static Stack Studios.
"One of the things for this album was not to rush it," France says. We wanted to take as much time as we needed to make sure that it would sound great: production-wise, music-wise, composition-wise. We want this album to be the album that says the Max Allen Band is really trying to do something different."
Robie and France completed the majority of tracking for the record last year, and the band has been adding finishing touches since. Robie wrote string arrangements, as well as some of the songs. Allen remains the band's chief songwriter, although France has contributed songs in the past.
"Dace was saying that on this album, it was about seeing how far we can push every one, what our limits were, as a composition guy," France says. "For example, the marimba part he wrote me. I played it, he knows I can do that, and he'll probably write me an even harder part the next time. I'll complain about, then I'll freak out about it, and then I'll play it...In the future, we'll continue to push harder. We'll go down more musical avenues, just to see if we can. Why not? It's there."
"His knowledge of music keeps me in check," Allen adds.
Like the rest of the band, Robie isn't interested in complexity for complexity's sake.
"Without fail, someone will tell me I play too much, and someone will tell me I don't play enough notes," he explains. "It's situation-specific. Those guys do a good job filling a lot of space, and I like to think of myself sometimes as the yin energy...If I write a piece of chamber music, I probably will try to appeal to nerds. But I think there's something fun and challenging about making people dance and maybe having them listen to something that's really, really cool but hidden in something really poppy."
As Allen puts it, in a countrified voice, "We're simple people playing simple songs, trying to communicate with people, trying to pull on their heartstrings."
The band plans to shop around the new release, tentatively due in September or October, to different labels. Previous Max Allen Band albums have all been self-released.
"We've all been practicing scales for years, but just now we're really trying to self-actualize from a promotional standpoint," Robie explains. "There's this saying from my music school days: 'All human beings have beautiful things to say; it's just down to who hustles the fastest.'"
And, of course, part of that hustle includes day jobs. We left for West Lafayette from Guitar Center Indy, where France worked a shift earlier in the day. He and Robie teach at Bongo Boy Music School, with offices right across from each other. Allen recently began leading a Wednesday open-jam at The Mousetrap, and he and Robie play occasional duo gigs at Osteria Pronto, an Italian restaurant at the downtown J. W. Marriott. Everyone works freelance and fill-in gigs, and Robie is hard at work on the soundtrack for the Phoenix Theatre production With a Bang.
Allen even works when he's doing laundry: He and his dad co-own a CD duplication service, which apparently offers very reasonable rates for working musicians. He says he's been working just about every weekend since he was a teenager, pretty much on a hospitality industry schedule: Mondays and Tuesdays off, then on for the rest of the week.
- The Max Allen Band performs outside the Purdue Memorial Union in July 2011. Photo by Stephen Simonetto.
The Max Allen Band isn't exactly in its native habitat here in West Lafayette. It's an early-evening show in front of a townie crowd, after all. But friends are everywhere. There's the guy who walks up and asks what band it is, hears the name Max Allen, then replies, "Of course, I'm from Indy too," and promises to bring along some friends for the show. Or Aaron, who works for the Union and played with Allen during his early years.
And the conditions don't matter much, anyways. The band could bring it, if you will, anywhere. They tote around their own PA, just in case the venue's isn't up to snuff. And they can craft a setlist true to their sound without being inaccessible to a not-necessarily-hip audience.
Tonight, their set opens with "Earthwalker," a mystical firecracker without a lot of room for the band to wander. "Unionize" follows, which gives Allen a chance to solo. He works with a full array of pedals, including one that effectively turns his guitar into a Hammond B-3. By looping a synth guitar riff behind a more traditional electric guitar solo, Allen gestures towards jam bands that prominently include organ — The Grateful Dead, most notably.
Allen's lyrics are very much in the jam band tradition: "Control," for instance, takes a likably anti-authoritarian stance, even if doesn't break new ground ideologically. The band's most recent album Ending Sun — a song-centered record no longer representative of the band's sound — deals with concerns familar to happy-go-lucky stoner: how to avoid incriminating oneself when dealing with the cops; how to make love in the master bedroom; and the greatness of the guitar, which gets Allen his booze and hotel rooms for free.
But it's about the music for a band like this, and while Allen has always been the titular star, his bandmates are no slouches. France can hold down a conventional groove, but he also works successfully with samples and drum machines. His jazz and classical background affords his work a crispness and authority that isn't always typical of rock drummers. And while Robie does, indeed, lay back when he needs to, he steps up to the mic with confidence; a solo on "Matt's Song" is almost verbose, but in the end, lyrical and well-shaped.
The band gets to only one cover on the setlist tonight — Stevie Wonder's "Sir Duke" which sees Robie throwing off that bass line effortlessly — leaving behind what's become an audience favorite, their take on Outkast's "Bombs over Baghdad." And then, after a few minutes decompressing and pushing free live CDs on passersby, it's time for breakdown and the trip back to Lafayette.
Allen's night isn't over, though. He's recently begun hosting the Family Jam at The Mousetrap, a long-running open stage night at the Keystone Ave. club friendly to jam bands and their fans. Back in town by 11 p.m., he rushes over to the club, grabs a drink and plugs in with the rest of his friends. The club is pretty much empty — a contrast to the 200 or so that gathered in West Lafayette — but the show still goes on.
A little prick
Born in Avon, Ind., Allen started playing guitar at age 8. His dad was his first teacher, who taught him all he needed to know by age 10.
"I owe a lot to my old man," Allen explains over lunch at the Indianapolis Museum of Art, a few minutes after wrapping up our cover shoot in front of Robert Indiana's "LOVE"sculpture. "He used to sit around and just strum a guitar while I'd sit there, working on soloing. I'm sure it got old for him, but it helped me out a lot."
Allen's dedication remains a pretty rare thing. France, sitting across from Allen in the IMA's cafe, jokes, "I always tell kids, if I had a magic wand to poof at your head, it'd be great. Unfortunately, I don't." Allen: "I left my wand at home." France: "I used it all up on me. Actually, I save that wand for my wife." Robie: "Don't say that to the children."
While Allen studied with some teachers, he learned just as much by playing along to records by the likes of John Scofield, Charlie Hunter, Wes Montgomery and Eric Clapton. A friend's dad had a Stevie Ray Vaughan album, the discovery of which led Allen into his blues period: "Did all blues stuff: listened to blues, played blues covers, wore blue jeans."
Allen recorded his first CD in a friend's basement at age 14. Called In the Flesh, it was an all-acoustic affair defined by singer-songwriter material. He sold it at school, carting around a lunchbox full of CDs, as he did with three other albums before his high school graduation.
He may have been a bit of a brat during those years. David Lindquist of the Indianapolis Star put it politely in a 2001 piece about Allen, published shortly after the then 17-year-old played a prominent main-stage gig at the Indy Jazz Fest: "In conversation, Allen conveys a frankness some might find refreshing, and others disrespectful."
"I did have a little bit of a cocky confidence when I was a kid, and I heard that a lot when I got older," Allen says now. "When I got to bars, people were like, 'You were a little prick.'"
But France qualifies, "Try being 16 and having people play you on the radio."
"They put me up on a pedestal, and now I'm just like everybody else," Allen adds. "Another guitar player."
Lindquist's profile lists a few of Allen's goals at the time, among which were to learn a Wes Montgomery song (Allen can still hum it on call) and to score a support slot with a major touring act. The Montgomery song is no longer on his mind, but the support slot is. As France puts it, "We gotta ride off the coattails of somebody. Everybody does, and everybody has. Look at how many people rode off the coattails of Miles Davis that now have amazing careers."
Allen could've gone to college, but it just didn't make sense: "I had the academic choice, but out of high school, I felt like I was on the right track with what I was doing. Just like any other job, you get in, start working in the field and you'll learn the trade."
He's kept a band going under his name since high school, with plenty of lineup changes before the current one took shape.
Love you, dog
France and Allen first met in 2002 at a Battle of the Bands, when Allen loaned France a CD by influential New Orleans drummer Johnny Vidacovich. France actually brought the CD back, which set them on even keel. They didn't meet again until 2004, when Allen was looking for a drummer to fill in on some gigs. A few slots turned into France being booked for every weekend that summer, and then his permanent addition to the band's lineup.
"About July, he said, 'You just want to be in the band?'" France remembers. "And that's how it happened." "I love you too, dog," Allen rejoins.
It is a bro-dog love, but it goes beyond the band: Allen officiated at France's wedding four years ago, and France returned the favor when Allen was married a couple years back.
They are, to be clear, not men of the cloth: Allen is "totally agnostic; raised agnostic" and France was "raised Baptist, but raised with a free mind."
"I did my own thing," Allen says of France's wedding. "I sat down with them and figured out what they wanted out of it. I'm a good public speaker."
"Same thing here," France says. "My sermon was a very small bit from the Bible, and it was pretty much all about love anyway."
Allen and France are also the two in the band most likely to argue. "But it's not arguing like, 'I fucking hate you, you go suck me,'" France explains.
"Last weekend it was," Allen retorts.
"But within two hours, they hugged it out," Robie says.
Allen and his bandmates are in a good place right now. Sure, they might be tempted to relocate one day, Allen says.
"I've considered a change in state, and I hate to keep bringing up the counter-culture side to it, but when you have a state like that that's a little more lenient, it tends to draw the more eclectic culture. I hate to make it sound so refugee, but when you're persecuted in other states...and we're persecuted in Indianapolis for smoking weed."
But the Max Allen Band is sticking around for the time being.
"It's always a work in progress, and we've come a long way since we started playing together," Robie explains. "We're always working on it, and we're really hungry right now. Anyone who saw us two weeks ago, if they see us a year from now, we'll be a totally different band — and the year after that, it'll be a totally different band."
"And in about five years, we're gonna get ourselves a young child and bring him in," Allen half-jokes.Hear: Two tracks by the Max Allen Band, recorded live at The Mousetrap in January 2011
"I'm Always Late"