max stern, steve gibson, loren shumaker and jeff russell are signals midwest, a rock and roll band out of cleveland ohio. signals midwest work hard, play hard and tour on their own dime simply because they love playing music. i’ve written about them and championed the band here at shiny glass houses because i believe in their music. it’s crafted without the pretense of image or expectations. it’s the sound of young men discovering what life is all about. it’s a bullshit-free combination energy and emotion.
this summer, vocalist and guitarist max stern and i had a chance to discuss his band, their fabulous new record latitudes and longitudes, life on the road and our favorite bands through a series of personal and detailed emails. the following is a tiny glimpse into the life of a bright, talented young musician and his quest to bring his passion to the public.
SGH: in order to understand your music, i need to know where it comes from, so part one, i guess you can say is all about beginnings?
max: i was born in nyc, my dad is from there, but moved to ohio when i was four. i was lucky growing up – my parents have great taste in music. my mom showed me the beatles and bob marley, my dad showed me frank zappa and bob dylan. i started piano when i was 8 and switched to guitar at 11 because my friend josh showed me the clash and the rolling stones. i had also just discovered blink 182 and green day at that point, so i wore my guitar really low like tom delonge. i remember trying to play extra hard to make it sound distorted because i didn’t understand the concept of fuzz pedals.
SGH: what are your guilty pleasures? i will stand by mine, hall and oates. they’re the most soulful white r&b duo of all time…i can’t enter and leave a bar without playing “private eyes” on the juke box.
max: i guess i never really felt “guilty” about any of the music i liked. i got made fun of in high school for being the kid with the ska band (the skatastrophes), but i never cared. being in that band gave me some of the best times of my entire life. being in that band taught me so much about music. through ska i discovered sublime, which led me to listen to krs-one, which led me to a bunch of old-school hip hop that i still adore today. a tribe called quest’s “midnight marauders” is on the list of my top 10 albums of all time. at the same time, i probably couldn’t go a day without listening straight through to all of “london calling” while i skated around in my backyard. i never wanted to make a decision about what kind of kid i was. i liked punk, ska, classic rock, hip-hop, folk, reggae – i never wanted to make a decision about what kind of music i liked. i loved it all, and still do.
SGH: the fact that you tour independently, doing it your way, playing in venues like ymca’s and basements is a testament to what you do. it’s pretty awesome. i’d have to agree with you, two of the most influential bands of my youth were the clash and the stones. i remember hearing the clash for the first time and thinking to myself that i finally found a band that was punk but smart enough to stand for their beliefs, socially and politically. london calling is a classic record, and lost in the supermarket is my favorite song of all time. i don’t know why i love it so much, i just do. i can also clearly remember playing beast of burden by the stones over and over again in my parents living room when i was a kid.
max: it’s funny that you mention “Lost in the Supermarket” because that is absolutely my favorite Clash song too. it’s weird because it’s a Mick Jones song, but it’s just my favorite one. the chord progression, the guitar intro and tone, the climbing bass breakdown in the bridge, joe strummer’s backing vocals…definitely my favorite, without question. i heard brian fallon from the gaslight anthem does a pretty killer version that i’m hoping to hear someday.
SGH: tell me a little about what led you to starting/creating signals midwest. college? co-workers? an add in the paper? once you started the band, did it click or was it one of those things that took a few different members or changes to get off the ground. because in all honesty, the difference between the two signals midwest records is massive. latitudes and longitudes sounds like a band that really found their footing and hit the ground running with a clear sound scape in mind. the songs are really honest, and heartfelt.
max: i was 18 and growing out of playing in a band that only played one style of music (with the skatastrophes), and around then i had started to go to house shows in cleveland. it was then i discovered DIY punk and the energy was just undeniable, which is the one aspect of music that i think i’ve been more drawn to than any other. i’d so much rather see a sloppy punk band play three chords and jump around rather than watch some dude just stand there with a blank stare and play guitar solos for two hours. it all just seemed much more honest to me. loren (bassist) and i had been playing music together in our old band. we had just started our sophomore years of college and had no real idea what we wanted to do. we ended up meeting steve (drums) through a girl loren met at school and it turned out we had been going to the same local shows for years and years. the first song we all played together was “the devil’s takin’ names” by the lawrence arms. we immediately started writing songs and playing locally and doing small tours. i think we wrote a song a week for seven or eight weeks, and there was only maybe nine months tops between our first practice and finishing our first record, which is pretty fast now that i think about it.
SGH: do you think you’ve found your niche as a songwriter? or is there an inner “radiohead” looking to push forward…maybe towards other sounds or styles?
max: i’m really proud of latitudes and longitudes. we all wrote it together and traded influences and ideas and it’s very much the product of a band working together to create something rather than one person dictating what we should play. i’m not really sure if it gives any type of sonic definition to our band, especially because all of our songs are just reflections of what we’re listening to at the time. i like it so much because we can put a song like “limnology” on there which to me is influenced hugely by bands like small brown bike and braid, and then immediately follow it with one like “january and seven” which i wrote in the middle of a huge weakerthans binge. maybe it comes off as awkward, but i’m much more interested in doing things like that, that might catch people off guard. you asked about finding a “niche” but i almost want to avoid it because i don’t want to get stuck writing the same song ten times over. if it’s possible to find one and still make songs that sound different from each other yet cohesive as a whole, that’s what i’d hope for.
SGH: so take me through the process of touring. do you book the shows? i can imagine touching base with the venues and houses must be a pain, but in the end totally worth it.
max: touring is one of those things where i just don’t understand how people did it before the internet – especially smaller bands. nearly every one of the 23 shows we played on tour was booked by finding a band/person on facebook through referrals or other bands and messaging them. there were a few connections that we already had, mainly in southern california and also through jeff (guitarist) because he’s done big tours before, but i’d say about 70-80% of it was booked just through taking shots in the dark and sending messages to people. somehow it all came together incredibly well. we managed to actually come back with money – not a lot, but enough to self-release a 7″ (to be released in october). for our first national tour, we did amazingly well. even the shows that weren’t well-attended were still fun as hell – like in stockton, CA we played to 8 people…but 3 of those 8 people sang along to our whole set. i feel like most bands don’t have the luck we had on our first big tour. i hope it can stay this good in the future…i feel like we set the bar pretty high for ourselves.
SGH: do you enjoy life on the road? i know in a general travelling sense, i love being away, but there’s nothing like returning home.
max: tour life revolves around that blissful, sweaty 30 minutes that you get to play and unwind every night. in between there’s a ton of driving, sleeping on couches/floors (we stayed in a hotel ONCE on this last tour and it was heavenly), and cramming as much fun as possible with people you love and barely ever get to see into the few hours you get together. that’s the weirdest part for me…there’s not the “see you tomorrow” feeling you get with your friends at home. it’s “we need to have as much fun as possible RIGHT NOW because i’m not going to see you for maybe a year or two” and it can get daunting and sad. but i feel lucky to be able to see my friends in the first place, so what am i complaining about? everybody has their own hustle that supports what they love to do, and if you can combine the two then you’ve pretty much struck gold. i hope it gets to that point someday, but for now i’m just trying to hang in the balance somewhere. ———
if you haven’t heard signals midwest’s stellar record, latitudes and longitudes, there’s something wrong with you. if there’s not something wrong with you, you’re just lazy. or a communist. either way, get yourself a copy (legally) and all will be forgiven. it’s being released on november 29th by tiny engine records and it’s available digitally via tiny engine’s bandcamp page and itunes right now. support rock and roll and rock and rock and roll will do its part to keep you up even when you think the walls might come crashing down. thanks to max for taking the time out during this summer’s tour to throw down with me and for agreeing to let it all come spilling out here. he’s a good dude, doing great things with a band that’s just barely tapped into their dangerous potential. keep your eyes on signals midwest, they’re the absoulte real deal in sea of snooze-worthy noise.
below is the link for a brand new video for “the quiet persuader”.