Kevin Max, the self-renowned “black sheep” of the Christian music industry and former vocalist of dc Talk, has created quite an underground career in the music industry since 2001, creating almost a cult-like following amongst fans of alternative music. dc Talk’s last album, Supernatural, was released in 1999 and that was the finale. Now as a solo artist who has put out 16 albums, he is just getting started. His newest album, The Black Sheep Of The Fold, is a compilation of songs from the past 18 years, giving fans of dc Talk who fell off the K-Max train in 1999 a picture of his work since the breakup.
Guest NRT contributor and writer, Andrew Voigt, had the opportunity to sit down with Kevin Max to discuss his independent career and the current state of the Christian music industry.
So, Kevin, first off, I need to tell you what a big fan I am of your solo work since you went solo in 2001. Trying to label your music by genre, style, and philosophy is impossible to do. Is that intentional?
(laughs) Well, it’s hard, because I don’t really pick one lane. I’m not really interested in just one lane. The reason that my records are kind of all over the place–from alternative to jazz to a rock record to whatever–is because there are a lot of genres that I do love and it’s a natural impulse for me to create certain types of music. I mean, I haven’t really done country because I’m not really interested in country music. I’d say that I’m really an alternative artist. If I can “brand” myself, it would really be an alternative songwriter. Alternative music is what I listen to most of the time. It’s my intake. So, there is kind of wisdom in how much you listen to and what you take in that’s really gonna influence you and come out. I do listen to a lot of classic vocalist records like Frank Sinatra and Ella Fitzgerald and even weirder records that people really don’t know, like Scott Walker and maybe some folk singers. Poetry is also a huge part of what I do, so I do consider myself a poet. I’ve put a couple of books out and they’ve done OK. They’ve gone out to the audience to those who listen to my music and they’ve loved it, but it’s hard to get poetry out there on a mass scale.
You have a new album titled Black Sheep of the Fold that is a compilation of the best tracks from your solo career. Is that the intention of the album? Is this a “greatest hits” by Kevin Max kinda thing, or was there another reason to put this project together?
I'd hate to call it a "greatest hits," but it is a collection album. I put together these songs for the Jesus Freak Cruise. I figured it would be great to have something that’s brand new. I make new albums all the time, but I feel like most of the fans of dc Talk don’t even know what I’ve done since 2001. So I decided to give them a project where they can hear what I’ve done from 2001 to 2019. It is available at kevinmax.com in a disc version right now and people will be able to grab it at my live shows now. We will do vinyl at some point. Black Sheep Of The Fold really was just me being able to do something cool for this past cruise and then the subsequent shows that I’m doing this year. I’m doing about 50 shows this year towards the end of December. So, if people want to know what Kevin Max has done since his first solo album, it’s a little bit of an overview.
What’s the meaning behind your self-nomenclature as a “black sheep?” I know that you have been a bit of an outlier in the Christian music industry. Is that the main reference?
Well, I mean, it’s pretty obvious (laughs). I’ve been many things, but definitely an outlier, definitely a misfit. I think my music speaks for itself. Anybody that goes in and investigates what I’ve done since Stereotype Be–and even going back before that with At The Foot of Heaven which was my first poetry book released in 1994–its very different than what dc Talk was putting out. I’ve always felt like I was kind of an outlier or a misfit or someone who didn’t fit within the system. I still am (laughs). I mean, I’m an outlier because I really don’t fit a genre; I really don’t have a brand. And that’s the thing that a lot of people have a hard time with. Even my Dad has a hard time with that. My Dad’s like, “Why don’t you just brand yourself? Why don’t you make the same records over and over again so that you brand yourself?” And I’m like, “Because that’s the opposite of what I want to do; it’s the opposite of what I think is cool.” When you become formulaic or robotic, you’ve lost the magic of creating music, in my opinion.
You were a vocalist in the band dc Talk, which is arguably the greatest Christian rock band of all-time. Other than the Newsboys and Jars of Clay, I can’t think of another band that made such a cross-over impact in the 90s era. Going from being the most celebrated artist in CCM to an outcast of the industry, what have you learned along the way?
Oh man, there’s so much. I feel like the industry hasn't changed, even though it has changed because of the internet and digital streaming. It really comes down to supply and demand. What are people wanting to listen to and how we, as artists, creating something that’s pure, something that we’re inspired by, that will get people to listen and relate to it? It’s become more formulaic. Music has become such a commodity now that certain companies have seen, “Oh, this really sells well.” They’ve really influenced the way people make music. I’m talking about companies that sell the product. Radio is the number one problem they have a formula and they’re going to play that formula over and over and over again. They’re not going to take any chances, because they know what works. So, why try to change something that really works? And then it goes down to the people who really listen to those stations who want it over and over again. It really comes down to the people being able to say, “I don’t want to hear this one more time. I want to hear something I’ve never heard before.”
Much of the current Christian music industry seems to have adapted to the modern worship genre inspired by Chris Tomlin and Hillsong UNITED. The “rock” artists often get overlooked for worship bands. Why do you think this shift away from rock has happened during the past couple of decades?
Again, we’re going back to what people are fed and what people want. You have some of these alternative fringe bands that are really making some interesting, creative music, but they’ve got thirty people at their show because nobody knows who they are. So, it’s very hard for that band to continue and survive. And that’s why they all die on the vine because they can’t make a living at it. You’re not going to make much money off Spotify and you’re not going to make much money off YouTube. Really, as an artist, you’re forced to find a way to make money on the road, etc.
My favorite album you’ve come out with in the last decade is Romeo Drive, particularly as a big Depeche Mode fan. What inspired you to do the album? That was so different than what you’ve done before.
Kevin: Well, to be honest, Romeo Drive was a series of demos I created in my studio by myself. I have a friend who is a really great synth player and we had done a few things together about four years ago. We did a few songs together as an exclusive on my record Broken Temples. We did a Gary Newman cover, a Joy Division cover, and I spoke a poem and we put those out as bonus tracks. Since “Playing Games With The Shadow,” I really got into synth music again. For whatever reason, it really inspired me again, so I went back into listening to all the stuff I listened to in high school and college and everything that inspired me back then from a synth standpoint and created a lot of songs. The stuff that came out of Romeo Drive were songs that I did with my friend from a band called Service Unicorn. He and his brother are keyboardists, so I sent them my demos and was like, “Hey, what if you take these demos and you do your thing on it?” They’re analog synth players and it has a very specific sound, so in a way, Romeo Drive is 50% their sound, which is really cool. I came up with the idea of Romeo Drive by writing a poem and I fleshed it out into a two to three-page synopsis of a robot searching for a soul. That’s where the music came from and that’s where the lyrics came from.
Is that inspired in any way by Blade Runner?
Probably subconsciously, but not specifically. It’s not really inspired by anything other than me just coming up with a crazy idea. I wasn’t thinking of one book or one album when I created it. It definitely was coming from poetry.
You’re now living in Nashville but you were living in Los Angeles for a couple of years. So, what took you back to Nashville?
Really, it was a lot of different things. I had gotten remarried. We had moved out to Las Vegas for a little bit, actually, after living in Los Angeles. Tried living the family life in Las Vegas because a friend of mine wanted us to buy a home that he had there and then, through trial and error, realized we didn’t like Las Vegas at all. So, we had the decision to go back to Los Angeles or go back to Nashville. I just felt like Nashville had more opportunities for me, musically. I liked Los Angeles better as a city. More creative. But musically, it was kind of stale. I did probably over 20 residencies at Viper Room alone. After you’ve played the Sunset Strip so many times, it’s kinda like, ya know. There are so many great clubs in LA and I’ve played a lot of them. I didn’t feel it was any different than being anywhere else in the States as a musician. So, then I was like, “But Nashville has so many people I know as far as producers and players.” I have a lot of friends in Nashville; it felt right to us, ya know?
Amanda and I had our first child, London, in Los Angeles. When we had London, it changed things for us in LA. Because when you have a kid (and then we got pregnant again) it’s like, “Huh. Are we gonna bring up these kids here?" We were actually living in Beverly Hills (laughs). I know it sounds really posh, but it’s not. And I’m like, “Are we going to bring up kids in Beverly Hills?” It’s just weird.
So, moving back to Nashville just grounded me again. I think LA is great for the creative soul because it’s so bizarre, but Nashville grounded me. It got me back into creating with friends. Strangely enough, I’m back to being myself again (laughs)…Or being by myself again. I did a lot of collaborations with people when I first came back into town. Now, I’m very much making records on my own again and that’s great. And I’m sure I’ll do more collaborations in the future, but I use mainly one guy right now to help me to produce my stuff. His name is John Mark Painter. He’s in a band called Fleming and John. He’s a really good friend of mine; probably one of my favorite musicians in town. The only other guy I know who’s a bigger New Wave music fan than I am. So, that’s something too.
So, as a solo artist, what are your plans? Do you have any albums coming out in the next year or two?
Absolutely, man. I’m Kevin Max. That’s what I do. I can’t stop.
I know you’ve put out 16 in the past 18 years now. Incredible.
Yeah, I can’t stop. It’s like, there are artists out there that want to be on the road and want to be in front of a crowd. That’s not me. I’ve been there, done that. I’d much rather be in the studio creating and that’s really what inspires me. It’s not to say that I don’t enjoy getting on the road here and there. It’s really in spurts for me where I go out spontaneously and am like, “Man, I want to go out on the road for like 20 to 30 shows.” Then I’m back and I’m like, “I want to make a record.”
For me, the real creativity, or real experimentation, is in creating the music. And once you’ve created the music, it’s done. I’m kind of like one of these couture designers who make this crazy dress and they’re onto the next thing. But everybody in the fashion industry wants them to create the same thing over and over and over again. But the real designers are the people who are insatiable. They have an insatiable hunger for creating and it doesn’t slow down.
So, for me, I want to make another poetry book, I’ve got two albums that are already done, ready to come out. I just don’t want to over saturate my tiny marketplace by putting out too many records and people are like, “Oh my gosh, I can’t keep up with this guy.” Because I don’t have a huge audience. If I was Lady Gaga, then I’d be fine to put out 2-3 albums a year.
You’re a big fan of fashion, Game of Thrones, and Lord of The Rings. With GoT ending, what’s your next thing as far as hobbies are concerned?
I love good cinema. I’m very fortunate to have a lot of friends in that market and I talk to them a lot about what’s coming out and what’s happening. I’m always intrigued with good cinema. TV-wise, Chernobyl was probably the coolest thing I’ve seen on HBO in a long time. I love the fantasy genre. But it’s also like, you can only have so much chain mail and dragons and then you need something else.
If you could share the stage with one artist (dead or alive) for a concert, who would you pick?
Dead or alive? Wow. So, I can resurrect them. Wow. That’s a vast question. Honestly, this is gonna sound a little strange, but I think I’d love to be able to be on stage with T. Rex. I’ve been listening to his music a lot recently and it’s very British; it’s pretty rock. But it had this swagger to it that’s just was really great. I mean, obviously I’m a fan of Bowie, so Bowie would be one. The Beatles would be one, of course. And of course The Smiths. Larry Norman is not only one of my favorites, but my friend–that’s the newest project I’m doing right now. It’s called Revisiting This Planet. I’m covering the album start-to-finish. Working on it with his son, Mike Norman and one of his friends, Alan Fleming, who is an author.
On your album AWOL I picked up a little bit of a Morrisey vibe and a little bit of The Cure.
I’m nowhere near as good as those guys. Anybody can go out and make a record that sounds just like somebody else. But to do it in a way that is reminiscent, but is not ripping it off, that’s a fine line. I count it a huge honor that people hear that. I was kind of shameless because I'm a huge Smiths fan. I know they’re not going to get back together because Morrisey is too much of a crazy person. He is literally insane. I love Morrisey as an artist, but he is insane because Johnny Marr is literally the best guitarist on the planet and he has this opportunity to align the clans and bring back the coolest alternative band ever in the history of England, but he’s just too into himself. It’s sad.
Kevin, it’s been an absolute pleasure. I can’t wait to get a copy of the new compilation album and am looking forward from what you have in store for your fans in the future!