Max Bernstein is a veteran to the modern music industry. He toured the country front the alternative rock group The Actual (who still gets frequent plays at my place). After The Actual disbanded, Max spent time playing guitar in Scott Weiland’s (solo group) band. These days he’s the touring musical director and live guitar player for Ke$ha , as well as writing for his own politically driven rock band, Max and the Marginalized. I think students will appreciate his insight on what it takes to be a true professional musician!
What musical projects do you have currently, that you’d call active?
Besides Ke$ha which is off the road for a few months, my band Max and the Marginalized is semi-active playing shows here and there, and a Jawbreaker tribute band which is tons of fun. The thing I’m spending the most time on at the moment is writing country songs that my co-writer and I intend to pitch into the Nashville machine and see what happens.
Is guitar your primary instrument?
How long have you been playing guitar?
Since I was 5, so… 27 years. Ugh.
Did you take any lessons growing up? (guitar or other)
Yes, until I was 16, and I started taking lessons again about a year ago from 2 teachers — Doug Rappaport (Edgar Winter Band) who is one of the best rock lead players I’ve ever heard and John Zeigler (Volto, Pygmy Love Circus) who’s kind of a fusion guy but is really all over the place and is one of the great thinkers about guitar.
What impact did that have on you as a musician?
Well I think that taking lessons young forced me to learn things in the right order, i.e. I was a very solid rhythm guitar player before even trying to play lead. I actually spend very little time focused on lead playing until very recently and I of course wish I had spent the 1990s shredding in my room but it was the 1990s and that wasn’t a very popular thing to do. Still, I think that lessons gave me a strong background in theory and a good ear, and the ability to play what’s appropriate for the song. Sometimes I see guys who can play Yngwie Malmsteen licks but can’t make it through a Tom Petty song and lessons gave me a structure that kept me from going down that road.
What other instruments do you play?
I can hack on drums and keys.
Do you have an understand of scales and music theory?
— How does that impact your songwriting?
Yes, I have a pretty thorough understanding of theory. I think it impacts the way I listen to music which therefore impacts the way I write it — I listen to what’s going on harmonically much more than what’s going on sonically, so I can usually pull out harmonic and melodic ideas that are little musical stamps of songs/writers/bands that I like which for lack of a better way of putting it makes it able for me to rip them off. I think a lot of people if they want to do something that sounds like say, Jimmy Eat World will think heavily overdriven guitars, simple hard beat, etc. where I’ll think no full triads, stacks of 2nds and 4ths in the background vocals and the chords. Some people hear country and think telecaster, pedal steel where I’ll think more about building around the mixolydian mode with a minor third thrown in. That stuff is pretty second nature to me at this point.
Do you still practice instruments, beyond when you’re writing for your bands?
Yes. Since I decided a couple years back that I wanted to be a real lead player I have a lot of catching up to do so I practice for a few hours daily.
Do you still attempt to push forward by learning new instruments or applications?
Yes, I’m trying to become a passable synth/keys player and work on building synth sounds, programming, etc.
Do you have have a method for songwriting? How does it usually happen?
– Prefer bringing a skeleton to practice, or build as a collaboration
Sometimes I write alone, sometimes with others, but I always have a title, some of the chorus, and an idea of what the song is about going in. That sort of “arrives” all at once. If it’s good then I fill in the blanks.
You’ve been a hired a gun musician for ke$ha for a while now.
I think a lot of students would appreciate a little insight as to how you landed a gig like that.
After The Actual broke up I went and got a grown up job working in politics and started Max and the Marginalized, a very wonky political punk band focused on current issues. I love that band, but we were not able to tour enough to really have a go of it. I was sick of my job (even though I love politics) and decided I just wanted to be playing so I quit and set my sights on finding a gig. I got in touch with everyone I knew who ever hears about anything and told them I was looking and started basically making a full time job out of finding a gig and auditions started coming my way. I tried out for a couple things in bands I was quite familiar with and liked — Eve 6 and Kill Hannah namely. I didn’t get them; I was devastated to not get Eve 6 ’cause I love them! Then I got an email forwarded to me — it actually came twice in the same day, once from The Actual’s old manager and once from my next-door neighbor who tour managed Soul Asylum at the time that said “new pop act signed to RCA looking for guitar player based in LA”, very little other info. I responded, sent me Ke$ha’s songs (this was before Tik Tok came out so she was mostly unknown) and they had me come down to audition. I made sure to audition as early as possible. I had tried out for other things late in the audition day before and everyone is zoned out and tired. I think they want to find the right guy quickly and they commit their minds to that person and then everyone after is up against them, so to speak. I read something that Randy Jackson of all people wrote about auditioning that said “try to go first if you can” and this really matched my experience. Anwyay, when they called and said we’re holding auditions all day Thursday September whatever, I said “as early as possible is best for me” and her manager said “great, you’re first at 1pm.” I went down, played four songs along with the DJ while Ke$ha and her manager watched, and had a nice 5 minute chat with Ke$ha and we got along right away; I left feeling like I was the man to beat rather than an I-hope-the-next-guy-is-better candidate. I got a call two days later to come down for a second audition which was really just a full day of rehearsal. At the end of the day me, her, the DJ and the dancer/keytar player were hanging out and she was asking questions about if I’d be willing to grow a beard or do this-and-that with my hair and I said “if I have the gig, which I think I do…” and she was like “yeah you got it, you’re in”. Our first show was in LA two weeks later and then we went to Europe a week after that. Then Tik Tok was in the Top 100, then the Top 10, then #1. It’s been fun as hell and very musically challenging and rewarding. Very lucky I get to do it, and which such great people too.
Is your role limited to just live performing?
That’s a lot of it but I’m her co-musical director and the only MD when we’re on the road so I handle a lot of new arrangements of songs, preparation of playback tracks (there are percussion, fx and a couple other ear candy tracks that accompany us), and I do the final mixes of most pre-taped TV performances that we do.
What comprises an average day when you’re on tour with ke$ha, vs M&TM?
Well, the biggest difference is that I’m not sleeping in a van. I wake up on the bus, drink a lot of coffee, and usually practice guitar for a couple hours unless I have to do some programming for the show. Then we soundcheck around 5:30, eat some dinner, spend about an hour with makeup and wardrobe and then we rock!
What does your ke$ha rig look like?
On the last tour cycle I used my Guyton Fv/100 head into a Bogner 4×12, along with a pedalboard with a Line6 M13, WMD Geiger Counter, Boss DD-20 delay, Visual Sound Jekyll and Hyde which I use for the TS-808 clone, Boss Phase Shifter permantly on the “step” setting which is like an incremental phaser, very weird sounding, lots of other nonsense. I have a programmable pedal switcher made by G-Labs that can switch the M13 and my amp channel all at once so I just have presets for songs/parts because there’s a spot in the show where I have 3 seconds between two songs to hit 4 pedals and a footswitch. It saved my ass. That said, I’m planning on going out with something simpler next time, probably just my Vox AC/30, an 80s Boss DS-1 one 3 or 4 other pedals. We’ll see. For guitars, my main 2 are a 91 White Les Paul studio that my mom got me for my 12th birthday. I played it at the first gig I ever played when I was 13, and I played it at the Staples Center too. I think that’s pretty neat. The other is a J Mascis model Fender Jazzmaster.
How about the Max and the Marginalized rig?
1967 Epiphone Riviera with a TS9 into a Vox AC30. Quite different.
Does gear impact your songwriting / performing?
Not particularly on writing, but performing yes because I do quite a lot of work to make the guitar sound like a crazy overdriven synth.
Any advice for students interested in becoming a hired performer?
I could probably go on and on but more than anything, just be yourself. I’ve been on the other side of this now — I’ve had to manage the audition process for other musicians in the band and choose the final candidates for Ke$ha to choose from and this really stuck with me. We were adding a backup singer and someone suggested a young lady who lived on the East Coast and sent us YouTube links to her singing. There were all these great videos of her in a T-shirt and jeans singing pop covers while playing piano in her room and they were fucking awesome. We asked her to submit an audition video – we were really excited — and she sent us videos of her singing the Ke$ha songs wearing a blonde wig, ripped stockings and a pound of makeup and dancing around awkwardly. If she had sent in a video of her sitting in a chair singing the songs she may have gotten the gig. This happened with a drummer too. Anyways, the girl that did get the gig merely delivered a great charismatic vocal performance into a webcam with no other bullshit and was on a plane to LA 3 days later. I’m glad it worked out that way because she’s a great singer and now a great friend but the point is that if you try out for something and present yourself honestly, people will respect that and know that you’re probably willing to do what the gig requires. A manufactured version of yourself will just come off manufactured.
You’ve spent years as a touring musician at this point.
Any advice for life on the road?
Eat the thing that’s the thing to eat in the town you’re in as often as possible.
Any advice for students who are trying to find success in the music industry?
Start a band, buy a van, and go on tour. the 7 years I spent playing to half-empty tiny rooms made me the musician I am, and are some of the most meaningful personal experiences I’ve ever had. I’d never be able to cut it in a big gig if I didn’t have the experience I had in The Actual, and I would’ve really missed out on something.
What are your thoughts on the state of the music industry, and what the future holds?
If I knew I’d be a millionaire.
Any other misc things to add?
Practice standing up. Always.