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The Exotic World of Max Devereaux

Dec. 20, 2016
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Photo Credit Michael Sodnik

Not a lot of people are listening to Max Devereaux’s albums, but he keeps releasing them anyway. He’s not alone in that situation, of course. Every week countless artists post their music online, dreaming that it’ll find an audience, and the vast majority don’t. Devereaux stands out, though, not only because his music is cleverer and more interesting than most, but also because of the sheer volume of it. His latest release, Oh Max, is his fifth album of 2016, and he has every intention of keeping them coming in 2017.

“Maybe I need to invest in a publicist or something; I don’t know what the deal is,” the Milwaukee songwriter says, pondering his relative obscurity. “I’m just waiting for one of these albums to take off. I figure if I keep doing the same thing over and over again at some point it’s going to work. Is that the definition of insanity?” 

It’s not like Devereaux’s albums are quickie, lo-fi home recordings—not most of them, anyway. Like his best releases, Oh Max is lush and lovingly orchestrated, brimming with horns and woodwinds and backup singers. And the record came at some considerable personal expense. After his bosses caught him working on the album while on the clock at his day job at the Potawatomi Hotel & Casino, he quit to devote himself to finishing it. “It was a good job, too,” Devereaux says, “but I decided to do the irresponsible thing and pursue the music.” He eventually completed the album at Justin Vernon’s April Base studio in Eau Claire, thanks to a fortuitous connection: His brother Nelson, whose saxophones are all over the album, also plays with Vernon in Bon Iver.

So why put so much effort into making albums this decadent if hardly anybody’s hearing them? Devereaux has a ready answer to that question: because they’re an absolute blast to record. 

“I’ve had a great deal of fun doing this,” Devereaux says. “I’ve made so many friends doing it, and I’ve gotten so many of my friends involved. That’s been the best part of everything: how much fun it is to make music, to make art. That’s a key thing with this album: It’s just really, really fun.”

Much of that fun comes from the sense that Devereaux’s woozy, eccentric pop is completely unbound by any kind of restrictions—it doesn’t seem to play by the rules of any one genre, or, for that matter, any real rules at all.  “I have a lot of records, and I’ve always liked the idea of all those records being played at once but somehow them sounding OK together,” he says. “You put an exotica record next to a country-western record and a really hard free-jazz album and see how it goes together. That’s the kind of blending I like to do. I feel like it messes with people’s minds.”

Exotica—the kitschy, 1950s imagining of world music that had absolutely no basis in what actual world music sounded like—looms especially large over Oh Max. There’s a kind of freedom in the genre, Devereaux explains. “It knows it’s a joke,” he says. “It almost breaks the musical fourth wall in a way, and I like the idea that it can be almost anything. It knows it’s cheesy, and it knows it’s ridiculous, but it uses that to its advantage to create this entirely new experience for the listener.”

And that’s the balance Devereaux pulls off on Oh Max. There are moments when he’s clearly just fucking around—“Stupid” piles on to its sock-hop saxophones with a blaring air horn—but mostly the record feels like an adventure, a sincere celebration of embracing the unknown. When he sings “There must be more to life than trying to survive” with gusto on “Alive,” it certainly doesn’t feel like a joke.

“The qualities of being genuine and disingenuous, I’ve always felt like they were inseparable to me,” Devereaux says. “It’s always hard for me to tell which is which. I’m so invested in the act of creating to pay attention to whether something seems sincere or not.”

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