INTERVIEW | Radio Friendly: A Conversation with Max Frost

Max Frost talks pop music, Quincy Jones, and his new album in this Pop Dust extended interview.

Max Frost's music exists somewhere between the worlds of radio-friendly chart toppers and alternative-indie pop. When he writes, he bounces ephemerally from style to style, never riding a specific genre for very long. His influences are so wide-ranging, that it's impossible to categorize his tunes in any meaningful. He's is a pop anomaly, pulling ideas from musicians on all ends of the spectrum, from Eminem to Ray Charles.

Frost's first taste of success came from his indie hit, White Lies, which was released in early 2013. Now, five years and several projects later, he's finally releasing his debut album, executive produced by Fitz and The Tantrums founder Michael Fitzpatrick. On top of this, in a real-life example of his eclectic taste, Frost has projects coming out with Elton John, DJ Mustard, and Whetan this spring. Considering the fact that he just released Good Morning, the first single off his new album, we figured this would be a perfect time to talk to him about his songwriting process and the state of modern pop music.

Is Max Frost your real name? That sounds too much like a famous guy's name to be real.

My legal name is Matthew Alexander Frost but I've been called Max Frost ever since I was a baby. When I was a first grader my little nametag said 'Max Frost'. The only people who call me Matthew Frost are judges, police officers, and doctors.

How did you get started in music?

I'm from Austin, Texas, which is kind of to blame for the genre mashup I come from as an artist and multi-instrumentalist. It's sort of a place where there's a lot of different genres happening. It's a very tight-knit, small musical community. I also had a hippy mother from Corpus Christie who played me a lot of great old records, which I feel like comes into play with [my] retro influences.

A multi-instrumentalist? What do you play?

I started on guitar. I play bass. I play drums. I'm a functional keyboard player. I'm not really a good keyboard player, but I'm pretty tuned up on drums, bass, and guitar.

I feel like every guitarist says they're a 'functional keyboard' player.

*Laughs* I've actually put my time in on drums, so I'm a real drummer. I'm not flashy, but my grooves are legit.

Awesome. Do you make all the beats and drum parts on your songs?

Quite a bit of it, yeah. On White Lies, I was the producer and played everything and wrote everything. I feel like I've taken things to a higher level through collaboration but I definitely like to keep the music as involved in the instrumental stuff as possible. I feel like I have my own vibe as a player rhythmically.

Do you like L.A. or do you miss Austin?

I miss a lot of things about Austin. I miss the food. Obviously, I miss my family. I miss my friends. I don't miss the weather. And, I don't miss feeling like I could be doing more with my craft. Outside of just being an artist, I want to write songs for other people. I do write songs for other people. It's my daily focus when I'm not touring. I guess I kind of woke up one day in Austin and I was like, 'I have to change the way I'm making music.' I felt like I had explored the world of eclectic pop stuff. I just woke up and thought 'I have to take this somewhere else. I have to surprise myself again.' I knew that moving to L.A. was going to be really important for that.

Since you write songs for other people, and you said that's your main focus, can you take me through your process a little bit? How regular are your writing habits?

A lot of times the writing process in L.A. is a lot like speed dating, where you're meeting a lot of different people for one session, and depending on how you vibe with them in that session, you either do more or you don't. For me, I've done a lot of that stuff and I've come to find that I've got those key people that I really work well with. I have to feel like we're writing great stuff. I have to like them as a person. I have to feel like they like what we're doing too and that they believe in the songs.

The writing process for me is always different. I feel like I've gotten better at writing songs the more I've focused on just concepts and what I want to say, rather than beats and melodies. I'm being way more conscious of trying to find a voice for a song before I even necessarily try and write a bunch of melodies and stuff. I can sometimes get lost in that clutter where it feels like I'm playing Mad Lib with a melody.

I know a lot of authors and musicians, when they talk about big projects like albums, symphonies, and books, they say stuff like 'I wasn't ready to make that yet.' Is that how you feel about this project, like you're finally ready to make an album?

Honestly, I've never consciously thought it out that way, but I think you're right. I kind of knew I hadn't developed myself into an album artist yet. This album is a totally different thing and is on another level of intention. I feel like the songs are more special. I feel like what I'm trying to do is way more honest. I guess I'm a little less afraid of being out from behind the curtain in a way. Before, I was trying to create a version of myself in those records. Now, I think I'm trying to be way more direct.

Can you speak more to the themes being discussed on it?

Well, the single Good Morning, is a little bit of an anomaly. Stylistically it isn't, but topic-wise it is. Good Morning is just the story of moving to L.A. and waking up on the first day in L.A. It was the first song I wrote when I got [there] and I was trying to [start off] on an aggressively positive note. I've got another song about going to London and chasing a girl that wasn't really worth my time. It's all these little episodic moments from my life. I can't say that there's any [one] theme.

Who were your main stylistic influences on this record?

I would say that no matter what I do for the rest of my life, The Beatles, soul music, Ray Charles, Aretha Franklin, that classic music that I've ingrained into my bones; I'll never be able to wash that off or not have that influence what I do. I guess now I've been more focused on challenging myself by saying 'how can I pull from these classic influences but in a way that feels modern?' I've never been interested in making throwback music. I'm not interested in being a retro-soul artist. Kanye's a big influence on me because I feel like he's able to take a wide range of influences and bend them into his own world. I like to listen to [musicians] that I don't think I'm going to steal from but I feel like I'm going to be inspired by, without it being plagiarism.

Speaking of influences and classic music, what did you think about Quincy Jones' interview?

I actually spent a fair amount of time one night with Quincy Jones because I used to write with an artist he sort of manages name Nikki Yanofsky, who's an amazing jazz singer. [Quincy's] such a legend and such a legend in his own mind that I'm not really sure whether or not the stuff he was saying in that interview is totally accurate. Specifically, the Ivanka Trump [stuff]. The stuff about who killed Kennedy, that's fascinating, but I'm not sure. All I can say, is that meeting Quincy woke me up to the idea that his greatness comes from the way he treats people and not just the way he treats music. I think what he was saying about the Beatles and Hendrix is definitely true. The Beatles were not fantastic musicians. They were genius songwriters. He's so cavalier in the interview he forgets to mention that they're also geniuses and that [what he means] is that they aren't playing jazz guitar or drums at the same level as the guys [he was] playing with. Anyway, I've met Quincy and he's a great dude, but there were definitely some eyebrow-raising moments in that interview.

Okay back to you. Good Morning seems like a departure from your earlier work. Why the change in direction?

Honestly, I just felt like I wasn't surprising myself anymore. I needed to reinvent [my music] into something that was a new world. To be a little hard on myself, I felt like I wasn't being fully myself. I had so many conversations with people who knew me really well as a person, who would be like 'I really like these songs but knowing you as a person, [you're] so different from the music.' But, as different as they are at the core, White Lies and Good Morning are just pop songs.

So you're looking to spill your guts a little bit?

Yeah, and I don't know. I'm gonna die. We're all gonna die. I couldn't die knowing that I had just distorted my voice and tried to find catchy melodies my whole career.

Shit. My next question feels kind of gimmicky after that response, but who would you want to collaborate with that you haven't collaborated with yet?

I saw Skylar Grey play in Venice about a month ago. I really wasn't aware of who she was before hearing her play. She did her full version, with all the verses, of Love the Way You Lie. I don't think I've been that blown away by an artist sitting, just playing her song on an instrument, in a long, long time. It almost brought tears to my eyes. It's so much purer and believable coming from her, and the song in its original form is much stronger than the pop monster it was twisted into. I would love to write songs with her.

With that in mind, would you ever want to write less pop-oriented stuff?

I want to give a simple answer to that, but here's what I'll say: the idea of pop is not a genre. The idea of pop is a song, that for some reason, something about the way that it's written and the way that it sounds, enters the human mind and memory with ease and stays there and connects to the person emotionally. Just because there's a big, house-y kickdrum or a synth, doesn't make it pop. To me, the idea of pop is not the genre of what's hip or chasing the radio. To me, Kurt Cobain wrote pop songs. Jimi Hendrix wrote pop songs. Bob Dylan wrote pop songs. Some of them weren't, but the ones that we all know, they were pop songs. It's not because they were popular in their time but because they were simple and they delivered something. Will I ever stop trying to write simple songs that connect with people? No. But, will I have songs that don't sound like singles or don't feel like they're polished to the point of being radio ready, absolutely. I think even within this album, there will be a pretty dynamic spectrum of stuff that it isn't radio friendly at all.

Matt Clibanoff is a writer and editor based in New York City who covers music, politics, sports and pop culture. His editorial work can be found in Pop Dust, The Liberty Project, and All Things Go. His fiction has been published in Forth Magazine. Website: Twitter: @mattclibanoff