Los Angeles-based trio Max Ox is a hard band to describe. After forming and recording their first EP, Your Drunken Soundtrack last year, they can be found playing anywhere from prestigious L.A. jazz venues like The Blue Whale to raging house parties in South Los Angeles. Comprising of Jacob Mann on keyboard, Corbin Jones on bass, and Ryan McDiarmid on drums, the group combines influences of jazz, funk, fusion, and everything else you can think of. All three of them are products of USC’s Thorton School of Music, which comes across in their playing. The whole band is at an extremely high level technically, and the listener can instantly recognize their musicianship. What makes them unique is their ability to combine elements of dance music with jazz, all wrapped up in synthesizers and grooves reminiscent of the music from the Wii. The one definite descriptor for their music is fun. The whole album is a blast, and after sitting down with them on a Friday morning in Culver City I could see why; they were joking, laughing, and genuinely having fun the whole time. Max Ox’s EP can be found on their Bandcamp, and their Facebook can show you several upcoming shows.
CONTEMPORISTE: So where did the name Max Ox come from?
CJ: Man, It’s not cool, I mean I guess we decided on it, but literally they said, “What’s your band name?” and Ryan saw a sign that said maximum occupancy 200, and he said Maximum Occupancy.
JM: Our first show, basically how it started was Corbin works for the radio station at USC and from time to time they do this KXSC live show where a band comes in to play at Tommy’s Place, a venue on campus, and they stream it on KXSC, and I guess they asked Corbin, “Do you wanna put together a band?”
CJ: Because the band that was supposed to do it canceled the day before.
JM: Yeah, and the three of us had gotten together and just jammed acoustically; upright, piano and drums, and so Corbin hit us up: “Do you wanna just play. . . on the radio?”. I had just borrowed this Juno-60 from my friend. We basically just played for 45 minutes, we just did a set kind of free, and no one showed up obviously because it was a day in advance. It was meant to be a radio live show, so we were playing to this big empty room, and they wanted to call the band Maximum Occupancy, and then it just turned into Max Ox.
So coming from a sort of free jam session, how did you go about putting together an album?
RMD: Well, we ended up getting a recording of the show, and they asked us to play a party afterwards. So we ended up grabbing some ideas from the recording of the initial set, and just hung out in a room one day until we developed them into songs.
RMD: Some of those are on the record, and some of the record are tunes we brought in.
JM: A lot of times someone will bring in an idea and we’ll all put our two cents into what should happen. It’s very cool.
Where did the idea or inspiration of combining jazz and EDM elements come from?
RMD: Yeah we never talked about that. It came out of us playing a lot of house parties. I don’t think anyone had heard our music sober until we recorded the album, hence the name. So yeah, people just like the four on the floor when they’re drunk. I’m also impressed by the people that listen to our album, because we didn’t know how people react and a lot of it is sort of straightforward groove-wise, but some of it is really different and people really dig on it, and I think that says a lot about the audience in L.A., too. Who knows how this music would’ve went over if we were from Fargo? I guess L.A. has allowed us to take a little risk in terms of putting out a first album. Lately this plethora of bands and artists that are combining styles in a really interesting way–like Thundercat, Flying Lotus, Moonchild, Kneebody, and now you guys–have been coming out of Los Angeles.
What is it about about L.A., do you think, fosters this kind of artist?
JM: L.A. is just kind of a melting pot, I think our record is kind of melting pot of sounds, and L.A is just kind of a melting pot of music. We can go out one night and check out Low End Theory, and then the next night go to the Blue Whale, and then the next night my friend will see bluegrass at Largo, and there’s just so much happening.
It’s hard to get trapped in a box when you’re living in L.A You were talking about college, you guys were all jazz majors at USC, right?
CJ (joking): We all switched to pop (laughs)
How do you think your time there has influenced or helped you?
JM: It’s been great, it’s exposed us to lots of styles of music, that might not have happened at other places, because USC has a separate studio guitar department, a separate pop department, and everyone’s forming these different bands of different styles and going to everyone else’s shows.
RMD: Just the act of putting all these musicians in one building is probably the biggest part of how we formed. You know, where I came from, there weren’t many musicians in my city, so just being able to play with people is really cool, so I’d say that. . . that’s the number one thing for me at least.
CJ: Yeah, if you could put “i.e.,” and then an example, our roommate Brian Jones, who’s a great bass player in the pop department–I was shedding Louis Johnson slap stuff with him and some of that is kind of on the record, and I don’t think that would’ve happened if I had gone to an only jazz conservatory or something like that.
Who are some of your personal influences that you brought into the record?
JM: I think that’s part of the sound of the band, that we all have very different influences.
RMD: In relation to this album, I would say the construction of the drum grooves was a sort of composite of music I was introduced to while living in Los Angeles. I heard Nate Wood for the first time (in college), and that really messed me up, I really love Nate’s playing. I’d say a lot of that sneaks in to the Max Ox stuff…also, because we still play a lot of parties I’d say the influence of rock and pop drumming comes in a bit more than the jazz guys I listen to. I really like Yogi Horton and Bernard Purdie.
JM: Vijay Iyer? (to Ryan)
RMD: Oh yeah, I really like Marcus Gilmore.
JM: For me it’s all about Flying Lotus, Thundercat; I love Moonchild, I love Knower.
Corbin: I think bass players . . . I can’t think of bands that I like, maybe Snarky Puppy or Kneebody or something like that, but I can’t think of bands that I was consciously thinking of when we did the album. But bass players I was definitely trying to emulate are Kaveh or Mike League, or Pino, and then I definitely heard Stevie and Michael bass lines in my head.
For Jacob specifically, I wanna talk about your synthesizer sounds. That’s a defining part of the album.
JM: So I told you I had borrowed this synth, a Juno-60, from a friend and so-
CJ: What year is it?
JM: I have no idea, it has little stickers on it like A B C because my friend’s dad had it from the 80’s and it’s what he learned piano on. So part of an old synth is there being some things that don’t really work, like the pitch bend stick broke off, so I just kinda wiggle it, and also you can’t save sounds. I spent hours looking up how to save sounds, and I looked on the manual and it just didn’t work. So it’s old and it can’t save sounds, but I love it, and so from there I learned to change the sound during live performance, to what the mood sees fit.
RMD: Even in the recording he’s changing it a lot.
CJ: I like that better than if you had saved sounds.
RMD: Within the first minute of the first track there’s already an evolution of the synth sound, and that comes across really well live.
JM: I’ll try to come up with sounds to match the mood of the track. There are two tracks that have presets on the synth, Teen Pop is the piano setting, and Penguin Time is also a preset that actually inspired the tune, and lately I’ve been going through the presets just because they’re so wacky and just trying to use that as yet another point of inspiration for composing, or creating a new sound on the synth. But really it’s about trying to find something that matches the vibe. Like if they’re playing a groove, I’ll try to find a sound that matches
RMD: Sometimes for hours.
JM: Yeah, I was never really into sound programming until I got this fun toy that I could just start messing with.
CJ: And the drums too, Ryan is really aware of acoustics, which is something I always dug, like changing cymbals or putting things on top of other things, and I think that’s dope in an age when people just hit a drum and then afterwards change the sound in a computer. I think it’s dope to have that live.
As you said you guys do a lot of parties and dance stuff, do you feel sort of obligated to take the role of a DJ and feel out the crowd and let that influence a majority of your live musical decisions?
RMD: Yeah, I’d say in almost any live situation there’s that element of reacting to the audience’s energy, we’ve definitely played songs where we just vamp and feel them for where we wanna take it, based on how they’ve reacted to other stuff. You sorta keep a mental checklist I guess, We do a lot of covers live.
JM: Especially like a house parties and stuff, we’ll play various covers or mashups, like Flylo mixed with Suit and Tie. That one is super weird.
JM: You know at the end of that tune “The Night Crawler” from Until the Quiet Comes? We’ll do that vamp mixed with Justin Timberlake, and then we’ll do like “Rock with You” or “I Wish”, stuff like that. Most recently we covered “Prototype,” the Outkast song, and the Hey Arnold! theme song. And the synth sound, and the covers, and the album title, it’s definitely a more lighthearted kind of experience, kind of humorous, this other guy was writing about how the synth sounds were comical or something. I think people kinda gravitate towards that.
Why do you think your instrumental album captures young people more than so many other groups?
CJ: I remember wondering, when are people gonna listen to this?
RMD: Oh Yeah! We finished the album and were listening to it and were like, “Is anyone gonna listen to this?”
CJ: Is there an appropriate time to listen to this?
RMD: I wouldn’t wake up first thing in the morning and put this on. But, yeah, I guess people have been listening to it. One thing is, I went to the Echoplex recently and saw Bad Bad Not Good and I was amazed that it was sold out.
JM: It was full.
RMD: Oh, right, you were there too. It was a sold-out trio, playing instrumental music that was heavily based on improv and grooves, and people loved it, they knew all the songs and were going crazy. So that was super inspiring.
JM: It’s great that young people are into it, because we’re young people and like–
RMD: (joking) Old people wouldn’t listen to it. JM: I don’t know, I feel like the nature of growing older is becoming more settled in your beliefs.
RMD: Just like edit out things, you have all these things floating around when you’re young and you grab onto some but as you get older you focus on more of those that help you define yourself.
JM: But yeah most of our shows… I don’t think there’s ever been anyone over 30 at one of our shows.
You play a lot of house parties, so I don’t think too many people over 30 are gonna be at those?
JM: Yeah, we played a couple shows, we did the Blue Whale.
RMD: I bet you there were some people over 30 at the Blue Whale . . . Oh, it was so funny, as Purple Crayon was playing some guy walked in and was like, “Is there gonna be jazz here tonight?” and the owner said, “Yeah, yeah, this is a jazz club,” and I knew we were about to play next, and I was thinking, “You’re not gonna hear jazz, man. Not what you think jazz is at least.” Do you consider what you guys do to be jazz?
JM: Yeah, we were trying to think of a genre to put on the album, and I felt like jazz is the best definer if you only had to pick one.
JM: I feel like it’s a pretty big umbrella, like we wouldn’t call the record R&B, we couldn’t really call it funk.
RMD: People have a really hard time with not being able to label something, like in the movie Birdman. There’s one point where the main character is arguing with a critic, and he says something along the lines of, “You’re just a labeler, you just label things, and that’s all they are to you,” and he pulls out a dandelion or something and says, “What is this? In your mind it’s just a thing, you just label it, you don’t see the essence of it.” And I think that’s really true, people have a hard time, because we’re built to categorize things to make sense of our universe. It’s kinda hard to categorize us because we’re so inclusive. You might exclude a certain group as an influence by calling it this or that. We’re definitely not about to get in the debate of what is jazz, but, yeah, assigning the record a genre was a hard decision…all I was saying about that dude in the Blue Whale is that he was the kinda guy that thought jazz was just ‘spang-a-lang’, you know?
CJ: Yeah, jazz doesn’t equal swing.
JM: But we all love straight-ahead jazz. Especially when Ryan throws on his cowboy hat for Bruce Forman [See Cowbop].
RMD: Yeah, we used to play acoustic trio, and on your [Jacob’s] recital we did acoustic trio, and personally, I listen to more straight-ahead stuff than anything else right now.
JM: If I was gonna do a straight-ahead jazz trio, I would probably hit up the same people, just because there’s already chemistry. It doesn’t really matter what style of music.
Even if they’re just pipe dreams at the moment, do you have any ideas for a doing a project with an expanded personnel?
RMD: Some of my favorite bands tour with a live videographer, who actually operates a projector and constructs all the projections on the tour bus, so that’d be really cool. Being that it’s just three people playing instruments there’s not a whole lot to look at while we’re playing. If you like watching hands move then that’s cool but, yeah, I’ve always dreamed of playing in a band with live projections, and that’s also an element that will influence the music every night. You can change the mood of an image based on the music, and then, say, we do that image on a different song; it can completely alter the meaning of that image. There’s this band called Godspeed You! Black Emporer that tours with a videographer, and they’re just incredible to see live.
You can catch Max Ox on Thursday, January 22, at Nature’s Brew.