Chris Maxwell: The Grand Opening
Despite the COVID-19 lockdown, the former Gunbunnies/Skeleton Key guitarist’s New Store No. 2 is up and running
As a fan of NYC art rockers Skeleton Key, guitarist Chris Maxwell has been a man on my radar for 25 years.
However, after the Arkansas-born musician left the group shortly following the release of their 1997 LP Fantastic Spikes Through Balloon, Maxwell shifted his focus on composing music for film and television as one half of The Elegant Too with partner Phil Hernandez. Together, they have created themes and cues for such renowned programs as Bob’s Burgers, Anthony Bourdain’s No Reservations, and Inside Amy Schumer and movies like Hot Fuzz and the Oscar winning Silver Linings Playbook.
Yet in 2016, Maxwell returned to his career as a recording artist with Arkansas Summer, a bold and beautiful left turn from the jagged scrapyard rock of Skeleton Key and the underrated alt-pop of his early 90s group The Gunbunnies, whose 1991 debut Paw Paw Patch is a must-hear for anyone in a World Party/Trip Shakespeare/Amy Rigby kick like I’m on lately.
His excellent new album New Store No. 2 continues to reintroduce Maxwell in a more, um, elegant light from his 120 Minutes days. What makes anything this man touches such essential listening is just how much he understands the fundamentals of pop songwriting in a way that really should place him in the same conversation as Alex Chilton, Andy Partridge and Elvis Costello if more of his champions were hired to write for the big music magazines back in the day.
But at the same time, those who may have picked up on Maxwell because of the Bob’s Burgers theme are experiencing something of a renaissance for Chris as he continues to return to his role as a recording artist. And New Store No. 2 is an incredible furtherance of developing his voice as his own act on these new songs, cut at Goat House studio near his home in Woodstock, New York. And where it was largely a true solo affair for Arkansas Summer, New Store No. 2 finds Maxwell going full Doug Sahm and Friends on here, joined in the studio by the likes of Cindy Cashdollar, Rachel Yamagata, Marco Benevento, Amy Helm, Zack Djanikian, Conor Kennedy, David Baron, Mark Sidgwick, Jay Collins, Aaron Johnston, Jesse Murphy, Cheme Gastelum, and Larry Grenadier, among others, along with longtime collaborator Ambrosia Parsley.
We caught up with Maxwell shortly after COVID-19 lockdown began via email about the roots of New Store No. 2, which is out now.
How are you guys doing up there? What have you been doing with all this down time?
We’re doing as well as anyone during this bizarre and tragic time. Early on, we took in some city friends so we have quite the commune up here. Not usual for how people probably think of Woodstock. As far as my time, I’m doing what I’m always doing: writing music. Also, every Sunday me and my refugees do a live instagram show at 3pm. I’m talking about two great songwriters and wonderful singers, Ambrosia Parsley and Holly Miranda.
The song “New Store no. 2” is about your grandpa, right? What was it like to be an immigrant family in a state like Arkansas?
I wouldn’t want to overplay that card. I never experienced any prejudice personally and the town of Morrilton where I grew up was very fond of my grandfather. He served the community and was loved.
What kind of store did your grandpa have? Were you there a lot as a kid?
He sold mostly work clothes to the blue collar folks in the community. He was an odd man to many I’m sure. His accent was hard to understand but he had a great sense of humor. The other store keepers hung out at his place. They’d parch peanuts on the stove and sit around and talk. I was there quite a bit until he passed away in ’84.
New Store no. 2 is some of the quieter recordings you’ve crafted. What inspired the mood for these songs for you?
I’m writing and arranging everything in my studio and mostly solo; however, Jeff Lipstein who help produce and play on a lot of the record was here a lot. I wanted to recordings to feel cinematic. That felt like an honest way to approach these things—more as a composer than a guy pretending to be in a band and trying to create that energy. Sometimes it comes through like in some of the guitar playing but the subject matter and the mood and context was more important than rocking out.
You have some great collaborators on this album, but the name that most intrigues me is Larry Grenadier. How far do you go back with Larry as a friend and how much of his work as one of the great working bassists in modern jazz have you taken in through the years? Is there a particular ensemble hes been in barring the Brad Mehldau Trio that you are especially into?
The funny way that Larry became part of my music had more to do with chance that me going out and seeking him. I told my wife that I was hearing acoustic bass on a track and she mentioned one of our son’s father played acoustic bass. I said (probably in a patronizing tone) “I need someone really good”. She said, “I think he’s really good like I think he’s won grammy’s”. Ha!! I immediately asked what his name was and was floored that was who she was talking about. He came over and played amazing stuff and we hung out. Lovely guy and a testament to what it’s like to live in a place like Woodstock.
How far do you go back with Amy Helm? Did you ever get to interact with Levon at all before he passed away?
Amy and I have known each other for years. I was able to get her on a commercial job where she whistled the Globetrotter’s theme “Sweet Georgia Brown”. She made some serious dough on that and Levon would bring it up on the rare occasion I’d get to see him. Funny story was when the Last
Waltz was having it’s 25th anniversary in NYC, Levon wouldn’t go because Robbie was going to be there. Amy called me and asked if I wanted Levon’s ticket. It was incredible to see that film with Scorsese and most of the Band in the house. It was an amazing night to say the least.
How has everything been going on the composition front? Is there anything in the works beyond Bob’s Burgers?
Bob’s has a movie coming out in 2021 which is exciting. Also we just went to Sundance for a film written and directed by Josh Rueben. We, meaning me and Phil Hernandez, the other half of the Elegant Too composer team. We also work with Trevor Moore from the Whitest Kids you know and Adam Small from Mad TV. So we keep busy thankfully.
We just lost some pretty amazing people to this horrible virus. Was there one passing that hit you particularly hard? Has anyone you have worked with over the years been affected?
Hal Wilner was a tough one for me. Hal supported Phil and my thing early on. We played in his band for a Summer Stage show opening for Marianne Faithful years ago. And a lot of my friends were close to him. He called us when he needed help on an Iggy Pop track for one of his Sea Shanty records. Beautiful, musical mind.
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