Jerry Garcia once said, “The rest of the band will follow me down any dark alley. Sometimes there’s a light at the end of the alley, and sometimes there is a black hole. The point is, you don’t get an adventure in music unless you’re willing to take chances.”
Although comparisons to the Grateful Dead have stuck with Connecticut based band Max Creek for years, taking chances is what has kept this legendary Northeast band playing intense risk taking music for over thirty years: a truly remarkable achievement in today’s music environment. “Creek”, as they are referred to by their legions of loyal fans, produce an engulfing sound that provides their audience a sense of community and release that other avenues in life simply cannot provide. They have remarkably refused to fall prey to trends in pop culture and musical styles, and in doing so remained loyal to their beliefs and purpose of providing a “cominghome party” for themselves and their fans. The Max Creek sound is hard to describe, as it is a constant blend of everything honest, deep and respectable: woven within various genres of music. Although they have never commercially hit the big time, the band has been a success in everyother meaning of the word, as they continue to travel further down the special road of reciprocal energy they have paved for their community.
While picking up the paper, you’ve probably seen Max Creek listed under upcoming shows at your local club or theater. While your eyes might skip down until you see a more trendy act, it’s about time your eyes and ears gave a second stop to Max Creek. The success and sound of improvisational bands like Phish, moe., Blues Traveler and the Disco Biscuits are the trees in Max Creek’s seeds of a thriving Northeast music scene that encourages live risk taking on stage and playing according to the feel of the present moment. While the Grateful Dead were playing large arenas, Max Creek helped define the live two set improvisational music concert experience within the smaller club setting. As many bands play for an hour and a half, or even two hours, Max Creek will play their hearts out for at least three hours per show, and send you back with more than your money’s worth of music. Recently, I had the unique opportunity to sit down with Max Creek keyboardist Mark Mercier and drummer Scott Allshouse. What originally was going to be written as a history of the band, turned into an insightful conversation about their unique sound and the significance of playing live music…well, amongst many other topics.
When you started Max Creek back in the early 70’s did you envision that you’d still be playing together with the same primary group of guys today?
Mark Mercier- We didn’t think about it. When you are young the world lasts forever and you really don’t think further on down the line. Our dream was not necessarily was to become rich and famous, but to become classic. I think we’ve succeeded in that. We’ve succeeded in not becoming rich and famous( laughs) but as far as becoming a classic group, the funny thing is that we can attract as many people now that there were ten years ago. Which is very cool!
Is that what has helped keep Max Creek together?
MM- Oh yeah, and the love of what we do together; when it works, it works extremely well and it’s magic. And it’s something, you can’t do in any other line or work.
Scott Allshouse- Or any other side project or other musicians you play with. You have fun, but it’s not the same as when you go up and have a good Creek show.
So those special moments, when they do a arise, is what has kept it going for thirty years because you know that you might have that incredible moment on stage where you can say, “Hell yeah, I love what I’m doing.”
MM- Oh, yes, absolutely, and you know at almost every gig there is a moment like that, and at some gigs the whole night is like that: they are timeless moments. You know, being in Max Creek is like coming home for Thanksgiving. You know, it really is. You know you can go out and wander around, but this is the point of our security. This is where we feel very comfortable and we know we should be ourselves.
I know your sound kind of builds off the sixties San Francisco sound , but it’s still hard to describe what type of music you guys play. I hate it when people describe you as a Grateful Dead band, because you are not. Do you take that as a complement, because obviously you play Grateful Dead songs in your sets and you can’t hide the fact that they’ve been a major influence to you. How do you look at that comparison?
MM- We never truly went after that. It’s a backhanded complement, for people who mean it well, but it’s not the same as the Dead. What we do is a lot freer than what the Dead did. Believe it or not Scott Murawski and I went up and played with Phil Lesh and Friends, and he is a lot more structured than you would think. Listening to the Dead’s jams, there was some structure there you wouldn’t think would be there, and whereas our jams, there is absolutely nothing preplanned, and most of the time we don’t even know what song we are going to go into.
So you have no setlist when you go out?
MM- No setlist, it’s totally free.
So, do you have any theme or idea when you’re going out on stage and saying lets maybe keep the music in a certain vibe, or do you usually feed yourselves off the audience’s energy?
MM- We are reactive people and sometimes that’s to our detriment , but we react off the vibe of the room, on the vibe of the audience, on the vibe of the town and on the vibe of how each of us are feeling at any point in time. Sometimes that’s bad, because sometimes it would be nice to control the vibe (laughs) or realize that you are, but we just feel like we are part of the fabric.
SA- I can’t remember in seven years ever having a setlist.
Do you listen to feedback from your fans when they might say that maybe one particular show was better than another? Would you take that into effect in the way you would plan or rehearse for a particular show?
SA- Our website has a forum and I read it often, just to hear what everyone has to say. Sometimes it’s nice, sometime it isn’t. We had a show last weekend in Providence that was one of those magical nights and it was one of the best shows we’ve had in a long time. People were raving about it.
MM- You can tell it was an amazing show, you can tell that we had the audience and the audience had us, and it was amazing. The odd thing was it came off a certain amount of angst. We had a band meeting before we climbed on stage, and there was definitely tension in the air.
SA- (laughs)- We were all kind of pissed and we had to go right onstage right after the meeting, and I’m like ‘this is going to suck’, and then right up on the stage…it was the best… I can’t even explain it! People haven’t talked about a show like that in awhile.
MM- There’s two different kinds of complements you can get. There’s complements from the person that’s heard us 20 million times, all the way to the person who has never heard of us; who thinks we sound good and they don’t know the songs. So they don’t know whether the song went well or didn’t go well.
(Editors Note: This show is from Lupos, Providence, RI 01.17.03)
That’s one of the risks you take with playing improvisational music, and basing your sound and following mainly upon live shows.
MM- Taking risks is where it’s at, it really is. You know you are alive by taking a risk, because the rewards are so much better.
Definitely, risk is essential as a musician.
So Max Creek primarily plays shows mainly in the northeast, except for a run of shows in Colorado every few years. Is there any particular reason behind that?
MM- Which we are going to do again. We’re going back to Colorado in the second week of April.
Well, why only Colorado and not swing through say, Chicago or Minneapolis? Do you guys have a big following there?
SA- I think it has transplanted people from New England: that’s what it is mostly.
MM- We would love to play to Chicago.
Well, how about maybe booking the Great American Music Hall in San Francisco? I think that would be an ideal venue for the band.
MM- We did that, it was great!
Oh really, when was that?
SA- I think it was sometime in the mid 90s, that was one of my first years with the band.
MM- We walked right into history and we intend on doing it again. I think we would love to play all these places, but our time is limited by the fact that we tour by the various personal constraints of the individual band members.
So do some of you have day jobs too?
MM- A couple people do, but it’s not that, it’s family. We want to spend time with our kids as strange as that sounds and some of us have grandchildren.
I know Providence has been a special place for your band, with there being weekly gigs over the years at such venues like Lupos and the Living Room. Does it provide a different vibe than any other Northeast cities to play?
MM- Providence is a very creative town, it really is. Not only is it creative, but it’s a little gritty in some places and in some ways I think they are a lot more cutting edge than Hartford, and not as staid as New Haven. As far as a New England town is concerned, Providence is a great town to make your mark in. It used to be a town where you can play once a week musically and people would flock to see it. There is no way you can kill that market.
SA- Plus, there’s a couple really good clubs. Lupos is a nice club, The Living Room is there too. Hartford doesn’t have the clubs to offer; it has the Webster and that’s about it.
MM- Hartford is a corporate town
I noticed recently that in Connecticut, there’s been more of a musical community of late with Pete Scheips, Jeff Pevar, Jaimoe, and members of Dickey Bett’s band. These musicians have been sitting in randomly and playing music with each other. So it seems there has been a friendly, non-pretentious musical community in Hartford, CT of all places.
MM- One of the people I credit for that is Pete Scheips. Pete is a wonderful guy and for one reason or another, music just happens around him. I don’t know why, it’s just that thing going on, and he plays with all of these people, and they just flock to his shows; Chucky Warda, Chris Tofield, Dave Stoltz, all these people come and they just sit in.
SA- I went over to Lina’s in Hartford once on a Wednesday. I walk in and there’s Barry Seelan on organ, Dave Stoltz is playing guitar, Bob Laramie on bass, Pete, and his drummer Johnny Chang. In the audience is just a bunch of musicians from Connecticut, and we are like the only people watching, but for some reason a Pete Scheip’s show is becoming an imprompto open mike for good players. I think it’s just his personality and aura more than his music.
There’s a whole new genre of music in the live improvisational music scene, with bands that don’t necessarily play off the Grateful Dead as an influence and push other musical boundaries within diverse sounds of techno, hip-hop and funk. The fans of these bands would typically not be Creek fans. Any thoughts?
MM- They do what they do very well, but we like our crowd. Our crowd is mellow, sentimental, and live a little bit closer to the edge than most crowds.
SA- I don’t see us getting a techno crowd any time soon.
Ever see the String Cheese Incident?
MM- Oh yes, I think they are spectacular.
SA- Yeah, they are polished.
They have a solid roots based approach in the way they go about their music and business.
MM- It’s interesting, the last concert I went to was at the Mullins Center concert, and I thought it was spectacular, as I’d never seen them before, and I heard tapes. A friend of mine had seen them at Irving Plaza in New York, which was an up close and personal show, and he liked it a lot better. You could see what was going on, and it was almost like you were really there, and it was a smaller audience than the Mullins Center. But I thought they played their show to an arena-sized place very well. The lighting and sound were great.
Camp Creek has been a phenomenal success. How rewarding has Camp Creek been to stage a festival in which you can showcase younger bands?
MM- Some are younger and some are other bands that are contemporaries of ours, from other parts of the country that have come in; like The Recipe or Ekoostik Hookah, that we love working with. And then we try and work with some larger bands like the Tom Tom Club, and its tremendous to share the stage with people like that. You get to experience all these types of music up close and personal
And you get a chance to hear bands you normally wouldn’t hear because you are normally so busy traveling and doing your own thing.
SA- We don’t base our choices on what’s going to bring in people, we make our choices more on what we want to hear.
Like Leftover Salmon?
MM- Oh, we would love to have Leftover Salmon.
SA- It’s been going on for so long, it’s such a home grown effort. We don’t just want it to be another festival. We want it to be something where all the musicians are for the most part comfortable with each other, and just want to have a good time, grab an instrument, jump up with us, and vice versa.
MM- It’s more of a community.
I like what you are doing with it, by not trying to make the next Camp Creek a bigger event than the previous one.
MM- Oh we tried to do that.
SA- We tried that, with CPR (Crosby, Pevar, and Raymond). I think that’s the only time we tried to find somebody to play to get people there. But we have since decided we need to bring it down to what we really want to hear.
MM- It’s a community more than it is a concert
So is that what the future holds for Camp Creek?
MM- We never considered it a festival, it was more like a party. (laughs)
Speaking of festivals, if Max Creek got invited to Bonnaroo would you play there?
MM- Sure, Absolutely! The funny thing about playing a festival like that is you have to hit the ground running. You get on stage and from the first note you just got to start out hot because other bands have warmed up the crowd. It’s a whole different experience than just starting the night yourself.
SA- I would say the hardest show to play well is at the Gathering of the Vibes. You don’t have much time, and it’s difficult to get up there and get into it immediately. I get it in my head when I’m up there that, you know, shit, we got an hour, and I never get nervous playing. It’s the only show I get nervous at, and it’s not because there are 20,000 people out there, but because you know you got to be on, and then you end up thinking too much and playing like crap.
MM- It’s hard to be into it at a moments notice. It’s like saying, ‘ok, lets have sex right now’. There’s no foreplay and you have to start right away. (laughs)
So, is that the only time you get nervous?
SA- At just that one festival in particular because you only have such a short time to play.
MM- There’s a lot at stake. You are there, and you have fellow musicians around, and you are sitting by the side of the stage going, ‘umm…geez…I better play well, right now’.
Did you feel that way while playing with Phil Lesh?
MM- Oh god, playing with Phil Lesh, I had no idea what to expect, and I went out there and it was totally different than anything I thought it was going to be. Playing Unbroken Chain with Phil Lesh was like a dream. But what he wanted, was so totally unexpected that there was no way you could prepare for it. We went in there, and he immediately said ‘I want everyone to play lead, I don’t want anyone to back anyone up. We are all first amongst equals, so all of you play lead, but listen to each other’. To play lead while two other guitar players are playing lead at the same time, and then Phil and John Molo, who play together as one and make a great team, sit there and change rhythms on you, my brain melted. So, did I think I was at my best? No.
Were thoughts going through your mind at the time like, holy shit, I’m playing with Phil Lesh?
MM- Yeah, I’m playing with Phil Lesh on Pigpen’s organ. You know what that’s like. (laughs) And Club Front, which was amazing, where you can have cheese and crackers, and somebody would set all this stuff up with coffee. At our rehearsals, you bring in a bag of potato chips. (laughs)
Well, after listening to both bands, there is a main difference between the sounds of Phil and Friends and the Other Ones. With Phil, they are all playing lead, while The Other Ones, they play more as a group and take turns backing each other up.
MM- Yes (nods).
Jeff Pevar has been playing as a regular guest of your band. He’s obviously a terrific player. What does he add to your overall sound?
MM- He’s a master of texture.
SA- Texture. He comes just to sit in with six guitars and each guitar is a different medium. He knows how to make each one sing like a different voice.
So, does he help the band step it up a notch?
SA- Actually, he helps take it down. It gets Scott (Murawski) excited and the leads become a battle.
MM- Jeff is such a great backup player too. He’s played with so many people which adds to their style, that no matter who he plays with, he can add to their style
Both of you guys have a lot of side projects going on, like the new Depth Quartet. What type of sound do you hope to bring forth with that project?
MM- The Depth Quartet, that’s Scott Murawski and I. We hoped to jam a little more. and to take the jams more out there in terms of jazz, but we could never keep up with that guy (looks over to Allshouse) as far as jazz is concerned.
Scott, so obviously you’re involved in a jazz project?
SA- It’s called Mystery Feet, and two years ago a bass player from Avon, CT contacted me to do some studio work with him, so he could showcase his bass playing. His name is Craig Garfinkel. So we got together, and he got together a group of players; a guitar player Frank Borella and a keyboard player Jonathan Chatfield, all from Connecticut. We got together and started rehearsing this studio stuff for the bass player. We went into the studio and we started having so much fun that we started writing songs, and it’s jazz, progressive jazz, and we ended up starting a band out of it. We ended up making an album, and spent four months in the studio on and off doing that. We all had different projects and Mystery Feet was our side project, but we played out once a month if we were lucky for a year, and recently I resigned because everybody else had quit their main bands to go to Mystery Feet full time. I wanted to stay with Creek, so I resigned and they since got another drummer. There’s an album out and it’s definitely worth checking out, it’s good.
Editors note: After listening to the CD, it’s a strong collection of original jazz/bluesbased music that scrapes the influences of Scofield and Metheny. Guitar legend Larry Coryell guests on one ot the tracks . Very accomplished and great sounding recording, that is very soothing, yet upbeat.
Have you since brought any jazz into the overall Creek sound?
SA- Yeah, I think I have.
Mark, I remember reading that you play in your church every Sunday? Are you still doing that?
MM- Every Sunday, I’ll be playing at church for the next three months
So, even after a late night Saturday gig, you make it back to Connecticut to play. How is that transition, going from playing a smokey alcohol filled bar to a church?
MM- The aesthetic is the same. What are you trying to do is the same thing to people, but they are different people.
I imagine they are moved by your organ playing the same way your Creek fans get off on your keyboard work?
MM- Hopefully, they are moved. I love church music, that’s the basis of all 20th century music: that and folk music. There is a little bit of everything in everything. If you listen to pop music these days you can listen to Cuban, African music roots, and there’s some Baroque here and there. You got Bela Fleck that’s based on a lot of Baroque stuff. It’s just incredible to listen and know all these influences when you hear them.
Who would happen to be your influences?
MM- Oh, geez, there’s so many. Bill Payne is a major influence. Bruce Hornsby, Bill Evans, and Tori Amos is great.
SA- Richie Hayward is probably my biggest influence.
Yeah, Little Feat is going strong still. I caught them a year or so ago, and the thing that impressed me is they played “Willin”, a song in which they’ve played a thousand times and they played it with the same energy and joy, as if it was the first time they played it. Are there any songs that you’ve played so many times, but it feels like the first time when you play it?
MM- A lot of times almost any song that we do. There are some songs that you could play six weeks in a row and they’ve grown a beard, and if you ever sing the song again, you are going to jump off the nearest cliff. But the next week you play it and it feels new. It’s just amazing.
I think a lot has to do with world circumstances and other things to take into effect when you play a song, and it could very well have new meaning when you play it. I remember seeing David Byrne do “Life During Wartime” right after September 11th, and it brought a whole new meaning to a tune he’s played hundreds of times. He even said so himself.
MM- Absolutely, we’ve been doing a lot of songs so damn long that they become a part of us, and one day you wake up and they are different.
Are there any plans to record any new music in the future?
SA- We are working on a 30th Anniversary album, which will be coming out. It’s nothing new, but it will be new to a lot of people, because some of the stuff is so old.
Any plan to reissue your out of print albums from the 70’s, like Rainbow and your self titled debut?
MM- Oh yeah,
SA- We just have to get them in and get them re-mastered.
So that’s in the works?
SA- Yeah, actually the hardest part is getting the original artwork again to reproduce it in CD form.
Do you listen to your shows at all?
MM- After a show we probably should, but afterwards, we don’t even play the radio, we just want silence.
SA- I asked a taper to make me a tape, a smorgasbord of stuff from the last year. I haven’t really listened to anything recently.
MM- I should start. Sometimes you listen to a show from two years ago, listen to the jams, and it’s a whole new song.
What do you think the future holds for Max Creek? Another 20 years maybe?…or am I stretching it?
MM- If I didn’t have Max Creek I would feel like somebody cut off my right arm. It would be like being away from home.
SA- You don’t know what you got till it’s gone, and we don’t want to let it go.
MM- Our first drummer says he can’t talk to anyone like he talks to us. It’s a marriage, it really is.
Just like the way in which former drummer Greg Vasso is always welcome to come back and play.
SA- With work my schedule a lot of the time, he fills in. I missed six shows last year due to work, and I went on the message board and one of our hard core fans made it to more shows than me. He missed five, I missed six. (laughs)