Maxwell Stern | photo courtesy of the artist
Being Maxwell Stern: Philly-via-Cleveland singer-songwriter on exploring his identity with Impossible Sum
Signals Midwest, Meridian, Timeshares. Philadelphia-via-Cleveland musician Maxwell Stern has released music under a number of names over the years, but never his own. There was even a time when he considered releasing Impossible Sum, his debut solo record out now on Lauren Records, under a moniker. It’s a technique of obfuscation familiar in the indie-folk rock world — The Mountain Goats, Pedro The Lion, etc. — but Impossible Sum isn’t about concealment or complication, a fact that became clear as Stern began to perform and record the album’s ten winding, precise and starkly beautiful songs. “I was getting a few times from a few different friends that it just sounded like me,” Stern says of initial reactions.
It’s this unadorned sincerity that separates Impossible Sum from the rest of Stern’s varied discography. He’s far from alone here, the record featuring impressive contributions from the likes of Laura Stevenson, Mike Brenner, and others, but it’s very much a record of singular intention. From the intricately rendered mundanity of the small moments that dot songs like album opener “Always Almost ” and “Going To My Brother’s House” to the emotional fluctuation within “Warm In Your Car” and “Never Ending Equals Sign,” Stern does not shy away from honest self-interrogation.
I got a chance to talk with Stern over the phone recently about this unfiltered approach, intentional minimalism, and, most importantly, that haunting lap steel guitar. This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
The Key: What does it mean to you to finally release something with your name attached, after all this time working in different bands?
Maxwell Stern: It was really nice because often when I’m writing for bands I will throw out ideas because they don’t fit the particular genre we play or whatever, but I didn’t have to do that for this. The goal of this project was to be able to say yes to anything I wanted to. I love playing in bands but the logistics are kind of a nightmare as you get older, so I figured it would be a little easier if it was just me.
I think the whole idea was to try to be unencumbered by genre. I have been playing in the same band for eleven or twelve years and I think we’re good at what we do, but it is a very specific thing. With this, since it is under my own name, I can put out folk songs, heavy droney songs, punk songs, pop songs or whatever I want…and I don’t feel like I have to live up to a name. It can just be me and this is something that just came out of my head.
TK: Does that mean some of these songs were born from ideas you’d had in the past but scrapped initially, for the reasons you mentioned?
MS: That was definitely initially how it happened. A lot of times when you are touring with a punk band you don’t really want to listen to punk rock while you are driving eight hours across Nebraska, so we’d put on Neil Young and Tom Petty and stuff like that. A lot of the stuff just started to emerge from what we were listening to during time spent in transit in between shows. Then when I started to get some demo ideas down and sent them to a few friends, I got really positive feedback and encouragement to keep chasing the ideas. So once I had the fire lit, I knew what I had to do to finish it out.
TK: Is this kind of solo project something you wish you would have done earlier in your career?
MS: In a way I do wish I had done it earlier, because I think I was really hung up on the idea that we have to be a band and it’s got to be the same people on every release and we have to move as a unit and all that, so I think I might have closed myself off to some stuff. But at the same time, you learn so much through every record you make and every tour you do, so in a lot of ways I feel like I had to do all that stuff to get to a place to make this kind of record and these songs. I don’t think I would have changed anything, but it is interesting to think about the path not taken. I think I mostly had to get through what I had to get through to make this happen.
TK: The “impossible sum” you sing about in “Shiny Things”, the closest thing you have to a title track on the record, comes across to me as a kind of optimistic ideal. Is that the right read?
MS: Yeah, for sure. You hear the word “impossible” and I think there is oftentimes a negative connotation that comes with that, but for me it is more in line with optimism. I think it comes from the idea that you could magically have time and space for everything and everyone, unobstructed by geography or time constraints or anything like that. If you could put everything or everyone you love in one place, I think that would be the impossible sum. It’s something to keep in your heart and move with that idea.
TK: How did you form the team you had around you for Impossible Sum?
MS: A lot of it was split between Kyle Pulley and Adam, the drummer on the record. Both of them had a lot of influence on these songs. Adam lives in Chicago so obviously, geographically, we were kind of limited there. But Adam was the one who really pushed me to make the record. He saw me at a record store in D.C. and took me aside and told me that he’d been seeing me play with my bands for years but this was my best song writing. He also pushed me toward Kyle at Headroom which, it turned out, was only a few blocks from my house. I would work full days and immediately go over to Headroom and work from six till midnight and get up and go to work the next day and do it all again. Kyle had a huge role in it, just in terms of doing stuff I had never done with songs before. He would cut up the drums, change tempo, cut rhythms in half, make them go double time, move all sorts of ideas all around. He was really into deconstructing the songs and putting them back together and emphasizing rhythms and vocal delivery in a way that I never really delved into all that much. So, yeah, I hear his influence all over the record.
TK: The idea of transience is a big theme throughout, with characters always seeming to be mid move or in some type of transition. What was it about the time in your life that you were writing this record that you think brought these ideas up?
MS: I think a lot of it has been impacted by my own move from my hometown in Cleveland out here to Philadelphia. I had never moved in my adult life and to just uproot everything you know is big. I was 27 — which, at the time especially, felt like a very settled age — and moving here and being in a different part of the country and removed from my whole family framed a lot of different stuff for me. I think the whole record, and a lot of what I write, is influenced by movement and both the weird disparities and interconnection of different places. A lot of what I was exploring was this idea.
TK: Is this why you use a lot of specifics when it comes to geography, whether that be I-76, the rust belt, Chicago or walking from Catherine to Christian to Carpenter?
MS: Yeah definitely. I like specificity in songs. I think you get more out of it if you name a street instead of just keeping things vague. If you use a name it becomes a little brighter in the listeners mind because it is a real place. It could be anywhere maybe, but in that moment it is that specific street. I like the little details, the things that might get glossed over, I’ve always enjoyed that stuff. It’s fun to go micro in verse and really zoom out on the chorus to try to get at some bigger truth or large experience. While that’s not necessarily something I do on every song, it is definitely a formula that I found has worked for me.
TK: In the song “Water Tower,” you sing about other people’s highlight reels, and the idea of social media and digital stimuli runs through the album. Is the battle with these addictive forces something you have to fight?
MS: I think everyone, to a certain extent, fights that battle. I think during quarantine I have actually been enjoying social media more because it does make me feel more connected. But a lot of it comes down to a quote I come back to a lot in my own head, “comparison is the thief of joy.” I think it is important to remember when you are looking at social media you are only looking at the good stuff that people choose to post. So you are getting their highlight reels filtered through this platform and you’re left to compare it to what gets left on the cutting room floor of your brain and it just creates this really weird cycle of comparisons. Then you start to rely on it for these dopamine hits that are less and less powerful every time as you refresh your feed so yeah, I think a lot of it can be very destructive. I don’t think social media is inherently evil, but there are definitely parts of it that we have to be careful with.
TK: It’s one of my favorite parts of Impossible Sum, so I wanted to ask, how did you decide to implement the lap steel guitar so prominently?
MS: I got obsessed with the sound. I was listening to a lot of Jason Molina stuff, the Wild Pink record, and I was going to see my buddy Roger Harvey play. It turns out there was a common theme with all these, and that is this one dude, Mike Brenner, who was the lap steel player on all of these records. So I did a little bit of research and found out he lived only a few blocks from me, so I sent him a message and introduced myself and a few days later I was sending him stuff to play on. I was already a huge fan of his work and it was crazy to me he wanted to play on it and now we are even friends so it’s wild.
I think it’s really plaintive and beautiful and adds something to the register and tone no other instrument can. There’s a reason it’s on like half the songs on the record, I just wanted to add it to everything. It’s a very wistful instrument, especially the way Mike plays it, which is very soulful and really intentional with the melody. It really connected with a larger theme that I was trying to go for here, which is a type of minimalism, really trying to be purposeful about arrangements and not just adding parts just to add it, but rather because it fits and elevates the songs. I think at a number of points throughout my musical career I’ve made records where you record everything you have, every part you have, every song you have, and there really isn’t any editing. The idea here was to be a lot more intentional about what we were doing. We cut songs off the record, cut whole sections, really tried to get down to what served the songs. The lap steel definitely helped fill the void in a lot of ways.
TK: I don’t want to get too in the weeds with lyrics, but I really love the line “Am I siding with love or with fear?” from “Pull the Stars Down”, is that something you’ve had to ask yourself?
MS: It’s interesting because I don’t know if I ever really thought about that line. The song you’re referencing in particular is special for me because it just kind of fell out of thin air, all the lyrics and chords were just floating above my head one day and I looked up and grabbed them and wrote it down. I think sometimes I write stuff and then I have to go back and interrogate myself later to figure out what my subconscious was trying to get out. I think it’s about making hard decisions, but making them because you want it and not because it’s easier or won’t make waves or whatever. I think it’s about being purposeful with your love, your time, and your attention.
A lot of times your subconscious is trying to tell you something and you have to work to get out of the way and try to create a clear line of communication between your subconscious and the song. When you try to dress it up then you do start to get in your own way. It’s not necessarily something I think I’m particularly good at. There are a lot of songs I write that don’t go anywhere but the ones I feel best about, and the ones that happen the fastest, are when I allow for the thoughts to flow.
TK: Was there any time when working on this record that you felt like you were pushing yourself out of your comfort zone?
MS: I think working with a producer is a pretty scary thing, to hand the keys over to someone else. There were parts of songs that I really had a lot of heart for that Kyle was like, “you got to do that better” or “this part isn’t working” or “let’s scrap this whole song.” But it’s also nice to provide the bones of something and trust a collaborator to build on top of that. I found it uncomfortable at first but it actually took a lot of pressure off just to learn to trust Kyle and Adam. They want to make something awesome as well, we have a shared goal here, they aren’t trying to screw with my songs or anything. I was nervous at first, but it ended up being a very rewarding part of the process.
Maxwell Stern’s Impossible Sum is out Friday via Lauren Records; preorder the record here.