It’s only been a matter of months since Maxton Schulte’s last solo release, but the sound and sentiment of his second LP still lurk in the fog. That album, Retrograde Emotion, is a cathartic exposé of ambient rock and internal desolation that amplified Schulte’s fragmented emotions through a set of psychotherapeutic songs. As painfully lonely as some of those tracks still feel, the narratives of uncertainty and lost love also pointed towards a period of growth and gained self-understanding.
In the time since Retrograde, Schulte has all but slowed down creatively. He recently reunited with bandmate Justin Kass as The Shorelines, a two-piece psychedelic rock outfit responsible for some of the best material out of the Santa Barbara scene in the last couple years. With multiple band projects on the horizon, early 2019 seemed to be the perfect time for Schulte’s latest individual effort, Virgo’s Vertigo, a collection of Retrograde leftovers and other originals that have been floating around, incomplete but not forgotten, awaiting the perfect moment to see the light of day as fully realized compositions.
“I had to be precise with which songs fit which style,” Schulte says referring to conception of both records. “These songs flowed into their own story and captured a specific period of my life, and these songs told another chapter.”
On a surface level, Virgo’s Vertigo charts familiar territory. Swells of crystalline guitars and reverb-laden vocal lines re-establish the spacious atmosphere experienced on Schulte’s last LP, but it doesn’t take long to pinpoint the qualities that give his new record its own identity. By necessity, Vertigo is a more vibrant and optimistic album than its predecessor. From the themes explored on each track to the core sound of the record, there is an uplifting and outward attitude that pervades the music, presenting Schulte’s life perceptions in a more direct and upfront manner than before. It’s his most forward release to date, band material included, indicating a newfound sense of comfort with being uncomfortable, leading to some of his most outspoken songs yet.
“Let the World Speak” addresses self-limiting ignorance in the form of a naked psychedelic ballad. It’s a general call out, likely aimed at a friend set too deep in their ways or perhaps at your everyday, close-minded individual, but it also alludes to the narcissistic cycle of laziness, excess and complacency that entraps much of Santa Barbara’s youth. Schulte croons out before wading into another swooning refrain: “Mr. Blindness, you won’t find it, roaming around the same streets.”
He takes his social discernment a step further on “Dear America,” a groovy bass-tune that highlights the sheer ridiculousness of modern day politics. Thematically, these songs aren’t reinventing the wheel, but nonetheless, they’re an artful exercise of the First Amendment. Hopeless lines like “these days, there’s no one winning, there’s too much hate” may not pose a call to action, but are still getting directly at the truth, reinforcing the notion that in order to progress, people must change the way they think.
As on previous material, Schulte has the tendency to fade in and out of dark observations. Where his analysis seems grim, it’s largely a product of becoming more self-aware. This sense of maturity doesn’t only come from intuition; however, it is a direct product of taking on more creative responsibility. Every song on Virgo’s Vertigo was written and produced entirely by Schulte. As with any skill, quality practice time equates to quality results, a concept he takes to heart when it comes to his mentality as a producer.
“I was still learning with Retrograde. Working on my own, there’s a lot more freedom. At times, I just go with what sounds good, while continuing to keep studying up on different techniques and recording methods, knowing when to break the rules the best I can.”
The subtle adjustments he made for this particular record are instantly noticeable. From a production standpoint, there is inherently less attention on the vocals and more emphasis on rhythm, injecting a sense of liveliness into many of the recordings. Songs like the blistering opener “Entropy,” as well as the lush and dizzying guitar ditty “Temptations” feature ascending instrumental progressions that though brief, are every bit as gorgeous as the lengthy, extended jams you may find on a Shorelines project.
“I don’t always need six minutes to tell my story,” he laughs. “Sometimes, it’s finding a way to have a three minute song that’s constantly changing.” Even with some shorter track lengths, Schulte’s intentions to create a more full-bodied sound shine through. Whether it’s the surf disco on the second half of “Summer Woman/Letting Go” or the dreamy guitar cinema of “Ocean Scene,” the mix is rich and constantly entrancing.
Given the short time frame in which Retrograde and Vertigo were released, it’s hard not to associate the two projects together. While they do share a number of themes and storylines, Vertigo marks a necessary step forward and simultaneously closes a phase of heavy introspection. That’s not say Schulte won’t be one to turn his sights inward again, but for now, he seems at peace with the ups and downs that fueled his last records. Now he is even more free to pursue other artistic endeavors, which include recording an ambient album of instrumentals geared towards sleeping, meditation and slowing down the heartbeat. “That one’s going to be more something for fun, just to make something in my free time that’s super slow and weird.” If his recent output is of any indication, it’s certainly within his wheelhouse.
For now his heart is with The Shorelines, who are in the process of working on their next series of albums, likely a four-part event that will see the duo embarking on new sounds while looking to advance familiar ones. So as this ride ends, a new one begins. The next wave should be all the more enticing.
Earlier this month, I linked up with Maxton while in Santa Barbara to chat about his new album. We talked everything from the depths of space to mimicking female vocalists to how photography and other mediums of art influence his music process. Check out our conversation below.
Virgo’s Vertigo. Second solo album in less than a year. You’re constantly in a state of creating – when all did this album come into fruition?
Maxton: A lot of these songs started in the Retrograde sessions and didn’t make the cut, which happens a lot when there’s like 30 tracks floating around. A lot of them just weren’t done either. They needed more time and I didn’t want to rush them. I approached this record differently, because I feel like I spent too much time on the other one. I blew a hole in my wallet with that record. It was worth it, because I had such a specific thing I wanted out of it, but with the new one I did the complete opposite. I recorded it all in two months or so, lowered my budget, but still worked with people I wanted to collaborate with. Retrograde was definitely a more romantic and melancholy experience. This one hints at that still, but I touched on more political stuff, talked a little more about consciousness. It was more worldly in a sense. I tried to place more emphasis the things around me.
To your point, a lot of the record is very observant. What you’re going through feels reactionary to the subjects you’re writing about. Are those the types of feelings the album title is derived from?
Maxton: It’s actually a super old title. It was this instrumental Justin and I had written around summer 2016. I’m also a Virgo so…I don’t know, that title always stuck with me. Retrograde was actually a song too. I really liked both those titles, but the songs never turned into much. I fall into the astrology conversations with people and always get the Virgo card pulled on me. Maybe it is a real thing. I guess I’m just embracing the stereotype, but it’s ironic because usually the stereotype is that we’re more collected, which I guess I usually am. It’s really just a metaphor for chaos.
There’s also accompanying artwork for each song on the album. It has a very modern and abstract look to it. What was the inspiration behind that?
Maxton: I was in one of those Instagram black holes where random suggested pages are popping up and I found this guy Sean Kratzert, he’s based out of Connecticut. I scrolled through his feed and stumbled upon his digital drawings, which is what’s on the cover. They were a bit cleaner, but still very much had that hand drawn aesthetic. I hit him up and asked for 10 of them, one for the cover and nine for the songs, and he sent me 30. The one I ended up choosing for the cover, that one I knew right away. It had space around it and the figure with all these things coming off of it like energy and words going upward towards the sun, almost like it’s speaking out. It ties into the themes a little bit; speaking out and not worrying what other people think.
You do some photography as well. Do other mediums of art play into your music at all?
Maxton: Always. I’m just surrounded by so many artists. Theo Schaefer has been taking a lot of The Shorelines photos and has done a lot of my promo stuff. He’s inspired me to get back into that world of taking photos more often. My housemates too – everyone’s always taking photos. Just having that around, like getting excited when we all get our film photos back, it’s pretty cool. I think it’s important to embrace the creative trifecta, especially because you literally need a visual for the music, which is the main thing that entices me. I’ve had times where a photograph inspires a song or an instrumental, as opposed to a physical moment in real life.
You have a pretty vast collection of music and stylistic influences. What’s Maxton’s 2019 playlist looking like so far? Is there anything in particular that influenced this new record?
Maxton: I started doing this thing last year where I track what I’m listening to each month. It helps me follow my year and makes it kind of fun. I kind of try to make it flow like a setlist. Let me pull out my phone.
Go for it.
Maxton: Let’s see. Lots of Richard Swift – I’ve been coming back to “Lady Luck” a lot – Gardens & Villa, Lee Hazlewood, Pink Floyd always. I’m diving really into the acoustic stuff with them. Air, Washed Out, Beatles. Kevin Morby – I just got into him recently.
They’re all okay.
Maxton: To be honest, I’ve been watching a lot of old movies and that’s been inspiring me the most. Old Hitchcock films, classic movies starring Humphrey Bogart and James Stewart. Really diving into some of those old thrillers and sci-fi-romance blends. I actually wanted to make this album a short film. That was the original intention. That’s why it’s a little bit shorter and there’s some tracks that have two short songs in one. It was all supposed to be consecutive tracks that bled into each other, but I couldn’t get a proper cut when I was bouncing, so I said ‘fuck it’ and made it a “normal” record. I had all these ideas. I wanted it to be like an old ‘60s thing, a sci-fi-romance called Virgo’s Vertigo. I’m keeping it in mind for down the road. Maybe I’ll make a whole story out of it.
The shorter song lengths almost feel like a series of portraits. It’s very cohesive from a sonic standpoint, whereas emotionally it feels a little sprawled out. Your last album was very cathartic. Do you feel like this is a continuation of that phase?
Maxton: On one hand, I wanted this album to be like Retrograde, just because of the flow. That one is a classic, past-love kind of record that kind of hinted at what the next one was going to be about. I put “Departure” as the closing track, because I wanted it to be the weird song that stood out at the end, hinting at a record more down that avenue, where it’s about moving on and growth, sort of say. I think Vertigo is a more positive record, even though it’s a little messier. Musically speaking, I wanted the drums to be more present on this album and for the first time in a while I had a lot more drum ideas. I made sure they were front and center on everything. On the last record, they’re sort of placed in the back and it’s more about the guitars and vocals. I’ve also just gotten better at mixing, so I really took my time with micing the drums and that stuff.
I love the grooves on this thing – the intro track, “Summer Woman,” “Dear America” – just to name a few. The bass gives those songs so much depth and rhythm. Is there something or someone specifically that’s inspired the funkier side of your music?
Maxton: I think it’s just natural. I wanted there to be more energy on this record. The last one, while I really enjoy it, can be a sleeper at times. A lot of the grooves here were inspired by The Stone Roses, even some of the new Tame Impala stuff. I resonate with their rhythm style and feel like I can be a similar kind of drummer at times. It’s the classic guitar player thing. You always have a lot more melodies in your head than drum ideas, so being able to put that aside for a moment and focus on everything working with the drums as opposed to the other way around was fun.
So you wrote all the music on the album?
Maxton: Yeah, this was the first record I haven’t had anyone else on, which was kind of a fear. I’ve always had other vocalists, keyboard players and stuff. I wanted to see how far I could go – even trying to mimic female vocals, seeing how high my voice could reach, and embracing a crooner side of me. That’s what stands out to me about this album, which I guess you could say is a little selfish, but I wanted to see what I was capable of. That includes not going overboard with tracking too, like knowing when and when not to add six guitars to a track.
A lot of artists are outspoken about being labeled as a certain type of band who makes a certain kind of music. Your sound definitely falls under the big psych rock umbrella — do you think genre confines art? From a creative standpoint, are there ever mental barriers of ‘I can’t do that’ or ‘that’s not my sound’ when you’re composing new material?
Maxton: Honestly, I never feel pinned as if I shouldn’t do something. I know I naturally write a certain kind of music. I love ambient music, I try to be textural and psychedelic. I want the mix to be trippy and colorful. I mean, there’s moments where I’m trying to be more of a singer-songwriter type or do the rock-pop and surfy stuff, but I don’t care for when artists get too comfortable and aren’t willing to get out of their box. I recently did a track with my buddies Angel and Barbara and it was my first song with a rapper on it. I want to keep expanding into different genres and work with different artists and produce those people, pick their brains, because the more submerged you are in their music helps your own music when you get back in your space.
I really like the surface level simplicity of the first single “Summer Woman/Letting Go.” It totally works as a breezy, summer song, but there’s also a prevalent sense of emptiness within it. It’s essentially about accepting you have to move on from temporary pleasures. Can you elaborate on the themes in that track?
Maxton: My ex was around when I was starting this album. She’s the “summer woman” in that whole story and there’s a part of me that thanks her for sparking a more positive direction in my music. I wrote the song in Big Sur. It was inspired by a Northern California road trip. That’s what the opening line was, “West Coast motion…”, like ‘hey, things are pretty good right now, but what’s happening? There’s some stuff on the horizon, but it’s blurry.’ Just trying to see the beauty in change, I guess.
The feeling someone gets listening to a certain kind of music can be very different from the feeling one gets creating it. When I listen to your albums, that feeling is bliss-like, serene at times. When you’re in the creative zone, what does your music feel like to you?
Maxton: A lot of it is just getting shit off my chest. Often times, I have the music mask it, where I might be saying something pretty dark, but the music is going to be in all majors and really upbeat. It helps me acknowledge things that are rough, but reminds me to be open-minded and positive. That’s the big thing on this album, just looking forward and trying to embrace situations and dramatic moments and just put it all out there.
You’ve stated this will be your last solo album indefinitely. What brought you to that conclusion? Focusing on other projects?
Maxton: Yeah, pretty much. I almost put this album on hold actually. The Shorelines had a little hiatus of about six months last year. That time opened a door to be more of a producer for local artists, diving into more projects and putting myself out there. Now we [The Shorelines] are working together again and we’re writing some of the best music I’ve been a part of in a while. It’s also wanting more time to mix and produce for other people. I feel like Santa Barbara is in this weird moment right now where it’s kind of a shit music scene, but there’s a lot of great music out. There is a lot of talented songwriters, but it’s a shit scene. I’d like to get out of here, maybe to L.A. or Austin, but I want to leave knowing I gave it my all and met everybody I could. I also want to make an ambient album, so when I say my last solo album, I mean more my last traditional album. That’s not really a priority, but I think it’ll be my next side endeavor.
To me, your songs definitely tap into the surreal. What place do imagination and space in general have in your music? What about spirituality?
Maxton: I’m not religious, but I’d say I’m a spiritual person. To me, it deals with embracing being open-minded. Space is a comfortable concept, just because it’s so vast. We’re nothing, you know what I mean? In a sense, I’m nothing as an artist. I’m not commercial. I’m this local cat that’s been around for 10 years playing the same exact venues, but at the same time, I’m super young and can literally achieve anything. I look at the studio as a fucking spaceship. This is my equipment, this is my control center and it guides me into these weird tangents of my life.
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Images by Theo Schaefer. Album artwork by Sean Kratzert. Listen to ‘Virgo’s Vertigo’ on all streaming platforms and support Maxton’s music via Bandcamp.