Last Wednesday I had the privilege of interviewing Max Holmquist of The Great American Desert, a folk artist that we featured here on TBT for the first time a few weeks ago. While sitting at a coffee shop in Denver, Colorado, Max talked to me on the phone about a number of things from his background in music to his interest in people and place and the different ways in which these subjects come to life in his songs. When asked about his feelings regarding his newest album “Carson City,” Max revealed to me just how humble a person he really is; he explained that he has recently received an incredible amount of support from new fans all over the world, and has realized that his music is touching more than just his community of friends at home. Read on to learn a little bit more about this talented artist, and if you haven’t done so yet, purchase his new album “Carson City” at his bandcamp page here!
TBT: Can you talk a little bit about your background in music, such as when you started getting interested in music, who your musical inspirations were growing up, and if anyone else in your family was also musical?
Max Holmquist: My mom always tells me that when I was little I was always running around the house singing and humming songs. I was a big fan of public television growing up, so I would hum along to the theme songs of shows like Eureka’s Castle and Mr. Rogers. I grew up in a small rural town with limited music like the top 40 music, which I was never really interested in, so I mostly listened to what my mom would have on on the college radio like REM and the Talking Heads. I would sing along even though I didn’t know the words… I just always loved singing. In junior high I did band, but I was never really serious about it. At 15, like most kids, I had the dream of rock and roll, and that’s when I really started to develop my musical tastes. I had these goals and ambitions to start playing music. I got a guitar for Christmas and started writing my own stuff and teaching myself how to play, but it was never anything serious until I was about 17. I got a record player that year and my parents gave me a bunch of their old records like Simon and Garfunkle and The Graduate soundtrack…my parents have always had good taste in music. They both did band in high school but neither of them were really singers (even though my dad can carry a tune). I’m not really sure where my musical talent came from. I guess I’ve developed a certain style that lends itself to the way that I play, which is sort of a minimalist style. As far as technical inclination for guitar goes though, I’m alright.
TBT: Can you tell me about “South of Lincoln,” the first stage name that you performed under, and tell me how and why “The Great American Desert” came about?
Max Holmquist: I was in a band in high school that was so-so…everyone has that band that they were in. Anyway, when I was 18 I wasn’t really into it anymore. I guess my musical tastes had changed, so I started playing my own stuff under the name South of Lincoln. That’s where I grew up, in a town that was south of Lincoln, Nebraska. I liked that name and went with it, but for the first three years I didn’t release anything. I mostly wrote awful, derivative, heartbreak songs. Somewhere along the line I started to get into the folk side and really embraced it and ended up changing names to The Great American Desert. I picked the name because I have a lot of love for where I come from. The story behind it is when Louis and Clark and other explorers came to see the area and they wrote back calling it The Great American Desert because it had no trees, it was flat and barren, and there was no chance of anything or any society ever being there. What they ended up finding out though is that there was a great ocean of water underneath the ground that now irrigates and provides water for all of the farming out there. So for me the name ties into the idea that lots of places in the midwest are overlooked culturally, but when you get beneath the surface there are all of these great communities of artists coming together to create something meaningful.
TBT: You just released your newest album, Carson City, yesterday! How long did it take you to prepare this album? What inspired the songs, and are there any particular songs that you are especially proud of (or that are the most meaningful to you)?
Max Holmquist: When I’m writing its an on/off sort of thing, not something that I can control. Songs will just start coming to me, and they are usually a mix of non-fiction biographies of people’s real life stories with characters that I make up and details that I change. They are snapshots of broken-hearted people of the heartland and wherever else. The songs are meant to be kind of timeless because I like the idea that someone who is 73 can relate to a story as much as someone who is 17. I wrote most of the songs fairly quickly because I knew that the recording date was coming up, but some of the songs were older ones that I had put on the back burner from other albums. White Clay is one of my favourite songs because people around here know the story and can relate to it directly when they hear it. People tend to like that song a lot, depressing as it is. I like to perform that song. It’s the one that I’m most proud of because its the most political to a degree without being contrived or forced. The song Brother on the other hand is the most autobiographical song. It is loosely based on my relationship with my brother, and has these weird little snapshots that point back to my childhood with him growing up. It is really a metaphor for our whole lives together as siblings.
TBT: If you could tour or collaborate with any musician, who would it be and why?
Max Holmquist: Damien Jurado, definitely. He’s my go-to artist. He’s the reason that I went down the path artistically that I did. I had a friend who turned me on to his music and it opened me up to the world of minimalist folk. I like listening to him and hearing his music… he’s a stellar artist with what seems to me an insane work ethic and that is something that I really respect and shoot for in my own work.
TBT: If you were stranded on a deserted island and could only have two records with you, which ones would they be and why?
Max Holmquist: Damien Jurado’s “Saint Bartlett” for sure… it’s front to back an amazing album. The other one would probably be Andrew Bird’s “Break it Yourself,” his newest album. It’s a really upbeat album that’s not super depressing but also really relaxing.
TBT: To conclude, is there anything that you would like to tell your fans here on TBT and around the world?
Max Holmquist: I’m just really thankful for all of the support that I’ve received very recently from people around the country, in Canada, and abroad. People that I don’t know. That’s a new thing for me… most of the support that I’ve had is locally, so I’m thankful to see that there are people that like my music in other places. I’m very appreciative of that.
The Great American Desert – White Clay
The Great American Desert – Brother
The Great American Desert – Bedsheets
Photo Credit: David Muller