A Profile on the Austin Artist Who's Shreddin' Up Atlantic Records

An Ovrld Cover Story

Words & Photos by Laura Roberts

Meet Max Frost

Max Frost is a storyteller.

He'll start a story, which leads into another story. So he'll start that story, which makes him think of yet another story. So he'll tell that one, too. But he always comes back around to finish up that first one. And as Max tells stories, his entire body narrates them: his eyes flinch, his voice drops a notch or two, his hands curl up in a ball; he's reliving every moment.

As an audience, you don't have a choice but to live them with him.

"I had a professor at UT...who's a young teacher there," Max leans into the shaky wooden table, elbows evenly balancing his weight.

"He taught this huge class I was in - like three-hundred kids are there - at UT. I went up there after class - he [had] talked about how he was into music - I just handed him [my] CD - and it had nothing written on it...I just kind of walked away...I wanted to see, would he even remember who I was if I handed him this and he listened to it?"

Max leans in further, dangerously close to knocking over the caffeinated beverage he's not drinking at North Lamar's Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf. He's in the moment now, and his voice speeds up.

"Two weeks later I was coming into class, and he was playing it over the speakers. And he was like, 'I don't remember who handed this to me, but come talk to me after.'"

Short pause.

"So I went and talked to him, and we kind of became friends. Over that year, I showed him more stuff and finally, he was just like, 'I would never say this to another student, but I really think you should leave school and just go do something.'"

He sits back in his chair. That's the end of the story. For now.

Max has large features - big ears, sizeable nose, long forehead - but they all suit him. He's dressed in a gray t-shirt with the worn font of "Texas" typed across it, mesh workout shorts and a matching gray rubber wristband ("It used to have Texas shit on it, but it's all faded off now"). The twenty-one-year-old looks more like a college kid you'd hire to mow your yard than a multi-instrumental musician who just signed the dotted line of an Atlantic Records contract.

But Max isn't in college. He dropped out. Finally took somebody's advice.

But that musician and Atlantic Records contract part? Yeah, Max isn't just telling that story over a wooden table in an Austin coffee grind.

He's right smack dab in the middle of actually living it out.

Growin' up Austin

"There was this place called Jovita's that was on South First," the wide-eyed face in the wooden chair spurts. Max's frame is tucked away from the looming Texas sun on the shaded side of the coffee shop.

"I remember when I was maybe ten or eleven, I was starting to get like 'I'm pretty good at guitar.' My mom was like, 'There's this guy I need to take you to see...This young guy named Gary...'"

Max was born and raised in the Live Music Capital, where taking in a Gary Clark, Jr. concert at a taco joint on any given Sunday night was just that - any given Sunday night.

Max was raised on The Beatles. And Frank Sinatra. And Walt Disney - "I was super obsessed with Fantasia." He wrapped his fingers around a guitar fret well before the elementary years when you find out Mickey Mouse isn't that cool. Max got into electric guitar - "old-school stuff" - because of Stevie Ray. And as the years went on, he started gigging at that taco place on South First.

"There were a lot of young people that I met that I was starting bands with," Max gestures with his hands. "Or were just sort of around who were into old-school [music] like me."

During his teen years at St. Andrew's Episcopal School, Max - who had begun experimenting with singing and songwriting - and a few classmates formed a band called Blues Mafia, playing gigs at the sacred stages of (then) Fifth Street's Antone's, and heating up the mic as opener for the still-not-quite-yet discovered GCJ.

Max spent his senior year pickin' his guitar at bluegrass gigs with Texas fiddle sensation Ruby Jane (the youngest fiddle player to ever slide a bow at The Grand Ole Opry). Max also forged a musical alliance with another performer: three-time SXSW Showcase artist, Yelawolf collaborator, and weed-and-Arizona-tea-in-my-music-video Austin rapper Randell "Kydd" Jones.

"I played him some stuff," Max leans in, digging his elbows into the wooden surface. "He was like, 'Dude. I want you to come and do a feature on this and that.' 'What? You want me to sing on your hip-hop record?'"

Max's voice echoes the kid who can't believe he got picked for the team - except it's a sport he didn't try-out for. He continues.

"But the great thing about it was that because it put me in a style of music that I wasn't totally engrossed in, it actually allowed me to kind of see if from a farther perspective...I was able to find the weird little things that I think kind of make my sound right now."

A sound that king-of-the-digital-music-magazine-world Paste calls a "jolt of energy" and names his "White Lies" single as a "Best Songs of 2013 (So Far)".

A sound that caused "White Lies" to hit #1 on music blog aggregator The Hype Machine. Twice.

A sound that makes A&R suit-and-ties flutter around like tweens at a One Direction concert.

Evenings at Towers

Following his high school graduation in 2011, Max Frost decided to set aside his musician lifestyle for a bit, and see if he couldn't try out a new instrument called college life at the University of Texas at Austin.

Except college life didn't sound too good on Max. Mostly because he became, quite simply, freakin' lonely.

You see, all his friends from his private high school joined fraternities. Max didn't want to barter money for hazing and Greek letters. And he wasn't a leggy co-ed in high-waisted shorts. So while everyone in his phone contacts' list was at "kegs-and-eggs" themed mixers, Max was, well, he was by himself on a Friday night. And a Tuesday night. And a Saturday night.

"I was just kind of, like, a loner," Max's fingers are wrapped around his coffee sleeve. He lifts the cup up half a centimeter, and sets it back down on the table. "I was pretty unhappy."

But his rain cloud did have a silver living. And it came encrusted with fruit emblems.

As a graduation gift, Max's father presented his UT-bound son with a Mac Book Pro. Being the musician he is, Max quickly downloaded a version of Logic - an Apple audio recording, editing and mixing software - to the laptop.

Locked in his dorm room in University Towers, Max and his Mac became attached at the keyboard. Evenings that bled into mornings that bled into evenings were spent staring at bouncing orange audio levels on the screen.

"For pretty much that whole year, I didn't do anything but make music," Max says matter-of-fact, drink cupped in both hands. " [I was] weaving through the style I was trying to find."

Slowing but surely, the energy from college disappointment morphed into LCD Soundsystem-style beats and bedroom-hazy vocal tracks.

Max crafted old-school-hip-hop-meets-Pretty-Lights-style hooks. He plucked blues notes from the strings of his red Gibson. He pounded his voice - which was starting to sound a bit like a coy Robin Thicke; minus the Miley twerks - into lyrics about lies and the fact that they were white, and didn't think much of it. Max and Kydd made a Ray-Charles-in-a-church-pulpit type of beat dubbed "Sunday Driving." Then they made a video to go with it, too, and local Austin-rock god Bob Schenider took notice.

"Before one of his Saxon shows, we got together at a Starbuck's, and talked for a little bit," Max explains. "And he was talking about, maybe even [being] interested in doing a project together, and all this stuff that was just blowing my mind."

Max breathes in quickly.

"He'd been like the dude in Austin for so long." Pause. "I felt like it was a just moment where the universe was finally giving some kind of response."

And those UT class courses? Max stuck it out for a whole year and a day.

But that first afternoon of his sophomore year, surrounded by fifty other graphic tee's in wooden desks with plastic seats, Max knew he could no longer believe the white lie he was trying to talk himself into:

"I've been doing this for over TEN years," his eyes dilate, remembering the moment. His hands are spread flat, palms down on the wobbly wooden table still clinging to it's shade.

And the musician-turned-college-kid-turned-"I-can't-do-it" suddenly found himself with a lot of free time on his calloused hands.

The Mohawk and the magic of Soundcloud

Max was smiling as he headed to the Mohawk on the evening of March 31, 2013. Life was pretty good.

He'd spent the last few college-free months focusing solely on his beats and song-crafting. He'd flown out to LA to write with Canadian jazz-pop singer-songwriter Nikki Yanofsky (and hung at famed producer Quincy Jones' crib in the process). And he'd kicked the shit out of two official SXSW showcases as an official SXSW artist.

Yes, life was pretty damn good.

So Max shows up at the Red River venue for soundcheck that last day in March. He's headlining the SXSW Hangover concert there. He's got his red Gibson in hand and a bulky camo green backpack on. The weight of his Mac and an external hard drive of music files are pulling on his shoulder.

"And I was upstairs," a pained look rims Max's eyes. "And I put the shit down and thought it was in a cool spot."

It wasn't in a cool spot.

Not twenty minutes later, Max jogs back up the stairs and he doesn't see his shit. Did somebody move his shit? Is this were he left it? Where the fuck is his shit?!

It's gone. Everything. Is. Gone.

His cherry-red Gibson SG he'd had since always. Gone. His dad's graduation-present Mac with the Logic software on it. Gone. And his silver external hard drive, with every beat he'd crafted, every music file he'd created, and every ounce of every lonely, blood-sweat-and-eye-liquid night spent holed up in Towers apartments while his friends got shitfaced at fraternity pow-wows. Gone.

"I had a feeling..."

Max's eyes shift to the side. He's thinking of those files.

"[Before this happened], I keep being like, I need to back this up, I need to back this up, I need to back this up...

But he hadn't.

Max didn't headline the Mohawk that night. He couldn't. He literally had no music he could play.

"That next day I didn't know what I was going to do," Max stares straight ahead.

"I just kind of, was like," he fiddles with his words. "I guess I might go back to school or something...I might as well; I think that's just a sign or something."

Perhaps. But it seemed fate wasn't quite done handing out signs just yet. Something else - three things really - were in the works to point him down a different path; one not filled with syllabuses and Scantron sheets.

One: Max did have files for ONE of his songs. A few weeks prior to SXSW, Max opened up his Mac, clicked on a track of his and decided, "I think I want to put this up on Soundcloud. And just tweeted it out, "Hey, here's my single.'"

The single was a little ditty Max had made one late hour in Towers called "White Lies."

Two: One of Max's managers, Eddy Levy (Russ Steele being his other), had a friend who had a connection with the popular indie music blog Pigeons and Planes. Right around when Max uploaded "White Lies" to the online world, Eddy passed the link to his friend who passed it along to Pigeons and Planes.

And Three: On April 1, as Max was trying to decipher exactly what kind of working relationship he and music where going to have from here on out, someone at Pigeons and Planes decided to look into this Max Frost and his "White Lies."

They were glad they did.

"Austin native Max Frost has been a very well kept secret - until now," read the post that day.

The music blog uploaded "White Lies" to their page, along with a few other words: "It sounds [like] the product of an Electric Guest/Gnarls Barkley love child."

If a twelve-year-old girl hears even a whisper about One Direction doing a pep rally at her school, you better believe she and every other female in that joint will have created at least fifty billion posters with "Marry Me Harry" written on them by the end of first period.

Pigeons and Planes has nearly 50,000 Facebook "like's" and over 20,000 indie music-worshiping Twitter followers.

Posters were made.

"No need for multiple listens. This one will hit you immediately. Catch the buzz below," wrote My Old Kentucky Blog with the attached "White Lies" MP3.

"Perk up your ears for Max Frost, a new Austin singer-songwriter who blends rock, hip-hop, soul and electronica without breaking a sweat," penned the ecstatic Music Ninja.

And it was on April 4, that Paste named "White Lies" - alongside singles from Emmylou Harris and Jim James - one of the "25 Best Songs of 2013 (So Far)."

All this cyber action catapulted "White Lies" to number one on Hype Machine's "Most Popular Tracks on Blogs Right Now." The music blog gatekeeper sees about half a million visitors per month. So you better believe if Max Frost's "White Lies" is sitting at number one on Hype Machine's website, ears - including those in the music industry - are going to take note.

A&R guys - aka record company talent scouts - came crawling out of the California woodwork, courting Max like a UT recruiter with a seventeen-year-old Vince Young.

And a few toe-tappin' months later, Max found himself in LA signing a white sheet of paper belonging to Atlantic Records.

Low High Low and Other Choices

Denver, CO. Boston, MA. New York City, NY.

Max and his "White Lies" will be filling the airways of these cities and more in the next few months as opening act for Warner Brother artist and Rolling Stone "Chosen One" Gary Clark, Jr.

"I've never been to most of these cities," Max says looking straight ahead. He grins as another image plays through his eyes. "I'll get to play with Gary again, just like old times."

Max is also hitting the scaffolded stages of Austin City Limits Music Fest the first weekend of October - and the ears of the estimated 75,000 daily music-lover-attendees. And on Oct. 8, Best Buy, Walmart and every other hole-in-the-wall music-slingin' store will be stocked with Max's Atlantic Records-backed EP Low High Low.

Not bad for a kid clocked as a college dropout a year ago.

"It is all moving so fast, it's hard to process it." Max's eyes shift. He's trying to process it. Not going to happen today.

Max talks a little more, telling a few last tales. He sits on the wooden table to get a photo made for the piece he knows will be written about him. And then he climbs into his four-door silver sedan and heads down Lamar.

There's one more story Max tells before he leaves.

But because it's not that long and he actually told it early on in the day, it's forgotten. It's only days later, when Max's voice is pouring out of the iPhone voice memo, that the story is relived.

Max is talking about his family. How they took to the news about him dropping out of UT. They weren't exactly ecstatic. His big brother thought it was a terrible idea. But for Max, there was quite simply, never any other choice.

"I just knew that if I were to really try to continue balancing [school and music], and it didn't happen, I would live the rest of my life being like, 'What if I hadn't?'"

Max stops for a minute. The narrator sounds like he might be opening up to tell another story, one to really summarize it all, to explain what it is he's trying to articulate, to make sense of everything, but he stops himself.

Sometimes those stories haven't been lived yet.

All live photos shot at 101X's Homegrown Live concert series.