Monday, November 2, 2009

Max Vasquez-A Quienes Somos: Latinos in the Entertainment Industry" Interview

A composer since 1978, Max Vasquez embraces all styles of music with a keen instinct for the nuances of each genre he excels in. At the age of nine, he was performing with choirs, in musicals and plays. By the time he was thirteen, he had taught himself how to read and write music. At fourteen, he was working professionally playing trumpet in horn sections of bands all over L.A. as well as bass with members of punk band Verbal Abuse. He also played with Black Flag members Sam and Henry and met and hung out with The Doors’ Ray Manzarek and John Doe of X and others at the Whiskey A Go Go. Max is somewhere in the mosh-pit shots from Penelope Spheeris' "Fall and Decline of Western Civilization-The Punk Years". Upon looking over Max's first orchestral jazz arrangement for Jazz orchestra, at the age of 16, Legendary giant Doc Severinsen (of the Tonight Show’s NBC Orchestra fame) encouraged him to pursue music. With further training from some of the leading jazz educators/studio-men in Los Angeles, Max went on to play and study with Gary Foster, Clare Fischer, Alan Broadbent, Bobby Bradford, Freddie Hubbard, and even wrote for the Count Basie Orchestra. Dick Grove School of Music and Berkley College of Music taught him the art of writing/arranging and recording engineering and publishing/legal aspects of the music industry. Max and his colleagues were among the first pioneers in MIDI and Electronic music. I met Max Vasquez online and our interview was conducted through electronic correspondence. ***** NB: Thank you, Max for agreeing to this interview and allowing us to delve a little into your life! What can you tell us about yourself? MV: There is not much I'm embarrassed about that you could ask me. I lived a rock and roll life-it's all embarrassing from the average person's viewpoint, I'm sure! But it sure makes for interesting reading, so I'm told. Anyway, never been married, no kids. How come? I am pretty much married to my vocation, for now. Spiritual beliefs? I was born to a Hispanic Catholic family. However, early on in life I found Eastern theologies and philosophies I became in tune with. So, I'm Christian and Buddhist. It can happen? Oh, plus a couple more in there. I loved history and theology as a kid. NB: Max, your musical experiences have ranged from Jazz groups, to Punk Rock, to Hollywood soundtracks, to Electronica and raves such as Burning Man, to gospel. Where do you feel most comfortable? MV: I am most comfortable making music. Period. Any type of music will do. I’ve tried doing other types of jobs to make ends meet, and I’ve found I’m pretty bad at most. I hate sales, though it’s taught me a lot, I’m actually improving my marketing techniques, but at the end of the day, music will always be my forte. No matter what style, or environment. NB: What were your formative years like? MV: I was born in East Los Angeles in October '63. A year later my mother fled to Panama after divorcing my father (much mystery there, the story is still a touchy subject for my family, but that's a story for another time.) into the refuge of a very large family down there until 1972; our return to California. [So] my early years were spent in Panama. This was during the 60s, and I have to include this story because my cousin Mary-Ester was kind of a hippie in those days. When I was around 5 or 6 years old, she used to put on Beatles records and show us the covers and translate the words for my little brother and me. From infant til 9 I did not speak a word of English, but I knew I loved these sounds! From that time I can remember feeling a sort of transformation begin. Mary also took us to the ballet-she was a ballerina. I have strong memories of listening to Tchaikovsky's Nutcracker Suite and being affected by this as well. She also played Sergio Mendez records which had an influence on me. My song "For You I Would", which won Best Lounge Artist/Song of the year in 2006 [at] The Los Angeles Music Awards, is my tribute to Sergio Mendez and the music of that time. NB: What was your family life like? MV: Mom had Bohemian friends. The famous artist, Panamanian artist/painter Mayo was my Tio Mayo. I remember [mom] would take us to their parties and we'd watch their "jam sessions" complete with guitars, bathtub bass and washboard rhythms, kinda like Panamanian hillbillies! My grandfather was a VP at PanAir, and he would take us to his yacht club. In the lounge was the sound of the Bossa Nova-love at first listen! It would be a major influence in my writing in years to come. At home, my mother would put on her Frank Sinatra records along with her salsa, Willie Colon, Oscar DeLeon, Fania All Stars, Santana, Celia Cruz, etc., but the one that really stuck was "Strangers In The Night". Before I even knew how to talk, I was singing "nainye in ne nigh..." Everybody thought it was the cutest thing and would get me to do it. I happily obliged. I would sit and play in the pen ‘til folks would come up to me and say, "sing negrito” (my childhood nickname, nice huh?). I'd come to life - Showtime! A performer was born... but it wasn't ‘til I came back to the states in '72 that it kicked in. It took me 3 months to learn English, and 6 months to lose the accent entirely (those were different times, assimilation was more crucial then). In the States during the ‘70s, we would spend time at my aunt & uncle's ranch. My cousins were into Rock (guys) and Disco (the girls), so I got those influences early on. We learned how to "Do the Hustle" from my cousin Alba, my favorite of them all! In grade school, we had a music teacher who [would] come in once a week for a few hours, usually on Fridays. [It was] my favorite part of the week! This kindly, sweet, chubby old woman gave me the seed for another direction I'd take later; soundtrack scoring and sound design. She played film music, Disney sound effects records, and I got it. In 4th grade, I joined the school choir and did the plays. The story goes that I did a Native American rain dance one time in a school production - and it rained that night! NB: When did you feel the pull to music? MV: The pull to music didn't really come ‘til '73. Someone had given me my own little transistor dial radio with the little earpiece. A few Dodger games later, I found K-GIL, a Swing and Big Band Era station led by the legendary Chuck Cecil whom I finally met and thanked the other day! That was it. I found my life's mission. Soon after, I went to my local library and checked out everything they had on swing, records, and books, all of it. I learned every sideman, arranger and vocalists as well as the record labels from the time like other kids memorized ball player stats from the bubble gum cards. At the age of 11, my mother took us to Knott's Berry Farm on a Big Band weekend they did every year. A good but long story short, I was introduced to Maynard Ferguson and Harry James and I knew then that the trumpet would be my herald for life! I taught myself how to play, read and write music ‘til I could find a teacher. I am glad to say, several folks recognized something in me and took me under their wings. My early education was superb. I was fortunate to have several "Yodas" in my life, including Sonny Phillips, who was Etta James’ and John Coltrane's pianist. So there I was, 12, with a beat up old student trumpet I'd gotten from a kid leaving for college. I practiced day and night. In one year I went from nothing to improvising jazz solos. Miles Davis was the jazzman I'd settled on to study along with Dizzy Gillespie and Clifford Brown. In high school, I went from 5th trumpet last chair my first day of band, to first trumpet 4th chair last semester. At fourteen, I joined a Rock and Roll band with a horn section and made my first professional money! My first gig was for $100 in 1979!! They called me Dr. Jazz back then... I [also] teamed up with a kid, Johnnie Cuccia, who was taking jazz guitar lessons from Jeff Stetson (whose upcoming new album release I produced). Johnnie and I got on the radio less than a year [playing] together. At sixteen, I wrote and arranged my first Jazz orchestral piece. At eighteen, right before graduation, I joined Jeff (Stetson)’s professional jazz group "Watercolours" and stayed [with them] from '82 to '93. John Avila of Oingo Boingo was our bass player before he joined them. I've also played with members of Tower of Powr, War, El Chicano, and Tierra back then. I had Johnny Vatos in my own jazz group at one time. During the early 80s, I'd gotten the teenage rebellion bug and started playing in punk bands on the Sunset Strip. I recall meeting Ray Manzarek behind the Whiskey A-Go-Go then, and Rodney Bingenheimer played our stuff on KROQ! This was back in the day when the station was above a nurses’ uniform shop in Pasadena! Shortly after, I got into New Wave music and Electronica, putting on and playing in Raves during the 90s. My partner Carl A. Craig and I have worked together from 1984 to this day. We made our own tapes on our own label, among the first independent artists of the time, marketing ourselves. I still believe this is the most rewarding way an artist can thrive and succeed. I now consult with new artists in following the Indy way. Several of my artists have gone on to successful quality careers. Anyway, from this association with Carl, I developed my stage persona Maxx Vaxx. Maxx Vaxx came from playing around with my name, Marcos Vasquez. Doing the Hollywood boil down thing, Maxx Vaxx appeared and stuck. I'm just Max Vasquez now, and have retired the jersey and [only] call the business after it. I'm convinced the name had its own alternate rock and roll persona! I had lots of rock and roll behavior I don't do anymore, under the Maxx Vaxx moniker, and from these adventures, I am now starting to write books with [the] semi-fictitious character, Mike Garcia, aka DJ Mike Spike. In 1988, Jay Green, owner of PooBah Records in Pasadena, had a show on KPFK Santa Monica, "Straight No Chaser" from midnight to 3AM. We'd been invited to play live on the show by Jay, and sometime around hour 2 of our live show on air, a producer/engineer was cleaning out his live mobile recording unit and dial surfing. When he came to KPFK, he noticed the music, stopped and heard us talking to Jay. After the live Watercolours show, he called in wanting to contact us. Long story short, George Belle came to be my mentor for several years. He was a protégé of Roy Halle and George Martin (who was The Beatles' producer). Through him, I worked as an intern on Who Framed Roger Rabbit and Back To The Future Part 3 among other major films, sponging up everything Alan Silvestri did on those sessions. George taught me everything George Martin had taught him, including the entire process for the Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club record and said to me one day, "No matter how low you feel on some days, always remember you are a direct descendant 3rd generation Beatle." Full circle from my cousin's music room in Panama...and one of the things that kept me alive during some of my darkest moments! NB: Can you share a little with us about those darkest moments in your life? MV: My darkest period began on August 31, 1998. The day a wild desert brush fire took everything including 70% of my life's work. In '99, I went back to Panama for a couple of weeks, depressed and determined to end it all there in a massive O.D. of anything I could get my hands on “Leaving Las Vegas” style. In spite of myself, I ended up being the number one DJ with my own hit radio show, Lonchera Sicodelica (Psychedelic Lunchbox) for a year! [My] first book comes from this wacky year. When I came back to L.A., I left music completely, going back to college for computer science until 2004, when an old friend staked my return to music. I worked tirelessly, building his recording studio and business for a year. Trading studio time, I wrote 70+ new songs, digitally restored and re-mastered many more from friends who'd kept tape cassettes of some of my lost material. After this venture fell apart…I had to scramble yet again. So, I have worked to come back to where I was before the fire. Yet it's so much better, due to all these humbling experiences that have made me who I am today. NB: It sounds like, in Panama, you literally resurrected like a phoenix. What do you attribute this revival to? MV: Funny you should say phoenix. I won Best Jazz Album of the Year in 2006 at the Los Angeles Music Awards for my CD “Return of the Phoenix ”! Again, I would have to attribute my love of music as the sole reason for my success in Panama. I was pretty bitter about life in general at the time-and most likely still in shock over the whole thing. So I know I wasn’t thinking very clearly on my plan to take myself out by excess debauchery. The funny thing about that time in Panama was that I had never been a DJ before that. Egotistical DJs will probably get mad at me for saying so, but smart monkeys can spin records. Just kidding, I hope folks realize. It was not very difficult for me to make the transition because as a trained composer, the sense of arranging, and locking tempos together was already in me. Then there’s the whole tech geek stuff too. Oh, and I’d been hanging out with DJs and observing them for the last 10 years. There were many incredible mixing moments I had on the air and in the clubs that year. But I have to say, a few friends in the States put together a great collection of Electronica CDs which my best friend Will sent down at his expense. Without this library, I doubt I could’ve done much down there. Plus having hooked up with a few cool kids (my crew Pat, Kiki and Cuba, “The Bud Brothers of Panama”) down there who knew everybody. So, my answer to what I’d attribute my success in Panama would have to be, “With a Little Help from My Friends”. NB: Your early teachers, or "yodas", were amazing professionals. How do you think things have changed today for youth who are interested in music? MV: I think the future of the music business is in a tumultuous state of flux at this time, due to the many changes taking place each week, as a direct result of the Internet revolution. Because of this, there are pros and cons to making it in this industry. I have been advising my clients to keep a level head and follow the steps laid out before the changes came along. The industry still has its proper protocols to follow regardless, (the right way to present demo submissions, etc.) and these may never change. NB: Who has inspired you the most in your life? MV: I can’t really say there is any one person, specifically. Because I embrace many styles of music, Debussy, Stravinsky, Ravel and Mozart are my biggest influences in Classical. In Jazz, Miles Davis, Gil Evans, Dave Grusin, Dizzy Gillespie, Lester Young and Louis Armstrong, among many others, played a big part in my development. In Pop and Rock, the biggest influences I’ve had are Sting, Peter Gabriel, Michael Jackson, Quincy Jones, George Martin (producer of the Beatles), and a few others; too many to mention. In Electronica, Toby of Banco De Gaia, Eat Static and Treavor Walton, who was my partner for a few years. In the literary world, Kerouac, Hemingway, Bukowsky, Khalil Gibran and Shakespeare and Mark Twain have been big influences in my writing process. Spiritually, the teachings of Gandhi, MLK Jr., Christ, Buddha, Hindu stuff like The Vedas, Bhagavad Gita and Upanishads, and Mohammed’s writings helped shape my spiritual beliefs. Things both positive and negative I’ve experienced on this world continue to inspire me. NB: Max, you have seemingly been through it all. What words of wisdom can you pass on to our readers? MV: The first thing I can say is the more I live, the less I know, so, as for words of wisdom… well… I can quote my favorite mythologist Joseph Campbell (who lived up the street from us) “Follow Your Bliss”. By that, I mean, spend the least amount of time you can being miserable. Life is just way too short for that. I tell all musicians looking to get into the business of music…“think of yourself as a small business entrepreneur”. The days of record contracts are long over, so do your research, consult professionals and follow the protocols. Networking, lots of networking. If you’re a singer/songwriter, go to the showcases, contests and conventions. Promote massively online. Oh, and study and practice, practice, practice… NB: What does the future hold? MV: I look forward to whatever the future has in store. There have been quite a few firsts for me this year: First Neo-Classical piece for choir, first solo acoustic performance ever, first really big cancer research benefit segment production/performance. I'm directing and editing music videos for the first time in my life. We're releasing the first entire album I've produced for another artist other than myself, with another one on the way! Then there's the book [and] changes in my business to include web development, Search Engine Optimization, and content marketing and management. I'm writing business/marketing plans for entertainment clients. And I am consulting and assisting in management of young up and coming artists for the next generation to come. I can't really say what's coming next. I just work towards improvement, hope for more referrals and have faith that it all keeps on getting better and better. The last couple of years have been (funds) challenging. Yet the work's been very rewarding artistically and critically. Simply, I love what I do. Money and notoriety come and go, but experiences last lifetimes through the music and tales that endure. NB: Thank you so much for sharing your experiences with us, Max. MV: Thanks, Nilki, for asking me these questions on my formative experiences. I've been meaning to document them sooner or later. Thanks so much for the interview. NB: Where can readers find out more information about you and your projects? MV: If you're interested, there are a bunch of things in my myspace blog you might want to go through. It is subscription only for most of the articles, so if you do a friend request and subscribe to the blog, you can get them that way: Also, there are new videos up in my youtube profile, as well as clients I've directed/edited for: and website: (Winner!! Best Lounge Artist and Best Jazz Album of the Year by The Los Angeles Music Awards) (search Max Vasquez)


  1. Great writing Nilki!!! Very Interesting interview!
    Jo Ann Hernandez
    BronzeWord Latino Authors

  2. Thank you, Jo Ann!

    And for all of you who have commented elsewhere about the interview, stay tuned to learn about more fantastic people in the Entertainment Industry.

    And don't forget to comment here! Authors and artists featured on Musings often check back to answer questions and comments you all leave!!

  3. Thanks for this one. Interesting artist with lots to tell.


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