DAN FISHBACK AND MAX VERNON ANSWER SOME IMPORTANT QUESTIONS
In a city rife with talented assholes, untalented assholes, and Europeans, it’s über rare for one to come across a good artist that is also a good person. So far I’ve found two. Dan Fishback [left] and Max Vernon [right] are glamorously thin, eerily talented anti-folk singer/songwriter girly-boys and genuinely pleasant people. I’ve drunkenly thrown myself at them more than once and I’m not ashamed to say I’ll probably do it again. Recently, though, I was sober long enough to sit upright and ask them a few questions regarding their musical genius, their upcoming show at Joe’s Pub, and their personal lives.
Dan and Max photographed for EVB by Allison Michael Orenstein
Cole Escola: How did you survive middle school?
Dan Fishback: I got by on a steady mix of Comedy Central and Nirvana. Whenever I got beat up in the locker room, I would think about Kurt Cobain or Scott Thompson (from Kids in the Hall), and I figured they’d probably like me if we ever hung out. Then, near the end of middle school, The Real World: San Francisco started airing and I spent most of my free time fantasizing that I was Pedro Zamora’s boyfriend. I drew lots of comic books too. I’d make up my own characters, who all had elaborate costumes, and when an older relative saw them, she told me that I didn’t really like comic books, I just liked fashion. She was on to something.
Max Vernon: I got really good at “reading” people. Back then, when I was about a foot shorter and not quite as intimidating physically, my only defense was to come up with really creative and shocking insults that would hit people as close to home as possible, resulting in a momentary paralysis that would allow me to quickly flee the scene. Then, I would go home and put my head on the carpet next to my record player and listen to Joni Mitchell’s “For the Roses”.
Cole: How do you feel about the word “fag?”
Dan: I really like the word “fag” when fags say it. When fags say “fag,” it reminds me of its etymology as a flaming bundle of sticks. Like, obviously fags are on fire. Just look at us. When anyone else says it, though – even really cool queer ladies – I always subconsciously brace myself for an attack.
Cole: What if Laurie Metcalf said it all the time?
Dan: Laurie Metcalf is not above mistakes! Look at Scream 2. Here is a list of ladies who are allowed to say fag: Erin Markey.
Max: I think it depends on the context and who is saying it. In theory I’m all for the reappropriation of hate speech, but based on my personal experiences with the word, it’s hard not to be a little put off.
Cole: What if your mother said it all the time?
Max: If my mother said it all the time, I would move to New York. Oh wait…
Cole: Cute. Say you’re at a party, Max, and you’re talking to someone who doesn’t know Dan’s music. After you slap them, where do you recommend they start?
Max: I would tell them to get Cheese on Bread’s latest record, The Search for Colonel Mustard, because the entire thing is fucking brilliant. My favorite songs on that record are “Piece of Ass”, “Samurai”, and “Sexy Anarchist Boy”. That last song in particular really resonates with me lyrically: “Sexy anarchist boy, I will organize your life if you promise to fuck up mine, then we’ll kiss and be just fine.”
Cole: Dan, you’re talking to someone who doesn’t know Max’s music. Go.
Dan: For me, the quintessential Max Vernon song is “Go To Hell,” on his first album. The title sorta sums up his entire catalog. In the song, he’s totally eviscerating some guy, but if you listen carefully, he’s really much more brutal on himself, berating himself for caring enough to write a song in the first place. In the emotional climax, when he compares his sense of romance to the way his mother cleans her house, he sings in her annoying voice and says, “Oh Max, look what you’ve done to the carpet, get your paints out of here.” It’s the sort of theatrical move that usually makes no sense in a pop song, but he makes it work. It’s petrifying and sad and sweet.
Cole: I read on a wall somewhere near First Avenue, “the East Village is dead!” Is it?
Max: Neighborhoods are constantly “dying” and being rediscovered about every five years, so I’m sure it’ll have another moment. Anyway, I live here so it feels alive enough to me.
Dan: If it was dead, it would probably be more interesting. The problem is that it’s alive. Alive with idiots. Not including Max.
Cole: How did you two meet?
Dan: In the East Village! M. Lamar introduced me to Max in 2007, at the Sidewalk Cafe open mic. I’d been hanging out there for years, and he reminded me of myself when I first moved here. He was impossibly young, but his songs were so smart and sophisticated. I immediately felt a strong big-sisterly urge towards him and I’ve been trying to control his life ever since.
Silent Sirens – Max Vernon
Max: I heard him sing a song with the lyric, “I want to make out with someone who philosophically disgusts me,” and I immediately knew I had found a kindred spirit.
Make Out – Dan Fishback
Cole: How heartwarming. You both spend a lot of time working/living/playing in the East Village/Williamsbushwick areas. What neighborhoods in New York City might you go to “get away from it all?”
Dan: My favorite neighborhood in New York is the Staten Island Ferry. Sometimes I go there to write. Somehow it’s easier for me to write when I’m in motion. Which makes my second favorite neighborhood the subway. Especially any line that goes over the bridge. I’ve written some of my favorite songs while riding over the East River.
Max: My favorite New York City hideaway is Brighton Beach. Buy a small tin of caviar and a bottle of vodka, sit on the edge of the sand and stare out into the night while the waves wash up against your feet.
Cole: That sounds pretty glamorous… but also gross. You’re both also good drawers. If you could write and illustrate a children’s book, what would it be about?
Dan: I’d probably make a how-to, pop-up book about civil disobedience. Kids are naturally inclined to protest authority, and they’d be better at it if they had a guidebook.
Max: I would love to illustrate a new edition of Once Upon a Potty.
Cole: Since we’re talking about children, if someone wants to go home with you after your show at Joe’s Pub on Sunday, how should they go about doing that?
Dan: I’m mega-in-love right now, for the first time ever, so I’m pretty off-limits. In earlier years, though, I was a sucker for anyone who would I could intellectually dominate in a political argument.
Max: They should try to seduce me. I don’t give out the milk for free.
Dan: I don’t mean to suck up, but my favorite actress is Cole Escola. She really commits to the moment, ya know? My second favorite is Bess Armstrong, who played Angela’s mom on My So-Called Life. She inspires me to keep my feelings to myself, which just gets more and more useful as I get closer in age to her than to Angela.
Max: Meryl. What doesn’t she mean to me?
Cole: True. Today’s modern woman has to wear many hats to keep up in society. What other hats besides “musician” do you wear and what kinds of projects do you have coming up?
Max: Visual artist, costume designer, writer,etc. Within the next couple months I’m releasing my first music video and my upcoming EP, Silent Sirens. There’s also a chance I might be in a theatrical production with Vaginal Davis and Jennifer Miller. Fingers crossed…
Dan: Somehow I ended up being a playwright, too. I’m not sure how that happened, but I like it. In this summer’s Hot Festival at Dixon Place, I’ll be workshopping my new musical, The Material World. It’s about Jewish socialists in the 1920s, and it stars Erin Markey as Madonna. Later in the year I’ll be going to San Francisco to workshop a solo performance called thirtynothing, about how my generation of gay men relates to AIDS. I was born in 1981, which was the first year AIDS appeared, so AIDS and I are both about to turn 30.
Cole: Who disturbs you?
Max: People who reward mediocrity.
Dan: I love the word “disturb.” There are plenty of artists and performers who disturb me, as in: they stir up my feelings, make me uncomfortable, and force me to realize how much of my life I need to change. It’s always disturbing for me to see plays by Young Jean Lee, because she makes me realize how complacent I am. It’s disturbing to see performances by Edgar Oliver, because he makes me realize how lonely I can be. It’s disturbing to see Penny Arcade, because she makes me realize how little I know about my own history. Sometimes it’s even disturbing to see Justin Bond, because he challenges me to go beyond my comfort zone – to be more honest and open hearted. These are all good disturbances. I like being disturbed.
Cole: Okay, what if all of a sudden NBC is like, “Woah! We need YOU to come up with a one hour variety show. You can have five acts! And end with a torch song!” Gimme the order of the show.
Max: I think it would have to consist of different drag queens impersonating Laura Nyro. Each dress would be more fantastically ugly than the last, and the whole show would culminate with a Steve Reich inspired interpretation of “Emmie” on vibes.
Dan: 1. For a glitzy opening number, I sing a big-band version of “HerJazz” by Huggy Bear, with rejected cast-members from RuPaul’s Drag Race as my back-up singers and dancers.
2. I host a Rachael Ray-style cooking segment where I teach Kim and Kelley Deal how to make macrobiotic appetizers.
3. I kidnap MGMT and force them to perform my own version of “Time to Pretend,” with new lyrics about respecting women and overthrowing corporate capitalism.
4. We do a satellite feed to the grave of Nell Carter. We stare at it in silence for a few minutes, then my witch friend Thain leads a seance.
5. Me and internet sensation Joyce Conner sing a rousing duet of “Reminders of Then” by Kimya Dawson.
See, hear, and ogle Dan and Max as they co-headline at Joe’s Pub (425 Lafayette St, New York), Monday, April 5, 7:00 PM. $12