Five minutes with singer/downtown dandy Max Vernon
If you’ve hung around the East Village in the past year or so, chances are you’ve come across 21-year-old antifolk musican and downtown dandy Max Vernon. The NYU singer with a penchant for eyecatching ensembles has performed his infectious blend of jazz, doo-wop and pop at the CMJ festival, Pianos and Knitting Factory and last year became a Youtube sensation with his satirical take on Katy Perry’s hit “I Kissed a Girl.” We caught up with Vernon (who, by the way, showed up to our interview sporting tie-dye jeans, a sunflower pin and an oversized woman’s dress) to talk Internet fame and his new EP.
Why did you cover and make a Youtube video of Katy Perry’s song “I Kissed a Girl”?
The first week Katy Perry’s song was on the radio my friend and I were laughing at how silly it was as it advertises homosexuality as illicit. I wanted to comment on the gender and sexual politics being sold with that song. I worked out the song in 30 minutes, banged it out in the studio and sent it out to bloggers with the rest of my music. The next day New York Magazine had re-posted it and twenty more blogs wrote about it in the following month.
Do fans ever recognize you from your Youtube videos?
I get recognized in the weirdest places: people have approached me to say they like my videos in a diner in Harlem and a few times on the Sunset Strip in LA.
What is antifolk and how did you get involved in the scene?
It’s difficult to define antifolk; I would say it’s about creating an inclusive space for anyone to try anything. Most notably Regina Spektor and the Moldy Peaches came out of it and Beck and Susan Vega were associated with it as well. When I first moved to New York I went to an open-mic at the Sidewalk Cafe, where the antifolk scene is based.
still from Vernon’s Youtube cover of Katy Perry’s “I Kissed a Girl”
What prompted you to start making your own performance-wear?
At the heart of it is that I didn’t have the money to buy the kind of clothing I wanted to perform in. I really think you can make anything with a hot glue gun, a little ambition and glitter. I bought a suit and glued about a thousand googly eyes to it. Since I don’t have a manager everything about my music is DIY: I record myself in my studio, I make my own music videos, so making my own costumes seemed like a natural next step.
A lot of your lyrics are about your friends — are you afraid any of them will recognize themselves in your songs?
I mostly write positive songs but I have written a few revenge ones in my time. The chorus of “Around Your Finger” is one example: “I hate to tell you but you I had more fun when you were hooked on drugs/Down the drain your Lower East Side fame but no one wants to have to drop your name anyway.” It’s a little bitchy but I feel like people who figure it out had it coming anyway.
Tell us about your recent EP, Manic Impression, which you released online this fall.
It’s funny — a few people who have written about it have accidentally called it Manic Depression, which is definitely not the message I want to send! I’m inspired by the 1960s because it was such an experimental period for pop. My music has some jazz influence and a little doo-wop but it’s still something totally new.