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March 4, 2008

Song of the South End: Valley Station native Greg Maddux has outlasted “The Great Dry Spell.”

Now, we might finally see that catalog of his.PHOTOS BY SCOTT MCINTYREI first met Greg Maddux in the mid-’80s. We were riding around with Sean Garrison, listening to one of Sean’s Bad Brains tapes. I had heard stories about Greg from mutual friends for a year or so. Nothing necessarily bad or unflattering, mind you, just the standard “Man, those South End dudes are crazy” kind of stuff. It turns out the stories were largely exaggerated.Greg Maddux: Photo by Scott McIntyre Greg Maddux kept going through many incarnations and permutations of the band formula. Evil Twin Theory (which featured Brett Holsclaw, Jim Peak and Byron Hoagland) went so far as to record with producer Kramer in NYC and performIn fact, Maddux seemed to play the unwitting straight man to Garrison’s relentless antics. I had also heard that he was an accomplished songwriter, and his band, Mr. Big (featuring Irv Ross on bass and Sean Mulhall on drums), was often referred to in superlatives. This, as it turned out, was far more accurate.They certainly didn’t sound like anyone else. Melodic to the point of being catchy with lyrics that were accessible, they weren’t punk in the usual sense, although they came from that mindset. In fact, they were punk like the Minutemen were punk. They were pop like Elvis Costello was pop. Not at all what one might expect from a native son of Valley Station.“I’ve never tried to imitate or sound like anybody else. Maybe that’s why I’ve never been ‘popular’ among the hipper elements,” Greg says. “I won’t pretend that I’m something that I’m not. I grew up in Valley Station close to Kosmosdale and the cement plant. I’m not some rich kid pretending to be from the mountains. Any time that I do cover what people might think is a stupid song, it’s not because I’m being ironic; it’s because I like the song. Greg Maddux: Photo by Scott McIntyre Greg Maddux kept going through many incarnations and permutations of the band formula. Evil Twin Theory (which featured Brett Holsclaw, Jim Peak and Byron Hoagland) went so far as to record with producer Kramer in NYC and perform I used to cover Bob Seger’s ‘Night Moves’ when I was with 3000 Guitars, but I think it’s a great song. ‘Out near the cornfields where the woods got heavy,’ that’s a great line.”Commercial success and widespread notoriety evaded the band. Greg kept going through many incarnations and permutations of the band formula. Evil Twin Theory (which featured Brett Holsclaw, Jim Peak and Byron Hoagland) went so far as to record with producer Mark Krammer in NYC and perform at the legendary CBGB. Their album, Bent Outta Shape By Society’s Pliers, made it to the cover of the College Music Journal and was courted by RCA, Capitol and Geffen. Nothing happened.Greg Maddux Photo by Scott McIntyre: “I’ve never tried to imitate or sound like anybody else. Maybe that’s why I’ve never been ‘popular’ among the hipper elements,” Greg Maddux says. “I won’t pretend that I’m something that I’m not.After a somewhat protracted absence from the music scene, which he refers to as “The Great Dry Spell,” he has returned to recording and producing original music. One album, Goin’ Down to Rahway with Jeremy “Rocko” Milburn, is a musical tribute to the ’70s documentary “Scared Straight” in which juvenile delinquents were sent to Rahway State Prison to get a taste of what might await them. It’s a pretty rich source of dialogue and colorful characters. Musically, “Rahway” is pretty far removed from the jazzy rock of Mr. Big or the electric honky tonk of 3000 Guitars. It’s a sample-heavy pastiche of ’70s supersoul with Greg and Rocko trading vocals with sampled “lifers.” Somehow, it still sounds like Greg.His latest release, Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, is a collection of material from his storied past. It includes songs from the notorious “Bedroom Tapes.” The song “Social Graces” is absolutely choice. Live songs from Mr. Big and Evil Twin Theory suffer a little from inferior source material, but the songs themselves are brilliant. The stage banter and crowd noise only add to their value. Before the band launches into “Bumming at the Show,” someone onstage can be heard inquiring, “Where’s Robert Nedelkoff?”Brilliant.Some of the demos rival Jandek in the spooky-home-recording department. The lyrics are fantastic, but the transcendental nature of the recordings can be a touch off-putting: a minor quibble, I assure you. We’re very lucky to be able to hear “Time, Water and the Way Things Are” again. The disc could have contained naught but this tune, and I’d have been tickled to death. It is, by far, the best of his early tunes. It’s the one that stuck with me through the years. I’m happy to report that it holds up very well over time.Although we had hung out largely in the same circles for a while, I gradually lost touch with Greg over the years. Social circles cease to intersect or migrate, you know how it goes. I was pleased when our mutual friend, Rocko, informed me that he and Greg had produced Goin’ Down to Rahway. It was encouraging to know that Greg was still active. I was even more encouraged once Rocko informed me that Greg’s next project was to be a retrospective that would include material from the Bedroom Tapes and Mr. Big. A few e-mail conversations followed, and Greg was kind enough to answer some questions for me:LEO: After working for so long without much commercial recognition, most people would have just packed it in. What prompted you to start producing music again? Has your approach changed? Guitar and tape deck or Pro Tools and samples? Greg Maddux: I don’t have anything better to do … seriously. There was a time when I just stopped playing for about four or five years. There was about two years when I wouldn’t even listen to any music at all. Even when I was in the car, the radio was tuned to NPR. I would only listen to talking. It was painful. I didn’t start listening to the music I used to like until a couple of years ago. A lot of bands and certain songs just had too many painful memories attached to them. It seems like a different time now. Like the movie “Little Big Man,” it was a certain “period,” and I can look back upon those times in a detached manner.In 1999, I decided I better do something, so I went back to school to study graphic design. I already had a B.A. in communications, so I thought that an Associates of Applied Science would go well with it. I did pretty well. I graduated Cum Laude, joined Phi Theta Kappa (the honor society for two-year colleges) and won seven jury awards. But little did I know that everyone else in the world also got degrees in graphic design, or at least thought that if they had Photoshop, that made them a designer. I wanted to go the ad agency route, but I just thought of all the crap I see on TV and thought, “Why would I want to do something like that?” And I definitely didn’t want to work at Kinko’s.The best thing about going to school was getting training with computers. I got one of the flavored iMacs, and I was off and running. When Apple released the iPod, I didn’t get one. When they released the click-wheel version, I finally caved in. That, and iTunes got me back into listening to music again. Then Apple came out with Soundtrack, and I thought that might be a way to sort of ease into making music again. I had a program called Mixman, but it was too confining. There wasn’t a whole lot of different things you could do with it. So I started putting instrumentals together with Soundtrack. I made about three albums worth of songs with that. By that, I mean maybe about 30 or so songs, not including ones I didn’t like. I finally decided that I had pretty much played out what I could do with samples, so I decided to start recording myself playing. I already had a bass, I got an acoustic electric and I bought a USB keyboard to plug directly into the computer.I like recording digitally so much better now. I would never go back to using a four-track. It’s just too much trouble, doesn’t sound as good and if you want to make your recording sound like crap, there’re plug-ins for the computer that can do that for you. But the computer’s just another tool. On the keyboard side, I pretty much confine myself to using organ and piano sounds.LEO: Mike Bucayu (owner of local punk rock label Self-Destruct Records and a close friend of Greg’s) once told me that he figured you had written more songs than Bob Dylan. Was it hard to select the material that went into Portrait of the Artist, or did you already have an idea of what you would like to include?GM: I don’t think I have that many, but I have a lot. Writing songs used to be a lot easier. I figured I must have recorded about 32 songs last year, not including outtakes. Some of those were old songs I had never recorded before or songs I thought that I could do a better job on now.It was easy to put together the material. What I like to call “The Bedroom Tapes” had to be included. I put the songs in chronological order. They were songs I recorded on my home stereo about 1979 or 1980. I just thought they were silly, but I gave Mike B. the tape, and he just flipped over it. A lot of people seem to like those songs. I also included some live stuff from a Mr. Big show. One of the songs has some funny dialogue between Britt Walford and John Hawkins on it. I use to have a big jam box that had two built-in mics for stereo recording, and I had Britt watching it to start recording and turn the tape over when one side got full. At the beginning, he says, “This band sucks, don’t they?” in a redneck voice. Hawkins says, “Then why are you taping them?” Britt replies, “This is not my box.” John says, “Whose is it?” Britt says without missing a beat, “My mom’s.” So that had to be included. Then I put the Mr. Big demo version of “Time, Water and the Way Things Are” on it, because that was our best song. Then the rest is assorted demos I made on a four-track or an ADAT machine that I rented one time.LEO: How did Rahway come about? It’s different from your other work, but it still sounds like a Greg Maddux record.GM: Rocko (Jeremy Milburn) had a bulletin on MySpace looking for musicians because he wanted to do something. He had some lyrics that were inspired by the documentary “Scared Straight.” I thought about it, and thought it would be a good idea to do a whole album based on “Scared Straight.” I started listening to some old soul music, because I thought it would be a good idea to give it an old ’70s blaxploitation vibe. I listened to Curtis Mayfield, The Dramatics, The Staples Singers, Booker T. & The M.G.s, Sam and Dave, The Chi-Lites, The O’Jays and, most of all, The Last Poets.I had some tracks together in a couple of weeks, then I gave Rocko a copy of the backing tracks, and he wrote some lyrics. While I was lying in bed one night thinking about one of the tracks, I kept hearing some of the dialogue. I thought it would be great to sample some of the best stuff and put them to some of the music. Kind of like Fatboy Slim would do. So it came to be that Rocko only sang on two songs, I sang on two, and the rest featured the lifers from the film.LEO: Personally, I’m thrilled to have a good copy of “Time, Water and the Way Things Are.” After 20 years, it’s still one of my favorite songs. I’m curious about what you’ve got in store. What are you working on now?GM: I’ve got quite a bit backlogged. I’m hoping that people will enjoy Portrait enough to want to check out more stuff. I am waiting to see what the response will be. First I have an album called Kerry that I want to put out, because it’s been sitting around for about two and a half years, and I just want to get it out. Also, I have another album waiting to be released called F**k Singer that’s folk- and country-oriented originals and some covers. Right now, I’m working on something called Recycler. It’s harder edged and loud with a big beat. Portrait Of The Artist As A Young Man is available at Barnes & Noble’s Hurstbourne Lane location, as is Goin’ Down To Rahway. Rahway is also available in downloadable form at iTunes, Napster and Verizon. Visit Greg online at myspace.com/theoriginalgmx. Contact the writer at msteiger@leoweekly.com

Viva GMx

By HNB
Thanks, Mike, for writing this. Sure I'm a bit slow on the uptake, finding this two and a half years after the fact, but then again I only got back to Louisville to digitize my long-lost and sorely-missed Evil Twin Theory tape this past summer. I have always been convinced of Greg's genius and was saddened that more didn't feel the same way. I'm happy to know that there's some extant material out there. --Hank