Max Davies is a versatile musician and producer with an ever-growing catalog to his name. He has collaborated with the likes of Thurston Moore, Anne Waldman, Lydia Lunch, Toni Oswald, LAPCAT, Clark Coolidge, and Gregory Alan Isakov, among others, while continuing to release solo albums and composing music for films, festivals, and collaborative projects. Over pints in a pseudo British pub, Max discusses his album Inventions for Broken & Prepared Guitar—a project structured around the constraint of only using guitars in various states of disrepair that was recently featured in CAConrad’s Top Ten list in Artforum—and what it means to make intentional art in the face of perfectionism and capitalistic expectations.

Jade Lascelles: To begin, could you provide some context for your latest album? How you arrived at it. What your writing process was like. Where you ended up.

Max Davies: The writing process was spontaneous for the most part. It was getting the guitar in my hands, finding a tuning that sounded and felt good, and then treating it according to taste. It was about as automatic as you can get—very “first thought best thought.” It was almost an act of boredom and desperation in some ways, to just start doing something. I had all these guitars, which I don’t necessarily want to get rid of, but I needed to justify some sort of purpose for them. One of them Greg Isakov gave to me. He thought it was ready for the fire pile. I did get it back into shape, to some extent, but it still had issues. This was a way of justifying not just throwing shit away.

JL: I’m curious about that repair idea, which is quite absent from our society. Everything is seen as disposable. Was this album a form of active commentary against disposable culture?

MD: This was definitely a conscious attempt to make something musical, something creative and fresh, out of things most people would throw away. That’s what was such a coup about getting written up in Guitar World. Musician magazines are geared to sell people shit. It’s a very materialist perspective, and that’s what pays their bills. The fact that they even covered my album within that context, I saw it as a very interesting fluke.

JL: In terms of the actual preparations, what sort of prepared guitars did you make?

MD: A lot of it was alligator clips, screwdrivers that I would move on a fretless guitar. I had a stick that I wedged under the strings and flicked at certain node points. Depending on where you play something or place something, you can get a certain frequency. It was about what was around, what was handy. Like a spiral paper clip that I put onto one string created a cool, resonant buzz when I hit the string. I used an electronic bow and a violin bow. Really it was about what I haven’t done before. I was influenced by people like John Cage and Thurston Moore. Wedging things under fretboards is almost like the anti-capo; it raises the nut and gives you a definitive kind of tonality in a much more haphazard and unpredictable fashion. Things that allow you to create a different tonality, but that don’t guarantee what your sound will be. You’re much more open to chance.

JL: In that chance experimentation, there’s not a high probability of being able to recreate the results. Is this album something that you ever imagine performing live?

MD: Not without preparation, but I did take notes. I could get close. I couldn’t do it alone. I would have to do it with others.

JL: When I listen to this album, I think of the word introversion. It has a real introverted feeling to it. Would these songs work with other people?

MD: I think introverted is a very good word because it was introverted work. I didn’t even tell Toni [Oswald] about it until it was recorded. I’ve thought about playing it live, and if it were to happen, I could make it happen. But that wasn’t the intention. This is about being in the moment and trying to rekindle some creative, compositional momentum. I actually had no plans to put it out. But I did these nine songs, and they’re all good, they all work. It was a nice surprise.

JL: You said earlier these compositions were “first thought, best thought,” harkening back to the idea of contemplative art practices. Was that something you consciously brought to the process? Because the album does provide a rather meditative experience.

MD: Yes, I would say my work has a certain contemplative sense to it because I grew up in a sangha world. At a very formative age. I was influenced by and interested in the Beats. I was around them. If I can get something good off of that approach, then I’ll always take it. Do I always get results? No. Sometimes you have to redo or tweak or edit heavily. So the first thought, best thought thing, I’d like to think that’s my overall MO. I think that also comes from other influences like Nirvana or John Frusciante. Those are people that never played the same solo. Thurston too. They’ll come up with their own spontaneous take based on the evening. I don’t always play things the same way twice. It’s often similar, but I leave enough wiggle room to just let something spontaneous in. If I can function like that, I’m happy. It doesn’t always work, and often times, it probably makes more work for me than I like. But yes, first thought best thought is a good way to start.

JL: I’ve been thinking recently about how all art is a collaboration. Sometimes it is a direct response or conversation, whereas other times it’s more indirect or unconscious. Within that frame, what would you say Inventions for Broken & Prepared Guitar is in collaboration with?

MD: It’s a collaboration with myself and my past. And it’s almost an anti-collaboration. I can be very meticulous and over-edit things. So it’s a collaboration with that part of me. And there’s collaboration with chaos because of the happenstance that might happen. I think sometimes the best things that happen are those beautiful mistakes. It’s just showing up and being available and being willing to let go of control enough. I mean control in the Burroughs sense that you can appreciate the beauty in chaos. I’m a contrast. I can be very contrasting sometimes in the way I approach things. I like to be wild and spontaneous, but I’m also meticulous. This record is a great example of mixing those aspects of my creative process, maybe better than most things I’ve done.

JL: Have you ever run into struggles with that contrast? As humans, we have a hard time with contradiction and vagueness and ambiguity.

MD: All the time. A great example is when I first heard Toni’s music—the Diary of Ic Explura stuff. I was jealous of that freedom I heard in her recordings. I want the wildness and the freedom of that naiveté or primitiveness (and I don’t mean that in a bad way), but I also like things to be sophisticated and methodical. It’s a constant give-and-take between chaos and disorder. Order and disorder.

JL: Did you allow anything “wrong” (in your opinion) onto the album?

MD: Every record or song I’ve put out is imperfect; there’s always something that feels like a grain of sand in there, irritating. Over time, it goes away a bit and I can appreciate things as larger pieces. I think we bullshit ourselves in terms of our own work, and sometimes our egos get in the way. Sometimes in the interest of momentum, you might want to just bang out the song and not worry about the minutiae. But you also have to be willing to be able to go back and tweak or re-track. We should always serve the song from a production standpoint.

JL: When you’re working on solo stuff, do you get feedback from others?

MD: At a certain point, I will bounce it off people. Toni’s probably my greatest mirror in that I usually trust her, probably 90% of the time. In the past I was more needy in that capacity. As I’ve gained more experience, I feel fairly confident about my choices. I think feedback is good, but it also can beholden you to subjective tastes. You have to keep your audience in mind. You don’t want to operate in a complete vacuum. With this record, I kept it a secret until I had a body of work that felt substantial, seven or eight songs. I think sometimes it’s good to work in secret, not vet things with other people up to a point because you can be derailed by criticism. You can be derailed by other people’s perspectives or agendas.

JL: Do you have any rituals in terms of musical composition?

MD: Play every day. If I take a day off from playing guitar or doing something musical, I notice it.

JL: I struggle with finding balance between showing up, putting in the work that’s necessary for progress, and understanding how much of that is being conditioned to capitalist productivity. Am I being a dedicated artist or a conditioned capitalist?

MD: I recently heard somebody say, “If you’re not getting better, you’re getting worse.” And I wondered how much of that is a capitalist concept—like if you’re not being productive then you’re failing. I think daily practice, with a day or two off, is important for musicians to keep their muscles and brains sharp. But yeah, I don’t know how much of it is capitalism and how much of it is that I just really love to do this. Music is what gets me up in the morning. This question also brings up how devalued art and music really are in the culture except as commodity. Since the Renaissance, there’s been a sense of commodification because you need a patron. You’re serving the interests of the wealthy. How do you sustain? That is really the question. I think that answer changes over time, and it’s conditional. But there are certain things that you can and cannot do in order to circumvent. Maybe you don’t sell your shit to Fiat. Or maybe you don’t sell your catalog. It’s disheartening, and the only way I’ve come to terms with it is that I just do work because I have to. I have to do it. If I don’t, shit gets weird.

JL: And what is that work now? Can you see where this prepared guitar work will lead you? Are you working on more constraint-based compositions?

MD: Everything is constraint-based when it comes to recording, from a production standpoint. The producer’s role is to understand the constraints. Even though I was being very constrained in Inventions for Broken & Prepared Guitar, there was a lot of freedom too. So, constraint is always part of the creative process. Whether you’re aware of it or not, we’re always constrained. Constraint is just a way to be salient: here’s where things are ordered and here’s where things are not. What I find most exciting is taking it too far, really letting things get chaotic and seeing what happens. Nine times out of ten, you aren’t going to get shit, but there are wow moments I never would have thought of. The liminal space is where stuff happens. It’s somewhere between control and chaos. That’s what magic is—where your best laid plans meet reality. It’s hard to do now because of computer recording and the perfection of things with Autotune. When you try to make everything perfect, you sacrifice something, and that’s something to be aware of. Not sacrificing humanity in the interest of perfection. In the world I grew up in, professional musicians weren’t robots. We should stop trying to be robots. I don’t know why we all want to be fucking robots. I think it just serves the capitalist agenda. “Oh well, you need to get this new app or you need to update this program or you need to be perfect.”

JL: Who are some non-robotic influences or inspirations for you right now, creatively or intellectually?

MD: Viv Albertine is a recent source of inspiration. And John Lurie’s show Painting with John, which is super soothing and inspiring—along with his autobiography The History of Bones. Both of them inspire me from literary and musical standpoints. I’ve been reading This Is Your Brain on Music by Daniel Levitin. And I recently read The Jazz of Physics by Stephon Alexander. Musically, I recently relistened to Marianne Faithfull’s album Before the Poison—PJ Harvey, Damon Albarn, and Nick Cave wrote songs and played on it. In the last year and a half, I went pretty big into Aleister Crowley. The prepared guitar stuff was definitely influenced by him, to the extent that the cover art is an homage to his Snowdrops from a Curate’s Garden. Crowley had this concept of doing things without the lust of results. This album is the closest I’ve come to that. I did the work, the work was good, I put it out, and people responded to it, people resonated with it. I got a lot of good feedback and I made a little bit of money. I mean I paid off the money I spent to make it. I broke even.

JL: That might be the most anti-capitalist thing we can do as artists.

MD: Yeah, you do the work and you hope to break even. And if you make a lot of money, then maybe reinvest it in your art. How do you create in a capitalist society, without being focused on production? Whatever you make, you reinvest it back into more art. At least most of it. Obviously you’ve got to pay expenses, right?