Grantee Highlight: Bassist Max Johnk

Over the last year, we’ve been highlighting our 2017-2018 Individual Arts Partnership (IAP) and Jade Presents Arts Partnership (JPAP) grantees on our blog so you can get to know these wonderful artists better and learn more about their dream projects. This month, we’re featuring local musician Max Johnk!

Max Johnk is a bassist and composer who lives in Fargo. Although he performs in a variety of settings, he can be heard most frequently with local progressive rock band Wild Amphora, and as sideman to a number of Fargo-Moorhead area jazz musicians. He received a Jade Presents Arts Partnership grant to create second album of original jazz compositions, which will be released later this summer!

Here are a few questions we asked Max about his process:

Beyond other music/musicians, what sources inspire your work?
I draw inspiration from all forms of art and everyday experience, but literature and the natural world have had the most direct influence on my music. Authors who write evocatively on nature within a broader subject or narrative, such as Peter Matthiessen or Kim Stanley Robinson, have been especially important to me.

Recently I’ve been getting out to the local galleries and museums more often, which has been a big inspiration to practice. I think musicians can learn a lot from visual art in terms of variation and use of materials. It’s so easy to get comfortable with playing the songs and getting offstage that we forget that a lot of our power to impact the listener comes from what we do underneath, inside, and around the tune.

What is your daily creative work schedule?
An unvarying daily creative work schedule is what I would like most for my 30th birthday, but I suspect that if I get one it will probably be closer to my 50th birthday. I hold down a day job and am fortunate to gig quite a bit, so I work on practicing, writing, and promo/correspondence in the cracks of my day.

What is your greatest fear/challenge when facing a new project?
I’ve found its really important, and often tricky, to work on each project/concept on its own terms. For instance, right now I’m writing music for a stripped down band (2 horns, bass, and drums), where the biggest challenge is to really exploit the resources of the ensemble at hand, rather than just writing the music and figuring out the arrangement after the fact. For instance, I might write a tune I really like, but I imagine lots of rich harmonic background from guitar on it, even though the band I’m writing for doesn’t have a guitar at all. Do I set the tune aside, or do I try to adapt it to the new band’s circumstances even though it might weaken the musical idea?

Generally, I’ve found that it’s better to lean into a group’s strengths, rather than preserve an idea you like at all costs by writing around a group’s weaknesses. This also goes to the idea of staying out of a rut; if you always work in a situation you are comfortable in, or treat all new settings the same way, you’re more likely to get stuck and make lesser versions of the same thing you’ve already made. Changing up my writing and practice focuses has helped me develop new skills, and in turn I’m playing/ writing better stuff back in my “comfort zone” when I do return to it.

If you had a chance to do it all over again, how would you do things differently?
Being fairly young, it might be odd to answer this question, but most of what I’m working on now are things that I’d like to have done better when I started out. I’d definitely practice more, but mostly I wish I’d have spent more time learning musical language and less on technique. You can develop a lot of functional technique just by closely emulating your favorite musicians and composers, but you don’t learn as much about music via purely technical practice. If you keep those pursuits in balance they inform each other, but I used to get stuck on things for too long.

I wish I’d have gotten serious about jazz and improvisation a lot sooner; I kind of dabbled for the first few years I was getting into it, and I figured out a bit late that improvised music of any sort isn’t really dabbler-friendly. Fortunately I’ve had a lot of teachers and peers demonstrate what it means to have your thing together, and I’m lucky that I still have time to follow their example.

Local bassist Max Johnk. Photo courtesy of Prairie Public.

How does having a community of artists benefit your work?
I’d argue that most music-making is very community-driven, but speaking for myself as a person who plays an accompanying instrument, I wouldn’t get to do much without other musicians to play with. Jazz and improvised music especially depends on musicians getting together and interacting in order to create the music in the first place, so the communal aspect is a requirement just to get the music in the air.

Beyond that, most of what I’ve learned about making music has come from hanging out with musicians on the gig or just watching other people play. You can practice all day at home, but you mostly learn how to deliver music to a listener by experiencing it in real time. Apart from making music, being among an encouraging and attentive group of people in the DIY music scene growing up was a huge deal for me. Who you surround yourself with is ultimately the biggest influence on what you do whether your notice it or not.

What was the most discouraging/encouraging feedback you ever received?

These aren’t the most extreme feedback I’ve had by any means, but they are among my favorites.

“You sound beautiful man, don’t change anything.” – One of my teachers.

“If I could just teach you how to think, we wouldn’t have to keep doing lessons!” – Same teacher. Probably the same week.

Thank you so much, Max! We can’t wait to hear your new album.

If you’d like to hear Max live, he has an upcoming gig at 7 p.m. Monday, July 30 at Dempsey’s (21+) in downtown Fargo!

For more information about Max Johnk, visit www.maxjohnkmusic.com.

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