June 6, 2018 at 7:30 am EDT | by Joey DiGuglielmo
‘Lights Down Low’ singer MAX stoked for Pride set
MAX Pride, gay news, Washington Blade

Singer MAX says Pride festivals are his favorite venues to play. (Photo courtesy Crush Music)

Capitol Concert Stage

(3rd & Pennsylvania Ave.)

MCs: Jerry Houston and Destiny B. Childs

1-2 p.m.: Gay Men’s Chorus/Kim Petras

2-3 p.m.: Kristina Kelly and the Cobalt Cast/M AX

3-4 p.m.: Damarcko Price/Ella Fitzgerald/Michi/DJ Twin

4-5 p.m.: Ladies of Town/Mykul Jay Valentine/Freddie’s Follies/The Boy Band Project

5-6 p.m.: DJ Twin/Keri Hilson

6-7 p.m.: Troye Sivan

7-8 p.m.: Asia O’Hara from “RuPaul’s Drag Race”/Alessia Cara

8-10 p.m.: DJ Tracy Young

Dupont Dance Tent

(6th and Pennsylvania Ave., N.W.)

Noon-1 p.m.: DJ Henry Thrill

1-2 p.m: Tim Jackson

2-3 p.m.: DJ Sidekick

3-4 p.m.: Alex DB

4-5 p.m.: DJ Andre Gutarra

5-6 p.m.: DJ Mike Reimer

6-7 p.m.: DJ Strikestone

Monument Festival Stage

(6th and Constitution Ave., N.W.)

Noon-1 p.m.: DJ Jerry Jones/The CooLots

1-2 p.m.: Kristen Ford/Jourdan Frost/Baron/RYALS

2-3 p.m.: Cheer D.C./Chris Urquiaga/Pitches Be Crazy/DJ Henry Thrill

3-4 p.m.: Brody Ray/Billy Winn/Cobalt Pride Idol Winner/D.C. Front Runners/Sub-Radio

4-5 p.m.: Resurrecting Queenz/Niva the Soul Diva/Miss Kelli/SongRise/Shemuwel

5-6 p.m.: DJ Henry Thrill/AhSa-Ti Nu/Chris Chism/PRIMME/Heather Mae

6-7 p.m.: Leonardo Martinez/Dorothy Milone/Alise King/DJ Henry Thrill

Model/actor/singer MAX (aka Max Schneider), 25, didn’t originally think his song “Lights Down Low,” now his signature song, was an obvious single choice from his sophomore solo album, 2016’s “Hell’s Kitchen Angel.”

Four others (“Gibberish,” “Wrong,” “Holla” and “Basement Party”) were released to radio first. “Lights” was released only as a promo single. But a remix of the song featuring singer gnash became a sleeper hit entering the Billboard Hot 100 a year after its release and eventually earning a Gold RIAA certification. It peaked at no. 20 and the video, which features MAX and wife Emily in an elaborate set piece featuring one angle and a couple’s lifetime of married life over many years, was noted for its detail and special effects.

MAX will perform at the Capital Pride Festival/HOT 99.5 concert Sunday at 2 p.m. on the CAPITOL Concert Stage (3rd & Pennsylvania). It’s free but $50 backstage meet-and-greet passes for MAX (with photo opp) are available through capitalpride.org.

MAX spoke to the Blade by phone last week from his home in the Big Apple.

WASHINGTON BLADE: You were doing a photo shoot today?

MAX: Yeah, we had a little photo shoot and then we’re heading into the studio. It’s just a beautiful sunny day doing all the stuff.

BLADE: How did “Lights Down Low” start to gain steam?

MAX: It’s interesting. I always knew it was a really special one and I wanted it to be a single from the beginning but because it’s a ballad and sometimes people are afraid of something that’s not like a surefire uptempo song, it’s maybe a harder sell in some ways. But it was really cool because I always believed in it. It’s the most special song for me, of course, because I wrote it for my wife and proposed to her with it. … People have been slowly coming on board over the last two years and realized that it was, maybe more than the other singles, it was awesome to have that — just people continuing to get the message.

BLADE: But how did it gain traction? When did it first crack the Hot 100?

MAX: It’s been all the little things. It’s everything from my friend gnash joined the song with me about six months after I had released it originally and having him be a part of it brought a new audience to it and it’s all these different things. Amazing people started dancing to it with D-trix and Montana and then people were just putting it out there and listening to it. … Then we had the Snapchat filter worldwide on Valentine’s Day which really just sort of was unbelievable. It really brought it over the edge, which was amazing. So it was like a series of small things of people just believing in it and all of a sudden, everybody kinda knew the song, which was very humbling and amazing.

BLADE: I understand the video was quite elaborate and took months of planning, right?

MAX: Yes indeed. It was six months altogether from conception of the idea. … It was such a long process and a lot of that, probably the biggest thing was fighting for the story to be authentic whether that be because the powers that be in music didn’t want me to be open about my relationship with my wife and wanted me to appear single and whatever else, all the cliches in the music world, and I wanted to make sure people knew the story behind it — that I wrote it for her. And then it was about her being in the actual video. I wanted the song to be true to our story down to wearing exactly what we wore when we got engaged to our actual wedding outfits. … People were like, “Oh, it should be some famous DJ from the Netherlands playing your wife,” and I was like, “Screw that — it should be my actual wife and until everybody is down for that to happen, I’m not gonna make this video.” That’s why it took six months and then like three months to convince everybody to let it be my truth to the vision.

BLADE: You said people were urging you not to be who you were. That’s an interesting phrase — something you’d expect to hear more from a gay singer. What did you mean?

MAX: Oh, 100 percent — totally. Everything from what I was supposed to wear. It’s been a lot of things. Like that, it’s a lot of people being, I guess, being out there. I’m a bit eccentric and outright and an energetic kind of person and sometimes people are afraid of something that’s over the edge whether it’s me painting my nails or wearing sequins or all these different things. Everything from the fashion to the story behind it and that’s definitely been something. That’s the biggest message is people don’t have to like you or like who you love or anything like that as long as you love you and people around you are drawn to you because you’re being yourself. Those are the people you want to be with anyway, not the people who think they’re too cool to hang with you because you know, love who you want to love and wear what you want to wear. Those people suck anyway. They’re boring.

BLADE: So there’s a school of thought that if you’re a hot young singer and you’re married it will pop the fans’ bubble of you being off the market so to speak? Even though the odds of them getting with you would have been one in a million in likelihood, it pops a bubble in their minds knowing you’re married?

MAX: Yes, that was the original fear from the powers that be. But in the end, if I want people who are only loving the music because they think you’re single or you’re on the market — I mean, everybody wants to have that attention, you want as many people to be into your thing as possible, but I’ve accepted that if people aren’t into that because I’m married, then whatever. Are they gonna come to the shows anyway and be the people who are really invested in the music and message and are stoked that to watch my wife and I sort of be a happy couple and have our sort of ups and downs and be open about that? But yeah, that definitely crossed your mind like, “Oh, man — I hope people don’t not listen to my thing just because of that.”

BLADE: Why do you think you have a gay fan base?

MAX: I just think I’ve always been, you know, I grew up in New York City and I went to theater school. I’ve been surrounded by people who are open about their sexuality my entire life so I guess that’s why I’ve always been an ally and an advocate of it because everywhere we go, I’m just always putting that message out there that people should be able to love who they wanna love whether they’re gay, straight, bi, trans or love themselves because when people love themselves and are the most comfortable with themselves, they do the coolest things with their lives and we have a happier world. That’s just something I always believed growing up. It wasn’t until I went to more places where that wasn’t apparent — like I would say what the message of “Lights Down Low” was about before singing it and some places it wouldn’t get applause or people showed no excitement or maybe even I’d get booed or whatever else. That made me realize that being an ally to the community as a straight married man hopefully in my mind that makes some people who aren’t as open minded think, “Well, here’s this straight, married guy, he paints his nails, he looks super flamboyant but he’s a straight married guy, maybe I shouldn’t be such a jerk. Maybe I should accept that people love who they wanna love and they’re amazing people too.” I want people to feel accepted and safe at our shows and with our music. That’s the bottom line always and it’s beautiful that people have been drawn to that. Like last week we had a show and this incredible couple, these amazing females, got engaged at the show and that was just amazing.

BLADE: But what about “Lights Down Low” resonates with LGBT fans in your opinion? The video is very heteronormative.

MAX: It’s totally because of me being so outright supportive of the community. It definitely comes from that. The fight of being open with the truth of your own story has connected with people and I have noticed that which is awesome. I love that people have connected with it regardless of sexual orientation.

BLADE: How was Madonna when you did the (2010) Dolce & Gabbana ad/photo shoot? When she’s working is she friendly, imperious, aloof — what?

MAX: She’s super friendly but also — she knows exactly what she wants. My favorite story was the first shot, she walked in with her coconut water in hand, she hands it to an assistant. She was supposed to be playing my mother so she was teaching me how to dance in the bathroom and I was supposed to be like, “Oh, I’m embarrassed, my mother is teaching me how to dance,” and so she danced with me and she was like, “Why are you making those faces?” And I was like, “I don’t know — I’ll make whatever faces you want me to make, what do you want?” And she grabbed me in the small of the back and she was like, “I’ll teach you how to dance,” and she’s like such a powerhouse. That was sort of the whole day. That story — that’s basically her in a nutshell. There’s kindness there but it’s like her way or the highway and you’re just following her lead and I mean, it was one of the most powerful presences I’ve ever been in. It was really amazing to get that one surreal play date with her. Just awesome.

BLADE: How long did it take? It looked like there were several setups/scenes?

MAX: It was probably 12 hours. I got there like 8 in the morning and I left when it was just getting dark out and it was in the summer so yeah, it was wild. My other favorite story was when we went out in the street we do this shot where I’m carrying groceries and that was unplanned so there was no security for the first time all day. We’re out there and these paparazzi start taking pictures and it’s all crazy and the next day, my dad goes to the gym and picks up a paper and it says on the front page, “Who’s Madonna’s new fetus boyfriend?” And that was why it was so funny. That was her thing. She totally planned it. She knew exactly what she was doing and I was even more impressed that she had learned how to manipulate the media to make sure that her agenda gets out there. That’s a genius skill in itself.

BLADE: And yet you were supposed to be her son in the storyline?

MAX: Exactly. It was based off of this old Italian film but of course it became a little more, I don’t know, not even sexualized — it just sort of morphed into our own thing after a little bit because it was her just like sort of making it her own story which again was such a cool thing about her.

BLADE: How much backstory is usually discussed on shoots like that?

MAX: Sometimes it’s a ton, sometimes it’s like this is the storyline and this is the theme and sometimes it’s all spontaneous. Sometimes the best shots are the ones where it’s just like, “Oh, you’re changing right now — no, wait, like kind of this act of you changing is kind of an amazing shot and you should just like go into that bathroom and we’ll take a shower.” Sometimes the most spontaneous stuff is the most special but the theme stuff is super awesome and that was awesome to have such a laid-out theme for the whole shoot.

BLADE: Did they let you keep the suit?

MAX: No, I wish. I was so bummed they didn’t let me keep any of this stuff. I was just like, “Can I keep these shoes? I just wore them,” and they’re like, “Nah, nah — we’re taking them back.”

BLADE: What’s been the biggest surprise of married life?

MAX: I guess you always kinda think you’re different from everybody else’s story and you’re like, “Oh, we’re gonna be so much different,” but I think in the end it’s just — like I’ve learned even after two years, sometimes it’s hard work to make sure you and your partner are on the same page even when you think you are, sometimes I’m surprised in a way, you know, you feel like this person knows you better than anyone else but then like I forget to tell Emily something and all of a sudden she’s super upset because we’re not on the same page about something. It sucks because it’s the most important person to you, you don’t want to let them down. It’s constant hard work to make sure that you guys are completely together as a team and it’s so important. I guess that surprised me.

BLADE: How did you learn the ukulele?

MAX: I just started playing it in Central Park as a young teen. It’s just something really fun that I love doing, you know? I’m a small-sized person and it’s a small instrument so it was just kind of the perfect thing to combine the two.

BLADE: You play it regularly on your records and in your live show?

MAX: Yeah, yeah, I always incorporate it into both. I always try to do one song live and one on the record like that.

BLADE: What does your pitchfork tattoo symbolize?

MAX: So being from New York, I always kind of represent that acceptance and I like that if you have a symbol and you see somebody else with that same symbol, you know that’s somebody else who has the same beliefs of being who you’re meant to be and accepting people for who they are. And being that I don’t get to be home as much as I’d like, so often I like to make sure that I carry that piece of home with me. I carry that belief, that vision of making sure I don’t fall into other people’s beliefs or accept things that are wrong in the world in other places or that I believe are wrong. That’s sort of the reason it’s so apparent on my arm. I can’t hide it. It’s on my sleeve.

BLADE: Have you played many Pride events before?

MAX: Oh yeah, a ton. I love Pride festivals. They’re the most fabulous humans mostly because of their energy. we just did one in Louisville a couple months ago and there were a couple of slaying drag queens that were just killing the game and it just like erupted on stage and it’s always like, you never know what to expect. It’s just a place for people to be who they are which is why I love performing at them probably more than any other style show because it’s so beautiful to see so many people so excited. Prideful, of course, and just stoked on all the energy of life. Those are the audiences you want to play for, at least for me. People who are just living their best life. I love all that stuff.

BLADE: You have a band or sing with tracks? How long is your set?

MAX: A little bit of both. My partner Ryan, he plays keytar live, we have, you know, talk box, guitar, a lot of fun instruments and then there’s a lot of tracks and stuff too but it’s between 30 minutes and an hour and we like to bring as much energy as possible. I like to call it an emotional party. We got “Lights Down Low,” which kind of gives you the feels, then we do our rendition of “Ms. Jackson,” by OutKast and all the more sort of hyped-up songs like “Holla,” “Basement Party.” I like people forgetting about everything in their own world and falling into this world of the show. That’s always our biggest want to have people just like lose themselves in this environment.

BLADE: Oh, so you’ll be doing some Party Pupils (his side venture with Ryan Siegel) stuff too then?

MAX: Oh yeah, you know it baby. We’re stoked.

BLADE: So is MAX and Party Pupils always sort of running parallel or is one sometimes front burner, the other back burner? How does it roll?

MAX: We try to balance them equally. When MAX was going for radio and stuff like that, it sort of was the leader but since Ryan’s always with me, we try to incorporate Party Pupils as much as possible and bring that funky energy. We got a song called “Sax on the Beach” coming out this Friday which is a Party Pupils record but we play it in the MAX show and try to combine both worlds as much as we can so one doesn’t get lost because it’s hard enough to be committed to your own thing, but it’s a beautiful balance of the two and we’ve been really lucky because we’ve worked so hard and he does such an incredible job producing all the tracks and remixes. So yeah, it’s gonna be a nice mix of both for sure at the show.

BLADE: Can you truthfully say, though, that a sea of gay men out there thinking you’re hot at a Pride event doesn’t weird you out even maybe one or two percent?

MAX: Oh no, not at all. It’s the best. I love the energy. At the last Pride festival, I did have a drag queen give me a real solid butt slap which, you know, don’t slap anybody you don’t know. But other than that, as long as there’s no physical butt slap, I love all the love. I love giving love to everybody. That was definitely a hilarious one, though because she really just grabbed one butt cheek and I was just like, “All right — that’s hilarious, but also, please don’t grab my butt cheek. My wife would not be happy about any human grabbing my butt cheek.”

BLADE: That does sound like a bit much.

MAX: Yeah, it was but as long as it’s not too much, I’m always down with love. I’m a very loving person and it’s beautiful having that transfer of energy.

BLADE: Are your abs always as popping as they look in some of your photos? How do you maintain that?

MAX: I just kind of dance around at shows. I eat a lot of food and I just dance around. I’m sure eventually I’ll have to do a lot more than that, but I just kind of wiggle around and try to keep in shape.

BLADE: Launching this whole career on the indie route but also having success with Billboard and getting radio airplay and so on, have you often bumped up against the industry gatekeepers, like when you referenced the powers that be earlier. What’s that been like?

MAX: No, I just try honestly to give love to people who support us. I think it’s easy to want to suck up to people who can help you but I think you should just take time to be kind to everybody whether they can help you or not. That’s the policy I’ve tried to keep regardless of where things get to. I give love to anybody whether it’s Spotify or Apple or radio stations. If they’re giving us love, I try to give as much as I can back.

MAX says balancing his solo material with his side project Party Pupils keeps him musically stoked. (Photo courtesy Crush Music)

Joey DiGuglielmo is the Features Editor for the Washington Blade.

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