Interview: Guitarist Scott Murawski On 48 Years Of Max Creek, Phish’s Mike Gordon & More
If there’s such as thing as an “OG Jam Band,” it’s Max Creek, who were doing things that are now standard to the jam scene’s best-known bands decades before there was even a semblance of the scene that exists now.
Creek, as it were, not only survived, but endured, and draws multi-generational crowds any time they show up to boogie. The long-running New England band even has a new release, 45 & Live — its first new record in 19 years (!) — culling some superb performances from anniversary tours of both originals and covers that get extended, improv-heavy workouts.
Bassist John Rider remains Max Creek’s lone connection to the band’s 1971 founding, but guitarist Scott Murawski and keyboardist Mark Mercier go back nearly as far. Drummers have come and gone, and the group has solidified for some years now a sterling drums/percussion corps in Bill Carbone and Jamemurrell Stanley (neither of whom, it’s been noted, was yet born when Max Creek was founded).
JamBase asked Murawski to look back and forward on all things Creek, especially with the band set to celebrate their 48th anniversary with a handful of shows this spring, and to revive the beloved Camp Creek festival this August.
Murawski, of course, has also been a longtime collaborator of Phish’s Mike Gordon and a staple of the bassist’s solo band through its current, power-packed lineup. And, as Murawski tells us, there’s always plenty brewing on that front as well.
JamBase: 45 & Live is such a fun listen — you can hear how much joy you guys have in continuing to make this music as Max Creek. Hope that’s accurate?
Scott Murawski: Absolutely. I have a great time with this band, still.
JamBase: Why was it time to release an album?
SM: Bill Carbone was kind of the impetus for this. He was like, “I need to be on a Max Creek album!” [laughs] He did a lot of the legwork, and listened to everything we had recorded for this and made suggestions. The rest of us kind of went through and picked and chose our favorites based on that legwork he did.
JamBase: What were some of your favorites that made the cut?
SM: All of my songs that are on there are ones I picked. We left it up to the individual writers or arrangers on good versions of our own songs.
She’s Here – 45 & Live
JamBase: Very cool. A lot’s been written about just how long Max Creek has been doing this, and you’re celebrating 48 years this year. Why do you think it’s lasted this long without degrading?
SM: Because we really don’t speak to each other [laughs]. No, it’s an institution. I mean, it feels like that to me, and I think to all of us. Any relationship that lasts that long goes through periods of being frustrating and being great. But Max Creek feels like something bigger than we all are. I mean, just for one thing, being an improvisational group means every show is different. There are just those moments that you can’t predict and that will probably never happen again. We go off and play with other bands and then we return to Max Creek and there’s just an ease to what we do.
I play with Mike Gordon, as you know, and I’ve talked with him about Phish and what Phish was like in the beginning. Mike said that back then — and I think a lot of people know this — they had a really hard time improvising and jamming together so they put together all these different exercises to learn how to listen to each other and react. In Max Creek, honestly, we never had a discussion about it or did exercises like that. It was just something we kind of did and still do, and it seemed easy for us to relate at that level. The chemistry you develop on top of that after so many years — that’s what creates the moments. I do have magical moments with other bands of course but that’s what’s irreplaceable about this band.
JamBase: What do you remember most about your earliest years with Max Creek?
SM: I actually remember the first three shows I played with them. I was like 15 years old. I was a piano player and a trumpet player — that’s what I was doing formally — and I got a guitar when I was 12 and played it for like a week and threw it in the closet. I didn’t touch it much for a couple of years. But anyway, it was all so out of the scope of my experience, and those first few gigs I was petrified. I’d play with my back to the audience and be scared out of my mind, and those guys were only in their 20s but everyone just seemed so much older than me. It was harrowing!
The first three gigs … the first one was a club full of bikers, so that scared the shit out of me. The next gig was I think at a student nurse’s graduation party, and in the middle of playing the gig, one of these student nurses came over and started making out with me while I was playing. The next gig after that was the King Phillips Junior High School prom down in West Hartford. I met all these girls that night, and they seemed to be interested in the guitar player [laughs] — that sort of solidified that I wasn’t going to be playing trumpet or piano! But in the beginning when I was only playing on 10 or so songs — it was a three-piece country rock band and they had their repertoire and they thought I could pick some bluegrass-sounding stuff, so I’d play and then the rest of the time I’d just be sitting and listening. Those were life-changing experiences.
JamBase: The band’s been through a lot as far as lineup changes, too, but there are more connections to the old days than not. Have Mark and John changed much over the years?
SM: They’re older! [laughs] It’s interesting to me now because I’m in my 60s, but I was always the kid in the band. I was coming from this place where I was into rock ‘n’ roll — I liked Deep Purple, Led Zeppelin, all that stuff. They influenced me to go more toward the country and bluegrass stuff and I embraced that, but I was also the edgier guy — I wrote punk rock songs when that was popular, I suggested some interesting covers. I think we’ve influenced each other a lot over time.
JamBase: A lot’s been said about how you guys were more or less a proto-jam band — doing the kinds of things a lot of jam bands do now long before the development of what became the scene we all, of course, know now. Is that something you guys talk much about in the band?
SM: No, I think we just kind of do what we do. We’ve always done what we wanted to do and we never made any conscious decision to try to be patriarchs of the jam band scene or anything like that. Back in the day, we were very motivated to provide something in the clubs that you couldn’t get from other bands. Back in those days, a lot of clubs didn’t have sound systems or really have lighting. We built this club-ready wall of sound that was styled after the Grateful Dead’s and used a lot of the same technology theories with the double mics and the P.A. behind us. We had our own lighting system and brought that with us, too; the way we advertised it, I remember, was “a concert experience in a bar.”
Once the club scene starting changing and the lights and P.A.’s got better, we focused more on writing our own original material and developing that way. But we’ve done our thing as the jam band scene grew and as it’s changed. We never made a conscious decision to be the consummate jam band or anything like that, we’re just trying to express who we are. We want to be weird and hang out!
Emerald Eyes – 45 & Live
JamBase: Songs like “Jones,” or “Peaceful Warrior,” that you’ve played with Max Creek hundreds of times … do you still go looking for new things in those songs? Do they do much for you still?
SM: There’s a couple of factors, I think. When you’ve played the tunes that many times and they’ve stuck around, they tend to grow on their own. One of the songs on the new record is “Emerald Eyes,” and at the end, there’s a jam that sounds almost like this composed thing. We do it similarly every time, but that grew out of just jamming on the tune, and it was never discussed or composed, it’s just something that developed on its own. You play a song for 40 years, it would be kind of a horrible experience if it was exactly the same for 40 years, you know? There’s an impetus, and there always has been in Max Creek, to try different things and keep these tunes fresh by changing them up. It’s very noticeable when I go back and listen to a version of tune we do now from the 1980s, and it’s so different. In some cases, I’ll go back and listen to those old versions and think, oh wow, I remember that, maybe we should try that again. It’s an aspect of being together for as long as we have that the tunes themselves have that kind of lifespan.
JamBase: What’s another example of a Max Creek tune like that, that’s gone through a lot of life?
SM: “Heartbeat” is one. “Leaves” is another. I go back and listen to early versions of “Heartbeat” and it was kind of a bouncy reggae tune, and now it’s this more grinding ballad kind of thing. It’s still reminiscent of reggae but you can see how it’s developed into more of an emotional outpouring rather than just some happy, bouncy reggae.
JamBase: What do you want to do with Max Creek that you haven’t yet? What has the band always wanted to do?
SM: That’s an interesting question. Just surviving through 50 years is a goal, and we’re pretty much on track for that. One of the things I wish could happen is to get Max Creek into a studio situation again. We’ve discussed it a lot. We work with Telefunken [Elektroakustik] on a lot of these live recording projects and they’re open to whatever we’d want to do as far as studio stuff. They have a decent studio at their facility in South Windsor. Max Creek recorded probably four studio albums back in the ’70s and ’80s, and ever since then, it’s been live albums. So it’d be really fun to get back into a studio situation with all the current technology that’s available now and concentrate on that side of things.
Max Creek – Playing In The Band – Recorded At Telefunken
JamBase: And you guys are continuing to add new material?
SM: Yeah, absolutely. I’m always writing.
JamBase: Camp Creek is back for the first time since 2016 and I also see StrangeCreek on your summer schedule. These are staples for many of us in the Northeast of course.
SM: I hate being in some dingy club in the summer when it’s gorgeous outside. So I nudge our agent to explore whatever festivals are out there. And yeah, Camp Creek is going to come back to life. Obviously, the focus is us, but being able to pick and choose what other artists are going to be there and how that environment’s going to play out, it feels like a family. It’s a family-oriented festival for sure.
JamBase: Switching gears, Scott, I definitely wanted to chat a bit about your ongoing work with Mike Gordon. You guys hit upon something years ago as collaborators that seems core to the Mike Gordon band sound. How has it evolved, in your eyes?
SM: It’s evolved in a very good way. Mike and I have this great mutual respect for each other. He knew Max Creek before Phish was even around. By the time I became aware of Mike, Phish was by then a super successful band. I had only written by myself up to that point so to collaborate with someone like that who’s that creative, it’s a very cool relationship to have. There’s very little ego.
Mike’s work ethic, I mean, he’s through the roof, man. He’s always working. Every waking moment for him is spent in some sort of creative process, whether finishing a project or starting a new project. We do this annual walk on Newbury Street in Boston — we just get together and kind of walk down the street and it’s a discussion. His question is always, “if there are no limitations — financial, logistical, whatever — what would you do?” So we come up with this list of crazy ideas. That’s how things like the light-up guitars came to be. It’s really cool to be able to brainstorm without limitations and see a lot of these crazy ideas come to life. Mike’s a great musician. He’s an unbelievable guitar player and I don’t think a lot of people know that. He’s also a great keyboard player, besides, of course, being a great bass player.
JamBase: Love it. When did the Newbury Street walk tradition start?
SM: It started probably eight years ago. I had ideas — just all of these ideas — and he, of course, has all these ideas. But I’d said to him that one of my goals in life was to play Red Rocks. And hey, we’re going in June. And I remember saying to him a while back that I’d really love to play outside of the U.S., and we took the band to London and Amsterdam in 2012. It’s really cool to be able to throw out ideas with someone like that and have them come to fruition.
JamBase: Once this current lineup came together, with John Kimock, Craig Myers and Robert Walter, did it take a while to gel?
SM: That’s a two-fold answer, I think. I would say that immediately, there was a gelling that hadn’t occurred with the previous lineup. Which is not to say anything or downplay the quality of the players in that lineup, but this time there was an immediate gelling. There was a level of experience that these guys have that’s a great fit for this band. All of a sudden it was like, really good, next-level really good. Every time we go out on tour, it takes about two or three shows for us to get back to where we were at the end of the last tour, and then we go up from there. Everyone in the band seems to feel that, too — you can just tell that things are coming together for this band more every tour. There’s great chemistry here.
JamBase: And you guys are all in on continuing to support Mike and focus on this band?
SM: Yes, absolutely. I’ve heard Johnny say, for example, that this is his only band, meaning this is the only band where he’s always the drummer and all the players stay the same. He does a lot of different things and plays with a lot of different people, but he considers this his main band with consistent players.
JamBase: You guys just wrapped up what’s becoming a traditional run of Mike Gordon shows in Boston and had [Phish guitarist] Trey [Anastasio] out for one of the evenings as a sit-in guest. That looked and sounded really fun.
SM: Oh, that was great. Trey is such a sweetheart. I don’t think people often realize just what a nice guy he is. He was all-in for that, he showed up for soundcheck and he and I just shot the shit for like an hour and a half about guitars and gear and pedals and playing. It was just a real great experience. Trey has huge ears, he hears everything and inserts himself in there. Between the two of us, we gave each other space and it became a great interaction. It’s been that way any time I’ve ever played with him. He’s a phenomenal musician.
Mike Gordon with Trey Anastasio – Victim Captured by MK Devo
JamBase: And that just sort of came together? You guys heard he’d be in town and said “hey, come on down”?
SM: I think he was the one who got in touch with us, actually, and said he was going to come see the band in Boston, so Mike said, “OK great, do you want to play?”
JamBase: Right on. Well before I let you go, Scott, are there other collaborations, past or present, you’re working on or would like to revisit? BK3 — that’s a band that was short-lived but I know comes up with fans a lot as something they’d love to see again.
SM: BK3, what a band. That was so fun. I was so out of my league playing with those guys [Bill Kreutzmann and Oteil Burbridge] but I’d love to do that again. Beyond that, no, nothing really else. I have another side project called Depth Quartet and we kind of play one gig a year, usually at Camp Creek. We’ve been doing that for like 18 years and the experience of it is super creative — it’s a band that’s open to anything.
For years we used to rehearse it every Wednesday night and do all this insane experimental stuff, all this math music. Julie [Avallone], the woodwind player, she’s a creative force. She would draw a bunch of pictures of stars, and flowers, and grapes, and would say to us, “OK, right now we’re going to play the grapes! Ready, go!” [laughs] It’s a great, crazy band. It’s one of my fun and little-known-about side projects. I’ve had a few of those.