"My only fear is that I don't want to be defined by one song."
So says the blue-eyed 21-year-old riding shotgun in my Nissan.
"That's one thing you run the risk of on a major label, and it's the one thing I'm really fortunate of with my situation: Craig Kallman, the CEO, and my A&R guy ....
"I feel like they don't want to cash in on me and then let me go."
Max Frost is talking about "White Lies," a three-minute acoustic footrace thrown over a hip-hop beat that sounds like the B-side to Gnarls Barkley's "Crazy." He wrote it in Los Angeles last summer and posted it to Soundcloud this March. By April, the song was No. 1 on certified Internet hitmaker the Hype Machine, bringing in some 300,000 listens and attention to second single "Nice & Slow," which also hit the top spot later that week with another 150,000 plays. Today, Frost boasts a multi-album deal with Atlantic Records.
"Immediate," is how the singer describes the rush of attention from labels, publishers, bookers, and collaborators.
"We had a lot of people talking to us. I wouldn't say it was everybody, but it was everybody that I'd ever heard of."
He signed with Atlantic in part because he believed that A&R man Aaron Bay-Schuck, whose credentials include Bruno Mars and Cee Lo Green, wanted to maintain his image.
"'This is the hit,'" Bay-Schuck and Atlantic told him of "White Lies." "Finish the record."
"What I'm most proud about," adds Frost, "is that's my song, my production, and my mix. It's literally – front to back – fully my process."
You've probably seen Max Frost perform and not known it. The native Austinite's been playing stages around his hometown for the past eight years.
First it was in teen rock outfit Joy Ride, then Blues Mafia, a product of Dave Sebree's School of Music. A stint with prodigious fiddler Ruby Jane followed, which Frost describes as "a good musical exercise" in bluegrass and gypsy jazz. Mostly, he aspired to the blues, kicking around with Bob Schneider and sneaking into Antone's to see Gary Clark Jr. When he went solo acoustic, he played small shows at venues like Trophy's, until winter 2010, when he met local rapper Kydd Jones.
"It was one of those awkward meets where someone's just like, 'Here, meet this guy. You should get your guitar and play some songs,'" remembers Frost. "This guy was making hip-hop. I liked hip-hop but didn't think anybody wanted me to be a part of that."
He played Jones some songs. Jones promptly freaked out.
"He wanted me to do all these hooks," says Frost. "Like, what, you want me to sing a hook on your hip- hop track?"
Funny, that hesitancy, now that Frost – dressed today in Nike high-tops, stylish Nantucket red pants, and a turquoise 1988 Aqua Fest T-shirt he found in his mother's attic – so fully embraces the genre. Since meeting Jones, this self-proclaimed bluesman has developed one of the most earnest radio-ready sounds in local music, an unabashed blend of pop, rock, and hip-hop. Thank Justin Timberlake for making Frost's whole deal a possibility.
"It's not even the hip-hop style," he says. "It's the modern style of making a record.
"I'm trying to take the idea of what hip-hop is as a template, take nothing from it culturally, nothing from it harmonically, nothing from it other than just the basic rhythmic ideas: song structures, phrases, and the production. I like the way hip-hop records are mixed. We spent a lot of time working with other people to mix 'White Lies,' but we ended up going with my mix, because you can't mix it like a rock record. It's like a punk hip-hop record."
Punk, soul, rap, whatever. Max Frost says he's played less than two dozen shows in Austin under his own name. Currently, he's got an 11-date tour around the country supporting Gary Clark Jr., with a brief stopover at week one of the Austin City Limits Music Festival in between.
"I'm not really playing the Austin game," he says, though his entire family lives here, and he rents a place in Hyde Park. "I'm not working the scene here. I'm just kind of diving straight into the Death Star and trying to shoot my way in."
In fact, the last time he introduced a full lineup around Austin was in July, when he brought Jones, League of Extraordinary G'z rapper Reggie Coby, one dynamic backup singer, and a crackerjack rhythm section out to the W Hotel Downtown for a Sunday night show. Together, they weaved through Chuck Berry, slow blues, old soul, Jimi Hendrix's "Stone Free," and eventually hip-hop, culminating with a back-and-forth between Frost and Jones on the exhaustively chilled "Sunday Driving."
The tiny room was packed, filled to its 150-person capacity with industry types, hip-hop kids, sorority girls, and frat dudes. (Frost dropped out of UT to focus on music last September.) Dressed in a charcoal vest, off-white button-down, and green polka-dot tie, the singer alternated between acoustic and electric guitars in orchestrating a 45-minute set that came off like he'd been performing in public for months.
Max Frost goes to wax in two weeks. His major label debut, the Low High Low EP, comes out on Atlantic Oct. 8.
A proper full-length follows in March, but as good buddy Gary Clark Jr. and his massively popular single "Bright Lights" demonstrated, first impressions make all the difference. "White Lies" is Max Frost's calling card.
"You don't even have to know it," a friend noted after being introduced to the song live at UtopiaFest last Saturday. "Once it starts, you're already into it."
At this moment, however, Frost and I are stuck in traffic going southbound on Lamar from Austin Vintage Guitars, where he once worked. After that, it's Lucy's Fried Chicken off South Congress, where we share a bucket with his older brother Mark, a lieutenant with the CE-Bar Fire Department. We talk about roadways and neighborhoods, the ever-increasing amount of time Max spent commuting to St. Andrew's Episcopal School each morning in high school. He notes how amazed he was to see the statistic that black people comprise only 10% of Austin, and he doles out a Bob Schneider impression that would make even Sandra Bullock blush.
He's humble, measured, and alert, but you can see it in his every step: Max Frost has palpable star power. And the name to go with it.
"Everyone asks me if it's a stage name or a fake name," he says. "It is and it isn't. I was born Matthew Alexander [Frost], but I've literally – unless it's a judge – never been referred to by that name. I've always been Max.
"And it's always been a name that, even if people don't question [its legitimacy], they'll always say, 'Oh, that's a superhero name.'"
I tell him the name reminds me of a Simpsons episode where Homer changes his name to Max Power and ends up the most sought-after man in Springfield.
"I think it has something to do with the way your mind develops the thinking of who you are," Frost responds. "If I had been called Matthew Alexander my whole life, I'd probably have become an engineer."
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