Max and the Marginalized
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Max and the Marginalized

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"Max and the Marginalized Find Purpose in Political Rock"

Max Bernstein had a band, the Actual, with a catchy song called "This Is the Worst Day of My Life," a slot on the Warped Tour, and a gig opening for heavy hitters Velvet Revolver on a national tour.

What he lacked was a sense of purpose.

"Somebody once asked me, 'Why are you in a band?' " says the Los Angeles singer and guitarist, who will bring his new Internet-distributed agit-rock outfit, Max & the Marginalized, to the Trocadero tomorrow and the Reef in Wilmington on Monday.

"And I really didn't have an answer. 'I don't know. We're another band that wants to make some good songs and have people like them'? When we were out on the Warped Tour with eight million other bands, trying to get something self-aggrandizing going, it just seemed a little vapid to me."

So when the Actual came off the road last October, Bernstein, 28, who's the son of former Washington Post reporter Carl Bernstein and author-screenwriter Nora Ephron, sat down and wrote three bracing, politically agitated rock songs.

"I wrote the songs really fast and recorded them right away," he recalls. "And I immediately knew that this is what I wanted to do."

Thus was born Max & The Marginalized, which Bernstein describes as "an op-ed in the form of a rock band" and also includes bassist Dave Watrous and drummer Jon Ryggy. As its Web site explains, M & M is "a band and a blog" that posts a newly written and recorded topical song on Thursday or Friday of every week.

The tunes - which can be found - make no bones about reflecting the political point of view of Bernstein, which he describes as "pro-choice, anti-death penalty, for good immigration reform, low taxes for poor people, high taxes for rich people: the standard progressive platform."

Those first three songs - of 43 posted so far - get Bernstein's drift. "Standing in the Driveway Holding Cardboard in the Rain" opposes the death penalty. "No Kisses, No Cameras" is about the military's not allowing photographs of coffins of American soldiers killed in Iraq and Afghanistan as they arrive at Dover Air Force base in Delaware.

And with "Even When It Ends It Won't Be Over," Bernstein - who has a day job in L. A. as a new media consultant for a veterans' rights organization - details the hardships that veterans of the country's two current wars will face even after the conflicts end.

(A fourth early tune, "Dana, Dana," showcased Bernstein's not-so-serious side: It's about the moral complexities inherent in a left-leaning wag having a crush on White House press secretary Dana Perino.)

M & M doesn't have a record deal, which is fine, Bernstein explained in an interview from a tour stop in Boston. "It was nice having an agent and a manager and being on Scott Weiland's label" - Weiland, then with Velvet Revolver, put out the Actual's 2007 album,In Stitches - "but it's also nice having songs that have a bigger purpose."

Bernstein, who grew up in New York, mostly with his Sleepless in Seattle-scriptwriting mother (rather than his Watergate-scandal-exposing father), says he's even happy that "Worst Day" never became a hit. "I heard Lemmy say how much he hates playing 'Ace of Spades,' and how if he had one wish it would be to never play it again."

He knew posting his often amusing songs on the Web was the way to go. "If you're going to be a political band, you need to respond quickly to things. We don't have a huge audience [the band's blog hits typically number in the hundreds] but let's say that we did. How can you write a song that has a chance to make a difference, and then sit on it for six months and wait for the album to come out?"

If M & M approached it that way, songs like "Consider the Source," which assails John McCain's credibility (as the candidate's nose grows, Pinocchio style, in a video), or "Not the Thing That I Bought," which voices buyer's remorse over Barack Obama's shift to the political center, would have passed their sell-by date before they were loosed on the public.

On his list of favorite political artists, Bernstein names Ted Leo, Nas, the Clash, Billy Bragg, Public Enemy and especially Australian rockers Midnight Oil, which he considers "the best political band of all time. They wrote great songs about aboriginal rights in Australia and sold millions of records doing it, because they were awesome."

The band is called Max & the Marginalized, he says, because "normal voices of dissent - and I'm a normal voice, not a radical one - have been pushed to the margins." He also likes that "it sounds like a '50s rock band or something that's really punk-rock."

And though M & M's sound doesn't move far from mainstream, Bernstein says that, "ideologically speaking," they're punks. "We're about immediacy and message more than execution," he says. "And we're off the cuff and spontaneous with no regard for commercial viability." The band sells T-shirts and CDs at shows and takes PayPal donations on the Web, but as expected, "the economic model is not working out. Nobody gets into this business to make money."

There are other protest bands about - Leftover Crack, for whom M & M will open at the Troc, is one. But they are relatively uncommon, considering the United States has been at war since 2001. The reason is simple, Bernstein says: There's no draft.

"In America, most rock-and-roll is made by upper-class white kids like myself," Bernstein says. "There are exceptions, but for the most part, the people who are fighting the war are not coming from the same communities. The war is out of sight from the culture."

Bernstein is a fan of political cartoonists such as Tom Tomorrow, Pat Oliphant and Jeff Danziger. "They're really my heroes. That's what I aspire to be doing. I'm not out to break a story," he says, adding with a laugh. "I'm just another person who wants to voice his opinion and not do research."

Contact music critic Dan DeLuca at 215-854-5628 or Read his blog, "In the Mix," at - Philadelphia Inquirer

"Max Bernstein's Band Plays Politics"

When George W. Bush, Barack Obama or John McCain say something newsworthy or controversial, hundreds of television pundits and Web bloggers spring into action with endless commentary and analysis.

At such times, Max Bernstein, son of Watergate reporter Carl Bernstein and author-screenwriter Nora Ephron, reaches for his guitar and pen to write a song.

Since October, Bernstein and his band, the Marginalized, have been cranking out weekly tunes on such topics as phone-company wiretaps (Free Evenings and Weekends), diminished veterans benefits (Nowhere to Go But Back), treatment of political prisoners (Now That We Know That They Knew) and conservative CNN anchor Lou Dobbs (Weeknights at Six).

The songs, plus blogs, are posted on the liberal-leaning Huffington Post Web site (

"The primary concern is to say what we're trying to say in time for it to make some kind of difference," says Bernstein, 28, who dropped out of college after two years to pursue music.

"Obviously the differences are small, but we've called people's attention to things (when they don't normally) care about those issues, and suddenly they do."

Roy Sekoff, founding editor of the Huffington Post, is impressed by the immediacy and quality of the Marginalized's work.

"Their output has been amazing," he says. "They knock out songs - and witty posts to go with them - faster than many bloggers who are just writing posts.

"This has been a very compelling news cycle, and the Marginalized have taken full advantage of it. I especially like the fact that they don't just cover the Big Story everyone is talking about - but often write about under-the-radar stories that the mainstream media might be ignoring."

Although Bernstein's politics are progressive, he and his group are not averse to lambasting someone like Obama. When the band, which performs in Phoenix on Tuesday, recently felt the Democratic presidential candidate was straying from his principles, they let him have it in It Isn't the Thing That I Bought:

"Because there's not abandonment implied / In a little bit of criticism from the people on your side . . . Concessions in July will bring on more when November comes," Bernstein sings above crisp power chords.

But more often, the White House, Pentagon and GOP candidate McCain wander into Bernstein's crosshairs.

The group released Teflon John amid reporting about McCain's temper, misstatements on the campaign trail and courting of the press: "It's so funny everyone forgot to laugh / At your temper even shorter than the shelf life of a gaffe /From your lips to no one's ears, somehow disappears into the past," Bernstein sings in the midtempo rocker.

Although he was an infant when his parents divorced, Bernstein says spending time with both parents as he was raised in New York contributed to his interest in politics and social issues.

"I've always grown up around this kind of conversation," says Bernstein, the younger of two sons born to his father and Ephron, who wrote the screenplays for When Harry Met Sally . . . , Sleepless in Seattle and You've Got Mail.

"My brother and I were raised to be active citizens."

Before his political side took over his artistic life in 2007, Bernstein spent six years with the Actual, a pop-punk outfit eventually signed to a label run by Scott Weiland of Velvet Revolver. But Bernstein couldn't rid himself of "a nagging feeling" that music should mean more.

"There was something about playing those same songs every night for two years (with Velvet Revolver and on the Vans Warped Tour) and trying to get people to rally behind a catchy tune that you write. I was already feeling empty, and when (commercial success) wasn't happening exactly, that made it even more empty," Bernstein recalls.

The singer-guitarist had started to write some politically fueled songs on the Actual's 2007 Warped Tour swan song, and it became clear he had to move on.

He sounds confident that he made the right move by teaming with bassist Dave Watrous and drummer Jon Ryggy in the Marginalized, whose name reflects how its leader views the fate of "what was once considered normal mainstream voices of dissent."

The three hold daytime jobs but convene throughout the week to write and record the newest song to be posted every Thursday morning.

"With this, I feel like there's a larger point that we're trying to get across," says Bernstein, who formerly worked part-time for the Huffington Post (his mother also blogs for the site) and now does Web work for non-profit groups. "I'm enjoying it much more creatively than the Actual."

Despite the group's brisk creative pace, its songs are a solidly-produced mix of rock, pop and punk sounds. (They're also posted on the band's site,

"I like the fact that we have a song and we just go record it, however the chips end up having fallen," Bernstein says. "I'd like to think if people heard 12 songs of ours, they'd think it's a regular album."

Editor Sekoff says, "For a protest song to work today it needs to be fast, funny, and pass-alongable. Of-the-moment works on the Internet. Witty works on the Internet. Angry works on the Internet. Earnest: not so much. Max and the Marginalized have made good use of that new media sweet spot."

Bernstein laughs when he's asked whether his band will still have work if things go his way in November's election and U.S. policies tilt toward his viewpoint.

"If all the problems in America were solved where we couldn't find fault with (something) every week, it would be good for the world and we'd be happy to make fewer songs.

"No matter who wins, I don't think that's going to happen." - Arizona Republic

"Protest Band Leader's Notes From the Edge: Max Bernstein Pushes the Margins"

By J. Freedom du Lac
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, July 26, 2008; Page C01

CHICAGO -- Last year, Max Bernstein's pop-rock band, the Actual, released an album, joined the Warped Tour and performed with supergroup Velvet Revolver.

Bernstein celebrated his most notable year in the music industry by breaking up the band and stage-diving into the broadside business.

His latest proffer is political protest songs -- blunt musical statements about the Bush administration, abortion rights, Sen. John McCain's position on Iraq, the mainstream media, civil liberties and such.

They're something like punk-rock op-eds, which is perfect given that Bernstein, 28, is the son of one of the most famous figures in journalism: Former Washington Post reporter Carl Bernstein, who broke the Watergate story with Bob Woodward. (His mother, author-screenwriter-director Nora Ephron, isn't exactly a footnote herself.)

"It's absolutely like writing an opinion column -- a liberal one," says the younger Bernstein, whose new band, Max and the Marginalized, performs tonight at D.C.'s Velvet Lounge.

No longer interested in writing songs about the usual alt-rock themes -- as with the Actual's "This Is the Worst Day of My Life" -- Bernstein began working up more-topical material in October. He started with "Standing in the Driveway Holding Cardboard in the Rain," a song about the death penalty.

Nothing particularly notable there (lefty musician sings lefty protest anthem!), but Max and the Marginalized were just getting warmed up, with much more indignation to come.

Updating the protest-song form for the Internet age, the trio (singer-guitarist Bernstein, Dave Watrous on bass, Jon Ryggy on drums) has written and recorded a new diatribe every week since, posting all 43 of them on MySpace, Facebook and the Huffington Post, the widely read liberal news and opinion Web site whose contributors also include Bernstein's mother.

The songs are always free -- the message more important than the money, Bernstein says in an interview before a concert this week at Chicago's Beat Factory.

"I don't think anybody gets into the activism business trying to make money," he says. Instead, it's about using music as "a viable form of social and political mobilization."

Imagine Frank Rich fronting Ted Leo's group, or maybe a Matthew Yglesias mash-up with Husker Du, Bob Mould's old punk band whose logo Bernstein has tattooed on his left forearm.

"I'm a political junkie," Bernstein says. His politics, distilled: Several clicks left of center but not exactly on the radical fringe.

Per the Max and the Marginalized songs, which Bernstein writes and sings: Bush is brutally bad, but McCain might be "Worse Where It Counts," meaning as commander in chief. And House Speaker Nancy Pelosi is a disappointment, but not nearly as much as Sen. Joe Lieberman, leader of what Bernstein calls, in song, a "Coalition of Turncoats."

His songs feature few heroes but many villains. Literally: When Sen. Jesse Helms passed away, Bernstein's response was "It's Awkward When Bad People Die."

The songs are, theoretically, released every Thursday. (In reality, they're sometimes posted late -- particularly if the band is touring.) First comes the scramble to find what Bernstein calls "the thesis of the song." He writes the music and then the lyrics, for which Bernstein consults a rhyming dictionary and the Internet. "I definitely have to do a good amount of research, looking for evidence," he says. Also, he sometimes Googles for inspiration. "If I'm not feeling it, I look for stuff that'll make me mad enough to write."

Record, mix, rush-release. Punk rock!

"Ideologically speaking, this is absolutely a punk-rock band," he says. "Punk rock and blogs are the exact same things to their respective fields. . . . Blogs are absolutely to newspapers what punk rock was to Bad Company."

Bernstein's brown hair shoots both up and out, locked in a perpetual state of bed head. He is wearing a T-shirt, black jeans, hipster glasses and about a week's worth of facial fuzz.

He grew up in New York, started playing guitar when he was 5 and got into hardcore music in the eighth grade when a friend shared his collection of albums and seven-inch singles by the likes of Minor Threat and Jawbreaker. Bernstein formed a hardcore band by the name of Shelf Life in high school, then moved to Los Angeles after two years at New York University. "I just wanted to be in a band and go on tour," he says.

The Actual came together in Southern California, got management and label deals, and connected with Scott Weiland, at the time the frontman for Velvet Revolver. Weiland co-produced the Actual's album, "In Stitches," last year. "I wrote it in 2003, it came out in 2007 -- and it probably sounded right for 2001," Bernstein says.

Now, protest songs.

"It's a whole different reason for doing it," he says. "With the Actual, the obvious thing we used to keep score was how well we did with merchandise at the end of the night." These days, Bernstein says, victories are more difficult to measure. For instance: "A girl from South Dakota who is way into us just switched her major to politics." He is beaming.

About the name: Kind of funny for a band led by a guy with those bloodlines, isn't it?


"I personally do not feel economically marginalized," Bernstein says. "But reasonable voices of dissent have been marginalized and pushed off into the fringe."

So, he's speaking up -- and out. The hits -- the broadsides -- just keep on coming, and will continue, Bernstein says, no matter what happens in the November election.

"We're going to keep doing this beyond the Bush administration. If some of the wind comes out of our sails as the result of a Democratic victory, I'm okay with that. But I don't really see us running out of things to protest. I just might have to look in other places." - The Washington Post


Still working on that hot first release.



Max Bernstein, formerly of The Actual, started Max and the Marginalized in 2007 as a "blog and a band", doing a weekly song in response to real-time events and posting them on the popular political website The Huffington Post. They did this for sixty weeks in a row, and managed to tour the country three times while doing that.