Oh Yoko!: An Interview with Max Goldstein of Yoko and the Oh No’s
The lead singer of Chicago’s glam garage rockers discusses DIY life, signing to Autumn Tone Records & more
by Taylor Houle
Photography by Meghan Freeman
Note from the Editor: Max Goldstein, frontman of Yoko and the Oh No’s, is one of the most distinctive young rock n roll personalities in Chicago today. Never seen in the same outfit twice, covered in tattoos and glitter, Max is a talented rock and soul vocalist who’s been in the Chicago DIY scene for years now. He dropped out of Berklee College of Music in Boston (a long-standing tradition for those seeking musical success) to form Yoko and the Oh No’s, a rock n roll band with a soul edge. With their debut album out on Autumn Tone Records, the same launching pad as our other Chicago rock favorites Twin Peaks, The Orwells and Modern Vices, Yoko and the Oh No’s have played venues across Chicago from DIY house shows to the House of Blues and are poised to blow up into something big. With guitarist Max Loebman, drummer Stef Roti, and bassist Joey Lucente (formerly of The Walters), Max and these Chicago kids are ones to watch.
Current high school senior Taylor Houle organized and conducted this interview with Max this past summer and did a way better job asking coherent questions than I ever do with my interviews, so kudos to her. DePaul University student Meghan Freeman’s excellent photography captures Max’s incredible style and energy. And we love you Max, forever!
— Katie Ingegneri
Conversation with Max: July 18, 2015, Boystown, Chicago
Taylor Houle: What got you into music?
Max Goldstein: I sang from a really young age, and I did theater when I was younger. I figured out pretty fast that my favorite part of it was that I liked to sing the songs and I liked how big the songs were, too. Musical theater songs are really big and you can sorta do a lot with them. I really only liked modern musicals where it’s more like “Spring Awakening,” I was in that type of music theater, and then I was like “I’m not too into this acting and dancing thing.” I was really bad at playing characters. Like, every character was basically me, just a little bit different. I started The New Originals when I was a freshman in high school, while I was still doing theater, and it was just so much more fun. I really liked collaborating, and I liked being able to perform as a group but also sorta still be myself and not feel like I’m hiding behind a character. I also love the whole community aspect of the music, because in theater it’s just like you go on auditions, and you go through the rehearsal process, and then it’s the show, and you might get close with the people you’re in the show with, but there’s not as much of a community as there is with music. Like here, especially with the whole DIY scene, everyone sorta knows each other and everyone helps each other out. It’s a really cool community to be a part of, especially right now.
Definitely. So what are some of your influences as a band?
To be honest, our individual influences are all pretty different. We sort of bring all of that together. I’d say we definitely like The Rolling Stones, The Black Keys…I personally like Amy Winehouse. We really just listen to a lot of different stuff. Max [Loebman] grew up on rock n’ roll, I grew up on jazz and Motown. I’ve always liked rock n’ roll, but that’s not what I was raised on. Me and Max actually met at a rock summer camp when he was like 11 and I was going into high school. We didn’t even really talk when when were there, it was just like we were there for the same reason, we both liked to play music.
I definitely see a lot of different styles in your music.
Yeah, we don’t want to feel like cornered into anything. We want to be able to do whatever were doing at any given time and have it still be Yoko and not have to worry about it not being us. No matter what, it’s gonna be us.
How did you guys all come together?
It’s so weird. When I started The New Originals, I made a private Facebook group and I invited probably around 8 people. My original idea for The New Originals was that it would be indie folk, like hand percussion, a lot of harmonies. I wanted like two female vocalists, two male vocalists, Max would sometimes play mandolin, I was playing ukulele. Then the bassist was my friend’s ex-boyfriend, so it was sort of a weird thing, but once we were like “fuck this hand percussion shit, we need a real drummer,” and he was like “oh yeah, I know a drummer” and he called Stef [Roti]. Apparently he hadn’t talked to Stef in like two years, it was just a really weird reach out. Then she listened to a cover of “Chicago” we had online and she was like “alright, I’m down!” We’ve really been playing together ever since. Max and Stef are two of my best friends and it’s more than just band mates, they’re like my family. I’ve told them so many times, even if somewhere down the line the band doesn’t work out, the most important thing to me is to keep those friendships the rest of my life. They mean so much to me as people, and this band means so much to me, so being able to do all these things together is the coolest feeling. Especially when we started playing in like pizza places with nobody there, and then to start being able to do bigger things with people I’ve been doing it with for years is such a rewarding feeling.
Totally. So who is that bassist that you’ve been playing with lately?
Like at Sausage Fest? That was Colin. He was in The New Originals, he was the second bassist. He was also in the Irenes, which was a project that Max and Stef started after I moved to Boston a couple years ago. He’s awesome, we’ve sorta been cycling through bassists right now trying to find the right fit. He’s just doing us a favor, I don’t think he’s going to be a permanent bassist. We would love him to be a permanent bassist, but I don’t think that’s something he’s interested in. We’re definitely looking for the right fit. We’re probably going to eventually add another guitarist just because when we record, Max records two or three guitar parts and then we have a bass on the album, but live we only have one guitar and one bass. For a while we were playing as a three piece. So it’s really just to fill out the sound and make it sound more like the album live. Max has a lot of lead parts and he just can’t play lead and rhythm at the same time. [Note: Joey Lucente, formerly of The Walters, has since joined Yoko as their permanent bassist.]
So what label are you guys signed to right now?
We’re working with Autumn Tone. Right now we’re actually working with them on our trip to LA next month, Max just talked to them this morning to work out the details. They hit us up last summer, we didn’t sign the contract until sort of early this year but it’s been a slow process. I’m really excited to be a part of a record label that’s worked with so many Chicago bands, and also it’ll be cool to see what they can do for us because I feel like we’re pretty different than a lot of the bands that have worked with them in the past.
How long would you say you guys have been involved in DIY shows and all that?
I would say the first DIY show we played was Animal Kingdom and I think that was a couple years ago, like winter break two years ago was our first show there. But The New Originals played Animal Kingdom the summer before that, I didn’t but they did.
Who writes your songs?
The next album will be mostly Max’s songs, but the first album is pretty fifty/fifty. I think he wrote four songs, I wrote three songs and then we wrote three songs together. He has so many songs that need to be out there. I don’t want him to feel limited, and I try to do his songs as much justice as I can. I definitely try to put my own spin on it and do it in our own way. I mean obviously when he writes and records a demo all by himself it’s gonna be different when we play it as a band, but I try to keep the integrity of the song. I never want to take the song in a direction that isn’t true to what he was going for.
What’s your writing process?
I sit at the piano, sometimes I have a melody in my head or like a line of lyrics, and then when I do it that way I just write all of the melody and the lyrics and get it over with. Sometimes I sit at the piano and just try to find a chord progression that really jumps out at me and then from there I’ll just play that over and over again and just sing different melodies, like no words. That’s sort of how we jam, and how we write together. Max will play the guitar part and then I’ll sing a melody over it. But if words come…for example, there’s this song on the first album called “Movin’ On,” the verses were all just melody with no lyrics, but then in the chorus I did sing like “keep movin’ on my own” and we kept that. Then we split up the lyrics, like I wrote two verses, Max wrote two verses, I wrote the chorus, then he wrote the bridge. So when I’m at the piano it’s really just figuring out the melody that works. Because I don’t play keyboard, it’s a lot of trial and error and just figuring out what sounds good.
When I was younger I used to play violin, and before they teach you how to read music, you listen to the CDs and you learn it from the CDs. I was really stubborn as a kid, so I was like I don’t need to learn how to read music, I can just listen and figure it out. It trained my ear pretty well and I can hear what chords sound good together. I’m really hoping to write more, I’m one of those people where I write when I have an idea, like when I’m driven to write. When I sit down and write, it’s harder for me to come up with something. Max is inspired to write almost every day. The next album is going to be mostly his songs, I think there’s going to be like one or two songs that we wrote together and the rest will be his songs.
Is there a story behind your band name?
It was a joke. We were actually chilling with The New Originals, it was at band practice and we were thinking of band names that were like “something and the something somethings.” We were thinking about like really funny ones. One of the girls in The New Originals was like, “Yoko and the Oh No’s,” and we all laughed about it and it really just stuck with us I guess.
Was it ever hard having someone younger than you in the band, has it ever caused any problems?
No, I’ve never seen Max as younger than me, I’ve always just seen him as my friend. I’m not 21 yet, Stef is the only one that’s 21. Some 21+ venues let us play, depending on whether or not they’ve been busted before or like how cool their owner is. It hasn’t really been a problem. That’s another thing though, I always make sure I let people know how grateful I am. I want people to know that I’m not one of those people who just comes and fucks shit up and leaves.
What has it been like being a part of the Chicago music scene and being friends with all the other bands?
It’s awesome. Especially when we were playing Animal Kingdom, it was awesome to see people I look up to just hanging out there. I really don’t want to let anything get to me, I don’t want to let anything get to my head. Like, there are some bands in the scene that are doing some really legit stuff and I would really love to do some of those things, but it’s really important to me that we sort of keep ourselves through it all. When you’re in a band you sort of put yourself out there to be critiqued and to be judged. I’m so used to people looking at me funny and saying shit though because I’ve always been different. It’s like, I don’t care what some dude on the Internet is saying.
What would you classify your sound as, if you had to label it?
We definitely have a lot of garage rock elements, like for a while we were calling ourselves garage rock with a touch of soul. I like music that has a catchy hook, so even though we play rock music, it’s really important to me that we always stay catchy and not always light. We have some songs that are really dark and personal, but we really just do whatever feels right. I want to sort of be able to naturally evolve. I’m excited to see what comes next.