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

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."

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