The multi-instrumentalist and Michigan native has found a life-changing groove with Albion’s Michael and Tanya Trotter, who lead the fast-rising, acclaimed Nashville-based band that’s touring the globe.
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It’s unusually cold in Nashville, even for February, and I’m riding shotgun in Max Brown’s car near Music Row, a stretch southwest of downtown that’s home to a staggering number of record labels and publishing companies.
It’s overcast, so his pair of glossy black Ray-Ban Wayfarers stay nestled in the center console.
Brown has had a wildly successful, whirlwind past few years as guitarist, bassist and band director for The War & Treaty, the soulful, duo-fronted Americana collective that has exploded into the national spotlight after humble beginnings in Albion, Mich.
The now Nashville-based band has performed at Newport Folk Festival, appeared on “Austin City Limits” and other national TV broadcasts, been featured in Rolling Stone and opened for mainstream acts like The Avett Brothers and John Legend. The dynamic group’s hectic 2022 boasts tours of the United States, Australia and Europe, appearances at the New Orleans Jazz Festival and High Sierra Music Festival, and a May 10 concert at Detroit’s Fox Theatre.
In fact, when I text Brown weeks later for a follow-up, he sends a frantic text back. He tells me he’s on a cruise ship off the Jamaican coast with spotty cell service, just moments from taking the stage with The War & Treaty.
“I mean, it’s really changed my life. Right away I knew this was my favorite band I’ve ever played with, that this was my favorite music I’ve ever performed and the most I’ve ever felt like I was conveying a message on stage. The reason I’ve continued to work with The War & Treaty is that we’re making really good music,” Brown says.
“There was never a goal of commercial success of any kind. The most exciting thing to me was to be able to make really good music and just do it in front of people. The next level for me is to continue making music I really care about in front of bigger crowds.”
Brown himself is originally from Ann Arbor, a graduate of Ann Arbor Community High School where he studied music. After that, he spent some time in Kalamazoo, then Chicago. He eventually relocated to Nashville in late 2018 to pursue music full-time.
TWO OF THE BEST SINGERS AND SONGWRITERS HE’S EVER WORKED WITH
We pull up to the curb of his home, a cozy bungalow near Belmont University. His dog, Mango, an Aussie Shepherd greets us excitedly at the door with curious sniffs.
Inside, Brown leads the way to his studio, which doubles as his bedroom, but it’s clear which takes precedence. There’s an assortment of prized guitars in various shades that occupy one corner. He picks up a cherry red Gibson SG.
A massive computer screen and studio monitors take up most of the real estate on his desk. Today, Brown is working on a recording session with his friend Conor Brendan (of Conor & The Wild Hunt) who’s in town from Baltimore. The pair nestle into the cozy studio.
Brown goes on to mention that Tanya Trotter and Michael Trotter, who front The War & Treaty, are “two of the best singers and songwriters” he’s ever worked with.
He says one of his favorite things about his creative relationship with the duo is the improvisational nature with which they collaborate. Often while traveling, Michael Trotter won’t have direct access to a keyboard offstage, so Brown will grab his guitar and guess at chords for whatever new song they’re crafting.
VIDEO: The War & Treaty, Live for “Austin City Limits”
The band is currently working on their upcoming record, a topic Brown is sworn to navigate quite minimally in the company of inquisitive journalists. He does tell me it will be finished by the end of March, that it will be their “best record yet” and that the band is working with a “badass producer.”
When he isn’t working with The War & Treaty, Brown stays busy as a studio musician for folks around town, including Caroline Spence, Jerry Douglas and Critter Eldridge as well as Grand Rapids singer-songwriter Cameron Blake. He also facilitates his own recording and production work.
“I’m mostly working towards the new War & Treaty record right now, but I’ve finished writing a solo record that’s going to be really cool,” he says.
HIGH-PROFILE TOURING AND ELIMINATING DISTRACTIONS
Looking ahead, Brown’s schedule is dizzying. The War & Treaty are slated to perform a plethora of high-profile shows, including headlining two nights at The Chicago Theatre in May, followed by that June tour of Europe.
Musical accomplishments aren’t the only thing Brown is proud of. He’ll be four years sober from drugs this March.
“Being a musician, playing bars all the time, you know, you gotta stay awake for your third set at 2 a.m. or whatever. Drugs are all over the place. It never destroyed my life or anything, but things were a lot messier back then. It was unsustainable,” he says.
“I just made a conscious choice: If I’m going to be a musician, and that’s all I ever wanted to do with my life, I can’t be distracted. So I gave it up all at once. I used that time to practice alone in my room.”
Here he is again, in his room, guitar on his knee.
As for the world outside these acoustically treated walls, his new home in Nashville is fitting quite well. Before our interview, he takes me to a favorite spot, “Fido,” in the Hillsboro neighborhood. It’s a busy coffee shop vibe, slinging espresso by the shot glass.
“The longer I’m in Nashville, the more I like it. It’s cold today, but the weather is usually pretty nice. When I first came down here, I knew Michael and Tanya. That’s it.
“I didn’t really know anybody else. But it’s been really easy to find my place,” Brown says, just moments before hitting ‘Record’ on his computer keyboard.
Follow Max Brown on Instagram for more of his musical adventures at @maxbrownmusic.
VIDEO: The War and Treaty, “Take Me In” (Live)
PHOTO GALLERY: Max Brown (Nashville)
Photos by Loren Johnson