Max Gremillion has been active in bands for his entire adult life, but remained purposely slow in making his own music heard. With sporadic gigs with a rotating band and a rarely updated Bandcamp page, his alluring alt-country work as Better Bones flew under the radar. That time in hiding comes to an end this month with the release of the 25-year-old's debut EP, American Love Story, a five-song collection of insidiously catchy and lightly twangy folk-pop reminiscent of Ryan Adams at his early-2000s best.
Whether seeking love atop gently lolling melodies on "The Long Way Home" or ruing adolescent romance gone awry on the epic ballad "When You're Young," Gremillion's pristine tenor is on point and his band in sync throughout. Chatting by phone with City Pages from Austin, Texas, on the first night of SXSW, Gremillion spoke of transitioning from life as a sideman, the impact of growing up in the tiny town of Mora, and why he's purposely taken his time building Better Bones.
City Pages: You've made music as a sideman in a lot of different contexts before [alongside Lizzo in Larva Ink, and other projects] but none of it sounds like Better Bones. Why did you home in on this particular sound?
Max Gremillion: I got my start right out of high school as a hired-gun guitarist for Christian pop-rock bands and from there tried my hand at pretty much everything. I spent some time on the road with major-label acts like Rocket to the Moon. All those experiences were great, but underneath it all I was always feeling the need to do my own thing. Better Bones really came about from stepping back for a bit and realizing I was tired of putting my musical dreams into someone else's hands. Once I did start writing my own stuff, it pretty much just poured out from the heart. I was a bit shocked myself at how different the music ended up being from the projects I had worked on in the past.
CP: The songs on your debut EP were actually recorded back in the fall of 2011. What took them so long to see the light of day?
MG: I'm a big believer in energy and vibe and I just wasn't ready yet. We were playing some cool shows here and there, and people in the local scene were gradually finding out about us, but I didn't feel like rushing into anything. I'm glad we took the time as a band to sort of find our right chemistry and figure out all the little nuances of the sound before making an official release. Right now the band is where it needs to be and it's a good time to share it with the world. I'm going to be recording a full-length toward the end of the summer and there are still some hints of the sound from the EP, but it's already growing in different directions.
CP: It sounds like even though this project started as a solo songwriting vehicle, Better Bones becoming a real band is something that's been very important to you [the CD release show will feature a seven-piece band].
MG: I'm in a very close-knit group of musicians and we all help each other out and play with each other. Right now I'm in three groups: I play drums in Danny Morrison and the 2 for 1's, lead guitar in My My Misfire, and then do Better Bones. For the EP I brought in as many talented friends as I could and just let them add their own vibe to the songs without directing too much. I wouldn't have it any other way.
CP: Where you grew up in Mora [pop. approx. 3,500, 80 minutes north of the Cities] I imagine the music scene wasn't quite as active.
MG: It's a different thing altogether. I was actually born in Shreveport, Louisiana, and then we moved up to the Twin Cities when I was 5. My parents divorced and my dad went back down to Louisiana. I was just an angry kid getting suspended from school all the time so my mom decided to pack us up and move to Mora when I was 10, where my Dad's parents actually lived.
It was definitely a rough transition to suddenly be surrounded by kids who were all into hunting, and I definitely hated it at first. In hindsight it ended up being really great for me. Though I don't really have a relationship with church anymore the religious setting there was where I got started making music, and some of the morals I learned there have stuck with me. The music too, growing up riding the bus to school there the country music station was on all day every day. I remember hating it so much — but over time I grew to appreciate it [laughs].