Max Winter: “I’m still learning about how I want to be onstage”

The artist who graduated from a conservatoire famed for jazz with his own brand of experimental pop

On his first record, 2021’s One Thousand Lonely Places, London based artist and producer Max Winter combined delicate, ambient piano, virtuosic guitar, fractured techno and eerie, experimental string compositions, leaping from genre to genre while maintaining a thread of melodic coherence throughout. The album began life as Winter’s final project on his composition course at Trinity Laban, the Greenwich music and dance conservatoire, and ended up being very different to what he’d imagined. “We went into lockdown during my final year, and we all had to completely change what we were thinking of doing,” he tells me. “There was meant to be this big performance and obviously we couldn’t do that anymore.” It was at this point that he began to play with samples his friend IMOGEN had recorded months before. “I started weaving her vocals in and out of the instrumentals and then as I went further along the process I was like, actually, I’ll get her to sing on these tracks.”

The pair have become frequent collaborators, playing on each other’s projects (including WInter’s recent single ‘Lean Into Me’) and sharing a studio, along with producer/DJ Will Lister in a repurposed church in South London. Collaboration, and improvisation, are highly encouraged at Trinity, which has garnered a reputation as a breeding ground for new talent in the jazz world in particular – Moses Boyd, Nubya Garcia, and Ezra Collective are recent alumni. “When I moved to London for uni I was watching people playing jam nights like, ‘Wow, I want to be able to do that’, so I practised a lot,” he admits. “But there was also this fear of getting up and doing it – it’s the early stages of uni and everyone’s trying to impress but I remember a lot of people in the audience would be a bit judgmental. I ended up always kind of observing them, but improvisation has been massive in how I write.”

Winter has been writing a lot recently, but his approach has altered since graduating. “I’m getting used to writing music for fun again, rather than for an assignment or a grade. I guess when you’re writing for a record there’s deadlines and stuff, but there’s something about being within music education that can take the fun out of it. It’s nice to try and redevelop that feeling that made me gravitate towards music in the first place.” Lyrically he is branching out too – where previously lyrics were written in a “very systematic way”, cutting up sentences and rearranging until they fit, his new music has come from a more organic place. He says: “There was a part of me that was maybe not quite willing to go deeper than that, and for the first record it really worked. But I’d say with the new stuff… something like ‘Lean Into Me’, I was like, ‘I’m gonna write about something specific.’ And I think what’s been happening recently is a combination of those two techniques: specifics and then trying to cloud specifics, and playing with that relationship.”

Winter released ‘Lean Into Me’ and another track, ‘O Matter’, in July this year, through tastemaker independent label Untitled (Recs), home of Jerskin Fendrix, Deathcrash, TAAHLIAH and more. The tracks show the breadth of his taste, and talent. This was a conscious choice, he says: “There were two tracks on my last record that had a nice contrast – one was an energetic, drum heavy song and the other one was a serene, beautiful piece – they were nice templates going forward in terms of the direction I wanted to go in. And I wanted two tracks that did the same thing.”

When we talk, he’s preparing for a gig at The Social, London, where he’ll be playing those among other new songs. Given he started releasing music during lockdown, he hasn’t had much opportunity to perform his music. “I’m still learning about how I want to be onstage,” he confesses. “I’ve done so much session stuff and playing for other people where there’s like a barrier, it’s not got my name on it. But when it’s my project, I’m still getting to know how to represent me.” Initially, he was playing with six band members. “It was a little bit mental – I was trying to recreate the record, which had a lot of elements. Currently it’s just me, Will [Lister] and my friend Ewan [Moore] who’s a drummer.” This more traditional setup lends itself to a different style of playing. “I’m always gravitating towards guitars, bass and drums. Which is nice, because I like to write outside of those boundaries. I grew up in a very musical house, but it was mostly rock music, which I find funny because I’ve taken this path through contemporary and classical and jazz. The music that I’ve released dives into various genres, but when I play it live, we end up playing as a rock band. Which I sort of think is at the bed of my soul… it’s what I knew first.”

Photography by Martha Treves