Max Weinberg has spent 43 years touring the world with Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band. And in between his job with the Boss, the 66-year-old drummer managed to hold down a 17-year post as the bandleader for Conan O’Brien’s late night talk show. Turns out, he doesn’t do well with downtime.
After finishing the 86-city “River” tour in February, the longtime E Street Band drummer was ready to try something new. Enter Max Weinberg’s Jukebox, an interactive concert experience where the audience gets to pick the set list and hear Max and his revolving band play the tracks as they were meant to be played. Below, we caught up with the drumming legend to find out more about his latest tour, the destiny that brought him and Bruce Springsteen together and how he’s coping with the loss of some of music’s biggest legends.
How was Max Weinberg’s Jukebox born?
“I’m a drummer who loves to sit in with musicians and other bands. Fortunately I’ve had 43 years of the greatest platform in existence with Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band. When I got off the River tour, our last tour at the end of February, I took a month off or so and my manager asked, ‘What’s next?’ And I said, ‘You tell me.’ And he shared this idea of putting on show built off of playing songs that everyone want to hear. He described it and the idea is that it’s a human jukebox. We play two hours of all audience requests from a revolving list of about 300 songs from the ’60s and ’70s. The songs that I grew up with and feel particularly close to. One thing we noticed on tour so far is that the people who come to see it — and we’ve been very happy with the turnout — they love hearing these songs played with respect. We cover the English invasion, The Beatles, The Stones, The Who, Manfred Mann, The Zombies. There is some Neil Diamond, we throw in a Bon Jovi tune. It’s a great repertoire of music. Being of that era, I respect the original arrangement, the original feel of these songs. And of course we get a nice contingent of Bruce Springsteen and E Street Band fans who like to hear his songs played by someone who has played on the records.”
Who’s on stage with you?
“I have a revolving cast of characters. I have a team. I group of different people composed of musicians I’ve played with through the years who are familiar with this sort of genre and vocabulary of music. You have to be attentive to detail. I look for musicians from bands who are familiar with The Beatles catalog. Some of them might play in a local Beatles Tribute Band, because those musicians tend to be focused on the details of what made those records great. I don’t think there’s any songs in the repertoire that people haven’t heard played through the years at weddings, bar mitzvahs, sweet sixteen parties or proms. It’s really fun. It is a chance to really forget about the external world and find your reverie in great classic songs. The ’60s to late ’70s are part of the golden age of rock and roll.”
What are some of your most requested Bruce Springsteen songs?
“Every night, without fail, someone asks for “Thunder Road,” “She’s the One” and “Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out,” and we always fulfill that request. This is a party, it’s not a really a concert. You become one with the audience. It’s very interactive and the excitement level is high. We create an atmosphere where people are welcome to participate. It’s you, calling out the songs, played the way you want to hear them and that creates a very personal experience for the audience. For example, somebody called out “I Can See For Miles” by The Who and that song probably came out when I was a junior in high school. So I would imagine myself as Keith Moon [drummer for The Who], and I would channel him. When we were recording the River album, Bruce encouraged me on some of the songs to play like Keith Moon, he was a drummer was that was very vocative of that era, and I can do that. I’m not Keith Moon but I can channel that kind of energy and approach.”
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The music industry has lost so many legends lately from Tom Petty to David Bowie to Prince. Are you honoring those late artists through your show?
“Absolutely. And a lot of their songs are on my playlist. Almost every night we play “Breakdown” and “American Girl” by Petty. We do “Handle With Care,” from George Harrison and The Traveling Wilburys, which the audience love. And from Bowie we often play “Rebel Rebel” and “The Jean Genie.” It’s been a tough couple of years. You get into that age group where you start losing people and losing people in such a sudden fashion like Prince and Tom Petty, it’s been tough. There’s enough going on in the world.”
Why do you think now more than ever are music and the arts so important?
“Bruce once said that our job is to go into your town, shake the rafters and allow you to dance all of these problems away for a couple of hours, and then fly back out of town. And my experience in that approach is to be 100 percent engaged at all times. With the Jukebox tour, I get to use the verbal chops I developed on seventeen years of late night TV as the bandleader for Conan O’Brien. It comes out naturally in the interaction with the audience and that’s a real fun aspect of it. The moment I come out on stage I explain what the audience will see, and people appreciate a performer talking to them. You get to see how the sausage is made musically on the stage. It’s very in the moment so I’m having an absolute ball.”
Bruce is known for his epic tours. How do you keep your stamina?
“At 66, there are several things you need do. First you need a lot of sleep, you really have to take care of yourself and you have to eat right. You’ve got to recognize that being a drummer is extraordinarily physical when you play for four or five hours with the E Street Band, you’ve got to be able to maintain that, not just get through it but you’ve got to be able to maintain the band. And another thing about playing with Bruce, is I have to be able to play longer than Bruce because he can stop whenever he wants and I can’t. It comes down to discipline, dedication and diet. It’s hard work whether its Bruce or my own band or anyone else I’ve played with. You got to commit yourself 100 percent, and naturally after 42 years that ethos rubbed off on me, and I like to think it rubbed off on the people who I’ve been associated with.”
Did you think when you answered that Village Voice ad at the age of 23 that you would end up where you are today?
“I’d like to think yes — I think there was a certain destiny. When I was a teenager I didn’t think that I would playing the drums professionally at 66. I always loved playing the drums, but there were other things I certainly could have done and had intended to do. When I met Bruce, I was on my way to finishing college and I was going go to law school. I was so idealistic about music that I wanted that idealism in place and fortunately for me with the E Street Band I’ve been able to do that. The odds are not even one in a million to bump up against a real true pioneer and a genius like Bruce Springsteen — they don’t exist. It’s a lot of luck, I think destiny and I worked really hard as a kid in drumming to get jobs, and then in the late ’60s I started to get serious about playing music. I was extremely idealistic about it, and I’ve been very fortunate to be able to maintain that in the face of everything you need to go through to be a musician.”
Is there anyone you wish you had the chance to jam with?
“John Lennon comes to mind. I did see him crossing the street once in Manhattan in the ’70s. But I’ve been fortunate to play with so many people who I idolize and still do. You know specifically having the experience being the family music director on a late night TV show for 17 years, I’ve had the opportunity to perform with so many incredible artists and backing vocalists.
How many big Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band tours do you think you have left in you?
“I don’t think about retiring. As long as people wanna hear those songs, and we want to play them. I’m going to continue doing this for as long as I can. It’s really fun.”