Interview: Drummer Max Weinberg set for Jukebox tour
Courtesy of Max Weinberg

Max Weinberg’s been drumming for over sixty years now.  And he’s played almost everything everywhere: From power ballads at weddings and polkas at bar mitzvahs to waltzes at presidential inaugurations and rock super bowls, “Mighty Max” is an unstoppable human beat machine.

But Weinberg—a 2014 Rock and Roll Hall of Famer—is best known for his work with Bruce Springsteen in The E Street Band (1974-1989, 1999-present) and TV comedian Conan O’Brien (Late Night With Conan, The Tonight Show 1993-2010).  Sometimes, Weinberg even served the two masters at once, juggling Bruce concerts for The Rising, Vote for Change, and Working on a Dream with studio gigs on Conan’s L.A. soundstage (1999 to 2009).

Before, after, and in between all that, the Newark, N.J. native also performed with Paul McCartney, B.B. King, James Brown, Southside Johnny, Carole King, and Steve Winwood.  He’s appeared on a slew of Springsteen albums—including his 1975 E Street debut, Born to Run—and has guested on such non-Bruce masterpieces as Meat Loaf’s Bat Out of Hell.

Now Weinberg is shifting gears.

Fresh off a marathon tour with “The Boss” for the 40th anniversary of The River, Weinberg has assumed command of his own group for a very different kind of outing. 

Max Weinberg’s Jukebox will see rock’s preeminent percussionist accept audience requests in smaller, intimate venues with a four-piece band.  Over 200 songs by The Beatles, Rolling Stones, and other greats (including Bruce) will be rehearsed, committed to memory, and ready to roll out when called upon in such cozy confines as The Winchester Tavern in Lakewood, Ohio (where Max plays on December 9th).

We chatted with the super stick-man earlier this week to discuss his “Jukebox” concept.  Naturally, we also queried him on his unique onstage chemistry with rock’s greatest showman.

AXS: Hello, Mighty Max!  How are you?

MAX WEINBERG: I’m well!  How are you doing?  Cleveland rocks!

AXS: We’re looking forward to your all-request “Jukebox” show.

MW: It’s going to be a great show.  I’m really looking forward to it.  Cleveland’s such a rock and roll town, and I think people will enjoy this approach we have to playing the songs they want to hear.

AXS: So when did The River anniversary tour end, and how did the “Jukebox” begin?

MW: The River Tour ended February 28th in New Zealand, and I came home and do what I typically do, which is sleep for about a month!  When you’re on tour you’re never really that relaxed.  You’re always “up” for the show, you know?  So when you finally realize you’re done with 180 or 190 shows, you just decompress.  My manager asked what I wanted to do next, I said, “Nothing, really!  Just hang out at home!” But he said he’d been working on this idea based on conversations we had.  I’ve taken a big band on the road, a twelve-piece Motown-style revue on the road…. But he said, you take two guitars, a bass and drums, and you play all requests.  I said, “What do you mean ‘requests?’” He said the audience requests the songs, and I said, “Well that sounds like a human jukebox!”  So we started to work off that concept.  The audience picks the songs from a revolving scroll on a couple video screens that have a couple hundred songs.  We get to around twenty, twenty-two songs, and I do a lot of talking.  I’ll ask people why they want to hear certain songs, and people will say they it was their wedding song, or that they heard it at their prom. Or I’ve had guys who were in Vietnam say that a particular song meant a lot to them.  A Creedence or Doors song.  So there’s always a reason people want to hear it, and we’re happy to fulfill that request.  And it’s a party, not a concert.  You’re not just sitting there.  You’re actively involved!   

AXS:  Who else is in the band?

MW: I’ve got several groups, depending on the region we’re playing.  In fact, I’ve got a whole group of “Buckeye” from Columbus who will play the Cleveland show.  I look around online and see who are the best bands doing “theme” shows.  Like The Eagles or Stones tribute shows.  And usually the individuals in those groups are very detail-oriented when it comes to learning the songs.  What I try to do with the songs we play—whether it’s the Stones or Bruce or Manfred Mann or English Invasion or Crosby, Stills & Nash or The Byrds—I have a great deal of respect for the repertoire, so we try to play the songs with that respect in mind for the arrangements, the sounds, and the feel.  I have different “A-teams” in different areas of the country who all have a love for this music and a dedication to playing it the best way they know how.

AXS: These shows will certainly be a lot cozier, more intimate for you, given that you’ll be playing to a few hundred people at a time instead of the usual twenty or thirty thousand!

MW:  We’ve limited it to a maximum capacity of about 1,000 per show.  Usually it’s in the 300-400 range, which is very intimate.  I love it.  I go out in the audience and talk to people.  They just yell out the songs or someone hands me a piece of paper.  It’s very spontaneous, very extemporaneous.  Someone once compared me to a combination of the Dave Clark Five band and Dick Clark, the TV show host, because that’s how I approach it.  It’s the music business as it exists at the club level, which is not playing the stadiums and arenas.  You’re right in there with people. 

AXS: You’re renowned for your ability to “read” Bruce and almost telepathically know what he’s going to do in advance.  Does that skill figure into things when you’re the bandleader, or are you free to just do what you want?

MW: Ha!  I found that it’s unusual at times for other members of the band.  Everybody always has to follow the drummer, musically.  But not necessarily in terms of attention span.  So when I put the TV band together for Conan, we had rehearsals where I had the band facing me.  I had to train them to key in on me not just as a drummer.  Because drummers lead bands.  And if you don’t, you’re not doing your job as a drummer!  It’s not to say you’re the bandleader, but you have to be like a goalie or the center on a football team. The play starts and ends with you!  So the drummer has that kind of responsibility.  With the TV band, we were kind of set up on this little stage.  That band got so tight.  Bruce is actually pretty easy to play with, because he’s so definite about what he wants to do, you know?  He’s always thinking songs ahead, always thinking moves ahead.  And as you mentioned, I key into him, and there’s a mental state you get in where you’re just there.  I’ve read it described as “in the flow.”  I don’t know if it’s a sixth sense or premonition, but I can tell.  If he’s got a sweaty shirt on, I can tell from certain muscles that he’s going to go someplace.  I don’t try to read his mind.  What I try to do is be as present as possible.  It took a long time to do that—to be as present as possible, be instantaneous, and be ready to go in any direction. 

AXS: Along with some of Bruce’s big albums you played on a lot of other iconic rock records over the years.  You did Meat Loaf’s “Paradise By the Dashboard Lights,” Bonnie Tyler’s “Total Eclipse of the Heart,” Air Supply’s “Making Love Out of Nothing at All.”  I noticed that the common denominator there is writer Jim Steinman.  What’s the connection there for you?

MW: That’s a great question.  One of my high school friends called me in 1976.  He’d put these two guys together who had met at this theater production.  He said, “I think there’s a real potential with this singer and songwriter,” and asked if I could come up to New York.  So I did, and this rehearsal studio only had a piano in it.  And Jim Steinman played me a song while Meat Loaf sang it.  Just the two of them.  I didn’t know anything about Rocky Horror Picture Show or any of that, but Steinman’s manager at the time was my high school friend.  And I left there thinking, “Well, it’s boisterous!”  It reminded me more or Hair or Jesus Christ Superstar than typical rock and roll.  It was very Broadway, and I loved that.  I’d grown up with that. So I told [E Street keyboardist] Roy Bitten about it, and he became involved.  So there was an association there for a good seven or eight years where I played on all this Steinman stuff, like the Bonnie Tyler song.  That got a lot of attention! I also played on what I believe to be the only non-successful song in Barbara Streisand’s career [laughs].  It was called “Left in the Dark.”  Although, we played it in the studio and she sang over it later.  But that was a Steinman song, too.  And I got the opportunity to play in a backing group with Mick Ronson and Nicky Hopkins and Davey Johnstone, from Elton John’s band.  But I was surprised initially at the incredible success of the Bat Out of Hell record.  For me it was a niche kind of thing, and I thought it’d appeal to fans of The Rocky Horror Picture Show and Broadway people.  But it really had this…just look what happened!  It probably still sells a million copies a year!

Visit Max's website for tour details and tickets.