By Casey Sexton
In the realm of music, there are those who play the notes and those who transcend them – to the point of turning melodies into magic.
Enter Max Hart, a virtuoso whose journey through sound is nothing short of extraordinary, having started in the trenches of Sacramento and made it all the way to arena lights around country. The saga is a testament to the precision Hart brings to every note, every chord, and every beat.
Four years ago, he returned to the embrace his hometown’s music scene, blissfully unaware that the return would coincide with a renaissance in the city’s musical tapestry.
Sitting down with SN&R, Hart unfolded the pages of his musical diary, recounting tales from the late ’90s jazz clubs of Sacramento to the grand stages alongside Katy Perry and Melissa Etheridge.
Now anchored in Woodland, Hart reflected on an evolving industry, laying out his plans for the future. His symphony began in the late ’90s, echoing through the jazz haunts of Sacramento. His early days at Davis High School were marked by the harmonious dance of his fingers on the piano keys, thanks to the jazz program that laid the foundation for collaborations with local R&B fixtures like Steve Gundy.
Jazz was a launching pad, from opening for the genre icon Pharoah Sanders at The Crest Theatre, to getting down with gritty punk sounds as part Girls Soccer, playing alongside Mick Mucus, (formally of popular regional act, Anal Mucus). As time went on, Hart’s musical palette knew no bounds. Transitioning from jazz to punk, Max’s teenage rebellion found expression in the raw power of a B3 organ and guitar.
A departure from the comfort of well-paying gigs with the pop-punk band Death Ray in the early 2000s led Hart to San Francisco, but that city’s struggling music scene then nudged him to the neon lights of Los Angeles.
In the City of Angels, Hart tasted the bitter-sweet elixir of touring, surviving on temp work and immersing himself in the rhythm of the music industry. Fate intervened through a referral to Ethiopian-born American musician, Kenna (New Sacred Cow) a connection that introduced him to the likes of Chad Hugo and Pharrell Williams.
A serendipitous night call from Pharrell in 2003 paved the way for the formation of “High Speed Scene,” a whirlwind of power pop that caught the attention of the industry giants.
As the band disbanded in 2006, Hart embarked on a different cadence. Learning the ropes of production and navigating the changing tides of the music industry, he weathered the storm with frugality and focus. A hiatus from the spotlight ensued as Hart grappled with burnout, straight jobs, and the existential question of what he truly wanted to say through his music.
A pivotal moment arrived when Hart donned the hat of a side musician for “We Are Scientists.” The more comfortable touring atmosphere breathed new life into his musical spirit, prompting a move to New York City in 2009. Amidst worldwide acts and larger-than-life productions, Max maintained a focus on smaller, soulful projects, including a collaboration with Pete Bernhard from “Devil Makes Three.”
The Perry-Etheridge Era: Arena anthems and surreal realities
While rehearsing in LA for Glee Live! In Concert!, Hart received a call that would change the course of his musical journey. An audition for Katy Perry’s band beckoned, and Hart, with several weeks of Glee tour left, initially declined. Fate intervened once more, and Hart found himself on stage with Katy Perry, performing “California Girls” at the 2010 VMAs with Snoop Dogg.
A memorable moment, indeed
Known for his exceptional skills on piano, B3 organ, pedal steel and guitar, Hart’s versatility has been a constant thread in where music has taken him.
Before the arenas and the bright lights, Hart had already cut his teeth in the spotlight with Death Ray, a band founded by two former members of Cake, which, for a time, looked like it would be another Sacramento break-out. That experience, alongside rock and jazz drummer James Neil, provided Hart with valuable insights as a paid side man on the road.
The highs of touring with Katy Perry were accompanied by the demands of massive productions and the toll of constant travel. However, amidst the grandeur, Hart found solace in smaller projects that showcased his adaptability and passion for music. In 2020, a return to Woodland after the birth of his child marked a new chapter. Establishing a B3 trio and performing locally, Hart utilized the pandemic-induced hiatus to focus on building a home studio, grounding himself in the familial warmth of Woodland.
Looking Ahead: The producer’s hat and Sacramento’s sonic revival
As Hart strides into the future, his vision extends beyond the glare of the spotlight. Wearing the producer’s hat, he envisions curating projects with an egoless approach, collaborating with local musicians and contributing to Sacramento’s musical reawakening. His commitment to the local scene is evident as he immerses himself in numerous gigs, connecting with fellow musicians, and weaving his essence into the city’s thriving musical community.
Fans who have been following Hart’s career might feel it’s akin to glimpsing the inner workings of an alchemist, transforming the ordinary into the utterly exemplary. He’s not just a seasoned musician; he’s a dedicated lover of music, embracing the ever-changing dynamics of the industry and contributing to the Sacramento’s mosaic of creative colors.
The maestro continues his symphony, and as enthusiasts, we eagerly await the next movement in Max Hart’s musical pilgrimage.
Casey Sexton is the producer for Casey Sexton Presents and talent buyer for The Side Door in Sacramento – ‘curating talent, creating magic’