Max Bernstein is driving to Orange County in the band's recently upgraded Econoline Van (from an 82' to a 99'). The upgrade is in preparation for the band's upcoming tour with Velvet Revolver. The vehicle however, hasn't been completely tricked out for travel yet, but has a supporting role in their current video; This Is The Worst Day of My Life (Do You Want To Come Over). Let's just hope that the van is roadworthy for the tour because after six years of touring, Max and the rest of The Actual are about to get their own starring role in music venues across the Land. He took time to chat with me on his cell phone while the traveling down the highways of California.
Max is no stranger to media attention, being the son of Nora Ephron and Carl Bernstein. Carl is the journalist who, along with Bob Woodward, broke the story of the Watergate break-in. Nora is a film director, producer, screenwriter and novelist best known for her romantic comedies. She is a triple nominee for the Academy Award for Writing Original Screenplay; for Silkwood, When Harry Met Sally and Sleepless in Seattle.
When asked about his famous parents, he doesn't shy away from the questions asked: "It's not that bad. I don't mind being asked about that particularly. There's other things that I'd rather talk about, obviously."
What Max did want to discuss, was how excited he is about the new record, tour and getting to see the country, one state at a time.
Formed by Max (vocals, guitar); Jeremy Bonsall (bass); Jeff Keenan (drums), The Actual performed their first gig on Easter Sunday 2001. They released their debut CD, Songs on Radio Idaho (Eyeball Records) in 2003, and toured extensively for the next two years.
The Actual current line-up includes Max and Jeremy with the addition of Aaron Bonsall (drums) and Ben Flanagan (vocals, guitar). With the personnel changes the band is now ready to take their place in the spotlight. The band's name, however, still needed some illumination.
"It really didn't come from anything. I just like the sound of it. I like that it's a definite article, I think we're kind of a no frills, honest, straightforward presentation; that's kind of what I always wanted the band to be. I think that the name The Actual is not an overly pretentious way of saying that. I mean that if you called your band The Real Deal it would be a horrible name and an incredibly egotistical statement."
In 2003 they set out on their own taking what ever gigs they could get. Playing with other bands in the capacity of an opener and a headliner. Sharing the spotlight with their friends who were in other bands was fine, but The Actual wanted more. Eventually they had to use clandestine means to get their music to the masses, one small town at a time.
"I did a lot of the booking under a fake name and a fake booking agency . . . which was really me. We would play in South Dakota or Iowa because for a long time that was the best place for us to play. We were not competing with a big show every night. We learned a lot about America as a place and people in general, and that I wouldn't have gotten in any other sort of experience."
Stealth booking his own band worked and enabled The Actual to perform in 49 states; he didn't tell me which one was missing. This was not Max's only covert operation. He described his parents as 'kind of sweet, and slightly conservative' but wonderful people none the less and, "For years I was hiding a tattoo from my mom, and whenever we played in New York I would wear long sleeves. This lasted for about three years until I finally came clean."
Touring has been an education for the band, and they've experienced some bumps along the way, but Max pointed out that sometimes the road is not like what you hear in the Bob Seger song:
"On a long and lonesome highway, east of Omaha.
You can listen to the engine moaning out its one lone song"
– Turn The Page
Currently touring with Velvet Revolver they still perform in smaller venues on their days off to get their music out to the public. The band is in for the long haul.
"We have been around for six years with no support whatsoever. It's really been a hamster wheel endeavor. There are a lot of bands that we started playing with in 2002 and almost all of them have broken up. Some of them have gotten huge, like My Chemical Romance, which we use to play with a lot."
But when it comes to speaking of The Actual's own success, Max shys away from overstating their position in the music industry. The whole process of recording, touring and getting the right band members into the band has been a journey that he wanted to take, but this band doesn't seem to be in a great big hurry to become famous.
"I also think that if we had been playing great tours right away and not really had to be out there in the thick of it and playing in the wrong place sometime and getting to meet the wrong kind of people you would expect to it changed us both as a band and as people. I wouldn't trade that experience in no matter what happens professionally; as a person that whole experience was worth it"
The New Album
By 2005 they were ready to work on their next release. With four years between records, The Actual were developing their sound further. In recording the second album, In Stitches, Max and the band had several obstacles to overcome. They began recording the new record with musical director, co-producer and guitarist extraordinaire Doug Grean. Doug has worked with Sheryl Crow, Crystal Method, John Taylor and of course Velvet Revolver. The process of recording, however, took longer than they'd hoped. Recording sessions were done in-between mini-tours that would last for weeks at a time; and then there were personnel changes.
"We'd do the drum tracks, then we would go on tour; do guitar tracks, and then go on tour; and in the middle of it we iced our drummer and got Aaron, so he's on half the tracks, and our old drummer is on half the tracks."
Even with the new drummer in place, there was still something missing. Max has always been a fan of single-guitar power-punk bands like Hűsker Dű and Guided by Voices, but when it came to his own band he felt that there was a need to round out the sound. So when he heard that Ben Flanagan's band Near Kerosene had broken up, Max asked Ben to join The Actual.
"I've known him [Ben] since I was 17 and he was 16. He saw my old band play, and we became fast friends and best friends ever since. We were lucky to get another guitar player, and we kind of knew that we had to do it. We also knew that we really needed the background vocals because Jeremy and Aaron cannot sing at all. We tried it; it just doesn't work. Ben joined the band in the middle of making our record, and we managed to get him to play lead on two songs on the album."
Other dynamics of the band include brotherly horseplay between the elder brother Aaron and younger brother Jeremy. I asked Max about the antics that the brothers engage in off stage.
"They definitely get into little wrestling matches, mostly for fun. We were on tour in January of 06 for two months, and two weeks into the tour, in one of those friendly wrestling matches, Aaron broke Jeremy's left forefinger, which is pretty important as a bass player. We didn't miss a show, and Jeremy had to play pretty much for the next year without using his forefinger. It's only been recently that he's been able to use it again. He had it all taped down and when he pressed on it [his finger] it would hurt."
The Actual are a stronger and well seasoned band with their second release. Max and Ben shared songwriting duties on the record, but it's the whole group that puts in the effort to make the songs work.
"When I write a song, I write the title and chorus first, and if it's good then I have to WORK for the rest of it...then comes the rest of the music, then lyrics and at that point I bring it to the band and if it's not sounding good we get rid of it. We're a good band, and we can all play, and if I have a song and the band isn't making it sound good, then there's something probably wrong with the song"
That effort did not go unnoticed. In the midst of playing biker bars in Idaho, their music made it to the ears of legendary rock star Scott Weiland (STP, Camp Freddy, and Velvet Revolver). Weiland took the California pop-punksters under his wing and signed them to his label, Softdrive Records.
"By the time we finished the record we had 25 songs, and then we had to cut a bunch of them; we definitely could have made two records in that time. In the end we have one really awesome record, as opposed to two pretty good ones."
With the final line up of best friends and brothers in the band, the stage is set for The Actual to move into the next phase of their career: longer tours. They are currently on tour with Weiland's band, Velvet Revolver , and are coming to a town near you.