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To The Max
By Kelsie Allen Barton | Photo: by Gregg Delman | Styling by Connor Childers | Grooming by Natasha Leibel | Shot on location in the Heaven Over Hell Penthouse Suite, Kimpton Ink48 Hotel, New York | October 31, 2017
With his Nickelodeon days behind him, MAX pours his heart into his greatest passion—music. And though he’s known for turning the “Lights Down Low,” this sexy singer-songwriter’s future is brighter than ever.
He may be quick to joke about his “fun-size” stature, but 25-year-old Max Schneider—known simply as MAX to his legions of fans (we’re talking nearly 600K Instagram followers)—makes up for what he lacks in height with tremendous personality—and a powerful voice. Here, the talented musician, who you can catch onstage in the A at JEZEBEL’s 21st anniversary bash Nov. 30, opens up about performing at animal shelters, modeling with Madonna(!) and embracing his authentic self. @maxgschneider
I hear you’re a born-and-bred New Yorker. Which Manhattan ’hood do you call home?
I grew up in Hell’s Kitchen; my mom’s been in the same spot for almost 44 years now. I got married in the same apartment where I grew up. The neighborhood is very close to me. … The culture that surrounds Hell’s Kitchen is what I try to bring everywhere we go. I went to school five blocks from my crib there. It all happened in that little neighborhood.
When did you first fall in love with music?
I definitely caught the bug early. My parents would bring me to Broadway shows when I was a little kid. I would see The Lion King or Beauty and the Beast, and I’d come home and re-enact the whole show on my living room table in my underwear. I think they realized pretty early on that this is probably not a normal thing; maybe he really is into this. So they kept putting me in musical theater and shows, and it never stopped. It’s been this long journey of a 5-year-old kid who just loves doing it. I still feel like that 5-year-old kid.
You have a good bit of acting under your belt, from playing Zander on Nickelodeon’s How to Rock to Van Dyke Parks in the 2014 Beach Boys biopic Love & Mercy. Is it true you also did some modeling?
I had done photos for different TV shows I had been in, but I never really considered myself a model by any means. I met this guy at a casting director office and he said, ‘I’d love to submit you for things,’ and I said, ‘Yeah, sure, whatever, man.’ Long story short, the first thing he submitted me for was this Dolce & Gabbana campaign with Madonna. … So I had this surreal play date with Madonna for 12 hours, and we took all these different shots. The next day, my dad looked in the papers and there was this one photo that paparazzi got of us walking down the street with groceries outside and it said, ‘Who Is Madonna’s New Fetus Boyfriend?’ That was my intro to the modeling game. Well, the fun-size modeling game.
That’s hysterical. Were you starstruck when you met Madonna?
Yeah. She’s a powerhouse. She’s a fun-size powerhouse. And I love that too because I like to rep fun-size humans, and, certainly, I think people are surprised to see how tiny she is as a person in comparison to how powerful of a figure and being she is.
Fun-size humans for the win! So when would you say your big break came?
Probably the Nickelodeon movie Rags; that was a big break in a lot of ways. I was the main character, [Charlie Prince], and it was this Cinderfella story... but the really cool thing about it was that I went in for it, this hip-hop musical movie—and again, I’m the fun-size guy who plays the ukulele. And for this movie, they said, ‘Don’t bring that; you’re supposed to be hardcore hip-hop.’ But I brought the ukulele anyway. I thought, ‘Nah, we’ll see what happens.’ And they ended up writing the ukulele and sort of my vibe into the movie. And, in that way, not only was it a big break just because a good amount of people saw the movie and heard the music, but it was this moment where it really solidified staying true to who I am… that the little things you’re insecure about are the little things that make you—the things that, in the long run, will make your journey special.
Now you’re focused much more on your music since being signed to DCD2 Records in 2015. Is acting still a part of your life?
Not really. It’s mostly music. I had this moment where, in the last movie I did a little over a year ago, I was playing this really dark, juicy role... and I wasn’t enjoying it. I should have been excited about the work and I wasn’t, and that was sort of the straw that broke the camel’s back in realizing that I needed to commit myself to music. I enjoy this so much every day, and I’m sure not everyone does. So since the release of ‘Lights Down Low,’ I’ve tried to just spread that story and the music, and it’s all been committed to that.
Let’s actually talk more about your hit song, “Lights Down Low.” What inspired those beautiful lyrics?
I wrote it for my wife, Emily. I proposed to her with it, so it’s a really special one for us. It was another big turning point because I was writing for the first album, Hell’s Kitchen Angel, and I was just in a lost place. Everybody was like, ‘What’s the single?’ and, ‘You’ve got to get the big hit,’ and I was in this place where I was trying too hard to do that. Finally, when I gave up on that and just decided to create something special for her, ironically, that’s the one that’s been heard the most. It’s been a massive enlightenment in knowing that that’s what it has to always be about. You can’t do something because you think it will be successful or because you want it to be successful. You’ve got to do something because it’s true to who you are and your heart and what matters most to you.
And to us, especially in the times we’re in, it’s so important to stand for love, whether someone’s transgender or bisexual or gay or straight. So we make a point of doing that everywhere we go before we sing the song. I think it’s important to start the conversation in places where maybe they don’t agree with that. So that’s sort of where the song came from and what it’s become.
That’s lovely. Speaking of your shows, I know you’re currently traveling for your Meteor Tour—what do you love most about being onstage?
Oh, it’s my favorite, always. It’s this irreplaceable rush that is something you can’t replicate. It’s only found when you’re in front of a group of people that, whether they know the music or not, are just diving in and losing themselves in that small community at a concert. ... It’s wonderful to get to experience it in different cities that have such different cultures. And being able to, like I said, make that speech in New York City and Atlanta and Kentucky and South Carolina, where it’s not always given the same response. If it was given the same response every time, there’d be no point in saying it. I love going into every concert venue because it’s inevitably spontaneous—people are reacting differently to each thing you say, to each song, to each moment, and that’s what makes it feel alive.
Any moments on tour that stand out to you?
With ‘Lights Down Low,’ you know, I said it was a special song to my wife and I, but we never expected that people would start to use it as their wedding song or propose with it. But it’s been incredible, and now, I had this wonderful guy who was in the military reach out to me and say, ‘Hey, I’d love to get married at your show; will you marry us to “Lights Down Low”?’ And so we get to do that [this] month.
That will be so special. I know you’re also incredibly charitable—tell me about some of the causes near and dear to your heart.
We’ve been organizing all of these different shelter shows at animal rescues, which has been amazing. It’s been awesome that the fans have turned into a charitable community to help me and me help them with different causes. ... We’ve been shooting a documentary about it coming out on PBS. We just want to use it as a vehicle to hopefully get as many animals adopted... like our dog, Wink—he brings us more joy than anything else. He has one eye, and we adopted him in New York about a year ago. We travel so much, but Emily and I know if we were in one place, we’d have at least 30 dogs.
You are melting my heart! OK, now let’s do a few quick-fire questions. If you could collaborate with one artist, who would it be?
I love Stevie Wonder—he’s on my bucket list. I got to work a little bit with Pharrell [Williams] awhile ago, but we never released anything; I’d love to do stuff with him again. I’m always a Justin Timberlake fanboy at heart. And Billy Joel up in New York. … There’s so many.
All great picks. Next, let’s talk fashion. You have such a unique sense of personal style. Where do you like to shop?
It’s all my wife. I give her all the credit. We mostly travel together, but there are times where I’ll do a weekend trip or a week trip, and she’ll pack my outfits. And if I mess one up, she’ll see I posted a picture, and she’s like, ‘Those pants did not go with that shirt.’
Ah, married life! Next question: What’s been your biggest struggle as an artist?
Insecurities—wanting people to like me and wanting to not disappoint anyone. Ironically, it’s been the greatest thing to realize the power of saying no and being true to who we’re meant to be, even if people don’t like it. It’s funny because I get way more hate now than I’ve ever gotten, but it’s things that I love so it doesn’t really affect me.
What are you most looking forward to in 2018?
We’re working on the second album right now while we’re in a van on the road, or wherever else—we’re always working on the music. The tour is called the Meteor Tour, and the first song off the next album is a little bit of an intro to that world, and it’s called ‘Meteor.’ I started it seven years ago with my college roommate in our dorm room, and we stopped—we didn’t finish it. Six years later—last year—we reconnected and finished the song, and I’m so excited to release that and to release the next phase of music. Again, I finally feel like I found that solidified message that I want to bring with the music.