Max Stern's songwriting belies his age. The 21-year-old Cleveland State University student, vocalist and lead guitarist has been honing his skills in bands since his early teens, first playing in cleverly named ska outfit The Skatastrophes with bassist Loren Shumaker-Chupp.
When the band parted ways, Stern and Shumaker-Chupp united with drummer and recent Cleveland transplant Steve Gibson to form Signals Midwest, named after an off-hand remark Stern made to a friend moving to Portland, Oregon: "I guess you've pointed your signals west."
Immediately, the band set about writing original material. "After the first three months, we had a full-length record ready to go," says Stern. The prolific trio recorded Burn the Blueprints, in the basement studio of 16-year-old whiz kid Steve Perrino, and toured extensively throughout the Midwest, finding favor among such popular contemporaries as the group Defiance, Ohio. "It's the best: Everybody helps each other out, we're all friends, and we all sub in on everybody's instruments when needed," says Stern of camaraderie among local musicians. "There's not a lot of bullshit."
One of those local musicians, guitarist Jeff Russell, joined the group in July, adding a new dimension to the group's sound, allowing Stern to flex his lead muscle. Although principle songwriter, Stern takes his verse and chorus ideas to the band who "take it, twist it and fill out the parts that I didn't think of."
"In Tensions" was born of this dynamic. The band's cohesion is amplified with tight time-signature shifts that follow a brisk tempo and tonal quality rooted in the punk aesthetic. Stern's playing includes sharp lead work, his vocals emotive. Russell's rhythm guitar adds to the song's aural density, while Gibson's rapid fire fills and Shumaker-Chupp's steady bass give the song a sturdy spine. "The song was written from the prespective of my grandmother," says Stern. "It's about [my grandmother], battling with old age, getting older, struggling with everyday life, and how she works with it."
Watch an exclusive performance of "In Tensions" Live From Bad Racket on the next page.