Features, Print March 17, 2020

Max Barcelow: The Fragile Big Time and Saying Yes

by Laura Giagos

For Max Barcelow, life as a professional musician living in Fort Collins has had plenty of twists and turns. Drumming for numerous projects over the years, Barcelow eventually found himself playing with the prolific folk artist Gregory Alan Isakov. That gig took him everywhere from Red Rocks to Europe, and even a performance with the Colorado Symphony.

Drummer Max Barcelow is both a high profile Grammy-attending musician and a down-home bartender at a punk-leaning venue in Fort Collins. Photos by Michael Olivier.

Iskov’s 2018 album Evening Machines received a Grammy nomination for best folk album, but nothing Barcelow experienced in his years gigging and recording would prepare him for being nominated, and then being at the ceremony in Los Angeles on the day famed basketball player Kobe Bryant died.

“Having the privilege to be present for what a lot of musicians consider the most important day of their musical life, then having thousands of people gathered outside holding a vigil for Kobe … it was this weird clash of worlds,” says Barcelow. 

The Grammys were held on January 26 at The Staples Center in Los Angeles, which has long been dubbed “Kobe’s House.” The result was an evening torn between continuing the celebration of music while hastily trying to address and honor Bryant. For Barcelow, witnessing the pomp and grandeur of the Grammy’s while this was going on was a reminder of how fragile life is, and how no one can escape that fragility – even with success and money. “It’s funny how death just brings it all back home,” Barcelow said.

Barcelow feels no pull to Boulder where he records and practices with Gregory Alan Isakov. He prefers the Fort Collins scene, of which his opinion has become expert by proxy. Photos by Michael Olivier

The experience was a moment of reflection for Barcelow on all the people he has lost over the years, a list including two band members and several artist friends. It showed him how lucky he is to have arrived at this point.

Being a professional musician was always a dream for Barcelow but it didn’t become a reality until he relocated from Minneapolis to attend Colorado State University. He was asked to tour playing drums for local band Baker London. On a whim, he put his education on the back burner and hit the road. In order to cut out a living for himself, Barcelow knew he would have to make sacrifices and say yes to a lot of stuff that came his way. Eventually that attitude led him to a few practices with Isakov.

“I think it’s easy to do that as a drummer because you can migrate. You’re slightly more nomadic than a singer songwriter or a guitarist. I feel like drummers are always in pretty good demand,” says Barcelow.

Regarding the Fort Collins music scene, Barcelow says” “There’s this weird ceiling that every project seems to fit before fizzling out,” but notes abundant opportunities to get bands “right out of Fort Collins.” Photo by Michael Olivier

Barcelow recognizes the sacrifices he had to make regarding his relationships and education to become the go-to drummer. His parents were not supportive of his first tour and dropping out of school is never an easy decision. But eventually his parents came around as he began to make a living and he eventually earned his degree in Spanish and business.

Barcelow enjoys life in Fort Collins, and feels no pull to move to Boulder, where he records and practices with Iskov. He also recognizes that it can be a solitary experience to come home from tour to a city that is constantly changing without you. And while Fort Collins is considered a big music town, it can be a difficult scene to break out of.

Barcelow is one of the few Fort Collins musicians to understand both the underground and “big time” sides of the music world. Photo by Michael Olivier

“There’s this weird ceiling that every project seems to fit before fizzling out,” Barcelow says, “but they’re punctuated with moments like ‘fuck yeah we’re opening for Lucero,’ or ‘wow we got the Tour de Fat gig,’” says Barcelow. “That little string to success can lead you right out of Fort Collins.” 

The summer of 2020 is already packed for Barcelow as he gears up for a tour with Isakov supporting The Lumineers, including a show at Coors Field in Denver. Still, in between tours he likes to stay busy and grounded by working on other projects and getting involved in the local scene. You can find him bartending around Fort Collins, primarily at Pinball Jones Campus West because of the underground shows hosted there.

Looking ahead, Barcelow says he can see himself getting into teaching drums as a side gig, imparting some of the knowledge he’s learned as a professional. 

Barcelow behind the bar at Pinball Jones Campus West. Photo by Michael Olivier

“There are a lot of great drummers out there who have excellent chops but they don’t know how to honor a song. They can figure out the beat and chug through from start to finish but they can’t wrap their hearts around the song and the lyrics,” says Barcelow.

It takes life experience, dedication and a realization of life’s fragility to wrap your heart around a song. Barcelow knows the place to earn all that isn’t at big award ceremonies, but by staying grounded and saying yes.