Max Verna has no regrets when it comes to his life choices. After spending nearly a decade writing and playing music around the country with the Ominous Seapods, a jam band he formed after transferring to SUNY Plattsburgh in 1988, lead singer, lead guitarist and lead writer Verna quit being a professional musician to raise a family and find a new career path.
With four daughters — three in college, one in high school — the 1986 Scarsdale High School graduate, who attended the A-School senior year, couldn’t be happier with the life he’s built with his wife Carleen, whom he met and married while he was still touring with the Seapods, and music remains a major part of his life.
As do the Ominous Seapods.
The Seapods were part of a great music scene from the Northeast, but unlike jam bands of all styles — Phish, God Street Wine, Rusted Root, moe., Disco Biscuits, Blues Traveler, Widespread Panic, Gov’t Mule — the Seapods never caught on enough to get major radio airplay or play a venue on their own with a capacity of more than 600.
Verna once got a “massive check” from U.S. Air as his jam “Leaving the Monopole” was on one of their stations and was playing on a constant loop.
The band played Wetlands in New York City, Red Rocks in Colorado and House of Blues in Boston, Chicago and Los Angeles, in addition to bars, festivals and lesser-known venues.
“For us it didn’t quite get there,” Verna said. “It was there in small doses, but not quite there, certainly not that level of Phish or some of the other bands.”
Still, the Seapods had a great following, and after reunion shows with various band members in 2007 and 2010, the Seapods played as their main lineup in 2018 for sold-out reunion shows at Cohoes Music Hall and Brooklyn Bowl that made fans — affectionately known as Ominous Seapods Mutants — remember what they’d been missing since they disbanded their final lineup in 2001.
The big name jam bands remain popular, as do the grunge bands from the Seattle area, two explosive genres from the ’90s.
“There’s also a lot of people that are catching on to jam band scene now,” Verna said. “A lot of those bands are still out there. Now we see older familiar faces in the crowd and see them with their kids. We had 10 college kids at our show last year and they caught on from the internet.”
The next reunion show is next year on Feb. 11 — the official Seapods New Year date — at Lark Hall in Albany.
“There’s still fans out there that will just go through a wall for us,” Verna said. “There are die-hard, die-hard fans. Back then there was no social media, so there was no glue that brought everyone together countrywide the way that a radio hit does or the way Phish or the Grateful Dead did where it was so organic. We had these pockets of fans in places. I felt like I was part of something we had taken to a certain level.”
Four-fifths of the lineup that moved after three years in Plattsburgh to Albany in 1991 is the band that currently plays the reunion shows, despite having had many others in the band and a new lead singer after Verna left. Guitar player and vocalist Dana Monteith, a founding member, is a gold miner in Australia and as much as Verna would love him to be there for shows he instead makes sure he plays with a fuller guitar sound to make up for Monteith’s absence.
Verna and Monteith had the ultimate brotherly connection, and that includes fighting “constantly.” But on stage, they made magic.
“He was super intelligent and one of the funniest dudes ever, so there was a little antics going on with our shows,” Verna said.
Whether Monteith was running around with a chicken mask pretending to hack the band and the fans up, belly-bucking contests between drunk people or shaving Verna’s head on stage while wearing skirts and dresses, “Somehow Dana always made it really, really funny,” according to Verna. “I’m just not that way. I don’t have that ability. It’s a little more about playing the music.”
Godstreet Wine’s Doctor Lo Faber, a contemporary of the band, producer of their “Jet Smooth Ride” album and who sat in for Monteith at a reunion, had Verna as his Conversations with Musicians about Music guest on Feb. 21 and offers insight into Verna’s songwriting and career (https://bit.ly/3WzlxjM).
“We’re a little more sophisticated than we used to be, so we play a little more sophisticated,” Verna said. “The music is actually slower than it used to be. We were playing so fast. Some of the better recordings at the height of when we were playing well it was just so fast. I wish I could go back in time and be like, ‘Dude, relax. Slow it down.’ It didn’t need to be like that at all. It tends to sit a little better if you play it at a nice, slower rhythm.”
Verna was not the only Scarsdale graduate in the band. He recruited drummer Sam Brewton (now Sam Zucchini) to move up from Miami University to Plattsburgh, but Brewton stayed in Plattsburgh when the band headed to Albany, and “Groovy” Rich Fisher to move from SUNY Delhi to play bass with the band for two years. Fisher was replaced by Tom Pirozzi. Both Brewton and Fisher had played with Verna senior year at SHS in Herbal Delights, along with Chris Bates on drums — yes, they had two drummers at once — and Adam Feder on guitar.
Over the three years at Plattsburgh, the band convinced several musicians to relocate to join the Seapods.
“I guess the allure of it was enough for people to drop what they were doing and come up to the coldest part of the state,” Verna said. “It was the farthest you could get in New York State. A couple of towns north and you’re in Canada. It was the very tip, farther north than Burlington, Vermont. It was horrendously cold up there.”
Roots in music
It was at Scarsdale High School where Verna caught the music bug. He’d taken a few guitar lessons, but was mostly focused on playing soccer — he wanted to be Pele growing up in the late 1970s and early 1980s — basketball and baseball through middle school. As an eighth grader his older sister took him to a rec night at the high school, where she plopped him down in front of a band called Savoy Truffle and Verna was mesmerized, much like William Miller listening to The Who’s “Tommy” with a candle burning in “Almost Famous.” Yes, he saw his “entire future.”
Well, some of it.
Verna described what he remembers of the scene at the high school that night as mirroring the “Dazed and Confused” movie “to the letter” with the Brewster Roadies partying outside and inside.
“I’m just mesmerized by the whole thing,” Verna said. “First of all the people partying, but how great these bands were. Then all of a sudden a couple hours later the lights go on and my sister finds me and takes me home. That for me was a total transition. I didn’t want to do sports anymore — I wanted to do that, I wanted to play music.”
For Verna, high school was all about learning guitar and playing after school with his friends, including some of the members of Savoy Truffle, like Steve Mayone, later in high school.
Putting his going-nowhere soccer career aside was an easy decision after freshman year and as he “wasn’t a great student either,” music was a “perfect escape and the perfect way to kind of maintain some level of success in my daily life.”
Verna was in several cover bands and with a high voice one of his go-tos was Geddy Lee and Rush. Senior year he “fell into a group of really great musicians” and discovered the Grateful Dead, in addition to jazz influences and later on the bluegrass scene upstate.
“We played every single day,” Verna said. “Every day. We went right from school to my friend’s basement and we played all afternoon into the evening. We played all weekend. We did everything together for that entire year. I learned so much about music from those guys, experimenting with those guys. Then it continued in college. I got my bearings and I was like, ‘Who plays music? Where are we going to rehearse?’ I was wheeling and dealing because I just wanted to perpetuate it.”
After graduating from Scarsdale, it was no different showing up at Ithaca College, where Verna attended for three semesters before dropping out to live, work, struggle and not play music in Boston for about nine months before heading to Plattsburgh.
Unlike at Ithaca, Verna was at home “right away” in Plattsburgh. “I felt like I found my place, just a lot of like-minded people, and met a couple of people and started the Ominous Seapods,” he said. “That was the catalyst of the whole Seapod experience.”
Monteith insisted they not be a Grateful Dead cover band before Verna could suggest they be a Grateful Dead cover band.
The band recorded its first album, “Below the Murky Currents,” in 1990, released on 100 cassette tapes. The album was recently released by the band for streaming online. “We were a four-piece band at the time with Dana Monteith, Tom Pirozzi, Sam Zucchini [Brewton] and me, partying, mountain biking, exploring and writing music,” Verna wrote in a social media promo. “The music was a reflection of the times and the people around us and The Monopole Bar was where it all came together. I hope you enjoy it!”
There are also over 200 fan bootlegs online at archive.com, in addition to many of the other Seapods albums online, with songs like “Blackberry Brandy” and “Leaving the Monopole,” including one album recorded after Verna left the band.
Verna, guitarist/vocalist Monteith, drummer Ted Marotta, bassist Pirozzi and keyboard player Brian Mangini dropped out of Plattsburgh and moved to Albany, where they were embraced by the local music scene, recorded several albums, and most importantly hit the road to spread their music throughout the country for months at a time with easy access to major highways.
“We were writing a lot and we thought at the time what we were writing people liked it,” Verna said. “Any time we played anywhere in the area it would sell out right away. It was basically mobbed. We figured if it’s that good maybe we could try to expand it, maybe think bigger city.”
They started touring the northeast in three pickup trucks with their tour manager/sound man and soon bought a 15-passenger van. They took out the back two benches for equipment and later on they got a trailer so they could have more room to spread out in the van. The van had 40,000 miles on it when they bought it and by the time Verna left the band in 1998 it was up to 300,000 miles as Verna kept up its maintenance and never had issues with it.
“It was rough because you want the light switch to go on so badly and you’ll do anything for it,” Verna said. “It was such a slow rise. We were gaining more notoriety, gaining more fans, but for me it wasn’t fast enough. I turned 30 in ’98 and I came to the conclusion that if I am going to have a drastic change in my life and actually start a career, it’s going to have to be now, at 30. How many more years could I go hacking away at this and then decided I wanted to start a career? Thirty-five? That could be pretty difficult.”
Other musicians paid the bills by teaching when they weren’t touring, but for the Seapods the band was their full-time job. In addition to the music itself they were doing the accounting, public relations, booking, you name it. “When we weren’t touring we were writing and rehearsing every single day,” Verna said. “That was our job. And it was a pretty all-encompassing experience.”
The band just wasn’t “big enough” for Verna, who had finished up a sociology degree when he was in Albany, to keep going.
“We had done it for so long, I was a little burned out on the whole thing,” Verna said. “If it was more successful it’s different. Even on my last tours we still were rarely getting hotel rooms. We weren’t touring Europe. I wasn’t wearing the finest women’s clothing on stage or whatever Mötley Crüe does.
“We were just so far from that and we were seeing some of the other bands we had toured with or started after us starting to get bigger than us. Those guys did not want to stop. Even Dana said he didn’t want to work. He wanted to do this for whatever they could squeeze out of it.”
The revamped band didn’t last long enough to get a big break either. Had they changed their name they’d have had to start over and with a new lead singer and guitar player. It was no longer the same vibe that Verna brought to the group.
“I was singing, writing, playing all the lead guitar on everything,” Verna said. “I had a very unique style of guitar playing that, when I was gone, it was gone. They tried to change their sound to work with the whole group and the new person and it just fizzled out. It was unfortunate.”
When Verna “jumped ship,” he took advantage of the dot.com wave, got a couple of certifications and winged it in job interviews and on the job itself until he could really get himself up to speed. Verna and Carleen got an apartment in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, and a few years later moved to Mount Pleasant in Westchester County with their first daughter.
Now that his daughters are older, Verna has more time to play, usually spending a few hours each night in his basement after everyone who is still left in the house goes to bed. He doesn’t have the same fluidity on guitar as he did when he was playing “24-7,” but his rhythm is better and he has “no agenda” in picking up a guitar other than the pure joy.
After leaving the Seapods, Verna taught himself how to play Irish fiddle and banjo and explored more bluegrass. He did some writing, but never released anything. Between that early post-Seapods era, a couple of old Seapod songs that never got released and material he’s written over the past few years, Verna is planning to record and release solo music later this year. He’s also collaborating with fellow Mount Pleasant resident and former They Might Be Giants drummer Brian Doherty on a project.
Verna has also gone back to his roots in a local cover band, Heard Immunity. He also on occasion gets to jam with many of the now-professional musicians he grew up with in Scarsdale.
“The caliber of some of those guys was really unbelievable,” Verna said. “It still is.”
Even after all these years, Verna is still trying to achieve “a really good guitar sound.”
“I have been on this search since the very beginning to do some soul-searching to find out what I want to bring to the table in my sound and how am I going to be able to create that and make it part of my sound,” he said. “I’m still not there yet and I hope I never get there.”
And his new music?
“Whatever it does it does,” Verna said. “If it takes off that would be great. I’m not looking to get a record deal with Capitol, but if they want to send some money my way…”
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