A few weeks ago, Max Ernst was having oysters and a glass of wine at Sel Rrose on the Lower East Side. He’d just driven into the city from Maryland with his band Shaed — which consists of himself, his twin brother Spencer and lead singer Chelsea Lee, Spencer’s wife — to perform on TRL and at iHeartMedia’s No Cannes Do party. Later, there was a dinner celebrating the fact that “Trampoline,” which entered Billboard’s Hot 100 in mid-June after two weeks at the top of the Alternative Songs charts, had just gone gold.
The slight 29-year-old multi-instrumentalist was seated at the bar where he’d struck up a conversation with the couple next to him. He invited them to an upcoming show, and as Ernst paid the check, the couple suggested another bar in the area where he could sit and have a quiet drink and a chat. “I’m an extrovert,” he explained, walking up Bowery. “I like meeting people.”
Ernst hasn’t had much time to socialize over the past few years. Shaed has been on the road almost non-stop since signing with Photo Finish Records in 2016. They’ve crisscrossed the country, opening for Marian Hill, Vérité and Bishop Briggs. But it’s not like Ernst, who came out when he was 19, has a boy in every port. He estimates that he spends about 95 percent of his time with his brother and Chelsea. The three of them are close. When not touring, they still live together in a house in Silver Springs, MD, and they share a singular focus on their music — which is beginning to pay off.
“We’ve been building fans and building our catalog,” Ernst says. Last fall, Apple featured “Trampoline” in a MacBook Air commercial. “I think [that] was a catapult that set a lot of other exciting things in motion. The last six months have definitely been the most exciting time in my career.”
There are major collaborations in the works with artists and producers that Lee and the Ernst brothers admire. They’re playing the summer festival circuit, hitting up Lollapalooza and Japan’s Summer Sonic in August before buckling down to finish their debut album in time for their first-ever headlining tour this fall. All of which seems like the culmination of the twins’ life’s work, the dream of making music that they’ve shared since they were children.
The Ernst twins grew up just outside of Washington, DC. Their father was a government contractor and their mother a homemaker who also worked as a substitute teacher. It was their mom who instilled in the twins a love of pop music. She would spin Heart albums for them when they were little and also played guitar; the boys would clamor to hear her sing “Barracuda” instead of “The Wheels on the Bus.”
“She had a hard life and I feel like music was an escape for her,” Ernst said. “She kind of set the wheels in motion when we were in elementary school, helping us start a band and teaching us how to write songs.”
From that point on, Max and Spencer were never not in a band. They played pool parties and school harvest festivals. They wrote their own songs, throwing a crowd-pleasing cover or two into their sets. “It was never a hobby. As long as I could remember, we wanted to make this our lives.”
In high school, they met Lee, a musician facing frustrations similar to what Max and Spencer were experiencing. The Ernsts had signed with a label but their brand of folk-pop just wasn’t making an impact. “We felt like we weren’t really totally in control of our art,” Max recalled. “We felt like we were being pressured to go in a direction that we weren’t really inspired by anymore.” But with the addition of Lee, who was heavily influenced by artists like Peter Gabriel and the Psychedelic Furs, they began to take their music in a different direction. The boys picked up an old Casio synthesizer at a garage sale and began producing their own songs again, developing the lazy, loping electropop sound that now defines their work.
It was also around this time that Max came out as gay — which was not unrelated to the crossroads he and Spencer and Lee found themselves at musically. His whole life, ‘musician’ had been his primary identity, something that was essentially inseparable from his relationship with his twin. When their mother took issue with the homophobic and anti-choice rhetoric of a particular priest at the boys’ Catholic high school, Max was aware that some of that was about people like him. He’d heard stories about his grandfather, a Methodist minister who died when the twins were still toddlers, marrying same-sex couples in the ’60s. But playing shows in and around DC, he didn’t have much sense of the city’s LGBTQ scene. “My brother and I were making music together, I was singing. I felt an outside pressure to not come out,” Ernst explained. “It was a different time, we didn’t have Troye Sivan or Sam Smith. There weren’t any young gay musical icons at the time.”
These days, however, Ernst is intent on being a visible, vocal member of the queer community. He and the band’s publicist have been pursuing as many opportunities as possible for him to speak with LGBTQ media outlets, and that’s already making an impact. Ernst told MTV recently about meeting a fan who came out to her family after reading about his story. He’s also particularly passionate about amplifying trans voices. He and Spencer have mentored a young trans musician from their hometown, and Max was especially moved by seeing the change in the young artist when she was finally able to express her gender in a way that felt true for her.
As for the new album, though writing on the road has been tough, Ernst says the band has a ton of songs they’re confident about. And “Trampoline” continues to build momentum, reaching No. 1 on the Rock Airplay chart in early July.
But Ernst still has trouble describing how the reality of success compares to what he and Spencer envisioned growing up. “It’s hard to say,” he said. “We have this momentum that we definitely don’t want to lose. We’re trying to take every opportunity that’s being presented to us.”