"And I really didn't have an answer. 'I don't know. We're another band that wants to make some good songs and have people like them'? When we were out on the Warped Tour with eight million other bands, trying to get something self-aggrandizing going, it just seemed a little vapid to me."
So when the Actual came off the road last October, Bernstein, 28, who's the son of former Washington Post reporter Carl Bernstein and author-screenwriter Nora Ephron, sat down and wrote three bracing, politically agitated rock songs.
"I wrote the songs really fast and recorded them right away," he recalls. "And I immediately knew that this is what I wanted to do."
Thus was born Max & The Marginalized, which Bernstein describes as "an op-ed in the form of a rock band" and also includes bassist Dave Watrous and drummer Jon Ryggy. As its Web site explains, M & M is "a band and a blog" that posts a newly written and recorded topical song on Thursday or Friday of every week.
The tunes - which can be found at www.huffingtonpost.com/max-and-the-marginalized - make no bones about reflecting the political point of view of Bernstein, which he describes as "pro-choice, anti-death penalty, for good immigration reform, low taxes for poor people, high taxes for rich people: the standard progressive platform."
Those first three songs - of 43 posted so far - get Bernstein's drift. "Standing in the Driveway Holding Cardboard in the Rain" opposes the death penalty. "No Kisses, No Cameras" is about the military's not allowing photographs of coffins of American soldiers killed in Iraq and Afghanistan as they arrive at Dover Air Force base in Delaware.
And with "Even When It Ends It Won't Be Over," Bernstein - who has a day job in L. A. as a new media consultant for a veterans' rights organization - details the hardships that veterans of the country's two current wars will face even after the conflicts end.
(A fourth early tune, "Dana, Dana," showcased Bernstein's not-so-serious side: It's about the moral complexities inherent in a left-leaning wag having a crush on White House press secretary Dana Perino.)
M & M doesn't have a record deal, which is fine, Bernstein explained in an interview from a tour stop in Boston. "It was nice having an agent and a manager and being on Scott Weiland's label" - Weiland, then with Velvet Revolver, put out the Actual's 2007 album, In Stitches - "but it's also nice having songs that have a bigger purpose."
Bernstein, who grew up in New York, mostly with his Sleepless in Seattle-scriptwriting mother (rather than his Watergate-scandal-exposing father), says he's even happy that "Worst Day" never became a hit. "I heard Lemmy say how much he hates playing 'Ace of Spades,' and how if he had one wish it would be to never play it again."
He knew posting his often amusing songs on the Web was the way to go. "If you're going to be a political band, you need to respond quickly to things. We don't have a huge audience [the band's blog hits typically number in the hundreds] but let's say that we did. How can you write a song that has a chance to make a difference, and then sit on it for six months and wait for the album to come out?"
If M & M approached it that way, songs like "Consider the Source," which assails John McCain's credibility (as the candidate's nose grows, Pinocchio style, in a video), or "Not the Thing That I Bought," which voices buyer's remorse over Barack Obama's shift to the political center, would have passed their sell-by date before they were loosed on the public.
On his list of favorite political artists, Bernstein names Ted Leo, Nas, the Clash, Billy Bragg, Public Enemy and especially Australian rockers Midnight Oil, which he considers "the best political band of all time. They wrote great songs about aboriginal rights in Australia and sold millions of records doing it, because they were awesome."
The band is called Max & the Marginalized, he says, because "normal voices of dissent - and I'm a normal voice, not a radical one - have been pushed to the margins." He also likes that "it sounds like a '50s rock band or something that's really punk-rock."
And though M & M's sound doesn't move far from mainstream, Bernstein says that, "ideologically speaking," they're punks. "We're about immediacy and message more than execution," he says. "And we're off the cuff and spontaneous with no regard for commercial viability." The band sells T-shirts and CDs at shows and takes PayPal donations on the Web, but as expected, "the economic model is not working out. Nobody gets into this business to make money."
There are other protest bands about - Leftover Crack, for whom M & M will open at the Troc, is one. But they are relatively uncommon, considering the United States has been at war since 2001. The reason is simple, Bernstein says: There's no draft.
"In America, most rock-and-roll is made by upper-class white kids like myself," Bernstein says. "There are exceptions, but for the most part, the people who are fighting the war are not coming from the same communities. The war is out of sight from the culture."
Bernstein is a fan of political cartoonists such as Tom Tomorrow, Pat Oliphant and Jeff Danziger. "They're really my heroes. That's what I aspire to be doing. I'm not out to break a story," he says, adding with a laugh. "I'm just another person who wants to voice his opinion and not do research."
Contact music critic Dan DeLuca at 215-854-5628 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Read his blog, "In the Mix," at http://go.philly.com/inthemix.