Max Tundra's Ben Jacobs on Creativity, His Musical Language, and Why He Said He Wouldn't Make Music as Max Tundra Anymore

Max Tundra's Ben Jacobs on Creativity, His Musical Language, and Why He Said He Wouldn't Make Music as Max Tundra Anymore

Back when you couldn’t just pull anything up on streaming, I really wanted to hear Max Tundra’s Mastered by the Guy at the Exchange. Every description I’d read of Ben Jacobs’ 2002 breakthrough sounded right up my alley, but it was hard to track down. Eventually, I heard it, and loved it—as I have with his entire catalog since, including his “last” album as Max Tundra, 2008’s brilliant Parallax Error Beheads You, and the 2018 album he made with once-forgotten pop duo Daphne & Celeste, Daphne & Celeste Save the World. More new music than ever before reminds me of Jacobs’ work, and his influence on variants of electronic pop over the last several years seems apparent if not explicitly stated.

I can’t remember how me and Jacobs started emailing. I think he hit me up about an early Daphne & Celeste single he did around 2015? Occasionally I’ve emailed him to see if he’s heard music that reminds me of his, we’ve kept up on social media too as one often does these days. I’ve wanted to interview him in a meaningful way for some time, and now I have. It was a long convo, it’s presented here edited for clarity—which in this case means that we talked about hyperpop for a bit, but it was between us.

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What is your world like right now?

It’s fine. My day job can be done from home, so I’ve just been working remotely. My music studio room is where I work now, so my music computer has become my office computer. It’s a bit strange. It feels like an invasion of—I wouldn’t call it a sacred space, because I wouldn’t call my music particularly sacred—but it’s that weird thing where I have to use the thing that makes music to make money, and making music doesn’t make me money. [Laughs]

What is the push and pull for you when it comes to creativity versus your day job?

Whenever I have time off, I always think, “Great, I’ll have a couple of weeks to focus on music.” But that’s when you get really slack. It’s universal for creatives. “Now I must clean the oven. Now’s the time to put my record collection on Discogs to see what it’s worth.” It’s task-evading, really. Then I’m back at work, and afterwards I’m like, “I just spent eight hours working for the man,” and then you spend two more hours doing music, and it’s more music than you did the whole previous month. When the spare time becomes more precious, that’s when I work harder on the next record.

What was the music you grew up with?

I grew up in a house with a nice record collection and a piano. From a very early age, I was playing records on my mom and dad’s stereo and playing along on the piano—although the piano was a tone flat, so I would learn TV themes a tone down. Maybe that’s why my music transposes in weird ways.

My mother owned all these records by Joni Mitchell, the Beatles, Gustav Holst, and a bag of 7” from the ‘50s. I’d do these weird cut-up mixtapes with them. Me and my sister would record ourselves calling our mum and then press play on the tape really loudly. We thought it was hilarious that she was replying to a tape recording. Sometimes I’ve put these weird childhood musings on Bandcamp, because obviously there’s not much new stuff from me.

The first record that came along and showed me that music was a force to be fucked with was Who’s Afraid of the Art of Noise? It was such a surprising record for me at ten years old. I remember being embarrassed that I liked it. I’d listen to it on headphones in the car because I didn’t want the other family members knowing that I was listening to it. It sounded so wrong and fucking weird. Even today, it’s just a total masterpiece. When I heard it, I was like, “Right, so [music] doesn’t just have to be played on a guitar.” It blew my mind.

You have an identifiable musical language. Tell me about developing that.

When I started making music, it was just me on my own in the house in the piano. With my bar mitzvah money, I got the Commodore Amiga home computer system, which I then used to make three albums. I was using the stuff that I had as a kid, as an adult—very rudimentary software and hardware.

When I left school, I was in a couple of bands that I didn’t really enjoy, playing formulaic music in formulaic genres. I got extremely frustrated showing up to rehearsal with some keyboard part I worked out and being told, “This is a bit weird, mate. Can you just play this, this, and this?” Why are we playing music that sounds like Oasis? Why can’t you just go listen to Oasis? To this day, people are saying, “That’s a bit weird, mate” about my stuff, which makes me think I’m doing something right, I guess.

The Pitchfork TV video I did recreated the early ‘90s for me, when I was pissing about on the drums with four-track tape recorders, just learning them so I could be good enough to play a drum part into something competent-sounding. Whenever you hear a cello or violin on Mastered by the Guy at the Exchange, that’s me learning to play three notes on the cello.

I’ve always tried to make tunes that weren’t a particular style of music, and I think the albums became more formulaic. I’m always most proud of the most recent thing I’ve made, and that’s what holds me back. I always want to make something that tickles me in a way that the thing I did before didn’t. I don’t want to do the same thing 40 times the way the Rolling Stones are doing now. That caused me to fall out of the public eye a bit. People just don’t wait, do they?

Certainly between [Mastered by the Guy at the Exchange] and [Parallax Error Beheads You], I’d get bands come along and have whole careers. Alexis from Hot Chip was working at Domino when [Mastered] came out, and by the time [Parallax] came out I was supporting them on their massive UK tour. [Laughs] It’s a lesson in hurrying up, but I’ve ever been able to do that, and I beat myself up more than I should. But I’m stupendously proud of those records. I’m glad I didn’t just bosh a bunch out that were just okay.

Were you ever tempted to stray from making music on the Amiga?

It was a combination of stubbornness and the fact that the software I was using on the Amiga—a tracker sequencer that doesn’t look like Logic or Cubase and is essentially just columns of letters and numbers—was just how I did things. I was carting my Amiga from house to house for those first three albums.

Then I discovered this software called Renoise that was just like the Amiga software I was using, and it blew my mind. I could make infinite-note chords and use all these digital synths and effects in limitless combinations. That day, I put my Amiga on eBay and never looked back. The entire Daphne & Celeste album was done on a laptop using Renoise and various other bits of real instruments.

There’s an intimacy to your music that I’ve always found really engaging. It reminds me of indie-pop—Slumberland, Sarah Records, Labrador and the like.

The first album was its own thing, but for the following two I’d write the melodies first. I’d write a song without recording it, go to sleep, and if I woke up and it was still in my head, it was catchy—which is quite dangerous, because I ended up forgetting songs that are not that bad. But I always wanted to do memorably catchy songs in different clothes. I’m more influenced by the guys that those guys were influenced by. Todd Rundgren’s one of my biggest influences.

Tell me about working with Daphne & Celeste.

I’ve always wanted to write music for other people, and they were very much up for working that way. I’d write the songs and send them over like, “Here’s the lyrics and the melody.” I was completely controlling it, and surrendering control is tricky for me. I still have lots to learn about when it comes to collaborating with people and sharing the workload. I’d bottled up all these songs I was working on, and I was like, “I could sing these, or Daphne & Celeste could sing them.” It was basically the next Max Tundra album, but I wanted to make it different, and I did that by having them sing on them. I also wanted to see what putting it out myself would be like.

What was that like?

It was weird, and expensive. That was my main takeaway. I thought it would be a hilarious idea to pay for a bunch of London Underground posters to the tune of several thousand pounds, which I’m still paying off. You just become 100 times more invested in it if you’re putting it out on your own label. It fell under the radar a bit, that record. A lot of people had snobbery about the girls, just because they were making trashy, disposable pop in the early ‘00s. I think they assumed this record would be along those lines. Also, fuck people who thought that music was bad in the first place. Any music that makes indie boys annoyed is alright by me.

You once said that Parallax Error Beheads You would be the last Max Tundra album. Why?

Utter disillusionment with my career—stuff not going the way I wanted it to go. I don’t know what I was expecting from that record, but I just felt like, “OK, no one knows who I am, I’m still fairly skint, the reviews are fair to middling. My friends like it, but do they just like it because they’re my friends?” I was quite insecure and needy in that regard, and I wish I wasn’t, but when you’re making a record that takes so long to make, you think, “This is obviously gonna change the world,” and when it doesn’t, you’re like, “Oh shit.”

I’ve always been driven by jealousy, and sometimes it’s so overwhelming that it prevents me from doing anything. That’s why I took a breather. I don’t know if it was a sense of entitlement, but I was like, “Why isn’t this having the effect on the world I thought it would have?” Historically, people in the shops don’t know where to put [my music] either—they don’t even know whether to put it under “M” or “T.” Being willfully unclassifiable isn’t enough of a selling point to get it on peoples’ radars.

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Jamie Larson