t’s during our conversation about music writing that Ben Jacobs, aka Max Tundra, reaches boil: “And what I really don’t understand is why music writing can’t be a bit more like wine writing. Maybe I want to call an album ‘chocolatey.’ Why can’t I do that? But anyway, what does wine writing even mean?—emm, like cat piss with a leathery finish. After a cycle crash. At 20 kilometers per hour with no helmet.”
But when I tell him that structural gags in writing, even when intended to liberate, usually shock people into assuming the position of parochial villager all skeptical and oafish about new ways to harvest wheat, I can actually hear a tiny hiccupping noise coming from his brain.
Because for Jacobs, creative thinking is a gift. A regular thrill. He often drops metaphors: big, conceptual ones—and I try to return the favor. He thinks like an artist because he is one, in all those great, mind-bending ways and snotty, impenetrable ones, too.
His first two albums, 2000’s Some Best Friend You Turned Out to Be and 2002’s Mastered by Guy at the Exchange don’t sound like anything else, including each other. They’re surprisingly faithful to what he seeks in his own listening experiences: “I want to hear a band where you’re not entirely sure who it is or if you’ve heard them before, and it turns out to be your favorite band, the one that gave you that feeling the last time you heard them.”
Max Tundra: electronic composition with pole removed from ass, techno you can’t dance to, really; pop music without pop’s zombie propensity to repeat itself ad nauseam. His albums read like an entire book printed onto one page; but where avant-garde songwriters had collapsed song structure into amnesiac bites, Jacobs was a lot more fun and a lot more radical—five years after MBGATE, I still can’t remember or intuit patterns in much of his computer sequencing. Five years later, the only familiar thing about Max Tundra’s music is that addictive, recurring feeling of having a fairly hot sword thrust through my ear. A hot sword of irreducible joy.
But it’s oppressive too. He seems to want people to appreciate his music, which is both incredibly optimistic—he’s one of the few singular musical minds around—and hilariously naïve, as the market for getting brained with hot swords of irreducible joy is kinda slim and getting slimmer by the day. Some Best Friend sold 29 copies in the US. “Well, it didn’t even have distribution there, so I guess that’s kind of a miracle. But don’t tell Domino [Records, his label].” He’s an iconoclast, though, and though there’s not a speck of darkness to his music, his commitment to his ideals is rigorous, practically abject—“I’m not perfect, but maybe I can make something that is.” Everything must sound original.
When hard up, he’ll take doing a remix, but it usually makes both parties a little sick. “It’s like going to a Vietnamese restaurant and asking for fish ’n’ chips.” One particular venerated synth-pop group’s manager squeezed a revision out of him. “I needed the money, but I wanted to bring Max Tundra’s music to a whole new set of fans, so I didn’t want to do something completely sell-out-y. So I gave them something that had, perhaps, similar properties to the Franz Ferdinand remix [for “Do You Want To?”], but didn’t sound quite so much like Van Halen’s ‘Jump,’” he quips. Later, smirking: “Coldplay fans must have incredibly long attention spans.” He manages humility even when he’s sort of being an asshole.
The rest of the time, he’s a disarmingly normal guy. Extremely personable. Well-mannered. Nerdy. He fixes himself curries. When I ask him if he ever felt adventurous about eating organ meats, he gives the kind of hold-the-reins “Whoa-oh-oh” you expect out of an overly nervous driving instructor tanking at being chummy. When we talk about the incredible weight of David Lynch’s Inland Empire, he offhandedly remarks, “I’d really needed a piss at the end.” If he has a thesis, it’s MBGATE’s “Lights,” a song that talks about daydreaming through blocks of menial labor just to get home to his studio, where the world cracks open. “I used to be a courier in a car. I spent my day trying to avoid traffic wardens, sitting outside this company’s office with a two-way radio in my car receiving very scarce invitations to take a parcel two miles up the road.” He’s written songs about favorite bands breaking up, about his love for director Michel Gondry; he once talked about his iron deficiency. On “Labial,” his sister Becky (his vocal proxy) sang, “I only sing about things that happen to me / I never learnt how to fill my songs with allegory / While my peers paid attention in English I thought about how / I could undress the girl who appeared in my life with a pow / Never mind that she slipped from my hand because look at me now.”
Which, of course, becomes grossly complicated when he tells me, “I’d say half the lyrics on that album are true and half are false, but I’m not gonna tell you which half.”
Why would anyone make up mundane details about everyday life?
Well, because that’s how he gets off. It’s the detours in the conversation that really make him light up. Destabilized, I ask him if he knows the riddle, “There are two people guarding two doors. One always tells the truth and one always lies, so what question do you ask to pick the right door?”
“And yeah, you have to ask the question, ‘What would the other guy say?’ There’s that other one: ‘What’s the only question you can’t answer truthfully?’ And it’s, ‘Are you asleep?’” This hurls us into an exchange about sleeping—I do it with my eyes open sometimes; “Creepy!” Ben says—and the power of dreams:
“Oh, there are a few songs on this album where I’ve had the song in my head when I’ve woken up. Yes, I’ll basically run across the room to the keyboard and put it on my hard-disk recorder before I do anything else. I wake up with melodies going around my head quite a lot. I always have music in my dreams. Everyone does…well, maybe not.”
“No, I don’t think so,” I tell him. “I mean, I do, but only sometimes. But sometimes I’ll wake up with a melody in my head and realize much later in the day that it’s a lot like some odd song on Nuggets or something I haven’t listened to in five years. Sometimes you dupe yourself into thinking that something really fantastic has come up through your dreams, but actually, you can piece together where it might’ve come from.”
“That’s what people are going to say about the new Max Tundra album, isn’t it: ‘Oh, this sounds like something on Nuggets!’”
“But what they really mean is that it sounds like something from a McDonald’s commercial for chicken nuggets.”
A literature professor of mine once told a story about coming home to visit his aunt, who lived up the road from Wallace Stevens. “Did you know he writes the most amazing poetry?” he asked his aunt. She squinted and volleyed, “Wally Stevens? He sells insurance.” When he’s not chirping out 80 wpm at some temp job, Jacobs takes walks, has tea, and watches films. No glamour. No professed quirks. No torrents of weird thoughts or perversions.
Still, he’s obsessed. “With my new album, I’ve taken three months to record one song. With the first two albums, well, I didn’t cut corners, exactly, but I go back and listen to those records now and think, ‘Oh, there’s a mistake’ or ‘Oh, that could’ve been more in tune’ or ‘Oh, I could’ve rehearsed that to make it a bit tighter.’ Certainly with this record, there are less ‘errors,’ shall we say.” I don’t bother to point out that it’s only an “error” when compared to an ideal; when I say stuff like that, he pauses, confused, like I dropped a word or jumbled syntax. When we talk about downloading music, he says, “I personally think it’s rude that someone’s given you this wonderful album and you listen to bits of it. I mean, you don’t go over to someone’s house for Christmas meal and say, ‘Oh, I’ll only eat foods three through five—the carrots and the gravy—but I’ll leave the rest. I mean, I know I really love carrots and gravy. I haven’t got time to get into the cranberry sauce.’” But not everybody handpicks each cranberry and spends three months making the sauce.
“There are people who aren’t into music, and that’s cool. I mean, they might be into rock climbing. That might be their thing. So they get up there in their North Face so they don’t get cold and their special gloves and at the end of the day they put on Amy Winehouse, and that’s cool, and they say “Oh man is Amy Winehouse great!”
That’s fine by him. He’s anal, but also curious like first grade. He posts videos on YouTube—of his friends listening to Steely Dan ringtones, of a helicopter landing on his road. “I recently tried biscuits—the American biscuits, those large discs you might have with a breakfast—and they were very nice. Crumbly, and a bit hard, and you cut them open and put a little jam in the middle, right?”
Max Tundra @ MySpace
Max Tundra @ Domino Records