Seekingnormality:one other-planet popster
Admiredbyhispeers, feted by his fans, all experimental dance musician MaxTundra wants now is for builders to whistle his songs. By Paul Lester
MAX TUNDRA IS about to b e c o m e a big star. Or, at least, he is in the minds of his fans, who believe his fast-cut, intricately assembled electronic pop has commercial potential. One of his more high-profile devotees, Owen Pallett, the experimental musician and collaborator with the Arctic Monkeys’ Alex Turner, was so blown away by Tundra’s forthcoming Parallax Error Beheads You that he wrote an awestruck note to go with pre-release copies of the album. “I can’t compare this to any record I’ve ever heard before,” he said. “You’d think that it was made by an eccentric millionaire, with every name-brand pop-music producer in the world contributing their own two seconds of material. It is shock and awe. Listen and be humbled.”
Parallax Error Beheads You is indeed an impressive piece of work, although it is not exactly the sort of mainstream fare that will make Max Tundra — who has remixed tracks for Franz Ferdinand and the Pet Shop Boys — a producer-star like Mark Ronson. There are hummable bits and catchy rhythms on the album, but they do not last long before the restlessly inventive musician — who seems to suffer, if that is the word, from a surfeit of ideas — shifts direction, changes tempo or pursues another melody entirely. It sounds like several different bands playing at once, at warp speed, orchestrated by a mad professor with a slide rule for a baton.
“I get all the clichés about being a oneman-band or a crazed electronica kid,” he says. “But I don’t mind being called a studio whiz.” He certainly likes being in the studio — he has spent the past six years in one, working on Parallax, the follow-up to 2002’s Mastered By Guy At The Exchange. It has taken him that long because there were so many tiny segments of music to manipulate, play around with on computers, or even, in the old-fashioned sense, play. “There are trumpets, violins, cellos, guitars, dulcimers, xylophones — whatever was lying around,” he says of the instruments on the album, which he played himself. “If I thought a cello would be good, I had to spend three weeks learning to play the part, and then layering it with so much other stuff that people wouldn’t notice that I’m not an amazing cello-player!
“My studio process is ridiculously intensive and anal,” he admits. “I’m a bit of a perfectionist — it can take me six months to do a song. But hopefully that means the music will be intricate and people will hear new stuff each time they listen.”
He may be a cult hero on the electronic-dance underground, but Tundra, real name Ben Jacobs, is also a nice Jewish boy from South London where, he laughs, he grew up as “the only Jew in the village”. His father is the literary editor of The JC, he makes a dynamite chicken soup, and his non-J friends see him “as their connection to Larry David, Woody Allen and that array of funny Jews that you’re meant to represent”.
He avoided going to university because his “short attention-span” would have made painstaking studying impossible. He tried being in bands, but working with other musicians was a no-no because he is a self-confessed control freak. And he likes being on the Domino label alongside Arctic Monkeys and Franz Ferdinand because his bosses give him the space and time meticulously to construct his micromelodies and layered pop sound.
And it is pop — or at least, it is pop from a parallel planet where freakishly frenetic tunes sung by a man with a cartoon falsetto get into the charts. He has even written a song that, if and when Parallax gets some mainstream exposure, he is going to give to the Sugababes or Rihanna so they can take it to number one. Maybe writing to order will help focus his mind and iron out the idiosyncrasies. Besides, compared to his earlier records, which earned him a reputation as an exponent of extreme, esoteric electronica, Parallax does sound like daytime radio fodder. It just needs calming down a bit.
“It’s as pristine as my other records,” he says, “but less freeform, abstract and strange. I’ve made sure there are nagging catchy melodies. Maybe I’m being deluded, but there are sounds on my albumthatyoumighthearonanOutKast or Beyoncé record. It’s pop music for singing and whistling along to. That’s what I’d like — a load of whistling builders who’ve heard my music on Radio 1.” Parallax Error Beheads You is released by Domino this month. Max Tundra plays at St Luke’s, London EC1 on October 5. Information at www.barbican.org.uk
Max Tundra: “My studio process is ridiculously intensive and anal… it can take me six months to do a song”