By Jeremy Essig
By Jason Robinson
By Hans Morgenstern
By Joseph Hess
By Peter Gilstrap
By Julia Burch
By Jeremy Essig
By Nathan Smith
Parallax Error Beheads You, the third album by London's Max Tundra, is a dizzying example of pop excess. Sophisticated chamber-pop morphs into acid house raves; paranoid new-wave riffs give way to frenetic electro-funk interludes; and Ben Jacobs, the virtuosic multi-instrumentalist behind it all, calmly orchestrates the digital jubilee with mannered English observations on the state of his love interest's MySpace profile or his obsession with '90s shoegazers Pale Saints. But for all its shifting time signatures, micro-melodies and spliced-and-diced synthesizers, the music is refreshingly and charmingly accessible. Max Tundra is currently on tour with fellow Domino labelmates Junior Boys, whose latest record of intimate and minimal electronic pop, Begone Dull Care, was released last week in the United States.
B-Sides: The Commodore Amiga 500 is often cited as your weapon of choice. What drew you to that machine as an instrument?
Ben Jacobs: I have to say it's one of many of my weapons of choice, and it seems to be singled out in every single interview. It's really just a very small part of the puzzle. None of the sounds themselves actually come out of the Amiga, I just use it to sequence and control synthesizers, samplers and sound modules. But then a lot of the tracks on the album have no sequencing on them at all, so I'll just be playing like a trumpet and guitar and ukulele and drums and just kind of multi-track stuff as I see fit. I mean, basically, I've had a Commodore Amiga since I was a little kid, using this very cheap piece of software on the sequencing, and I just never got around to getting a PC or a Mac to make music on.
Obviously a lot of labor is put into each track. How do you keep them sounding fresh and light after you get that flash of inspiration to the final product?
It's funny, because most of these songs take months and months to record, so I'm very glad that they sound fresh at the end of it. For instance, "Until We Die," which is the last song on the new album, took about seven months to record. I think what it is, particularly this time around, is that I'm very keen on clean sounds. I feel like a lot of electronic musicians aren't very good at writing melodies, and they hide this deficiency by just making squeaky noises and experimenting with really far-out sounds — clicks and beeps and stuff — and I don't really mess around with a lot of that. I'm very confident in my skills as a melody-writer, so there'll be layers and layers of melodies, but they might be played on real clear-sounding instruments. I don't like muddying things around too much. So if you're listening to a track by me, and then you go listen to some of these laptop guys, where there's just kind of these mournful, melancholy, glitchy, repetitive sounds in 4/4, it gets really depressing. So I just want to put a smile on people's faces, really, and have people singing along.
The electronics are obviously a big part of your sound, and I can see how you might get comparisons to someone like [the Japanese composer] Cornelius, but your music is ultimately very pop-oriented, almost like Justin Timberlake in fast-forward. How would you categorize your music?
I listen to some pop music, but I'm into a lot of progressive rock. I listen to things like Frank Zappa and Gentle Giant, and more modern progressive rock like the Fiery Furnaces. I'm just really into music where you have to listen to the whole song to know how it goes, because there's a lot of stuff you would hear on the radio in the UK where ten seconds into the song you kind of know how the whole album goes, really predictable verse/chorus/verse/chorus. I like music that's unpredictable, that rewards you with each listen.
It took you six years to complete the new album. When can we expect album number four?
Oh man, probably about 40 years. [Laughs] I'm going to try to do it quicker, I promise, but it's going to be a very different album, and I haven't even started. So, yeah, it takes me awhile to get back into the zone of finding musical ideas. As I was saying, songs just kind of appear in my head and there they are, rather than me sitting down and messing around, so I've just got to wait for them to pop back in.