Max Tundra is Ben Jacobs, a British pop (but not Brit-pop) composer known for an OCD approach to spry, MIDI-sequenced melodies. It had been six years since the last album by Max Tundra when Jacobs released 2008's Parallax Error Beheads You, an album of creative tonal displacement collected under a title conjuring up an appropriately angular, perception-altering phenomenon. Now Jacobs seems to be touring constantly, bouncing between twitchy-synth funk and spastic falsetto soul hooks, all with a music hall-worthy swing to them. It's giddy and gilded, cartoonish, and painstakingly put together, punctuated by moments that are endearingly awkward. Jacobs is currently on the road with equally hyperactive synth patch micro-editor Deastro, and took a moment to answer some questions by e-mail as he boarded a plane.
City Paper: Is there anything you feel is particularly British in your approach to pop, and do you see anything particularly American in your current tourmate's material? Is there a particular approach to cheekiness, tunefulness, or something else you feel is your signature?
Max Tundra: I don't feel any particular kinship with any current British musicians, nor with the reserve which people from these shores are reputed to have. Neither do I like beer or football. In the early '90s I would go and see various British shoegaze-y bands such as Lush and Ride, and you'd think those groups would have influenced my music in some way, because I was really obsessed with them (I even wrote and published the Lush fanzine). But my music is pretty much free from washes of guitar noise. People sometimes say I remind them a bit of Robert Wyatt, but I think it's just because of the accent. Are the qualities of cheekiness and tunefulness particularly British ones? There are much more of those in Japanese pop than you find in old Blighty. I have only skimmed through a handful of Deastro songs, as I didn't want to wear out my enjoyment of them before the tour commences, so I am not qualified to comment on the Americanness of them. They sound fucking awesome, though, and I'm very excited.
CP: What side of the pond do you think worries more about "being taken seriously," or whether people will fully "get" the intent of a song, as opposed to just appreciate the harmonies, etc.? Do you think using "alternative instruments" outside of guitar/bass/drums contributes to the debate anymore of song sincerity?
MT:I think there's a lot of shitty earnest acoustic dross that spews out of the UK, pleading me with every whiny chord to take the singer seriously. Even the wonderful songwriter George Michael called one of his albums Listen Without Prejudice. Whereas goofballs such as Lightning Bolt and Dan Deacon are so daft they set up their equipment in amongst the audience. For me a song is as much about an arrangement as the lyrics. You can achieve great tensions by juxtaposing pessimistic words with optimistic sounds, and vice-versa. A lot of bands are scared of ditching their guitar/bass/drums and sometimes pay lip service to modern times by simply putting a squiggly synth noise over the top of their lumpen dadrock.
CP: Do you consider yourself part of a scene—whether local or global? If so, who would you consider your contemporaries, and what is a common theme that runs from you and through your peers' work?
MT: I am not part of any scene apart from short balding guys who take ages to record albums. Seeing as the only other person I can think of who fits this category is Phil Collins, and I don't sound much like him (although I love "Sussudio"), I think I'm pretty much out there on my own.
CP: Do you find yourself in friendly rivalries with tour mates, seeing who can get the crowd most engaged? Is performance an escape or an exorcism?
MT: It isn't a competition intentionally, but it's always a challenge to win over the fans of very popular bands. When I toured with Hot Chip last year I was delighted with how my music was received by the youngsters. The popularity of Max Tundra thus far seems mainly to have been via word-of-mouth, so I just need to keep playing these big support slots and sharing fans with these bigger bands. Performance isn't really an escape as, however frenetically I dance about onstage, I am always dimly aware of the 20 or 30 shows (and attendant long drives) comprising the remainder of the tour.
CP: Has touring on your most recent album revealed any new aspects of it to you? When done touring do you think you'll love the material more or be fully ready to move on in another direction?
MT: It's funny how much new stuff I hear in my songs each time I perform them, even though it was me who made them up in the first place. The thing about performing songs from Parallax Error Beheads You is that some of those songs are six or seven years old now. I'm in a very different place these days and am often puzzled as to why I went with a particular trumpet melody buried low in the mix, or a reference to then-new personal networking websites. But people sing about trees and rivers and they are much older than Friendster.