In this week's paper, Todd McKenzie interviews Ben Jacobs, the man who records as electro-pop wizard Max Tundra. Jacobs will be in town opening for minimal dance gurus Junior Boys on Saturday night at the Billiken Club -- a free show. Get there early, I imagine it'll be packed. Here are some outtakes from their chat.
Todd McKenzie: About how much of your albums are sequencing, and how much are you playing the instruments?
Ben Jacobs: Well, even over the course of a song there'll be sequenced elements, maybe like some percussion sounds, and I play some synths over the top. There's really no rules. Basically every time I record a piece of music I try and do something completely different.
You mentioned the track "Until We Die," and on that song you sing about your obsession with the band Pale Saints. Who are your other influences?
It's funny with the Pale Saints, because they were a band I listened to when I was a lot younger. In the early '90s I listened to a lot of this so-called shoegaze music, like Lush and My Bloody Valentine, and this real kind of washy, guitary sounds and, boy, it's very melodic stuff. When I was a kid I listened to a lot of electronic pop, and I think even today some of my stuff sounds like that sequenced '80s pop, like there's a definite Scritti Politti influence.
How do you compose your songs? Do you head into the recording process with a clear vision of what each song is going to sound like from start to finish, or do you go in with a general idea and tweak the songs second-by-second as you go along?
What tends to happen is that the songs just kind of pop into my head one day fully formed -- like really suddenly -- and it's kind of a blind panic getting a rough version of the recording. So what I'll do if I'm at home is just sit down at a keyboard and just start recording into my multitrack. Or, if I'm out and about, then what I might do is phone myself and leave a voicemail where I'm singing the melody. Then, once I have that rough demo version and it's saved on my studio, I can just come back to it and tinker about the arrangement and maybe write some lyrics for it and think how this it needs to be played on a guitar or this bit can be played on piano. But once the rough version's in there, it's done as a song and it's written. It's just a question of making it sound right.
How's the tour going with Junior Boys?
It's really cool. It's really only just begun; I'm actually going to be away from home for eight weeks, which is a very long time for me. Before the tour began I did five shows at South By Southwest in Austin and I had a few days off in Toronto, and the tour just started in Toronto on Saturday, but I've been away from home for two weeks and then we're away for another six weeks and I'm going to live with these guys on the bus. They seem like nice people so far, we shall see.
They're treating you well, then.
Yeah, we're kind of chatting and having a laugh. They're quite witty, so yeah, it's nice. They're very friendly, affable guys.
What can we expect from the live Max Tundra experience?
It's just me. Just lots of strange dancing and being silly, basically.
Is the dancing on your part, or is the audience dancing usually?
It's actually just me, and then depending on the town you get some of the audience involved as well, depending on how inhibited people are. In London, England, people are particularly shy of dancing, but I've had some really good experiences here. Like last night we played in Pontiac, Michigan, and the audience went crazy, actually, for my stuff. And it's nice because it's not my headline tour by any means, but it seems like I'm playing lots of towns and people specifically come to see me, so I'm really just getting around to meeting some of my American fans. It's pretty cool.
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