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The Mister in MS MR: “Every time we were in the studio, the question was how does it feel?”

The dynamic duo MS MR, comprised of Vassar Alumni Lizzy Plapinger and Max Hershenow, have come a long way since their 2013 debut album Secondhand Rapture. Describing themselves as having a ‘Tumblr Glitch Pop’ sound, the kaleidoscopic dreamscape of their music has been characterised as disparately as indie-pop, to having a ‘vintage’ and ‘dark’ aesthetic. 

While Secondhand Rapture was written in Hershenow’s home studio, their forthcoming album How Does It Feel draws on a bevy of influences and co-writers, ranging from Tove Lo to MNDR, with lead single Painted already offering a high-energy, pulsating taste for what is to come.

With the release date of How Does It Feel drawing closer and closer, we caught up with Max Hershenow, to talk about what influenced the sound and direction of their new album, as well as their huge, upcoming tour, which will bring them down under to play at both Splendour In The Grass and some sideshows

Hey Max, how are you going? Where are you currently?

We are in New York. We’ve been hanging out here for a while doing promo for what feels like years. We’re gearing up for the new record, and we’re so excited for people to hear it!

How does it feel to have your second album done and dusted? No pun intended.

I was about to say! Honestly it feels really, really amazing. It feels like we accomplished what we set out to do, and I think everything that I wanted this record to be, it is. It feels so successful in that way, so now we just can’t wait for everyone else to hear it and to share all the ideas we’ve been working on for so long.

Well, you’ve got a pretty full-on schedule for your How Does It Feel Tour, as well playing at big festivals like Lollapalooza and Osheaga, so that must be pretty daunting for you guys. How do you cope? What do you do to relax in between shows?

We are both not very good at relaxing, but I just moved to Los Angeles from New York, and I’ve engaged with a lot of L.A. stereotypes like getting very into my fitness, so one of my favourite things to do just to relax are long runs. It’s a nice way to explore the city and get some alone time and also some time to listen to music because sometimes, especially if we’re on a promo tour, it’s hard to have time to sit down and listen to new music.

You said previously that you really enjoyed your past visits to Australia, because I know you guys are coming down here to play Splendour in the Grass, which we’re all really excited for. What did you enjoy so much about your visit to Australia? Any other plans for while you’re down under here besides your shows that you’re playing?

We’ve been there twice, and honestly they’ve been two of the highlights of our career so far. We’ve had such a good time, and both times our expectations were extremely high and both times they were exceeded, so I’m already expecting my expectations to be exceeded for this trip as well. No pressure.

What was I saying? Oh, Splendour will be amazing. Last time we played, it was basically the first time where we came on stage, and there were 10,000 people in front of us, and everyone seems to know the words, and honestly when we first walked on stage, the decibel limit was already over the limit just from the crowd cheering so hard before we even started playing any music. That must be what Beyoncé feels like every night. We just looked at each other and were like, “Oh my god. This is what it feels like to do this.” It was just such a high and such a highlight of everything so far.

So, yeah. We’ll do that. We’ll hopefully have some time off to go to the beach, and I know it’s winter there, but by my standards it’s still nice. We’ll catch up with some friends, and one of the other fun things about playing festivals is getting to see some of your friends in different festivals and hang out backstage and things.

Awesome! On your new album, you guys have been quoted as saying that one of the themes of is of perseverance, and that having all of your equipment stolen last year was really a test of that. How did that experience influence you guys personally, as well as the direction of the album?

In some ways, that experience has been a little bit blown out of proportion. It was super traumatic, and it was really rough to sort of have to recreate a lot of the record, but we really only lost one song that was originally titled, All The Things Lost.

How ironic.

We’ve written a new song that’s on this record that replaced the old All The Things Lost, which is a very different song, but we felt like we needed something to pay homage to that experience. I think it’s about … you sort of continue to push through no matter what, and I think getting robbed is a big obvious thing like that, but you know, if something doesn’t work out, if we have a video we want to do, or the director’s not available, there’s all these little disappointments that could, if you let them, derail you.

For us, it’s about staying focused on the long term and knowing that we’re making something cool that feels right to us and feels like it’s the right next step. It’s easy to get distracted especially when we’re tired, or we’ve been on the road for a long time, or we’ve been writing forever. For us it’s about constantly reminding ourselves how fucking lucky we are.

Was this test of perseverance the reason behind the album name How Does It Feel? How ‘does it feel’ to persevere or to push through?

Honestly How Does It Feel more came from this idea of always returning to music that feels true to us and feels like what we want it to be irrespective of other people’s opinions, or what the label thinks and what the singles should be. We wanted to write music for us first. That’s how we approached the first album, and that’s how we came back in to approach this album. Every time we were in the studio, the question was ‘how does it feel?’ Does it make you feel something? Is it emotionally evocative? Does it make you want to cry? Does it make you want to dance? Does it make you feel something? How does it feel?

If you can describe it and if it feels like something, then it’s right, and we’re on the right path. If you don’t feel anything, then it’s not. I also like to, sort of as a question we’re posing, as almost a-

Rhetorical question?

A challenge. It’s almost a challenge to the audience too, you know? I want them to respond.

Is this how you depart conceptually from your previous work? It’s sort of trying to engage audiences more, or trying to have that rapport with them, like ‘how does it feel’?

There’s definitely more. I mean, because when we first started, when we wrote the first album, we had never written music before, and we weren’t really thinking about how we were going to translate the song to the stage because we weren’t even think that we were a band, or that we were going to ever perform them live. Having performed for two and half years and toured and realised how important the live experience is for us, that was definitely something that we thought about a lot as we were writing the record.

We wanted to write music that could be performed and was meant for festivals and made people dance and cry and make out and grind a little bit and everything in between, you know? There’s definitely more of an element of that to this record.

Given that you didn’t have co-writers for your first album, how do you think these collaborations have changed the way that you communicated and executed your ideas? In what ways did they influence or change the sound that you have now?

By the time we started doing co-writes, we had written every other song on the album, so we basically finished it, and we felt like we just needed a few more songs to round out the whole body of work. We really felt like we had a super solidified identity and sound and direction for the album by the time we went in with other people which was important to us to sort of have that confidence and feel like our ideas weren’t going to be deluded in any way. Honestly, all three of these experiences were so, so positive.

We worked with Tove Lo and MNDR, and all of them really just helped us take a song to the next level without putting their own stamp on them. It was more like they were identifying the things that make us, and bringing those out and encouraging us to really tease those out and develop those ideas further.

The song that we wrote with Tove does not sound like a Tove song. It’s not a song that she would really write for herself necessarily. It just feels like an even more “us” version of it which is really exciting. Every single musical experience you have like that with other people you pull from, and you learn techniques and ways of breaking through the inevitable mental barriers that you’re always coming up against.

Is there anyone else you two would really want to work with in the future? On your next album, or maybe one of your songs?

I mean, there’s so many people. I’d love to work with anyone in the Arcade Fire camp, or LCD Soundsystem, or I don’t know. There’s always different people, but honestly I think it’s all about it working out organically and naturally. The best sessions come when you’re just working with friends and it’s chill and casual. That’s when the spark happens.

I know you guys produced your first album sort of anonymously during your early days as MS MR. Do you think you’ll miss that level of creative control that it gave you?

Being out and about and having our faces to the project has not deluded the creative control in any way at all. We’re hyper precious about it, and at any time that it’s threatened, we come on really strong and we’re like, “No, no, no. This is our project and this is who we are, and we’re not going to let that be taken away from us.”

I think from the very beginning we really laid the foundation with the label, with our management, with everyone, that we are in control, and we want every element of this budget to come from us. Everyone we work with is so encouraging and understanding and supportive of that.

They really don’t try to push us in ways that we shouldn’t be pushed, you know? They’ll challenge us and give us ideas, but they never ever have made us do anything we don’t want to do. We’re extremely fortunate. There’s very few artists that are in our position at our level who have the amount of creative control that we do.

And how would you say that social media has affected your experience as artists? Because these days it’s affecting a lot of performers in all aspects of their artistry.

Social media is an amazing us for have direct outreach, and again, it’s about creative control. From the beginning, we realized that we could create a world for people to inhabit while they listen to our music without any barrier to entry. We could use all these different social media from Tumblr to Twitter to Facebook to really create a world for people to inhabit and get the multi-platform idea of who we were. It’s an integral part to what we do. We’re better on some platforms than others, but the whole thing I think of as a social collage, and each little piece keys into the hole in a different way.

The two of you both have very unique and idiosyncratic senses of styles. Has that involved to mirror the nature of your music and performances, or is it more reflective of your individuality, or a mixture of both?

I think it’s a combo of the two. It’s nothing as concrete necessarily … I never write a song thinking about the outfit I’m going to wear during it, but there is sort of this over-the-top glammy-ness to everything that we’re doing. Especially now I feel like we’re more and more comfortable to doing sensual and sexy and glammed up. That definitely is part of the music, and there’s definitely that sort of sparkly element to it. I think that they are really connected, but it’s the subconscious. I think it’s a more general aesthetic rather than a specific thing. The fashion stuff is as visceral as the music making in many ways.

It seems that Lizzy almost has different coloured hair every month!

Absolutely. That’s what she does, but honestly she has to stop dyeing it so it won’t fall out, but she’s going to stay on orange for a minute.

This seems to be the case for the cover of How Does It Feel – Is there a story behind why you chose to have the cover looking like that, or you just loved the aesthetic?

We liked the aesthetic. For us, this album cover, and this album, is about taking more ownership of the music we’re writing and feeling like we can have the confidence to put our faces on the cover and feel like we’re the face of the project, and letting people get to know us a little bit more on this record compared to the last one. That was really the goal behind the album cover.

Thank you so much for taking the time to speak with me, Max!

Thank you so much! I hope we’ll see you at Splendour in the Grass!

MS MR tour dates:

Wednesday 22 July – 170 Russell, Melbourne, VIC – Tickets

Saturday 25th July  – The Metro Theatre, Sydney, NSW – Tickets

Sunday 26th July – Splendour in the Grass SOLD OUT – (You can try buy tickets here)

How Does It Feel comes out 17 July 2015 via Columbia Records. Pre-order it on iTunes here