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A Quietus Interview

The Dreaming: Max Tundra Interviewed
Fergal Kinney , August 23rd, 2023 07:27

Ben Jacobs, aka Max Tundra, talks to Fergal Kinney about the long road to album four, his love for Kate Bush and the evolution of pop music. TQ has the exclusive play of his new video – and first single in nearly 15 years – 'This Woman's Work'

When the teenage Ben Jacobs would dream his dreams of future pop stardom from a bedroom in Streatham, he slept between two NME reviews carefully cut out and stuck on the wall above his pillows.

“I used to buy the NME before it ended up in the pocket of gambling companies,” remembers Jacobs, sitting in the mostly vacant foyer of a cavernously large office complex in central London on a summer Friday evening, “and I was obsessed with My Bloody Valentine.”

Breaking the impasse of their hotly speculated second album, the Irish band’s release of the Tremolo EP, with lead song 'To Here Knows When', in 1991 was an event release for both Jacobs and the music press. “NME commissioned two reviews of the track,” remembers Jacobs, “Barbara Ellen described it as ‘art wank no-talent shimmer rock bullshit’, which I thought was very funny, and someone else reviewed it obviously praising it.”

Who can say whether going to sleep with these two reviews above his bed shaped anything for the teenager – be it an accommodation with polarised responses to extreme music, or the vocational lure of the careful and slow-working sonic auteur – it’s an image that he has been returning to for the video of the first proper Max Tundra single release in nearly fifteen years. Premiering on tQ today, 'This Woman’s Work' is what Jacobs describes as a hyperpop reinterpretation of Kate Bush’s 1989 single.

“The starting point of the video,” he explains, “was the idea that I’m the last pop star on Earth and I’m remembering past musical experiences in this weird parallel universe, communicating to future beings what pop music was all about.” Directed by James Hankins – who last year directed Richard Dawson’s 40 minute film for 'The Hermit' – the video shows Jacobs in his bedroom, surrounded by walls adorned with the uncanny and slightly off sight of himself photographed as various figures from pop history, all the way from East 17 to BTS via the Gallagher brothers.

“The Kate Bush cover was only ever going to be a throwaway thing,” explains Jacobs. “The questions was, 'What can I play at the end of my live set that is in stark contrast to what people have heard up to that point? What doesn’t sound like a Max Tundra song?' It came from practical, menial questions like that.”

Last year, Jacobs performed his first Max Tundra shows in a decade. Headlining the Lexington and performing later at Fabric, at the invite of US experimental hip hop group Clipping, the two shows were in support of the Domino reissues of the three Max Tundra albums: 2000’s Some Best Friend You Turned Out To Be, 2002’s Mastered By Guy At The Exchange and 2008’s Parallax Error Beheads You. Remixtape, which accompanied the reissues, saw Jacobs’ work reimagined by A.G. Cook, Kero Kero Bonito, Katie Dey and Julia Holter. 
“When I played it at The Lexington, people seemed to really love the track,” says Jacobs, “I got a really nice text from someone I respect quite a lot saying that I had to release it.”

From the audience vantage point at Fabric last year, the unexpected arrival of the track – rendered, like the best cover versions, with a reading that locates a suddenly obvious simplicity out of previously well-worn terrain – gave way to a late climax of pummelling high volume noise in the song’s final moments.

Today, Jacob cites the famously punishing section of My Bloody Valentine’s live performances of 'You Made Me Realise' – commonly referred to with a name that Jacobs rightly distances himself from – as a key influence. “People obviously wait for the drop,” explains Jacobs, “and I wanted a will-they-won’t-they thing about that.”

Jacobs had also noticed the song’s chord sequence becoming zeitgeisty. “Those chords are very of the moment,” he explains, “they’re the chords you find played by those PC Music adjacent bands. I was surprised that nobody had done a modern version.”

Sat in silence in a cramped home study as his girlfriend worked beside him, assuming him to be attending to his day job from home, Jacobs silently recorded the song from his desk. “When I was looping it to try and get the chords right, I remember having to try not to cry,” he says of the song’s emotional power. Unusually for an artist who once spent six months working on a single track, the piece was signed off in a day.

“Kate Bush is one of my heroes,” says Jacobs, “I really love Kate Bush. So many of her songs are unimpeachable, and you don’t know how they were put together. It’s a feat of witnessing the infinite that she’s managed to harness, especially on some of those mid-period records like 'Sat In Your Lap' or 'Suspended In Gaffa'.”

Max Tundra by Jack Barnes

With two decades’ distance, the music of Max Tundra can be seen as part of a lineage of maximalist British studio innovators that includes Bush as well as figures like Trevor Horn and extends through to SOPHIE and A.G. Cook, an umbilical cord of British artists who take their jobs as pop musicians every bit as seriously as they do their roles as experimental pioneers.

'This Woman’s Work', though, with its relative simplicity and spartan arrangement, is not one of those moments in Kate Bush’s back catalogue. “'This Woman’s Work' is not her best song,” offers Jacobs, “it’s quite schmaltzy, but it is a lovely song. I’m always interested in songs that have that kind of emotional effect on people.”

Jacobs points to the way that Bush cleared a path for other innovators like Fever Ray, Joanna Newsom or Bjork; female artists whose pioneering work was often been diagnosed as hysterical or steeped in unforgivable eccentricity by a sexist and conservative rock consensus. “On Bjork’s Sonic Symbolism podcast she talks about how Kate Bush was using quite forward tech for the time, and was just getting laughed at,” says Jacobs, “much like Bjork was. She wasn’t taken seriously and people just took the piss out of her.”

For the only time in the conversation, Jacobs pauses and chews on what he is about to say. “I feel like I have had a bit of that. I think that’s maybe what I’m unlocking.”

When Jacobs’ released his first EP as Max Tundra, Children At Play, via Warp, in 1998, it made sense in a burgeoning and fast-moving strand of dance culture geared towards adventurous home listening.

“I thought it would be lunch with Aphex Twin and dinner with Squarepusher,” says Jacobs, half-joking. “I’ve always been intrigued that people thought I was a total fucking caner because there’s so much going on in my music,” explains Jacobs of a plausible assumption one might have made on the evidence of 2000’s giddy Some Best Friend You Turned Out To Be album, “I’m quite a bland dude really, and making music is about discipline. I don’t want to be drunk or out of it, I’ve got to make sure the drum sound has exactly the right EQ.” After the release of that album, Jacobs remembers walking around with a feeling that he could do absolutely anything musically, that all gates were open.

“I wanted to do something completely different,” he explains, “and the most stark and obvious way to do that would be to put vocals on it.” 2002’s Mastered By Guy At The Exchange minted a definitive Max Tundra sound, but the sweetness and gentle eccentricity of his vocal performance alienated him from IDM audiences whilst doing nothing to endear him to indie audiences.

“My best responses were usually had in far flung towns, often not in the UK, but in grimy basements in anonymous brutalist buildings,” remembers Jacobs, “it was nice when I got a good response, but quite often I’d play shows around the EU and I’d get to the club and it would be just the sound technician and his mate turning up. Most of the gigs I’ve done have been like that.” 

This was hard to take when the Max Tundra live show was an energetic and ambitious performance involving dizzying recreations of his complex arrangements. It was not unusual for him in the same song to be playing a Fender Rhodes keyboard and a Prophet synthesiser between programming beats, singing, hammering a glockenspiel and blowing a melodica.

“I built up a mini following in the US,” he says, “but it just became so disheartening over here.” A low point involved him playing a Shoreditch hotel where the coked up promoter walked on stage to criticise his set before simply fading out the still ongoing Max Tundra live performance to silence and fading up some generic house music.

I present Jacobs with a copy of NME from October 2008; it contains an easy to grasp metaphor of his experience of the mid 00s, a postage stamp sized Max Tundra advert is surrounded by the pouting faces of that era’s landfill alpha males.

“It was just so different to what I was doing that I just found it funny,” says Jacobs, thumbing at the fifteen year old magazine, “I felt more pissed off actually at other electronic acts. I hated bland electronica, really hated it. Seeing stuff with fewer ideas than mine doing quite well, and the thought that I would have to dilute my music to get it sold.”

His careful and slow working practices went against the usual logic of how to build a pop audience. “I remember when Parallax Error Beheads You came out, because that was six years after my second album, and in that time Hot Chip (who Max Tundra supported across 2008) had come along, become a huge band, and released three albums. One of my biggest regrets is not releasing more records, but then would I have been as proud of them?”

In 2010 he announced that Parallax Error Beheads You would be the last Max Tundra LP, even though he later framed this as the desire to take a break to concentrate on remix and production work. In 2023, though, he finds himself in the same place as many artists who still consider themselves part of the active, existing music industry – working an entirely separate day job. “I’m a big believer in the day job to support the music,” says Jacobs, “it stops you being dependent on your music to feed you. If I put fewer chords in this then I can buy more chocolate digestives.”

Like tens of thousands of people in the UK, on evenings, weekends and tersely negotiated annual leave days, Jacobs pulls on his headphones and gets to work making music. (His best song, 2002’s 'Lights', is sort of about this: a lonely love song in which office and courier work subsidise the singer’s nocturnal time spent in front of a red, yellow and green flashing Amiga computer.) 

He confirms that work on a fourth Max Tundra album is ongoing. The good news? At least three songs have been completed. The bad news? It has taken eleven years to get to this point. Describing the new sound helpfully as “like nothing else on Earth,” he concedes that the album is in “a very skeletal state” and will be entirely original material, with no 'This Woman’s Work'.

“It’s happening but in a very piecemeal way. It’s very much on my own terms but I have no idea when that will be. Optimistically that might be by the end of next year.”

Whilst Max Tundra the pop star laid dormant, his influence did not. Last year’s Domino reissue campaign was brought about by Tundra’s increasing status as a godfather to hyperpop, his lurid and madcap productions an obvious and clear antecedent to this disruptive stand against po-faced seriousness in electronic music. PC Music head A.G. Cook has been sincere and insistent about the influence of Tundra on the record label that he has recently called time on, describing stumbling on Max Tundra as a teenager as having “reinforced a hunch I had: that music is a place where anything could happen and total chaos could be held together by the lightest of pop hooks.” On last year’s Remixtape, Cook delivered a restrained and luminescent remix of the track 'Lights'; it is now comfortably the most streamed Max Tundra release.

“I was drawn to the early PC Music stuff and just the use of people singing in an English accent,” says Jacobs, “but it was only ever other people who made that connection between my music and theirs at first.” For Jacobs, it was the philosophical challenge in PC Music’s output – and indeed decision to close – that excited him. “A lot of music is really boring and a waste of space,” he says, “but here’s a collective where they’ve addressed that. And the fact they’ve got their tendrils into some quite commercial music.” Jacobs identifies the music of Hannah Diamond and GFOTY (Girlfriend Of The Year AKA Polly-Louisa Salmon) as his favourite PC Music work, alongside Lipgloss Twins’ 'Wannabe'. 

“The [self-titled] easyFun EP [from 2013] is really cosmic,” adds Jacobs. "For me, PC Music never went that far out again. It’s really Zappa-y.” Watching the Barbie movie with his six-year-old son, Jacobs was delighted to hear Charli XCX’s 'Speed Drive' – a song less than two minutes in length and produced by easyFun – now at the very centre of popular culture.

“Really commercial pop is really great at the moment,” he enthuses, “finally people are making music again for people who get bored. Tierra Whack’s Whack World is ten one minute songs, and that really appeals to me. Sometimes the songs just stop. It’s not about it being about to reach the final chorus, it just stops. And she’s hugely successful.” Ice Spice, the definitive breakout star of the last twelve months, has also provided Jacobs with cause for optimism. “The way her music is recorded is it’s really quite blasted in the red,” he explains, “it’s in a trap style that I don’t usually go for but the songs are really short and interesting and it’s just fucking odd music.”

He points out that even mainstream pop that might not think of itself as hyperpop has been shaped by the tag. “Previously, if I was listening to a Beyonce album and would get to the ballads I’d just skip them,” he says, “now, quite often I’ve noticed pop albums have no slow songs at all, which is great and is a side effect of the H word.”

Max Tundra by Jack Barnes

One of the positive outcomes of streaming for the consumer, as Jacobs sees it, is that the weird outlier track with strange production has had a resurgence, as artists struggle to stand out on Spotify Discover Weekly streaming lists. This has happened at a time when individuals have sought to express their identity in ways other than music tribalism – primarily through social media – which has allowed genre partisanship to fall even further away. Repeatedly during the interview, Jacobs states that the artists and musicians he really admires are always “genre free”.

Outside of the mainstream, Jacobs has enjoyed heavy and sonically hyperactive US artists who have embraced maximalism in different ways, such as US trio Death’s Dynamic Shroud or Chicago producer Fire-Toolz. Fire-Toolz, who makes vertigo-inducing hyper-prog shaped by extreme sounds from screamo, video game music and vaporwave, has tweeted that Max Tundra “is incredible” and last year invited him to appear on her Rainbow Bridge: Remixed By My Friends.

“I was pretty psyched when Fire-Toolz emailed me because I was such a fan of all her music,” explains Jacobs, “some of the production is like Jazz From Hell-era Zappa. The two shit things about Zappa are the smut and the guitar solos, and there’s too much of both, but when there's none of that it’s really cosmic. And a lot of the sequencing on Fire-Toolz’s music is just like that.”

As a producer but also as a music fan, Jacobs has faith in his own short attention span and views it as central to his practice. “I think most gigs are boring, and too long,” he says, “even if you’re obsessed with the band. Half an hour’s fine. I’ve always preferred playing shorter shows.” When playing the PC Music livestream earlier this year, he relished having to condense two decades of a career into a ten minute bit. These days, Jacobs finds music mostly through listening to internet radio like WFMU, Dublab and NTS (between 2018 and 2020 he hosted the regular Max Tundra’s Rotogravure on the station) as well as trawling Bandcamp, YouTube and to a lesser extent second-hand record shops.

The resurgence in interest in Max Tundra isn’t quite Beatlemania, but has meant that he gets more offers to perform (almost all of which he turns down and says he will continue to do so until there's a new album). Instead, the only times he gets to feel like a pop star are the rare moments when a rogue hyperpop kid or experimental music stan spots him in out in the street.

“There have been a couple of incidents when I've been out with someone and [getting recognised] happens,” grins Jacobs, “it’s only happened a few times but it’s made me feel very cool and famous.” Out with his son in Walthamstow where he lives, somebody approached him in a chain restaurant to pay their effusive respects. 

“It was in a branch of Tonkotsu ramen, they were big fans of my music. My son still mentions it.” He worries aloud that his son might think that happens all the time; that we are actually in the universe where Max Tundra is on bedroom walls and billboards as a bona fide pop star.

In an interview that spans a couple of hours, Jacobs is generous and digressive; extolling the merits of AI software Midjourney, bringing himself to the edge of tears advocating for Julian Casablancas + The Voidz’ 2014 experimental indie track 'Human Sadness' and discussing his vision for a record shop in which albums would be categorised and filed according to what drugs were ingested during their production. Nearing fifty, he is proud to see that his music has begun to make a connection with people, but tells me that he has gotten so used to people not understanding his music that he does not ever want to be in the same room as someone hearing his music for the first time again, and avoids telling office colleagues and co-workers about his increasingly respected side hustle.

“I’m quite confident that the music I’m doing is good, and is of merit though,” he says, walking me towards the exit of the office foyer onto the now pitch-black London street, “and that’s kind of what has kept me going.” Distorted by swivel doors and under the glare of strip lights, I watch Ben Jacobs walking back through the giant empty office ground floor; a real pop star, peerless and alone.

This Woman's Work by Max Tundra is out today