MS MR escape the confines of their DIY studio to tell us about their new album How Does It Feel and their newfound metalhead fans.
Sitting in a Hackney cafe, MS MR aka Lizzy Plapinger and Max Hershenow, welcome me to the table and laugh about the venue. They liken it to a “very British crack den” slouched back in the low mismatched dusty armchairs in a dimly lit room. The New York duo and myself get sidetracked a lot in the next 40 minutes as they stop to explain all their in jokes, anecdotes about their families and tales of their absent drummer. What we’re actually meeting to discuss is How Does It Feel, their sophomore offering, released next month. After the runaway success of Secondhand Rapture, their debut that landed them performance slots at Glastonbury and Coachella, expectations are high but Lizzy and Max seem totally unfazed.
They’re a dream team. Max’s self-awareness and wry sense of humour sends Lizzy into fits of laughter countless times during our time together, making her coral coloured curls and pom pom earrings bounce. It’s almost unnerving how well they know each other, it goes beyond finishing each other’s sentences, they can knit together whole paragraphs and they still beam when relaying their stories. All I can recommend is to go see a MS MR show and be welcomed as the honorary third member of the band (or fourth, after Zach the drummer).
Recorded in NYC, in a makeshift studio they have an amusingly love-hate relationship with, How Does It Feel removes all the metaphors that Lizzy shrouded herself in on Secondhand Rapture. More lyrically direct, the pair are giving something to their fans, now that their following is so huge, they have to think about performance options and what the people want to hear from them. Between laughing fits (mostly when we realise Max emphasises all of his statements by pointing at his crotch) MS MR invite me into the world behind How Does It Feel, excited to relinquish every story they’ve been saving on the first week of their press campaign. Although, I get the feeling they’re this enthusiastic all of the time.
From since you began up until now, do you think your priorities have changed now that you know a little more about the industry?
Lizzy: Actually interestingly enough, it hasn’t changed at all! I think since we’ve begun we’ve been ambitious and pretty clear about our goals, what we want to do artistically and where we want to take the music. We’ve stayed pretty true to form, even from when we started we didn’t have expectations of what would happen with the band, once the band was established, we knew where we wanted to go.
Max: There was an initial period of maybe six months where we didn’t know what was going to happen or if anything was going to happen and we didn’t really expect anything to happen so we didn’t let ourselves start thinking about our long term goals. After we established ourselves we’ve been pretty persistent with what we want. I want to headline Glastonbury!
Well it’s not on next year but the year after maybe!
Lizzy: Yes, we’ve got to have something to work towards! Maybe in ten years, I don’t know.
Max: I’m a firm believer in the six month plan.
How’s that working for you?
Max: I don’t know, everything’s six months ahead.
You’ve done everything I would want to do as a musician, is there anything you’re working towards, something that you really want to do, other than headlining Glastonbury?
Lizzy: There’s so many things! I think it’s so important to have goals. When you’re in the music industry it’s hard to know what success is and you have to define that for yourself, it’s nice to have these milestones of things you’re really working towards. We’ve never played SNL, that would be a huge moment for us in our career and as a show we grew up watching. It’d be amazing to play Jools Holland in the UK. Certain venues that we haven’t had the opportunity to play yet that we will be headlining this coming fall, that’s going to be such an amazing feeling. We would love to score a film! I think Max would do an amazing score for a dance programme!
Max: I think the more we we settle into the music industry, the more we realise it’s a multimedia project. There’s always different things we need to take advantage of. Things like a fashion line! All of these different things that colour in the edges of who we are as people and as artists. Now that we’ve boosted our confidence a little more and built our sound, I think that we have the freedom and flexibility to explore more of those things.
So you’re not retiring any time soon?
Max: Absolutely not!
Lizzy: No! We’ve said since day one, so much about being an artist is about continuing to create with each new album or song or video that you put out into the world, it creates a more interesting story and lineage for your art and body of work as a whole.
Max: As soon as you start to think about it as a long term thing, the moments don’t matter, if one song falls flat or you have something you no longer like, once you have a chronology, those moments are no longer distracting they’re just a part of a collage.
You two are both so interested in what each other has to say! Do you ever get bored of each other? Do you ever need five minutes alone?
Lizzy: Yeah! Because we’re human! It’s such an intense relationship, it’s like being siblings but the closest version of it. It’s a lot but there’s so much understanding, support and respect. This morning I was feeling really panicked about the day and I was talking to Max and he said, “Well what can I do to help you?” Sometimes when we spend the whole day together, it’s like, “I love you, but this isn’t about you and I need a little time to myself.” Often it’s about communicating that to each other.
Max: Also this is our first press week in a long time! So we’re actually excited to talk to people.
When you met, how did you know you wanted to work together?
Max: I think even from that first meeting, we both recognised that we were equally green and pretty naive and not intimidating in any way. We were both curious and interested in what each other could bring to the table, there was a lot of freedom in that, there was a really new age-y kind of magic that happened that first meeting, we both kind of felt it and things developed pretty gradually and little by little we discovered how we worked. After two very intense years together we’ve changed together.
When you work together do you bring things together separately and how do you know when to compromise?
Lizzy: I think for us, it’s about both being in the same room as we’ve felt that’s how we’ve thrived, having another pair of ears around what you’re doing. It’s about being together and giving each other space to see through what you’re doing whether it’s lyrics or production or melody. I don’t think either one of us dictates what the other does.
Max: We brought in our drummer make to help us write and produce, at the beginning he was a tie-breaker as well for when couldn’t decide anything. It was exciting to have someone there who was as green as we were when we started but he has such an amazing ear and a neurotic attention to detail that I just don’t have.
I bet he felt a lot of pressure being the in-between!
Max: He didn’t show it!
Lizzy: Nothing he would ever say to us! He’s much more technical than we are. We’re much more emotional and instinctual as writers. If we’re doing a synth line, we’ll record it eight times and he’ll want to do it once more because he knows he can do it better even when we think it sounds fine and the flaws make it human and emotional. I wonder if he ever did feel the pressure?
I’m sure if he didn’t crack and he made it through to the end, he was fine!
Lizzy: I don’t think I’ve ever seen Zach crack!
Max: Zach’s a super chill guy. I tease him relentlessly, I even exhaust myself with my teasing but he never retaliates! He never does anything back. It’s like endless fun for me but it’s also exhausting. I call him fat everyday, he’s not fat, he’s totally fit, but it’s done nothing to his psyche! At some point he’s gonna crack.
Lizzy: He’s the third sibling and the baby brother in our faux-family scheme for sure.
Did you have a magical moment when you were recording when you realised it was finally all coming together?
Lizzy: We were so excited, this process was so much fun but you feel like everything’s in pieces. When I got the master back for the record, which to be fair, is the last stage in this process, all of a sudden for the first time, I felt like all of the songs had clicked and even now, it finally felt whole in a way I never felt it could and I burst into tears listening to it. I wrote to Greg Calvin who mastered the record, who we didn’t meet, I told him he’d settled the washboard and everything had fallen where it’s supposed to. That’s the most incredible feeling, that your vision is wholly complete and it’s exactly how you want it to exist and you feel pretty good going into the rest of the campaign knowing the album is what you wanted it to be.
No crying for you Max?
Lizzy: I’m not even that much of a crier!
Max: We had a lot of fun with it but there were a lot of trials and tribulations and difficult weeks and it’s hard to be self-criticising but the album really coalesced when we were in the studio with the title track and we thought “Yes! This is something people will want to sing at a festival!” I remember Lizzy singing out, “How does it feel?” That was the moment I felt like we had a path.
Do you write with the performance in mind or is it more personal? I know you’re going to say both!
Lizzy: It is both of them but I think the greatest change on this record was thinking about the live performance because on Secondhand Rapture all we did was create our dream sonic landscape in the studio, we didn’t even think about performing it because we’d never had to!
Max: We didn’t even know how you perform or what your options are or anything about it at all!
Lizzy: So much about this next record was about being intentional and thinking about how we wanted to perform and how we wanted our audience to feel and I think that comes through on the bigger songs that feel like big, high-energy moments. I don’t think the record has lost its intimacy and introspection and that exists on songs like “Leave Me Alone” and “Tripolar” and “Run Victory” but in a new way where I try to be a little more transparent and not hiding behind metaphors. I think the more earnest and sincere we are as writers, the more it means to the people listening to it.
I’ve heard you’ve done a lot of DIY recording? Pinning up blankets in the studio and stuff?
Max: Let’s talk about the studio. I feel like we’ve written little more of an ambitious pop record, it’s more elegant, the artwork and everything is a little more refined. However, the studio it’s come from, is so disgusting! We did nothing to glam it up, we never even bought a fucking couch! There were no windows, it was freezing in the winter, boiling in the summer, the carpet was disgusting, we never vacuumed it! It was full of these booby traps, the vocal booth was held up by a string tied up to a pipe, wrapped around a desk. All the lights were out so we only had one lamp!
Why did you stay there?!
Max: I don’t know!
Lizzy: We just thrive in that environment.
Max: There’s something about the intensity of it. I think you can hear it in the music. We weren’t always happy or content there but there was something nice about how gruelling it was.
Lizzy: I think it makes the music that bit more escapist as well…
Because you want to get out of there?!
Max: It makes you write a song a day.
You sound a little masochistic.
Lizzy: It’s kinda sick.
Max: Next time I think we’ll make it a much nicer space but I don’t know.
Lizzy: It is hard being more comfortable when you write because even if I’m writing in my living room I get distracted.
Max: That’s some weird pathology, we haven’t given enough interviews to work that one out.
Is it something superstitious?
Lizzy: I can already see it becoming a thing, the more fucked up the studio the better the music!
Max: I’m sort of a diva, I don’t like being dirty or sweaty and things being dirty, I just don’t get it.
That is so bizarre! But it’s working! What has been the most important you’ve learnt since you started your musical careers?
Lizzy: I think for me, it’s always easy to get wrapped up and anxious and I do get anxious about all the moving parts. Taking steps back every now and then to be like, “Wow, we get to do this as our full time job.” Just reminding yourself to enjoy moments throughout the day so that you know what success means to you and enjoy the process because otherwise it’s easy to feel you’re unsuccessful and reminding one another of things like, “Isn’t it insane that we’re playing the main stage at Coachella! Did you even think this would be possible two years ago?”
Max: It’s easy to be swept away in the exhaustion of it and to be self-pitying about it. For me, I’ve learnt to be more self-confident in the choices that we’ve made and stand by them. Self-undermining is a part of being an artist in a way, part of the creative process is second guessing yourself, it’s a horrible cycle and it can be depressing but the writing part of it is cathartic.
Do you think that this album is more personal?
Max: It’s less crowded in metaphors. It’s more immediately personal.
Lizzy: I’m not hiding behind such abstractions and ambiguity, there is an element of that, it’s just my lyrical style. Allowing myself to not hide behind things that people don’t understand was a really breakthrough moment for me on “Dark Doo Wop”, writing a song that was clearly about love. I was lifting the veil a bit and being a bit more vulnerable. I hope on each album I feel that way, it would be worse if you went in the other direction and felt you were putting on more of an act. You need to let yourself be vulnerable and transparent and raw.
Max: That’s what people are attracted to. Raw emotion can compensate for a lot of shitty pop songs!
Is it ever scary to give away words in songs that are about you to strangers?
Lizzy: I don’t think it’s gotten to that point yet. I can imagine it getting to be like that potentially one day, for me, sometimes I’ll write a song that’s so hyper-personal and so specific to the situation that I’m in, it’s impossible to think anyone could take it to mean anything else, then Max will have no idea what it’s about! An audience member will take it in a way that’s specific to them. There’s room in the music for it to feel individualised and personal to whoever’s listening. I haven’t reached the point where I’ve felt invaded, or that I’ve shared too much. I’m a highly private person but what I choose to share goes in the music.
How’s your label Neon Gold going? Who are you championing at the moment?
Lizzy: I started it in college with my best friend growing up. We started as a 7-inch singles label and now we’ve graduated to albums. We’ve been the launchpad for a number of artists, we put out the first US releases for Gotye, Marina and the Diamonds, Ellie Goulding, Passion Pit, most recently we did Haim and Tove Lo and Mø.
So you’ve done everyone!
Max: Everyone who’s cool, who’s a little bit left-field who you feel cool for knowing.
Lizzy: That’s our sweet spot.
Who’ve you got who’s about to break out?
Lizzy: Christine & the Queens! She’s a household name in France, she’s sold over 400,000 records there she’s massive but we’re releasing her first record in the states. She is going to be one of the best things for music to come out of her generation, I firmly believe that. She’s the modern female Michael Jackson!
Max: It’s the most amazing performance I’ve ever seen! It’s her, she’s an amazing dancer, she has two or four back-up dancers. She sings and dances seamlessly, she’s a little bit butch, she’s a little bit queer.
Lizzy: She’s androgynous!
Max: She wears suits and has the most disarming personality, the funniest banter I’ve ever seen in English and French, which I don’t even understand that well. Then the next song you’ll be sobbing.
Lizzy: She’s going to be a global pop force.
She sounds incredible. What’s been your favourite moment so far?
Max: We think of everything as a fencepost. Playing Coachella was incredible, we played the main stage, it’s a super big thing for us.
Lizzy: The main stage! In the afternoon, it was a big deal.
Max: A lot of our best moments are festival experiences. Bonaroo last year, there were 35,000 people there. But the number changes every time we tell that story. The whole state of Tennessee was there! Smaller things like getting to hang out backstage with other artists are great. The moments that are really exciting for me are spending the day with someone and having drinks then you go back to the bus and you’re like, “Oh my God! I’ve just made a new friend and it’s someone I genuinely admire who’s doing such fucking cool work!”
Backstage celeb spotting is so much fun.
Lizzy: Yeah, you don’t want to be a dick about it but backstage is awesome. We’re not playing it cool we’re sitting there with our mouths wide open gobsmacked at the people around us.
Max: Especially at Coachella, anyone could walk through at any point.
Lizzy: Jenny Lewis is out to your left and Usher is on your right!
Max: A$AP Rocky’s lying on the floor with his two bodyguards either side of him.
Lizzy: And Katy Perry’s in the corner! And you’re like, “What is this bizarre world we’ve stumbled into?”
You’re a part of that world now!
Lizzy: I guess, it’s hard to imagine anyone’s like, “Oh my God that’s MS MR over there!”
Max: Katy’s certainly not saying that!
What’s your favourite song on the record?
Max: Impossible to choose!
Lizzy: It changes.
Max: Today, “Wrong Victory” came out. We both have loved that song from the beginning, it feels really personal and intimate and like an evolution from the last record. It’s a really good entry level to the new record.
What kind of person do you think the record’s going to appeal to?
Lizzy: I hope everyone! We’ve never been pretentious about who should have access to music. It’s really satisfying for us to see an equal number of men and women at a show and people as young as 13, to parents and beyond. It’s a good mark of the music that it can mean a lot to a lot of people. I hope that doesn’t change.
Max: Recently we played a rock festival with Slipknot headlining. Lizzy was one of two women playing in three days, it was absurd, a full on rock festival with some very scary things going on. We played on a big stage in the middle of the afternoon but people came! Yesterday we were getting Facebook messages from people like, “I’m a hardcore metal fan, I never would have been there, I just walked past the stage but I loved it and you have a fan for life!” That’s so awesome, so metal fans, come on! Come mix with all the gay boys and we’ll see what happens.
‘How Does It Feel’ is released 17th July.
Words: Lily Walker.