MS MR Come Into Focus On ‘How Does It Feel’: Idolator Interview

Carl Williott | July 17, 2015 6:00 am
MS MR's Lounge Version Of "Wrong Victory"
Watch their acoustic rendition of the powerful track.

On new album How Does It FeelMS MR have improbably evolved from an odd little alt-pop duo into a brash, post-gender gloss-pop outfit that’s just as focused on empowering their listeners as getting them to dance. The duo’s self-assured 2013 debut, Secondhand Rapture, was a gauzy affair brimming with confounding lyrics, but this sophomore album lifts the veil — something that’s apparent as soon as you see singer Lizzy Plapinger and producer Max Hershenow glamming it up like ’70s disco royalty on the cover.

That sparkly, polished aesthetic carries over to the music: The hooks are punchier, the sonics are crisper and Plapinger’s odd imagery has been swapped out for an emotional directness that begets a more impassioned delivery. I sat down with the pair in New York City ahead of the July 17 release of How Does It Feel to talk about this evolution and the current reign of weird-pop. Check out our wide-ranging chat below.

The first thing that jumps out about this album is the clarity. It’s more direct, there are tighter grooves. What led you away from the ethereal sound of your debut?

Max Hershenow: We started off writing 10 or 11 songs that were in a completely different world, we did like an R&B thing for a minute. So that was important to get out of our systems. After going back through, we realized it wasn’t consistent with who we are. And it was sort of refuting everything we did before, as opposed to finding the things we loved about what we did before and building on that, to feel like an evolution instead of a departure. So once we had gone through that process, we could be much more focused and intentional about how we were approaching each song this time. And a lot of that was about writing songs that made you wanna move or groove or dance or jump or scream along. So I’m glad it seems like it translated.

Lizzy Plapinger: On the first record there’s an element of lo-fi, you know, it was shrouded in atmosphere and glitch.

MH: And some of that was technical, just not knowing how to do certain things.

LP: And some of it was a security blanket of sonic warmth. But now there’s a power and a freedom to being like, we don’t need to hide behind eight layers of an instrument, let’s be really articulate about what our sound is gonna be and what the lyrics are saying, so everything does feel focused. So even though this record is sort of bigger, in a lot of ways it’s more intimate and raw because we’re allowing ourselves to not hide behind these layers, both sonically and lyrically. Even though — full disclosure — both of those things still have a lot of fucking layers.

MH: We wanted to give each thing its own space, not having them blending together so much. Lizzy felt so much more confident in her vocals, I felt so much more confident musically, so we wanted to give each of those things room to breathe. It’s really exciting and feels way more mature to me.

Despite that clarity, it was harder for me to pinpoint influences on this one.

MH: On the first record we were so influenced by Florence [+ The Machine] and finding our voice in that sort of space. But by the time we finished that first album cycle and had written those R&B songs, we identified who we were. It meant that we felt even more free this time to pull from different things. So we brought in a wider range. We talked a lot about Timbaland and the way his super-electronic sounds feel organic and visceral and you can’t tell where the sound is coming from. We talked a lot about Arcade Fire — Reflektor is definitely a touchstone for us, and we felt much more musically invested in that album.

LP: Embracing modern pop and acts like Miike Snow, who make really fucking awesome dance music that doesn’t really fit inside the EDM or house culture, Röyksopp. Those references feel very concrete to us but I don’t necessarily think listeners would pick these things out. Which I think is good, because inspiration is about playing off the source without regurgitating or copying. It’s about redefining the canon for yourself. The second record is establishing yourself, the second record puts your musical identity in context.

MH: The first album was about experimentation, we were just figuring it out. We didn’t really know what we wanted to say or how we wanted to say it, we were just happy to be able to say anything at all.

But there’s still experimentation here. Like going with “Painted” as the lead single, even though it’s barely a pop song. It’s a dance track, really.

LP: What the fuck is the chorus of “Painted?” There isn’t really a chorus! It’s really, really fun for us to have that freedom to experiment and be redefining what pop is to us. I think we’ll always make pop that’s unique and alternative but hopefully we’ll be able to cross over enough to reshape what pop means for other people.

Now’s the time — bold reinterpretations of pop are flourishing in the age of poptimism.

LP: It’s a really cool time to be a pop artist right now. Even artists on a bigger level like Miley Cyrus, you still see them pushing boundaries.

MH: Or Beyoncé. Her album is fucking weird! And it’s so cool to feel like there’s that trajectory for pop now. We’re both hyper-ambitious and we want MS MR to be a big thing, and we want to be able to continue doing it for a long time and eventually be the biggest band in the world — in our own way. I feel like we have these trailblazers and it’s exciting and motivating to feel like you won’t be playing your “weird” thing at a shitty bar for the rest of your career.

LP: There’s an openness, increasingly so, to these artistic statements. Which means we don’t need to dumb down our message.

I wanted to talk about “Wrong Victory,” because it seems to be addressing our culture’s transgender moment.

MH: What’s funny is we wrote another song specifically about that.

LP: It wasn’t our intention when we were writing “Wrong Victory,” but there is something really beautiful about it existing in that space, and that it could mean something to that movement. I think so much of that song is “How do you stay true to yourself and how do you escape yourself?” Sometimes you get far along down the road being someone you’re not, and it’s about getting back in touch with who you want to be and who you are.

MH: There’s a universality to that sentiment.

LP: Right, whether it’s transgender or anything. But I love that that song has caught that cultural wave. And we have a B-side that’ll come out that touches on that concept… For us, we were talking about things that made the first record “us.” The first record was very dark and very angsty. Sort of about wallowing in your misery and embracing and enjoying that angst. So much of this second record is about, yes, darkness is a part of who we are, but it’s about moving beyond that, using darkness as a catalyst to see the light at the end of the tunnel. This element of perseverance and empowerment.

Speaking of adversity, your van was broken into last year and a bunch of gear and music was stolen.

LP: We’ve technically been robbed three times.

MH: Which is not a reflection of our team or lack of care. It’s just that as a band you’re a target.

LP: It’s ridiculous and so hard because you’re not making a lot of money to begin with. And you’re a target because they know you have your entire life in the car with you.

Well, I only wanted to bring that up because —

MH: Because you wanted to make us sad and get us with the hard-hitting questions? [laughs]

The tearful soundbite! No, what’s your process after that? For instance, when I have a draft that vanishes l’ll frantically try to re-write it from memory.

MH: So, we only fully lost one song. Ironically, the one song was called “All The Things Lost.”

LP: A completely different song from the “All The Things Lost” on this album.

MH: Which we wrote as an homage to that experience. “Homage” isn’t the right word, but.

LP: It was so fucking awful, every lyric I’d ever written is gone. My diary, for pretty much my entire life, is gone. It was deadening. And there was nothing we could do about it except move forward. We were lucky that we did have most of the pieces of everything. We had to re-record “Leave Me Alone,” some bits of “Painted” and whatnot. But we made it work. But part of the placement of “All The Things Lost” on the record is, one, I think it’s a beautiful song. And two, it was such an important part of the process for us, it was really one of the lowest points of my entire life. With this overarching theme of empowerment and perseverance, it had to be on the record. Even recording that song, we did it in three takes, and I was about to burst into tears. That was one of the darkest songs for me.

And now to completely cheapen that sentiment — let’s talk business. Lizzy, you run Neon Gold Records, so is it hard to keep the business side separate from the art side for MS MR?

LP: It’s pretty separate. When we’re in the studio I pretty much don’t want anyone to talk about business or “Is this a single?” That’s pretty much not allowed in our process.

MH: If you start a song being like “This is gonna be a single,” it’s not gonna be a single.

LP: We’re very good at compartmentalizing and, after creating what we want to create, being very pragmatic and innovative and artistic while still being smart about those choices. It’s something we take pride in. And I’ve learned so much from doing Neon Gold, and even MS MR has taught me so much about being an artist and dealing with artists on the other end.

Does it give you an advantage in this era of the hustling artist?

MH: Without Lizzy’s experience, we wouldn’t have known how much control we can take over this, or the ability to shape the conversation about choosing singles, and the confidence.

LP: And to Columbia’s credit, letting us. They pretty much let us guide it all.

One last question: These R&B songs you keep mentioning, would you ever revive them by giving them to other artists?

MH: I haven’t gone back and listened to them.

LP: I haven’t either. Part of being an artist is choosing what not to release. It’s not always because it’s not good, it just may not fit or communicate your message. That’s something I particularly admire about the new Florence record, every song has a purpose.

MH: It’s tempting to think you’ll go back to an old song and make it into something someday, but honestly it’s way more fun to start a new song than edit an old one. Editing is boring, and usually it’s a lot more work to figure out what’s wrong. And I feel like we’re evolving so quickly as musicians that even a month later it’s like “OK, I’m sick of this.” So I dunno, maybe…We’ll see…Probably not.