Interview: Max Tundra

The electronica whizz on Coldplay and being unimpressed with dubstep

This article originally appeared in the October 2011 issue of Time Out Shanghai 

Despite the cold, barren connotations of his stage name, Max Tundra’s music is anything but. Born Ben Jacobs, the Londoner’s compositions under the Tundra name are multi-layered electronic pop songs that blend the alt-dance of Dan Deacon and the intelligent pop of Hot Chip, with the off-kilter time structures and eccentricity of Frank Zappa. Jacobs’ work is consequently complex and often skittish, yet from seemingly disparate elements, he somehow fashions catchy, tuneful pop songs.

His productions are in stark contrast to what he terms the ‘pretty dull’ state of contemporary dance music, and his stand out sound has attracted numerous plaudits for exactly this reason – second LP Mastered by Guy at The Exchange was named 12th best album of 2002 by Pitchfork and follow up Parallax Error Beheads You (2008) was similarly well received.

Nevertheless, Jacobs still wonders if it’s worth the hours spent on his old Commodore Amiga 500, bought when he was a teenager and still used to make the vast majority of his music. ‘Often I think the whole thing is a waste of time to be honest,’ he says.

Last year, Jacobs announced that he would no longer be making music under the Max Tundra name. ‘The original idea was that I had released three albums of which I am very proud, and I didn’t want to release another MT one just for the sake of generating some shows,’ he says. Yet as he prepares to appear in Shanghai under the Tundra name, he admits to a recent change of heart. ‘[I thought] what’s the rush, right? I’m currently working on a number of different projects under a number of different names, but there will indeed be another Max Tundra album one day. Probably.’

One of these projects is ‘a very big pop album, which will be fronted by someone else’ according to Jacobs, though he refuses to say whom. Chances are it won’t be Coldplay, whose Mylo Xyloto album is released this week and who Jacobs has previously criticised for their drab music, adding ‘(Fuck Coldplay)’ to the title of one of his songs and, more subtly, Photoshopping his own name onto their Madison Square Garden bill.

Max Tundra Coldplay bill'That Photoshopped Coldplay gig thing has fooled a lot of people,’ he says. ‘Thing is though, they are so massive that I reckon if I ever did support them there would probably be at least a hundred or so people at the show who would get into my music. Four Tet once said that one of his big breaks was supporting Radiohead, so hopefully Chris Martin is reading this and will get in touch.’

Martin and co’s beige balladry might be an easy target, but Jacobs isn’t reserving his ire solely for them. ‘In the UK there seems to be a real celebration of extraordinarily boring music – it’s quite terrifying,’ he says. ‘I hope it ends soon. I might have to stay in Asia for a while until things work out. I’m particularly unimpressed by most dubstep – all the same sounds, time signatures, reverbs getting used again and again and again.’

Of course, upon listening to Jacobs’ eclectic compositions, it’s hardly surprising that he finds most other people’s tunes dull. But Tundra’s music is still pop at heart, with a simple catchiness squeezed from all the diffuse ingredients and held together through a beguiling lyrical wit and warmth (‘this jumper I bought for 20p/the trousers and shirt were thrown in free’ he sings on ‘Which Song’ for example).

There’s also an inherent danceability to much of his music, something which he frequently succumbs to himself, jumping around the stage like a musical mad scientist when he performs live. He certainly seems to enjoy himself during shows, but is it difficult reproducing such complex tracks live? ‘Some songs are tricky to bring to the stage,’ he admits, ‘but enough of my catalogue works up there to turn gigs into fun, bouncy events.’

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