Released this week on Columbia, MS MR's debut album Second Hand Rapture is pop excellence pure and simple. Rooted in A-list-ready melodies and heart-wrenching ballad-making, the twelve songs on offer here form a stormy, emotional, anecdotal trip through love affairs past and present. Yes, their accompanying videos show an even darker side (puking glitter and soft-core human-eating – err), but don't be put off.
We caught up with the New York duo – comprising Lizzy Plapinger and Max Hershenow – when they were in London a couple of months back to probe the so-called inner-workings of their minds on Tumblr, growing up and working out. Confirmation: they were affable and droll, occasionally adorable.
Hi guys. First things first, why is this lovely new record of yours called Second Hand Rapture?
Lizzy: We called it Second Hand Rapture for a few reasons. I think the two key elements are the environment and the media. The media aspect of it is just about the idea of us being so far removed from our experiences, because of the media: that's the 'second hand' nature of it. The 'rapture' is sort of a cheeky wink-wink nudge-nudge reference to all the crazy environmental tropes we've had in the States in the past few years. We're very inspired by wild weather. Obviously, that comes out most clearly through our single 'Hurricane' which was written about Hurricane Irene. It's all about extreme cases...
Max: That kind of weather, like extreme weather, and the potential for disaster are really inspiring for both of us.
You mentioned the disconnected social media influence on the album. Everyone talks about your Tumblr page – was that site essential to your success, do you think?
Lizzy: Um, that's an interesting question. I don't know... I think it served its purpose.
Max: Yeah, I think Tumblr served its purpose for us and in particular to articulate and define our aesthetic. I don't think it's the only way we could have done that, but it definitely both inspired our aesthetic and allowed us to sort of clearly articulate it, creating this ongoing thing we can share with each other, with fans and with other artists that we might work with. So yeah, I think it's been an incredibly helpful tool, but I'd hope that we'd be able to be successful even without it, and be able to rely on the music, because the musical ideas are what are at the core of this project.
Lizzy: I think the Tumblr was just something we really loved doing. We loved this media collage that was alive and fresh and fully realising the vision we had really, really early on. We were incredibly proud of it. Quite a lot of people were really excited about that form of releasing music, that sort of alive package. But yeah, I would hope that it wasn't the crux. That was a visual challenge to ourselves that we were exciting about doing, but I hope that the music would have been able to stand separate from it as well.
This aesthetic... how would you define it?
Lizzy: A mixed-media collage.
Max: That holds both musically and visually. Our process in both cases is just like, throw everything out there and then later find the threads that binds it together. You know, pick and choose from that, and create your own narrative. There are many potential narratives and it's all open to interpretation.
Moving back to the album, you've said in the past that each song on the record has its own personality. What do you mean by that?
Lizzy: I think it's just that we worked over a lot of different time periods and over a lot of different genres. 'Hurricane' and the Candy bar Creep Show EP are a wonderful introduction to us as a band and our sound and our aesthetic. But I think the album a more developed and also more experimental version of that. One of the songs is a little bit more of a pure pop song, another one has a country edge to it, we've even got a power ballad in there... So I think it's more reflective of us as a whole.
Max: This was the debut musical project for both of us, and I think that's reflected in the music. You know, we're just starting to develop musically, into the musicians that we want to be. And we're really getting it out there: these are the first songs we've ever written, and you can see how we've developed across the album.
Tom Elmhirst mixed the record. What did he bring?
Lizzy: He brought a lot to the table. We were lucky in that Max and I had already recorded what would turn into the album before we had signed a record deal. So, by the time we had one, originally we sort of just naively thought we'd get it mixed and then it'd be the finished project and would sell. At that time, when we were having that discussion and figuring out who that mixer would be, Columbia asked us if we would just make our dream-list, and Tom was really at the top of that list. And had always been. So, luckily enough he agreed and we thought, as a test run, he would mix 'Hurricane' and we'd then see how it went from there. When we got the mix back, Max and I immediately fell in love with it. He hadn't changed that much about it, but he just sort of fully realised the track in a way that we couldn't have by ourselves. It immediately felt right and so he did some additional production on the album. Again, he didn't really change inherently what we'd already created but certainly helped us to fully realise it.
I just watched the video for your last single, 'Fantasy'. There's a real sense of – I don't know – anxiety and urgency in the video. What's with that girl puking glitter?
Lizzy: Well, the entire video is a collage of fantasies gone wrong, but you know, I think we like to not give a direct and clear linear narrative, and that's been clear from a lot of our videos. So, keeping that collage, that format and that whole aesthetic was important to us. We came up with the idea of having all these little vignettes, and I like it that when you're first introduced us in the video, it seems really twee and Americana, then the puking glitter turns that image on its head. Because it was our first proper video, it was a chance to not necessarily use our footage to express our art and our ideas, but for us to put our money where our mouth is. And so I think there's a nice balance between sincerity and cheekiness, between dark and light. That's always a line that we're treading. So yeah, I really love that video. It feels like a combination of Twin Peaks and 'I'm Just A Girl' by No Doubt.
My favourite bit is when there's that group of old women surrounding you.
Lizzy: They were amazing.
Max: They were backstage, in the dressing room, saying all sorts of 'old women' things, like you would expect, things like "I think I'm going to get one of those iPhone things."
This collagey thing is all well and good, but what do actually write your songs about?
Lizzy: I don't really want to come back there once again, but I think there's a definite collage there [laughs]: some of songs are very literary-inspired, some of the songs are about pure, unabashed heartbreak, some are about newfound love, and a lot of them are about introspection of the self and self-discovery. But anyway, I definitely feel the album is more about its music than the lyrical content itself, just because we wrote these songs as individual entities. There isn't a clear story that links it all together, like one big break-up or something like that, so that allowed us an opportunity to experiment with a lot of different tones. It was the music which became the underlying thread that pulled it all together.
Lizzy, am I right in thinking you were brought up in London?
Lizzy: I was. I was born and raised in London, even though I don't sound like it.
What kind of music were you exposed to there?
Lizzy: Growing up in London, as happens so often, I was sneaking into gigs at a really, really early age. The first ever show that I went to – I must have been 12 years old – was the Rolling Stones at Wembley Arena and I like to think of that as a pivotal moment for me. That was a very grand way into discovering live music. And as for other bands – I don't know – I loved early Franz Ferdinand, Maximo Park, Grandaddy and Interpol, and bands like that. British Sea Power... Bloc Party... I grew up in that classic time for popular indie rock.
When did you move to New York?
Lizzy: I moved to New York when I was 18, right after school. Max and I met at Art College.
So, what kind of visual art inspires you?
Lizzy: It's different for both of us, really. I grew up in quite a visually-based family, very obsessed with TV and cinema, and so what's interesting about the visual side of our partnership is that whereas I come to the visuals with a nostalgic, vintage and glamorous twist of things, Max grew up not really watching TV – he didn't even have a TV in his household – so he comes from a real fresh perspective, seeing images without outside context and connotations. I think that's a wonderful marriage. I think we're always interested in the oxymoron, sort of light and dark, and sweet and sour, and fun and sinister, and how we can always pull those things together. How high- or low-brow can totally be the same thing, or how they can be married.
Why did you try to retain your anonymity until quite recently?
Max: We did that for a couple of reasons. I think when we first started releasing the tracks, we felt like – well, first, we're making pop music and we're very proud of the fact we're pop musicians and we're proud of the record we've made. But I think what often happens when you're working in pop, image or celebrity sort of overtakes the musical side of things, and we were really of the conscious of the fact that that often becomes the whole story and we really wanted people to come to the music for the right reasons. And for the team that would build around the project to be coming first, in response to the music and not us visually.
Then Lizzy also runs a record label in New York and she's established herself as a name in the music industry in New York. But this was really a separate project. We've actually used a lot of the skills and knowledge she acquired doing that, but musically and artistically, this was very much the two of us doing this together. We were really aware of the fact it could come out as Lizzy's project, as opposed to being equally about me, and for the equal partnership. We just felt that this reflected the way we'd worked and recorded music in the first place.
Lizzy, how would you say your work at Neon Gold has informed your music, if it has?
Lizzy: I say it hasn't. I think behind the scenes, it's informed the process, the foreign industry side of things and how we go about stuff with a label. We loved having freedom and power over this project and we were really lucky that we were able to build up this relationship with a major label. But terms of the music itself and the real creative aspect of it, it really hasn't affected it. I've always loved music. It's always been the most important piece of my life. This was a chance for me not to do the business side of it, and have a different creative output: making pop music.
Max: We were never writing music because we thought it was incredible or that people would like it, it was just the experience of making it itself was fulfilling in its own right. Everything else that has come since has been an added bonus, because the writing process was wholly satisfying on its own.
So, who would you look up to as model popstars?
Lizzy: Well, Beyoncé's the obvious. She's someone who I think is incredible and continues to push herself and she grows as her music grows with her and she just becomes better as an artist. We both absolutely love Robyn... She's an incredible pop artist, making truly pure pop songs but presenting herself in a really unique and honest and humble way. Gwen Stefani is another complete hero of mine... Shirley Manson of Garbage... I absolutely love Bjork, who's also definitely a popstar... And then even someone like James Murphy, I guess. He subverts what pop is.
Finally, please tell us something weird.
Lizzy: I eat a slice of pizza pretty much every day and my hair colour changes monthly.
Max: And I do thirty push-ups before I go to bed.
Second Hand Rapture is out now on Columbia Records. You can visit the band by heading here.