“We fear rejection, prize attention, crave affection/ Dream, dream, dream of perfection!” That’s the refrain of “Salty Sweet,” a song MS MR wrote about signing to a major label — but on their stellar debut, Secondhand Rapture, it would seem that the duo’s fears didn’t materialize. Not only do Lizzy Plapinger and Max Hershenow deliver an array of haunting, period-skipping pop gems: They strike a rare balance between maintaining their DIY background and opening up their sound for a larger audience to enjoy. By meshing classic pop with more experimental sounds, they’re making up their own rules, as well as borrowing from the playbooks of some of the bands Plapinger helped launch on her label Neon Gold, like Passion Pit, Gotye, Ellie Goulding and Icona Pop. MS MR’s approach is similar — as they put it: “Pop rooted in an indie ethos.”
Marissa G. Muller spoke with each of them about the transcendent power of pop, embracing Tumblr as a way to give listeners visual context, and their ambitions for this project.
On keeping their project under wraps:
Max Hershenow: So much of this record is about the fact that no one knew that we were doing it. Our friends didn’t even know. No one but the two of us was hearing these songs for a really long time, which means that the music comes from a genuine place.
Lizzy Plapinger: When I started writing on my own, it was a very private thing — it didn’t feel appropriate to let other people know that I was exploring music because of my work on the industry side of things. I had started to make a name for myself with Neon Gold. We didn’t want the music to be judged, for better or for worse, by my reputation and name. We wanted to let the music come out. There was no pressure.
Hershenow: Nothing about the project was premeditated. It all came very organically. It wasn’t until after we had collected enough material to release an EP in May 2011 that we thought, “OK, maybe we are a band and need to figure out a name.” We liked the anonymity of MS MR and the fact that it’s formal but also really informal and genderless.
Plapinger: There was something sacred about that experience, and Max and I bonded more because it was a secret. The other side of it was that Max and I are very much a pop act — we love pop and totally embrace it — and we talked a lot about pop music [getting] a bad reputation because it becomes so much more about the personalities or the celebrity aspect of a project rather than the music itself. That’s not something that we’re interested in — and it’s not our personality. So we wanted the music to stand on its own and be recognized, I hope, as credible pop artists that weren’t coming from a machine.
On the darkness of their standout single “Hurricane” and the rest of the album:
Hershenow: We wrote the album in 2011-12, years shrouded in potential apocalypse and impending doom. We write our best songs when there’s a storm coming or a sense of unease in the air. New York City becomes electrified in those moments. “Hurricane” is obviously the most exaggerated example. I wrote the track the morning after Hurricane Irene passed, sent it to Lizzy, and she sent me lyrics and the melody within an hour. We recorded it the next day. It was the fastest we’ve done a song. It just kind of poured out of us.
Plapinger: Max and I love this juxtaposition of extremes: Really dark elements combined with the lighter pop sheen. Sometimes the music offsets the dark lyrics and sometimes the lyrics brighten the music. It’s all about combining those unexpected elements, just like our love of collage and visuals. We’re always hoping to bring together things that shouldn’t fit together but do. When people meet Max and me, we’re much lighter and normal than people would expect but I think there’s a real darkness in us — in everyone — that’s difficult to communicate right off the bat. But, because we were writing in secret, I think we allowed ourselves to really go there and explore those darker sides of ourselves because there was no pressure or fear of exposing that.
On the story behind the gorgeous strings-laden “BTSK”:
Hershenow: From “Hurricane,” I really loved the French horn and became obsessed with that sound. I wanted to continue to explore that on “BTSK” and let it be super orchestral and ethereal. It’s a MS MR take on a power ballad. It’s pretty poppy at its core but the melody is so weird and the lyrics put you off balance because they’re not what you expect.
Plapinger: As we were writing this album — it sounds cheesy, but — I fell in love. It was nice for me to explore that other side of my personality and write a pure love song. “BTSK” is about the process of me [going] from a sadder place in my life to finding someone who made me happy.
On bending pop into new shapes:
Hershenow: One of our goals is to push the boundaries of pop — what you can include and still [call] it pop. We’re just starting that exploration. As we develop as artists, we’ll continue to bring in new things. We both have very different backgrounds in music and most of the overlap is pop. I grew up listening to lots of folk and rock like Paul Simon, Bruce Springsteen, and Natalie Merchant — that range of things has given me an appreciation for good songwriting. As I grew up, I started listening to more pop. I have a deep love for pure pop like Robyn and Beyoncé. I think Charli XCX has a really incredible, interesting ear for melodies that I think Lizzy has.
Plapinger: Max and I come from different backgrounds in terms of our relationships with different genres but we overlap in our love and appreciation of pop. Pop is an awesome term because it means everything and nothing at the same time. It can be found in any genre, whether it’s electronic, R&B, rock, punk, folk, country. So for us, it felt like the door was wide open to experiment. I feel like every song on the album has its own personality in that way. It’s an experiment with all of those different genres and time periods. I can’t shirk the bands that are deeply rooted in my listenership: Beach House, the Weeknd, Lauryn Hill, Cocteau Twins and Boards of Canada. We’re using our own voice to put a spin on the artists we grew up listening to.
On pairing their music with a fully-formed aesthetic:
Hershenow: Tumblr allows us to create an environment in which we want our music to be listened to, for free. Making music in the 21st century, people are going to be listening to your music in the environment of their computer screen no matter what so I think artists have the opportunity to control what that environment looks and feels like.
Plapinger: We’re always looking for interesting avenues to relate to an audience, whether that be Tumblr, or a physical CD or vinyl. It’s about creating a balance between those industry personalities.
Hershenow: We’re both very visually inclined and that possibility excited both of us, so we really took it to the next level with Tumblr. We created a rich landscape that mirrors [our] sonic landscape, so they work in tandem. What’s cool is that because we could do it for free, and make the record so cheaply, we worked in secret for so long that we developed a core identity as artists both musically and visually. That’s allowed us to maintain control over every element of the project — even though we’ve continued to bring more people to the team. Even now with our major-label record deal and a lot of people helping out, every decision and creative choice comes from us, which is an opportunity I don’t think a lot of artists at our level have.
On the merging of indie and pop:
Hershenow: I think it’s a healthy push for both things. That’s happening in mainstream pop as well. Gotye, Foster the People, Mumford & Sons, or even Adele — 10 years ago you couldn’t have imagined those musicians being in the Top 10. There is a shift combining [to] indie elements in pop music. I think it’s a really exciting time to be making pop. There’s no limitation on what you can do or what you want to bring into it.
On taking career cues from Arcade Fire and LCD Soundsystem:
Hershenow: We’re really proud of the fact that our music is DIY and independent. That’s the impetus for our project but we also have big aspirations. We want to make this a long-term thing and we want to make it a career. Those things are balanced in that relationship. For me, it’s important to maintain that sense of exploration and curiosity. When people ask us, “Who are your inspirations?” It’s hard for us to nail them down but the artists we look to are Arcade Fire and LCD Soundsystem, who played the long game and stayed really true to their visions while becoming increasingly popular and building it in a really organic and healthy way. That’s sort of the trajectory that we look toward.
Plapinger: We’re incredibly proud of our indie and alternative roots and that’s something we always hope to stay true to but Max and I are ambitious people and we have massive aspirations. We’re always like, “How are we going to do this for the rest of our lives? How are we going to grow as a band? How are we going to get to headline Glastonbury?” — which is, like, my ultimate dream in life. We really want to prove that we’re much more than a buzzy band. The careers that we admire in other people are Arcade Fire and LCD Soundsystem. Those are bands that have always stayed true to their left-of-center aesthetic but write great music and have really grown with their audience. It’s not about choosing whether we need to be indie or mainstream. Those worlds are colliding more than they ever have. There’s an opportunity to bring those universes together so I think we’ll always play to those extremes.