“I wrote hundreds of terrible songs before I got really anywhere.” As we recently sat to chat with Max Clarke, the man behind much hyped new musical project Cut Worms, we found there’s a pleasant modesty to nearly everything he has to say. These are exciting times for the Jagjaguwar signed songwriter; hot on the back of his acclaimed EP Alien Sunset, a debut album, the culmination of thirteen years worth of working at music, is set to arrive next month, with an intense period of touring across the US and Europe to follow. Behind this modesty though there’s an undeniable ambition, a feeling that a successful living as a musician is something he’s had in mind for some time. “When I was a little kid I went through phases of what I wanted to be when I grew up. One week it was, basketball player, baseball player, a bunch of them. I thought that I could be a professional skateboarded but I realised I wasn’t really good enough at that. As soon as I kept realising that I wasn’t good enough to do any of these other things for a living, I decided that I could probably do music if I just kept working at it. Which thirteen years later has sort of started to pan out.”
It unquestionably has, the new album Hollow Ground, is a giant leap forward for Max’s recorded material. He regularly refers back to the EP as a demo collection and sonically Hollow Ground is a huge leap forward. The fuzzy lo-finess of Alien Sunset was undeniably part of its charm, we ask whether he was worried about losing that? “I didn’t want it to be super polished or anything, the main thing was I didn’t want to lose the spontaneity of the demos.” Hollow Ground was the first time Max had worked in a professional studio, and also worked with a producer, a process of delegation, something he admits wasn’t always easy. “It’s hard for me to relinquish control of any part of it, but at a certain point sometimes you have to. Until I can learn how to record on a professional level and make it sound passable as a hi-fi recording. I feel like I’m getting there but not quite yet.”
The resultant record is a fascinatingly lush sounding piece. It’s also oddly concurrent for what Max admits were, “just songs, and then I made it into an album”. Yet his songwriting instinct, and the fact most of the tracks emerge from a particular time in his life have produced something that flows beautifully. While he suggests there’s no concurrent narrative or theme to the songs, a lot of them seem to tap seamlessly into the idea of youth, and growing up. It is a record that is both self-aware, introverted even and yet deeply romantic, pulling the listener back into a nostalgia for those first fleeting teenage heart flutters. One of the intriguing things about Hollow Ground, is how timeless it sounds as a record, it has often led to accusations, accurate or otherwise, that his songwriting has a certain retro feel to it. While he admits a love of The Everley Brothers and the 1960’s girl-groups, his influences seem more vast than that, “I listened to The Beatles, a lot of different old country, I started to get into old 1920’s show tunes, there’s some of that in there as well.” Perhaps like many of the old country songs he suggests an admiration of, at the heart of Max’s songwriting is a dichotomy of darkness and light, “I like bright poppy melodies and I also like dark, brooding words and poetry. It wasn’t a conscious effort to combine those two things, I guess that did happen though and I feel like it works.”
The phrase story-teller is one that often comes up in reviews of Cut Worms’ work, we’re invited to cast our view over what could easily be interpreted as an array of characters, placed into different settings, fleeting glimpses of life in the darkness. Is the idea of a songwriter as a storyteller something he feels comfortable with? “I don’t know if the songs are really stories per se, they don’t have beginnings and ends, there aren’t conclusions there’s just a feeling. Basically, I just try not to talk too much about it or say too much, because I always think the more you talk about it or assign specific meanings to things the less people can potentially get out of it. I always think in a lot of the songs I like I don’t particularly care what it’s about or if it was actually written about a specific person or thing. I like to assign my own personal meaning and a lot of other people do too, I’d hate to take that away by saying it’s about this one thing”.
Max is clearly a musician used to doing a lot of the heavy lifting himself, artwork, recording, he has always had an element of control over the work he puts out, and a perfectionist streak seems to run through much of the topics we discuss. “I’d like to say I’m one of these people who’s really prolific and has a song come to you from the ether and it’s all complete. That happens occasionally, normally though it’s a lot of work and it takes a long time for me. I kind of like to endlessly revise things…maybe a little too much”. We question how that works in a studio, with its mixture of time pressures and other people’s opinions, “by the time I got into the studio the songs had been done for a while and they existed as demos, so it was just a matter of redoing the performances, I wasn’t really writing much in the studio”. Interestingly though, for someone used to doing everything themselves, Max admits the ideal is something altogether more collaborative, “the dream is always to have a band that can play all the parts the way you want them and then just do it all live and press record. Nowadays, that doesn’t happen very often, mainly because record labels don’t pay for three months of studio time. You can’t just go hang out and write and rehearse in a studio, you have to have it all planned out before hand and then go in there for 12 hours straight and bang it out as fast as you can. Part by part, at least that’s what I’ve had to do”.
Although the album is still a month away from release, Max’s plans for Cut Worms are already taking on something of a long-term strategy, “I’ve been writing new stuff for the past year. Constantly just thinking about, the second record, I feel like that is always the hardest one. You put out your first record and best case scenario, people really like it, then you’re faced with having to top it in a fraction of the amount of time it took to make the first one”. Wherever that next record takes him, you can’t help but feel this is a songwriter in it for the long-term, the ambition, drive, determination to succeed, it all seems present and correct, the future for Cut Worms seems to hold no limitations beyond Max’s own wildest dreams.
Hollow Ground is out May 5th via Jagjaguwar. Click HERE for moreinformation on Cut Worms.