Born on the blogosphere with its first steps taken on Tumblr, MS MR is the wide-eyed, indie-pop baby of the bubbly and brightly-coloured (Ms) Lizzy Plapinger and (Mr) Max Hershenow.
Bantering like an old couple, the (strictly) friends have graduated to a freshly-released and acclaimed debut album Secondhand Rapture (Sony). The singer-producer pair, having successfully weaned themselves from the internet onto the live circuit, return to Berlin for a grown-up, sold-out 4th of July in Berghain.
When you started you took an anonymous pose. Do you feel as though there are more expectations now that you’re unmasked?
LIZZY PLAPINGER: It’s definitely not something we think about. I think the project unfolded pretty much as naturally and organically as we could’ve hoped it would’ve. And as soon as we started performing live we never performed with masks on or cloaks or anything, we sort of gave ourselves to the audience and to the light, and even once we were doing that people still didn’t know who we were. And I think, now that we’ve done it, it’s not daunting. It’s always going to be about the music and we never really want to make it too much about ourselves behind it.
MAX HERSHENOW: Because we spent that year enshrouded in anonymity, it really allowed us to – I keep saying “gesticulate”, but that’s not the right word…
LP: Good word. I’ve started to say it now too, because you use it.
MH: [Laughs] But, yeah, incubate the whole project just in this sphere, between the two of us. It really allowed us to establish a really clear musical and visual identity before we sort of emerged. Because, already, we were so happy with the product that we created, so everything else seems, I don’t know – just an extra sort of cherry on top.
Did Lizzy’s background running Neon Gold Records help you craft MS MR as a band?
LP: I think it had nothing to do with us creatively, but I definitely think that my experience working in the industry has given us an understanding of how we can use our creativity wisely, and it also gives us the sort of knowhow to have a dialogue with the label. We have an incredible amount of control over this project and I can’t say the same for a lot of other artists. But I also think a big piece of that is the fact that you can create your own environment so easily with things like Tumblr, and so for us to have the control to make our own music in Max’s studio apartment on just a laptop and a microphone, it means that we can make all those pieces and give them the final product to do what they do best.
MH: I think a lot of artists when they’re starting out don’t realize how much power they have to just say “no” or say, “Yes, that’s what I want.” It’s a really empowering side of it for me and it allows me to stand by my vision for it. Awww…
LP: Awwww… [Group hug and laughter]
MH: We don’t touch very often. [Laughs]
Is the collaboration an equal one?
LP: Either Max will write a rough track and I’ll write on top of it, or I’ll write an a cappella track with lead vocals and then I’ll send it to Max and then Max will write on top of that and move things around. That’s just the first path of exchange; from there on it’s just us both chipping away and building something together. There isn’t a song that’s, “oh, this is mine” or “this is yours”. A big element is that we came to this as strangers and fell immediately into this very intense friendship and musical relationship and partnership. And the development of our sound is very much tied to the development of our relationship – not in a literal way, you know, I don’t mean a literal, God…
MH: We’re not lovers. [Laughs]
LP: We are not lovers. Max is a gay man. So…
MH: So we don’t have, like, suicide pacts. [Laughs]
LP: No, right. [Laughs] But I think that’s sort of the heart of the MS and MR of it; it’s equal-parted.
When you perform live, it’s as a band.
MH: Two other musicians form the live band, a drummer and a multi-instrumentalist.
LP: We knew that we didn’t want to be two people on stage with a laptop. Somehow, we had to showcase the really core electronic elements of it and the really strong acoustic elements of it.
MH: I’m curious to see how that’ll influence our writing process. But I think that’s the challenge, too, in the future: it’s like the record but even bigger and then so, for the next record, trying to match that bigness and then the live show is even bigger. Like, oh my God, constantly one-upping ourselves. Like, how big can you make a song?
LP: And how big can you make the live show? [Laughs]
LP: That’s like exactly what Arcade Fire do. Every time you see them, it’s bigger and bigger and bigger and not for the sake of just being big and bold about it, but because they challenge themselves.
MH: And there’s moments of intense intimacy there, too. It’s not like they’re going crazy big. They calm down for a second and just, like, ramp it up again.
LP: We love Arcade Fire, can you tell? [Laughs]
How was it doing live shows after being stars of the blogosphere?
LP: It was nerve-wracking, but not because we weren’t ready to be in front of people. It was just more nerve-wracking because…
MH: We’d never performed before.
LP: And we had sort of built our bed with that because we allowed the music to have a certain reputation and following before we came out as a live act.
MH: If we’d waited another two months…
LP: …then the pressure would have been too high. And we’re lucky to have friends like Marina of Marina and the Diamonds, and Grouplove, and so many other bands took some wonderful chances on us. And we’re eternally grateful because from show one to where we are now is a huge change. Because I wonder what it’s like for bands like Foo Fighters or Red Hot Chili Peppers who’ve been playing for years and years and years. Like, what does each show mean to them?
MH: Does it just feel like rote?
LP: I don’t know.
MH: We’re in an exciting place where at every show there are three, four, 10 more people that know the words and I feel like we’re actively watching it grow right now. Whereas when you’re at the Foo Fighters level or whatever, everyone knows the words and they’ve known the words for 15 years.
LP: I don’t know – hopefully we’ll have that conversation with you in 20 years. [Laughs]
MS MR, Thu, July 4, 21:00 | Berghain, Rüdersdorfer Str. 70, Friedrichshain, S-Bhf Ostbahnhof
Originally published in issue #118, July/August 2013