Thursday, June 11th, 2020
Muzz on Their Self-Titled Debut Album
In Remembrance of Things Lost
Jun 11, 2020
By Celine Teo-Blockey
Photography by Driely S. Web Exclusive
Five years ago when Paul Banks (Interpol, Banks & Steelz) and Josh Kaufman (Bonny Light Horseman) gathered in a Woodstock studio at the behest of Matt Barrick (The Walkmen, Fleet Foxes’ touring drummer), it was hardly surprising that the trio (now known as Muzz) would get on like a house on fire. Banks and Kaufman had met as teenagers on an exchange to Madrid, Spain, bonding over Bob Dylan, Neil Young, and Led Zeppelin. Throughout the fecund New York scene of the aughts they had remained good friends and occasional collaborators—they formed an acoustic duo just as Interpol took off and Kaufman produced Banks’ Julian Plenti solo debut.
A multi-instrumentalist and producer, Kaufman, a longtime accomplice of brothers Bryce and Aaron Dessner of The National, had assisted in recordings for that band as well as the sprawling projects of their cohorts, including producing Bob Weir’s charity album Day of the Dead and his more recent Blue Mountain album. Barrick was Banks’ touring drummer on his Banks & Steelz hip-hop project with Wu-Tang Clan rapper RZA, and had separately spent time in the studio with Kaufman. Both Kaufman and Banks sing the praises of Barrick and call him one of their favorite drummers. When interviewed he is content to leave the espousing of song ideas and meanings to the other two. When he does pipe up it is often a tangential story or wisecrack—sometimes self-effacing, other times aimed at Banks, which animates the frontman’s mock defensiveness. Kaufman will laugh good-naturedly, then come back with a sage or subtle observation. It’s a playful dance that suits their personalities.
For all their camaraderie and accomplishments, it was no forgone conclusion that the three friends could indeed make music as elegant, elegiac, and at once as soothing as “Bad Feelings,” “Broken Tambourine,” “Everything Like It Used to Be,” or “Patchouli”—songs found on the trio’s self-titled debut album as Muzz. Songs with themes of a remembrance of things lost but also an optimism to rise above the fray—providing a balm for these particularly precarious times. “Red Western Sky,” with its Wordsworthian quest for nature, swaps the Lake District for the American frontier. The wide-open spaces cleanse, affording opportunity to pause and re-set. Banks’ lyricism is at its lonely, literary best: “The bees in the frying pan/The shards in the carpet/It’s vain to think somebody’s really there.”
But early on, the artfulness and strength of the songs they were creating did give a hint to their special sauce.
Kaufman and Barrick had some earlier demos but “Patchouli” was one of the first tracks they all wrote together. A fairground melody circles like a Ferris wheel; a bewitching prelude before Banks sings of “his baby and him struggling, and nothing feels like it can keep him straight…is this ever deadly?” It concludes with a procession of horns, whirling, as echoes of his reply—“I say wait and see”—funnels like water down a drain. It’s hypnotic.
“I love that song,” professes Banks on a recent four-way Zoom call. The 41-year-old is currently holed up in an Edinburgh apartment while Barrick is at home in Philadelphia, and Kaufman is sitting in his closet in Brooklyn. “From the very beginning there was a great chemistry,” Banks explains. “But that [song] marked a moment…where we really broke ground with our sound. I was like ‘Oh shit, we’re that much further into defining what this is,’” he says, referring to the whimsy and warmth weaved into the texture of the music they were making.
Poignantly, talk of “contagions” and “things being deadly” makes one wonder how recently they were still doing re-writes. Or were they just oddly prescient? Banks smiles and says: “That was written a while ago.” It’s not about the current pandemic.
Perhaps they were tapping into the collective unconscious—of a rot at the center of our lives that needed to be cut out, eradicated, so we can course-correct? “Everything Like It Used to Be” bears the same lyrical quality, suggesting we need to atone. It is at once brutal—“We made our start dancing beneath this very sky/Iʼm sayinʼ gonna make them fall to their knees…Weʼll make them bleed again”—and yet the softness of Banks’ vocals, heightened by the melancholy of the guitar melody, is comforting.
Pondering the coincidence Kaufman remarks: “It is amazing, right? How you have no idea when you make these songs how it will resonate in the world because the world will be different by the time the song arrives.”
Muzz, the album, benefits from a lyrical warmth and directness that has borne sweet fruit, thanks to this unique assemblage of three friends with all their varied strengths and, in part, weaknesses. The abstruse lyricism that became the hallmark of early Interpol feels largely absent here. There’s always been an air of impenetrability about Banks. Yet, with Muzz there is a cosmic ease and accessibility because they were amenable to suggestions and would discuss the merits of each song before moving along, ensuring everyone had their say.
“Everything Like It Used to Be” has a jam-band quality, with the fairest of guitar melodies, and is a track that Kaufman holds dear to his heart. “We had this one circulating around,” he explains. “Because we took five years to make this record, we all cycled emotionally over a lot of these songs—we think we have it then ‘aw man, someone’s kicking me out [emotionally]. Let’s work on this one again.’ This is one of those songs that had multiple sets of lyrics, had multiple arrangements, it didn’t have strings, then it did have strings. It didn’t have that solo at the end then it did. Its form changed a lot.”
“It was recorded from the demo after the debate,” Banks remembers. A debate where they vetoed him. “I liked the demo a lot, these guys were just audiophiles to the last—.”
“I just wanted it to be,” Kaufman jumps in, “like the warmth you’re describing I think is, it’s part of the re-record…. The demo was built as opposed to performed. I think a lot of the music on this record benefits from the performance: three of us in a room tracking something together.”
Their process is democratic, but Barrick feels that any lyrical credit awarded to him is undeserving: “I think they gave Josh and me too much credit.”
Kaufman agrees: “I think we’re all pretty sensitive listeners so if something would kick us out emotionally, maybe that would lead us to another draft of lyrics. “
Banks concurs: “Yeah. There were many instances where basically Josh would kind of zero in on a particular moment in a song. I think that Matt and Josh often shared an opinion—that if it was kicking Josh out [emotionally]—and, anyway, it then became a good challenge for me, to sort of feel like, pushing harder, or trying to write a better lyric.” Or learning what lyrics stylistically spoke to all three of them. He adds: “I think there are approaches I could take that don’t speak to Josh. Or Matt. So that was kind of like learning what do we all feel with the lyrics and in that sense, to guide it.”
Happy accidents also informed this. “Broken Tambourine” begins like a ballerina’s solo played on a piano but is punctuated with birdsong. It’s impossible to know if the tweets were intentional or accidental, or when one listens outdoors if the chorus of birds are from your headset or actual birds. And you don’t want to make assumptions, as “Knuckleduster,” which begins with the sound of a boxer punching a speed bag, was not actually recorded at a gym. Instead Barrick smiles and sets it straight: “No, that was me on the drums.” It is rhythmically identical, attesting to his virtuosic percussive skills.
Kaufman clarifies about the birds: “I don’t think I set out to do that originally but Matt and I were recording the piano and the drums, and I think it was this time of year, a few years ago and we were in Woodstock with our friend Dan [Goodwin] who was tracking.” Goodwin’s studio, Isokon, is nestled among trees, and is more log cabin than traditional recording studio. They had the porch door open that day. “Nature was alive and the area was alive, and I think that being up there together was really special,” reminisces Kaufman of the times they convened there. “Over time, life changes and things happen,” he adds. “And I think there’s something beautiful about capturing the nature of the surrounding and so we left it in. Also I feel like there’s moments when those birds are singing with the piano—they sound like part of the band. It’s almost Disney in that sense.”
Like “Patchouli,” Kaufman reckons “Broken Tambourine” also has one of those moments. “It’s a benchmark song that was helping us zero in on what the fuck we were doing,” he adds.
What they were doing involved a deep commitment to teasing the most emotionally unguarded work. This seemed to suit Banks’ writing sensibilities. Barrick points out, “You never know how Paul’s gonna approach a song, lyrically and melodically, so it’s always unusual and exciting.” That commitment found it’s fullest realization in lead single “Bad Feeling.” Unlike any vocal treatment we’ve heard from Banks before—it’s tender, quiet, and he sounds more akin to The National’s Matt Berninger, unyoking from a burden with incredible precision.
“For me this song was so special that I almost—was hesitant at a certain point to dip my toes into it,” says Banks of his desire to not ruin Kaufman and Barrick’s demo with lesser or mediocre lyrics. Months later while on a surf trip an encounter would provide him with the right inspiration. “A friend of mine was going about relocating his life was in a very positive, spiritual space. And I was inspired by his entire demeanor,” he adds.
Banks, who says the beach often brings out his creativity, did a vocal treatment for the song in one take. “The whole melody, I think, is oddly structured because it’s literally stream of consciousness through one listen where I felt like I was in the exact right spiritual poise to address the song.”
There’s a tonal shift in Banks’ vocal treatment. Unlike his nasal, struggle to shout above the squall of guitars and power drums in Interpol, or even the slower drawl in his solo efforts and certainly with RZA on Banks & Steelz—here, his tone slides upwards from his baritone, feathering off, barely a whisper. There’s no harsh edge. It’s like gazing at a garden or ocean scene framed by drizzle on a windowpane.
Kaufman would soon give this tactile, sonic quality a name—“muzz.”
“It’s definitely a tactile word,” Kaufman explains. “It has it’s own definition. We kinda used it to describe a tone before we were using it as a band name. Like this can have more of a ‘muzzy’ quality.” As well versed in music theory as the practicalities of recording in a studio, Kaufman was looking to Fear and Vintage Violence—among the hallowed John Cale records of the 1970s—and Electric Warrior by T. Rex for his sonic cues. “It’s all coming at you at once and it’s all kind of glued.” But there are also newer records and he cites the Charlotte Gainsbourg albums 5:55 and IRM, recorded with Air and Beck respectively.
But Kaufman was also wary of highlighting just one shade of their personalities. Songs with funny titles such as “Chubby Checker,” which seems to have no bearing on the actual song, and “Knuckleduster,” which still cracks Barrick up, are intentional. The former used to have a ’50s rock ‘n’ roll riff, that was eventually taken out but the moniker stayed. “I came up with the name,” chuckles Barrick and tells a story about Checker being from the area in Philadelphia that Banks and him now have a recording studio they co-own.
After picking up his guitar and playing the “forgotten” bass riff for everyone, Kaufman adds: “We thought the title was hilarious so we kept it. There is a tone on the record—that maybe, can be taken as a little introspective and serious. I don’t know if that covers the gamut of our emotional range so I think to leave some of those trails of silliness is important.”
The day we speak, Muzz was meant to have their first live show, at Union Pool in New York. So engrossed are we all in our new normal that it took them a while to come to the realization. “It is our first show!” Kaufman finally yelps in disbelief. They had an extensive U.S. tour planned, including dates in Canada, appearances at the Newport Folk Festival, and several European festivals for the summer. Then the coronavirus hit and like a switch everything went dark. “I miss the closeness of what my life is normally like: Intimate distances between people, creating things, being in the same room…I hope we’ll be able to turn it back on just like that too,” Kaufman says, trying to be optimistic.
There is a collective sense of grieving that we are all experiencing. For the small things we might have taken for granted or the big projects that we had invested time and effort—and were looking forward to relishing or seeing to fruition. Overnight, everything’s been taken off the table. Concert venues were the one of the first businesses to close and now look like they’ll be the last to open.
“I do grieve that idea—that when will concerts happen again?” says Banks slowly, with his blue eyes downcast. And not just because he’s a singer in a band but for that vital connection to others, that communion of performing in a room, for others. He continues: “It’s the one facet of human life that I definitely feel aggrieved by—the uncertainty of when that’ll come back?” Then his tone quickens—and he echoes Kaufman’s sentiment. “I think it will be okay,” he says, reassuring him and us. “It’s just shitty for now.”