Max Tundra’s “Mastered By Guy At The Exchange” Turns 20
If you’re reading this, you probably know that Max Tundra has good reason to be Hyperpop’s daddy. London-born musician Ben Jacobs hasn’t released anything as Tundra since 2008, but his name has come up a lot lately, usually in connection with fellow Londoner AG Cook, whose PC Music productions have done more than anything else. to codify the hyperpop genre. . Cook appears to be on a mission to spread the gospel of the tundra beyond his small cult following of music critics, giving his “Lights” pride of place when Spotify asked him to curate his first “Hyperpop” playlist. , remixing his tracks and being remixed by Tundra in turn.
Listen to the 2002s Mastered by Guy at Exchange – released 20 years ago today – it’s easy to see why Cook was so enthralled by Tundra’s work. It’s an album that spits out ideas at a crushing pace, stuffing short songs like the 1:40 “Lights” and the 1:56 “Merman” with rock opera worth of sections, solos, beat-switches , brackets, asides, and interludes. It’s pop, it’s prog, it’s electronic, and it’s absolutely mind-blowing on a first listen before its twists start to give a skewed version of the meaning during subsequent rounds. But if you call it hyperpop, it’s a good idea to step back and look at everything that was happening around the turn of the millennium.
The late 90s and early 2000s were one of pop’s most interesting post-gender times. Les Avalanches, DJ Shadow and Jan Jelinek scared everyone by making records entirely from samples. Home to some of the best-stocked record stores in the world, Tokyo’s Shibuya district has spawned retro artists like Pizzicato Five, Cornelius and Kahimi Karie. Mainstream pop and rap were biting into bhangra, dark ’70s funk and rave music, with producers like Timbaland, Missy Elliott, Organized Noize and the Neptunes making the music as interesting as anything from the underground. The breath and pop of IDM, the frenetic rhythms of drum ‘n’ bass and the pops and clicks of microhouse expanded the possibilities of drum programming. Stereolab transformed lounge music into krautrock, or vice versa. Tortoise was jamming to breakbeats. Everyone suddenly seemed to realize that the Beach Boys were badass.
Mastered by Guy at Exchange was born from this moment: an album that takes these recombinant styles and combines them even further. If you call this album hyperpop, you might lob the same term at Mouse On Mars’ ideologysufjan stevens Enjoy your bunnythe sweet pink truth Do you party?Señor Coconut’s El Gran Baile, or the self-titled debut album by Gorillaz. Pop is in the midst of a similar moment right now, and hyperpop and the contemporary rap-rock-as-pop strain represented by Post Malone, Lil Peep and XXXTentacion are cheering for a world where it’s all good game for cannibalization.
There are two crucial differences between what Tundra stands for and what hyperpop stands for. First of all, Swap is clearly a pre-information age artifact. Max Tundra’s primary instrument is the Amiga 500, an early consumer home computer whose reputation today rests largely on its capabilities as a game console, including its excellent sound, which made it ideal for the musical creation of Tundra. The Amiga was released in 1987, the year Jacobs became a man according to Jewish tradition, and the young musician immediately spent his bar mitzvah money on the machine. Swap has a seductive, patchwork cheap sound; it plays like something painstakingly put together with rudimentary equipment, which indeed it was. “The finished songs appear in my skull and depend on my persistent purchase and rental of the authentic musical instruments necessary to make the compositions as faithful to their mental image as possible,” he said after his debut, the instrumental from the 2000s. A best friend you’ve become.
The second and the reason Swap doesn’t really play like hyperpop in the modern sense is that Jacobs has no interest in exalting pop-cultural detritus. One of the most liberating qualities of hyperpop is the way it swallows up guilty pleasure genres and turns them into pop art. Traces of nu-metal, third-wave ska, mall-punk, bubblegum pop, funk-metal, post-grunge, EDM, gabber, self-tuning pop-rap, and electro -party-trash like Ke$ha and LMFAO can be found in the 100 gecs mememe alone. There are traces of chewing gum on Swapmore explicitly in “Lysine,” but there’s no sense he’s trying to put Britney Spears or Spice Girls on a pedestal.
In place, Swap is unapologetically neat work rooted in crate-digging curiosity, much closer to Shibuya-kei artists who adore Burt Bacharach and the Beach Boys than teenagers shuffling formative Napster files together. Jacobs claimed at the time that his music “was helped by all the tasteless, identical garbage that flooded the shelves”, citing Boards Of Canada as one of the worst offenders. Jean-Luc Godard once said that the best way to criticize a movie is to make another movie, and that’s what Jacobs does musically with Swap. Its lyrics sometimes read like music reviews, with “Acorns” naming obscure English band Stars In Battledress detailing the breakup of legendary math-rock band Don Caballero. “Lysine” imagines the lonely death of an electronic artist (perhaps his own) that amounts to a David Toop obituary and “one less laptop loop”.
The most telling name drop occurs on “Merman”, when Jacobs extols the influence of time and a word, the second album full of orchestra from a young Yes. (The song itself sounds more like Henry Cow’s “War”; both are two-minute ditties that stop in the middle to indulge in jazz piano noodles but contain more than enough content to overwhelm .) Jacobs is a prog geek at heart, and while the album lacks a 10-plus-minute epic like his 1998 lead single “Children At Play,” Best Friend’s “Carbon Cones,” or “Until We Die” from 2008 Parallax error beheads youthe way the head-twisting textures come and go at will — and the jagged strings at the end of “Pocket” — should ring a bell to anyone whose brain yearns for the complexity of progressive rock.
Swap was Max Tundra’s first album with vocals. Around the time of Best friend, he announced that he would sing his next album “with an English accent”, which seems odd given that Jacobs himself is English. But going out of his way to sing with an English accent is a rich tradition, which began when smart British bands like the Kinks and Pink Floyd consciously resisted the temptation to sound like their American influences. Jacobs’ vocal style is in that vein, no doubt filtered through prog and his beloved XTC, and he has no qualms about sounding like the smart, cultured Englishman that he is. He’s not an acrobatic singer, leaving most of the high notes to his sister Becky, whose similarly accented, slightly poised voice must have unconsciously gotten stuck in Cook’s brain when he was deciding what to do for clients. like QT and Hannah Diamond.
Becky commands the mic on “Labial”, the last track on the record, which acts as a sort of mission statement for the entire Tundra schtick. “I only sing about things that happen to me,” Becky sings as Ben. “I never learned to fill my songs with allegory.” Indeed, the fantastic sound world created by Ben is offset by a striking banality present in the very title of the album. The final section of the seven-minute “Cabasa” is dedicated to describing something her cat has done. From the first lines of the album, he prematurely complains about getting old, as 28-year-olds tend to do. “Lights” is literally about writing the album the song is on. All Toop-talk, then, can be seen not as the bending of a master of musical anecdotes, but as the daily thoughts of an artist plugged into ’02.
Jacobs claimed about Parallax that he wants listeners to respond to his music “sexually”, and though his love of synth squiggles and frenetic drumbeats suggests the super-weird 1980s lore of Zapp, Rick James and Prince, Max Tundra n You don’t need to put on spandex and create a grandiose character to be sexy. Jacobs is a witty, physically attractive, and extremely talented guy who, as several songs make clear, is quite capable of stealing a guy’s girlfriend. It’s not flexion but fact, like when Phil Elverum talks about hanging out with Skrillex or how girls always say his skin is smooth or how much ass he has after The Glow Pt. 2. That’s who he is; it doesn’t matter what you think of him. This is as true of his personality as of his work. Both are central to his appeal.
Jacobs hasn’t released a record since. Parallax error beheads youeven if it appears from time to time in a discreet way: a remix here and there, an appearance on the sidelines of the three-hour monster of Matmos The consuming flame. In 2018 — in a move that feels as much like an act of music criticism as Tarantino’s hiring of Travolta for pulp Fiction sounded like film criticism – he wrote and produced an album for British pop footnote Daphne & Celeste, known for being bottled offstage at the Reading Festival in the 2000s. He jumped on the occasion to give them lines like “the ballad under Dylan was going long before the invention of the Fairlight”. It was a delicious disc.
Jacobs is not some sort of reclusive hermit. It’s just that he has a partner and a son and a 9 to 5 office job, so music is not a priority for him. He’s working on a fourth album (“it would be rude not to”), but he has no idea when it will be finished. In the meantime, he has reissued his three Tundra albums and released a Remixtape, with artists like Kero Kero Bonito, Katie Dey, Colin Self and Julia Holter reinventing her old songs. Jacobs seems bewildered and accepts his place as a guide to a generation of brash young artists, but what does he really think about being the daddy of Hyperpop? His fourth album will undoubtedly spell this out down to the smallest detail.