We Got Facets: Muzz Interviewed
“I like feeling like the least talented dude in this collaboration,” says Interpol frontman Paul Banks. “It’s a very good feeling. In fact, that’s been the status for me over my entire career. Like, I love being around musicians that make me think, ‘These guys are so talented.’ I feel like I do my best work in that environment. I like that feeling. I’ve had it with Interpol, I’ve had it with RZA, and now I’ve had it with Muzz.”
Muzz is a trio of Paul Banks, producer and Walkmen drummer Matt Barrick, and Bonny Light Horseman multi-instrumentalist and fellow producer Josh Kaufman. Much more than a side project, Muzz is a fully-formed group of three people who’ve been in and out of each others’ personal and creative lives for years. Their debut, self-titled album is draped in a patina of vintage studio texture, nodding toward classic rock records and a gauzy, dreamy period warmth. It finds Paul operating a long way from Interpol territory, his distinctive vocal repositioned in unexpected settings, accompanied by diverse arrangements and evocative lyrics.
This is an album that feels like a high point that each of these musicians have been questing for across their entire individual careers; ‘Muzz’ is the story of what happens when three likeminded musicians get to work without expectations, without deadlines and entirely free of preconceptions.
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It feels like Matt Barrick, Josh Kaufman and Paul Banks were always destined to work together as a band. Paul and Josh have been friends since they were fifteen; Josh has worked with Matt on numerous projects; Matt worked with Paul on his album with Wu-Tang Clan’s RZA, Banks & Steelz. “Matt’s kind of like the magnet,” reflects Josh. “He pulls things to the centre.”
“My other solo records have just been me,” explains Paul. “I just wanted to do it that way. I wanted to be all the musicians. I had something to prove, I suppose. I had solo material for a new record, but the idea of becoming a band felt good for me. I was just at a point in my life where the idea of bringing someone else in and being a band felt right.” Some time after the release of Interpol’s 2014 album, ‘El Pintor’, as Paul started working toward a third solo record with Matt Barrick, they both suggested bringing Kaufman in for a rehearsal. Suddenly they were no longer working toward a new Paul Banks album but had formed a new band together.
A new band they might have been, but despite having Paul’s demos and other demos that Josh had brought to the studio with him, the idea of making an album wasn’t necessarily the objective, hence why ‘Muzz’ is appearing some five years after they first starting working together. “I think that we had accepted, at different moments, that we were working toward a full-length record,” remembers Josh, “but we were much more interested in working on the music, without the expectation of any of the other things that go along with it from a business standpoint. We were just enjoying each other’s company in between other projects.”
“We really crack each other up,” adds Paul. “It was a lot of fun. There was some real stomach-hurting laughter going on at times. There was really nice chemistry. It just kind of felt right.”
“We do get along really well,” agrees Matt. “Perhaps it’s just our friendship and our maturity, our age and our sense of humour that helps us get through everything.”
Initially, the trio worked off demos that Paul had prepared, along with ideas that Josh and Matt had come up with, both together and separately. “We started off running with clips, like Lil Wayne would say,” explains Paul with a dry laugh. “We had a pool of music, and we started working with that initially. Along the way we started writing original material, and then we kind of whittled it and edited it down to what was going to be the Muzz sound.”
“About a third of the way into recording we discovered that when the three of us got together, we could almost tap into each others’ subconscious,” adds Josh. “It was almost like we could spontaneously compose. There are a few songs on the record that weren’t preconceived, that weren’t written as chord cycles or lyrics before going into the studio. It was literally just the three of us in a room together, inspired, playing instruments and responding to each other.”
Matt cites writing together as a group as the big difference between Muzz and the other things they’ve worked on together before, while Paul thinks that the bond they developed can be partly explained by his respect for Josh and Matt as musicians. “I’ve always cited Josh as the greatest guitarist that I’ve known, tied with Mike Stroud from Ratatat,” he says. “They’re both literally like Picasso – they’re just on another plane to anybody else. I’ve always known Josh to be great in that capacity, but watching him implement all of his years of experience with Muzz was really also pretty flabbergasting to me. You know, just his facility in the studio with any instrument, and the way he’d always have an instinct about what to do next.”
He talks about something similar with Matt. “I’ve worked with drummers that I admire from other bands before, but I’ve learned that if you love a drummer’s sound from another band, you’re never going to get that if you’re not that other band,” he says. “I learned that from trying and failing. Like, ‘Oh, I’m going to get this guy from this band and he’s going to do that thing,’ and then I’d give the guy a beat to play, but then it just becomes a beat that I wrote – it’s well executed, but it’s not that thing that you wanted.
“I feel like what Muzz has accomplished is that we do get everything I love about Matt Barrick out of Matt Barrick in Muzz,” he continues. “It’s just expressed in a completely different way to the way I’ve heard it expressed before. It doesn’t sound like his drumming in other projects, but it has that incredible, inspired beauty to it.”
For Matt, one of the key things with Muzz was a sense of liberation. “We were free to explore anything we wanted to with this project,” he reflects. “We didn’t have a preconceived idea of what we wanted to do, so we were able to experiment around and try different things. That meant we could bring in all sorts of different influences and different things that we were listening to.”
“Well, obviously we didn’t have other Muzz records,“ adds Josh. “I think that’s the beauty of a debut record, actually – to be a band of old dudes that have done and made a lot of music already, but have never made music together – that gives you a chance to try something new. It means you can try to come up with something that’s original. You’re not looking to belong anywhere, really – you're just looking to make something with each other.
“It means you’re more interested in the process,” he continues. “If someone doesn’t like something, you’re like, ‘Oooh! Cool! Why? What can we do that would be different?’. That’s more interesting than other projects where someone’s like, ‘Oh no, this is my heart poem, and this is how it has to go. If it doesn’t go like this we’re going to have problems.’ That was never an issue with Muzz. There was kind of an openness between the three of us. It didn’t feel rigid. It felt present and in the moment, and it felt really honest. It was almost like we’d found a way to be emotionally vulnerable in the studio.”
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Paul’s lyrics were an area where the sense of openness Josh talks about came to the fore. “It was totally collaborative in a new way for me,” he says. “Matt and Josh would often tell me when things weren’t working for them. Josh would say, ‘Maybe rather than continuing that literal narrative path you’re on, why don’t you just take a left turn into some kind of tangentially-related imagery that will just enhance what you’ve been saying, rather than kind of continuing to hit it on the nose?’ Josh is at a point in his career where he knows how to get the best out of somebody else, and I’m at a point in my career where I know when to step back, so I think it all just created this very good, very cool collaboration between us.”
Listening to ‘Muzz’ as a whole, you can identify that fluidity of approach, and that sense of having no precedent to guide the trio. You hear saxophone, brass, organs, strings, gorgeous backing vocals from Annie Nero and Cassandra Jenkins, and the entire record is given a fuzzy, authentically analogue studio sound by the album’s co-producer D. James Goodwin. It has the breadth of tone evident on albums like ‘I Am Easy To Find’ by The National (a band that Matt and Josh have both performed with), running the gamut from folk to blues, nodding frequently in the direction of Neil Young, or Stax soul.
Hearing Paul’s baritone voice in these lush settings is, somehow, refreshing. He contests that it shouldn’t be seen as especially strange. “I got facets,” he laughs. “Interpol is this sick band of musicians, and we make great shit, and I love it – it’s just not acoustic, stripped-down rock music. It’s something else. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t this other facet. I think it’s in my DNA – I’m a giant Lou Barlow fan, I’m a giant Elliott Smith fan, I’m a giant Leonard Cohen fan, and I’m a giant Bob Dylan fan. So the idea of acoustic guitar with vocals has been something beloved to me my whole career, but I just haven’t really done too much of that.” Paul points to tracks like ‘Girl On The Sporting News’ and ‘On The Esplanade’ from his first solo record, ‘Julian Plenti Is… Skyscraper’, which tapped most prominently into a folk style, just about the only time he’s delved into the music he’s always been drawn to.
The album opens with the towering, shuffling, downbeat track ‘Bad Feeling’. Carrying a resigned, haunted quality, Paul’s voice is here tenderly enveloped by the ethereal backing vocals of Annie and Cassandra. It sets a precarious tone for the record, only to open out into a wonderful saxophone-dominated conclusion courtesy of Stuart Bogie. “We really wanted the end of that song to feel like a million hot air balloons going up,” says Josh. “We wanted something super colourful and something that you would never hear again on the record, and which would only be heard once in that song. We got really excited that this should be an instrument that none of us can play, so we called our friend Stuart. I think it surprised all of us how much we liked hearing these other tones in our music.”
From there on, the musical gloves were off. Rob Moose (Antony And & The Johnsons, The Walkmen, Arcade Fire) was brought in to do strings across the record, and Matt suggested a quartet, The Westerlies, be brought into the sessions to add brass arrangements on a number of tracks. “I’ve worked with a lot of these people previously so I knew how great they were,” explains Matt. “We were excited to get them all on the record. I met The Westerlies through Fleet Foxes. They played on the ‘Crack-Up’ album that I also played on, they did a bunch of shows with us and they’re just an incredible group. It was super exciting that they came down to the studio. They did a lot of the arrangements and we kind of worked them out in the studio. They were pretty neat to work with.”
Tracks like ‘Everything Like It Used To Be’ are wistful affairs resplendent with stirring strings and guitars that sound they were dropped in from a Sun Records recording session, while ‘Red Western Sky’s sonorous brass creates an air of drama and tension, its lyrics suggesting a firmness and resolution. At the other extreme, ‘Broken Tambourine’ opens up with some wandering piano motifs accompanied by birdsong, creating a reflective, cinematic dimension when the track builds up and coalesces around Paul’s mournful vocal.
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One of the album’s best moments, ‘Chubby Checker’, provides an insight into how the three friends worked together on songs. “The foundation of that was Paul on this piano cluster and I’m playing a Farfisa bass thing on one hand and a chord with the other,” explains Josh of the tight groove that opens that track. “Matt’s playing this very Kraut-y kind of rhythm on the drums, and all of those elements were captured on a couple of microphones, all to give one kind of sound. It’s almost like it’s all moving together, like those three elements are one instrument.”
‘Evergreen’ is another song where a glimpse of an original demo shines through. “We tracked that song to an 808 beat,” explains Josh. “I built the track up and then Matt played live drums and percussion to that, and then we took away the drum machine, mostly. It’s still is there, subtly, in the beginning and maybe in the bridge, but it’s mostly not there. It’s a bit like pulling away paint layers, like ‘Oh wow, that’s how that started? That’s amazing.’” Matt talks about how that initial 808 pattern informed his playing, creating a rigid beat reminiscent of an old Rhythm Ace box.
Running through the album are references to mental health, something that perhaps makes this album even more impactful today, when the pressures of lockdown are taking their toll in unpredictable ways on people’s thoughts and emotions. “I didn’t write a record with mental health issues in mind,” Paul reflects. “It’s not really literal to anything that I have experienced, but it is coming from me, which is why I think it passed through the filter of Muzz. Josh and Matt needed things to feel authentic and on the sentimental side of things, so even when I was writing in character, it felt like a character that could be me, in a parallel dimension. All of these songs are close to me, even when it’s something like ‘Patchouli’ with its scenario of a married couple – it isn’t me, but it kind of is. It certainly resonates from my heart, and that’s what these guys responded to.
“When I was looking back at the collection of songs, I began to feel like there was a theme” he continues. “I definitely have had ups and downs in my life, and I feel like this was an exploration of different aspects of the mental landscape, which almost seem to be susceptible to weather patterns like the earth is. You know, sometimes it’s pretty fucking cloudy in there. I do believe in raising awareness of those issues, because I think it has been quite de-stigmatised.”
“From a practical level, I’m not sure people are completely aware of the benefits of getting treatment or seeking therapy, so I feel like talking about mental health is useful, because those things have been a great help to me. I feel like it’s a favour to one’s fellow man to encourage therapy and treating mental health like you might approach any other bodily ailment. It’s not glamorous, but it’s nothing to be ashamed of: it’s just like any other illness.”
“We were supposed to play our first show in April,” sighs Matt. “We had a whole June tour scheduled, and we were going to play Newport Folk Festival. We were excited to play shows because we’ve never actually done it.” Instead of touring, Matt is in Philadelphia, Josh is in Brooklyn and Paul is in Edinburgh. It is, on any level, a strange time to be releasing an album, and its impossible to listen to ‘Muzz’ without feeling like it’s somehow the perfect soundtrack to our collective self-isolation, our forced separation and our myriad anxieties.
The sound these three accomplished individuals were going for may have originally been something classic and timeless, but they have also produced a record that captures the zeitgeist of right now, one that reflects back our mortal concerns, that ruminates on life, love and coping. Long after the virus threat has receded, albums like ‘Muzz’ will be lasting reminders of how we felt, carrying a significance, symbolism and transcendence that will always transport us back to this period in our lives.
Josh Kaufman sees it slightly differently. “It feels good having something to focus on other than the craziness,” he concludes. “It feels really good to be releasing a record right now.”
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'Muzz' is out now.
Words: Mat Smith
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