It’s 5.30pm in the Metro Theatre, and the room is eerily quiet. A roadie is up a ladder, rigging up a final light. A couple of others wheel around gear boxes, unrolling cords as they go. Suddenly the guy up the ladder swears – a cluster of old confetti has been let loose from within the light, showering the tech and drifting slowly down onto the empty stage.
It’s a few hours before MS MR’s headlining show, in the middle of their tour with Groovin’ The Moo, and everyone seems ridiculously calm. Max Hershenow strolls on for soundcheck, wearing light jeans and a yellow turtleneck and clutching a water bottle, taking a minute to chat to the roadies, shaking hands and offering a cheerful “Hey, I’m Max.”
Vocalist Lizzy Plapinger isn’t far behind, in a flowing black dress which contrasts spectacularly with her dyed red hair. She’s holding her phone to her ear, singing along to it, trying to nail the vocal line for a Secondhand Rapture track that they’ve decided to include in the set.
“We haven’t played this song in like two years,” she’ll tell me later, “people always ask us to play it – so tonight we decided to finally do it.” The song is BTSK, a moody, down tempo cut from the the back end of their debut.
Max stations himself behind the keys and tests out a bright synth sound, while Lizzy sits on the drum kit, warming up. After a few minutes and some false starts suddenly the song is alive, the bass thick and guttural in the opening verse. Lizzy points to Max and the chorus blooms, her elastic vocals doubled and echoed, so the line “I turn to wax and melt like this” reverberates brilliantly around the empty room.
It abruptly cuts off, and Max is shouting chord instructions across the room (“It’s the ‘G’ inversion!”), trying to iron out the bridge. Lizzy plonks back on the drum kit, singing a few lines from Mousse T’s classic “Horny 98”, before breaking into a peal of laughter.
There has always been a strange dichotomy to MS MR. In person, they are two of the nicest and funniest people you could ever hope to meet, with a razor sharp wit and intelligence. On record, their songs are staunchly grim, and endlessly introverted – mining a deep vein early 20s angst that seems completely at odds with who they are.
“There was a disconnect between how dark the record was and how people perceived us,” Lizzy says later, “it was a little self-perpetuating to be singing moody, dark songs on stage then going and feeling depressed – it was hard to get out of that mindset…of marinating in our misery. We got off on that darkness.”
It goes a way to explaining the change in tone on their second LP, the more upbeat How Does It Feel, released mid last year. “We thought, ‘what message do we want to be giving our audience and ourselves about that relationship with that side of yourself?’”
Max chimes in, “maybe that’s why we had such a better time on this record, because we were singing about happier things.”
Another burst of laughter.
Soundcheck has finished, and I’m led backstage to the green room. Before I’ve even sat down Max has offered me a beer, and a Young Henry’s Newtowner appears in my hand. Their rider is fairly standard – a fridge full of water and beer, a couple of bottles of Maker’s Mark Bourbon on the table. Him and Lizzy sit cross legged on the couch, with their ever present water bottles in their laps.
Only a few years ago, Max and Lizzy were effectively newbies to the music game. They met in an electronic music class at Vassar College in New York (“playing ‘non-rhythm based music’ – it was super experimental” laughs Lizzy), before reconnecting when they both moved to New York City. Lizzy was running her record label – the alt pop driven Neon Gold – and Max was deep in dance classes.
“Max emailed on a whim, he was really putting himself out there.” Lizzy says, “I had never played anything I had ever sung on, to anyone. Max was the first person to hear anything.”
Max nods. “We were both so green. Just very excited to explore because we literally didn’t know what we were doing at all. We wrote a full on country song – with banjo and shit – just because we could.”
It’s a funny thought, because anyone who has seen MS MR perform wouldn’t doubt their confidence or capability. On stage their energy is relentless – later tonight Max will lose his shirt after the fourth song and Lizzy will pour bottles of water over her head to douse the sweat that’s running down her face.
“There’s an element of self-confidence and power that comes from being a performer that translates to other elements of the project,” Max says, when I press that point to him.
Lizzy agrees. “Performing Secondhand Rapture we became stronger performers and musicians, so when we came back to the second record we could be more intentional. Secondhand Rapture was really a bit of a gamble.”
A year ago at SXSW, I had caught the band before they performed at Stubbs BBQ, and in chatting with Lizzy had mentioned their phenomenal Splendour show of the previous year – where they made their festival debut to a packed Mixup tent and delivered the set of the weekend. “That was the show that made everything real for us,” Lizzy had replied, “it was so crazy. I just couldn’t stop laughing.”
“We’re not settled yet. We’re still really hungry,” she says now, shifting around on the couch. “For us it’s always been about making personal goals – having certain milestones. That way you’re finding success for yourself as opposed to letting other people dictate how well you’re doing.”
She ticks off some milestones: playing the main stage at Coachella, playing Glastonbury, being on David Lettermen. “That’s when we can hold each other and say ‘look what we’ve done!’”
What are the bigger goals?
“An end goal of this project – well not end goal, but eventually – would be to be a festival headliner. That is the marker of how successful and well known your music is.”
It’s a big goal to be sure – but it’s not too hard to see them up there. Their live shows are always rapturously received, gathering massive festival crowds, even if their records aren’t as commercially successful.
“Touring wasn’t something we enjoyed in the beginning,” Lizzy says, when I ask the question of what has been the hardest thing for them to deal with. “It was such a drastic change in lifestyle. But now, we love it.”
There’s a brief pause as a drain above Max’s head flushes out, eliciting a couple of chuckles from the band.
“When it comes down to it, we can be really depressed,” he says when the room is again quiet. “But we’ve gotten better at bringing each other up. For a long time we just fed into that crankiness.”
Lizzy adds: “Artists in general, no matter what medium you’re working in, your moment of highs go higher than anyone else’s experience, and your moment of lows just feels so much deeper cutting and harder to deal with. You just feel fucking everything.”
She pauses, picking at a thread in her dress, before continuing. “Secondhand Rapture was a bit of a complicated time, feeling like we’d just come into our own as people at college then being thrown out into the world; not knowing who you’re going to be in the real world. That sort of re-bubbled up feelings of how you feel as a teenager, when you’re very much not sure of who you are at that point. So a lot of that…really what felt like teen angst, got recycled into that moment in time.”
It’s 9.30pm, and the crowd has well and truly filled out the Metro. The house lights fade to black, and through the screams of the audience the first notes of Reckless begin to thump out from the stage. The lights come up: Lizzy’s black dress is gone, replaced by a sparkling gold jumpsuit; Max’s open shirt drapes nearly to the ground.
Earlier they had attested to being unfit, but there’s no sign of that now. They are relentless dancers: Lizzy crumps and squats and stomps, Max slams synth chords while spinning and moving his feet at a dizzying pace. Wide grins are plastered on their faces, and won’t leave for the duration of the show. It’s a watertight show: they move through Fantasy, No Guilt In Pleasure (written about their friend James Haney who made No Cameras Allowed), Salty Sweet, and Tricolour quickly without pause. BTSK comes next, and it’s pulled off without a hitch, the long synth crescendo completely absorbing. Max and Lizzy shoot each other a relieved smile.
When single Criminals crashes to a close, something funny happens: the crowd won’t stop clapping. It’s not even near the end of the show, but the house lights illuminate an audience that is bordering on chaotic. On stage, even Max and Lizzy are surprised, and quickly overwhelmed – Lizzy covers her face with her hand, whether laughing or crying it’s hard to tell from a distance.
The macabre Bones and Hurricane wrap up the encore, performed (of course) with a incongruous smile. At the end, Max and Lizzy are drenched in sweat, Lizzy’s hair plastered down, Max’s shirt is left discarded on the ground as he towels himself down. They sling an arm around each other and bow.
“I think marriages are maybe like this,” Max tells me earlier, “But I don’t know, because it’s not romantic like that. But it’s so rich and so deep and so easy.”
There’s another smile and another burst of laughter, and the band are gone, to the next city, the next show – to bigger things.
MS MR finish up the Groovin The Moo tour this weekend in Bunbury, WA. Grab tickets here.
Photos: Ashley Mar