There are a lot of buzzwords that get tossed around by fans and critics whenever an artist pulls heavily from classic pop and rock sounds of yesteryear: “Nostalgic.” “Retro.” “Throwback.” These all imply, however, that the musician in question is nothing more than pastiche, rooted firmly in the past — or worse, lacking their own point-of-view, aping someone else’s sound with precision if not originality. What, then, do we call the rare few who manage to draw inspiration from 20th century AM radio while also putting their own unique, modern spin on it?
It’s a question Max Clarke has been made to answer many times in the five years since he released his debut album as Cut Worms. When you’ve got a voice that calls to mind solo-era George Harrison and a warm, timeless sound that can be described as “the rest of the Traveling Wilburys all rolled into one, with a touch of Beach Boys thrown in for good measure,” it’s natural that people are going to ask. But the Brooklyn-based Clarke is never derivative, and he’s coined a handy term to describe his old-meets-new aesthetic: “pop essentialism.”
That was the guiding principle on his third full-length album, Cut Worms (out now via Jagjaguwar). After releasing the sprawling double-LP Nobody Lives Here Anymore in 2020, the singer-songwriter challenged himself to make a sharp left turn, writing his new record as concisely as possible and focusing on emulating the tight, three-minute pop tunes he grew up listening to.
“After the last one, I had kind of like extended the whole thing so much that I kind of wanted to just really reel it in and only do what I thought was like really essential for the songs and for the writing as well as for the production and everything,” Clarke tells InsideHook.”I don’t know, all the songs that I generally like and listen to are between two and five minutes long. So I kind of wanted to just try to get back to that and have something that was easily and quickly digestible because those can be some of the best things sometimes.”
Since Clarke never had a chance to properly tour behind Nobody Lives Here Anymore due to the COVID-19 lockdown, he devoted extra time and consideration to how this new batch of songs would translate in a live setting. He’s making up for lost time with a 25-date North American tour this fall, and when writing Cut Worms, he wanted to avoid relying too heavily on anything that couldn’t be easily replicated in a live performance — and he recently was able to put them to the test with a residency at Brooklyn’s Union Pool.
“That was part of the consideration, that a lot of the really longer songs on the last record, playing a ton of six- or seven-minute songs live in a set can just get kind of exhausting,” he explains. “So yeah, I did wanna write some things that were just more conducive to playing live, which I think a lot of these new ones are. And the first two nights of the residency of playing them live, I feel like it has been going well. With a five-piece band — or a six-piece actually, now that we’ve included a percussion player this round — you can kind of get across the most important elements of the song live, which is nice. I don’t necessarily feel like I’m missing a ton from the recording which I have felt in the past sometimes.”
Cut Worms is small but mighty; its nine tracks clock in at just under 35 minutes, but it features some of Clarke’s best work to date, whether it’s the dreamy doo-wop of “I’ll Never Make It,” the starry-eyed “Is It Magic?” or “Ballad of the Texas King,” a murder ballad where the real victim is our narrator’s childlike innocence. (“I found a new song/Pulls me along/To that other plane,” he sings. “I’ll see you some time/Off down the line/Where it never rains.”) Album opener “Don’t Fade Out” and “Living Inside” both feature Brian and Michael D’Addario of The Lemon Twigs on piano and bass.
“It was great,” Clarke says of his time with the brothers D’Addario, who also recorded the tracks in Brooklyn. “I mean, I know them from years ago. We’ve been friends for a little while. And I just kind of reached out to them and asked if they’d be interested in helping me record some stuff, and they were. And yeah, I mean, it’s great working with them because they’re not only really good at recording and using their equipment and stuff that they have, but they’re also really good musicians so they’ll play on the record and stuff too. So yeah, that was fun. I spent I think two or three days with them.”
But despite those collaborations, it’s fitting that this record is self-titled. Ask Clarke about it, and he shrugs. “I mean, I tried to come up with other titles for a while and just nothing really seemed to fit or to stick,” he says. “And yeah, I don’t know, I guess like paring it down to the essence of whatever it is that I was trying to do with this record and with this project, it seemed like it just made sense to just self-title it that. Yeah, I don’t know. It’s kind of just a collection of songs, and I didn’t necessarily have any greater theme or concept in my mind farther than that.”
But Cut Worms also marks the first time that Clarke has mixed and produced his own record — something he’s been building toward for quite some time. His vision isn’t watered down or filtered through anyone else’s lens; this is, by all accounts, the most “Cut Worms” Cut Worms album. And it all began with “Dream Most Wild,” a standalone single released last summer. Clarke says mixing that song himself gave him the confidence to do it on Cut Worms as well.
“I was just kind of trying to work on home recording and mixing and getting better at mixing with the hopes that I would be able to fully mix my own record, which I ended up doing,” he says. “I always kind of wanted to do that. Producing is sort of a loose term because there’s a producer that works in a really nice studio, kind of does a different thing, a little bit, than like when I’m just home recording stuff. Like at least there’s more sounds and stuff at their disposal, but yeah. I’ve always kind of produced my own home recording stuff. It’s the best way to go to get what I was really after because it’s just at a certain point, like you just can’t communicate exactly what you want any better than just doing it yourself, so that was I guess why I wanted to do that. And I don’t know, over the years I feel like with working with other really good producers and just kind of watching and seeing how they do stuff, I have kind of picked up things along the way, and I felt like I was capable of doing it.”
Ultimately, he says, “I definitely at least wanna be like pretty involved in it. It’s one of those things where if you really trust the person that’s working on it, producing or mixing or whatever, then that’s obviously the best. It’s just nothing that beats really just doing it yourself.”
The result is a collection of classic-sounding, no-frills pop-rock that’ll have you marveling over Clarke’s ability to pen a catchy tune that sounds like it’s been around forever. That’s not nostalgia, necessarily — it’s craftsmanship, and in the case of Cut Worms, it has to do with his idea of what goes into a perfect pop song.
“I feel like it has to do, for me, it’s a lot with just like a melody, the way that certain notes go together,” he explains. “It’s like there’s something really pure in when a melody is written and then performed a certain way, the best way that it can be performed, I guess. I don’t know. Whether it’s a Beatles song or something from that era or if it’s like Cyndi Lauper, ‘Girls Just Want To Have Fun.’ That to me is also kind of a perfect pop song.Viewed from a certain lens, it could be seen as kind of cheesy or something, but I think a lot of pop songs are like that, really. But there’s kind of something pretty undeniable about it when it’s a good melody and it works. It’s kind of just like a magical thing.”
Photography: Ebru Yildiz
Style/Creative: Kevin Breen
Assistant: Marilyn Jordan
Grooming: Avery Golson
Location: Brooklyn Grain