He's had plenty of time to get it right: the album comes six years after his last effort, the well-received Mastered By Guy at the Exchange. His first single, "Children at Play," debuted on Warp in 1998, and his instrumental debut LP, Some Best Friend You Turned Out to Be, was released on Domino in 2000. With Mastered he introduced vocals, singing on some of the tracks and bringing in his only collaborator to date, sister Becky Jacobs (also a member of Tunng). But in the years leading up to Parallax, he has only released remixes (of artists such as Franz Ferdinand and Architecture in Helsinki): Most of his effort has gone into finishing the new record, which has been delayed both because of the incredibly complexity of the recordings and because, as Jacobs puts it, he is "super distractable."
We reached Jacobs by phone at his home in London to discuss his influences, Friendster and how the works of Mariah Carey have strengthened his singing.
Your music has many influences, including prog rock. What did you listen to growing up?
The thing with me and prog is, it didn't happen from that early an age really. When I was a kid, I was listening more to stuff in my parents' record collection, which was things like Joni Mitchell, but then also maybe the first Art of Noise album, and things like Nick Kershaw, and just those sort of '80s innovative pop producers. But then I discovered prog rock very late at night one night on some radio show, I've forgotten the name of it, but I was just tuning in and I heard some kind of hideously long ELP album track. And from then I was hooked.
What did you like about it?
You kept thinking the song was going to end, and it didn't. But then it sort of justified its length by exploring all these nice new little melodies and sections and stuff like that. Something like "Close to the Edge" by Yes feels like you've heard a load of different bands over a 20-minute piece of music.
Oh, that was very young as well. I used to have a little tape recorder around with me all the time, and I'd sometimes put this next to the piano and just press "play" and "record," and just play into it, and then edit it together afterwards using two tape decks and a play and a pause button. Stuff like that. And then another thing I used to do was record something that was like, ridiculously deep on the piano, and slow, and maybe sort of make strange singing noises over the top in a slow voice, and then press "fast-forward" and "play" at the same time and hear a speeded-up version of this slow song, and see if I could get it so that the sped-up version might sound like a normal piece of music. When I should have probably been paying more attention at school, I was just dicking around with tape recorders and pianos and things.
What led you to make your first single?
Basically, I got a Commodore Amiga, [and] I figured out that you could sequence stuff, and that appealed to the control freak in me that I didn't have to be in a band—I could just tell the computer to play all these instruments at once, and arrange these long complicated songs. And then eventually I got to the point where I was confident enough to get a demo tape together. But having listened to progressive rock, as well as electronic music, my first demo tape was I think 12-13 minutes, and that was the track "Children at Play," which Warp put out as my first single, unedited.
I had several responses from various labels saying it was too long, or too weird, and could I just kind of loop the bit six minutes in, and stuff like that. And I was like, "Well no, this is the song. You wouldn't just get a film that's just an interesting bit from six minutes in and then repeat it. The song kind of tells the tale, and to cut it short is to dumb it down, really."
How do you get to the point where you decide to stop?
It's just kind of instinct, really. I very rarely work on more than one piece of music at once. And that just gives me enough time to focus on what works and what doesn't work. A lot of people probably would have recorded maybe 300 tracks in these six years and just chosen the 10 best ones for the album. But with me, these really were pretty much the only songs I've written in that period.
So you finished the tenth song, and you said, "Okay, this is it"?
Yeah. And it was quite a moment when I finished—the last track I recorded was a song called "The Entertainment," which is track seven. And I remember finishing that and being so excited—it was eight o'clock in the morning by that point, and I thought, "I'd better get some sleep." And I went to bed for 20 minutes, and that was my night's sleep, because I was super-chuffed to have finished this record finally.
I always think bands with lots of people in them, there's a kind of compromise, because the guitarist might come to the rehearsal and he's written this tune, and then the keyboardist might have his take on it, and they might prune bits away and think, "Oh, let's just do the thing we all agree on," and that's just very sort of pruned-away at and filtered down. And you end up with this very neutered so-called "pop song," but in fact it doesn't take any of the risks that any of the solo musicians brought to the rehearsal with them. Which is one of the reasons I'm not in a band.
But also, I think people don't really take risks musically anymore, when they're heading for the pop market. They just think, "Right, we're going to do a poppy song now," and even really obscure indie bands will do it—they'll say, "Oh, this is our pop number." And it's always the one on the album that's got the least ideas. It'll have a sort of slightly nagging two or three note melody, and you just think, "Well, that's kind of annoying." And you realize that it's never going to be as good as a pop song that somebody like Rihanna might come up with. But if you look at the charts, there's always one or two songs in the charts that are these freak tunes that have done really, really well. So, I'm hoping that one of those is going to be something off my album.
In an interview you did with Flasher.com, you listed the ways you want people to react to it. And one of the ways was sexual excitement.
People don't often think of brainy music as being "sexy."
Well I think the sexual thing with music is quite interesting, because there's the negative side of it—which is the kind of masturbatory side, where you just get these long solos with very basic chords in the back of them, and it's just basically someone wanking on the guitar. And I think that's bad sex in music. But I think good sex in music is when there's almost this kind of euphoric, sort of orgasmic moment where you might just get this nice little chord or this thing that harmonizes in a certain way, and there should be a point in every song that does that, where you're just thinking, "Oh yeah, oh yeah, that's nice."
I like the idea that people would get to a certain point when they're listening to a piece of music, and then it just peaks and there's this kind of euphoria in it. A lot of that comes from listening to a lot of techno when I was younger, and [you have] breakdown sections and then it all comes back in. But then often it's subtler than that. It's not just a build-up of snares, it's like, there's a certain mood that you're suddenly put into when you hear a song, and it could be just from a key change or something.
You get a lot of that with this band XTC, who have these really amazing chord progressions. There's just some really gorgeous ones which put me in a really amazing mood. One that springs to mind is at the start of "1,000 Umbrellas," on Skylarking, where it [leads] in from the song before, and it suddenly changes the time signature, and just the way it does it is absolutely phenomenal and breathtaking, and to me that's one of the sexiest moments in music.
Max Tundra comes alive
What do you do during your live show?
Basically, it's all about silly dancing and trying to be as opposite to your traditional so-called electronica laptop geek as possible. Because I've been to so many shows where there's some guy there, he's got his laptop, he's playing Scrabulous—you can't see the screen—and you know, there are these elaborate visuals behind him. I always think visuals are a cop-out for people who don't have any stage presence. And you're looking at this screen, and you're not really spending any time looking at the guy. If I'm playing a show, there are no visuals, just a plain light, and I can just do some stupid dancing and singing and stuff. It's a fun event, a Max Tundra gig.
It's both of those. But it's also, I'm very, very easily distracted from my work. There's always other stuff to do. A lot of the time, working on music is very low priority for me. Now the album's done, I sort of never believed I'd ever finish it, but certainly while I was working on it, I felt like the world would be a better place for me once it had been done and that weight was off my shoulders. But even though that was the case, it would be very easy to phone me up during that time and invite me out to a museum or something, or to go away for the weekend, and I would gladly switch off all the machines and forget about my work for a day or two. I mean, it's kind of a miracle that it ever got done.
It's good that Scrabulous isn't on Facebook anymore, because that was sucking a lot of my time. It was so phenomenally addictive. I had 10 games on the go at once, and I was only switching on the computer to do that. There was all this e-mail I had to catch up with, and all this stuff to do with the album, and I was just like, "Oh my God, I just got a triple-letter word score on a weird seven-letter word."
You've said you make music that can't be defined—but in the record store, you're often lumped in with electronica.
I know, I know, and I really hate that. A lot of electronic music I find really really dull, actually. The electronic stuff I like is, there's not much of it. I really like Autechre, and I really like Daft Punk, and there's a lot of these bands that would use electronic technology in their studios. But I'm much more of a fan of Fiery Furnaces, and Abe Vigoda, and Black Dice, and twisted rock music really, Ariel Pink, stuff like that.
On Mastered By Guy at the Exchange you sang most of the songs, and you brought in your sister [Becky Jacobs of Tunng]. It seemed you were more tentative about it at that point. But on Parallax, you definitely seem like a stronger singer.
The main reason for that is because I've been going to karaoke every week, for years now. The karaoke night in question has recently stopped, because the pub's being refurbished, but some friends of mine put on this night and a circle of us would just go along and sing every week. So it practices a) stretching my voice and b) performing in front of a crowd of strangers. So that was always quite a useful tool, really.
But I always felt like, this is the control freak coming through again, that I just wanted to create every single element of the sound on that record, and that I was confident enough in my voice now to not have to hide behind Becky's for the higher-pitched songs. In fact, a lot of the songs I sing at karaoke are singers like Destiny's Child or Mariah Carey, which test my upper range.
With Mariah Carey?
No, your sister. [laughs]
It was, yeah. She's kind of my best mate really. But part of how I work is trying to make every album sound completely different to the last one. And you know, the most obvious kind of stylistic difference between the first two is the new presence of vocals. And then one of the ways of making the third album sound different to the second one was just to have me singing it.
I don't know if I'll always operate in this way, but certainly for these first three albums, I've felt that it was very, very important to not only have every single album sound very different to each other, but every single song as well. And maybe bits inside the songs themselves should all sound like several bands. So it just kind of gets very dense and full of changes and stuff like that.
What do you think drives you to that?
Just because there's so much boring music out there. I mean, there are so many of these bands who just—you hear a song and you kind of know how the rest of the song is going to go from the first twenty seconds. There's too much music like that. You hear it on hold a lot, when you're trying to order a pizza or upgrade your mobile phone, or just in a shoe shop or something. So, a lot of it's rebellion against that, really. Just that people may not realize that's, you know, music that takes risks can also be fun.
With the lyrics—on the second album, on "Labial," you say you don't use allegory, and a lot of the record is very direct and autobiographical-sounding. But the new one seems more complex.
Well yeah. With me and lyrics, even within a song, it's not necessarily all about the same thing or people or stuff. If I'm thinking, "Oh, I want to write a song about this person, or this situation," quite often that only stretches to two lines of a song. And then I'm thinking, "Well, I don't really want to stretch this out, because I've said all there is to say about this person." So the next stanza might be about someone else.
I have real trouble with the lyrics. I'd never put anything out that I wasn't happy with, so I've been to hell and back to even get to this point with the words, just constantly having a notebook on me and maybe just writing lyrics at the pace of literally a couple of words a day. But it's a real, real stumbling block for me, because I'm surrounded by amazingly creative writer friends, and have read intimidatingly well-written books over the course of the last few years, and I just feel that some of my lyrics don't really measure up to any of that stuff.
Sometimes your lyrics have a very, "This is what I'm doing/This is a straightforward story about a girl" tone.
[laughs] Yeah. I mean, that's it, that's the way I come up with these words, and it's like, yes, sometimes they'll be about people real or imagined. But it's kind of conversational, isn't it?
I think also, because you know, a lot of my music is quite complex musically, I felt like if I was just going to go over the top doing this real purple prose bit, then it would just completely alienate people. So, it's another way of drawing people in is this, "Oh, these songs are just about everyday things."
Exactly. I like the Friendster reference on "Will Get Fooled Again"—
The funny thing with that song is that's the first song I wrote [for Parallax]. Is Friendster still even going anymore? I don't even know if it's still a website. But it's funny how quick those things change. When I came up with the lyrics for that song, MySpace was just starting out, and it felt like, "Oh wow, this is really cutting edge, this is going to be the first time people have ever sung a song about not only MySpace, but websites in general."