Edward Scissorhands. The board game Operation. Sonic Youth. Claudia Schiffer? Plastic monkeys! These are among the pop-culture artifacts that appear in the epilepsy-inducing slideshow video for “Hurricane,” the first single from MS MR. Until recently shrouded in anonymity, the atmospheric indie-pop duo from New York City has proven universally intriguing, earning breathless attention from Pitchfork, Forbes, and Perez Hilton alike.
In the trip-hoppy “Hurricane,” smoky-voiced Lizzy Plapinger sings, “Welcome to the inner workings of my mind/So dark and foul I can’t disguise,” while a push-and-pull of echoey strings and staccato percussion (courtesy of the producer stylings of Ms Mr other half Max Hershenow) envelop her voice. Technically, the song, which hit No. 1 on Hype Machine, is about Hurricane Irene, which careened towards Gotham last year. The video? Not so much.
“I see something different every time I watch it,” concedes Max. “The video is sort of a cross section of the images we've collected on Tumblr, which we essentially use as an ongoing mood board.” If there’s one philosophy driving MS MR (pronounced “miss mister”) —dabblers in chaos theory who’re as goofy as they are thoughtful—it’s media-theorist Marshall McLuhan’s famous observation that the medium is the message. MS MR are so committed to that sentiment they handpicked each “Hurricane” image themselves.
“We’re interested in exploring the nature of mixed media and collage,” says Lizzy, “and how music transcends all these various platforms.” Chief among them: MS MR’s lively—if thoroughly mystifying—Tumblr page, which they unprecedentedly used to debut their second EP, the critically acclaimed Candy Bar Creep Show, song-by-song. (Their first release, Ghost City USA, was a self-released collection of demos.)
The EP, which sets the foundation for MS MR’s still-untitled album (out early next spring), references everything from ’80s to ’90s pop, doo-wop to country. That kitchen-sink aesthetic won the attention of vintage-sound wiz Tom Elmhirst (Adele, Amy Winehouse), who mixed and did some additional production on it at the legendary Electric Lady Studios. “Tom helped us more fully realize the album as we imagined it” says Max. “He responds to music more emotionally and viscerally than anyone I’ve ever met. It was the perfect match.”
The aural Jenga that is MS MR was born of Lizzy and Max’s vast inspirations. “We both listen to a lot of different music from all different genres and time periods,” says Max. “So we like to approach each song as its own project and experiment with combining unexpected elements.”
It’s a stroke of serendipity that Lizzy and Max are even making music together. They may giggle uncontrollably and complete each other’s thoughts, but these Vassar alums never really knew each other during college. Lizzy was a media-studies major, releasing records under her burgeoning imprint Neon Gold. (She’s gone on to release records by artists such as Passion Pit and Ellie Goulding.) Max was an urban-studies major with a concentration in modern dance, and started composing music for his choreographies. They met fleetingly through friends. But really connected after they graduated, when Lizzy needed an unbiased sounding board for her secret project, and Max was looking for new artists to collaborate with.
“There was sort of an element of Internet dating to it,” Max says, laughing. “Throw caution to the wind! Send someone an email, hope for the best.” He liked what he heard, which only terrified Lizzy more. “I was nervous because I had never sung in front of anyone before, so when he told me he was interested I actually put it off for a few months.”
They finally connected three months later in December 2010. To find their footing as collaborators, they recorded a sweeping cover of Patrick Wolf’s “Time of My Life” in Max’s closet-turned-studio. Curious to see where else the music could take them, they decided to give it another go and try their hand at some original material. This led to the swelling, mercurial tune we know now as “Bones." "It's quite a personal song and definitely set a tone for the band," says Lizzy. “In person, we're quite upbeat and bubbly, but the music is a much more honest space and outlet for us."
Only now, it’s become public. MS MR finally unveiled their live personae in March with a rocked-out gig at Brooklyn’s respected Glasslands Gallery. "I think people maybe expected two people on stage with a laptop, but we were adamant from the beginning that we would never do that!" says Lizzy. "We wanted the live show to do the recoded tracks justice," continues Max, "so we perform as a band to give it the lushness and energy we aim for while recording." Since their Glasslands show, they’ve moved on to bigger venues while touring with Marina and the Diamonds, an outing they affectionately refer to as their "training-wheels tour.”
“Really,” continues Max, “this whole experience has been about discovering undiscovered parts of ourselves."