Max Clarke might just have the best Beatles knowledge around.
The man behind the musical project Cut Worms, he has always had a wide-ranging array of musical influences, but the four lads from Liverpool hold a special place in his heart. “The Beatles are a constant thing for me. At this point it's not even that I listen to them that much, they are just embedded within me”.
Born in Ohio and now based in Brooklyn, Clarke’s new self-titled album has a sound gleaned from all manner of musical expressions, from The Beach Boys to Cambodian 70s pop music. Clarke isn’t one for adhering to moulds, despite his deep love for pop music. His far-reaching inspirations play a big part in the album’s distinctive sound, making it unable to be placed in any particular camp.
The album itself, says Clarke, isn’t exactly a concept album per se. “The structure of how music is released now, with all the press and promotion, everyone wants it to be a concise concept that's neatly tied up and makes sense. But in my experience things don't happen that way. I don't start off with a concept in mind. I just go along and look at it afterwards and try to make some sense of it”.
Clarke likes to look at the album as a collection of short stories, rather than a novel. “There’s maybe some through lines and themes that are consistent, but each song is its own thing. Once I finished recording, part of me wondered if the songs went together at all, but you just put them together and they work”.
The album is composed of past snippets and fresh ideas, a mixture of “pieces of old things I had laying around that I just needed to finish, and others were totally new that came about during that process”, he shares.
That said, as a listener, some common themes that thread their way amongst the nine tracks are easy to pick up on. There’s its summery impression, with breezy backing tracks and thoughtful lyrics, as well as a youthful atmosphere that both harks back to times gone by whilst feeling altogether new. Each song may be its own entity, but there’s a child-like wonder and nostalgic sound throughout.
A big part of Clarke’s journey as a musician was thanks to a fortuitous trip to a record store in Chicago. “It was one that I didn't usually go to, and as I was looking in the world sections, one record cover caught my eye”. Clarke’s talents stretch beyond music, with design and illustration being two more strings to his artistic bow. “I bought it on a whim and it immediately blew me away, I’d never heard that kind of music but it seemed to really resonate with me”.
The album in question was Dengue Fever Presents: Electric Cambodia, which drew Clarke in with its multitude of styles, incorporating surf-rock, samba and traditional Cambodian folk. “There’s a lot of male/female duets which are incredible” says Clarke, “what the women can do with their voices is amazing.”
About his own album, Clarke is much more reserved with his reviews, noting the feelings that accompany the release of a project into the world are always a bit more mixed. He talks of the “excitement that it's finished, but also the ‘what now?’ feeling. You kind of have to just move on to the next thing. There’s always a sense of accomplishment, but the most exciting part of the process is being in it - so there’s a lot of different things going on”.
Here, he selects five songs that have influenced his life, career and songwriting.
For all the pageantry and pretence that can come with an album’s composition, the strict beliefs and fierce debate of whether it should be listened to in order, the picking apart an artist’s choice for every track placement - sometimes you just want a good old greatest hits. Well, that’s how Clarke feels anyway. A self-confessed “sucker for the hits”, he recognizes that there’s a time and place for listening to an album start to finish, but sometimes you just don’t have time for that.
“One of my earliest memories, when I was probably about five, was listening to my dad’s Greatest Hits of Bruce Springsteen on his walkman. There are a lot of great songs on there, and I'm a sucker for pop songs, but a lot of songs on that album sparked my initial love for greatest hits albums”.
Continuing the greatest hits love affair, The Beatles 1 is a compilation album of almost every number one song they held, and is one that Clarke seems to know pretty well. But his passion for the album is recollected in a less conventional sense.
“I remember before I actually got the album, there were commercials on TV for it that made a montage of footage, playing clips from each song. I remember that being hypnotic to me. You would get used to hearing the clips in succession as if it was one song, so when you heard the full songs later, you’d get to a certain part where it would trigger an expectation to skip the next one.”
The song that stands out most, ‘She Loves You’, lives in its own world for Clarke. “Back then that song wasn't on a full-length album, it was only a single. It's got such a strong melody and these harmonies that are otherworldly, George Martin had them doing Glen Miller, older-style harmonies that were not prevalent in rock and pop music at the time.”
“The Dengue Fever Presents: Electric Cambodia album changed my whole perspective and paradigm of music, it broadened my horizons.”
The band Dengue Fever put together a compilation of Cambodias ‘hidden gems’ mostly from the 60s and 70s, songs intertwined with the tragic history of Cambodia, retouched over the years. The track titles alone are enough to spark interest in the album, with songs like ‘Shave Your Beard’ and ‘I Will Starve Myself to Death’.
“The production is crazy, parts of it sound really old but with drums re-recorded over the top. You can't really tell what’s going on but it has a low-fi vibe and that's what I like about it. It reminds me of when I was a teenager recording at home. It was comforting to discover stuff that also sounded in that same fidelity, that you could make music that sounded good with going to the studio.”
Low-fi home recording is something that clearly resonates with Clarke. It’s no surprise, then, that Daniel Johnston’s musical style had an impact on him, particularly as the same innocent yet weighty ambience lends itself to Clarke’s latest album.
“There are so many songs of his that are so profoundly beautiful, and really sad. The piano in this one, the quality of the recording and obviously the story just make it a great song. I used to go to Blockbuster to rent movies and watch them by myself. In my town, that was the closest thing to an outlet, my options were limited. I had seen a preview for the documentary about him [The Devil and Daniel Johnston] so I rented that, I guess that blockbuster was pretty hip. But his music still kind of bowls me over.”
Country music isn’t for everyone, and that’s okay. Except it's not, because not liking country music just means you’re not looking in the right places. Clarke’s first experience with liking country was brought to him by Bob Dylan. And whilst Bob might not be the strictest definition of country, at least it got him through the door.
“When I heard this song for the first time, it felt familiar already. It was this type of music that somewhere in my mind I always knew was there. It transported me to another world, another time and place. The piano in the song, with its country groove element, opened those doors to me, as until then country to me was whatever was on the radio, Rascal Flatts or something. But hearing that, it felt like it was already part of my DNA.”