Cut Worms on Making ‘Nobody Lives Here Anymore’ and Designing Beer LabelsSeptember 09, 2020
Known on stage and record as Cut Worms, musician and illustrator Max Clarke has neatly maneuvered through the faithless world of showbiz via tremendous songwriting, a skeptical view of corporations and technology, and his sense of humor.
In 2019, after 18 months on the road in support of 2017’s Alien Sunset and 2018’s Hollow Ground, Clarke found himself with a rare commodity: downtime. After revisiting and sorting through rough sketches and outlines captured on his Iphone, he traveled to Memphis to record Nobody Lives Here Anymore, his sophomore LP for Jagjaguwar (out on October 9). Ahead of its release, we caught up with Clarke over Zoom to talk beer label design, releasing an album during the pandemic, and anxiety-induced Twitter threads.
Where are you and what are you drinking?
I’m in a park somewhere in Ohio, drinking a secret beer here in this cup which is actually a Red Stripe.
What does a “normal” day during the pandemic look like for you?
My day hasn’t changed that dramatically. I work from home as it is. I already spent a lot of time at home, unfortunately. Since the lockdown, my day has been waking up, trying to meditate if I can, then going to get coffee somewhere. We only just recently started going to get coffee again.
I’ve been doing some work. I take care of my dog and try to do some kind of art or music.
Were you in New York at the start of all this?
My girlfriend and I were there from the start of it, for about six weeks or so. We were in full quarantine. Eating three meals a day at home, we only went to the grocery store every two weeks. That was pretty much it. Eventually we got out of the city.
Early images and stories painted NYC as a ghost town. The NYPL even released Missing Sounds of New York, “a collection of audio landscapes that evoke some of the sounds of New York City.” Had you noticed it being distinctly quieter?
We live on a main street so we still had our regular truck traffic noise. It definitely went down a little bit, but at the very beginning we were hearing ambulances almost every minute throughout the night. I’m a pretty heavy sleeper and getting woken up by that was super alarming. Streams of ambulances and sirens at 3:30 in the morning. Then everyone was also banging pots and pans and yelling out the window for the frontline workers. That was definitely a new sound experience.
You toured hard in support of Hollow Ground and Alien Sunset. What’s it like to be gearing up to release an album without the prospect of touring?
It’s a little frightening from my perspective. It’s only my second record. The first one is trying to get as many people as you can to know that you exist. I guess that’s kind of always the goal. We did make some decent progress with the first one. Part of me is a little afraid that based on the way people are consuming media these days that the record will just get lost in a week, especially with not being able to continually promote it on the road and get it in front of new people.
Have you pivoted to doing livestream concerts? How do you feel about that model?
I’ve always not been that comfortable doing that sort of thing. I have an adversarial relationship toward technology in general. I keep trying to get with the times, but a lot of it has never felt that inspiring to me or all that natural. It’s been an adjustment, now that it's the only thing available. I’m trying to come to terms with that. I’ll probably do some livestreams in the future and try to keep it interesting, doing them in a way where they’re high quality. There’s just part of me where that thinks I’ve spent all this time and money—well, money that wasn't mine really—to make this record. To then play songs on a shitty iPhone microphone...what’s the point?
I’ve read some darkly comedic tweets (Get Better Records and Kevin Morby) about missing the road. Aside from the shows themselves, what specifics about touring do you miss?
Mostly being with friends and hanging out with people. It sounds kind of corny, but touring is this team journey where you’re with your group trying to make this thing happen. When you’re in that mindset for months at a time, it enhances ordinary or even unpleasant things that happen. Those moments have more of a shine to them, more in retrospect if you think about it.
Have you found yourself drinking more or less recently?
When the quarantine first started, not knowing the seriousness of the whole thing, I wasn’t drinking or smoking because I was wary of my immune system being compromised. I still haven't had a cigarette since this started. The past couple of months I’ve been drinking every now and then. It’s different from the drinking I do on the road because that is more to overcome stage fright. There’s a lot more that goes into that—it’s kind of hard to unpack.
I want to talk about your beer illustration work. You frequently collaborate with Burn ‘Em Brewing. How did you get linked up with them?
I used to live in Valparaiso, Indiana years ago when I was younger. One of my best friends lives in that area, he’s kind of a beer nut. I also went to school in Chicago for illustration. Right after I got out of school my friend heard about this brewery near by in Michigan City that had a call for artists. I sent them a couple of sketches and I’ve been working for them since then. I’ve done upward of 30 or 40 labels for them. They make great beer. For a long time they were doing exotic, weird beer like creamed corn and mango beer. A lot of beers I had never heard of. One of my favorites that I did the label for is called Fourteen Buck Chuck. The label is a $14 bill.
You’ve compared your songwriting process to David Lynch’s puzzle approach—that while writing or creating you start with one piece and all the other pieces are in this other room, you get them one by one and then the idea emerges. Does this apply to your illustration process?
Sometimes. It depends on what I’m doing. With the beer labels and client work, I’ll have the seed of an idea or a concept. If the concept is strong enough I’ll just start. It tends to be while I'm actually working on it more ideas will come to flush it out or little inside jokes within the illustration. The thing about illustration is it takes a while. You are sitting there staring at the same picture for a long time. So to not get bored you keep adding little things to entertain yourself. In that way, it’s kind of similar but it’s visual, it’s right there in front of you. You don’t have to imagine all these things in your head.
Is the brewery giving you much in the way of art direction?
For one I did recently called Juice Puns my main contact told me that the idea was to reference old juice boxes that you drank as a kid. All those weird, very unhealthy and sugary drinks. They tell me to do whatever I want from there. That freedom is fun to have. A lot of times, you don’t get that. Especially with design work. People want you to do a million revisions. You have to very quickly get used to people just not liking your hard work.
Have you been picking up more illustration work while at home?
Illustration work is hard to come by. People are looking for a very specific thing. They’ll go to an established illustrator. I’m not that established as an illustrator. I have tried to create my own work for my new record. I’ve been doing illustrations for each track. I’ve still been inspired by new cartoonists that I’ve found. I want to keep doing this work, but I have so much else that I do so I have to make it relevant to some degree.
Nobody Lives Here Anymore is phenomenal. It started with you having some downtime to sift through sketches and fragments of ideas. Where were all of these ideas housed? How did you decide which ideas to pursue?
I use the iPhone voice recorder/memo thing a lot. If I was working on something, I’d record just a run through of an idea. One thing I like to do is start there and then forget about it. If I come back to it a week or a month later, listen to it, and I like it and it’s still exciting, then I figure there’s something there.
This is a double LP. Were you surprised at how many of the sketches you still enjoyed?
It was definitely a lot of work to finalize a lot of these songs. A lot of times it’s easy for me to come up with the initial melody or even a structure of a song. Whatever the story the song is trying to tell takes longer to come out.
I’d imagine you had to write a fair amount while touring. How does that look for you?
Soundcheck was one opportunity to write. Aside from when you are actually playing or soundchecking, the gear is packed away or you are doing something else so you don’t have time to just mess around with ideas. My setup on the road has generally been pretty simple. I have a guitar and a delay pedal and that's it. It takes me about five minutes to set up. While everyone else is taking a while, I can get a bit of writing done then.
During interviews around previous releases you’ve hinted at some perfectionist tendencies. Was this true of this release?
It depends on the song. Some of them came real quick and easy and all at once. For others the first, or second, or 50th thing I tried just didn't feel right. To some degree it has to do with the timeframe of when I write something versus when I go to record it. If I know that I’m going to record something for real, I’ll just make sure that I finish something that I’m happy with, or it just has to be good enough. Whereas if I know that I’m not going to get into the studio for another year, in the back of my mind I’ll always know that it doesn't have to be the final thing and I can endlessly tinker away at things.
Your recent Twitter thread about Spotify and how people consume music struck a nerve with a lot of musicians. You finished by saying that “it's almost as though artists have to trade their own spiritual purity.” Could you elaborate a bit more on that?
I was surprised, it went a little viral for a second there. I was in one of my pandemic anxiety attacks at, like, three in the morning. Was thinking about that news item that came out with Spotify. I was just writing what I was thinking out in a fairly cynical, half-joking way. I figured I’ll do a Twitter thread because that’s what people do, but people did really connect with it, which was funny.
I kept thinking of the Elvis Costello line where he says, “I want to bite the hand that feeds me.” It's a complicated relationship that any musician has with the people and the infrastructures that put out that music. You are constantly in a position of having to be humble and grateful that anyone is willing to listen at all, or willing to work for you or help you out. But then at the same time you have to wonder at these systems that are not set up to benefit you. It’s hard to find out where that line is or what's right or what artists should really get from their work.
From knowing a bit about music history and how artists have been historically treated since the ‘60s or even before, where the songs were a commodity and they were exploited as such. The people who made those songs were generally not well-established or business-savvy people. They got mined by these corporate sharks. It’s evolved a lot, I think. Frank Zappa also has a pretty good rant that he did about it where even back when it was a big-cigar chomping suit at the top who was willing to take chances on something, but then the hippie got in and thought that he was the one who actually knew what was cool and tried to market that, it was worse than the original thing.
The other part of the thread was about listeners’ desire to consume what they believe to be authentic—the pressure put on artists for each release to be tied to some huge cathartic moment in their lives.
It turned into that. It wasn’t always that way. Showbiz has changed in that regard. I've had this conversation with a lot of friends. In the past 50 years, advertising and corporate culture has become so predatory—not so much predatory but omniscient, where they co-opt any new cultural thing that happens and immediately sell it back to the public. Any shred of spontaneity or honest feeling that was in that thing is immediately sucked out of it and mined for profit on the largest scale possible. When it comes to people making music or making records, now it's gotten to where there’s an expectation that an album has to be the most personal, sacred artifact that you are handing over to the public because it's real. You see this also with more mainstream artists who are going for this indie rock record. You see it all over the place with Justin Timberlake or Taylor Swift. People that are huge on a worldwide level want this indie authenticity. In my opinion, just write a good song. It doesn't have to be that complicated or crazy.
What’s the first venue you’re trying to play when live music returns? Who else do you want on the bill?
If it’s in New York City, I’d always think the Bowery Ballroom has a good sound. I like that venue. I’d love to have our friends the Shy boys from Kansas City on the bill or my friend Ryan Sambol, who is down in Austin, Texas from the band Strange Boys. I’d love to have friends around.