Cut Worms :: The AD Interview

A few days after putting out the new album Nobody Lives Here Anymore, Max Clarke, a.k.a. Cut Worms, posted an illustrated depiction of how he was feeling: Like a person releasing a bird, with a bottomless pit menacing just below. In a normal world, touring would help keep musicians like him from worrying that their work was headed straight into a black hole—but as long as this pandemic keeps up, an album can seem forgotten almost before it even comes out. If it wasn’t easy to promote music before, now it’s downright unfair.

Fortunately for Clarke, however, he has an ace up his sleeve. That’s because the record he just made—an American epic of toe-tapping rock, pop, and doo-wop that runs nearly 80 (!) minutes in length—is the type that was designed to be discovered at its own pace. Bursting with melodies and completely unironic passion, it hits like a golden-hour cigarette on a fire escape, and that won’t change anytime soon. The fact that it’s one of the best records of 2020 feels irrelevant; it could have been one of the best records of 1960, given the vintage production sound created at Sam Phillips Recording Studio in Memphis, and to some crate-diggers down the line, if there is still such a thing, it should be one of the best records of 2080 too.

“I’m looking into my own grave,” Clarke sings on the single “Sold My Soul,” which features a music video starring his uncle, who sure looks like his balladeering nephew might in a couple decades—bolo tie, black cowboy boots, and all. It’s a compelling image when they share the screen, slightly haunting in the way it suggests that the act of aging is a specter constantly lingering in your rearview. As long as the music is playing, though, it feels like Clarke is floating safely above the bottomless pit beneath. | n rogers

Aquarium Drunkard: Nobody Lives Here Anymore is pretty acutely concerned with the slow collapse of American society. Did it take on any new meaning for you in the last six months, as that collapse picked up the pace significantly?

Max Clarke: I don’t know. I think everything has taken on a new meaning. These songs were all written and recorded before this stuff happened. It seems like the fears and stuff that were expressed in some of the material has just been enhanced.

AD: A lot of the album does feel accidentally prescient. Like, there’s a line about postcards getting lost in the mail.

Max Clarke: Yeah. Who would have thought, of all things, the post office would be under attack? But here we are.

AD: Something that I find interesting about your work as Cut Worms is that you clearly admire the midcentury American Dream in terms of the aesthetic, but you also stated that this album is about “the postwar commercial wet dreams that never came true.” How do you reconcile that disparity between loving something and also seeing that the thing you love was a lie?

Max Clarke: In the midcentury era, post–World War II, it set up a lot of archetypes that are still existent today, just in slightly different forms. With the atomic bomb coming into the picture in the late ’40s, and all of the existential dread—the very real threat of humans being able to end their own existence on this planet—it brought out the most extreme form of death, and death is an enhancer of life. So I think with the bigger impending doom, in some ways came a stronger will towards living, if that makes sense.

AD: Yeah. People listen to early rock and roll these days and hear nothing but innocence, but all that stuff was born from a Depression and a horrific World War. From the distance of 70 years, maybe we oversimplify those stories.

Max Clarke: That’s easy to do. All that stuff—I guess it is 70 years ago. But it doesn’t seem that long ago to me. It’s the same kind of thing with all of the social/cultural/racial tension that’s going on now. At some point during all of this, I read that the first Black girl that went to an integrated school is only like 65 today, or something like that. And that just really put it into perspective to me. Like, hearing a fact like that, I don’t see how anyone can then claim that we’re so far past all of these things. It just seems like willful ignorance to think that an entire society, and all of its cultural norms, can all just shift overnight and everything’s OK.

AD: When did you decide to make this a double record? Was Jagjaguwar always into that idea? I imagine that they don’t just churn out double albums.

Max Clarke: No, I had to kind of convince ’em. But once all the mixes were done, I felt all the material was strong enough that I didn’t want to cut anything, and I didn’t want to split it up into two different records, because it all just felt like one moment or one time. And also, just in conceptualizing it after the fact, just thinking about what I wanted the record to do, part of that was hoping people would take the time to listen to all these things. I realize it’s a long record and it’s full of long songs too, so I was hoping that it would challenge people’s attention spans. It was my attempt at getting people to just be in the moment for an extended period of time. Whether or not people are going to listen in that way, I have no control over. But that was one idea I had.

AD: I know you’ve expressed frustration at being pigeonholed sonically in the past, so I was wondering if committing to such an expansive record was almost a response to those who had limited their perception of you. Sort of like, “OK, here’s 80 minutes of this. Keep up.”

Max Clarke: I just feel like it’s kind of a lazy critique to say that this guy is just obsessed with classic rock in the ’60s or something. Like any song that has a recognizable structure is old-fashioned or something? I don’t really buy into that idea. I was thinking: Do modern classical musicians get critiqued like that? Like, “They’re stuck in the Victorian era” or something? It’s working within a tradition that exists. And that’s part of what I was thinking in terms of the album—if it speaks to anything in modern culture, it’s that everyone has this inclination to think that we’re all above and past everything, and that the current moment is the correct one. I see this in not only arts but in sciences, academia, all across politics. I think it’s just human ego. It’s kind of just like, “OK, we didn’t get it right before but now we have it all right.” We can’t seem to make the transition to a mindset of being students of life rather than masters of it.

AD: I was thinking about people like Leon Bridges and Margo Price and the late Sharon Jones. A lot of the time people describe them as “throwbacks,” but these are artists who sell a lot of records for a reason, because they capture something people want now. It’s almost a hole in the market that there aren’t more like them. Do you ever wonder why there aren’t other acts who sound very much like you today?

Max Clarke: I don’t know. I haven’t ever really wondered that. I can only think that it has something to do with the type of music that people have listened to, or how much of the twentieth century they’ve delved into. I’m by no means a connoisseur of every type of music of the twentieth century, but I’ve definitely gotten into stuff from just about every decade, and it’s all had an impact on me. And from the time that I first started discovering older music, I found it personally interesting to trace the roots back of each thing. Like, when I first started getting into Bob Dylan, I would follow that back to early folk and country and blues. And then around that is also showtunes and stuff from the ’20s, and then big band stuff in the ’40s; pop and rock and roll, and how it all evolved into punk and new wave and post-post-whatever. So maybe if there’s any reason why my stuff still sounds old to people, it’s just that I haven’t caught up to modern times yet. I’m still sifting through the older stuff that came before.

AD: I saw those illustrations you put up online recently about the technological overload, which say things like, “This machine voids meaning,” with arrows pointing all around. I was wondering how you personally navigate this issue. Obviously, we’re having this conversation on our smartphones, and people will be reading it on a computer. There’s a balance to be sought, but how do you go about it?

Max Clarke: It’s a catch-22 for sure. It’s become a thing that’s so ubiquitous that you can’t do without it, especially now that we’re in a global pandemic. I’ve been raging against the machine, so to speak, for some years now, and then to have this happen, where you’re completely reliant on it, as opposed to just mostly reliant on it, it’s definitely hard. I can’t speak for anyone else, but for myself I just find it very spiritually and emotionally draining to experience constantly. But at the same time I’m also addicted to it. And it’s one of the only tethers to goings-on in the world at the moment. I just try to limit my use as much as I can, or try to meditate every day if I can, and try to disconnect and do something, like draw on paper or read a book, that doesn’t involve looking at a screen for some part of the day. And I feel like that’s a regenerative activity.

AD: Musicians like you have no choice but to be active on social media as well, if you want to be successful. It’s kind of hard for me to imagine Hank Williams seeming as cool or interesting in a world where he had to promote his shows on Twitter.

Max Clarke: Yeah, I think about that kind of thing a lot. We were just watching a documentary on Elliott Smith last night. He was not that long ago, but still before the social media boom, and even someone like that, it’s hard for me to picture them existing and having their artistic vision in the same way. It’s pretty demystifying, ’cause part of what I always thought was cool about music was that there was something like a mythology built up around this work and these figures, which in my mind kind of goes away if you hear every inane thought that pops into their head—myself completely included in that. But at the same time, it’s like, I just happen to be alive at this time where, in order to do this career—you can’t even call it a career—this thing that I’m doing, and be somewhat successful at it, and grow the amount of people I can reach, I have to do this pointless, empty thing, commenting on Twitter and all that.

AD: You described this record as being about homesickness for a childhood that never really existed. What do you find when you return to your hometown lately? Does that change as you get older?

Max Clarke: I think it does change in some ways, because in the suburb where I’m from [outside of Cleveland], they’ve built all these strip center things for the past 20 years, but they just never seem to have the ability to fill them. So it’s just kind of confusing, ’cause there would be stores and stuff that would show up for a while and then they’d be gone. And then there’s just this enormous parking lot and this really ugly modern building that’s just kind of sitting there. Actually, there’s one sitting there behind the house I grew up in. They bulldozed this whole wooded area, all the way up to almost the property line in our backyard, for this enormous parking lot for this strip center thing that has remained pretty much vacant for that whole time, like the past 15 years or so. So that sort of thing is kind of depressing to me. But I always love seeing my family and everything. I don’t get to see them that often.

AD: It seems like paving paradise and putting up a parking lot is one version of selling your soul, which is a centerpiece concept of your record, of course. How would you define the concept of selling one’s soul?

Max Clarke: There’s a lot of meanings, depending on what topic you happen to be talking about. I think it has something to do with this American idea that you can buy your way to comfort and paradise. This idea that, if you can just make enough money, if you can just screw over enough people for your own benefit, you will be personally saved and it won’t matter and you’ll be forgiven.

AD: Do you think you can get your soul back once it’s gone? I think of that Simpsons episode where Bart sells his soul to Milhouse for five bucks. He does eventually get it back, but it’s not a simple task.

Max Clarke: I think you can get it back. People can turn it around. It’s just whether you’re willing to do that in the short time that you have here. Because it really is short.

Related: The Lagniappe Sessions :: Cut Worms

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