Cleveland native Max Clarke (aka indie rock act Cut Worms) writes the kind of harmony-laden rock ’n’ roll and country tunes that you might find playing in an old-timey vintage shop or on your parents or grandparents’ turntable, but Clarke wouldn’t consider himself a revivalist.
“I don’t see it like that, but I understand why [people call me] that,” he says via phone from his tour van as drives to a stop on his North American tour supporting King Tuff to promote his debut album, Hollow Ground
, released earlier this month via Jagjaguwar. He takes a break from the King Tuff tour to play tomorrow night at 8:30 at the Beachland Tavern. “Nowadays with the amount of music that’s out there, no one’s coming out with any new genre.”
Clarke laughs and concedes that his black and white film-inspired album cover doesn’t really help his case.
Clarke was born and raised in Strongsville, where he lived until leaving to study illustration at Columbia College in Chicago. He describes growing up in Strongsville as a traditional American upbringing with a family whose first love was baseball rather than music. In fact, a Cut Worms’ press release touts his .300 batting average and a 63 mph curveball from back in the day.
Clarke has been writing and recording songs since his early teens, but he hasn’t released any of his own music until now.
Before Cut Worms, he used to play guitar in the garage punk band the Sueves, and they played some of Clarke’s songs here and there. Clarke says that fans’ reactions to those songs are what partially prompted him to pursue a solo project.
“Sometimes, after shows, people would say when I was playing my songs it was like a completely different band than when the other guy was singing. Eventually, it just made sense for me to do my own thing.”
Clarke honed his songwriting craft for years through endless trial and error, recording with his basement four-track, though he insists that he didn’t really know what he was doing and his classic pop/rock sound was far from a calculated decision. “I just tried to make the kind of music that I would want to listen to, which tends to be older rock and roll music from the 50’s and 60’s.”
Clarke’s debut release as Cut Worms came in the form of a six-track EP released last year, which featured home-recorded demos with luscious Everly Brothers-style vocal harmonies and raw, lo-fi production style. Though a few songs from his EP have also made their way on to his debut album, Clarke envisioned a more cleaned-up sound for his album, so he decided to re-record them. He says the move was due to his reluctance to be grouped in with the bedroom pop and lo-fi scene, which he perceives as too niche or limiting.
“I guess it was partially in the interest of reaching a broader scope of people," he says. "There is a certain group of people who listen to lo-find kind stuff and sometimes other people, if they’re not into that, even if it’s a song that’s the same, they actually can’t hear it unless the production is there. The next logical step forward was to try to tighten up the songs and record them a little more professionally.”
Clarke laments the increasingly digitized and robotic music on the radio and the charts these days, though he does record his music digitally and doesn’t claim to be an analog purist.
“I’m in a weird place where I can’t really figure out the old technology or the new technology,” he says.
However, what Clarke does feel is often missing from modern music is a human feel; he says he can’t aesthetically find an entry point. Hollow Ground
, certainly doesn't suffer from a lack of entry points or an appreciation for aesthetics. Just as Clarke is an illustrator and graphic designer, he also paints vivid, inviting images with his songwriting and his idyllic style makes him an extremely unique and bright lyricist. Rather than writing autobiographical songs, Clarke delights with his abstract romanticism, but his pop, rock, country and doo-wop tales are far from mere sappy love songs as his warm reverb vocals and unique, charming narratives equally evoke a cinematic trip down memory lane and a look inside the psyche of modern-day life and relationships.
The cordial rock 'n' roll of “Cash for Gold,” the bouncing pop of “Till Tomorrow Goes Away,” and the slow and steady doo-wop of “Coward’s Confidence” are highlights from his new album, and though they’re perfect for dancing the night away, they’re just as compelling to listen to and soak in the affable nature of Clarke’s picturesque lyrics, rich vocals and exuberant performance style and instrumentals. Hollow Ground
was recorded in the Los Angeles home studio of Foxygen’s Jonathan Rado and in New York with Jason Finkel at Gary’s Electric. Clarke plays guitar, keyboards, bass and lap steel, and he contributes the vast majority of the album’s instrumentation.
Now based in Brooklyn, Clarke has built a solid live reputation after opening for loads of big-name acts including Foxygen, Nick Lowe, the Growlers, the Lemon Twigs, Mild High Club, Wolf Parade and more. Though Clarke began amassing a bunch of high-profile support slots very early on in his career, he hasn’t played too many headline shows just yet, but he says, “You’ve got to start somewhere.” He also made his very first trip to Europe for some shows earlier this year, opening for New Zealand singer-songwriter Marlon Williams and he made his first SXSW appearance this March.
As for what Clarke hopes people take away from his debut album or live shows, he says, he hopes people "get from it whatever they want to get from any music experience."
"I can’t define it in a general way, I don’t think, because everyone has their own experiences," he says. "That’s what makes any kind of music special.”