October 17, 2013 10:00am PT by Philiana Ng
Indie Pop Duo MS MR on 'Raucous' Shows and Why Sweating Is Key to Their Success (Q&A)
MS MR is taking over the music world, city by city.
The New York-based indie pop duo of singer Lizzy Paplinger, co-founder of independent record label Neon Gold, and producer Max Hershenow have been at it since 2011, just a year after they graduated from Vassar College. It was through Neon Gold, which helped launch artists like Ellie Goulding, that Hershenow reached out to Paplinger about partnering for what would become MS MR. It didn't take long for them to make their stamp. In the fall of 2012, the pair released their first disc, the Candy Bar Creep Show EP, which included tracks like "Bones" and "Ash Tree." Less than a year later, MS MR (pronounced Miss Mister) released their debut full-length, Secondhand Rapture.
The duo's atmospheric, hypnotic sound has been compared to the moody tunes of Lana Del Rey and the anthemic Florence and the Machine. And Hollywood took notice. A slew of MS MR tracks, including indie radio staple "Hurricane," have been featured on several popular TV shows: ABC Family's Pretty Little Liars, ABC's Grey's Anatomy and Fox's Bones, just to name a few. ("Bones," in fact, was used in season three promos for HBO's epic saga Game of Thrones, a huge coup.)
Following gigs opening for Grouplove, Marina & the Diamonds and the summer festival jaunt, MS MR is in the middle of its first headlining trek, which hits Los Angeles on Oct. 17 and 18. Earlier this week, The Hollywood Reporter jumped on the phone with Paplinger and Hershenow -- backstage preparing for the first of two concerts at San Francisco's The Independent -- about touring non-stop, memorable off-stage antics and why their live show is a departure from the record.
You've been on the road for a while now. How has touring been so far?
Lizzy Paplinger: A lot of people have been asking us, "How long have you been touring?" And honestly we've been on tour for two years. (Laughs.) It feels like a never-ending tour. This one, our first real headlining tour, just kicked off about four weeks ago. We have two more weeks.
Max Hershenow: It's been fun. We spent most of the summer in Europe and Australia, which was a great opportunity but it's been nice to be home.
How different is it playing a show in Europe versus a city like San Francisco?
Paplinger: I don't know if they're that different but we spent so much time in Europe that we're starting to understand who our fans are. It's fun to be onstage for the first time opening for bands like Grouplove and Marina [& the Diamonds], which was a great experience, to headlining our own shows and see who our fans are in the States.
Hershenow: The bigger difference is playing a festival stage to a smaller club show. The summer we've been focused on festivals but, it's been fun to go back and forth to play a small, grimy club where we can get really rock 'n roll and get sweaty and dirty, and then have the opportunity to play to 10,000 people.
Is there a preference for you guys?
Paplinger: They work in tandem. The idea to share your music in a super f---ing loud speakers at a festival is so awesome. Our music that we made was just made with me and him in a studio, so to hear that on a massive stage for thousands of people, you can't beat that. When you're making loud, cinematic radio music, you imagine it taking place in front of thousands of people. But in a club show, they're your fans, they're here for you and you get to be the gritty, raw version of yourself.
Hershenow: We're really proud to be a New York band. We like bringing that gritty edge to it. That's much harder to do on a big stage, it's easier to do in a small room.
Paplinger: And when you're sweaty. Our favorite shows have been when we're sweating. That's a mark of a really, really good show.
Can you share any memorable tour stories?
Paplinger: One of my favorites was we were in Munich and for some reason we wanted to go swimming.
Hershenow: This beautiful river [the Isar] that runs right through Munich.
Paplinger: We were joking that we were going to run in it and started making our tour manager and everyone really nervous. They were like, "No no no!" Right after the show, we're going to get off the stage and run into the Isar ...
Hershenow: And our whole German label was there. They were terrified that they were never going to live it down in the eyes of Sony. They were very nervous. (Both laugh.)
Paplinger: We played the show, the show was fantastic, we jumped off the speakers and went into the crowd. It was really wild and really fun and we were dripping with sweat. I remember Max and I giggled so hard and we ran offstage in all of our clothes and jumped in[to the Isar] with all our clothes on. What was hilarious was we were meeting our German label for the first time and we were in our underwear. (Laughs.)
How do you occupy your time as you're traveling from city to city?
Hershenow: It's been an evolution. Touring life is not a natural life to live. It takes some getting used to and on the one hand, it's something I don't want to get completely used to because it's an unnatural way to live.
Paplinger: You're sitting for an insane amount of time every day.
Hershenow: The performing to traveling ratio of time is really off.
Paplinger: We spent 31 hours in the car to get to this show. (Laughs.) We only stopped for pee breaks. I am a road warrior!
Hershenow: I produce a lot while I'm on the road and it gives me time to focus on the one thing. There's also nothing else to do. We pass time like that. Zach [Nicita], our drummer, also produces. We recently got upgraded to a van with an Xbox so our new bass player David [Lizmi] is obsessed with Grand Theft Auto V. For me, it's listening to new music for [her record label] Neon Gold. Being on the road with six people is great; I think the more people, the better.
What can fans expect at a live show?
Hereshenow: It's definitely different than the record and it's gotten increasingly different from the record as we've toured it over the past two years. The biggest difference is from the very beginning we never wanted it to be just the two of us onstage. So we've brought in a drummer, who's phenomenal, and a multi-instrumental, who brings out more the warps and electronic elements from the tracks. I play the keys and Lizzy obviously sings. The whole thing is a little bit more raucous and as we've improved as musicians, we've been able to be a little looser.
Hereshenow: That's what makes it unique. You can get stuck playing the exact same show and doing the exact same things, so it's cool to try to evolve as best we can.
Do you change set lists on a daily basis? How do you keep things fresh?
Paplinger: For our full set, it was about finding our flow because we didn't want it to be exactly like the record. When you make an album, you put the songs in order because they make sense to you so it was about getting the personality of each song and figuring out how to order them.
Hereshenow: We also do some covers to flush it out because we only have one record out right now.
In the beginning, "Salty Sweet" was one of your favorite songs to perform. Has that changed as you've been touring with the record?
Hereshenow: When we first said "Salty Sweet," I think we liked it because it was new and then we realized it was a ton of fun to perform. The covers are fun because they're the newest and they're more interesting, but "Salty" is always the first number that we really let loose.
Paplinger: Sometimes your favorite songs depend on who the audience is that night. Sometimes the crowd can be super loud and engaged and they'd want a song like "Head Is Not My Home." And sometimes the ballads become the shining light for the quieter crowds, so "Dark Doo Wop" can be my favorite to play if the crowd is in the mood.
What has been the most interesting musical comparison you've heard MS MR tied to?
Paplinger: We're such music lovers -- we both love different time periods of music and genres -- that we never really have [that in mind] even when we're sitting down making the record. But it's also flattering to have comparisons all over the map.
Hershenow: We're emotional writers, so we go on first impulse and sort of ride that out. I don't think we spend a lot of time referencing people. Now that we've had the record out, I think we've spent more time talking about music than when we did making it. All those references are definitely there but it's so much more subconscious than that.
Since you guys knew each other in college, what's different about your relationship now?
Paplinger: It's evolved from being practically strangers to being Siamese twins. (Laughs.) It's really insane. We're like siblings. It's like a family at this point. The music is a non-verbal representation of our friendship and I think as we become better artists and better friends, that's going to shape and form the music that we make for the end of time. It'll be interesting to see how the music becomes new or evolved because of it.
MS MR plays two sold-out shows at L.A.'s Troubadour on Oct. 17 and 18.