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Interview: Paul Banks, Josh Kaufman, & Matt Barrick of the supergroup Muzz

Muzz photo
14 December 2020

Photo by Driely S.

Muzz – a supergroup featuring Paul Banks (Interpol vocalist), Josh Kaufman (Bonny Light Horseman multi-instrumentalist), and Matt Barrick (The Walkmen drummer) – released a new EP, Covers, on December 9. It’s exactly as the title suggests, with Muzz playing songs by Bob Dylan, Mazzy Star, Tracy Chapman, and Arthur Russell. Despite the source material’s diversity, Muzz make the tracks seem cohesive, delivering indie rock with a vibe that’s somehow simultaneously nostalgic yet futuristic. They first demonstrated this distinctive approach on their self-titled debut album, which they released this past June. During a recent Zoom video chat, all three members discussed what made them decide to do these particular covers, how they came up with the band’s unique sound, and why they wanted to become musicians in the first place.

What made you decide to do a covers EP now?

PAUL BANKS: I’ve always been a fan of covers. I think we were all open to the idea, and then when we started spitballing songs that we could cover, the list immediately became pretty long. It was a fun exercise of, “We could do this one; we could do that one.”

MATT BARRICK: I think it all started with the Arthur Russell song (“Nobody Wants a Lonely Heart”). We were mixing our [debut] record, and there’s a lot of sitting around when you’re mixing, and we just began talking about how great that song is. We decided to record it, and I think that started the whole thing.

The songs you’ve chosen are very diverse. How did you approach doing them, musically?

PAUL BANKS: Speaking for myself, I do tons of covers in my free time that no one’s ever heard. Like, I’ve tried to cover a bunch of hip hop songs. Anyway, the point is that I think there’s a couple of schools of thought on covers. I had espoused a view at one point that you shouldn’t do one unless you’re going to make it something new, unless you’re going to try to really bring a different spin to the piece. But then recently, I was hearing on the radio in Berlin, it was Nick Cave doing a cover of some song and it was really like he didn’t alter the cadence or the music or anything – but it’s Nick Cave’s voice, so it automatically does become something that’s totally different from the original, and quite compelling. So I’m now in a place of feeling like it doesn’t really matter. You can maybe bring something new to a piece of music even if you’re not changing the way the vocalist approached it, just by virtue of your own voice being different. But I do think in these ones, we as a band found a way to not do the straight karaoke [version] but to make our own DNA come through in the cover.

JOSH KAUFMAN: That song “For You,” which is a Tracy Chapman song, there’s a way that Paul reharmonized the melody. It’s beautiful. It has a similar shape to Tracy Chapman’s, but the pictures are slightly different. Then that informs some new chord or harmony to go along with it. So I think it almost goes through this filter. It goes through an emotional filter and comes out a little different, which I think is so awesome about music.

PAUL BANKS: With Tracy Chapman, for me to have tried the karaoke version and just gone straight with hers, I really feel like that would have highlighted how I’m not Tracy Chapman. Her voice is so one of a kind. I think also sometimes what will happen is, if I accidentally stumble upon some kind of alteration that feels as sincere, it’s interesting, you can maybe come closer to conveying a sentiment that’s similar to what they conveyed [originally] by moving quite far away from what they did and bringing it into your own palette. I think I had some success with that song, finding my own way.

Your cover of Mazzy Star’s “Fade into You” is also an interesting choice – it’s such a well-known song that it seems a bit risky to redo it.

PAUL BANKS: That was totally true. I don’t have as much of an encyclopedic knowledge of really deep, cool songs to cover as Matt and Josh do, but you can intentionally go that way and be like, “Let’s just do really obscure songs that give the cred.” But I think to go with something that is so mainstream and so popular is sort of a bold choice. I think it speaks to our level of sincerity: just because everybody else loves it doesn’t mean that we don’t love it so deeply, as well. I think it was an interesting choice that we didn’t shy away from it.

How did you go about recording this EP despite the pandemic?

JOSH KAUFMAN: It’s actually never been easier to do that. We’ve all had home recording set up for a long time now, and everybody’s somewhat fluent in the digital form of recording. File-sharing is pretty easy: the same way you’d share a photo with someone, you can share audio. But I think that we’re fortunate that we [previously] clocked a bunch of hours all in a room together so we can anticipate each other rhythmically and things like that. So although we’re overdubbing in these little bubbles, I think that we’re leaving space for each other to do our thing, so the puzzle pieces are all fitting together in an organic way.

How did you come up with your distinctive sound for this band?

PAUL BANKS: I think there’s an organic answer, in the sense that Josh and I grew up together, sharing musical influences when we were fifteen [years old]: Bob Dylan and The Pretenders and Leonard Cohen and Led Zeppelin. Our musical influences were shaped around the same time in some respects. Then Josh and Matt worked together on a few projects. I had worked with Matt. I think there’s shared aesthetics between us that we had already, in some ways, investigated together before we decided to be a band.

What made each of you want to become a musician in the first place?

MATT BARRICK: I started at a young age, and you just get into it as something you enjoy doing – I wasn’t thinking at all about a career. Until you’re way too deep – then you’re in it! And then you figure out a way to make that work.

JOSH KAUFMAN: I was floundering – I was one of those kids that wasn’t very good at anything. So when I got excited about music, kids in my neighborhood who played guitar, I’d ask them to show me some stuff. It felt like it occupied my mind, it occupied my nervous energy, and it just levelled me like nothing else actually could. It made me feel like, “This is who I am. This is the thing I know how to do.” Then from that, I felt like I had no other option but to pursue it, like it just had a hold over me.

PAUL BANKS: I probably hadn’t started guitar until I was actually in 8th or 9th grade. So when Josh and I met [at The American School of Madrid, in Madrid, Spain], Josh started teaching me pretty much immediately. Josh was a superior guitarist by a long shot in the beginning, despite the fact that I had been playing longer. At that point, I think I had gotten the bug about music, like music appreciation. I was so into listening to music that it felt like the only way that I could possibly get closer to the songs that I was loving was to actually pick up an instrument and try to get inside of them. As soon as I started learning, I learned the beginning to “Dream On” by Aerosmith, which is the song that sparked me. I was obsessed with that song. Then I got a book of chords, and then I started writing stuff. By tenth grade, it was for me: “This is what I want to do with my life.”

Paul, you have such a distinctive lyrical style. How did you learn to do that?

PAUL BANKS: Sometimes I think maybe having learned a foreign language early on informed my understanding of the way meaning is conveyed and the way that words are put together. And then, I’ve had a disruptive impulse in me since I was a kid. I think language is a really, really good way to be disruptive. So I think trying to subvert norms of how language is used was just an impulse. It’s like a quiet way of being anarchic.

What’s coming up next for Muzz?

PAUL BANKS: Depending on how long the pandy goes on – I didn’t coin “pandy” but I like it – I’m really happy that the livestream went as well as it did. [On December 4, Muzz put on a livestreamed concert from Kingston, New York.] I feel like we created a piece of art and it was well-received and it worked, and I enjoyed doing that, so I know we could try another one of those. And if we’re not locked in, then I think we’re all very eagerly awaiting doing live shows and hitting the road. We’re also already writing new music, and I think we could definitely come up with a bunch of covers because they’re fun. So yeah, there’s lots of avenues open.

The Covers EP by Muzz was released on December 9.