Muzz is something of an accidental supergroup. Paul Banks (Interpol), Josh Kaufman (Bonny Light Horseman), and Matt Barrick (Jonathan Fire*Eater, The Walkmen) have been friends for many years, which finally led them to start recording demo tracks together in 2015 – but it took them another five years to finish their debut album, Muzz (released on June 5 on Matador Records).
During a conference call (with Banks in Scotland, Kaufman in New York City, and Barrick in Philadelphia), their lighthearted banter and frequent laughter make it immediately evident that they genuinely enjoy each other’s company. Their compatibility also comes across in the songs they’ve created for Muzz.
“It was a super good vibe in the studio,” Banks says, and Barrick agrees: “It was surprisingly comfortable. Everyone was able to voice their opinions; everyone respects each other’s opinions. It worked pretty well.”
They agree that their successful musical collaboration is, at its heart, thanks to their friendship. “I’ve known Josh since our teenage years,” Banks says, “so there’s this weight of the history there that out-balances anything that would be on the ego level of, ‘I don’t like that this person is disagreeing with me.’ I feel like I know where Josh is coming from on a deep level, and with Matt, also. I think we have a good chemistry as far as our personalities go. We’re good at communicating with each other.
Also, Banks adds, it probably helps that they each have had “a lot of experience working with people, which I think is definitely an ability that you acquire over time.” He knows this is certainly true in his own case: “I’m a better collaborator than I used to be because I definitely am less precious now.” He says this resulted “from experience working with people who are less precious than me, and having it rub off on me.”
Even though all three members clearly enjoyed the recording process for Muzz, they admit that it was difficult to actually pull it off, thanks to each of them being so busy with their other bands and other projects. “It was sort of cosmic that we were able to all actually get in a room together to feel the energy out,” Kaufman says.
Even as they figured out how to finally meet up to play together, it still wasn’t viewed as a potential long-term project. “The first time we actually got in a room together was, Matt and Paul invited me to a rehearsal at the old Interpol space to work on some music together,” Kaufman says. “I wasn’t thinking, ‘Oh, we’re going to start a band.’ I was just thinking, ‘I have this day available, and they do, too, and we’re just going to hang out.’”
When they started playing, however, they immediately realized that they had something special, and they began making Muzz more of a priority. “Once we got the project started, once we were all three together, we were all pretty excited about it, so we carved out a few days here and there,” Barrick says.
“Once you feel the power of the connection, you want to see where the narrative can take you, creatively,” Kaufman says, “and it felt like, ‘As long as we want to pursue that, we’ll keep going.’”
The songs they wrote turned out to be unlike anything each of them has ever done with any of their other musical output. Muzz does not offer up the jagged post-punk that might be expected, given their backgrounds. Instead, the music has a hazy, nostalgic vibe. “There was a real ambition to make this not sound dated to a certain period in time,” Banks says.
This determination to seem timeless informed both their work style, as well as the band name Muzz itself. “We would use ‘muzz’ like an adjective to describe certain tones as we were recording,” Kaufman says. “Like, ‘What can we do to muzz that up a little bit. It should be a little muzzier.’ It seems evocative to what we’re doing.”
When they started writing, songs came “from all angles, and collectively, collaboratively, in real time,” Banks says. Sometimes one member brought in an idea, or they’d hit upon something while working in various pairings – but they also had good luck mining material from jam sessions when all three members were present. “I think we’re all open to getting out a good song in any way that it will present itself,” Kaufman says. “There’s not any one sort of magic trick – but it does get filtered through all of us, every song, every part.”
Banks agrees that there is, in the end, a distinctive Muzz sound: “I think the sound is cohesive in spite of the fact that the songs were born in different ways. I feel like we all have our own taste that we nudge in, but there’s [also] a really nice batch of things that overlap in our taste collectively.”
While Muzz turned into a unique entity overall, Banks did bring one element into the mix: his highly unusual and memorable lyrical style. A master of the unexpected (and sometimes uncomfortable) phrase, Banks has a unique approach to his writing: “I like looking at lyrics in film terms – like if I were a filmmaker, and I could make an entire movie in the time that it takes to write a vocal treatment, I would enjoy making movies that took very strange, surrealistic turns and were a little bit montage-y,” he says.
Banks cites filmmaker Nicolas Roeg’s 1970 experimental film Performance as an inspiration: “There’s a sex scene, and then he cuts to a sunset over a pyramid, and then it’s back to the bed – it’s this really weird juxtaposition that has no real cohesive thread between them, but in combination, they become really evocative and resonant and open to interpretation in a way that I enjoy.” With his own work, Banks says, “the songs will be [like] one section of a film which depicts the character in one setting, and then it cuts straight to some other facet of that character’s life. So it works in those terms, but there’s not really some easy thread to follow through the song.”
Barrick’s drumming is also a key element to the Muzz sound – he brings a deft elegance to tracks like “Red Western Sky,” where his unexpected rhythms manage to make the song sound at once mellow and unsettling. But Barrick can also deliver intricate, intense work, as on the raucous single “Knuckleduster.” His work on that track is so crucial, in fact, that he is featured as the sole performer for almost half of that song’s video.
As for Kaufman, besides playing guitar and piano, he also kept Muzz’s momentum going. “He always knows what he wants to do next, which I think is a real talent in the studio,” says Banks about Kaufman. “There’s not ever been a vacuum of, ‘Where do we take this idea?’ I feel like there’s always some sort of motion.” It is unsurprising that Kaufman played this pivotal role, given his history – beyond his work with Bonny Light Horseman, he is also a highly sought-after producer who has worked with The Hold Steady, Craig Finn, and Josh Ritter, among others.
Taking each of their separate strengths and blending them into a unique, unified whole is clearly gratifying for all three Muzz members. With this kind of musical and personal camaraderie at play, perhaps Muzz will be the first of many releases. Banks seems to offer hope for this outcome: “It doesn’t feel like work when there’s that kind of connection, so it’s something that you want to do – so you find time [for it], and you enjoy it when it comes.”