I remember the moment I first heard MS MR. It was the duo’s single, 'Hurricane', consisting of dark, catchy lyrics and a synthpop, ethereal sound, and it hit home in a way that most songs couldn’t come close to. Shortly thereafter, it seemed the rest of the millennial world had caught on; MS MR was every angsty twenty-something’s musical wet-dream.
Surprisingly, the forces behind the music, Lizzy Plapinger (MS) and Max Hershenow (MR) (who are, unlike other musical duos, actually just friends), didn’t foresee their musical success for quite awhile, or even know that they wanted to make it into a career. “We started out purely experimenting and knew only that making music was something we both really enjoyed doing together. It was only after we had quite a bit of material that we started thinking of ourselves as a band, and it took a long time after we initially put music out to start thinking of it as a potential career. It's still hard to believe sometimes!”
In fact, Lizzy and Max tell me, MS MR could easily have never come into being. It was a chance encounter between two practical strangers that developed into what they are today. “We took a couple of classes together at Vassar, but our first time hanging out one-on-one was our first session. And now we spend all of our time together. The friendship has developed alongside the music,” they tell me of their start.
While a long way from their starting point, the duo still incorporates the organic quality they’ve had all along. An independent, DIY approach that contrasts their often hectic lifestyles. As witness to that, Lizzy and Max don’t generally use stylists for their stage and video costumes like other artists. “We both have a really well-defined sense of what we want to look like and communicate through our clothes, so designing and crafting our own clothes has come really naturally. It's a fun way for us to create totally unique pieces and scratches a creative itch we both have.”
They also come up with their initial music video concepts themselves. “We usually develop the idea for a video alongside the director. We'll have an idea that we'll use as the jumping off point and then we'll go back and forth with the director to hone it. ‘Painted’ [their most recent video single] was inspired by 2001: A Space Odyssey and the 1970s documentary, The Secret Life of Plants, which Tabitha Denholm, the director, introduced to us. It's one of our favorite videos we've done up to this point,” They tell me, seemingly unphased by the amount they’ve been taking on artistically. In both endeavors, they excel with a natural ease. Their outfits and video concepts are perfectly bizarre, unsettling and at once fiercely beautiful.
Amidst the mayhem, Lizzy also co-founded Neon Gold Records, which has repped artists such as Ellie Goulding, Gotye, Tove Lo, and Marina and the Diamonds, to name a few. When asked how she manages to juggle her time between such huge enterprises, Lizzy tells me simply, “Luckily I have incredible partners in Max with MS MR and Derek [Davies] with Neon Gold, so there’s a sort of group flexibility and understanding that goes a long way! I don’t know if I would be able to do both in a past era but it’s just about using my down time wisely. It’s not so hard to stay connected through emails and conference calls and most of the time each is a nice break from the other in terms of my creative focus. Both projects make me stronger at the other.”
Proving that their dispersed creativity doesn’t take away from their sound, MS MR’s sophomore album How Does it Feel, released this past July, has a sound that rivals their first. It’s impossible not to dance to, sexy, and still maintains the dark, dreamy feel of Secondhand Rapture. “When we wrote Secondhand Rapture, we were completely new to music, so every song was an experiment soaked in naivété and curiosity. After 3 years of touring the album and learning more about ourselves and writing, we approached How Does It Feel with much more intentionality and focus, while keeping the curiosity alive! The new album feels more articulate and direct, both in terms of emotion and sonic quality.”
Both albums may partially have been inspired by their well-traveled upbringings. Lizzy grew up in London (but has no accent), and Max spent his high school years in Ecuador and Honduras. Nevertheless, the biggest influence they attribute to their music is their home in New York City. But soon, this will change. “New York City has played a big hand in our sound on both records. It will be interesting to see how that shifts or changes moving forward with Max now living in L.A.,” Lizzy says of the sudden shift.
As their last tour date comes to a close, it’s a shift that both of them will have to face as a reality, but neither seems very concerned for this stretch of life on the road to be over. “We love playing shows and they're obviously the highlight of touring, although it's also good to get to see friends while on the road. The hardest part is missing home and our friends there.”
And even with a grueling tour schedule, there must be solace in the knowledge that every ticket sold is the chance to help an admirable cause. A portion of their tour’s ticket sales has gone to Third Wave Fund, a trans-rights charity they support. “As a band, it's important to us to use the platform we have, however small, to advocate for issues we find important. Third Wave Fund specializes in youth-led gender justice activism and acts as an umbrella organization for queer, feminist and trans-rights organizations around the country.”
By the end of the questions, I can’t help but have a crush on the larger-than-life pair that manages to do it all. I’ve gone from listener to avid fan, and I don’t think I’m regressing anytime soon. And it seems things won’t be slowing down anytime soon either. Max is composing for a dance piece that will show in Berlin, as well as scoring some short film projects, and Lizzy will be back at Neon Gold headquarters for a bit. “These next two months are about experimenting before we get back on the road again next year,” they tell me, lighthearted in the face of the staggering projects they’ve already accomplished and have yet to achieve. One thing is certain, whatever projects these two have in store, they won’t fail to succeed.
Story by Lauren Hoover
Photography by Catie Laffoon
Makeup by Amber Dreadon