Beyond Vassar

The Wild, Wonderful World of MS MR

By Dakota Kim

In September 2012, a young Brooklyn-based electronic music duo released its first EP, hoping to get noticed. Not so different from many other bands trying to make it in New York City, right? Except this duo—MS MR—released the album, Candy Bar Creep Show, through the popular website Tumblr, packaging each song like its own tiny world complete with artwork and a video. It was an approach that appealed to young, social media–savvy listeners.

Part of the success of MS MR may be due to the care that Lizzy Plapinger ’10 and Max Hershenow ’10 take with each song they release. From choosing publicity photos to directing the artists, directors, and musicians with whom they collaborate, the two carefully curate output from the band. Plapinger’s experience as owner of the record label Neon Gold, which she started during her sophomore year, didn’t hurt.

In February 2013, MS MR played their song “Hurricane” for the first time on network television, debuting it on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon. By May 2013, MS MR had become so popular that they were chosen as the inaugural musicians for MySpace’s new live video performance series, Live at the Log Cabin, and in the same month, the group graduated to Late Show with David Letterman. The band appeared on the Tonight Show with Jay Leno this past December.

Riding high on the success of their new album, Secondhand Rapture, MS MR began a grueling worldwide tour in the summer of 2013, circling the globe and playing over 35 festivals across Australia and Europe. Last year, Secondhand Rapture peaked on the Billboard Heatseekers chart at #2 and on the Alternative Albums chart at #24. For Plapinger and Hershenow, both only a few years out of Vassar, this is only the beginning.

VQ recently spoke to the duo about their music, its influences, and where they plan to take it next.

You’ve done a lot of social media promotion through Tumblr, where you released an EP with art and videos, song by song. How did that come about?

L: It happened very organically in that we are clearly 21st-century kids, so the way that we’ve been consuming music and finding new bands has always sort of been those outlets and platforms. Tumblr was something that we both happened to like using and was an easy way for us to communicate and share ideas.

M: We probably spent $500 on the whole recording process until we mixed the album, and I think that same ethos carried over into the visual side of things. We realized that people were going to be listening to our music in this environment of their computer screen, and we could create a virtual world around our music without the help of labels or other outside marketers. By the time we signed a record deal, we had a really well-defined sense of who we were, both aesthetically and musically. That’s at the core of the band.

L: I think that first Tumblr EP was our claim of that identity and our ideals about mixed media. To be able to release a song, with a remix with our homemade video, with a photograph that had been made surrounding that project—tying those elements together, we were unifying them all in one space and that was important to us. Music is the forefront of this project, but we see ourselves as artists, and it’s fun to see your vision translated through other media and forms of expression.

Art figures prominently in the look of your Tumblr page. Who does it?

L:The Tumblr is curated by us and it's a collection of found art on the Internet by new, old, lost or anonymous artists.

Lizzy, do you think being the owner of a record label and understanding the process helped you to put more agency behind MS MR?

L: Absolutely. Having worked in the industry for three years prior to doing this meant that we had a greater understanding of how the business side of things works. We’re in control creatively—anything you hear or see stems from us. The control we have on the back end is also unparalleled. It’s very empowering.

M: I don’t think artists know how much power they have. We made some very distinct choices at the beginning that let everyone know that we weren’t going to be pushed around, and ever since then, even as the project has grown, no press release or photos ever go out without us seeing them.

It’s interesting to see an increase in the number of electronic bands that are duos. Is it easier to work as a pair, rather than with a larger group?

L: We’re both control freaks, so it’s easy for us to share ideas back and forth and quickly hash out an idea. I think that would be a challenge with more people.

M: The internal dynamics of having a big group is much more complicated and difficult to navigate. The two of us write all the music, but while we’re on the road, we have two other musicians who join us onstage, so it means it’s not just the two of us all the time, because we would really drive each other nuts. There are external people in our lives to vary it up a little bit.

How has working with two other musicians affected your music?

L: We’ve gotten incredibly close with our drummer Zach Nicita, who’s becoming a producer in his own right. When you meet musicians, it’s fun to have them push you in new directions. That’s what music making really should be.

M: The other member is David Lizmi, who’s a multi-instrumentalist who plays bass, and synth, and omnichord. It’s great. The two of them really bring out this more acoustic, rockier element in the tracks. The music’s definitely evolved a lot from their influence.

Did you take the electronic music class while you were at Vassar?

L: We both took it. It was one of the reasons I actually applied to the college. I was reading through the course catalogue and read about the electronic music class and was really excited about it. It was a super-competitive class to get into. I finally weaseled my way in.

M: It was an introduction to a lot of the electronic software programs, and it included a free download of [songwriting and mixing tool] Logic, which was really expensive back then.

L: There were also a few other programs from the ’80s that were super-experimental that were creating sounds through color and physically manipulating sound waves. That was really fun. I think that genuinely opened our minds to experimenting and manipulating sounds in new ways.

Were there other ways in which Vassar facilitated your development as musicians and artists?

L: I was a media studies major and Max was an urban studies major, both of which are interdisciplinary. That, more than anything else, had the ultimate impact. We very proudly claim ourselves as a collage and mixed-media-based project. The theory that we learned through those foundation theory courses was instrumental in what we are doing now. We’re much more informed and thoughtful about our process and what our art means because of those courses.

M: I was in VRDT and was really into dance. I thought I’d be a choreographer before this started. That was the first time I actually started recording music. I love the idea of having absolute control over a whole piece. The dance program was super open to me doing that, and the Urban Studies Program was open, too. My adviser Lisa Brawley [urban studies and American studies] and I figured out a way to incorporate dance music and architectural design into my senior project. I wrote those tracks for my senior project and I’ve used pieces of them in this project.

L: I think the relationship we have with people like Lisa—whom we actually just saw in London at our most recent show with her husband and her class that was studying in London—is amazing. Vassar continues to rally around us. We’re so appreciative that every time an album or song or EP is released we get messages from students, teachers, and people from ACDC. It’s really incredible. That community of support still really exists after school. It’s special to be traveling the world and touching base with other students and friends who are doing amazing things in other cities. Plus, people like Lisa, Colleen Cohen [anthropology and women’s studies] and Michael Joyce [English] had a profound influence on both of us becoming the people we are.

M: I would add Steve Rooks [dance] and Kathy Wildberger [dance and drama].

What was the music scene like at Vassar when you were students?

L: One of the best things about going to Vassar was that the music scene was really special. I had a show at WVKR all four years with my friend Kyra. All my hands-on experience really started because of the music vibe at Vassar, and there were amazing shows being put on. ViCE in the Mug was amazing. I think I saw one of Matt and Kim’s first-ever shows, and one of Beach House’s first-ever shows. I remember M.I.A. was the first thing I booked, TVOTR, Flosstradamus, Girl Talk—those were awesome shows. [Plapinger chaired Vassar College Entertainment, or ViCE, while a student.] We were lucky that people were so excited about music.

Talk about exciting—you two did a world tour last summer. Where did you encounter the craziest audiences?

M: In Australia. We played a festival called Splendour in the Grass in Byron Bay. We expected a lot and our expectations were totally exceeded. We got there and there were 12,000 people at the show and every single one of them seemed to know the lyrics to our songs. The decibel limit was exceeded even before we went onstage because people were screaming so loud. It was pretty wild!

L: People as far as your eyes could see, just spilling out of the tent. And it really wasn’t just a handful of people singing along. It was the wildest show we ever played. It’s sort of the show you dreamed of when you started the band.

M: You feel like Beyoncé.

You played a lot of festivals in a row last summer—that must have been intense.

L: I think it was 35 or more—the most travel we’ve done to date in the most concentrated time period. Festivals are such a different experience than doing a club experience. You get to win over fans that don’t know who you are yet, so you’re playing to much bigger crowds than you might at a club gig. You get to meet other bands and go see other people’s shows, and it feels like band summer camp in that way. You start seeing the same bands at various festivals all over the world and then you gain a rapport. It’s been really, really nice.

Are you able to write songs while you’re on the road?

L: Writing on the road is a challenge, and something we thought we’d do more of. You’re never alone, you’re always in a car. It’s hard to find your own space and time. Max, on the other hand, can do three or four tracks a day. It’s such a huge lifestyle change and shift for us that we’re keen to focus, but we’re both in different headspaces with that.

M: Touring is fun. It’s a chance to meet people, but it’s not particularly creative. That’s a completely different headspace, and it’s hard to jump back and forth and figure out how to mesh the two.

So, what’s next?

L: We’re going to tour in the U.S. this year. It’s going to be busy.

M: We have a few festivals in the works. But we’re going to try to take some time off and reconnect with our creative selves for a second. Stay tuned!

Dakota Kim (@dakotakim1) is a writer living in Brooklyn, NY.

And check out MS MR’s Tumblr page: