Editor’s note: This article was originally published October 9, 2013
About three minutes into our conversation, I realize that the members of MS MR have answered my first question before I even had a chance to ask it. It’s also become obvious that the duo always seem to know exactly what the other one is going to say. I admit that I’m slightly afraid they might be psychic.
"Well, when you spend so much time with someone, you pick up on that," says singer Lizzy Plapinger (the "MS"). "You start finishing each others …" Dramatic pause as she looks to beat-maker Max Hershenow (the "MR").
"Sandwiches," the pair say in unison.
Whether they’re deploying corny jokes or powering through dark-and-stormy, gothic dance tunes onstage, Plapinger and Hershenow demonstrate a light-hearted, effortless chemistry. After a bewitching Sunday afternoon ACL Fest set, perhaps alchemy is a better word than chemistry. As a band, MS MR is all about turning experience into art. With a heavy summer tour schedule under their belts, experience is no longer something the pair, who released debut album "Secondhand Rapture" in May, lacks.
"For a month we’ve been saying, ‘Oh, it’s the last festival of the summer,’" Hershenow says.
"But I sort of love that, how festivals never come to an end," Plapinger says. "Because it’s really nice to do a festival show, and then do a club show."
Listening to "Secondhand Rapture" leaves the impression that a smoky club would be exactly the place to hear atmospheric songs like "Bones" and "Hurricane." Once they signed a record deal, the band was aware that translating that sound from a bedroom studio to a festival stage would be a challenge. In fact, Plapinger admits the possibility of live performances wasn’t even on MS MR’s radar during the recording process. Their solution: adding a multi-instrumentalist and a drummer to the band’s touring lineup.
"All we knew was that we didn’t want to be the two of us on stage with a laptop," Plapinger says.
"We became much more of a rock band than I ever anticipated us being," Hershenow says.
Even with a backing band, to see MS MR on the festival stage is to see synchronized swimming set to music; a casual observer could think that Plapinger and Hershenow were brother and sister. Yet the college acquaintances found lightning in a bottle fairly recently, when Hershenow contacted Plapinger — who runs her own record label, Neon Gold — through email.
"That started the relationship," Hershenow says. "I think that’s the most magical part of the whole thing, that we fell into it and it worked right off the bat, within the first two hours of knowing each other."
When the pair talks about their collaborative process, that psychic effect again takes hold.
"In some ways, the album is a … is like a …" Hershenow looks for the words.
Plapinger interjects: "A non-literal representation of the growth of our friendship."
"Yeah, there you go," Hershenow says, laughing. "Perfect. Well done."
The partnership has yielded results that feel as much like art as they do pop. Songs from "Secondhand Rapture" draw from anything and everything in the pair’s experiences, from Plapinger’s love of the band Beach House to the time both spent abroad in childhood — Plapinger in London, Hershenow in Honduras and Ecuador. Hershenow stresses the organic nature of their songwriting process — rather than starting with a cohesive vision, Hershenow says they leave the doors open to experimentation and "throwing things together." The result: a record the band says feels very true to themselves.
"For us, the collage element of this, the mixed media element of this, is so liberating," Plapinger says. "It means we have the space to develop and grow into however we’re going to develop as artists."
MS MR’s visual approach to art follows the same collage aesthetic: The music video for "Hurricane" was composed of found-footage clips that the band assembled themselves.
"It feels like a snapshot of a person of our generation’s mind," she says. "You’re so over-inundated with information around you. … That definitely felt like the right first visual information to put out there, and it’s been something that people keep coming back to as part of the band."
"I like the idea of presenting people with a lot of visual information and a lot of musical information and allowing people to find their own message in it," Hershenow says.
Between releasing a debut album and touring, including a stop in Austin for South By Southwest, the band’s schedule rarely allows for a day off, but they did have the opportunity to explore Austin over the past weekend. (On stage Sunday, Plapinger sung Austin’s praises and asked the audience, maybe half-jokingly, why she hadn’t moved here earlier.) She and Hershenow hit South Austin hot spots like Güero’s, Gourdough’s, Wahoo’s Fish Tacos, Feathers Boutique and Lucy In Disguise on "a jam-packed lavish day where we got to do everything we wanted," Plapinger says.
And in between the vintage shopping, tacos and margaritas, the pair marveled at the "unreal" kindness of Austinites they encountered.
"It doesn’t seem fake or condescending," Plapinger says. "Everyone feels so welcoming."
Tour dates in Houston, Dallas, New Orleans and Mexico City will keep the band away from that hospitality until this weekend, when MS MR returns to the AMD stage for the second weekend of ACL Fest. Plapinger and Hershenow, self-described perfectionists, say that their performances don’t include much time for enjoying the high of a job well done. Musical chemistry, they say, takes work.
"I think we set the bar very high for ourselves," Plapinger says, "and we’re proud of how far we’ve come, but —"
"We’re still not happy with it either," Hershenow says.
"We’re still not happy with it either. Right." Plapinger says. "And that’s how it should be."
And with a week’s worth of experiences away from Austin, their second ACL set may hold some surprises yet.