“As long as everybody feels emotionally invested and authentic with what they’re doing, I think it’s going to have a Muzz signature”.
That’s the view of Muzz frontman Paul Banks has he explored the recording process of the three-piece supergroup’s new – and stellar – Covers EP.
The trio, consisting of Interpol’s Banks, Matt Barrick of The Walkmen, and multi-instrumentalist Josh Kaufman, have cast their spell on tracks by some of the alternative and mainstream’s most revered names for the new reimagining record, released six months after their lusciously varied eponymous album.
Classics and deep cuts by legendary artists Bob Dylan, Mazzy Star, Tracy Chapman and Arthur Russell are given a Muzz overhaul, as Bank’s unmistakable vocal style and heavenly musicianship from Barrick and Kaufman conjure new worlds and sonic soundscapes to explore.
The tracks were picked from an ever growing – but top secret – “Muzz list” of songs the threesome want to cover.
Tender opener Nobody Wants A Lonely Heart retains all the pain and powerful poignancy from Russell’s original, as its treated to a wondrous, piano-driven transformation, while Dylan’s Girl From The North Country is layered with acoustic and sliding guitars and enchanting backing vocals.
Mazzy Star’s classic Fade Into You, one of the alternative songs of the 90s, is a magical recasting; adding rousing strings and a palpitating, hypnotic drumbeat throughout.
The EP’s moving closer, Tracy Chapman’s For You, is another revelation and special rendition, as Banks delicately tackles one of music’s most iconic voices.
“It’s really challenging to cover her because she is one of the greatest voices”, Banks told Daily Star Online.
“With that song, I found it especially important to do a little bit of my own thing of it, so the emotion is coming from me and not just me mimicking what she had done.”
Muzz’s dazzling, genre-transcending style is born out of Banks, Barrick and Kaufman’s close friendship and adoration for melange of artists and influences.
The group’s foundations were drawn up in the 90s. Banks and Kaufman attended high school together in Spain as teenagers, swapping records Bob Dylan, Neil Young and Led Zeppelin records as they etched pathways towards their musical futures.
They both met Barrick, who was also a member of the influential Jonathan Fire*Eater, upon moving to New York, and were all pivotal members of the city’s thriving scene in the early 2000s.
And after success with their own projects, the three finally began playing together as Muzz in 2015, where their experience and musicianship has resulted in an astonishing, emotion-fuelled proposition.
Daily Star Online’s Rory McKeown sat down with Banks, Barrick and Kaufman to talk about the Covers EP’s recording process, their choices, their influences, and what it’s like to pay homage some of music’s legendary talents.
Hi guys. Firstly, how have the past few months been for you? What was it like releasing an album during lockdown?
Matt Barrick: “Pretty rough because we had to cancel everything. Our record came out and we had lots of tours planned.
“Everything was put on hold. As a way to keep ourselves busy while we were locked down, we started working on new songs and really dug into this Covers stuff. Originally we were talking about doing a whole covers album and we might do more at some point. But this is a start.”
Did the idea come from lockdown?
Matt: “We had already started it. One of the songs, the Arthur Russell cover, we had recorded while were were finishing mixing last November or December. While were in the studio we were playing about with that song and decided to record it with one mic. Everything else was once lockdown happened.”
From the Arthur Russell song, did you think this is a great idea, let’s do some more?
Paul Banks: “I think at some point somebody would have mentioned covers and quickly perceived that we were all very receptive to the idea of doing covers as a band.
“While we were working on that record, it would have just been a conversation that happened. Immediately a long list came to be, as far as what songs that would be fun to cover.
“I think what then happened with Arthur Russell is either Josh or Matt sent it around. They were both really, really keen on that song. I was not familiar with Arthur Russell.
“I listened it in my AirBnb in between studio days. My first listen didn’t quite get it and then the lyric kind of opened itself up to me. I was then like ‘oh, I love this song!’. We’d been talking about doing covers, Arthur Russell seemed like a great song, I loved the lyrics, so let’s do that one.
“We’d come back over lockdown and thought we should continue in that vein.”
You’re all friends and you’ve collaborated over the years. Do you share the same interest in music? Do you have the same ears? Are you fans of the same genres?
Paul: “I don’t think these guys like Lil Wayne or Drake as much as I do. I doubt Matt bought the new Metro Boomin and 21 Savage collab! Or Busta’s latest.”
Matt: “I love Busta!”
Paul: “It’s not a bad record!
“I think that we basically have substantial overlap aesthetically where we can put together quite a long list of songs we’re all excited about doing. I’m a huge fan of all of Matt’s bands he’s been in. Matt and I worked together on the Banks & Steelz project.
“Josh and I were friends since we were 14-15 and started playing music at the same time, roughly. Back then he and I were exchanging music. I had been into hip-hop and then I met Josh.
“We started passing back and forth some Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin, Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen, and Neil Young, and that’s what we really started bonding over when we were just starting playing music.”
Josh Kaufman: “There’s a lot of stuff that doesn’t overlap too. I’ve always loved the back-up bands. All of the session musicians and play on those classic albums of the 50s and 60s. The Wrecking Crews, the Funk Brothers, Booker T and the MG’s, that kind of thing. I love that.
“A back-up band being able to pivot and play different kinds of music and have a deep bag of influences and tricks to shape music and shape songs in an exciting way. That stuff always was exciting to me.
“Even listening to Dylan records, or Neil Young records growing up, you can hear it. It wasn’t a clinical-sounding thing, they had a lot of character. Guys like Mike Bloomfield, Kenny Buttrey, or Harvey Brooks or any of those players.”
Paul: “What’s that documentary about where a lot of this music came from?”
Matt: “Muscle Shoals? A lot of the 60s stuff was made down there.”
Paul: “I was amazed when I saw who the guys were in the background. It was not what I was expecting at all. They were doing the best kind of soul vibes.”
Matt: “It’s like Crazy Horse and how they were opposite of that. He just loved the feeling of the way they played, how loose and scrappy it was.”
Paul: “‘Don’t cry my sweet girl…’. That would have been a good one to cover.”
Josh: “That’s a great one. That would be an interesting look. It would be cool to check back in on that record.”
Paul: “That album has the best, distorted guitar sound ever. When he did the live show with the giant amps. It’s so dope.”
Josh: “They reissued Live At The Fillmore East. I think it was either right before or after they released Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere. They did a live performance of it with Danny Whitten of the original Crazy Horse band. Man, it’s incredible. It fits like a glove. It’s super meat and potatoes.”
Paul: “I remember something you said to me once, Josh. The reason I use a Les Paul had a lot to do with Neil Young. I remember I was fawning over Neil Young and at one point you said something a long the lines of ‘I’m not sure if he’s an incredible technical genius or if he’s absolutely winging it and not sure what he’s doing’.”
Josh: “When I was younger I was confused how much emotion was playing a role in what he was playing.
“I feel like Neil bats a thousand. Every time he picks up a guitar it’s pure guts and so beautiful. I would stand behind that still. Although now maybe confirmed genius.”
Let’s go onto the EP tracks themselves. Arthur Russell’s Nobody Wants A Lonely Heart opens it. It’s a tender piano-driven version that retains the original’s poignancy, bringing in acoustic guitars. What was it like seeing it blossom into the Muzz version?
Paul: “The version that’s on the EP was one microphone. It was Josh on piano, Matt on drums and me on vocal all going into that one mic. There was additional instrumentation laid on afterwards. The idea was to capture something really intimate and pure.
“We had a particularly beautiful microphone.”
Matt: “It happened very quickly. The overdubs we did we bass and Josh’s solo. It was one take.”
Josh: “There might be a little organ on there.”
Paul: “I think it’s the first and only time I’ve done something where three members of the same band are playing into one microphone in the same room.”
Josh: “That song was almost recorded as an after thought. We were up in Woodstock mixing the album we’d been working on for a few years.
“It was a very pure moment of wanting to connect with a song and all being really jazzed about it and excited about finishing our record. Maybe working on a piece of music that wasn’t ours felt good.”
So that track was very spontaneous then?
Josh: “Definitely. Even the ones we did in quarantine, we didn’t dwell over them too much. The Arthur Russell one is special because we were all in the same room to record it.”
Bob Dylan’s Girl From The North Country from The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan. Who wanted to do that one? Was that on the list?
Paul: “That would have been on the list. Josh and I also bonded a lot over Nashville Skyline when we were kids.
“That’s a song that goes back many years between Josh and I. Matt, have you always been a fan or was that one you just went along with? What was your take on that track?”
Matt: “I’ve always been a big Dylan fan, especially that record, I love. It get hard to do these songs. In a way, you just have to put less pressure on yourself because this is such a great song done by one of the best artists of all time. Just put our spin on it.”
The original is just vocals and a guitar and you’ve added the ghostly backing vocals, the organs, you’ve really added a sonic enchantment to it. Was it great seeing the Muzz stamp on it?
Paul: “I think so. This one was done during lockdown sending each other pieces of the songs and building it out that way.
“I definitely feel like the Muzz stamp is, and I feel like this applies to a lot of collaborations of this sort, as long as everybody is sincere in their contribution, and as long as it’s not two people are into it and they pass it to a third person who are like ‘oh, alright I’ll do something on it, whatever’, as long as everybody feels emotionally invested and authentic with what they’re doing, I think it’s going to have a Muzz signature.
“I don’t think there’s a way to control that beyond we all have to like what we’re doing. Beyond that enthusiasm I don’t think how you could quantify it.”
How big was the list of potential covers?
Paul: “Dude, it’s still on-going. I think we could do a number of these EPs. We had originally thought about doing a covers album. It then became that it’s probably going to be more fun for us to do original material for the time being. I think there will be more covers to come for sure.”
Fade Into You by Mazzy Star was one of the alternative tracks of the 90s. Are you fans of Mazzy Star or did you think it would be a good one to cover?
Matt: “That was your choice, wasn’t it, Paul?”
Paul: “Probably yes. I was really into that song when it came out. I was probably 13-14. It hit me like a truck. I’ve always been a big fan.
“We were mindful of the fact it was mainstream. It’s indie, I guess, but everybody knows that song. It’s not exactly a deep cut to go for. It was interesting to not baulk at that. Why not? Just because it’s a popular song is not a reason not to do it.
“As long as you have at true emotion in your song, it doesn’t matter how popular the original is.”
What about you, Matt? Were you into Mazzy Star?
“I love Mazzy Star. I’m not sure I got into it when I was that young but at some point I did. It’s such a beautiful song, flawlessly recorded.”
The last track, the legendary Tracy Chapman’s For You, is a magical closer; with these fluttering guitar runs and these beautiful keys layering the track. How did you get into the mindset of taking that song on?
Paul: “That might have been one that I suggested. We’re all Tracy Chapman fans. For me, when that album came out, I was probably 13, I was in Spain. I was young. It was one of those records I took from my mom and went into my room and digested that record heavily for a period of my life. For You was my favourite. Even then I had the indie rock preferences. Fast Car is a classic. The whole record is classic but I feel like For You has this sadness and a blueness to it. It’s unique on that record – it was the one closest to me since I was a kid.
“It’s really challenging to cover her because she is one of the greatest voices. As long as everybody in the band is sincere in their contribution then it works. It becomes Muzzy.
“It’s sung a bit differently in the way she does. It’s finding my way of being sincere. The thing I try and avoid as a singer is that you have to attach yourself to the lyric like they’re your lyrics. Sometimes that might work in a karaoke approach. You can’t do a cover and absentmindedly sing it like you would in the shower, where you’re just trying to sing it like they do. You have to have it come from a place that’s real and inside of you.
“With that song, I found it especially important to do a little bit of my own thing of it, so the emotion is coming from me and not just me mimicking what she had done.”
How do you get into the mindset at the beginning when you are taking on someone’s song? Do you have to strip it back and think this is how we’re going to do it now?
Paul: “It has to speak with me emotionally. The best example was the Arthur Russell one. I hadn’t been familiar with it. I thought he meant ‘Nobody wants to have a lonely heart’. But when I went through the verses, I was like ‘f*** man, I think this is a depression song’. This is a deeply depressed song of nobody wants me if I’ve got this lonely heart. It’s sort of like this very heavy….it has a lot of truth to me as a sentiment with regards to a depressive mentality of self-loathing. I felt like ‘f***ing A, this is a monstrously powerful song’. That allowed me in. I could say that with feeling because I get this.
“Similarly with For You. Trying to find a parallel in your emotional life with what you think they were getting at and going from there.”
What about yourself, Matt, instrumental-wise? Is it a similar process?
Matt: “It’s different with every song. With Arthur Russell we were trying to keep it super stripped back, mainly focused on piano.
“I feel like Girl From The North Country, I know there’s not necessarily drums on the original but playing in the style of Nashville Skyline. I find that whenever I try to do that it never ends up sounding like that, it ends up having its own flavour.
“Tracy Chapman was tough to think about how to go about it.
“I was playing brushes on a piece of metal to give it a different sound than a normal drum set. Trying to find a way in to these songs that’s unique.”
Paul: “As a fan of Matt’s, he’s incredibly tasteful and one of Matt’s abilities is a light touch. Knowing how to not overdo a thing.
“It would be like me if I could shred and do amazing guitar solos or like what John Frusciante will do, a one note guitar solo, although he can do anything on that instrument. It’s a sign of a great artist when they can put a very, very light fingerprint on a piece of music and have that contribute in that. Matt is really good in that way.”
With Fade Into particularly, you have that palpitating drum beat throughout, which is a real stand out along with the rousing strings and I think some slide guitar. It’s a real magical touch you’ve put on that song.
Matt: “That one in particular was difficult to approach. Tracy Chapman was acoustic so anything we did was going to be new. But Mazzy Star was this amazing production in the first place. It was like how are you going to recreate that in your own way? It’s tough. Josh is a maestro.”
What else was on the list? Is it top secret?
Matt: “It’s top secret yes.”
Paul: “I’d say I’m sure The Mamas and the Papas are on there. Loads of things. I don’t want to give away the ones we’d likely do. It’s a big list.”
Have you got a dream song you’ve always wanted to cover?
Paul: “They come up for me often, actually. There’s not one dream one. There will often be a song where I would feel like it would come naturally through my personal filter and then there will be a sub-set from that that will come naturally through Muzz’s filter. I’m constantly coming up and having ideas of songs that would be fun to cover.
“I have a Frank Ocean one I’ve done that Josh wants to revisit. We’d do a really cool Muzz/Frank Ocean track.”
Does it span from newer releases to stuff from way back?
Paul: “Yes. And across all genres.”
At the weekend, you streamed Live In Kingston NY. What was it like to finally be able to play live? Can we expect more Muzz shows?
Matt: “It was amazing to get into a room together and play music. To have that experience was really nice.
“Hopefully we can do that again or just do real shows. We have been looking forward to that.”
Is it always a special moment when you get back out and play live again?
Paul: “For sure. It’s even more special when there are people there but it’s special to be in a room to be bouncing off each other.”
What was it like to finally play alongside each other?
Paul: “It’s was great. We had Stuart Bogie on keyboards and Annie Nero on bass and vocals. That really helped us to reimagine the album tracks in a way that felt like everything necessary was there and it becomes this fluid thing where each person’s contribution changed a little bit, then it started to really gel. We got to a place just in that one place where we were gelling really nicely. That was an exciting signal to how it will be in the future.
“The Kingston show made me even more motivated to get out there and do that.”
What’s next for Muzz? You mentioned the material you were writing and the covers, do you have any next steps?
Paul: “LP 2.”
Matt: “Working on the next record and hopefully booking some shows when it’s possible.”
Muzz’s Covers EP and eponymous album are out now via Matador