The Anniversary

Mastered By Guy At The Exchange Turns 20

Domino/Tigerbeat6
2002
Domino/Tigerbeat6
2002

If you’re reading this, you probably know that Max Tundra has a good claim to being the Daddy of Hyperpop. The London musician born Ben Jacobs hasn’t released anything as Tundra since 2008, but his name has been popping up a lot lately, usually in connection with fellow Londoner A.G. Cook, whose PC Music productions did more than anything else to codify the hyperpop genre. Cook seems to be on a mission to spread the Tundra gospel past its small and cultish following of music-crit types, giving his “Lights” a place of honor when Spotify asked him to curate its inaugural “Hyperpop” playlist, remixing his tracks and being remixed by Tundra in turn.

Listening to 2002’s Mastered By Guy At The Exchange — released 20 years ago today — it’s easy to understand why Cook was so taken with Tundra’s work. This is an album that spits out ideas at an overwhelming rate, cramming short songs like the 1:40 “Lights” and the 1:56 “Merman” with a rock opera’s worth of sections, solos, beat-switches, hooks, asides, and interludes. It’s pop, it’s prog, it’s electronic, and it’s absolutely brain-frying on a first listen before its twists and turns start to make a skewed version of sense on subsequent spins. But if you’re going to call this hyperpop, it’s a good idea to step back and look at everything else that was being made around the turn of the millennium.

The late ’90s and early 2000s comprised one of pop’s most interesting post-genre moments. The Avalanches, DJ Shadow, and Jan Jelinek were scaring the shit out of everyone by making records entirely out of samples. Tokyo’s Shibuya district, home to some of the best-stocked record shops in the world, spawned retro-flipping acts like Pizzicato Five, Cornelius, and Kahimi Karie. Pop and mainstream rap were biting from bhangra, dark ’70s funk, and rave music, with producers like Timbaland, Missy Elliott, Organized Noize, and the Neptunes making music as interesting as anything from the underground. The puff and snap of IDM, the frenetic rhythms of drum ‘n’ bass, and the pops and clicks of microhouse were expanding the possibilities of drum programming. Stereolab were turning lounge music into krautrock, or vice versa. Tortoise were jamming over breakbeats. Everyone seemed to suddenly realize the Beach Boys were badass.

Mastered By Guy At The Exchange was born of this moment: an album that takes these recombinant styles and combines them even further. If you’re going to call this album hyperpop, you could lob the same term at Mouse On Mars’ Idiology, Sufjan Stevens’ Enjoy Your Rabbit, the Soft Pink Truth’s Do You Party?, Señor Coconut’s El Gran Baile, or Gorillaz’s self-titled debut. Pop is in the middle of a similar moment right now, and both hyperpop and the contemporary strain of rap-as-rock-as-pop represented by the likes of Post Malone, Lil Peep, and XXXTentacion rejoice in the idea of a world where anything is fair game for cannibalization.

There are two crucial differences between what Tundra represents and what hyperpop represents. Firstly, Exchange is clearly a pre-Information Age artifact. Max Tundra’s main instrument is the Amiga 500, an early mass-market home computer whose reputation today rests largely on its capabilities as a gaming console – including its great sound, which made it ideal for Tundra’s music-making. The Amiga came out in 1987, the year Jacobs became a man according to Jewish tradition, and the young musician immediately spent his bar mitzvah money on the machine. Exchange has an alluring, patchwork cheapness to its sound; it plays like something painstakingly assembled with crude equipment, which indeed it was. “The finished songs appear in my skull and rely on my persistent purchase and rental of the authentic musical instruments necessary to carry out the compositions as faithfully as possible to their mental picture,” he said after his debut, 2000’s instrumental Some Best Friend You Turned Out To Be.

The second, and the reason Exchange doesn’t really play like hyperpop in the modern sense, is that Jacobs has no interest in exalting pop-cultural detritus. One of the most liberating qualities of hyperpop is the way it swallows up guilty-pleasure genres and processes them into pop art. Traces of nu-metal, third-wave ska, mall-punk, bubblegum pop, funk-metal, post-grunge, EDM, gabber, Auto-Tuned pop-rap, and electro-party-trash like Ke$ha and LMFAO can be found in 100 gecs’ “mememe” alone. There are traces of bubblegum on Exchange, most explicitly in “Lysine,” but there’s no sense that he’s trying to put Britney Spears or Spice Girls on a pedestal.

Instead, Exchange is an unapologetically highbrow work rooted in crate-digging curiosity, much more akin to the Shibuya-kei artists fawning over Burt Bacharach and the Beach Boys than teens mashing formative Napster files together. Jacobs claimed at the time that his music “was helped along by all the insipid, samey rubbish that was flooding the shelves,” citing Boards Of Canada as one of the worst offenders. Jean-Luc Godard once said that the best way to criticize a movie is to make another movie, and that seems to be what Jacobs is doing on a musical level with Exchange. His lyrics read like music criticism at times, with “Acorns” name-dropping the obscure English band Stars In Battledress going into detail about the breakup of the legendary math-rock band Don Caballero. “Lysine” imagines the lonely death of an electronic artist (possibly his own) that amounts to an obituary from David Toop and “one less laptop loop.”

The most telling name-drop happens on “Merman,” when Jacobs exalts the influence of Time And A Word, the orchestra-drenched second album by a fledgling Yes. (The song itself is more akin to Henry Cow’s “War;” both are two-minute ditties that stop in the middle to indulge in jazz-piano noodling but pack more than enough content to overwhelm.) Jacobs is a prog geek at heart, and even if the album lacks a 10-plus-minute epic like his 1998 debut single “Children At Play,” Best Friend’s “Carbon Cones,” or “Until We Die” from 2008’s Parallax Error Beheads You, the way head-twisting textures come and go at will – and the stair-stepping strings at the end of “Pocket” – should ring a bell with anyone whose brain craves the complexity of prog rock.

Exchange was the first Max Tundra album with vocals. Around the time of Best Friend, he announced he would be singing his next album “in an English accent,” which seems odd given that Jacobs himself is English. But going out of one’s way to sing in an English accent is a rich tradition, starting when brainy Brit bands like the Kinks and Pink Floyd consciously resisted the temptation to sound like their American influences. Jacobs’ vocal style is in this vein, no doubt filtered through prog and his beloved XTC, and he has no qualms about sounding like the smart, culturally literate Englishman he is. He’s not an acrobatic vocalist, leaving most of the high notes to his sister Becky, whose similarly accented and slightly staid voice must have subconsciously stuck in Cook’s brain when he was deciding what to do for clients like QT and Hannah Diamond.

Becky commands the mic on “Labial,” the record’s final track, which acts as a sort of mission statement for Tundra’s whole schtick. “I only sing about things that happen to me,” Becky sings as Ben. “I never learnt how to fill my songs with allegory.” Indeed, the fantastical sound-world Ben creates is offset by a striking mundanity present in the album’s very title. The last section of the seven-minute “Cabasa” is devoted to describing something his cat did. The very first lines of the album find him complaining prematurely about getting old, as 28-year-olds tend to do. “Lights” is literally about writing the album the song is on. All the Toop-talk, then, can be seen not as the flexing of a musical trivia-master but the daily thoughts of a plugged-in artist circa ’02.

Jacobs claimed circa Parallax that he wants listeners to respond to his music “sexually,” and though his love for synth-squiggles and frantic drumbeats suggests the super-freaky 1980s tradition of Zapp, Rick James, and Prince, Max Tundra doesn’t need to put on spandex and create a grandiose persona to be sexy. Jacobs is a witty, physically attractive, wildly talented dude who, as several songs make clear, is fully capable of stealing a guy’s girlfriend. This isn’t flexing but fact, like when Phil Elverum talks about hanging with Skrillex or how girls always say his skin is smooth or how much ass he got after The Glow Pt. 2. This is who he is; what you think of him is irrelevant. It’s as true of his personality as his work. Both are central to his appeal.

Jacobs hasn’t released a record since Parallax Error Beheads You, though he shows up from time to time in a low-key fashion: a remix here and there, an appearance deep in the margins of Matmos’s three-hour monster The Consuming Flame. In 2018 – in a gesture that feels just as much like an act of music criticism as Tarantino’s hiring of Travolta for Pulp Fiction felt like film criticism – he wrote and produced an album for British pop footnote Daphne & Celeste, notorious for being bottled offstage at 2000’s Reading Festival. He leapt at the chance to feed them lines like “sub-Dylan balladry was okay before the Fairlight was invented.” It was a delightful record.

Jacobs isn’t some kind of reclusive hermit. It’s simply that he has a partner and a son and a 9-to-5 office job, so music is a low priority for him. He’s working on a fourth album (“it would be rude not to”), but he has no idea when it’ll be finished. In the meantime, he’s reissued his three Tundra albums and put out a Remixtape, with the likes of Kero Kero Bonito, Katie Dey, Colin Self, and Julia Holter re-imagining his old songs. Jacobs seems bemused and accepting of his place as the guiding light to a generation of brash young artists, but what does he really think about being the Daddy of Hyperpop? His fourth album will no doubt spell it out in great detail.

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