Cut Worms on signing to Jagjaguwar, songwriting giants + the commercialization of music

Photo by Em Grey

To see Cut Worms play live is to be transported to an unfamiliar and possibly unknown time and place. Without having to say a word, he commands your attention when he takes the stage. His show uniform is slacks and a bright, slightly oversized red button-down shirt I imagine was either dug out of a cool uncle’s closet or from a hip vintage store. His presence is both mysterious and friendly. You’re not sure what to expect, then he starts playing.

Max Clarke (aka Cut Worms) harkens comparisons to Bob Dylan, Lou Reed, or Leonard Cohen. To Everly Brothers, Buddy Holly, and obscure artists he’s never heard of. The familiarity could be found in his old-timey and charismatic vocals. Or perhaps in his simple melodies that make room for his lyrics spinning stories leaving you either wanting more details or filling the voids with your own memories.

I think songwriting like any art is a kind of alchemy, and it’s best not to try too hard to figure out what it all “really means.” — Max Clarke

His harmonies are reminiscent of the 60s or 70s. They may make you think of Beach Boys or Simon & Garfunkel. If you could bottle the feeling of a dewy summer evening, it’d be found in the single, “Like Going Down Sideways.” The title track of his upcoming EP, Alien Sunset feels like it belongs in an artsy surf documentary. But there’s more to Cut Worms’ sound. His perfectly executed finger-picking brings an energy that makes his songs uniquely his. His unapologetic uniqueness and musical style remind me of Ry Cooder.

Following a six-year stint in Chicago where he went to art school and played in punk band The Sueves, Max moved to New York and began playing music as Cut Worms. After three years of performing in everything from empty basements to sold out ballrooms, people have taken notice.

He just signed to indie record label Jagjaguwar, home of Sharon Von Etten, Bon Iver, Angel Olsen, and many other greats. He’s opened for and toured with Woods, Frightened Rabbit, The Lemon Twigs, Foxygen, The Growlers, and several other indie rock favorites.

His first full-length EP, Alien Sunset was produced by Foxygen’s Jonathan Rado and will be released on October 20th. Below, Max and I talk about songwriting, getting signed, songwriting legends, and the future of music.

Cut Worms and his band — currently including Jarvis Taveniere and John Andrews of Woods — are on tour. See where you can catch them below.

Who is Cut Worms?

SB: When did you start writing songs?

Max Clarke: Soon after I picked up the guitar, which was around 12 years old. My mom got me a $5 guitar at a garage sale that had two strings on it and I figured out “Iron Man.” We got it fixed up and restrung for another $15. Then a couple of my cool uncles wrote me out a little booklet of chords and I went from there. I always wanted to write songs.

SB: The name Cut Worms came from a line in the William Blake poem, Proverbs of Hell. Blake’s work is known for his imagery often describing the colorful and unworldly visions he had. You too transport listeners to a past place and time much like Blake’s poems. Is that intentional in your songwriting or a product of your lo-fi recording and performance style?

MC: Without sounding too pretentious, I try to go after that ephemeral, otherworldly feeling in songs. Though that’s with melody and singing more than recording styles. It’s also not necessarily the past I’m going for, more outside of time all together.

I don’t fancy myself anywhere near the likes of Blake or any real poet, and I’m not always sure that what I take from his work is what he actually would’ve intended. But I think songwriting like any art is a kind of alchemy, and it’s best not to try too hard to figure out what it all “really means.”

Inspiration, comparisons, and thoughts on songwriting giants

SB: How do you feel about the comparisons to greats like Dylan or Cohen?

Max Clarke: Well, those are certainly flattering comparisons. They’re both giants and masters, and their influence permeates all music and even popular culture. They’ve both definitely had profound influences on me and my writing and performing style, and the devils should always get their due.

But I think comparing me or any other young act to one of the greats is like comparing the guy who invented the laser pointer to the guy who invented lasers. The former wouldn’t exist without the latter, and the former is also, generally not exploiting the full potential of the groundwork laid for them. With that in mind, what I do isn’t exactly like what those guys have done.

I think people compare music based on what they relate to and how it makes them feel. A lot of time when someone tells me about a connection they’ve drawn between me and some other artist, even if I don’t necessarily hear it, it’s usually intended as a compliment, so that’s nice.

SB: At the A Song A Day show, you finished with a moving Cohen cover just a few days after he passed. How have greats like him impacted your work?

MC: Like I said, him and people like Dylan, The Beatles, and Lou Reed have had a massive impact on my life. I have personal connections with their work. When they die, it’s like losing a family member, good friend, or kindred spirit.

Some of these people were gone before I even entered this world, so there was never any chance of me getting to meet, say, John Lennon but I was still sharing the planet with Lou Reed and Dylan and Leonard Cohen and because of that, you always have this crazy hope that you could maybe meet them someday, because it is physically possible.

Amid all the noise nowadays, there’s precious little that still makes me feel the way those peoples’ songs do, and aspiring to reach that level is a big part of what makes me do this to begin with. There’s really no young, contemporary artist who I’d care to impress. I feel like we’re all more or less working with the same stuff.

Even though it’s a pipe dream for me to think I’d ever meet one of the greats, there’s still this great sadness when they go, ’cause it’s like there’s one less person who’s worth trying to impress.

Photo by Em Grey

Signing to Jagjaguwar and the future of Cut Worms

SB: You just signed with Jagjaguwar, congrats! What does this mean for your career and your music? How will it impact your recording process and touring schedule moving forward?

MC: Thanks, yeah it’s definitely exciting — the prospect of reaching a wider audience. I don’t know what any of it means at this point. I will be playing more shows, that’s for sure. And there’s more things you have to do, plus I still have a day job to pay my bills. So really, I’m just busier. But I’m still just writing how I always have and trying to learn better ways of recording.

SB: You’re also an awesome illustrator and designer. Are you still freelancing in addition to working on your music? Can you share some of the work you’ve done?

MC: Thanks! Yes I still do that and I’m still usually pretty hard-up for cash…so if anyone reading this needs some work done, hit me up.

I’m pretty proud of the work I’ve done creating beer labels for Burn ’Em Brewing in Indiana. I make all their labels. It’s fun because they let me do outlandish and borderline offensive cartoon stuff. It’s also really good beer. I keep telling them they need to hit the bigger markets. All in due time, I suppose.

A sample of Max’s work for Burn ’Em Brewing

The future of music, streaming, and trying to ‘make it’ as an artist

SB: What’s your take on the future of music and streaming?

MC: I feel like everyone is overwhelmed with the rapid evolution of technology and how quickly things keep changing. I know I am. I grew up with cassette tapes and CDs and then quickly went through mp3s and iPods and now it’s all just in “the cloud” or whatever. The formats got smaller and smaller till they literally did not even exist in the real world anymore.

All these streaming services make it so that you don’t get to have the music — you just have access to it, provided you have wi-fi. And the only price is that you have to listen to ads.

As with all music formats over the years, there’s always some excuse why the artist doesn’t get the lion’s share or (sometimes any) of the money from the music being played. This time around, it’s all the advertising people who are getting paid. They run the whole thing. I think that’s unfortunately where the music industry is at and where it’s heading in the immediate future — further commercial exploitation.

Rock and roll has been totally co-opted by ad agencies to sell blue jeans and cell phones and everything else. So to think by being a musician you’re somehow rebelling against “the system,” is pretty deluded. It all looks pretty grim right now to me, but I’m still going to keep trying to write songs and play honestly and make something positive out of it.

SB: We all know it’s tough for musicians out there today, typically requiring constant touring to make a living. What do you think takes to make it as an artist in your genre today?

MC: I’m still pretty green as far as being a proper touring musician, but considering that touring is nearly the only avenue left to a musician to make a living, I’d say it requires a good deal of mental fortitude and belief that you’re doing some kind of good by bringing people together at live shows.

The fact is, there’s so many bands out there. The whole thing can fall apart pretty easily if you start to feel like you’re replaceable. You have to trust that it’s not a completely selfish endeavor, and it really is a job — you can’t just believe the Instagram myth of it.

Photo by Em Grey

Cut Worms tour dates

Sat. Oct. 14 || Montclair, NJ || Outpost in the Burbs 
Mon. Oct. 16 || Sellersville, PA || Sellersville Theater 
Fri. Oct. 20 || Los Angeles, CA || Teragram 
Sat. Oct. 21 || Los Angeles, CA || Teragram 
Sun. Oct 22 || Nashville, TN || City Winery 
Tue. Oct. 24 || St. Louis, MO || Delmar Hall 
Wed. Oct. 25 || Kansas City, MO || Knuckleheads 
Fri. Oct. 27 || St. Paul, MN || Turf Club 
Sat. Oct. 28 || St. Paul, MN || Turf Club 
Sun. Oct. 29 || Milwaukee, MN || Turner Hall 
Tue. Oct. 31 || Chicago, IL || Lincoln Hall 
Thur. Nov. 2 || Brooklyn, NY || Baby’s All Right (EP Release Show)

Big thanks to Julia Maehner for editing this piece and for pushing me to be a better writer. ❤