Cut Worms

May 8, 2019

A Cut Worms song may impress an innocent summer stroll across fields of tall grass and lavender — but there’s undoubtedly a severed ear out in there in the grass. Some unseen dark forces are always lurking at the edges of songs’ sunbursts. Bright, beautiful lap steel or a cheery harmonica accompaniment often belie an impending doom or crestfallen narrator. Max Clarke didn’t necessarily seek out a life as full-time musician. Before releasing music under the moniker of Cut Worms, Clarke went to school for illustration with the idea of a sensible career in graphic design, then took on a string of handy- man type odd jobs. Still, songwriting – that semi-secret practice Clarke had been cultivating since the age of 12 – kept gnawing at him. It was the only sort of work that didn’t feel like work. Plus, if there’s ever a time to do something as unreliable, unrealistic, and imprudent as throwing yourself wholly into music, might as well be done when you’re in your twenties.

Tell us a little bit about yourself and what you do. 

Among other things, I’m a song writer and musician—in that order, I think. I’ve become a somewhat better musician over the years of playing, however I’ve always felt the song is what its about. I think of myself as working within a long-standing tradition of what, for lack of a better term, I’ll call popular song – which I see as a sort of patchwork that stretches from here and now back a hundred or a hundred and fifty years at least—the origins go back much farther obviously but I’m interested in the past hundred or so years. Each “patch” being a little 2-7 minute window into some netherworld—that reflects whats going on in this one, but exists outside of time. I hope to contribute something, however small, to that medium — Song — as a mode of telling a lot of story in a small amount of time akin to the short-story or sonnet.  

Photo by Joyce Lee

What sparked your interest in music and how did you get started?

I was interested in music as soon as i was conscious i think… most people are, it’s as natural and essential as breathing, i think humans need it to survive. I always sang to myself as a kid or along with the radio or what tapes or CDs were around. But I was always very private about it. I would have been horrified to learn that someone had heard me. There’s still a part of me that feels that way, kind of a big part, which makes this “profession,” if you can call it that, a difficult one for me, but I feel I have to do it for some reason. I guess around 10 or 11 an uncle of mine brought a guitar around at family gatherings and seeing one played in person made me feel that I had to learn how to do it. My first reaction was a kind of barely-contained laughter, it seemed like magic to me. 

What are some recent or current projects you’re working on?

I’ve been working on a mess of new songs—also my girlfriend just wrote and directed a short film which I’m going to attempt to help her do the score for, which is something I’ve always wanted to do.

How has living in Brooklyn affected your music?

It’s inspiring to me in a lot of ways because I think of all the cultural giants of the past century who have lived here or passed through here… Not just Brooklyn but New York City and New Jersey—all the vocal groups that sang on street corners around here and how that music evolved into rock and roll. Poets and writers and filmmakers who lived here. There’s so much history, I only know a sliver of it, but it feels like sacred ground to me. Seems like there’s a lot of ghosts. I don’t like to see all the aggressive consumerism that’s so prevalent now. In some ways I feel like I missed what was “the real New York.” I don’t pretend to know what that was or what it was like back then (whenever that was) but any time I’ve talked to older people who have lived here for years, I do always get this sense from them that maybe something was lost.   

On your debut LP Hollow Ground, I feel that you’ve married the sounds of multiple genres. Can you describe your influences for this album?

It’s hard to say what’s an influence. Mid-20th century pop, R&B (or what they called R&B in the early 60s which was people like Arthur Alexander) mixed with hillbilly country and folk songs. That’s what i like so that’s what comes out I think. 

Can you tell us about how you approach your writing/recording process?

It kind of approaches me. I just try not to screw it up too bad. Tends to happen though.

Do you feel your music is an extension of your illustrations or do you separate these two practices?

I wouldn’t say it’s an extension. Both are extensions of me in that I’m the one that makes them, but they live outside of me. I guess I do think of them as separate to some extent, but they do converge regularly. 

In your opinion, what is one of the bigger challenges you and/or other musicians are struggling with these days and how do you see it developing?

I really can’t speak for other musicians or anyone but myself, but from my perspective it seems like everyone is just trying to figure out where and how they figure into everything that’s going on right now. I think the internet and social media have blown everything wide open—connecting everything on this seemingly all-inclusive forum, which is great in some ways but I think it also heightens the anxiety level in regard to the output of “content.” It seems like a big driving force of the whole thing is to try to make other people jealous of you in one way or another, which I don’t see as a particularly healthy or meaningful way of living—much less a reason for making anything.

What are some future goals you have for your work and music?

I want what I think anyone in this line of work wants—to make something that’s enduring and speaks to some truth about being alive and that has some prayer of meaning something to someone.

Can you share one of the best or worst reactions you’ve gotten as a result of your music?

The best reactions I’ve heard from people are when they say that a song has in some way enhanced or been intertwined in a moment in their lives. It’s amazing to me any time someone says that a song has affected them or their life in some way. The worst reactions, to me, are just when people, acting as critics, whether by trade or self-proclaimed, list off three or four bands or artists that I sound like to them with an air that they’ve kind of “figured it out” or something. I think it just misses the point. It’s like a snot-nosed kid going up to the magician at a birthday party and sneering that he knows how he did all his tricks.