Cut Worms. As Max Clarke’s Bandcamp suggests, his nom de plume is either a call to violence, a vivid description, a type of pest or a reference to the William Blake poem, “Proverbs of Hell.”
Like his moniker, Clarke’s music has a certain mystical playfulness to it, making it deceptively difficult to pin down despite its ostensibly inviting veneer. Cut Worms’ “Hollow Ground” is like the back of a mysterious antique shop: its vintage warmth draws you in and the promise of giving life to the objects of someone’s storied past keeps you there, spellbound.
Clarke is a relative outsider when it comes to music. He started out as a graphic designer in Chicago, and songwriting was generally more peripheral for him, but he’s since moved to Brooklyn to pursue the thing he’s loved since he was 12.
“They’re [graphic design and music] both pretty hard…. I’m not really making a living as a musician quite yet. There’s a lot of uncertainty involved, and you never really are sure where the money is going to come from. Everyone has their own experience with it, but you kind of like force your way into it,” Clarke told me over the phone on Friday.
He seems to have forced himself into it pretty successfully so far, as Cut Worms are now signed to Jagjaguwar, one of the most successful indie labels of the last decade. And that partnership afforded Clarke the opportunity to work with Foxygen’s Jonathan Rado on his new album.
“It was good; I had a lot of fun out there doing that. Challenges were mainly that I had all of these demos … and I was trying to re-do them…. [Rado] understood what I was trying to do,” Clarke said.
Much of Cut Worms’ charm comes from the project’s demo feel. On his previous release, an EP called “Alien Sunset,” Clarke kept things lo-fi. On “Hollow Ground,” he stepped outside of his bedroom.
“With the LP, I just went into real studios to make that. That was a bit different than the EP. It’s slightly more hi-fi, just like, you know, in a bit more capable hands,” he said.
Whatever the fidelity, the mystery Clarke weaves into Cut Worms’ “Hollow Ground” comes from his poetic preoccupation with Hell -- whether in the form of Blake’s “Proverbs of Hell” or Rimbaud’s “A Season in Hell.”
“I don’t know, I mean I guess I was brought up like a lot of folks: Christian or Catholic or whatever. We didn’t go to church much, but all of that imagery was around a lot. I don’t know if I believe in Hell in the biblical sense or whatever. I guess it’s just that there’s a lot of suffering in this life,” Clarke said.
Suffering or not, Cut Worms craft retro soft rock that’s more and more nuanced with each listen. It’s not earth-shattering -- in fact, “Hollow Ground” is downright unassuming and knowingly naive -- but it’s certainly mesmerizing in its ominous pleasantness.
“I’m looking forward to going to a lot of different places I’ve never been. That’s exciting to me,” Clarke said.