Outside of major releases from big name artists who put their albums on hold during the pandemic, one could say we are still in the thick of music’s “quarantine period” – a stretch in which many records being released were made during or directly inspired by the several months where most people’s days were spent indoors, away from others, and hiding from coronavirus. One could also argue that a majority of these “quarantine albums” fall into either one of two categories: the self-examining, home-recorded, inward-facing kind of album one makes when completely isolated for an extended period of time or the upbeat, vibrant, feel-good record that evokes a longing for normalcy and to be out among friends and other people.
Though mostly recorded before quarantine reached its apex, Maxton Hunter’s new EP Paradise Syndrome is the odd work that seemingly fits into both spheres. A deeply personal project comprised of introspective songs that delve into identity and lost love, there are traces of last year’s isolation woven into the album’s themes and lyrics. On the flipside, it is impossible to deny the music’s warm, sun-soaked ambiance, which blends elements of psych pop and modern indie rock to form a unique kind of hazy coastal tropicalia. More than anything, Paradise Syndrome is a California album, both inspired by and written about growing up in the golden glow and perpetual sunshine of America’s left coast.
Opening track “Trance With Me” is layered with infectious conga rhythms, shimmering guitars, and is doused in Hunter’s dear and loyal reverbs. “I Thought I Knew” melds funk, dance, and psychedelic balladry to create one of the album’s most upfront grooves, while the Lucy Branch-led harmonies on “Noosa,” a song largely written on a cigar box guitar, rival the spine-tingling rush of a brisk Pacific Ocean breeze. “The Death of Eliot Hall” sees Hunter adopting a more narrative-based approach to his writing, recounting the self-inflicted demise of of a peer consumed by substances and tragic life decisions, whereas “Savvy Sydney,” the EP’s closing track, works more like an atmospheric outro, with Hunter’s abstract refrains blending into a fading collage of drifting guitars and percussion.
Spanning just under 17 minutes in total length, Paradise Syndrome also arrives with instrumental versions of each song (available on Bandcamp), which in many ways, are just as sublime as the full recordings. These offer an even more intimate encounter with the EP’s dynamite mixing, punctuating its power as a cohesive listening experience, one that seems to be nudging you towards the approaching spring and summer, as if to say that brighter days are coming. Whether you are hell bent on getting outdoors and immersing yourself in nature or committed to residing to the couch and further indoor escapades, this album deserves to be in your rotation for either occasion as those seasons unfold.
We caught up with Maxton to chat about his new EP, his drive as a collaborator, the challenges of recording alone, and more. Check out the full conversation below.
What’s the story behind the Paradise Syndrome concept?
Maxton: Paradise Syndrome is a “medical condition” I thought I created, haha. Funny enough, I only found out just the other day that “The Paradise Syndrome” is coincidentally a Star Trek episode from 1968. What are the odds! For me, however, it most appropriately defines what I was feeling and observing around me in Santa Barbara’s beautiful but misleading bubble. Originally Paradise Syndrome was recorded as a full length 12-track concept album, however, I realized that a 6-track EP would be most effective. Those remaining 6 songs just may or may not see the light of day soon! We’ll see.
The music on this project has a very West Coast, even tropical-leaning, feel to it. What inspired you to push your sound in that direction?
Maxton: For as long as I could remember, I’ve always incorporated some element of tropical-leaning instrumentation into my music. I believe that living in California just naturally inspired some of those creative decisions. Aside from my obsession with guitars drenched in reverb, the heartbeat of a record is equally as important. If I could add congas and shakers on all my songs, I would. How The Stone Roses’ Reni and Khruangbin’s DJ incorporate their tropical elements onto a record is so inviting – it’s wild to hear how some of their simple rhythmic choices stacked a certain way can become so complex as a whole. Ringo Starr’s contributions across Sgt. Pepper and Abbey Road are also very worth noting!
There are multiple tracks here where you sing alongside another vocalist, more specifically, a couple of different female singers. What is it about the male-female vocal dynamic you find compelled to explore?
Maxton: The “Mark Ronson Method” is what I’m ultimately seeking to achieve as a writer. To be candid, I dread my voice. Many artists seem to at some level – even John Lennon was appalled by his voice, ha! Handing over the lyrics and melodies for them to sing has a beautiful effect. As a producer, working with talented vocalists gets me as close as possible to what I’m ultimately hearing in my head. Then, more importantly, as a friend, it builds stronger relationships and exciting opportunities together. I’m very grateful that everyone featured on the EP are not just random strangers for hire.
Looking back on the creation of these songs, from a lyrical standpoint, what are some of the major themes that stick out to you? What parts of your life were you drawing the most inspiration from?
Maxton: For me, “Trance With Me” sets the overarching theme. Although it’s an instrumental, I like to think that the title itself acts as a kind invitation to just trust me and dive into what you’re about to hear. After releasing my ambient debut, A Trance By The Sea, I knew I wanted to return to traditional songwriting while still incorporating those freeform elements. Specifically, The Beatles’ White Album and Tame Impala’s Innerspeaker drove me toward the more candid and live-band feeling whereas Brian Eno greatly inspired me with the importance of space within songs, which you can definitely hear throughout the EP. After listening back to the EP, I also realized that the themes are actually in reverse order. From positively introducing myself at the time of recording to then slowly submerging into acknowledgements of an alternative past life, if that makes sense.
There is a subversive element to the lyrics on “The Death of Eliot Hall.” What’s the background of that particular track?
Maxton: “The Death Of Eliot Hall” is a song about a young man’s ghost reading his own obituary. After drunk driving one late evening, his swerving tragically led him off a cliff. The twist of the story is that he doesn’t immediately recognize what happened to himself until the end of the song. Blending the third and first person perspectives really allowed me to relate to this character. It’s quite a heavy topic, now that I’m reflecting on it more, however, it can ultimately happen to anyone, which I really wanted to shine a light on. Featuring my good friend Cameron was a mega choice because his guitar playing is absolutely phenomenal. Our goal was to lighten up the choruses more and offer that ’90s Oasis nostalgia. We for sure yelled “Mad fer it!” at some point during the session, haha.
You play a majority of the instruments on these recordings yourself. What are some of the biggest challenges of taking so much ownership of your sound?
Maxton: Hands down, engineering and mixing everything is the biggest challenge. It’s also my favorite part of record-making. Although undoubtedly intimating, mixing has become equally as creative as the initial writing process. I genuinely recommend that every musician learns as much as they possibly can! At least learning the basic language is so beneficial when entering other studios especially. To avoid going mad, I do typically force myself to also embrace the imperfections and leave in the occasional musical slip-ups, hence no audio tune was used either (gasp)! Shadowing my mastering engineer, Lu Moreno at In The Mix Studios, was another special opportunity. His wizard-like abilities controlling frequencies are absolutely wild and taught me so much, especially in regards to phasing.
Would you say the creative journey is more rewarding because of that taking on more responsibility?
Maxton: In a recent interview, Kevin Parker actually summed this feeling up perfectly: “There’s just something about making music on my own that just reaches a different part of me.” It’s not that collaborating is a burden, I absolutely love it. Recording alone has just really taught me what I’m truly capable of. Those hidden ideas are always discovered the moment I let go and just be myself. That being said, I do have plans to record at different studios this year! A healthy creative diet is important because you’ll always learn something new.
As a body of work, what does this project represent in the grander scheme of the Maxton Hunter universe?
Maxton: All I can say is that Paradise Syndrome ultimately concludes chapter one. Every past project brought me to this collection of songs. Everything about the sound and the vibe of these songs just molded into a more grounded starting point that I trust embarking from. I’m so grateful for what’s happening now and for what’s on the horizon… Eager to release more!