Before Its Cambridge Room Show, We Talk Geography With Magic Man.
Magic Man initially formed in New England circa 2010, but it's taken influence from all around the globe. For instance: The band boasts a song inspired by the band's Texas ties, and the band's name itself is derived from the nickname of a guy they met in France.
Throughout the course of its travels, the band's been largely shaped by its experiences on the road, evolving from a self-proclaimed “glorified karaoke act” to a full-on, high-energy pop rock band. And after countless national tours as openers — namely in support of indie pop rock acts New Politics, Walk the Moon and Panic! at the Disco — Magic Man is currently in the midst of its first headlining tour to promote its new album Before the Waves.
Before the band's show at the Cambridge Room this Sunday, we spoke with founding members Sam Vanderhoop Lee and Alex Caplow about the give-and-take nature of its live shows, and bribing each other to record guitar solos.
I wanted to start off by talking about your sound and evolution as a band, so I guess it's only appropriate to start from your beginnings. After watching several of your previous interviews, I was curious about your mention of “ze french magic man” and how he reacted to the music you showed him.
Sam Vanderhoop Lee (guitar): “I think Alex needs to do the impression.”
Alex Caplow (vocals): “Well, yeah, the Frenchman listened to our music and said it was just like 'Bankshfkjdsi,' and we're like, 'What?!' and he's like, 'Bandskhfks,' and we're like, 'What?!' Finally, we realized he was saying 'Band Street Beats,' which is the Animal Collective song — which is the last thing we thought he would be listening to. We were in a very rural part of the middle of nowhere in Southern France and he didn't seem like he'd be into Animal Collective, but he definitely listened to a lot of cool music, so that was a big compliment when we showed him our early stuff and he liked it. We were hesitant to show him at first because we were making weird music, but he understood exactly what we were going for and really appreciated it. And then he encouraged us to keep writing and would say, 'Keep going, keep going!'”
Since he was the first person you really started showing your music to, is that why he was important enough to name your band after him?
Alex: “Yeah, definitely. We were playing with a bunch of different names and we made a list of different words that we liked, and we liked band names to have alliteration and just kinda roll of the tongue. So when we heard his nickname was Magic Man, it just seemed right.”
As you've now released your album, and made that jump from self-proclaimed karaoke group to identifying as a rock band, how would you describe your sound?
Sam: “I think in the past, we were kind of referring to the very beginning where we played one or two shows, where it was just a band playing over a backing track. I was playing a little bit of guitar and Alex was singing, and it just seemed a little like karaoke. So once we started adding the other instruments, it really felt more alive, like a rock band. It's a more standard lineup, with drums, guitar, keyboard, bass. I think in a lot of ways, our sound is pretty different from a traditional rock band, in the fact that we're using a lot of electronic things. Y'know, in the beginning, it was must just about being excited about playing, and just putting little, electronic beats with a full drum kit was really exciting. It's a lot more fun.”
Alex: “And people love that live element to the sound — especially when we're playing these basement DIY venues with crappy sound systems. If you have a big drum kit and the loud bass guitar and loud guitar, everyone's going crazy. It brings the energy so much more than trying to play the music through a little speaker. People can feel it.”
Would you say, then, that you're a rock band that doesn't necessarily play quote-unquote rock music?
Sam: “I guess we don't really think about it all that much. In a lot of ways, we are sort of a rock band; we play rock instruments, there's some rock beats. I think we're just less concerned about that, whereas a lot of other bands say that. We're just kind of finding a sound that we really like, that works on the record and also at the shows.”
Alex: “There are some guitar solos — or riffs.”
Sam: “Yeah, Alex hates guitar solos.”
Alex: “I don't hate guitar solos!”
Sam: “Every guitar solo in the recording, I have to pay him, like 20 bucks per guitar solo, so we get to keep them in the songs.”
Sam: “No, that's not entirely true.”
Alex: “We don't really even know what 'rock music' means anymore. The songs that we write are, at the root of it, maybe pop songs or just songs that have rock chords. I guess a lot of songs are that way. I think everyone has their own definition of what rock and pop is. I think if we picked one genre that defined us, we would be OK with the idea of being a rock band or pop. Whatever you want to call it, really.”
Three of the songs on your album are titled after specific locations. How did Paris, Texas and Chicago inspire these songs, if at all?
Sam: “Pretty much all of these places were like little writing exercises or tricks when we're writing a song to use a place close to us and craft the song from there. It's definitely our specific experience there, rather than writing sort of a history of Paris or a history of Texas, we're writing what that place means to us in. It could be the particular context of a relationship or even a trip or something like that.”
Alex: “Yeah, 'Chicagoland' is actually indirectly about Chicago. There was a group of our friends after we moved to Providence who had a warehouse space that they used to throw parties and shows. They invited us to play one of our first shows there, and it was just such a magical experience. We didn't really know anyone there in the city yet, but when you walked in you were sort of transported out of Providence into sort of a smaller, coastal city. I felt sort of at peace. So we called it Chicagoland. So that was sort of how we made our whole group of friends and got into the music scene, in Providence. It's my love of Chicago, to be honest. It's a beautiful, awesome city. All the places that we write about are definitely important to us — whether it's because of the tour, relationships or people that we meet there.”
By singing these songs, that refer to specific locations, do you witness a change among the crowd when you play in Chicago for example?
Alex: “Definitely. They get super excited. We've seen it in Chicago. We haven't gotten a chance yet to play it in Paris, but someday! It will be a glorious moment, I think. People have a lot of pride for where they're from, and touring bands that do play all over will try to appeal and make it special to your show. Whether it's when the band just yells out the name of your city, people really love that. It's less going through the motions and more realizing that this show is significant to the place we're playing. In Texas, I think it's really special.”
Since it makes those moments more sentimental, do you ever name your songs based off of locations intentionally?
Sam: “I wouldn't say it was something we needed when we were writing the songs, it just kind of came out and was added. We definitely don't think, 'Oh, let's sing this song and it'll be our secret weapon.' Maybe we should name one of our songs New York, because they are the least enthusiastic crowd. Maybe we'll just add their name so we can generate some excitement. It's never something we decide from the beginning, but it becomes an added bonus once you get to play those songs in the specific places.”
Alex: “The tradition really started from a song off of our first record called 'South Dakota.' When we actually played it, it was very beautiful moment. Then there was another song called 'Nova Scotia,' but we haven't played it there yet.”
Further addressing the song Texas: Why call it that? The song mentions “being from the south, but belonging in the north,” but does the song actually root its meaning in our state? What has your experience been in Texas?
Alex: “We got invited to play SXSW when we were still in college, before the band was truly fully formed, and we played one show. We had this one kind of show in a coffee shop. Not that many people showed up, but it was still just an awesome, formative, first festival experience for us. So we had that Texas association. Also, one of my best friends is from there. She invited me to come visit her in her hometown. It's where she grew up, and I got a better understanding of her home and her family. The song is sort of this whole big picture of how she became the person that she is. Every time that happens, it's sort of this memorable moment because when you care about someone, people and places and things all sort of come together naturally. So, it has a special place in my heart.”
You've mentioned it's nice to perform with the album out now because the audience can react and sing along. How do fans impact your performance?
Sam: “I would say it's easy to feed off the energy of the crowd. When you have a great crowd, it's easier to tie into it and bring your A game, just kind of leave it all on the stage. We love playing to fans when they're showing their enthusiasm. We're definitely not a band who wants people to sit politely and watch. We want people excited and dancing and getting rowdy. Those are definitely my favorite shows to go to.”
Alex: “Oh, for sure. When I see a video of myself playing a show where we're not getting a lot of crowd reaction or I'm feeling uncomfortable, it's sort of a downer. We bring our energy no matter what, but when we're looking more tense, it goes away when the crowd starts singing along. It's reaching out to them and bringing the energy up.”
Do you view it as somewhat of a partnership in that way? If the audience is going crazy, then you're more willing to dance around and have fun with it?
Alex: “Oh yeah, definitely. The band-fan relationship is the most beautiful, perfect, symbiotic relationship, because it's just sending energy back and forth. We release the music and they show up to support us. It's all love going back and forth, just feeding off those positive vibes and people making sure you're happy.”
Magic Man performs on Sunday, March 29 at the Cambridge Room.