By Jose Lopez-Sanchez of Dead Curious.
Magic Man seem to have settled pretty well into its new home in Brooklyn.
“It’s pretty comfy, as far as floors go,” jokes guitarist Sam Vanderhoop Lee, speaking from vocalist Alex Caplow’s apartment in the New York borough.
It’s the middle of February, and the founding members of Magic Man are over halfway through their biggest tour. They’ve already traversed the continental United States a couple of times, and have a third trip coming up for good measure. These guys have been friends and collaborators since childhood, and there’s a lived-in, unguarded quality to their interpersonal dynamic. Nobody speaks out of turn; they build on each other’s beat with the harmony that only springs from years of close collaboration.
They also seem to know the Brooklyn rental scene surprisingly well. “Bushwick is really artsy right now, but Crown Heights is gentrifying quickly, and has some nice quieter pockets. Bed-Stuy is great as well,” Vanderhoop Lee shares. “Cool stuff happening there!”
As our debate of different Brooklyn neighborhoods comes to an end, I had the chance to ask them a few questions about Magic Man’s origins, career highlights, and plans for the future.
Magic Man plays NYC’s Knitting Factory on March 11, as well as sold out shows at Music Hall of Williamsburg and Bowery Ballroom on March 14 and 15, respectively. The band visits DC’s Black Cat on March 12. Before the Waves is available now on Columbia Records.
It’s kind of curious that you found inspiration to make electronic music while working on a farm. How did the initial collaboration to make Real Life Color come about?
Sam: Yeah, it is kind of funny. One big thing is that it was just the two of us, working on a couple of different farms and hanging out with some strange and curious characters. [Laughs]. We kept to ourselves a fair amount, and in the middle of the day it was too hot to work, so we’d head inside and just started working on songs. We’ve known each other since pre-school, and have been friends since, so the relationship was always there.
Alex: The tools that we had were just a laptop with Garage Band on it, and this crappy guitar that didn’t even have six strings. So, the music we could make was really dictated by the instruments available, and we gravitated towards the electronic loops we were making. I started recording vocals over that, and we had this sort of Postal Service-esque collaboration going on. It was definitely strange.
The first guy who heard the music we were making was this young magician kid [in rural France] who called himself the Magic Man, and we named the band in his honor. He was listening to our stuff and he said, “Oh! This reminds me of Animal Collective!” How did he even know what Animal Collective is? [Laughs] It was this random part of very rural Southern France, and he was really into Animal Collective. But you know, electronic music is everywhere. [Laughs]
What kind of farms were you guys working on? Were you woofing?
Sam: Yeah, we were woofing. We worked on a couple of farms. One of them was a bed and breakfast in this old chateau, which also had a replica medieval garden of what the chateau had hundreds of years ago. The second farm didn’t actually grow anything, but they hosted a circus festival, so we essentially just hung out with circus performers the whole time and helped them put on this event. Lots of characters around. [Laughs].
How did the transition from being an electronic/synth duo to a full-fledged band happen?
Sam: In the beginning it was because we couldn’t get the sound we wanted at shows with just the two of us. We realized we were enjoying this bigger, bolder sound, and decided to begin composing and recording with more instrumentation, with this full-bodied sound.
What excites you guys about the music scene right now?
Sam: One thing I particularly like about the music scene and the music industry right now is how connected you can be as a band with your fans, whether it’s via social media – Twitter, Facebook; that kind of thing. You can interact directly with the people who are listening to your music. You can get to know them and see them at your shows, and then they’ll tweet at you, and you can put a face to the listeners, which is really cool.
Alex: I definitely feel inspired by a lot of 80s era sounds and films, with analog sounds and synths. We try to get as distinct of a sound as possible. The goal is to keep it sonically fresh and interesting.
Sam: And there’s something great about playing on those old synths, of an instrument that’s making notes with electrical voltaging. You can play the same notes on a modern sampler, or a software synth, with more effects at your disposal; but there’s still something intangible and inspiring about using older gear and playing with those limitations to create music. I mean, people have been having this debate forever, talking about vinyl versus mp3, and recording on tape versus digital.
Is this the first musical project for either one of you, or did you play in bands before this took off?
Sam: Our first band was a garage rock band called Yellow Snow, and we probably spent more time designing t-shirts and arguing over what we were going to play than we actually did playing music. [Laughs]. We did have a couple of covers down, but our original material wasn’t too developed.
Alex: Then we were in a more successful band in high school. We did a little bit of everything, and both of us played instruments, but it wasn’t until Magic Man started that we began to take music seriously.
Working with a certain producer can have a great deal of influence on sound. How is working with Alex Aldi?
Sam: Working with Alex is great. We released the stuff we recorded in France before, but Alex is really the first producer we’ve recorded with deliberately. He has a great technical knowledge, and he really helped us develop the sounds we recorded on the demos, getting them to their full potential.
What are some highlights of Magic Man’s run so far?
Sam: We’ve been super lucky so far. I think for me, the two hometown holiday parties we played were a real high point. We got to play two sold out shows with our friend’s band, and it was a wonderful way to end the year of touring, playing in for our friends and family, as well as some of our most loyal fans. That was really awesome.
Alex: This was definitely our best tour yet. We’ve got a bigger team together, and we love our tour manager and everyone we’re working with; we all just got along so well. It was the first tour we weren’t crossing the country in a van anymore. We had a mini tour bus, and were sleeping there every night, so it just felt like things fell into place. It was a much better lifestyle than those late night drives, for sure. The vibe has been so good.
Of the bands you’ve toured with and played with, is there any one band you’ve forged a deep, positive relationship with?
Alex: We have positive relationships with all the bands we’ve toured with. You grow close pretty quickly when you’re on the road together, and watch each other play night in and night out. We’ve particularly grown close to Walk the Moon, who we went on two tours with – we have very similar nerdy and clean cut approaches to music, and life in general. [Laughs]. It’s one of the best times of being on tour. You get to hang out with these bands who end up becoming some of your best friends.
You’ve been touring in support of Before the Waves for the better part of a year. Are you looking to go back into the studio any time soon? What’s morale in the camp like?
Sam: Morale is great! We’ve been on the road, and since the album has been out for a while, it’s nice to see people in the audience sing along to some of the deeper cuts versus just the lead singles. We’ve been working on some new stuff recently, and hope to try some of it out on the upcoming tour.
Alex: I mean, I think we’d be happy if we got a world tour offer, you know? [Laughs]. We’d love to travel around internationally playing and touring the album, and continuing to promote it. But I just don’t expect that to happen right now, and it’s so expensive to try and put that together. Eventually we plan on winding down this tour, and work on the next album, and see how it goes.