New England five-piece Magic Man bring triumphant synth pop to the Casbah on July 8
If Rocky had been a New Wave fan, he’d have run up the steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art to the beat of Magic Man’s drums — and keys and guitar and bass and synth and all of the above, because these New England kids know how to inspire that pumped-up super rock of the victorious. So much so that they’ve actually termed this sense to convey their sound: triumphant synth pop. They’re bringing it to San Diego for the win on Tuesday, July 8, when the quintet hit the Casbah to kick off their first-ever headlining tour.
It’s set to be an evening of firsts for Magic Man, whose debut LP, “Before the Waves,” drops the same day. The 12-song record unfolds with ’80s power surges and modern electronic layers that peel back to reveal track after track of quivering, galactic dance episodes that break open into climactic, genial keys and seductive coos on “Paris” before reaching catharsis in “Tonight,” rich with choral textures and, of course, triumph.
It’s all full circle for frontman Alex Caplow (vocals) and Sam Lee (guitar), lifelong friends who formed Magic Man while working on an organic farm in France as part of a WWOOF exchange. They’ve since expanded their sound and crew to include Gabe Goodman (bass), Justine Bowe (keys), and Joey Sulkowski (drums) — but more on that below.
Here, Lee talks legit musical logistics and partying with the guys of New Politics in San Diego, and Caplow finds his voice in time to have some Magic Man revelations and totally butcher a SoCal affectation before we become the three best friends that anybody could have.
Hannah Lott-Schwartz: I’ve been listening to the new album a lot, and while I know it’s not out yet, could you guys give me a sense of how it builds off your “Real Life Color” EP?
Sam Lee: Yeah, well the San Diego show is particularly exciting: It’s the first of the tour, and it’s actually the day our album comes out — it’s going to be our little release party. And in terms of the EP vs. the album, I think we’re definitely an album band and album listeners. We really like to listen to albums all the way through, start to finish, rather than just listening to a single or only downloading favorite songs or whatever. It might be a little old fashioned, but that’s still how I make music. So it’s really exciting — it’s the first time to think about our music in that way and think about not just each song but how the songs relate to each other and how they can kind of form a longer narrative.
HLS: So what narrative are you guys working on with this new album then?
SL: With the EP there are only five songs. We were debating having fewer songs, maybe four or even three songs — that’s how long EPs are — so it was all about cramming all the songs, putting as much as possible in a short space of time. The album had more space to breathe. I personally like to think of it the way it’s going to sound on vinyl, kind of like a side A and a side B and structuring it that way, having a start and an end to the first half and a start and an end to the second half as well.
HLS: You had a change in bass players in the last few months. How’s that transition been?
SL: Well, Daniel [Radin, the former bass player] was one of the first people to join the band aside from Alex and I. So it’s kind of, it’s really tough and a little sad to not be in Magic Man with Daniel anymore. But at the same time, he’s going on to work on his other band, the Novel Ideas, so we’re really excited for him to get that going full time. Gabe, we’ve known him since high school, and he’s a great guy and a great musician, so he stepped into Daniel’s shoes really well.
Alex Caplow: [Mumbles incoherently]
HLS: What’s that, Alex? You’re kind of muffled.
AC: I said he fit right in. It was destiny.
HLS: It was destiny. All right [laughs]. So how did you guys come to this type of music, this definition of sound?
AC: Well, the first band that Sam and I were in that we took seriously was this band in high school that we called Airships. We’d hang out with our friends Brandon and Tyler, a couple guitars, bass, drums, and we would really just try to make the most bombastic, huge-sounding, sad, triumphant rock music — basically often very derivative of Explosions in the Sky. It was just so much fun to play, and we were kind of trying to like strike up emotion with just melody and no words. Now that I think of it, this was the start of our collaboration as songwriters. And then we went to France, and we were writing our first song as Magic Man, and I was like, oh, we can record some vocals into the laptop. The recordings were like lo-fi — because of the technology we were using — lo-fi sounding songs, like these little pop songs buried under layers of drums and synth and things that made it sort of dreamy. And then when we started playing those songs live, we wanted to give them more energy than just like electronic loops and drums, so we had our friends join us, adding in these big beats, adding in guitar. And we’re like, hey, people get really into this — they dance to this — why don’t we write more music that’s specifically suited to this, be this rock band instead of this electronic duo project. That’s how the newer EP and newer album songs are sort of bigger in scale and more suited for our 5-piece live show. [Pause] That was a long answer, I’m sorry.
HLS: No, it’s okay. I’m glad to have you finally speaking [laughs]. So then was there a point for you guys where you were like, holy crap, this might be happening?
AC: I think that point — well, the first point was when we released “Real Life Color” on Bandcamp and then Pitchfork posted about it, and we were like, “What?!” We were not expecting anyone to even see that this existed, and all of a sudden blogs are posting about it. But even at that point, there are just so many bands that never go anywhere. So part of us thought that maybe we would just — our future was still very unclear until the moment that Derek and Lizzy of Neon Gold [Records] reached out and told us they wanted to work with us. That was the moment I think we were like, wow, if a record label’s gonna get involved in this and try to record us then we can, like, make our dreams come true and actually make a living and spend our lives making music.
HLS: You guys were out here just a few months ago when you were on tour with New Politics. Did you get into any trouble — good trouble — while here?
SL: I don’t think we got into any trouble. I do remember we went out with the guys from New Politics [after a show], and there was a point where — I think this was in San Diego — where David, the singer of New Politics, an incredible great dancer — he loves to dance. So we were in a bar, and there’s music playing, and he started dancing, and a circle formed around him, and usually he has no one to dance with him, but it was actually kind of funny to see some other people making like a little dance battle [laughs].
HLS: Sam, I’ve actually got a battle to pick with you. I read that you think the best burritos are at Anna’s Taqueria in Boston, and having lived there and knowing what that means, that just — it made me sad. So I would challenge you when you’re here to test that. Try our burritos, man! We’re so close to Mexico, and Anna’s is just — it’s New England.
AC: Anna’s was actually modeled after West Coast burrito style. It was from a guy who started in L.A.
HLS: Yeah, the West Coast thing must be a lie that they perpetuate at Anna’s.
SL: I think I did have a burrito in San Diego, and it was the largest burrito I’ve ever eaten. It was like the size of my head. It was delicious though.
AC: I’m still picking out Baja Burrito from my teeth right now. I don’t know, that’s kind of a West Coast style. It’s a Baja Burrito, brah.
HLS: You gotta throw the “brah” on. That’s how we all talk out here, obviously.
AC: Hella shrimp in that burrito, brah.
HLS: No! “Hella” — that’s NorCal, man [laughs].
AC: That’s NorCal?! Well, I’m all mixed up now.
HLS: That’s all BayBay. Yeah, so burritos and slang aside, that’s all I have for you guys. Is there anything you wanted to add about the new album, about your show in SD, about playing the Casbah, anything at all? What you had for breakfast, whatever?
SL: I had leftover Chinese food for breakfast.
AC: Nice [laughs]!