MAGAS: "I'm A Lifer"

Interview by Erkki Rautio / pHinnWeb


25 March 2003 -- James Marlon Magas (Chicago, USA) has just released his longplay, Friends Forever, electro punk with the on-the-verge-of-aggressive vocals, on the influential Ersatz Audio label of Detroit, run by Adam Lee Miller, the other half of Adult. with Nicola Kuperus. Not just another bubble-headed wannabe newcomer to the fashionable electroclash scene, Magas is already a veteran of such avant-punk bands as Couch and Lake of Dracula and also runs Chicago's Weekend Records and Soap store with his wife Bridgette Wilson. Like Adult., Magas has remixed too Chicago's freak scene king, Bobby Conn. Mr. Magas shared with pHinnWeb some of his opinions from the Windy City via e-mail.

- So what's now happening in the life of Magas, any news?

My new album, Friends Forever, came out last Tuesday, so of course I'm very excited about that. I'm also preparing for a North American tour with ADULT., Viki and some others. I'm gonna be on this local TV show called Chic-a-go-go, and plans are being made to shoot a couple of low-budget videos.

- First a question about your musical background: how did you start making music in the beginning?

I started playing guitar, but wasn't very good at it, so I tried to make up for it by detuning it, turning it up as loud as possible attacking it as viciously as I could. I tried to find someone to be in a band with, but everyone that I would try to play with seemed so hung up on rules, keys, chords and whatnot. I just wanted to make some noise, not necessarily unstructured, but a structure of my own choosing. I didn't really find anybody that I clicked with, until Pete Larson and I started Couch. We formed, named the band and played our first gig all in one day.

- So, you had these avant-punk bands such as Couch and Lake of Dracula. How did you get into electro music from those?

Basically, I got tired of my bands breaking up. I wanted to be more self-reliant, but wasn't really sure how to go about it. I started looking at drum machines, after seeing my friends Wolf Eyes and Quintron using them effectively. After some research, I set my sights on the Roland MC-505, because it had multiple parts, just like a real band, only weirder. Not knowing anything at all about contemporary electronic music, I figured that I should find out what other people were doing, so I started picking up records by Wolfgang and Reinhard Voigt, Thomas Brinkmann, Pan sonic and so forth. Weird minimal stuff. I started making mostly instrumental tracks, but people who knew me as a singer said I should sing. So I started singing again. Although it seemed right to me, I wasn't really sure where I fit in.

A lot of my old friends who played guitar-based music seemed to feel like I'd lost my mind and "gone techno", but I didn't really feel like I fit in with techno people either -- they all had new, puffy jackets, sunglasses and "visuals". Was I supposed to have "visuals"? I'd show up to a gig with my 505 and people would ask "Where's the rest of your gear, dude?"

Eventually I started to learn that there were other people who were doing similar things to what I was doing. Bobby Conn gave me a Peaches demo and I thought, "Wow, I'm not the only one." During my first solo tour, people started introducing me to more artists who seemed to be on the same wavelength. This was electro, I was told. When I heard Ersatz Audio's compilation, The Forgotten Sounds of Tomorrow, it was all over. I was hooked.

- You seem to be into quite eclectic stuff, since you also mentioned to me being into Liimanarina, the legendary Finnish avant-noise-punk-whatever band on the not-less-legendary Bad Vugum Records... any other interesting favourites of yours?

I like just about any music where you can feel the soul and desperation of the performer pouring out of the speakers. This can be anything from country artists such as George Jones, Hank Williams, Ferlin Husky or Slim Whitman. Or moody, epic soundtrack work by Ennio Morricone. The abstraction of Captain Beefheart. The violence of Hanatarashi. The sweetness of the Carpenters. I've always been a music freak, so I'm always looking for something new to blow my mind.

- What kind of equipment you create your music with?

Well, I started making music with the MC-505, but after a while, the kick drum just didn't seem hard enough, and the bass didn't seem deep enough. When I went into the studio to record with Adam Miller, and heard a real 808, it was a revelation. Suddenly I realized why everybody else's records sounded so good. He really turned me on to the glory of analogue sound. My mind was blown, and there was no going back. It became an immediate priority to pick up more gear. I'd pick up a Juno here, an 808 there, none of which I could really afford, but if it was a choice between new shoes or an Arp, well, I still need the shoes. I think a person should make music with whatever they have available. I don't think the gear is as important as the soul behind it. I saw Keiji Haino of Fushitsusha wow a crowd using only a metal cymbal, and the air surrounding it.

- What is your musical agenda in brief?

To shake the world with the weirdest sounds possible, and to try create something unlike anything ever heard. I may fall short of this goal, but I will never stop trying.

- Are there any role models or influential artists for you?

I'm inspired by almost anyone who stays true to their vision and works hard, and it's even more impressive when they can present that vision on a mass scale, with little or no compromise. Andrew WK was a young kid who would come to Couch shows. I watched him grow older, develop his music and the next thing you know, he's the musical guest on Saturday Night Live. To watch that happen to someone you know, someone who is very genuine, smart and sincere, is very inspiring because it demonstrates that anything is possible, through hard work and perseverance. Superstardom doesn't have to be the end goal, it can be whatever you want it to be. Greg Ginn of Black Flag is very inspirational because he led his band into places that had never been played by punk bands, forging their way into uncharted territory, driving a fucked up van, pretty much eating dog food, but they did it because they wanted their music to be heard. He said, "We can't TRY to succeed, we MUST succeed."
- And any current acts which would particularly impress you, or you feel are on the same wavelength with you?

There are so many great and original artists working right now... I'd be at a loss to name them all, but here's a few that move me: Electronicat, T. Raumschmiere, Wolfgang Voigt, Errorsmith, Soundhack, the Bunker/Créme/Holosynthesis/Stilleben Globaldarkness axis of evil, Chicks on Speed, Peaches, Wolf Eyes, Black Dice, Lightning Bolt, Interdimensional Transmissions, Quintron and Miss Pussycat, and of course my fellow Ersatz artists.

- You have produced your Bad Blood EP and Friends Forever album together with Adam Lee Miller of Ersatz Audio? How did you end up on that label, and how has it been working with them?

Working with Ersatz Audio has been fantastic, I can't say enough good things about them. They've helped take my music to a whole new level. There's only two of them, and they've worked their asses off to build what they have, and they're not just hogging the glory for themselves, they've helped bring attention to me and other artists who they feel deserve recognition.

I met them at a show that they played a few years ago. Nicola was nice but Adam was kind of a dick. It wasn't his fault, though. BMG of Ectomorph said "This is Magas. He makes garbagetronica", making a joke about this Village Voice article that called me that. I think the joke was lost on Adam, he just kind of gave me this blank look and walked away! Soon after, I played a show in Detroit, and they came to check it out, thanks in part to a write-up for the show, written by BMG, calling me "a dirty version of Ersatz Audio". I guess they liked the show. We then began a record store/record label association and through our conversations, we realized that we saw eye-to-eye on a lot of things, and we became friends. I returned to Detroit to play a show with Peaches, after which they asked me to do a record for their label, even offering to record it for me. The next month, I returned to Detroit and we recorded Bad Blood. We were all very satisfied how it worked out, so I went back to record Friends Forever.

- What about your live performances, and any interesting anecdotes about them? What have been the best and worst places to play, for example?

Oh, lots of great anecdotes about live gigs... where to begin...? Shall I tell you about the story where I was mobbed onstage by a bunch of girls in Brooklyn? Or the other New York gig where Mark Kamins turned on an air siren during my set and didn't know how to turn it off? The Rhode Island show where the Fort Thunder crew dismantled their house PA and hauled it down to the local bar so that I'd be loud enough? The show I played in Detroit with Peaches, where Marilyn Manson showed up? The Lake Of Dracula show in Oakland, where we played in an extremely small basement with a smoke machine, while a nude saxophonist strolled through the fog with a gigantic boner? The Mardis Gras show at the Spellcaster Lodge, where I was joined onstage by the free-styling Desire Boys? Perhaps the Couch gig where I broke a rib, fighting with the audience? Maybe the Couch show where I hurled my guitar at a hippy heckler? There have been so many great shows, and even the terrible ones bring great memories.

- What kind of scene there is where you live in Chicago? One thinks first of the house music classics, then Tortoise, Thrill Jockey Records and all that postrock stuff, then maybe Bobby Conn (who you have also remixed)...

What originally brought me to Chicago was the thriving scene of like-minded bands like The Flying Luttenbachers, The Scissor Girls, Quintron, Duotron, Dot Dot Dot, Monitor Radio and this great underground venue, called The Milk Of Burgundy. Weasel Walter called it the Chicago No Wave scene. That whole thing pretty much died, shortly after my arrival. Lake Of Dracula and Bobby Conn both started around the same time, and we were friends. LOD broke up, but Bobby Conn is still at it, and doing well.

Thrill Jockey was, and still is, one of the more popular and successful labels in town. Bettina is a great person, hard-working, extremely ethical and really nice. To remain independent and to stay in business for ten years is no small accomplishment, and I think she deserves all the success that she's earned.

As far as the house music scene goes, most of the innovation occurred before I ever lived here. It seemed like an incredible, awe-inspiring, magical time, but now it's just a bunch of cheesy mega-clubs, selling overpriced drinks, totally overrun by greedy, megalomaniacal promoters. Still, those old records illustrate that there was a time when weird, freaky sounds dominated the city, and if it happened once, it could happen again. It takes the right combination of events, though, probably similar to the dawn of man or the creation of the universe.

I feel lucky to have the store, because more than being just a place to buy and sell records, it's a place where like-minded freaks can meet and hook up, and that has been happening to some extent. It might be a bit premature to call it a scene, but we're doing all that we can to try to encourage one.

- So, how long have you been running your own record shop in Chicago, Weekend Records & Soap; tell me a bit about your selections, and what sort of music you sell most there?

Weekend opened in September of 2000. Jean-Luc Godard's film of the same name was inspiration for naming the store. We started very small, living in a tiny room in the back of the store, with only a few records, but they were good ones. We sell all kinds of electronic music, everything from underground electro, weird minimal techno, IDM, reggae, early Chicago house, Italodisco, electro-accoustic, noise, weird rock music... pretty much anything we like, with as few compromises as possible.

- You also sell soap there???

Yes, my wife, Bridgette Wilson was pretty much the driving force for getting the store open. She was making this great, all-natural, handmade soap and giving it away to friends. She was dead-set on opening a store to sell her line, Sparx. I'd always wanted to open a record store, but a friend told me that I'd need at least $50,000. So, while I was scratching my head, trying to think of where I could get $50,000, Bridgette found the space and said "Are you in or not?" I think we started with about $1500 that we scraped together. The combination of records and soap may sound odd at first, but it really makes sense when you think about it. I love weird little specialty shops with a personal touch.

- What do you think of the current musical fashions or trends like electroclash and so on?

I'm glad you asked me this question, I never get to vent about that (except to friends).

Anyone who's ever walked into our store has probably heard my anti-clash spiel at least once, whether they asked for it or not. Right around the time that we opened our store, I was very excited about the momentum that was happening in music. There were all these great, weird, electronic bands that were kind of punk-influenced, all coincidentally making cool, weird music. Just as things seemed to come to a head, along comes Larry Tee and says "Oh yeah, that's called electroclash, and I own it.' Suddenly he started appearing in all these magazines, talking about 'sexy star power', 'fuckable' artists and 'lyrical content'.

He seemed to present this irresistible offer: If you don't like normal boring techno, there's a choice -- you can be part of my show. Suddenly, all these terrible acts started multiplying like bacteria, to fit in with this supposedly new style. The one good thing about the whole thing was that it seemed to polarize the people who were involved with music for attention and money, and who was in it for the love of music. I think it made the underground work harder to not get lumped in with all that and swept away in the inevitable backlash.

- Your own Top Ten for the moment/all-time?

The moment (March 24, 2003, off the cuff, in random order):

ADULT. - Anxiety Always
Luke Eargoggle - Audio Warrior
Wolf Eyes - Mugger
Tamion 12 Inch - All Black, Eyes Closed to the Excess of Disaster
Gina X vs. Metro Area - More GDM
Perspects - Desire and Efficiency
Lightning Bolt - Wonderful Rainbow
Dirty Criminals - demo album
Liaisons Dangereuses reissue
Rutherford - My Ranch Is Your Ranch

- Your own future plans now?

To keep expanding our store, keep driving the music further, and maybe buy some new shoes.

- Your favourite question they never ask in interviews?

Q: You bitch about people jumping on the electroclash bandwagon. Aren't you some opportunistic style-hopper yourself?

A: I don't think so. I went from one form of underground music to another. If you listen to the music that I made ten years ago and compare it to the music that I'm making now, I don't think you'll hear that much of a difference. The instrumentation is different, but the spirit and driving force is the same. It's not like I was some cheesy trance guy or weepy indie-rocker who jumped on the electro bandwagon because I thought it would make me popular. When I started, it was quite the opposite. It just so happens that I've reached a point where more people are hearing my music than ever before, but that's not why I do it. I've worked in obscurity for ten years, it's not a problem for me. I'll still be doing it no matter what. I'm a lifer.

Copyright © (for the text) pHinnWeb 2003.

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