On Thursday, November 13th, I had the pleasure of interviewing Magic Man before their show in Austin at Emo’s, on their tour opening up with Smallpools with Panama Wedding. The band is composed of Alex Caplow (vocals), Sam Lee (guitar and keyboards), Justine Bowe (keyboards), Joey Sulkowski (drums), and Gabe Goodman (bass). Their debut album, Before the Waves is out, and is one of my favorite albums of the year.
When I sat down with the band in their tour bus, I was immediately struck by how kind they were. They were snacking and offered me some of their stash, asked how I was, made sure they pronounced my name right – just plain nice people. Magic Man also loves their fans. Joey had at least ten fan-made bracelets on his left wrist that he has collected, and fan drawings and notes adorn a section of a wall in their tour bus.
During the interview, Justine was wielding a bottle of silly string, the band cracked jokes, and even did my work for me sometimes, asking questions of one another. It really was more Willa’s Ramblings in conversation with Magic Man, especially as the conversation took some interesting turns – from feminism and Legally Blonde to FKA Twigs and RPatz to learning to swim. But either way, here’s the interview, settle in for some reading – it’s a long one!
(Note: WR = Willa’s Ramblings, and my questions are in italics.)
WR: How did you all get interested in music initially when you were kids?
Joey: My father was in the Marine band and played clarinet. He was in the band for 26 years, and then when he retired I was two and he just hung out with me and my brother all the time and taught us music, taught me how to play the clarinet, and then suggested piano lessons and then later figured out I should be a drummer. Then later, he got me a drum set.
WR: When did you get the drum set?
Alex: I was in two bands in middle school, called the Hydraulic Bananas.
Gabe: The legend in my family is that from a zero to three I would sit in front of the closet where my dad kept his guitar and cry. No one knew why I was crying until they figured out that when my dad took the guitar out and played it for me I was happy. So eventually they found a shortcut which was to just get my own guitar. And then they got me one for my fourth birthday and I’ve been playing music ever since.
Justine: My dad and my sister played piano, and so I guess I saw them doing it and I wanted to do it as well. It seemed like the thing I had always done.
WR: I took piano until recently and started out on classical – was that the same for you, or were you into a different genre?
Justine: I don’t honestly know. I guess I took jazz lessons before I took anything else. But for a while it was mostly just self-taught. Once you know just a little bit of theory you can just figure it out.
WR: What bands did you listen to when you were growing up?
Justine: My mom had some awesome taste in music. She was listening to like Simon & Garfunkel, Leonard Cohen – all the classics. Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, and all that. Those were the first bands I got really, really into.
[at this point Justine squirted Joey with silly string, and it formed a mustache, causing immense laughter]
Joey: So, my father listens to Christmas music year round.
Alex: And that’s why Joey only DJs Christmas music.
Joey: So I went to music school, and some of my finals definitely turned out to be Christmas carols. So, thanks dad.
WR: Wait, seriously?
Joey: Yeah. I mean not like the cheesy ones, but the old ones. And then my first concert was a Neil Diamond concert.
Gabe [to Justine]: What was your first concert?
Justine: Skatefest 2002.
Gabe: Is that the band name? [laughter]
Justine: Well, there was a lot of skating, a lot of festing.
Gabe: Want to know what my first concert was? Hoku.
Justine: Oh my god. Do you guys remember Hoku?
[Alex and Gabe launch into “Perfect Day” by Hoku, off the Legally Blond soundtrack]
Justine: I remember that one! I was actually just recently thinking about how Legally Blond is a legitimately great movie.
WR: It genuinely is!
Justine: Great movie, great premise! I love it. Because I feel like there are ways for it to think of it as an obnoxiously girly movie, but actually I think that there’s a lot of feminism that isn’t “pro-girls” or “pro all girls”, and I think Elle Woods is a brand of femininity that a lot people can identify with and that should be celebrated too. We should watch.
WR: I love that there’s not any caddy weird girl stuff going on in the movie too.
Justine: Yeah! Well, there’s Vivian, but they resolve it! And then that’s the story. Also my sister is super vapid and going to Harvard and was super girly in high school so it was a good story.
WR: What was your first concert Alex?
Alex: I can’t remember the order of things… But I remember I went to a KISS concert with The Barenaked Ladies…
[At this point, Sam walked into the bus and joined in on the interview.]
WR: Where did the title for the album “Before the Waves” come from?
Alex: It’s a lyric from the song “Waves” that we liked a lot. We liked the generally feeling of it, the tension and the release, the calm before the storm. We always liked those three words too. We also always thought we could go #BTW when it was coming out, but we never posted that.
Joey: It’s also one of our Twitter follower’s Twitter names, before it was out.
Alex: Oh yeah! It was her name a long time ago, and I remember thinking she was going to be so happy.
WR: I’ve always loved the album cover. Where did that come from creatively?
Alex: We were trying to do stuff similar to the EP album cover but sort of with a new direction for the progression, so like the natural landscape of some sort of surreal element – sort of like the “Paris” video too. And we found this artist named Tobias Hutzler (http://www.tobiashutzler.com/) who did a lot of work with long exposure and light drawings. We thought of some locations that we thought would be beautiful and sent him off to Block Island for a weekend, and he just stayed up in the middle of the night with these glow sticks that we’d tied together and this big net and threw it out into the waves and left the camera on and then those colorful swirls were natural – it was wherever the waves took it.
WR: What’s the writing process like for you go? Like any song on the album, for example, what’s the process for that?
Alex: Usually, it’s Sam and I coming up with an idea and we pass it back and forth between us for a while and add a few things and change things, and restructure it, and pull an idea from another song, and then the song is pretty much done. Or even the songs change once they’ve been recorded they still change for the live shows, because there’s so many layers on the tracks and live there’s just us. So then, we start fresh and try to pull the most essential parts of the song and figure out how to play them. So that’s sort of the process from beginning to show time.
WR: What was SXSW for you when you came last year?
Justine: IT WAS A ZOO! It was a good zoo. I was just shocked by how many human beings were packed into such a small space. But for us, it was really exciting because it was one of our first major festivals. One of the first times we got to really take the time to network with other bands. You know, make connections and such. There was some free stuff.
WR: I saw a picture of you, Alex, in that Game of Thrones throne which was pretty good.
Alex: Oh yeah!
Justine: We got so many seasons of Season Three of Game of Thrones.
Sam: I sold mine on Craigslist.
Justine: How much?
Sam: Ten dollars.
Justine: Only ten dollars?!
WR: So on the topic of touring, you guys have toured with so many incredible bands – Panic! at the Disco, Walk the Moon, Sir Sly – what has been a highlight?
Alex: I’d say the highlight, besides obviously, being able to play shows, because before anybody knows who you are how are you supposed to play shows, you know? So you open for bigger bands, and suddenly you’ve got this built-in audience, and the fans are super enthusiastic, and so it made for a really great time. We learned so much from them, but I think the best part of touring with the bands we’ve been with is getting to know them with people. And knowing that we’re not only co-workers but also family after seeing them everyday for a month or so. And then we got to tour with Walk The Moon again to just reinforce that love, and so hopefully we’ll keep on bumping into them.
WR: What is your favorite tour that you’ve been on?
Joey: This one.
Gabe: For sure.
Justine: It’s been the easiest to stay alive, because we’re in this BandWagon [the type of bus that they’re in and the interview was held in]. It’s the first time we’ve been able to sleep.
Alex: Joey’s enjoyed not having to drive.
Joey: To add onto what Alex was saying earlier, we do a bit of a different thing from a lot of other bands, and so just the camaraderie of people trying to do the same thing – to better their craft.
WR: That was a nice segway – so I asked Landon of Sir Sly [whom they toured with previously] if he had any messages he wanted me to pass on, and he told me to tell you, Alex, “bologna”. I don’t know what the importance of that is, but that’s what he told me to tell you.
Sam: It’s a state of mind.
Alex: A state of being. A way of life.
Sam: We practiced the way of bologna.
WR: What is the way of bologna?
Justine: Are you making this up?
Alex: [laughs] No! Bologna is everything and everything is bologna.
Sam: It involves worshipping the god “Sly”.
Alex: Yes. In Sly We Trust. Sly’s the new deity.
[Sam corrects Alex’s pronunciation of “deity”]
Gabe: I always thought it was “diet”.
WR: I have a question for you, Justine – what’s it like being the only girl in the band?
Justine: Can we flip that question on its head?
Justine: What’s it like for the dudes? What’s it like being the four dudes in the band?
Joey: I think this place is probably smelling and looking better since we have her here.
Gabe: It’s great because we have all the privilege, so we’re just treated differently.
Justine: How often do you guys think about your gender? Like, in this industry? On stage?
Gabe: I think about it contextualized from conversations we’ve had, or I’ve had. I honestly don’t think if there was a girl in the band, or if I wasn’t so close to many girls in my life who are interested in music, or had music as a part of their, I would not think about my gender as much in this industry. But I think it’s a widely known fact that it’s a very male-dominated industry, and so I think that we’re all very fortunate to have another perspective in the band. Or bandwagon. [laughter] I think it’s easy to get lost in that privilege or get lost in the fact that it’s a male dominated community sometimes.
Gabe: I think about it way more now, because I’ve played in bands before this band and I was never in a touring situation with a girl, and I’m happy that I’m now in a band, not only with a girl but with Justine. Because I think about it, and am way more away about to navigate situations to make situations to make it easier for her.
Alex: Also, so WATERS is a band that was opening up for us for the first half of this tour [Panama Wedding joined the tour in Houston, the previous night], and we love the, got along with them really well and Sarah, who plays keyboard with that band. Every night, Van, the lead singer, would ask the audience “How many of you girls out there are in rock bands?”, and some shows where no one would say anything, but he always made it a point on stage of being like, that’s got to change, you’ve all got to go pick up an instrument.
Justine: But that’s still a man telling a woman what to do. But I loved it! I thought it was great!
Joey: But yeah, even the sentiment, I think people are more excited about welcoming females into the music community. Or they’re not even making it a thing.
Justine: Yeah, I mean I feel like I want it to be a thing on the daily. One thing that I do notice is that people will talk about entire conversations that happen when I’m not present that wouldn’t have been said if I was present? So people saying things they just otherwise wouldn’t say if there was ” a lady in the room”. So that’s sort of frustrating that people feel like they gotta say shit, (a), but also (b) that there’s something about me that there’s something you’re not supposed to say in front of me. It’s kind of weird. It’s still a very much a boy’s club, and I’m super lucky to be in this boys club.
WR: What’s been – as a band or individually – one of your top albums of the year so far?
Sam: The new Bear’s Den album.
WR: I love that album.
Gabe: The St. Vincent album came out this year right? Yeah, that is probably one of my favorite releases.
Joey: Maybe the Porter Robinson album?
Sam: I’d assumed you’d already written it down on my behalf but 1989 by Taylor Swift.
Gabe: Also the 100 Waters album.
Alex: HAIM and Chvrches were last year, so…
Justine: I’m really into FKA Twigs right now.
Sam: Rumor is they’ve gotten engaged.
Justine: Her and R-Patz?!
Sam: There are pictures of her with a ring.
Gabe: I love that. I want them to be married for a hundred years.
Justine: I wonder how long have they’ve been together?
Sam: Rumors have only been circulating for a few months.
Justine: Oh, because I feel like those songs are about some ex-lover so was an a-hole. I feel like the dude in the songs was a big a-hole, and then I’m wondering if it’s him.
Gabe: I’ve seen a few interviews with her and my understanding is that the relationship happened after the album came out.
Sam: There’s a picture of him in the crowd at one of her shows with flowers… But apparently he’s given promise rings in the past, so maybe this is just a promise ring… Does anybody have anymore questions? [laughter]
WR: Is there anything that you guys want to learn – personally or music related – like talents?
Alex: Are we talking about resolutions right now?
WR: We can do resolutions.
Justine: I’ve actually thought today that I would like to start – not because I’m trying to do this, but because I think it’d be good practice for my diction – I’d like to start rapping a little bit. Fully on my own, fully for no one to ever hear it. But I feel like it’s a skill that would develop a lot of other areas in my brain.
WR: A lot of rhythm there too.
Justine: Definitely! But also flow, and syntax, and all that – I think it’d be really cool.
Alex: I think you’d come up with some good song lyrics from that too.
Gabe: You should learn Backseat Freestyle – that’s what Taylor Swift like to rap. You could do a duet.
Justine: Me and Taylor. Yeah.
WR: Are you a big Taylor Swift fan?
Justine: We love her.
Gabe: I think hanging out with Taylor Swift is something that I’d like to learn to do.
Justine: That’s happening in 2015.
Gabe: Yeah, Taylor Swift is coming on the BandWagon.
Justine: She is never coming to this BandWagon.
Joey: I’ve always wanted to learn to dance. Like proper hip-hop dance.
Joey: I would love to take lessons remotely.
Justine: I have a couple of hip-hop dance friends and I contacted them if they would ever do private lessons. For free of course.
Sam: This is actually an idea I had – I heard that Metallica for instance, because they’re such a big touring enterprise, would bring a doctor or dentists on the road, and they would cover the crew’s insurance and medical, and stuff like that. But I thought about how cool it would be if you had a particular skilled person to come on the road for a week and he could offer workshops.
Gabe: In 2015 I hope to learn to swim properly.
WR: You don’t know how to swim?
Gabe: I can swim. I just can’t tread water at all. I would die.
Alex: You need to learn to hold your breath, all that.
Sam: Public service announcement – drowning often doesn’t look like what you think. People are motionless, there’s no flailing around.
Gabe: I almost drowned once. Your lungs fill with water.
WR: Have you guys had any Tex-Mex while you’ve been here?
Justine: Does Chipotle count?
WR: No. Definitely not.
Justine: Well you’re talking to the wrong people.
Alex: What’s up with this taco joint over here? [there was a taco place not too face from the venue]
Gabe: “Taco More” got great reviews on Yelp.
WR: Well, I’m just going to say this, most places aren’t too shabby. The best ones are the ones that look like you’re going to get food poisoning.
Justine: The names – “Taco More”! [laughter]
Here’s a couple of photos from the interview (the space was pretty small so it was difficult to get good angles and such.)
Thank you to Magic Man for letting me interview them – it was great fun. See you next time you’re in Austin!
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