It took Magic Man a while to finds its unique sound
Magic Man specializes in a big and bold strain of shiny synth-pop, but its influences, and the band members’ backgrounds, are far more wide-reaching than that description suggests. In past interviews, Massachusetts-spawned cofounders Alex Caplow and Sam Lee have stated an admiration for acts that range from thrash-metal renegades Slayer to art-pop oddball St. Vincent to postrock sound sculptors Explosions in the Sky. As performers, they’ve also dabbled in more genres than they can list.
“We grew up playing music together,” Lee says, speaking from Austin, Texas, in a conference call. “We’ve been friends since preschool and learned to play the guitar around the same time as each other. We were in a ton of different bands in high school, most of which were pretty bad. We’ve done folksy stuff, doing coffeehouse gigs. We’ve gone through our instrumental groove phase. We’ve done all sorts of collaborating, but nothing really stuck until the first Magic Man songs that we wrote. That’s when we knew that we really had something special. It was the first time we felt like we had finally hit our stride.”
The lifelong friends’ surroundings at the time might have had something to do with their frame of mind. Both Lee and Caplow were working on organic farms in the south of France when they began creating the songs that would lead to the launch of Magic Man. The idyllic environs would help the two focus on a new direction, with the songs coming together primarily on a laptop.
“I think being abroad and having limited resources helped,” Lee says. “It really forced us to be creative. A lot of the stuff that we were doing before, it maybe felt a little bit derivative. It was like we were trying to make something that had already been made before. I mean, when we were in a postrock band we were trying to write Explosions in the Sky songs. I remember going through a Beirut phase where I had a ukulele. This was the first time that we felt like we had organically created our own sound.”
That sound, originally on the lo-fi side, has been honed and tweaked on Magic Man’s glossy major-label debut, Before the Waves. The record is all about glitter-bombed synth majesty and Euro-cool vocals that make you think of Roxy Music, Monaco patios, and yachts anchored in the sun-drenched Aegean Sea. The band’s direct influences make them sound like they might worship acts of a Bryan Ferry vintage, but that’s not totally the case.
“The first vocalist I really fell in love with was Chris Martin when I was in middle school,” Caplow says, joining the conversation on the line from Boston. “Most people will go further back when you are talking influences, but I really like his melodic instincts and have since Coldplay’s first album. Also Ben Gibbard and Death Cab for Cutie have been really important for me, in the way that heavy pop songs are at the heart of what they do, but that they still have a little bit of an edge as well.”
And with that, Caplow pretty much sums up Magic Man, even if he’s left out Slayer, St. Vincent, and Explosions in the Sky.
Magic Man plays the Biltmore Cabaret next Wednesday (July 16).