Elisa Ambrogio, Pete Nolan, and John Shaw of Magik Markers on songwriting, the ideal venue, and their new album Surrender to the Fantasy, out next week.
When Magik Markers started out, “noise,” and “experimental” were labels that followed them around the DIY touring circuit, as they went off on semi-improvised, squeal-heavy jams in basements from Baltimore to San Francisco. Since the 2007 release of BOSS, they’ve had to deal with being called “rock n’ roll.” The blissfully fuzzed-out Surrender to the Fantasy (out November 19 on Drag City) is their tightest record yet, and further frustrates the attempt to pin the band down.
The album’s nine tracks shift gracefully between dark punk blasts and meandering, quiet, almost folky tunes. “I’m American,” guitarist and singer Elisa Ambrogio sighs flatly over blazing feedback on the album’s seven-minute centerpiece “American Sphinx Face.”
For Ambrogio, drummer Pete Nolan, and bassist John Shaw, being part of a musical tradition that is distinctly American is enough to contend with. Though all three members come from a background in the experimental/noise scene, their subversion of the time-tested vocals/bass/guitar/drums is constantly flirting with song craft. The band is so wholly comfortable in this in-between space that they rarely think to define it as that. I got them on a conference call, with John and Elisa dialing in from their homes in Holyoke, Massachusetts and Pete from a craft fair in New York City, to talk about what has changed over the years, what is, and what should never be.
Jacob Forrest Severn Where was Surrender to the Fantasy recorded and how long did it take to come together?
John Shaw I guess it’s been incubating for four years or so. Some of the songs are a few years old and some of them are newer, but it got recorded in a lot of different places over that period and I guess built up that way, rather than having one session.
JFS What were some of the different places where you recorded?
Elisa Ambrogio We recorded in my dad’s basement in Westport, CT, where my dad has lived for the past ten years. Actually, the older Magik Markers with Leah [Quimby, former bassist] recorded a record called Feel the Crayon there so it was sort of funny to record there again. J. Mascis used to have a studio in his attic—I think he still does—but we recorded maybe 4 of the tracks there. And then we recorded in the basement of this guy Aaron Mullen who engineered BOSS, and kind of produced and enginnered this record. We recorded quietly in his basement while his son was sleeping. We also recorded in a weird Brooklyn studio and in Keith’s apartment and in John’s living room, and, so, kind of a bunch of places.
JFS When you recorded in your dad’s basement, where you recorded the earlier album, did that bring back anything? Did you feel like you were re-entering something, or did it feel entirely new?
EA Well, John probably didn’t feel like he was re-entering anywhere, because he wasn’t on that Feel the Crayon record, but for me, I had just moved from the West Coast to the East Coast, and it was really cool because it just felt like a moment of gratitude to have a community together and not have any travel pressure or tour or anything—we were just playing there. And, so, in that way, for sure, it was sort of reminiscent of older times in a very positive way, without the negative parts of older times that involved terrible fighting.
JFS The new record, the sound and the way the songs come together, seems like a pretty clear progression from BOSS and from Balf Quarry. Do you see your recent records as part of a similar trajectory, and are they something different from your first records and recordings?
EA I don’t know. I feel like this is a weird question because it requires you to have a self-perception that would be more objective than we’re capable of—or more than I am, at least. Probably, your perception of anything on the record would be so different from mine. So, for me, I’m just like “Yes, it’s exactly the same. It’s no different. It’s exactly like the first thing I ever thought of and it never changed.” But, probably not. It’s probably completely different, so I can say that it’s always about not being dishonest in what you’re doing, like not doing anything except what you’re naturally going to make. So, I guess it is a progression in the same way that you progress in life, or you change. Everybody changes all the time. It’s not like “Alright, the plan for this record, direction-wise, is gonna be this.” I think there are people that do that in the world, and it’s probably just a difference in the way somebody works, but for us, it’s just been us saying “Let’s play,” and whatever we play is what ends up being on the record, wherever our heads are at that point. So I guess that would change, but the impetus and the velocity—whatever makes it go—is not any different from when we started.
JFS I think that’s definitely how we conceive of ourselves for the most part. People will listen to the record and will think, This is going in this direction, or in that one, but to you it’s just that you’re living your life. John, how long have you been part of the band?
JS I guess about four years. But I’ve known these guys for a long time—ten or fifteen years. So, it just started as kind of hanging out.
JFS Do you have other projects?
JS I have another band called Son of Earth that is a more abstract free improvisation band. And I had a band for a while that was a kind of rock band called The Believers that I played guitar in. But I don’t know that we ever managed to release anything. But we worked on it. Oof.
[Pete chimes in on the call]
JFS I heard a chime. Did Pete join in?
Pete Nolan Hey.
JFS Hi Pete, thanks so much for joining in. I understand you’re in transit so I’m really glad you got to join us.
PN I’m just standing still in Grand Central Station. I’m currently underneath Grand Central somewhere.
JFS What have you been doing there?
PN My wife and I make jewelry and we got invited by Martha Stewart to participate in this American-Made thing. If you stop by, you could learn how to silk screen a tote bag.
JFS The recordings are fuzzy and noisy, but Magik Markers has never read to me as a noise band. Do you guys feel a particular way about sometimes being called a “noise band?” Is that distinction even important for anyone to have these days?
PN I don’t know if we ever lumped ourselves into any category, but there was a pretty awesome noise scene happening when we started playing, and it seems like it got a little bit more refined over the years of No Fun Fest and all that kind of stuff. And it got a little bit more like “Oh you play noise music. That means power electronics,” or something like that. Whereas when we started, it was kind of like a really loosely knit version. You could do a touring circuit that was DIY, in the sense of like how I would imagine Black Flag starting out, like a plan to tour America, and there would be people who are interested in similar things, and we played with all kinds of great bands in all kinds of cool towns on this sort of “noise” circuit, if you could even call it that. And that was pretty rad.
I was just thinking the other day about how on our first tour we went and played down at Tarantula Hill, Nautical Almanac’s place in Baltimore, and then I was thinking about later seeing those guys and playing with them over in Europe. And, you know, as far as that type of thing is concerned, I’d say we’re stoked to be a part of it.
This is kind of funny, but around the time we made BOSS—I don’t know if this is true or not, but from our end at least—there was a perceived backlash against us for writing songs. (laughter) Like we were sellouts or something. People were like “What the fuck? You’re not just jamming anymore? You guys suck.” And it was kind of hard for us because we made this thing we were so proud of. And I think we went out immediately when the record came out, and we played those songs—we had this live band that we threw together before John was in the band, and it was my wife doing all the synth parts and Elisa’s boyfriend playing guitar—and we just laid that record to waste. With the exception of maybe Chicago, we played a lot of bummer shows on that tour, because people were not interested in seeing Magik Markers playing songs. But, I think we have fans now that are maybe used to us in some other context. I don’t know how you’d label that, but we still do the stuff we were doing back then, and we do all kinds of other stuff too.
JFS When you play live, you definitely seem to take advantage of diverging from recorded material. Does committing something to a recording somehow make a song lose something? Is the live version of a song an attempt at something that the recorded versions don’t have?
PN I don’t know. A lot of the recordings on this new record sprang about as spontaneously as any improvisation. They were improvisations. Yeah, the live versions are going to be different, but we try to make the live versions have the same mentality and all the cool sounds that the recorded versions have.
EA It is weird though because, on this record, there are a couple of songs where we literally played it one time and that was the version that ended up on the record. We had the idea, then we played it, and that’s what’s on the record, but then when you’re trying to rehearse for tour, you’re like “Well it has to go like this, because that’s how it sounds on the recording.” But then the recording is only the definitive version because it got committed to the record. I read an interview with Lindsay Buckingham where he was like “We love Fleetwood Mac fans, so when they come to a Fleetwood Mac concert, each note is as close to the recorded version of that song as possible.”
PN So in our case, for “Screams of Birds and Girls” you should be on the ground on the stage digging around in your purse while playing guitar at the same time, right?
EA Yeah, there’s a song where we had just set up to start playing&mash;it was in a random practice space—and those guys were already sort of jamming, and my guitar was on the ground, and I think I was on one knee and looking for lip balm with my other hand. And that was the final version of the song. So now I have to learn whatever I was one-handedly doing while I was looking for something else so I can match the recording. (laughter)
PN On this new record, we’re always switching up instruments and doing this and that and the other, and then when you’re performing live, you don’t want to lose momentum or energy—so you have to figure out what to do to play it live. That’s a certain challenge. And then the same instinct is to go out and jam like it always has been. We can’t contrive it to be one way or another. We just do what we can. And that’s all that we do on the record.
EA I like that we’re being super-defensive about this, like “I don’t know man, we do what we do, I don’t know why you’re hassling us.” (laughter)
JFS It seems like there’s an opinion that people have that if you commit something to a recording it suddenly becomes less experimental, or that you’re no longer actively experimenting once it becomes the definitive version or whatever. But it seems like there is no real definitive version of a song.
EA It’s so true, because it might be something that you play and is fun, and you just mess around with it for a long time. Then when you manage to record one version of that, and if one person in the band has the recording—like if I have the recording and I just listen to it all the time and then someone else tries to do something, I could be like “No, you’re not doing it right.” Even when Pete or John has a different memory of the song, we’ll try to match our memory to what the recording is, or whatever one weird live recording we think it is, and we try to get it to that. So it is true what you’re saying I think, that it changes the context of the song once it’s committed to a permanent state of existence. It’s always there, that one version.
PN Everybody has their own little piece of a song that’s their favorite, something that might be missing when we’re playing it together. Personally, I will just be like, “Oh fuck, where’s that part? We have to have that.” But as far as playing live goes, my ideal situation for our band—the funnest thing—would be if every night we could just play two sets: one would be completely improvised and the other would be songs. Because it really takes us a second to listen and feel the room and see what we can do in the place.
It’s cool to have songs. It’s cool to be able to do that too. You go, have a show, and you probably have a half hour or 45 minutes to do your thing. And in order for that not to feel like an unnatural experience, you have to go on tour and just be a machine.
JS The other side of this is when we did that show a couple weeks ago that was billed as an “improvised set,” and then we went and improvised a set, and then afterwards people were like “Oh, they were obviously just playing a song.” (laughter)
EA Yeah! People were like “I love that third song,” and well, we didn’t play any songs. I mean, not in that way. And even when we used to only play improvised sets it was the same thing, like, “Oh man, I gotta get a hold of the last song! Do you guys have a recording of that?” And, no, we totally don’t. And I feel like it’s not in the same kind of tradition as rock and roll. I mean, there is psychedelic music, but there’s not a situation like you have with jazz, where that would be totally normal. Free jazz, improvising, is just something we do, and just being an American rock and roll band, playing new songs every night—which is how Magik Markers started—was really weird. So, it still makes sense—with the instruments, and the setup, what we appear to be would be a band playing songs. If you’re just improvising a whole set, it doesn’t fit with the perception of what you should be doing. I guess it makes sense that people are listening for songs. That’s all songs are anyway. Somebody’s making up something at some point. Every song is an improvisation at some point.
JS And the records are too, right? They’re just songs that got made up.
PN The thing about when we started is that we had a sound, we established what sound everybody makes, and we were comfortable in that, and we could just go out and do it. For what we do now, I feel like each song has its own sound, which complicates it a bit in that you have to really be comfortable in the sound. Maybe another cool thing would be to play a set that has just three songs in it, and inhabit the world of each song and exploit what those different sounds are. I like that idea. I think that’s cool and I think we, for that reason, are maybe more creative than when we were improvising, because we’re pushing ourselves to maybe come up with new sounds and stay true to our vision of what we want to do.
JFS Are there specific points in a song where you agree that, during a live performance, this could explode into something that’s not as controlled?
EA I feel like everybody in the band listens to a lot of improvised music and we come from a world where having that freedom is much more natural than not having that freedom. I feel like everyone is really responsive to each other when we’re playing live. If somebody hears somebody else doing something that is cool, then everybody will just sort of follow each other, follow what everyone feels, even if nothing was planned beforehand or even if we planned on something more precise. If everybody feels the same feeling, everybody follows it. In that way it’s sort of spontaneous. But yeah, sometimes, we’re like “Oh maybe we’ll do this,” but it will have nothing to do with what really happens. (laughter)
PN The analogy that I always use, as far as playing live goes, is a flock of birds in the sky, and they will all change their path at these random times, and it looks spontaneous, and if you’re a good band, you can develop a psychic ability to feel each other’s movements. Hopefully that’s what we do.
EA Yeah I think that’s really true.
JFS This is a change of direction, but do you see a division between what’s released on a proper album and what’s released on a limited CD-R or cassette? Do certain sounds get reserved for certain formats?
PN We’re more free with what we would release on a limited edition format. We’d be more likely to just put out jams or whatever we feel like doing. In the last few years, we’ve really kept a lid on everything we’ve been doing because we weren’t sure what was going to be on the record and what wasn’t. We’ve always been really big on keeping the means of production within our own hands, and everything that we’ve recorded on this album has been on our own terms. Lately we’ve been doing a lot less CD-R type of things, and from my point of view that’s sort of a conscious thing, just to not put out things that will be in landfills in five years because they don’t work anymore. But, we still do that stuff; we’ll put out a CD-R of a live gig. It’s cool to have something fresh to sell to people every time you go out and play shows.
JFS Is that a mode you’ll continue with?
PN I don’t know about you guys, but I’m pretty stoked on the idea of doing more seven-inches. What do you guys think? You guys wanna do that? (laughter)
EA I’m just glad we got a chance to talk about it here.
JS Yeah, it seems like there’s always a lot of stuff happening, music coming out all the time, and that it needs an outlet, so stuff’s gonna spill out somehow from that. But maybe if we don’t want the next record to be four or five years old, maybe there doesn’t need to be as much little stuff in the meantime.
PN I think it’s a lot easier for us now to hone stuff, whereas when we were spread out across the country, we’d get together for one session and make a live recording and that would be all we had to show for ourselves for months. Something like that would be more conducive to being a CD-R or a tape. But we have a practice space now. We can work on a song and really make it good, and it seems like that would make more sense as a seven-inch or something more permanent. But I do like the idea of us controlling the production. We have a tape duplicator and so if we want to make a tape in an edition of ten then we can do that. It’s cool to have that. It's cool when bands do that.
EA I’m bored! Let’s talk about something else!
JFS Pete, is there anything we can count on hearing from Spectre Folk?
PN I’ve got a new record that’s pretty much done, and I was pretty inspired by reading that last Neil Young book, where he talked about the record that he was working on, where they just went in and did live takes, one-take songs. Just the idea of showing the band the song and then recording and having it have this sort of raw energy to it. I’ve got a whole record and all the basics are done for that. It’s pretty rockin’. I just have to finish it. It’ll be out in the Spring.
JFS What’s the plan to tour behind the new Magik Markers record?
EA We’re going to Europe in November for a couple of weeks and playing the ATP End Of an Era thing. So that’ll be cool. I hope that we’re there on the same day as Television, who are going to be there playing all of Marquee Moon. That’d be cool to see.
JS That’s how we’ll be promoting the record—hopefully seeing Television play.
JFS Is there an ideal environment for playing live?
EA As long as we can hear each other, it doesn’t matter where it is. If everyone can hear what everyone else is doing, it’s really good. Sometimes it’s kind of hard to play when no one can hear what’s happening on the stage, and that can be in a giant venue or in a tiny DIY space.
PN The only caveat that I would add to that is that I love DIY spaces and it’s cool not having to put up with the hassles of playing in a bar—douchey sound men or whatever. But once we played at [Brooklyn DIY space] Shea Stadium on the hottest day of the year—remember that show where it was ten trillion degrees, and we had to go outside and sit by a car afterwards?
EA Yeah, it was really hot. I guess in some situations if friends are there and feeling it, it’s good, and even if you are gonna pass out from heat exhaustion, it’s more fun. (laughter) I guess I like both.
JS No matter what type of space is, the people that are there kind of dictate the experience that you’re having.
PN Yeah, totally. If there’re folks there that are stoked to see us, that makes it fun. And, you know, getting a lot of money. That makes it fun.
EA Of course. I can’t believe that wasn’t the first thing we mentioned. (laughter)
Jacob Forrest Severn is a writer living in New York City.