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Immersing oneself in Magma: a Christian Vander interview

30 March 2015

Christian Vander by Pierre-Emile Bertona

Any music geek who has spent time in Japan knows it: the Japanese are better at geeking, musically speaking, than we are.

Like: imagine seeing Godspeed You! Black Emperor in Tokyo, and the audience stands absolutely still. It doesn’t whoop, scream, clink glasses, cough, or make any noticeable noise at all. Hell, it doesn’t even applaud. No, the audience does something audiences in many North American cities don’t have a fucking clue how to do: it LISTENS. With total attention. And only when the concert is over, THEN it applauds, wholeheartedly.

But only when they’re not interrupting anything, or distracting from each other’s pleasure, or calling undue attention to themselves, like. It’s a given that you don’t want to see a Slayer concert with an audience like that, but if a band is given to reflective, delicate music – and especially if you’re tired of asking people standing behind you to please shut the fuck up so you can hear the band you’re paying $50 to see – living in Japan is a music geek’s wet dream.

Sure, you get the odd Elic Crapton file card – they can’t help it – but concert manners are not all the Japanese get right. F’rinstance, go to any Disk Union or major music chain, and in between punk and metal there’ll be a section marked “New Wave.” It’s not just a pejorative over there, connoting sellout punks in skinny ties; it’s a recognition that New Wave is actually a meaningful category of music, the perfect place to put Joy Division, Bauhaus or Adam Ant or such, without meaning to disparage them at all.

And a little further down the aisle in the same store, you’ll find a sizeable prog rock section – not a section that exists in any North American record store I’ve ever been in. And in that section – even though band founder Christian Vander disapproves of the designation, preferring to think of their music as Zeuhl – you will find CDs by a French band called Magma.

That was where I first heard of Magma, anyhow. I vividly recall standing at a CD store in the suburbs of Tokyo, circa 2001, looking at the art and cover of Magma’s Köhntarkösz, turning over the CD in my hands and thinking, “what a cool band name!” Magma has been around since 1969, and I’ve been around one year longer, and a music geek for most of my life, but at that point I had no idea what Magma could be. Based on external signifiers only – the molten colours, the striking logo – I imagined something like the StoogesFunhouse. I was ill-prepared for the artful, complex, challenging journey contained therein (though I came to prefer their 1973 album Mëkanïk Dëstruktïẁ Kömmandöh).

With lyrics written in an invented language, Kobaïan, and a background cosmology involving “refugees fleeing a future Earth and settling on a fictional planet called Kobaïa” – saith Wikipedia, which is unusually informative on the subject, like a deep-end Magma fan (or member) has taken charge of the writing – there’s something truly unique about Magma, something that puts them on a shelf with singular musical experiences like the Sun Ra Arkestra or Rock In Opposition fellow travelers like Henry Cow.

Plus this is a band that none other than Alejandro Jodorowsky had picked to provide soundtrack materials for his unrealized version of Dune. Pink Floyd were going to score House Atreides, while Magma would score the world of their evil opposites, the Harkonnens. That’s a heavy level of esteem for a band to be held in!

So why the hell did I have to go to Japan to discover them?

Thanks to Laurent Goldstein for help with the following email interview with Magma founder Christian Vander…

The most recent mention I’d heard of Magma, before this tour, was in Jodorowsky’s Dune. Could you recount any dealings you had with Jodorowsky?

We met Jodo several time in 1975. He had an office in Paris, you could see the first drawings prepared for the film on the walls. We exchanged ideas about how the music should sound. Then unfortunately the production stopped.

How is “Zeuhl” different from prog rock? Do you have trouble with the label prog rock, or do you see Zeuhl as a subset of prog?

Zeuhl music means “vibratory music”. It is definitely not a subset of prog and Magma isn’t a prog group. Magma is an institution.

Prog rock seems, despite a cult following, to have fallen a little by the wayside in North America. At least in Vancouver, I don’t even know many people – especially younger people – who even listen to bands like King Crimson or Yes. Why do you think that is? Given that you’re about to tour North America… do you feel understood/ appreciated here, relative to other places?

Young kids may not listen to prog but they would listen to Magma, especially if they play an instrument. To a lot of young musicians all around the world, Magma is the ultimate in terms of musical skills and also in the way a musician has to dedicate his life to music. We have many followers in North America, we sell many records there.

How do you feel about North American musical culture in its present state?

I don’t really follow North American musical culture, sometimes I hear something interesting but I must say, not too often…

I’d be very curious about your following in Japan. Do you have a large fan base there? What is playing in Japan like? They seem very respectful as audiences, compared to North America – but also less expressive.

We definitely have a large fan base in Japan. They are very respectful as an audience but they express their feelings at a Magma concert, especially in singing along with us. Many of them know all the lyrics. This is very impressive to see all these Japanese people singing in Kobaïan :)

I had no idea until researching this that (Japanese band) Ruins – who I’ve seen on a couple of occasions – identified themselves with Zeuhl, or that their “invented language” owes a debt to yours. Have you interacted with Tatsuya Yoshida, met him, played with him? Do you listen to Ruins?

I met Tatsuya Yoshida several times but never played with him. I did listen to their albums, they are remarkable.

Tell me about Kobaïan. How did you develop it as a language? I gather it is “phonetic not semantic,” but it looks like there must be meaning to some phrases, and parallels with Germanic languages. So how much of an organized language is it?

It is a language that is constantly evolving and the sounds/words come organically when I am composing. However, some sounds/words come back and after a while, we can decipher their meaning.

Do you write lyrics in French and then translate them into Kobaïan?

No, the words are written to fit to the music, to make it sound right.

Are there “rules” for improvising in Kobaïan, or do the lyrics have to be written first?

There is a little bit of improvisation during the solo parts, but most of the lyrics are written first, as most of the music is sung by several people together.

Is there ever straight-up vocal improv onstage, in the style of Phil Minton or such?

No.

Has the cosmology of Kobaia continued to develop over the course of Magma’s history? Is there anything audiences coming to Magma for the first time should know about it, before going to see Magma perform live? Homework?

No, it is not necessary, it is a music with “steps” or “stairs” that leaves room for imagination, according to one’s level of receptivity or awareness.

Besides being the title of Magma’s newest album, what is Šlaǧ Tanƶ? Does the album have a theme?

Like all of Magma’s music, it is conceptual.It is hard to summarize in a few words. I could say that the theme is around an apocalyptic nightmare.

Magma was founded in Paris a year after the 1968 demonstrations. I wonder if you could tell me anything about your experience of that time? Were you at all political? How did you spend May 1968?

I was not in Paris at the time. I left for Italy and spent 2 years there, but I could have gone anywhere else … After John Coltrane died, I did not know what to do or where to go. Maybe go and join him … So, May 68 …

Were psychedelics important to the early development of your music?

Not at all.

Christian Vander by Jean-Baptiste Millot

How does Coltrane play into your musical development? Did you ever see Coltrane live? What is your favourite period? What do you make of his furthest-out there recordings, like Om? Do you have other favourite jazz artists, who inform your music?

John”s music did not influence Magma. Using his music was out of question. Only Coltrane’s spirit, the way he evolved record after record, inspired me. Never doing the same thing again, always innovating and surprising.

I had the opportunity and luck to see the Quartet live several times in France.

I am particularly fond of the year 1965. The most insane moments are in Village Vanguard Again and of course, Expressions, where he plays a music from another world.

Before, I was listening to every jazz musician possible. Little by little, John become essential for me and in my life. I only listened to him. Even today, he is a teacher for me.

What is “Coltrane Sundia” about?

“Sundia” means to rest in peace, in the silence.

Did you ever interact with Leon Thomas, see him live, or get to play with him? Do you have a recording of his that means the most to you?

No, I did not get that opportunity, I love what he did with Coltrane.

Were there any drummers that really influenced you, or that you learned from?

Elvin Jones, Tony Williams, Max Roach. There is so much to say about every one of them … Rashied Ali’s freedom of play also inspired me.

Magma and RIO existed before punk, as oppositional art music. How did punk look to you, when it first came out? Do you listen to it ever? Did it ever influence Magma albums? (I gather Johnny Rotten is a fan).

No, I never worried about trends. Magma just flies through time and periods.

How much of what Magma does onstage is improvised, if anything? Do you have rules you follow when improvising, or ways of directing improv? Do you ever “conduct” the band while drumming? (It seems like it must be very complex to orchestrate a Magma concert while drumming, but perhaps I’m wrong…?).

I do not write the music around the drums. I compose at the piano. When the piece is ready for the band, I often ask myself “What am I going to play within this piece?”. At my level, I never play twice the same way. I like to take risks, to walk on a tightrope.

Do you ever find the limitations of critics or audiences frustrating? Are you ever at odds with them? Are there ever things you wish audiences would do more/ do less, at concerts? Are there any misconceptions about the band that you’d like to address?

When I compose, I do not make any concessions, I first write for myself, for the pleasure of creating and listening to this music, in total freedom. After, I have no more control on how the music is perceived or criticized. Do you know Billie Holiday’s song “Don’t Explain”? It fits me well.

What is working with you like? Are you fairly democratic, or pretty controlling?

I am more than fairly democratic, everyone in the band can come with an idea, anything that improves the music is welcome. But I always make the final call.

Laurent tells me “Zombies” will be on the setlist for the Vancouver show. What do you make of the current craze for zombies? Zombies are at all-time peak in popularity in North America, what about France? Is there French zombie cinema that I don’t know about? Are there zombiewalks? What is Magma’s song “Zombies” about?

We don’t know yet if we’re going to play “Zombies” in Vancouver, the set-list will not be the same for every concert of this tour. The title “”Zombies” has no relations with this cinematographic genre. For me, the meaning is complex and hard to summarize in a few words.

What would your greatest moments be, playing live? Concerts that are most indelible in your memory? Most transcendent moments on stage?

Reading Festival in 1973 was one of the greatest concerts for Magma. There has been so many more … it is most importantly the next ones that I hope will be the best.

Magma by Jean-Baptiste Millot.

Magma will be doing an in-store at Vancouver’s Zulu Records on Wednesday, April 1st, at 7pm, then will be playing Vancouver’s Venue on Thursday, April 2nd – an early show. Their North American tour continues thereafter, with gigs in Seattle, Portland, Los Angeles, Illinois, Massachusetts, and New York. For more information, see Christian Vander’s label website, at www.seventhrecords.com.

 

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