On Thursday, March 19, fellow music review member, Jane Sirigiri, and myself had the chance to interview Magic Man members Alex Caplow (vocals) and Justine Bowe (keyboards) before their show at the Blind Pig in Ann Arbor. Because this is their first tour as a headliner in support of their July album ,Before the Waves, we wanted to know about their experience on the road as well as the inspirations behind their synth-pop sound. The show later that night clearly reflected what they had explained: excited fans at their happiest singing along to every word.
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Alexis (WDBM): You guys have been on tour for a while, what’s different as a headliner than as an opener?
Caplow: Well, for one thing, our set is longer than the opening slot set that we used to play which was often sort of as energetic and quick as possible to sort of try and play all the singles and fast, energetic songs to get people’s attention because we were trying to win people over. Now we’ve got a little more time to structure the set with a little more ebbing and flowing of mood and break it up with some slower songs, some deeper cuts off the album so it feels like we’re able to curate a more well-rounded night. We’re also lucky to be on tour with Vinyl Theater and Great Good Fine Ok which is cool to be the headliner and try to help out other bands the same way that the headlining bands have always helped us out.
Jane (WDBM): Now that you’re a headliner and have your album out with a major label, has your sound changed because of that? And how has it changed, do you think?
Caplow: The label has actually been super supportive of us just doing our own thing and creating the album that we wanted to make so they didn’t really get that involved in the process of us writing songs. You know, our manager was actually pretty involved in listening to our songs, giving us some feedback, but we were able to sort of just write the album and produce it pretty much entirely ourselves until the last step where we got a producer named Alex Aldi, who did Passion Pit stuff. We went in for a month with him in the studio in New York to finish the album. But we didn’t feel like the label was pressuring us to change our sound at all though the album itself is different from our earlier, like, DIY lo-fi recordings that we did before. I mean, the stuff that we released before was just garageband songs before we really knew how to do anything so it’s definitely bigger and sort of more epic, a less intimate and small sound and that’s definitely influenced by just our experience playing live as a band and the five of us, we just wanted to try and bring some of that raw energy and rock sound to the recordings.
Alexis (WDBM): I wanted to ask about your songwriting process, how do you go about doing that? Is it really collaborative or is it more certain people do certain things and then you come together?
Caplow: It’s pretty much entirely collaborative. It starts off between Sam and I. One of us starts off with a beat or a melody or an idea and we just pass it back and forth and add little things until we’re both entirely happy with it and super excited. And then we bring the song to the band where we sort of, like, start over and try to adapt it to the live show before we have to strip it down to sort of the live instruments that we can play live because on the recordings there are a few more layers and stuff. But yeah, it’s definitely always a collaboration. And even if it starts off in a totally different place, we always end up in a place where we’re both super excited about it.
Jane (WDBM): Kind of going off of that, you and Sam have known each other since preschool, when did you guys first start making music or writing songs together?
Caplow: Well, we first started making music together back in like sixth grade or something. We were both learning guitar and we would just sit in my basement and just come up with chord progressions and then just trade off soloing or writing little instrumental songs and that progressed. We were in a lot of different bands together throughout high school. We sort of learned, because we had been friends for so long, we were able to have that kind of open communication and able to be like, “I don’t really like that,” without the other one getting offended because we were just trying to work on something and not dancing around giving feedback. But it wasn’t until we took this trip after our freshman year of college. We started writing new songs on Garageband with these, like, electronic beats and we sort of found this poppy but synthy sound that we were really into. It felt like something finally clicked and that was sort of the beginning of Magic Man but, yeah, we’ve known each other a long time. We go way back.
Alexis (WDBM): What are some of your biggest influences and do those sometimes clash between different people with different styles?
Caplow: There isn’t too much clash. I mean, we all, I think everyone in the band is open and enjoys listening to all different types of music we don’t try to narrow what we listen to. We try to sort of listen to Top 40 pop as much as experimental ambient music, instrumental stuff. So, I feel like all of our influences definitely come together in a good way when we play live. We all like to agree on, we all have to agree on, the cover that we play and we all want to be excited about it. I remember we were trying to pick the cover that we were going to play during the set and everyone had different ideas and then finally, I forget who it was, but someone was like, “how about The Middle by Jimmy Eat World.” And everybody was like, “that’s an amazing song, I love that song, people are going to love it.” I think it was Sam. So yeah, it feels good to all be coming from so many different places but meet in a place where we’re all happy with what we’re doing. And that’s definitely how rehearsals go as well because we all just sort of give our input and be like, “I don’t think this part is working,” or, “what if we did this?” and try out everyone’s ideas until we’re all like, “yeah that definitely worked best.” Usually, everyone can tell when something is working well so, good feeling. Teamwork.
Jane (WDBM): What do you think, individually, each person in your band brings to the whole?
Caplow: Justine brings estrogen.
Bowe: Joey brings drums.
Caplow: Gabe brings bass. I think we all bring just our own vibe, our own passion.
Bowe: I think that we all really feed off each other’s energy. So, certainly on stage, which is probably the context you’re talking about, it’s actually kind of more important for us to be on the same page than for us to all bring something different so I really don’t know how to respond to that one. Just to say that we all will, if we’re all feeling a set, then it’s going to be really, really awesome, and if only some of us are feeling a set, we’ll definitely get off stage and know, like, when it clicks it really, really clicks. So yeah. It also has a lot to do with the audience and how they’re feeling about it, often how close or far we are from the audience, whether or not we can see them based on stage lighting, so there are a lot of different factors definitely.
Alexis (WDBM): So, you found the name of the band after meeting a magician in France and you came across a British student online for the cover art. So where do you go for your inspiration for things like that?
Caplow: Well, sometimes it finds us, like the magician who was just a friendly guy who noticed that we were totally the outsiders who didn’t know anyone and he was like, “here, let me show you around,” and he was really supportive of our music. Other times, with the photographer, I was just searching deep in Google images for what type of vibe I was looking for. I was like, “I want some colorful smoke bombs in a natural setting,” and then I found this tiny little pixelated image that was definitely like just a little icon, blurry version. I was like, “I have to find this image.” So I reverse image searched it finally found it was posted on this girl’s blog and she was just a young, 19 year old, photography student and we contacted her and she was super excited to be part of it. And then we wanted a similar vibe for the album artwork so we found another art photographer, who’s a little more established as, like, a pro art photographer. They went out on a photoshoot for a couple days at a rock island and just took a bunch a pictures, stayed out in the middle of the night and just threw these nets of glow sticks out in the ocean and then just took these long exposure photographs of them swirling around in the water and that sort of created that surreal album artwork that we have. So, it’s always a collaboration between us having an idea and then finding the right artist to bring their own expertise and creativity to the table.
Jane (WDBM): Do you know who this “magic man” is? Like, he has no idea that you named the band after him?
Caplow: He probably will never know. For all we know, he’s still traveling in caravans from, you know, all around Europe just volunteering at festivals. Or, he could – we don’t really know where he is but maybe someday he’ll stumble upon our band and read the creation story and be like, “I think that was me. I’m the magic man!” That would be cool to find him.
Jane (WDBM): You’ve been in tour almost entirely over the last two years. What has been your favorite city to play in and why?
Bowe: Ann Arbor is beautiful. It really is, it’s really, really cute!
Caplow: We’ve got circus karaoke, I don’t know what that is. I’m just reading what’s outside.
Alexis (WDBM): Have you guys been down Main Street yet?
Bowe: I don’t know if I walked down that way. I walked up around this area. Yeah, I definitely want to check it out before our show. That’s another thing about being headliners. We have a little more time before the show to get into the city and look around. But places we like playing. Suddenly New York is a pleasant playing experience. I say suddenly because in the past, it used to be very scary, industry-only shows where, like, shadowy label figures are in the corner with their arms crossed, like, hating your music and-
Caplow: Now they’re our friends!
Bowe: And now they’re our friends. And now we’re like, you don’t intimidate me because we’re friends. What else? I love Pittsburgh. I really love Pittsburgh. I don’t know. Minneapolis is wonderful.
Caplow: It’s nice to go over to the west coast, even just for the weather, to get a little break from the cold winter. D.C. is always super welcoming and we always have a great time in D.C. Yeah, right now all I can think about is the delicious Cuban sandwich that I had in Ann Arbor this morning and it’s getting me very excited for the show tonight. Got to fuel my energy.
Alexis (WDBM): One last question. How would you describe the Magic Man fan – do you think there’s one way to describe them?
Bowe: They seem excited. They seem – I was actually just talking about this with some of the dudes from Panama Wedding, who were supporting us on the earlier leg of the tour. We were saying that today’s teens seem happier, and that happier is cooler than when we were coming out I think. It wasn’t very cool to be, like, peppy. But these kids, and they’re mostly gals, seem, like, happy.
Caplow: Also, when we see them, they’re at their happiest because they’re in their element, they’re surrounded by friends who love the same type of music, and they’re about to go to this concert, a lot of times it’s their first concert so they’re just super excited. I think a lot of them are probably more soft-spoken in their normal element, in school, and a little quieter. I think a lot of them are artistic and, yeah, some of them we have converted, I think. I remember when I went out during Panic! At the Disco to pass out our little tattoos in line, there were a lot of people who were wearing all black and looking sort of, like, very sad and very moody as maybe a defense mechanism, trying to be cool. Then I would just go up to them –
Bowe: Some might call it self-expression.
Caplow: Okay, sorry. Or self-expression. Yes, I think that everyone should be able to obviously express themselves how they want to. But then I would sort of, like, break that barrier and just hug them and be like, “Hey!” and you’d see them crack a smile even though they were trying to suppress it. So, I mean, it’s tough being a teenager, definitely, so I know a lot of our fans are teenagers going through their finding themselves phase. But, for the most part, they’re all lovely people, often very creative, and full of love and support so we appreciate them a lot.
Interview by Alexis Kiriazis and Jane Sirigiri