Magik Markers were born in a basement in Hartford, Connecticut, in 2001. Since then they have released five albums and a dizzying number of tapes and side projects. Their first album in four years, the beautifully messy Surrender to the Fantasy, comes out a week from today on Drag City. It features a new bassist, John Shaw (of the drone group GHQ), who joined the band after original member Leah Quimby left in May 2006 to pursue a career in ventriloquism (!!).
Magik Markers were kind enough to let us premiere the first video from the record, for the song “Mirrorless,” directed by the band’s singer and songwriter, Elisa Ambrogio. It’s so beautiful, you guys.
Last week I got to chat with Elisa about this video, the new album, and Lou Reed.
JUANA GIAIMO: Did you know what you wanted Surrender to the Fantasy to sound like before you started recording it?
Yes, I think we did, but my favorite thing about recording music is how much it changes from how you first imagined it to what it evolves into. We all probably had our own preconceptions about things, but when we all were playing together and improvising and mixing, it came out really different from our first idea.
How did it change?
I had an idea for a record where the vocal harmonies would be really slowed down, building the songs out of percussion and drone harmonies. I think the record does not reflect this at all. But on this song, “Mirrorless,” I think Pete [Nolan]’s vocal is really doing something awesome that reminds me a bit of what I was thinking. He recorded that on his own, though—we didn’t talk about it at all beforehand.
Is that something common with the band, one person working independently from the other members?
Not usually when we record, but Surrender to the Fantasy was recorded in so many different spots and so many different ways that things evolved over a long time. The last few years have been really busy and we used to all live really far apart. The “Mirrorless” video was made that way because we could never all get together. I wanted to make a video, but we were all so busy that I just made cutouts of Pete and John to get them in the video with me.
I read that some of the album was recorded in your father’s basement.
Yeah! I was living on the West Coast for a few years, and when I moved back to New England, Pete lived two hours south in Brooklyn and Shaw lived an hour north in Holyoke, so it was midway, sort of. My father plays the drums, and they are always set up in his basement. It was my Dad’s crazy set-up that made the song “Bonfire” happen.
Was it the first time that you recorded in your father’s basement?
No, we also recorded “Feel the Crayon” for Not Not Fun in the same basement, when my best friend Leah Quimby was in the band. We have a long tradition of recording in dank, free places.
It definitely works for you!
How do you think the band has changed since Leah’s departure? I guess it must have been a tough change.
It is bittersweet. Leah and I met on the first day of fourth grade when I was nine and she was ten, and in so many ways playing in Magik Markers was defined by her being there. I never would have joined the band without her and Pete. I always consider her a Magik Markers member forever, even though she doesn’t play or record with us anymore. Leah is the person who introduced me to weird music and brought me to shows when we were in high school, so she helped form my psyche around music. Sometimes at [our] shows we would soundcheck, then sit in the car until we had to be on stage. Leah would put on her super-elaborate eye makeup and we would lose track of time, just acting dumb and making jokes. I miss that! John Shaw won’t even wear mascara.
And how did John become involved in the band?
He has been our good friend forever. He used to put on these great shows at Hampshire College. He came with us on our first big tour and did merch and hung out. He was in a rad band called the Believers with his future wife that we also toured with. Then we invited him on a tour in 2009 so he learned a bunch of songs off of Balf Quarry, and that was it. He was so rad to play with and hang out with, it just fit.
Often when I listen to Magik Markers albums I feel the energy of a live performance. Do you do that on purpose?
Thanks, that is really good. I used to think that to transmit that kind of energy you had to record everything live, and any overdubs at all would rob the recording of that spontaneous feel. I still feel like on tape, improvised music has something inimitable. About half this record is improvised, with overdubs. Two songs are exactly as they were first conceived and recorded. That said, I love that sounds can become very narrative in the production process. A song can can tell its own story and set its own pace, independent of its words or pacing.
Do you think of your songs as stories?
Yes, I definitely think of each one as a story, and playing them with Pete and John, everyone adding their own perspective is cool. Making a record is so much less lonesome than trying to write a book. There is that Lou Reed quote about his own body of work: “I’ve always thought that if you thought of all of it as a book then you have the Great American Novel, every record as a chapter…. You take the whole thing, stack it and listen to it in order, there’s my Great American Novel.”
Was Lou Reed a big influence for you?
Yes. I read that Lester Bangs piece “Let Us Now Praise Famous Death Dwarves,” which is fucked up for a bunch of reason, but anyhow, I read it before I really knew any of Lou Reed’s music outside of the Velvet Underground, and I thought he was so smart. Bangs, who I love, came off like kind of a choad. I started listening to [Reed's alubm] Metal Machine Music to drown out my college roommate listening to Tori Amos while I did homework—maybe a little bit “pretentious college” of me!—and then I went from there. “Work” from Songs for Drella is on repeat in my head for the rest of my life. It is the most positive song for anyone trying to do creative work. It is all about discipline and production, not inspiration and magic. Or rather, it’s about how inspiration and magic come from not being a coward, and working.
So do inspiration and magic not exist for you? What I mean is, does a song suddenly appear to you as something foreign, or do you say to yourself, “I should write a song,” and start playing around with instruments to see what you can write?
I think inspiration and magic are really important. But it is easy to be passive and wait to be struck by this thrilling thought that will inspire you to work. If you want to talk to ghosts, you sit down, you dim the lights, you listen, you see if something will talk to you. I think that is how inspiration works. You sit down, with blank paper or screen, or a guitar and you begin, and then you see what happens. Sometimes you just think of something, and then write or play, but dissolving that myth that inspiration is this mercurial impossible sylph you either catch or you don’t is important. You are responsible for your own work. Most people who ever been called an inspired genius did a lot of uninspired slogging away in rooms for years.
As an Argentine, there is final question that I need to ask: Will Magik Markers ever tour in South America?
We would love to, that would be amazing. Argentina sounds incredible. I love [Jorge Luis] Borges, so it would be really cool to see his home. His floating head is the start of the “Mirrorless” video, actually. I would also really love to see Chile. [The poet] Victor Jara is amazing. Nicanor Parra is another Chilean poet who I love, I would love to see Chile. Sorry, that was like a list of authors! I would also like to visit for many other reasons besides books! ♦
Juana Giaimo is a music writer from Buenos Aires, Argentina. When she isn’t daydreaming, she listens to music and writes about it on her Tumblr.