Speaking In Tongues: Magma Interviewed By Musicians

Ahead of their appearance at Tusk Festival we canvassed members of Voivod, Hawkwind, Gong, The Utopia Strong, SunnO))), 808 State and more to see what they would ask Magma if they had the chance... And here are the results. Magma appreciation by John Doran

Magma headline Tusk Festival this weekend in Newcastle

This year marks the 50th anniversary of French exploratory rock band Magma. While they haven’t been operational for the full half century (they were on hiatus between 1984 and 1996), it feels like their significance and popularity has regrown outside of their native France, since reforming, especially during the last decade. A ten year period of revitalisation which was arguably inaugurated in the UK by an absolutely blazing show at the Barbican, a decade ago today.

The faithful have always known how good they are, which is not to say that they’ve always been universally loved. I don’t think it is controversial to suggest that their style of radical mercurial progressive fusion won them more detractors than fans internationally. (Occasionally the sign of a good band, I’d say.) Their sound is impossible to describe succinctly but if you’re thinking of them in terms of boiler plate prog or fusion you’ve already steered off course.

Their origin myth is that they were formed in 1969, not radicalised by the previous year’s riots, but in order to fill the stunning void left in popular culture by the death of John Coltrane. And, they have, at various times, sounded much more like fans of Funkadelic, the Staples Singers, Black Sabbath, Stravinksky, Heldon, Soft Machine and Carl Orff than you would perhaps expect, even though you could admittedly also invoke the names of Van Der Graaf Generator, John McLaughlin, Weather Report and Aphrodite’s Child, when talking about them. But for a band that were so compositionally advanced, they were adept at producing primordially insistent and hypnotic rhythms. Certainly, it’s not a stretch to see why so many post punks such as Charles Hayward and John Lydon were huge fans. In short they certainly don’t sound like ELP.

And when I say "sounded much more like", I’m pushing the term past breaking point here because they don’t really sound like anyone other than Magma. Listing fellow travellers and influences is just the age-honoured journalistic practice of flailing about trying to nail lightning to the wall while trying to fulfil a word count. Despite the utter weirdness* of their music, once you’ve entered willingly into their world, you realise that they have an almost instantaneously recognisable sound, which, taken as a whole doesn’t really sound like anything else, (bar maybe other acolyte groups who occupied a place in their own Zeuhl universe).

To paraphrase Michel Houellebecq from Against The World, Against Life talking about H.P. Lovecraft, the weird fiction prophet, who has always had an army of fans but had little or no honour in his own time or for many decades after his death, the good thing about clueless critics is they eventually die, leaving room for new ones to move in and hopefully correct some of these obvious mistakes. To be fair to all of the chops-phobic hacks of the late 70s and 80s, there is another element to this mistrust of Magma that transcends mere fashion. We’re now in a radically different time, structurally speaking, when it comes to music.

There are plenty of bands who simply feel more relevant to a larger number of people in 2019 than perhaps they did in their heyday. Take for example Joy Division. Like Magma in the 1973 to 1975 period, it’s not like the Macc/Salford post punk four piece were massively unpopular or received with total incomprehension – they were NME cover stars in 1979 and 1980 – but it’s fair to say that they are far more prominent in the British pop cultural consciousness today than they were at the tail end of the 70s. There are multiple reasons for this (not least that copyright free, meme magic creating, image of the CP 1919 pulsar that has formed the basis of a million and one T-shirts).

40 years on they have achieved the kind of permanence that very few bands can even pretend to let alone achieve. To understand why you have to look at the duality of cultural impulses brought to bear on the group’s aesthetic. Their outlook and lyrics were as much informed by an obsession with the horrors of World War 2 as they were by smart speculative fiction written by the likes of William Burroughs and JG Ballard. As WW2 approaches ceasing to exist as something that anyone now living can actually remember, the band’s stark modernism and brutalist futurism have taken primacy in their aesthetic. They created a soundtrack for an imaginary dystopia; one which has slowly and darkly effloresced as we have drifted into it. Put simply, Joy Division actually make more sense today than they did in 1980. Their chilly euphoria, their crawling horror, their cosmic bleakness, their radical anhedonia are no longer the recherche affectations of the arty post punk elite or the voice of a traumatised and sensitive few, who revel in the convincing inner monologue of a tortured Macc Iggy Pop wannabe who tragically just wasn’t cut out for success. Unknown Pleasures is now the sonic diagnosis of a generation. Somehow Joy Division successfully read the room 40 years in advance.

There’s something similar to be said about Magma. While I doubt they’re a much bigger a live draw now than when Mëkanïk Dëstruktïẁ Kömmandöh or M.D.K. came out – their debut UK show in December 1973 was at the 700 capacity Marquee Club, while earlier this week they played at the 900 capacity Islington Assembly Hall – they have certainly gained a new found respect and resonance which only seems to be growing. First of all, their science fiction aesthetic is even deeper engrained. Founding member Christian Vander, created, not only an ecologically driven mythos but also a crypto-language called Kobaïan in which most of his lyrics (both in Magma and solo projects such as The Offering) have since been delivered.

This language plays a stunning trick on the imagination of the listener. Ostensibly, the use of Kobaïan fulfils a similar role to scat singing (Leon Thomas was a clear influence) in that it is a semi-improvised rhythmical counterpoint but because there are loose meanings attached to what Vander writes, even though, on a word by word basis, it is phonetic and not semantic (i.e. there will never be a direct lyric sheet translation to all of their albums as in most cases they don’t exist, the obvious exception being M.D.K.), it fulfils a different, more complex role than merely using the voice as another instrument. Really, the suggestive lyrical sound of Magma, combined with extensive sleevenotes, provides a loose framework for the listener to create their own precise narrative on top of, inviting them to feel, subconsciously either like a co-author or as if they are being addressed directly. And also, due to the themes of ecological collapse, the slide towards autocratic politics, the dream of a new planet where we can start again – leaving the destruction we’ve wreaked here behind, fundamental questions of nature versus nurture when it comes to mankind’s apparent inability to keep its finger away from the self-destruct button, these narratives, where the listener can consider themselves a psychic co-author, have much more resonance in 2019.

Also, the use of multiple styles feels less chaotic today in a post music landscape where playlists have made all of us eclectic, the authenticity of staying in one’s genre lane is less necessary than ever and streaming culture has given everything equal weight to more adventurous Generation Z listeners. (If this sounds fanciful, then perhaps consider this year’s most hyped break through guitar band, Black Midi and their berserk, magpie list of influences which are, mainly, defiantly uncool. Where once NME and other inkies ruled the discourse around music with an iron rod, they have either disappeared entirely or struggle on almost invisibly in the background as a heritage brand with a shallow monthly list of unclicked on descriptive reviews, almost entirely lacking in criticism. Perhaps it’s unfair to lay into just NME when their nearest print competitors, DIY and Dork are so anaemic and utterly lacking in opinion that they make the Argos catalogue look like The Anarchist’s Cookbook by comparison. Of course this is an environment where a band can claim early 80s, slap bass King Crimson as a sincere influence with impunity – there are no longer any cloth-eared hacks to tell them that they’re wrong.)

As well as creating a mythos, as befits any great rock band, a mythology has sprung up around Magma which is second to none. I won’t go into it here but anyone who doesn’t already know their full story should buy a copy of Julian Cope’s Repossessed to read about Christian Vander’s lengthy psychic battle with bass player/arch- magical nemesis, Jannick Top, conducted from neighbouring castles on either side of a Spanish river valley. A battle that ended, apparently, with a distraught Top trying to rip his own heart out with his hands.

(*By weird, I should point out I’m not using the term to mean odd-sounding, looking or seeming. Mark Fisher, writing in The Weird And The Eerie (2017) said both of these affects share a fascination for what lies beyond standard experience. The weird concerns itself with that which does not belong and the most common way it is expressed in art or music is by yoking two things that shouldn’t be together into violent union. Weirdness finds a natural home in surrealist film, photo montage art and musique concrete. It thrives on unexpected juxtaposition, so it is the ideal descriptor for Magma’s deft, quicksilver combination of styles, textures and rhythms.

But when considering the idea of the weird, Fisher also asks us to hone in on examples that are not horrifying or shocking, but simply new: “Modernist and experimental [art and music] often strikes us as weird when we first encounter it – the conviction that this does not belong – is often a sign that we are in the presence of the new. The weird here is a signal that the concepts and frameworks which we have previously employed are now obsolete. If the encounter with the strange here is not straightforwardly pleasurable (the pleasurable would always refer to previous forms of satisfaction), it is not simply unpleasant either: there is an enjoyment in seeing the familiar and the conventional becoming outmoded – an enjoyment which, in its mixture of pleasure and pain, has something in common with what Lacan called jouissance.”

So it would be wrong to describe Magma’s music as being odd for the sake of oddness. It may sound completely alien on first exposure but after acclimatisation it can and does work extremely well as dance music, for example. As anyone who has enjoyed a DJ set by snooker player Steve Davis and musician Kavus Torabi will tell you, Magma have produced some copper-bottomed bangers such as ‘De Futura’ from the Üdü Ẁüdü album, not to mention the funk and gospel influenced Attahk album as a whole and such spin-off projects as Christian and Stella Vander’s hiatus spanning The Offering and Bernard Paganotti and Patrick Gauthier’s stunning progressive disco made under the Weidorje name.)

Recently I asked a number of notable Magma fans who are musicians themselves to pose questions to Christian and Stella, and you can read the results below.

The Kobaïan concept contains ecological themes. It had the strongest impact on me and gave a sense of direction to my own band Voïvod. What are your sentiments regarding how relevant this subject is today?
(Michael ‘Away’ Langevin, Voivod)

Christian and Stella Vander: There is no real ecological themes in the Kobaïan concept; it was just a statement about how men can be mean, selfish and stupid. In 1970 climate change and that sort of thing wasn’t our big concern in the beginning; it was mainly organically grown food which was something we were looking for. We could say that the Kobaïans were travelling a lot in their thoughts while composing. Like in the book about Hergé, Le voyageur immobile [The Motionless Traveller: Geopolitics, Tintin, His Father Hergé And His Confessor Father Wallez by Francis Bergeron]. A lot of countries were visited and described in Hergé’s work but he never actually travelled out of Belgium. So he didn’t create any pollution!

Has Stockhausen been an influence on your work?
(Stacia, Hawkwind)

CV: No. I just liked to listen to some of his work back in the days.

Some of my favourite progressive bands were conceived or driven by married/life partners, for example Jon Hiseman and Barbara Thompson and Daevid Allen and Gilli Smith, as well you two. In ancient egypt, women and men ruled equally to balance power between the masculine and feminine. Is your partnership together similar to this? Have your intertwined masculine and feminine energies helped define Magma’s music and direction? ie Had you not been romantically involved, would the progression and orientation of Magma have been different?
(Heather Weill, Wiggly World, NTS)

SV: We’re compatible and complementary and yes, we rule equally. Feminine energy definitely helped define this music. Whether we were romantically involved or not, it would have probably been the same.

What is the pedagogical role of Magma?
(Stephen O’Malley, SunnO))), KTL)

CSV: It is mainly to show that you can achieve something without any concessions if you work hard, believe in yourself and stick to your ideas.

It was initially surprising to learn that Christian, a drummer with such huge facility, is not opposed to using drum machines (as implemented on Üdü Ẁüdü and Merci). What is your view of modern pop production? More specifically music where the rhythmic content is defined by computer generated metronome and the harmonic content is sample based.
(Daniel O’Sullivan, Grumbling Fur, Ulver, This Is Not This Heat)

CV: We did use Linndrum once, around the time it first became available. That was more a fun thing to do than anything really serious, just a new experience. The problem with modern tools offered for very little money to everyone is that everyone can then think they are a musician without having to learn any basics. And there’s a lot of junk music around.

It’s 50 years since Magma first formed and there have been many changes in the music industry since then, what do you put your longevity down to?

(Dave & Ego, White Hills)

CSV: Hanging on to our beliefs, never compromising, sincerity, a search for perfection or at least trying and getting close to it.

I’ve heard that Christian doesn’t listen to much music other than John Coltrane? Is this actually true? If it is not then what other music does he currently listen to? If it is true then what if there is someone who makes music that is “better” or equal to Coltrane? Does he not concern himself with the idea that he might be missing something?
(Steve Davis, Utopia Strong)

SV: This isn’t totally true. He likes old Motown and Stax productions and listens to classical music and the recordings of some French poets. He will listen to other jazz artists, especially new jazz artists when people make recommendations but (up until now at least) he hasn’t found anyone who fulfill his expectations the way John Coltrane does.

What is the story behind the H R Giger cover art for Attahk? Was Giger given a specific brief to follow, or was he allowed free rein? Also was the collaboration influenced by the fact that both artists were approached to work on Jodorowsky’s aborted Dune movie?
(Michael York, The Utopia Strong, Teleplasmiste)

CSV: The Jodorowsky project was one of the reasons we ended up with HR Giger art on that album. But mainly it was because Magma’s manager at that time, Giorgio Gomelsky, initiated the collaboration for this album cover. With a specific brief from us of course.

Can you shed any light on the connections between Magma and the 1984 movie Ghostbusters? The film features a possession by a demonic spirit named Zuul and the final scene atop the apartment roof with its obelisk like architecture and pair of demonic hellhounds bears more than a passing resemblance to the cover art for Üdü Ẁüdü.
(Michael York)

CSV: Ha ha ha ha! There is no connection at all (Or maybe the film director was a Magma fan?)

When I read about Magma, I often see a lot of focus on the use of invented language Kobaïan. I feel that using an unrecognisable language allows all the humanity, emotion and expression of the singing voice to emerge without being tied down to a specific interpretation, and shows that the music of Magma has such inherent transcendental significance and meaning that it is beyond anything conventional language is able to convey. Would you agree?
(Kavus Torabi, The Utopia Strong, Gong)

CSV: Dear Kavus, this is totally right! You’ve said it all!

Were you influenced by science fiction in the development of the Kobaïan mythos? If so, could you name some of writers, books or films that influenced you?
(Mark Pilkington, Teleplasmiste, Rainbow Unit)

SV: One cannot say that Magma were influenced by science fiction but Christian Vander does like to read authors such as Richard Matheson, Ray Bradbury and Isaac Asimov.

Does the melody drive the rhythm or the rhythm drive the melody?
(Mary Epworth)

CV: A harmonic colour appears first and then the rhythm appears. I think the rhythm drives the melody in the end.

In my imagination I always imagine Magma living together in one place in order to become so tight musically. How true is this image I have?
(Graham Massey, 808 State)

CSV: It was definitely that way for a short period in the early days but it hasn’t been true for a very long time!

Was there ever any extensive touring outside of Europe in the 1970s – the USA for instance? A&M seems like an unusual label for you to be on. Did Herb Alpert A&R and did you meet the Carpenters?
(Graham Massey)

CSV: Herb Alpert liked the music of Magma a lot and so did his wife Lani Hall who is a singer. That’s why they signed us to a contract deal on A&M. But there was no real tour in the US before 2015. Before that there were only several festival appearances. We never met the Carpenters.

Christian, when you recorded the track ‘Earth’ [Offering 1 & 2, 1986] with that absolutely pulverising rhythm section of J Marc Jafet and Marc Delouya, did you stop and think to yourself: “Holy cow – this is so funky there should be a law against it?” Because it’s the kind of funk that could make a mountain fall down.
(John Doran, The Quietus)

CV: Ha ha ha! No, I actually thought there should be more of this kind of music played everywhere!

Magma headline Tusk Festival this weekend in Newcastle

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