Before the Waves, Magic Man’s latest album, is full of euphoric synth productions, hard-hitting choruses, and nostalgic Killers rock influence (think “A Dustland Fairytale”). It’s a cheery and upbeat development from their more introspective first release, Real Life Color. It’s a new and polished sound that still preserves a crazy energy that comes from, what Sam Vanderhoop Lee describes as, the raw and grimy DIY scene they spent their first years playing.
Before the Waves is the definition of feel-good music. Think The Secret Life of Walter Mitty and “Wake Up” by Arcade Fire kind of “feel-good.” It’s giddy; it makes your heart pound. You’re thinking about uncertainties in your future, failures in your past, things you’ve loved, things you’ve lost, and all of a sudden you’re enveloped in a brief but exhilarating moment where you feel overwhelmingly grateful for your life. That’s the kind of feel-good Magic Man captures so perfectly. A dreamy, yearning feeling that gives you perspective on your life. Their music communicates how negative experiences are this curiously beautiful aspect of life. And furthermore, that all experiences in life are markedly beautiful. They are “a triumphant synth rock band from Boston, MA.”
On their first headlining tour for Before the Waves, Magic Man played a homecoming show at the Royale in Boston. Before their concert, we got to talk to them about college ambitions, the music scene at Tufts, and gratitude. Lead singer and Tufts alum Alex Caplow starts off the interview as Sam Vanderhoop Lee, lead guitarist, and Gabe Goodman, bassist, are briefly occupied with eating Indian food and signing Magic Man CDs.
What was it like when you guys first got together as a band in terms of collaborating, compromising, and so on?
Alex: Well, Sam and I have had a lot of practice collaborating since we grew up together. We’ve been friends for a really long time, went to preschool together. We started writing songs together in middle school. We were always really comfortable being like “Hey, let’s try this”, giving each other feedback, and building off. We were in lots of bands in high school, but it didn’t really click until we took a trip after our freshmanyear of college. And then we just started writing these electronic tracks and singing over them, and we just found a sound we really liked. And when we invited friends to join the band, it became a five-piece rock band. When we came to practice, more collaboration happened. We took the songs that we already wrote and then had to adapt them for a live show and we had to strip them down into their essential parts. And, that’s basically a brief overview of that whole process!
Would you say you guys as a band kind of grew up on the same genre(s) of music?
A: We were definitely listening to a lot of the same bands and stuff, but then we had also had different influences, you know, whatever our parents were listening to is what we first started listening to. Sam was often the tastemaker and sharing the cool stuff that he was listening to. And I’d be like “Whoa cool!” Or at first, I’d be like “What is this weird Icelandic music– not in English?” or “What is this instrumental music with no vocals?”, I don’t understand it, and then he’d be like “Trust me. It’s good.” And then we’d go see them live, and I’d be like “I understand it!!”
Sam: Am I cool or am I a douche in this story? Cause I can’t tell…
A: Cool douche.
S: Yeah, cool douche.
Gabe: Also the three of us, we were lucky enough to grow up in Newton. I was a couple years behind them, but we were all a part of the same music scene, where everyone kind of shared tastes. And because of everyone’s sort of varying ideas of what making good music meant, we were able to acquire a lot just from our friends, not even having to necessarily listen to music specifically but listening to our friends’ music that were direct rip-offs of all these other bands.
G: This was hugely formative in our music education and learning process.
Being recent college graduates, how did your different college backgrounds shape what you brought individually to the band?
A: I did a lot of child development and psychology, so now I’m very good at talking to our younger fans when we have crises on twitter and need some guidance.
Yeah, waiting outside was a surreal experience. You’re fans are very dedicated.
G: As surreal for us as it is for you!
A: Sam did a lot of graphic design and art and photo, and all that stuff definitely comes into play when we needed to design posters or t-shirts or everything. He’s taught me a lot of what he’s done.
S: You keep… I’m just teaching you about music… teaching you about graphic design…
A: Though I inspired Sam to pick up guitar in the first place, so it’s always a back and forth.
G: For me, I…
A: Gabe’s got a lot of Judaism he brings to… (laughs)
G: Yeah (laughs) I went to Brandeis actually, but I didn’t graduate because I was fortunate enough to jump on tour with these dudes. And so, I think my college experience was mostly just me figuring out that this was what I wanted to be doing while studying nothing related to it. And sort of hoping by some miracle that something like exactly this would happen, so… dream big!
S: I would say that going to–we all went to–pretty good liberal arts schools, there is definitely that “dream big, you can do whatever you want”: if you want to travel to Thailand to do research. For all of us, we were very encouraged. Try to get that grant or try to do that rather than just like…
G: Like, this is the thing you have to do
S: Yeah, and I think that even though I didn’t take a lot of music classes, college really helped me get better at my own songwriting or production or whatever, but then also it was okay—and we were very lucky and privileged to be in this position—but it was okay to try to write songs and try to be in a band for a living as opposed to just going to grad school or getting a job right after school in the same field as your major.
G: And that also extends to family backgrounds and stuff like that.
S: Oh yeah, definitely.
G: To get to this point, it takes a lot of support. Because most people, even people in bands, have trouble coping with the fact that you’re doing something that’s kind of self-indulgent in a way. You’re just making your music and sharing it with people, which is like the coolest but also kind of the most selfish thing you can do in a way. Without a good support system, with people pushing you to say that you can do it in college whether it’s a good counselor or professor or parent or whatever is the most important thing as a young college musician.
How do you guys keep band morale up on tour?
A: I feel like we always have a lot of good perspective and know not to throw hissy fits about little things because we’re like “we’re so lucky to be here!” Look at all these other humans that are like having real problems, how dare we? We would be ashamed of ourselves for being divas. You know, we’re always stepping outside of ourselves and being “yeah this is shitty in this moment, and yeah we wish we could get more sleep on this night.” But in the scheme of things, we’re doing what we love to do and we’ve got a dream job, and we like to just stay positive, I think, as much as possible.
How would you say your experience at Tufts contributed to your music career and life today?
A: I think it has a lot to do with what Sam was saying earlier of just being able to take lots of different classes, and sort of raise your general awareness and perspective as a human being. And just… (laughs)
(Sam comments on Indian food they’re eating to Gabe)
S: Oh sorry, I was just commenting on the Indian food. It was very expensive and…
A: It’s not great? (laughs)
S: It could be better… Anyway, sorry, you were saying important stuff…
A: (laughs)… I was able to take drama classes. I was able to join Trunk, a children’s theatre troupe, my freshman year and… then spend most of my days performing in front of a hundred kindergarteners in a big gym, with a big furry costume, and I would be like “waaAAAAH!” (waves arms) trying to keep their attention. I think that was actually the best practice that I got keeping a crowd’s attention and just performing, entertaining. I didn’t do a lot of music classes. I took one music theory class.
S: I would say for me… I didn’t go to Tufts obviously, but I spent a lot of time there hanging out with Alex and Justine. I feel like Tufts had a really great community of people who would put on shows in their houses…
S: We played at the Arts Haus a bunch of times. There was a group called Midnight that would put on concerts, so we would play in like the Crane Room, the Hanger… Look at me, an honorary Jumbo. I’m very Jumbo.
S: I really do think there was a really good community of people that would put on shows, more so than at Yale, which is where I went to school. Things started happening, you know, my junior and senior year. But there definitely wasn’t as much of a community of people playing music on campus and putting on shows… even if it was just like a house party or something.
G: I applied early decision and didn’t get into Tufts, so A.) What’s up?
G: And B.) As someone who grew up seeing what Alex and Sam and their group of friends were doing at Tufts. Constantly, you know, seeing on Facebook that they’d have shows and stuff. They just seemed to have this really great supportive music community, and it definitely was one of the reasons I was interested in Tufts.
S: I mean you guys came to… like kids from Newton would come to shows?
G: Yeah! I was a junior in high school, and I went to lots shows—one of my best friends was the drummer [of a band] at the time. Yeah, it was really cool even to see these even as a pre-frosh.
A: I would say one of the reasons we were so passionate about making it happen is cause there wasn’t really a scene when we got there. Versus you go to Wesleyan or other schools, where they’re already established and there are tons of bands. But when we got here, we were like “Where all the bands? I guess we’re gonna have to be the bands. I guess we just have to put on the shows.” It felt sort of like we were doing our own thing… our little alt niche.
Alex Caplow with Gulls playing Battle of the Bands in Hotung 2012
Dewick or Carm?
A: I grew up downhill… freshman year, I spent in Haskell, so I was going to Dewick. I’ve got to say: Dewick.
S: Microwaving those chocolate chip cookies everyday.
A: I would put those double chocolate chip cookies in the microwave. Zap ‘em. Glass of milk. Call it a lunch.