Magic Man: ‘Music Is a Very Vulnerable Thing When You’re Putting Yourself Out There’
As Magic Man prepare to kick off their North American tour on March 6 in Columbus, Ohio, we had the chance to catch up with founding members Alex Caplow (vocalist) and Sam Lee (guitars/keyboard). We chatted about their lifelong friendship, the band's major label debut Before the Waves and what fans can expect from their upcoming tour (get the dates here). Check out our exclusive interview below -- and stay tuned as we'll be unveiling exclusive photo galleries of Magic Man's experiences on the road!
Let's just start from the very beginning, shall we?
Sam Lee: Well, Alex and I have known each other since pre-school and took lessons from the same guitar teacher. So, we’ve kind of been playing music together since we learned how to play music I guess. The summer after our freshman year of college, we were traveling together in the south of France and had some downtime and started working on some instrumental demos. We came up with some things that we really liked. You know, we had been in bands together in high school, but this was the first time it actually felt like the material really clicked and we were doing something different and interesting that we wanted to pursue further. So we did.
What did those early demos sound like, were they the beginning of Magic Man?
Sam: It sounded a lot different than what we’ve got going on now with Magic Man, these were a lot more lo-fi and DIY. We didn’t really have instruments, it was a little more chill, a little more like bedroom pop.
When you guys were playing together, growing up together, what kind of music were you playing?
Sam: We played a bunch of different things. We did a couple of shows as sort of a folk trio.
Alex Caplow: The Hamlets!
Sam: Yeah, we were called the Hamlets. We played in a post-rock band. Our first band was your typical garage band, power chords and covering songs and getting bored and just jamming. We’ve done a lot of different things. I used to do instrumental ambient music. There has always been a lot of different stuff.
With your personal history together, what's the writing process like between the two of you?
Alex: It’s always pretty much somewhere around a 50/50 collaboration, regardless of who starts the song idea. Even if it’s just a groove or a beat or a chord progression, we’ll build off of it and keep passing it back and forth. We’ll add things, we’ll change things, we’ll reconsider things until it finally reaches a point where both of us are super stoked about it. It’s a constant negotiation between two different creative forces that have a similar end goal, but often different ways of getting there. Sam is more focused on the production side, I’m more focused on the vocal and melody side. Basically, each of our strengths is the other’s weakness. It’s awesome. But, there are no major weaknesses.
Sam: Whatever, Alex. Whatever. [Laughs]
Alex: At the end of the day, people you know your whole life, while at moments you’re sort of an old married couple and you know each other so well that you know every little thing about that person, there's also so much history here. We grew up together, so there’s this underlying trust. Music is a very vulnerable thing when you’re putting yourself out there. I wouldn’t send my demos to just anyone. Sam uses his imagination. He’s not judging me.
Sam: Well, I don’t tell you when I’m judging you. [Laughs] It’s always hard to get in a rhythm, but just being together, we totally know how to work in terms of giving feedback or dividing the labor or whatever. That history helps.
Alex: Practice, practice, practice. This is years of living together and working on this thing. We’ve figured it out, but we’re still learning every day. Sam is still tutoring me on my home recording setup. I’m more of an ideas person, and so he helps me with all of the details. [Laughs]
Alex, you just moved to New York City, with Sam staying in Boston. Are you worried you might lose some of that "connection" now that you're not in the same city?
Sam: We didn’t go to the same college, so we’ve done a lot of writing apart. We got kind of used to it, but it’s obviously not nearly as productive or good as when you’re writing in-person together. But we figured it out during college. Sending things back and forth remotely, that’s how we finished a lot of our first album actually. I’m not that worried.
Alex: Yeah, and I’ve got a guest room and mattress for Sam to come crash here for awhile.
Sam: You previously described that guest room as a closet.
Alex: It’s not a closet! It’s a bedroom! It just happens to have a lot of hanging clothes all over the place.
Sam: That’s the only place I’m most productive, in the closet.
Alex: You and R. Kelly. [Laughs]
Sam, you mentioned your first album. Magic Man have a couple of releases under their belts -- was it different entering the studio with the backing of a major label [Columbia Records] for Before the Waves?
Sam: In a lot of ways, it wasn’t that different. We did a lot of the recording ourselves.
Alex: First, though, we went with a bunch of producers and did all these test trials thinking we’d do things differently. We even did some co-writes with songwriters. At the end of the day, we went back to our original system that works, which is basically doing everything ourselves ... until the final step.
Sam: The first stage, we did everything ourselves. Writing, producing, recording. What was different, though, was working with [producer] Alex Aldi in New York who helped with refining the album. We’ve never really done that, and you can definitely hear his touch on this new stuff.
It's been nearly a year since you release Before the Waves, and now you're gearing up for a tour that kicks off very soon. What can fans expect?
Sam: We’ve been writing a lot of new stuff while we’ve been off. If all goes according to plan, we’ll be playing some of it and arranging things on the road. This will also be our first time touring with lighting production. I’m really excited about that, I’ve always really enjoyed shows that are also visual experiences.
Along with the tour, Diffuser is really excited to share some of your experiences through personal photo galleries. What is it like being on the road with Magic Man?
Sam: We all have our own little routines before shows in terms of getting ourselves ready. Touring can get really exciting ... and really boring. The fans get to see the really exciting parts, you know, the shows, the lining up outside of the venues, that sort of thing. What you don’t see is a lot of hanging out and waiting for things to happen, getting to the next town, hanging out in hotel rooms.
Alex: Eating fast food.
Sam: Yeah, finding the best late-night fast food. You know, it’s a lot of fun. I love traveling, that part is great. It certainly can be very glamorous, but it’s also frustrating to try to find a bathroom at 3AM. [Laughs] Stuff like that is totally un-glamourous. Hopefully we can capture a little bit of both worlds and share it with you and our fans.
Alex: It’s cool that we’ve upgraded with each tour, too. You know, from our first van to a 15-passenger van to a small tour bus. As each tour goes on, we learn more about the best way to stay sane and happy and healthy while being on the road.
Sam, you mentioned that you guys have been writing. Other than premiering some tracks on the road, do you have specific plans for the follow-up to Before the Waves?
Sam: We don’t have any sort of specific plans, but we are working on new material. We will continue writing and recording new music while we’re on tour, so that will allow us to get some new material out as quickly as possible.
With Alex in New York, are you looking forward to getting crammed in a tour bus together so you have a ton of in-person time together?
Sam: I’m just excited to get on the road in general. Writing on the road sometimes is hard, but I think it’ll be so helpful to be with Alex and to be talking to fans every night, too. Being on the road, it puts you in an energetic mindset.
Alex: I’m excited for a little more daily structure and getting into a rhythm. And of course, meeting the fans in every town and chatting with them.