Interview w/ Magik Markers: Some Kind of Blood Orgy
As published by LA Record:
Formed in 2001 in a Connecticut basement, Magik Markers have covered a lot of ground, figuratively and literally. Now based in New York, noise rock duo Pete Nolan (drums, percussion) and Elisa Ambrogio (guitar, vocals) recently became a trio, adding John Shaw (bass) to the lineup. The band recently performed in an Estonian occult film and bobbed around in the Dead Sea. This interview by Linda Rapka.
I saw you perform a couple years ago in New Orleans at a fabulously grungy dive called the Hi-Ho Lounge. There was only a handful of people there, but you guys still tore shit up. Do you like playing smaller venues?
Pete Nolan (drums): We love dives. And we love New Orleans. This guy Rob down there always shows us around. He took us to this place Ernie K-Doe's — the guy that sang that '50s song "Mother in Law." He was this crazy flamboyant character, like Little Richard meets Sun Ra. He's dead but his widow has this bar where there's this weird effigy to him and they carry it around in parades and stuff.
Back in Hartford you guys used to throw shows in Elisa's dad's basement.
It's the best kind of show. It was a total party zone—authentic out of the '60s. There was a Hubert Humphrey poster on one wall, black-lit spray painting everywhere and this really cool figure of this Randy California/Hendrix-looking guy playing guitar. It was a cool zone but it was a wreck when we lived there. It was her grandparents' house so it had filled up with shit. There were all these boxes — mostly of lottery card receipts. I cleaned out maybe 50 boxes of nothing but receipts for lottery cards. It really was a complete shitpile of crazy. There was an army of dirty stuffed animals. It was a cool zone but I had to basically put a bunch of shit in one corner of the room and sort of drape it away and then we could have shows there.
What were the basement shows like?
It was Hartford. Some of the shows we only had like ten people there — Hartford G's smokin' blunts. But the premiere show for the Magik Markers was a total blowout show. This band Tart played, and the Bunnybrains. That was the only show we played there. Our first and last. And then they actually lost the house.
How did Magik Markers end up being in a film in Estonia?
Last year we played in Estonia with this director Veiko Õunpuu. Apparently he was really into our Boss record, and he made this crazy movie called The Temptation of St. Tony and wanted us to be in his film. These things come out of left field. We were just in Jerusalem — we were in Jesus' tomb! — and then we walked from there to play a show. I really am baffled by some of the stuff that we've done. It's a strange sort of occult movie about some businessman who somehow gets involved with the underworld scene in Estonia. We were on the border of Russia, and all the shooting was in this Stalinist European ballroom. There was this dinner party going on and we were the house band. After we played, they brought out all these girls who were dressed up as signs of the zodiac, and a devil character made this speech saying, "We believe that the zodiac is going to fall, and we want you to vote for what sign you want to go first." They all voted and they took the girl in the back and chopped her up in pieces, and they all ate her. Some kind of blood orgy ensued after that. On the film set itself they were just drinking vodka like animals. Everyone was wasted. We were totally freaked out. We didn't know what the hell was going on.
Not every band goes from Jesus' tomb to a blood orgy in Estonia within a year.
It's hard to turn down opportunities like those. That's the thing — if you can go somewhere and see something that you've never seen before, on a personal level that's helped me develop. It can spur you on and spur your imagination on. We were just at the Dead Sea, floating around. It was really sting-y. I had all these cuts on my face from shaving and it burned.
I thought the Dead Sea was supposed to be healing.
Yeah, it was healing. I was being cured like a ham or something.
With all your world travels, what made you name your new album after a local quarry?
That's all Elisa's thing. Her big thing is that no band has ever come out of Hartford or claimed they're out of Hartford. Anyone from Hartford moves to New York and says, "Hey, we're a New York band." She's like, "No, we're from Hartford." When the record came out the Hartford Courant did this huge story about us — in the paper our faces took up half the page. They were like, "Wow, you're from Hartford? You named your record after this quarry?" It was major news in Hartford.
The producer on the new record is Scott Colburn, who's worked with bands like Animal Collective, Arcade Fire, Clinic and Feral Children. How’d you hook up with him?
The label asked who we wanted to record with. We kind of could do whatever we wanted. We were thinking Scott Colburn, and I was really into it because I'm a big Sun City Girls fan and I knew he was their producer. It was almost from a geeked-out fan perspective that we wanted to work with him. I didn't even realize that he'd done stuff with Animal Collective. He had a great zone. We were right in his house up there in Seattle. His house is a converted church. He's a total audio nerd. He really knows how to suck the best sound out of a room, and a band.
The band puts out limited-release CD-Rs of live shows and studio recordings on your label, Arbitrary Signs, between official albums. What drives this need for perpetual output?
We always wanna have something new for when we hit the road. Every time we go on tour we make something new and we're always recording, and so much of it's improvised and in different styles.
Is it like keeping your own musical scrapbook?
Yeah, it definitely is kind of like a documentary kind of thing. It's kind of slowed down a bit 'cause we only get together when we're touring. We have to make more of an effort to get together and just jam. I think these days we're probably gonna do more LP stuff just 'cause with the CD-R thing... those are just gonna be blank in like five years. It's an obsolete document. The last time we had a serious practice I had to take a bus up to western Massachusetts and be away from my family for four days. Just so we could practice. I don’t want to make such a huge effort and make a freakin' CD-R.
What makes it harder for the band to get together now?
Oh Jesus. Honestly, I don't even know how we've kept it together for so long. I think the only reason is 'cause we pretty consistently get some cool opportunities. There seems to be some people who are hip to what we're doing, so we want to now perpetuate for that reason.
Does the term "noise band" annoy or offend you?
No, that's super cool. I think it kind of is, at this point, dated or whatever, but there was a period in time when there was a lot going on across America — people doing this noise music. We're definitely rooted in that. Our first tour we toured the United States and played just like eight shows and sort of tapped into these places. Like in Baltimore, we played this place Tarantula Hill with Nautical Almanac and all of these sort of weirdos with similar abstract intents. We definitely have had an abstract intent all along.
With your new album, Balf Quarry, it seems you're moving away from noise and more into fully developed rock. There are even a couple of piano ballads.
We want to make records that are more like the kind of music that we want to listen to. We've had some time to devote to making records in our studio. Elisa's spending a lot of time with lyrics. It's not really so far off from where our intent is always: sort of improvised. We don’t usually go into a studio with too many songs pre-made. We usually have two or three ideas and then we kind of make up the rest. It's a pretty organic process. I think it's cool — it yields all kinds of results. The fact that we're just a two-piece makes it so we do a lot more layering and overdubbing and stuff like that.
You just added a third member to the band.
For a while we'd gone as a duo but now we're always a three-piece. We wouldn't do it any other way now. We just got this guy John playing bass — he's done a couple tours with us. I think we've maybe progressed to a whole sort of different thing. We've got a split record coming out with Sic Alps for this tour and on that record we recorded it all as a three-piece. It's all live recordings. In a way, it's harkening back to how we used to record — all live — and it has the feeling of a live band. It's something else. It's more psychedelic — more like these heavy jam zones, really cool guitar.
How did you end up playing drums with Jandek?
I've played with that dude a few times. The first time, he was supposed to play a show here in Chinatown in New York, and I was the last-minute guy. I'm pretty into Jandek. I've got a lot of his records, so it was a big deal for me to play with him. I didn't know what was expected, and we went and had this practice for like three hours, and he was so bummed.
Jandek was bummed with your playing?
He was just like, "Yeah, I don't know. I don't think I can go through with it." I was just like, "What the hell am I supposed to do? I'm sounding awful." But then we played the show and it turned out really cool. We played for an hour longer than we were supposed to. Then he had a show in London so he got me and Matt Heyner from the No Neck Blues Band to come over. That was really fun. We got loose with him there — we went out afterwards and got kinda drunk. Dude likes to party.
Is it true that early Magik Markers lyrics consisted of reciting the periodic table?
Maybe... I really don't know. Most of my memories of early Magik Markers shows, I can remember Elisa coming out like we're the MC5 or something, and Leah [Quimby, original live bassist] and Elisa, we didn't have any clue how to play, but we would fuckin' come out with that power anyway.
And blood, too. There was always some bloodshed at your shows.
Sometimes. Yeah, I guess maybe every time. I remember we always used to play a song called "23 Sprig Street," and another called "Marianne Faithfull 1966," but it would always be a completely different song. Elisa fucking has some profound improvisational lyrical moments. I think there's a really great thing on YouTube of us playing early on in London where she’s really going off. She'd torn the neck off her guitar and she's on the mic going way out and me and Leah are just like bashing away. It's really cool.
Has there been much onstage bloodshed lately?
Uh... yeah. I mean, yeah. I don't think we've changed as much as people think we have.