Four Is The Magic Numbers
After nearly a decade of performing together as struggling musicians, Romeo Stodart and Sean Gannon started to work with their sisters, Michele and Angela. Rather than sibling rivalry, it became sibling harmony literally and figuratively. Using Michele as a sounding board, Romeo constructed a set of tracks that echoed classic pop moments yet with additional twists in the arrangements, while the vocals Romeo on lead and the two “girls” weaving in and out on lead and/or support — gave the material a layer of depth to the heart-on-his-sleeve songwriting.
In the even widening umbrella that is the Jamband scene, The Magic Numbers’ infinitely appealing material uses past traditions as the springboard to create something new. The group played at the Vegoose music festival and is scheduled for this year’s Bonnaroo. I caught up with Romeo via a transatlantic call the day before a show in Madrid, Spain.
JPG: The first time I saw you play was at Vegoose and now you’re scheduled to play at this year’s Bonnaroo. I was wondering how did a nice little pop band get hooked up with all the improv-filled jamband scene and how do you like it?
RS: I enjoyed that festival, actually. It was the first time we’d seen Arcade Fire. I thought they were great and Flaming Lips were great to see live. Kind of just wandering around meeting people. It was a nice view from where our stage was. We were on early at the Vegoose Festival so not that many people to see us, but I enjoyed it. It was fun.
JPG: Did you get a chance to see any bands that you didn’t know, ones considered more within the realm of the jamband genre?
RS: We did a lot of press during the day. It was only at nighttime that we were able to venture out and we just went to see Flaming Lips and Arcade Fire.
JPG: The reason I bring it up is it seems like the jamband style is a very American thing. I haven’t really noticed it transferring that deeply overseas.
RS: We only heard about it when we went to America on the last trip. I guess from what I’m gathering it’s kind of like the Grateful Dead sort of thing. Dave Matthews as well.
JPG: Well…to bring up the lineup at Vegoose, it’ s spread open. You could say The Grateful Dead is one of the roots, if you’re looking at a tree, and even then the roots would go deeper to original bluegrass and jazz artists, blues, soul, rock. The whole jambands thing is similar in some manner to what you do. You embrace traditional sounds that influenced you but when it comes out of your creative self it’s mutated in such a way that it’s familiar but it’s new.
RS: Yeah, yeah sure.
JPG: Hopefully, when you get to Bonnaroo, or during your next tour of the United States you’ll get to see some of these acts, like The String Cheese Incident or others.
RS: I’ve heard of them actually, String Cheese.
JPG: You mentioned that when you played Vegoose there wasn’t a big crowd. Now, because of the commercial success that you’ve had at home is it helpful to keep your head on straight that things are much smaller here or is it a bit of a shock?
RS: I’ve really enjoyed all the shows over here in the US. I think it’s been different because there are certain places where it felt a little bit like the U.K., like the New York show and the one in LA. at the Troubadour. And then there were other places that we played where we got the impression that they really didn’t know what to expect. But we love setting up somewhere and having to win over a crowd and just play to different audiences. You never know what to expect wherever you go.
I mean this European tour we’ve been doing. It’s kind of weird. We’ve been doing some big shows and small ones. There’s something nice about an intimate little show, kind of reminds you of when you were trying to win everyone over at the beginning. It’s fun.
JPG: Referencing my description of jamband — taking the traditional, embracing it and mutating it — is that how you see your songwriting and the band’s sound?
RS: I think it’s a really healthy mix to look back on what been done. Influence-wise, we’re really into old Country music and the root of things in blues, early folk music, even like 50’s rock and roll or soul music. We learned from that and I think it’s the most inspiring.
And we’re really into classic songwriting, be it even from the Brill Building kind of stuff or Jimmy Webb, Carol King, alongside Leonard Cohen, Neil Young, Tom Waits. They were pioneers in terms of just bringing something out that was just honest and pure. And I think for us we look at that and get influenced from that and try and make it our own where it can come from whatever genre.
JPG: Where does Brian Wilson fit in all this?
RS: The Beach Boys was always a band, just growing up I remember hearing Pet Sounds and being mindblown. That tour we did supporting [Wilson] in the U.K. was like a dream come true. Just never expected that. Going on the same stage as him on the last three shows…we would do some harmonies and it was just, Oh my God! We’re on staqe with Brian Wilson!’ Just one of those moments that you can’t really get your head around. I remember just being really nervous when he’d be on the side of the stage watching us play. He’s definitely in our eyes to be admired.
JPG: It’s interesting to hear all the people you mention as influences because the one not heard is usually brought up when writing about The Magic Numbers. Just wondering if you ever hear another Mamas and Papas reference are you going to kick in a door or something?
RS: Umm, yeah (slight laugh)
JPG: Because I don’t see it other than the fact that there are two males and two females in the group…
JPG: ...and some harmonies.
RS: That’s the only kind of thing we see, really, because we see the Mamas and Papas a little bit more kind of flower power. I love some of the songs. I remember when we first got a couple of reviews they kept mentioning it. My sister and I bought a couple albums just to check it out. It was something that had to have seeped in somewhere. They were never like an influence that…You get annoyed when someone says, Oh, I’ve been listening to the album. I really hear the Mamas and the Papas.’ I think, Well, I don’t think you’ve really been listening. It’s a lot more than two boys, two girls and there’s harmonies.
JPG: I see Beach Boys more due to the harmonies and the use of the voices being layered and intertwining.
RS: Yeah. In terms of that as well, just the way there was always this kind of sadness in the way the songs were arranged and the way the harmonies were. The Beach Boys had this kind of happy/sad thing that just moved you.
JPG: On your debut, there’s that balance of happy and sad. Thematically it’s dealing with recovering from love lost. I always ask musicians when they sing personal stuff like that, is it hard to bring it up night after night in concert or take after take in the studio?
RS: You feel emotionally drained.
JPG: Writing stuff for the next release, will you concentrate on romance, due to its many different angles or move on to other subjects?
RS: When I write you’re on your own, it’s late at night, you’re just being really reflective about mistakes you’ve made. You’re just feeling that, you’re just in that mindset where you need to release all the sometimes guilt, sometimes the want of something, the kind of yearning something.
We’ve got pretty much the next album written, ready to record and I have been trying to write in different ways, in a more conversational kind of way where it’s trying to use the three voices in different way as well.
[Returning to the original question] It does come from that same place where, I guess, it’s always there. I remember recording the album and then listening back and the music being quite positive and the performance of them and each take when I was singing my heart out I would listen to it and, Oooh, this is a little bit mad.’ And I didn’t think everybody would hear these songs. It was like when we got together. It was more accidental, and the songs that I had written at that period in my life. So, even to this day, sometimes the songs are quite difficult to let go.
JPG: Back to the Magic Numbers Sound, there’s a sparseness to it, a sense of space in the music. Is that something that came about purposely or due to circumstance? And will the next album be more complex in how its arranged and fleshed out?
RS: Before we went to record the first album we had played a lot of the songs and we learned a lot about the space in the songs and the kind of dynamic in which to drop things and really just think about what is it we’re trying to say. We don’t need to crowd things too much cause the arrangements are complex in terms of we try and make it interesting for ourselves to play. We like to go off on little tangents. Sometimes we go a little too far and we come back a bit.
We’re definitely aware of the dynamics in which we write. There is more of that on the next record. Just from playing some of the new songs live we’re learning little things just from the crowd cause when you have a crowd and they’re there with you and they’re really quiet then you tend to be even quieter in places and drop things down like on “Hymn For Her.” Also, with the next record I think we’re interested in trying out different textures. Angela’s playing Wurlitzer keyboard now. So, that’s another melody instrument we’re going to bring in a little bit more. Then there’s a couple tracks that are screaming for some brilliant brass players. There’ll be some brass and strings on a couple tracks. I think the main thing is to not overcompensate for how much you can do, and more think what’s the most direct way of getting this song to someone. We really think about what we want to put on this track then.
JPG: As far as The Magic Number’s beginnings, you and Sean were in bands for eight years or so before bringing your sisters into the group. How would you contrast that time with what you’re doing now with Magic Numbers?
RS: When myself and Sean were playing at that time it was always very melodic. It was never like, I don’t know, too teenage angsty. Know what I mean? The lyrics were always important and melody and the sense of the song. What we did learn from that whole period was we tried to put a lot into each song. So, we were doing songs that lasted eight to 10 minutes. We did jam out a lot more on the outros. It was a lot of learning. I really look at that period as so beneficial to when I’ve written a whole batch of new songs.
When the girls joined it was just the four of us would go about and we would play these songs really stripped down. It was a necessity, really. We didn’t have money to pay for a van and whatever trams. We’d hitch trains and buses. So, we just stayed in England. Leased a guitar and bass. Sean would just have a snare and brushes. We learned a lot about the song and really keeping it quite simple. I guess that helped a lot. Then, the girls added that other instrument, their voices. So, there was a lot more to play with and refrain from doing too much.
JPG: Not to grind out the whole sibling thing, but I have a sister and I know there are times that we can work wonderfully together and at other times if there were knives in the room…
RS: ...throw a knife. There’s always a knife to be thrown around right where we are.
JPG: There’s also that great honesty that you can’t do even with good friends.
RS: That’s the thing. You can just be yourself 100% and that can either be a good thing or sometimes it’s pretty bad. You allow yourself to be a certain way. Creatively, it works really well because we get to sort of say, No, I don’t think we should do it like that. No, I don’t think that part’s cool.’ And no one takes offense because you’re all in it for the right thing. There’s no ego in that sense of it all, Oh I want to play this,’ where me and Sean had that before with other band members. In that sense it’s great.
On the road, just knowing that that person knows you so well. It’s kind of healthy that you have someone there all the time through all the mad ups and downs of it all. You can imagine what being in a band like with someone that’s related to you. There’s gonna be daily fights, but we know, Okay, something’s kicking off here. Let’s leave.’ It’s usually like Sean and Angela having a thing or myself and Michele having a thing. It’s very rarely the two families at each other, which is good. But you know we look forward to when that starts kicking in. (laughs)
JPG: Hopefully, it doesn’t translate into the Davies brothers or the Gallagher brothers with fights onstage.
RS: We’re aware of that whole thing. You have to have a fire there otherwise it just becomes, I guess, boring. There’s got to be this thing that you can’t quite sum up.
JPG: At the same time I saw the “NME” article and it mentioned everyone’s age. I see that you and Sean are in your late 20’s. (Romeo points out that he’s 28 and Sean’s 29) Besides having the sibling aspect to keep the members grounded, because of success coming about at this time rather than when you started your first band has that also kept you grounded?
RS: Yeah, I think so. We always say to each other, Oh man, imagine this was all happening to us and we were 21.’ It’s just a mad world to get thrown in and there’s so much to adapt to. There’s no way you can get used to it. I don’t think you can. In a way that sort of 8-10 years of hoping and praying, Oh, this is gonna be the year when someone takes notice.’ I think that kept us and will always keep us on that level where we do feel lucky to be in positions where we go up onstage and it’s somewhere completely different. It’s kind of hard not to be moved by that.
Then also, I think the girls being younger. They’re kind of fresh. Me and Sean, sometimes, I don’t know, can be a little bit jaded by different things. The girls’ enthusiasm sometimes makes you lift up a bit.
JPG: As far as Sean, there are certain songs where he’s not playing all too much. It’s almost a cappella song in certain portions. Is that something he got used to in past bands, being in and out of the arrangement, or was that something in this band where he’s had to submerge his ego for the overall song?
RS: Sean, he just listens. When you bring in a song, he will know the first minute-and-a-half, no drums are needed here. This isn’t the key point. On a song like “Wheels on Fire” where it takes awhile before the drums even come in. But when it does. He’s so needed. The presence of knowing. I think that’s a discipline thing in arranging the songs that you learn.
JPG: You’ve contributed a track to the “Dream Brother” album (a tribute to Jeff Buckley and his father, the equally impressive singer/songwriter Tim). How and why did you get involved and choose the song you did?
RS: It’s kinda mad that whole thing, really. I love Tim Buckley and Jeff Buckley equally. I remember maybe five or six years ago there was this tribute concert to Tim Buckley at Royal Festival Hall in London. No one had heard of the music I was doing, but I somehow thought, Yeah, I want to be involved in this concert.’
What is was you had people like Badly Drawn Boy, Eddi Reader, the girl from Fairground Attraction and all these other people who liked Tim Buckley. They would go on and do one of his songs and then they would do their own songs. And I was like, This is going to be great. This is going to be my way of getting out there.’ So, I sent a tape of my version of [Tim Buckley’s] “Sing A Song For You” and a version of one of our songs. Then I chased it up and I rang up, Any chance of being on?’ Oh, we really loved your version of “Sing A Song For You,” but we don’t have a spot for you on the show, but we’ll get you some tickets.’ So, we all went and it was great. And then we got approached by this record label if we were Tim Buckley fans and if we wanted to contribute a song. And I was like, Yeah, definitely.’
It’s mad that it actually came out. Not the version I sent to them originally but the band got to record one of our favorite songs. Michele knew the song and I think Angela knew the song as well. We didn’t even really work out the harmonies. We just did a few takes and all of sudden it was there. I just added a little bit of piano. I loved the version that we’ve done. Something that was destined to happen, I think.
JPG: From Trinidad to New York to Hanwell, England. Living life in different places, how did that influence you as an artist?
RS: Just growing up in Trinidad it was real community where everybody was just really together. Moving to New York was just a huge eye opener in terms of you felt you could do anything, especially coming from Trinidad.
I bought a guitar in New York. I made a bunch of friends and I really wanted to be in a band cause all my friends were in bands in New York. This whole dream I had as a kid.
I think we were meant to move to London, that things happen for a reason. I was meant to leave Trinidad at 11. I was meant to move to New York.