The story of my discovery of Magma begins with an admission of sorts: I make up words. ;-) Or, well, dialects, really. I could not call this a hobby – when it is a hobby, it is known as ‘conlanging’, which seems to involve a large amount of carefully-constructed grammar schemes and linguistic terminology that is way beyond my ken. For me it is simply ‘a thing I do’, which began I suppose as a natural extension of my enjoyment of the English language. When I was about five I suppose I realised that not everyone in the world speaks English and used to amuse myself by pretending to speak French – that was just babble. But eventually this game developed into a fascination with words, language, definition, meaning and significance. Somehow I needed my own words for certain things. And I was aware of certain feelings and ideas which I could not really explain or describe in English. From there, it progressed into something that you might loftily call ‘world building’, but I would pin down as ‘makin’ up stuff’. Alongside the words, fictional places came into being, people, imagined lives, ideas, and – most importantly of all – an odd sort of sense of myself which means more to me than the bland, bald and uninformative term ‘British’ which makes me cringe every time I have to write it on a form. (I’m the product of a mixture of various European nationalities, alongside the British part; it’s the mixture that I am proud of and feel I belong to, but you can’t really put that on a form, can you?!)
Anyway, alongside that, there is more! For as long as I can remember I have made up songs as well as stories, and of course the invented words and the music occasionally intertwine to produce the ‘folk music’ that goes with those fictional cultures.
I grew up hearing a very limited range of music – my parents had about five or so pop and easy listening LPs that were played regularly (and a bunch of classical stuff that never touched the turntable!). And we listened to jazz and swing on Radio 2 and watched old musicals on Sunday afternoons. Occasionally I heard a bit of contemporary commercial music that made my brain weary with its combination of blandness and bombast. Other than that, I made up my own music. That is what I lived for, really. I would have put up with almost anything as long as I could have a piano, pens and blank paper. (I am musically illiterate but it’s handy for writing down the lyrics, innit?!)
Later I began to discover what you might term ‘weird music’ – I did not care to pay anyone to supply me with standard-issue pop or songwriterly tunes, for my own meant more to me, however amateurish their quality – but I was instantly attracted to musical eccentrics and mavericks such as Beefheart, Zappa and Todd Rundgren.
All of the above… every single one of these important elements of my personality… made me into almost the ideal recipient for the music of Magma.
I did not know of their existence, however, until one evening, several years ago, when I went to see the Residents in concert. Whilst there I met up with an online acquaintance whom I knew via a shared interest in Captain Beefheart. (We are both longstanding members of the excellent ‘Fireparty’ Beefheart discussion list – see www.beefheart.com for info.) In conversation, this chap began to ask me what I was up to on the songwriting front. I explained that some of what I was doing was sort of like folk music for fictional cultures, with made-up languages and everything. Immediately, his eyes lit up and he began to speak of Magma. To be honest, I was unable really to react very coherently to what he said, for I was completely taken aback with the notion that someone else was doing that sort of thing. Then I had a feeling of unease about it: from the description it sounded rather serious and perhaps a little… pretentious. Then I suffered the ultimate indignity of realising I was being a hypocrite by thinking such a thing and… well, I guess I concluded that I must be a pretentious idiot myself. That’s not a very comfortable feeling to have, so I sort of put it to one side in my mind.
But I didn’t forget about Magma. It was just half a minute’s conversation, during which the words ‘Magma’, ‘Christian Vander’ and ‘Kobaïan’ were mentioned only once, and yet they were indelibly inscribed on my mind.
Years later, I was offered a mix CD by a different online acquaintance who has a bit of a mission in life to broaden people’s musical explorations. He has a radio show, podcast and blog which aims to do this. He asked me what I liked so he could tailor the selections to appeal without being overly familiar. And what was included? Well, lots of interesting stuff, but the stand out track was by Koenjihyakkei. This music… it had such exuberance, it was so unique and so gobsmackingly strange and yet so much fun… I had to find out more about it. Of course, as soon as you investigate Koenjihyakkei, the name ‘Magma’ pops up.
Good grief. Magma… the mysterious band who had given me that odd little ‘personal moment’ in the foyer of the Queen Elizabeth Hall. The people with the made up words and outsider attitude. The potentially pretentious space cadets…
The idea of this music still intrigued me. It was obvious that I had to hear it at last. It seemed like Fate. I went and ordered Koenji’s ‘Angherr Shisspa’ and MDK immediately.
With what seemed like supernatural speed, MDK was in my hands in less than 24 hours, despite the fact that I hadn’t paid for next day delivery. It was almost as if something or someone – or even the Universe itself! – was desperate for me to hear this music.
I sat there and put the CD in the stereo, with considerable trepidation. What if it’s horrible? There are people reviewing this album saying that they can’t listen to it. That it gives them the creeps. That you can use it to clear the room of unwanted overstayers after that theoretical party which people use as a thought experiment to test out weird records!
Well, my taste seems to be exactly geared to enjoy those totemic party-terminating albums… so perhaps, I thought, I might like it. I pressed ‘play’.
It took about ten, twenty seconds: the opening bars of MDK, that rhythm, relentless and yet utterly natural, as if it had been going on since the dawn of time, ground out by the internal workings of the planet – as if it had been playing inaudibly in the back of my mind all my life, and only now was it being amplified so that I could hear it…
I don’t think I need go on – anyone who has heard Magma and gone on to become a fan will know the rest. All I will say is that whilst some people are ‘fact fans’ who know the details of every line up and setlist and tour schedule, and whilst others are able to appreciate the technical and academic/compositional side of the music to a degree that I, ignorant amateur, cannot, I am firmly in the ‘personal significance’ bracket of Magma-devotion. For me it has, in a completely unexpected way, made sense of many of the preoccupations and inventions of my imaginative life. I really never thought that I would be able to say ‘me too’ or see myself in someone else’s music, the way less unusual or eccentric people can – the way the average country music fan can relate to ‘three chords and the truth’, for example! But there it is – I never thought I’d find it, but here I am, vindicated in a way, by this music that is aimed squarely at anyone who is not merely ‘different’ but has had to invent their own category to belong to!
Incidentally, at the concert in London on 6th October, I came full circle by meeting once again with Andy, the chap who had told me about Magma in the first place, all those years before. I was very happy indeed to shake his hand: “…et je te dis ‘Merci’!” ;-) In a way we are now ‘Magma allies’ as even Beefheart fans can be remarkably resistant to this music – ours is a small outpost but we defend it bravely!
And that is that. Hamtaï! :-)