Magik Markers: Interview
“There aren’t enough stupid, mouth-breathing women making rock & roll records.”
The canonical telling of Pete Nolan and Elisa Ambrogio as Magik Markers is one told in hushed whispers and heresy by nerds perched near record store bins. They speak of the band’s early performances, Elisa drenched in blood and sweat as Pete paid no mind but to the primal rhythm; of Leah Quimby’s disappearance and John Shaw’s indoctrination.
Truth is, the Markers aren’t some secret society, just a trio of hard-playing creatives who have turned 12 years together into a chest full of CD-Rs, tapes, and LPs smattered across multiple labels. It’s been nearly four years since the band’s last full-length album, but with autumn comes Surrender to the Fantasy (due November 19 on Drag City) and a new tour.
I spoke with remaining OGs Elisa Ambrogio and Pete Nolan about the upcoming release of Surrender to the Fantasy, tour preparation, and the ongoing (im)maturity of the Magik Markers.
It’s been four years since Balf Quarry. Why so long for a new Drag City album?
Elisa Ambrogio: We just really wanted time with the record, listening over and over, building a place in our minds. It changed over time, what the record became. Somewhere in my head I was thinking, if this is the last Magik Markers record, what does it need to have? I think in extremes on records. I never consider a continuum, I just think about finality. That can slow you down. Just ask Steely Dan. No, don’t.
Pete Nolan: We’ve been working and having babies and jamming and recording a ton and letting it sit there, and contemplating it a few years later, then doing other stuff, then finally coming around to decide to mix it and finish it.
EA: Working with Pete is great, because he sees value in that idea of a snapshot of time; the CDrs and tapes we’ve put out consistently never would exist in the world without him doing that. This time around I have conceded a certain myopia, trusting that I don’t always know. Perspective on work you make yourself takes time, you almost have to be another person before you can hear it without your subjectivity missing the point completely.
PN: Life got pretty demanding around 2009 for me when I had a kid, and my wife and I both lost our jobs and had to come up with a new survival plan. Fortunately my wife, Julie, who played synth with the Markers on the Boss tour, had just gone through jewelry school and we’ve been using those skills to pay the bills, but we had to work together to start that biz from scratch. Fortunately [it] has been pretty successful but having your own business plus having a new baby doesn’t leave as much room from zoned-out basement jams. Markers were already pretty slow at creating records and all this business has made the music-making process even slower. But music has a way of seeping through the cracks in my life and it always happens almost like I don’t have a choice about it. So yeah just another chapter.
I remember once at a show singing about a box of teeth, I was a dude who loved his little rattling box of dead dudes’ teeth and sometimes he would pull out the teeth and suck them, because he could taste inside their mouths and they were dead and couldn’t taste that anymore.
EA: Recording and producing a record is strange, pleasurable, and kind of embarrassing. Singing little made up bits in the dark, stomping on electronic boxes, gathering lengths of wires. It’s like what you would make up as an activity for someone in a sanatorium.
Putting work of the private imagination out in the world requires a strength of ego, a powerful self-belief or an almost pathological desperation. I tend to work from the last one, but the kindness and responsiveness of people in the world has buoyed me with a belief in something I cannot understand or control. It’s easy to write songs, enjoy recording, play with friends, and there is no reason at all to release it into the world. I battle with that in my brain.
I know so many gifted musicians and writers who are satisfied to just enjoy the sheer pleasure of those things, and don’t produce work in the world. That is awesome, but I also feel like it is selfish; you have this stuff, I know about it, I know it’s great, but you just keep it for yourself! What if the people who have saved my life with records and books had just kept diaries, jammed with friends, and never put their work into the world, how different would my life have been without them?
That thought is my own justification for the inherent self-importance and egotism of putting work in the world. I used to try to push people into putting their stuff out, but not everyone understands the point. It takes a certain skew to the brain to think what you made should be heard. Anyone who acts like they are not trying to connect or communicate when they release records or art is lying. If in their lifetime they have produced work to be consumed some way, the coolest, most diffident artist in the world is a craven, desperate, alone human, heaving things off cliffs to hear the echo, see if anyone will come to ask what the noise was.
How do Magik Markers fit in today’s mixed-up world of pomp and circumstance?
EA:Does it relate to the song they play at graduations? I don’t really have any feeling about that song, but in any movie featuring nerds, stuffy Deans or Rodney Dangerfield, I enjoy it.
PN: I don’t know if worrying about how we fit in is really a part of our process. When we get out to play lately it seems like we get to play with some great bands, Dirty 3, Black Bananas, Haunted House, Sic Alps, Ghost etc. I’ve got no complaints about our place in the rock & roll food chain, and it’s cool to be inspired by things that I’ve dug all along. If something is good it just holds up over time.
Do you find inspiration — be it lyrical or aural — from modern sounds unlike your own? Or do you try to avoid any sort of charted course from others?
PN: Yeah, I guess so… music is just a part of life. It gets me through the day. It’s always good if you can find something new to listen to that makes life easier. I listen to all the stuff I’ve always liked. I listen to Hip Hop Nation and Backspin on Sirius radio… but I listen to all the other channels too. Been digging Terry Riley’s Shri Camel, Les Paul and Mary Ford, Pretty Things…
EA: I don’t think it’s either/or. You listen to things and develop extreme attachments, and you want to avoid not sounding like yourself. I can plausibly deny being a talented musician, but I cannot deny being an obsessive and constant music fan. Inserting myself into the continuum of recorded music is pretty great; I can’t believe it when I see someone owns a record I made. I listen to something I like and then become obsessed by the time period, the other bands, the personal biographies of the musicians. Sometimes it is really sad and almost pushes you away from the pure music that inspired you to go deep into it, like with say Charles Mingus, and sometimes it all enhances it, like with Moondog or Fahey. Those are kind of sad too now that I think about it, but whatever; everyone’s life is a little sad, at least they made a body of work.
How do your other musical pursuits (Spectre Folk, 200 Years, etc.) influence the Markers’ output?
EA: There are Magik Markers characters that just naturally come out when we are playing or I am writing those songs, and there are qualifiers and characters to my solo songs and there 200 Years characters. They all deal in their own rhythmic and melodic ideas and images.
Magik Markers leads my brain to possess some pretty creepy junk, like murder and power and a lack of compassion sometimes. I remember once at a show singing about a box of teeth, I was a dude who loved his little rattling box of dead dudes’ teeth and sometimes he would pull out the teeth and suck them, because he could taste inside their mouths and they were dead and couldn’t taste that anymore. I have never and maybe would never have thought of those images without playing in Magik Markers.
Magik Markers are really terrestrial, there are tons of lyrics about the ground, dirt, roads, really gravity-based. Those are just the natural lyrics that come out of playing together. 200 Years for me occupied a lighter zone, something aerial. All the lyrics wound up being about storms, sky or light, taking flight. Maybe I was picking up on Ben [Chasny], he has an aerial quality, and he knows a lot about planes and constellations.
Inserting myself into the continuum of recorded music is pretty great; I can’t believe it when I see someone owns a record I made.
PN: I play a lot of guitar in Spectre Folk and I’m usually playing guitar for a while waiting for the other Markers to show up for practice (they live a town away from the practice space and John just had kid #2). It has been good to have a practice space and play really loud guitar. If I have some kind of song or sound idea it could go to either project. It’s whoever is there at the time to make it happen.
EA: I was writing on the West Coast missing the home I grew up with out East. In Hartford my great grandmother had planted basil and mint in her backyard, and there were all these other Sicilian immigrants that planted grapes and roses and everything grew wild and smelled really good after a hot day. At night lightning bugs would turn on inside of the tangled roses and brush against the garage and it would glow all pink and green. That house was foreclosed on, I’ll never see it again, and in a 200 Years song called “Wild White,” I got to be there in my mind. Without 200 Years I never would have remembered that so viscerally. Writing songs late at night in Seattle, wanting to capture the pure and clean simplicity of a song that could stand on a melody, something where my words and Ben’s crazy perfect acoustic guitar were all the songs were built of.
PN: I definitely have a whole new respect for Elisa, who has to sing and play guitar at the same time and be the center of attention all the time. It took me about four years in Spectre Folk before I was comfortable in that role. But creatively I think it’s really good. I’ve got a good idea of how the nuts and bolts of either band work together to create a total sound, and how the most important thing is to be true to that sound and make the most of it.