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.
What’s the approach in releasing tapes and smaller run releases (via Arbitrary Signs, etc.) in between albums?
EA: Pete is really the engine behind the CDrs and tapes. I am too control-oriented to put those out myself. I tried to do it a few times and I just ended up mixing and adding overdubs and cutting too much, turning it into something it wasn’t. It is ego on my part, a desire to be godlike, the final authority, control what you hear, but the thing is no matter what I can never do that. Not always, but if the right thing is happening, the space, the wrong notes just become part of the right thing. No one can prevent perverse interpretations of their work, or decide how something will be perceived. You have to not care enough to put it out, and you have to care enough that you make it at all. It’s a mind slip and slide, good times and friction burns.
PN: Mostly we put out stuff to sell on the road. We record all the time and compiling stuff to put out is pretty rad. Lots of the tapes from the last few years have been early formations of a lot of the songs that did or didn’t end up on the new record. It just lets people in on the process a bit. Lately we’ve been jamming our songs out a bit more again and recording that stuff. Just stretching the DNA of the song out and having a good look at each molecule.
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!
Is being open to changes in direction via these releases a method of connecting with fans during conceived periods of inactivity?
EA: We have fans?
PN: I guess. Unfortunately we haven’t tried too hard to connect with fans musically for the last while. I think our sole release from last year was a cassette in an edition of 10. It was really good too. I might try to re-release it after the smoke clears from Surrender. I think Elisa’s been doing a great job of “connecting” on the internet with the Tweet Hassle handle and her various Tumblrs and Pinterests and stuff. Although I think she keeps that stuff secret, so maybe that doesn’t actually count at all. Her invisible motor is always whirring.
I think we’ll be releasing a lot more actual music once this record comes out. We have such a backlog of stuff because we were being really superstitious about what was going to be on the record and what wasn’t. Now that we know we can release all the other stuff that we recorded. There’s a lot of cool stuff from the last few years. We’ve just been doing everything in private for a while. Hopefully the people that used to like us will still be interested and some younger kids will get into us too now that we’re finally gonna start putting stuff out again on a larger scale.
Are there any odd influences that inspired a particular song or idea on Surrender to Fantasy? It’s an album that juggles a lot of tempos, thoughts, and genres.
EA: Blue crabs. Fender Bassman. Veronica Forrest Thompson. Hugh Sykes Davies. Dowsers. Mainliner. The Internet. Flowers. Nancy comics. Being poor. Chemtrails. Fando y Lis. Street Hassle.
PN: Not really. Lots of times when you first start making records in a studio, it’s good to have a record to reference that you really like the sound of to use as a rough template of what you sort of want the sound of your record to be. It’s just to have a common language to share with the engineers [and] producers… like, “I would like this record to be more Beggar’s Banquet then Slippery When Wet please.” Just to get everyone on the same page.
I don’t want to show our hand too much or anything. But I definitely got into reading about great records that were recorded in sort of homemade situations. Surrender was recorded over time in various people’s homes: Elisa’s dad’s basement in Hartford, J Mascis’ Attic in Amherst, a practice space in Brooklyn, a practice space in Northampton, Aaron Mullan’s basement in Queens, my apartment in Brooklyn. I think whatever different sounds are on the record it’s bound together by a homemade approach to recording.
EA: I feel like this record is the most directly influenced by Magik Markers. I came back East in 2010, and there was an immediate joy to all being in my dad’s basement together and just jamming. Maybe our lives and circumstances and time have created a new gratitude for the psychic space of the band, and that influenced the writing. The record is soaking in Magik Markers.
How long have the songs on STTF been brewing live? Is there any song that has radically changed directions as you’ve played it more?
PN: Most of the songs we’ve turned inside and out. We’ve each taken a turn on each other’s instruments, and tried to play four instruments at once and all that. Just trying to play them good and make sure that they’re haunted, too. Hopefully we’ll come to a consensus about the best way to play all the new tunes before we hit the road in September.
EA: I don’t think I know of any direction changes. Maybe songs just get closer to the dirt code of Magik Markers. “Ice Skater” was cut from the record and put on the 7” coming out and I originally wrote the vocal melody and chord. In my head it was a Buddy Holly song, and then when Pete and John created this totally other thing, it became the sound of Predator in the woods, and this click track beat and synth and whispering for some reason. Now live it sounds totally loud and busted and not like any of those things. It is a song only we three could have made.
Have you worked to “evolve” the band’s sound through the years or is any maturity in sound or production just a byproduct of longevity?
EA: I guess it is just a want to get at a truth in communication. Communicating something and having someone understand or respond; sharing a space in your head, an area of imagination, wheedling into that liminal space. I remember when someone picked up on a book I had been obsessed by when I was nine years old, but I had never directly referenced at any point. It thrilled me that some secret coded communication had happened between me and this person; we were on some other level speaking directly to each other without ever meeting or talking.
There is reference to being “honest to myself” in work, but what I mean by that is not an individuality or celebration of me personally, what I mean by that honesty is something that contains a lack of lying or falsity in work, the bare truth of experience communicated not because it is self-special and my experience, but because telling the truth has the potential when done right to communicate a massive experience: the smaller and more precisely an honest human thing is rendered, is the more common it becomes.
It’s a battle between what is arguably a stupid format, a rock & roll record, and the trick of not making something stupid or making something so stupid it comes back around to not stupid at all. I am taking it down from the inside by being stupid. It’s a plan I have had for a long time. There aren’t enough stupid, mouth-breathing women making rock & roll records.
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.
PN: We’re just trying to sound good. I don’t really know if it’s an evolution though. I think we made a real conscious decision to go back to our roots in some sense and put some music on the record that we would have been doing in the basement 10 years ago. I think “Elephant Cavalry” is a real example of this. We used a lot of instruments and sounds from a long time ago on this one: the synth, an old tape loop, guitar-cable crackle. Maybe we’re better at it than we used to be, I don’t know. We’re definitely better at editing than we used to be. “Acts of Desperation” remind me of a tune I would have played with my band Cops way back in the 90s. I guess the only evolution in that case would be Elisa’s singing, which is fantastic, and the guitar rhythm just makes me think of John doing his Neil Young dinosaur stomp back in the Believers. So I guess everyone puts their own stamp on that one.
Also Elisa’s drumming is so heavy and I think this is the first time that’s been showcased on a record, although she’s been playing that way all along. I think there is some maturity in the record in the sense that we put it in the bottle for a while and let it age a bit. I think that’s good for making sure that a record has some sense of timelessness to it. I’m pretty into letting it flow for a bit after this though.
How does Surrender to the Fantasy reflect this maturity or am I imagining it when I listen to some of the calmer songs such as “Acts of Desperation” or “Empire Building”?
EA: This is an example of how I feel like my subjectivity makes me unable to know anything about the stuff we make. “Empire Building” was improvised with no overdubs or changes, just editing length, and it is as pure an expression of everybody’s ether-mind, just came out of playing. Maybe for me there is some T.E. Lawrence — some arcane desert feeling coming from the music — in the lyrics. Billy Joel has a song with Lawrence of Arabia in it and he is definitely mature. I read a lot of desert stories of man-love that year, Gide, Bowles and junk, and I think everybody was just hive mind: bumps on the highway, missing words, wind, blank space, not letting anything happen musically until it had to. It did not feel calm recording it, it felt tense; committing to a shared illusion, things in your mind manifesting as real. The day we recorded that is the day the record title became Surrender to the Fantasy.
“Acts of Desperation” was the exact opposite in creation and execution.
The only thing I can say in terms of maturity is: I read a review of a record I did that was like, “Really, you’re singing about flowers and bugs and shit? Like, I thought u wuz cool.” When I was 15 I couldn’t stand a musician I liked “going soft.” Husker Du should have just kept making and remaking Land Speed Record and Metal Circus! I thought it was so lame. I thought Descendents’ I Don’t Want to Grow Up record was so poser and poppy. They recorded it when I was in pre-school, but they were obviously not hard.
If you’re working at making something honest that matters to you, you’re going to have to let down your guard. You’re going to have to stuff a sock in the mouth of that 15 year old. Essentially, to get any work done at all in the world, I have to completely absent myself from my natural inner voice calling me a pansy. So that’s mature.
How do you mentally and physically prepare for a tour? What can we expect when you come to our slices of rural Americana?
EA: I do a lot of push-ups. I play electric guitar at home instead of acoustic. I take vitamins. I watch old live shows of other people. One of the best Magik Markers shows we ever did was after we all watched 13th Floor Elevators play by that swimming pool.
PN: Practice, make T-shirts, tapes etc. You know what we sound like. I think/hope we’ve gotten better at what we do… But we’re still on a journey. If we weren’t and we totally knew exactly how to play every song exactly as it sounds on record it would kill what’s good about us.
EA: If we come to your town we might suck or we might be the greatest show you’ve ever seen and you won’t even be sure which one it was for another decade.