Interview by Mike Bax
Stella Vander begins our interview by apologizing for delaying it. Hoping to score some Wuhan Cymbals while in Chicago, Christian Vander (Stella’s husband) wound up in a Chicago music store a bit later than he wanted to on Good Friday, and had to juggle a bit of press interviews around. Stella explains the cymbals are not easy find back home in France and that Christian is happy to have found them while on tour.
Magma has been crafting intricate and challenging music since 1969. Balancing elements of Kobaïan lyrics overtop of songs that sound like a mix of jazz and prog music, the band sound quite relevant now given the current trends on modern rock music. Servicing a 14-date North American tour (13 now, due to inclement weather) that finishes up in Toronto on Saturday April 2nd at the Opera House – Stella (with Christian beside her weighing in where needed) fielded a few questions with Lithium Magazine via phone from their hotel in Chicago, before playing their first of two nights in a row there.
Mike: How many dates are on this current Magma tour of North America?
Stella: It was supposed to be 14, but with this recent winter storm we had in Denver we had to cancel our date in Cleveland unfortunately.
Mike: Oh, that’s too bad.
Stella: It really was. We went to bed in Denver and everything was ok, but the next morning there was snow everywhere. The airport was closed. There were no planes. So we got stuck there.
Mike: It’s been such a mild winter for us here. I’m surprised that we are getting this weather now. It’s odd.
Stella: Everywhere, it’s been surprising this year.
Mike: Would you mind reiterating for me how and when you and Christian met and how you started collaborating together in Magma?
Stella: We met in 1969. Christian was looking for musicians to do Magma. In the beginning, I wasn’t singing in the band. I was doing some management and also lighting. And I started to sing when he composed Mëkanïk Dëstruktïẁ Kömmandöh because he was looking for a choir and he was testing female singer after female singer and was having a really hard time finding what he wanted. Christian is beside me, and he’s saying that I was singing all of the time and he was looking for singers and suddenly he realized that he had one already right beside him. (laughs)
Mike: Well, that’s worked out. Magma has been going for almost 50 years, right? That’s pretty amazing.
Stella: Well, yes. I didn’t really feel like saying that I wanted to get involved with the band. Being a woman in the seventies, especially in a rock band, was kind of tough, you know? And I had a relationship with a musician in the band, but they (Magma musicians) were not trusting anything I was saying about music, you know? So I didn’t feel like imposing myself. But it all went rather naturally once it happened.
Mike: Can you tell what attendees can expect to hear on this current run of Magma shows?
Stella: Well, in fact, we are mostly playing things from the seventies. We follow our social networks and we get many messages from everywhere in the world – people who have never seen Magma live would like to hear stuff from the seventies. Things like Mëkanïk Dëstruktïẁ Kömmandöh or Köhntarkösz or even Attack, which we hadn’t played in ages, but decided to rehearse again and play for this tour.
Mike: And are you enjoying playing some of that old material?
Stella: Yes, especially the songs we haven’t played for years and years. Suddenly you play them again and you realize the material is still so up to date and so intense. This is absolutely not boring of that is what you are asking for. (laughs)
Mike: Do you find that you are getting a broad spectrum of ages showing up at your shows?
Stella: We are happy to see people are coming out for them. Last year we did only eight concerts over here and we were sold out everywhere. And this year it’s good – some shows not sold out, but the venues are packed. This isn’t a surprise for us. Last year people flew from all over the country to see us. But now we are going closer to more people and doing more live dates. I think this is normal. We are happy with the attendance of course, and the ages of people who are showing up.
Mike: Considering how long Magma have been creating music, what do you and Christian consider to be you finest recorded moments?
Stella: Album recordings?
Mike: Yes. You’ve said that fans are asking for material they want to hear on social networks. But these may not be the same things that you personally consider to be your best stuff. I’m curious about that.
Stella: Magma Live is obviously a very good one. The three Retrospektïẁ albums as well. All of them have something special on them. Myself, I like Félicité Thösz that was released in 2012 because it’s another side of Magma, you know? A happier side of Magma, which is not obvious for everyone at the beginning but it really does exist. And Ëmëhntëhtt-Ré is a very definitive Magma piece. Everything that you would want to find out about Magma is inside this album.
Mike: Is there anything musically you feel that Magma still NEEDS to explore? A concept? Instrument? A musical style? A visual stage presentation you haven’t done yet?
Stella: Oh, let me ask this to Christian. (which she does) Musically speaking there is probably a lot of things more to come. But in the way of composing, because Christian is on new leads already, I would say there we really have never had a visual stage presentation in the way that we would ideally like to. Christian has many ideas in his head. Every time his ideas are out of our means, you know? We don’t have the money to do most of his visionary ideas. We are not Metallica or any of these bigger bands. But every time he comes up with these ideas we discuss how we might be able to do that. It’s huge. And many of these ideas we don’t really need.
Mike: Do you think that when Magma was created that it would be a band that would last almost five decades?
Stella: Of course not. (laughs) We never thought about that. We just hoped that we could keep on going as long as possible. We started to make anniversaries because our managers were asking for that. It seems like everyone is recognizing their past efforts with anniversary things – anniversary of the band, anniversaries of this album or that album – it’s almost too much.
Mike: Magma is as old as Black Sabbath. With Sabbath currently wrapping up their career, have you and Christian talked about what the end of Magma might look like?
Stella: No. Never. As long as we can stand up we will be here. (laughs)
Mike: Many of your fans consider Magma’s music to be an extension of jazz music. What are your favorite things about jazz music?
Stella: You most likely know that Christian is a John Coltrane addict?
Mike: Yes. I do.
Stella: Everything is right there in his music. It’s a constant source of inspiration for him. He is always listening to his material. And each time he always hears the music differently. It’s fascinating. Sometimes with jazz you listen to something and you’ll say “Whoa. This is nice.” But it’s only one tune on an album and not a complete album.
Mike: How do you think Magma utilizes and builds upon these Jazz elements?
Stella: I think it’s a completely natural thing. It’s not made on purpose. When Christian composes he doesn’t think that he’s going to create music in a certain style. It’s a completely natural occurrence. It’s not pre-established. He was born into it. He was surrounded by jazz music with his mother who was friends with many jazz musicians at that time. He was being exposed to it since he was a kid, you know? He knew Chet Baker when he was a kid. Jazz music was all around for him. It’s a part of how he was raised. I don’t think he thinks in ways of utilizing or building on elements – he just composes. It just comes straight.
Mike: Do you think there is anything original happening in modern music? If so, what has impressed you of late?
Stella: What do you consider modern music?
Mike: I tend to think of modern music as anything. I cast my net pretty wide musically, and enjoy numerous genres. I am finding that I am enjoying a lot of stuff lately that is derivative of the seventies right now. It’s enjoying a renaissance right now, I think.
Stella: It’s not very often that we find something completely original. But there are some sounds – some very good musicians out there. A project like Snarky Puppy, for example, is interesting. I think they have found something different conceptually, and they are all very good musicians. Sometimes you’ll listen to one tune on the radio or on the computer and think you should listen to the album – and you’ll find on the album there is only that one tune that is interesting. For myself, a band like Hiatus Kaiyote is interesting. Do you know this Australian band?
Mike: Just by name. I don’t know their music at all. I’ll spare you the “where do your ideas come from” question. I’d love to know how much an idea can change once you start developing and building on it though.
Stella: Usually it’s quite built up in the beginning – the overall shape. It’s kind of tiring to work with Christian. (laughs) He has new ideas every thirty seconds. That’s why maybe some albums take a long time to be finished. He’ll come back with a new idea and we will record a new part of it. I don’t know why really. Maybe because he’s not preparing them enough? It’s the way he does it though – he’ll find something and instantly want to try it. Sometimes it’s good and we will keep it, but sometimes it’s not good and we’ll park it. Most of the bands they record and then they play on stage. We do the opposite. We play on stage and then we go on record. Most of our music becomes set in that fashion. We refine it in the studio. We can add more vocals or keyboards or whatever. He could change a lot of things in the time between though. He will have new ideas along the way. The sound is different in the studio than on the stage. At the end of the day I think we have been around everything that we could try.
Mike: Is there a Magma album you could describe that went in a direction that surprised you both?
Stella: Let me just think. I’ll ask Christian. (she does) Not really, no.
Mike: Is your music always created as instrumentation before lyrics, or have you done music where the lyrics are written first?
Stella: No, never. Kobaïan is a phonetic language, and it’s made to fit into the music. Some of the time Christian is composing music and the words are coming at the same time. The lyrics in Kobaïan tend to fit in the holes of the music. Most of the lyrics comes with the music. The instrumentation is always done afterwards. He composes at the piano most of the time and he always thinks about the drum parts when everything else is done. It’s not composed around the drums for example. Magma is composed around piano and vocals.
Mike: If you could go back in time 40 years and give yourself one piece of advice, what would you tell yourself?
Stella: (asks Christian) Christian is saying that you can’t go back anyway (laughs). He thinks that considering the possibilities he’s had, he did what he wanted to do – the right thing. One thing he doesn’t regret is when we worked with Giorgio Gomelsky. Giorgio passed away a few weeks ago. He was our manager at the time. He was the manager of the Rolling Stones in the beginning. The Yardbirds. Many groups like that in the beginning of their careers. These groups all went with other management; Giorgio could be kind of weird. But we worked with him for a few years. He said to Christian “Come with me to America. You are going to make a career there.” He didn’t try and change anything about us. He kept Christian focused on Magma, rather than pairing him up with other jazz musicians. That would have been a mistake for Magma. We are happy about that. That doesn’t really answer your question.
Mike: It answers that you have no regrets. I’ll take it. I’m sure a lot of musicians couldn’t say the same.
Stella: Maybe I would say that we trusted too much from people who put us in difficult positions. But that was business-wise.
Mike: I’m sure you have decades’ worth of stories to tell in that regard. What is your favorite place in the world?
Stella: Christian’s favorite place in the world is anywhere there is a river and some woods.