San Francisco's Magic Bullets have no qualms about admitting their love of 70s and 80s pop, from the croon of Orange Juice's Edwyn Collins to the moodier jangle of R.E.M. and The Smiths.
After a bout of shifting lineups, Magic Bullets, who have been around since 2004, finally released a self-titled sophomore album earlier this year on the new Brooklyn-based label Mon Amie. The band, which now consists of singer Philip Benson, guitarist Corey Cunningham, drummer Alex Kaiser, keyboardist Sean "Shony Collins" McDonnell and bassist Nathan Sweatt, will play a hometown show in San Francisco on December 10, but when they were in New York not long ago, the guys discussed their evolution and Erasure fixation with WFUV's George Evans, who became a Magic Bullets acolyte after falling for one of the band's ebullient singles:
George Evans: So I was listening to the song “Lying Around” on The Alternate Side and I was totally hooked. I ran to The Alternate Side’s Russ Borris and said, “I’ve got to hear the rest of the album.” You guys are great. This is the second album, yes? What was the first?
Philip Benson: AChild But In Life Yet A Doctor In Love.
George: But this album is untitled?
Philip: It is.
George: So how did the second album come about? I know after the first one it was a bunch of years all stacked up with some songs. Now how did you get to the second one? What were the ideas behind it?
Philip: Well, actually, there was a lot in between that we never did anything with. I think it basically had to do with trying to find a solid lineup for the band, partially.
Nathan Sweatt: That’s pretty true. We had a lineup that we recorded the first album with, and then we did the touring for that and wrote a lot of songs. Probably like two and a half albums worth of songs. When it came time to start working on another album we had lost some of those members and we had lost some of those demos and so we went back and rewrote some things. We culled from this catalog of material that we’d been playing out on tour for a couple of years.
George: How did you guys survive on tour? You did a lot of touring around.
Nathan: I thought that was one of the good things about having so many people in our band. There’s always somebody else you can talk to if you get sick of somebody else. Or somebody smelled bad, like some people in this room. There’s some pros and cons.
Philip: Yeah, I never felt any animosity towards anybody but people that we invited outside the band to play with us (laughs).
George: How did you guys get together? You’re out of San Francisco.
Nathan: We’ve known each other for a really long time, going back to high school. I’ve known Phil since we were about 16. I used to see Shaun’s old band play. Corey we’ve known for a long time. Alex has been around for a while. Everybody plays in separate bands and then, eventually, people start new bands. That’s how this one came about.
George: Listening to your music, there’s all kinds of comparisons that come to mind like The Smiths, Morrissey, with the guitar-playing, a little Johnny Marr, Robert Smith. When I heard you guys, I also thought you sounded more organic and natural than Vampire Weekend. Less pretentious to my ears. How do you feel about those comparisons?
Phillip: As far as the first couple you said, I’m entirely flattered by them. I can hear it in spots here and there. But people who say I sound like Morrissey ... I don’t think I sound like him at all. But I definitely admire him. I dunno.
George: Little elements of that stuff, though. It still sounds like you guys. Who are people who influenced you? You had a post-punk background.
Philip: As far as the sound on this record? I’d say a lot of it was indebted to a band called Orange Juice. I’m just saying that for me. The only people who played on the record in this room are me, the bassist Nathan and Corey the guitarist. What do you guys think?
Nathan: I think it’s interesting because I think our palette expanded by the time we recorded this album. Not that we weren’t listening to certain things before, but we began to draw from things like Chic and Nile Rodgers, [Chic's] bass player. We really liked a lot of that stuff. We just wanted to have a little more colorful than the first album which was sort of a general representation of what that group of musicians sounded like at the time. People use that [term] post-punk to describe that, but when I think of post-punk I think of almost atonal, angular chords and that album doesn’t have that so much. I think you can see a lineage between the first and second albums, the melodicism of that album and this album. I would agree that it is two different sounds, two very different albums. But there is a thread that links them. It’s funny. Once we got pulled over by a state trooper in New Mexico.
Philip: No, Texas! For speeding. We just looked like a band.
Nathan: It was like, what are you guys doing speeding at 3 a.m.? And we said that we were rushing to get to our next show and he asked us what we sounded like (laughs). Man, that question is tough and it changes all the time, but this time, for some reason, we said that we sounded like R.E.M. Which I thought was a good touchstone! (laughs)
Corey: If we’d said Orange Juice, he would have said, “Who’s Orange Juice?”
George: What was the recording process like? Do you prefer analog to digital?
Philip: I say absolutely analog for me personally, but I think everyone shares that view. We recorded in analog and then it went in through digital. Analog always sounds better.
Nathan: It makes a world of a difference, it really does.
George: Certain people, like Shelby Lynne, just prefer tape. Analog tape.
Corey: We did that for the last one too, didn’t we? We did both on tape.
Philip: Yeah we did. Digital makes things easier, but I feel it’s lacking some sort of soul to it. Not to get too deep.
Nathan: When you work straight to digital, you’ve got to do so much to it, just to make it sound good. But with tape, you just put it right on tape and it sounds so rich.
George: With your songwriting, do you guys collaborate? Is it a singular thing?
Corey Cunningham: It’s a multi-tiered process, but I’ll usually come up with a rough song that’s a verse, a chorus and maybe a sibilance of a bridge and flesh out an arrangement on a demo and send it to everybody. Then we get together as a band and build parts up from the ground up. Then Phil starts singing over the top of it and then we knock it down and see how it goes.
George: In the recording process, was it multi-track?
Phillip: It was all live
Nathan: That was the interesting thing because we had always done drums first and then we just piled everything on top of that with varying results. We decided that we were going to try it live. I was skeptical but I think it makes the album sound lively. Whenever we did the multi-tracking before, everything just sounded kind of dead. The performances just weren’t as brisk.
Philip: And I think when we recorded it was the first or second take that we used each time. We recorded all of the basic tracks in two days. We got it done really quickly. I think the fewer takes you do, the more energy is there. The more you do, it dissipates.
Corey: A Xerox of a Xerox of a Xerox.
George: Corey, you have an interesting guitar style.
Corey: It developed over the years out of necessity. I began playing more leads because we lost a guitar player along the way! I had to compensate and not play as much rhythm.