Reel around the practice space

Pub date November 16, 2010

MUSIC It’s easy enough for Corey Cunningham, guitar player for Magic Bullets, to tell that I’m there to interview the band. Although 2200 César Chávez St. is bustling for 8:14 on a Wednesday night, I’m the only one around without an instrument. Magic Bullets practices in Secret Studios, a warehouse full of closets for bands to rehearse. “Lots of bands practice here,” Cunningham said. Through the walls I can hear the muffled sounds of different groups putting work in on something between a hobby and a dream.

We find the rest of the band crammed into its rented space, surrounded by broken amplifiers. Magic Bullets is rehearsing for a show at the Rickshaw Stop, as well as for a trip to the CMJ Music Marathon, a result of songs from its 2010 self-titled album on Mon Amie having received considerable college airplay. The trip is a new opportunity — despite making music for six years, the band had to start over after the recent departures of its drummer, keyboardist, and second guitarist.

According to Cunningham, who founded the band along with singer and lyricist Phil Benson, bringing in a new drummer was the hardest part. “There are no two drummers who sound the same,” he says. “Even if they’re playing the exact same drum beat, their drum sets sound different, the way they play sounds different. It changes your sound drastically.” Once the group decided to leave out a second guitarist, Magic Bullets’ sound, evocative of U.K. guitar pop, has become clearer. In tandem, the rhythm section is less prone to stuttering and has become more propulsive.

Some bands don’t make that transition at all, observes drummer Alex Kaiser. “If everyone leaves except you — like what happened with my old band — and you’re the only person living within 500 miles, [breaking up is] a pretty easy choice,” he said. Kaiser’s last band, Tempo No Tempo, dissolved earlier this year, with one member making the popular musician move to Brooklyn and the other deciding to pursue higher education.

“There was a month or two when we weren’t really doing Magic Bullets,” Cunningham says. The remaining members started a side project, called Terry Malts, “because we didn’t have a drummer.”

“We were like, ‘Let’s just have fun,'<0x2009>” said Benson. Nathan Sweatt, Magic Bullets’ bassist and third surviving member, qualifies Benson’s optimism: “We thought, we’re paying for this practice space, we may as well get some use out of it.” The group rents the rehearsal space monthly, out of pocket, for about the price of a room in West Oakland. And it’s not necessarily cheap.

“We’re day-jobbers,” Cunningham says. Earlier I ask (in a clichéd fashion) Magic Bullets to describe its image, and the answers veer jokingly between “regular Joes” and “cage fighters.” The former is suggested by keyboardist Sean “Shony Collins” McDonnell, the other recent addition, who splits his time away from the band studying animation and kung fu. With a tendency to quip in cartoon voices, it can be hard to take him seriously. But Benson does.

“I knew Sean from being in bands in the Peninsula,” Benson says. “He actually was the lead singer of this punk band Nathan [Sweatt], and I used to go see when I was 15 years old, Jacob Ham — the local heroes. We all kind of looked up to him, and I’ve actually taken cues from his performances. I’ve told him that before, and he’s always like ‘Aww, you.’ But it’s true.”

If the band has any claim to being working class, it comes from Benson and Cunningham (Sweatt is in education; Kaiser is an “engineer for a big-ass government lab.”) Both work retail jobs for a company that will go unnamed. Cunningham: “We try not to give them too much advertising.” Benson: “Let’s just say you can buy stuff there.”

We talk about CMJ. “[It’s] one of the only things on our bucket list we haven’t done,” Cunningham deadpans, “along with a bungee jump show.” They seem excited — the closest thing they can compare it to at this point is South by Southwest, which they played in a previous incarnation. Remembering how one blog described the group as “a noticeably drunk Magic Bullets,” they begin to theorize on the relationship between alcohol and performance. Cunningham looks embarrassed and says, “Maybe we shouldn’t be talking about this.”

While the whole band is quick to be self-effacing, Cunningham appears to be the most self-critical. On Magic Bullets’ MySpace page, a link to the Pitchfork review of its recent album is accompanied by the mood “weird” and an eye-rolling smiley. When I bring it up, Cunningham is eager to talk about it. “That was a weird one, right?” he says. “Did you notice that they gave us a good number? But you wouldn’t think they liked us at all if you read what they wrote.” He has a point. The number is decent (7.2) and the reviewer doesn’t really say a whole lot. Yet the reviewer accuses the band of ripping a riff within its song “Pretend & Descend” straight from the Smiths’ “Bigmouth Strikes Again.”

Cunningham denies this. Even going back to listen to the song, he says he can’t hear the resemblance, and I don’t press it because, personally, I don’t either. What’s likely worse than the accusation of plagiarism (which puts Magic Bullets in the fine company of the Flaming Lips, Elastica, and Joe Meek), is accusing the band of sounding like the Smiths, a familiar reference in writing about the band.

“I don’t think its a bad comparison,” Cunningham says. “I think it’s just sort of a shallow comparison because there are so many other influences that are a little more noticeable. You know that song “Lying Around”? We were listening to this song called “My Old Piano” that Chic played on. It’s a Diana Ross song. If you listen, it has a rhythmic sensibility. That sounds closer [to “Pretend & Descend”] to me than any Smiths song.”

These points of reference have their use, but they also have their limits. During a Magic Bullets show at the Knockout earlier in the year, a girl mentioned to me that they sounded like, surprise, the Smiths, only to immediately begin discussing Robert Smith. The band was on point, working the crowd into a frenzy that mirrored Benson’s ecstatic dancing as he circled around the crowded stage, singing longing lyrics about relationships that had gone awry for no good reason. Right then, surface similarities didn’t matter and the costs of a practice space seemed worth it. The most important thing with a band like Magic Bullets is that they keep giving it a shot.


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