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Magic 12 - Interview-Divorce and the Single Man

  by John Clarkson

published: 16 / 10 / 2002

Magic 12 - Interview-Divorce and the Single Man


Back for a third interview with Pennyblackmusic, Magic 12 frontman Toby Ingalls, talks to John Clarkson about the group's new album 'High' and how he managed to get it completed when his band broke up just before it was due to go into the studio

The third album is a notoriously difficult record for many songwriters.After finding their sound on the first album, and then building on this on the second, they often then have to face the dilemma of where to go next, whether to carry on making records in a similar format, or to experiment and to try something new and different. For Toby Ingalls, the frontman with the Boston group Magic 12, this problem was heightened when, five weeks before his band was due to go into the studio to record the album 'High', its original line-up broke up. "The band had been rehearsing the songs on 'High' for a year" 39 year old Ingalls reflects, back for his third interview with Pennyblackmusic. "We had hit a point though in which people's time was becoming more limited, and everyone was becoming unsettled and frustrated.At that point, I decided that it just wasn't fun anymore, and I had to start looking at doing things in a different way." Magic 12 was born in 1998 out of a bizarre, but dreadful accident, when Ingalls, who runs his own cleaning business as a day job, cut his hand with a knife whilst changing a mop head, and severed two tendons and various nerves. Unable to play the guitar, his regular instrument, Ingalls, who had previously played and sung in two unrecorded local groups, Sob Story and Spool, rather than abandon music entirely, began to compose songs one-handed on a keyboard. Shortly afterwards, he formed Magic 12 with the classically-trained Beth Heinberg on piano ; Nancy Asch on drums, and Dana Hollowell on guitar.The group was later expanded when James Apt, who had played with Hollowell in an early line-up of the popular Boston consortium, the Willard Grant Conspiracy, came in on bass. Magic 12's eponymous debut album came out at the end of that year. With Heinberg's swirling, fluttering piano being used as the central instrument, and Ingalls' poetic, thoughtful lyrics also at the fore, it was described by one critic as "somewhere between the Velvet Underground and Kurt Weill", and also drew the band comparisions with the Go Betweens, Harvey Williams, the Red House Painters and Mazzy Star. The group's second album, 'Dear Diary', which came out in late 2000 , was lyrically less melancholic than its predecessor and, as Ingalls' hand slowly started to recuperate, was composed in part on the guitar. While Hollowell's firm and textural guitar playing, therefore, had a more prominent presence, Heinberg's striking piano work was still a dominant force. As a result, 'Dear Diary' came from a similar musical background to 'Magic 12'. "It didn't end on an ugly note" says Ingalls, talking further about the split, which occured because of changes in the members of the group's personal circumstances, rather than out of any animosity. "It's a funny thing. We have gone through this whole period of dissolving our musical collaboration, but I am still really good friends with everyone. I consider Beth and Nancy and Dana and James all a big part of my personal family. While it ended for me on a note of disappointment, I understand that they had to move on with their lives." The group had booked time to record 'High' at local studio. Now in the unenviable position of having an album to record, but no band to record it with, Ingalls phoned his friend Pete Weiss, Zippah's co-owner, and explained his predicament. A producer, an engineer and a musician, Weiss is a well-known and respected figure in the Boston musical community, and has worked with a wide and extensive range of acts that includes the Willard Grant Conspiracy, Charlie Chesterman, Come's Chris Brokaw, Doug Yule, the Wobblies, and Seks Bomba. "I spoke to Pete and told him that the shit had hit the fan and that I didn't know what to do" Ingalls recollects. "He was very supportive and told me that he would be willing to help me out in any way that he could. It was exactly what I needed to hear. I had spent all this time writing and working on these songs, and I was really worried that I might have to abandon them." Ingalls and Weiss agreed to cancel the initial recording sessions, to allow Ingalls, who had decided to keep the Magic 12 name, the time to rework songs as necessary. They booked in some more studio time in the forthcoming weeks, while Ingalls sought out a group, which, as well as himself on vocals, guitar, piano and organ, included Weiss on bass, guitar and percussion ; Nick Buni, a member of a local group Mittens, on drums, and Rich Gilbert, who has played with Frank Black and Human Sexual Response , on pedal steel. One of the first decisions that Ingalls made was to largely abandon the piano sound for which Magic 12 had become noted, and, with his hand now able to withstand the rigours of more intensive playing, to make 'High' a guitar album. "The guitar is really my main instrument" Ingalls reflects. "When I had that accident, I was very fortunate to be lent a keyboard, and to be able to go on creating music for a long time on that. I definitely feel more comfortable though with the guitar. It's like a suit verses blue jeans. One feels better than the other." "I think that the piano definitely has a more familar and strict sound" he adds. "When you have a piano on each song, it gives an album more constancy. The guitar can be all over the place. It can be distorted. It can have effects on it, and it can be acoustic, and that's what I decided what I wanted to go for with this new recording.'" 'High' is resultingly Magic 12 and Ingall's most eclectic album to date. While it has the same strong sense of melody as both 'Magic 12' and 'Dear Diary', and Ingalls' lyrics remain as sharply focused and poetic as before, it is otherwise a very different album from its two predecessors. There are some softer moments, such as the opening track 'Daydreamer', to which a gentle e-bow from Weiss's guitar lends an echoing, balladic feel, and the mournful 'Threw a Stone', which is slow and poignant. It is overall though a much tougher-edged record. With both Ingalls and Weiss gleefully rocking out on their guitars, some of its influences are surprising. "I knew that I wanted to make a dark pop record" says Ingalls. "And when I got back in the studio I knew that I wanted to give it a 70's kind of feel. When I was growing up, I was totally into hard rock, and bands like the Rolling Stones, Aerosmith, Pink Floyd, Alice Cooper, Led Zeppelin and Cheap Trick. So I , therefore, put all these subtle, hidden influences from that period on the record." "On one song 'Sadly Mistaken' we used a violin bow to play an electric guitar, a nod to Jimmy Page. The whole beat of 'To Be Free', the last song, is kind of like a dumbed down version of Aerosmith's 'Walk This Way', while on 'Deflating', another of the tracks, we played around with a talk box in reference to Peter Frampton and other similar acts that from that era.' While 'Dear Diary' was lyrically a more upbeat record , 'High', like the first album, is more melancholic in its nature. Many of the songs on the album deal with loss in some form. 'Sadly Mistaken' has Ingalls mourning for his past life and his youth after he mistakes someone in the street for an old friend. The narrator on 'Daydreamer' falls for someone who is completely unaware of his existence, while the sinisterly upbeat 'Deflating' finds Ingalls down on his luck, desperately hoping that someone will pick him back up. Even '40 Winks', the album's one true love song, has an underlying sadness, as it is uncertain whether its protagonist ever will win the girl. "I was ending a relationship when I was writing 'Magic 12' and moving on" Ingalls explains. "I think that a lot of the feelings of seperation that are apparent on that record are due to that. When I wrote 'Dear Diary'. I definitely felt freer, but on this record you can feel a tension and the sense of removal that I was again feeling at that time." "I tend to go where my pen takes me and the music just follows" he continues, before adding laughing at himself. "It is fun, but, where once you see where your mind has been, it can be very enlightening as well as scary." Ingalls has now already begun work on a fourth album, and has written a batch of songs for it. "On the next record, the mud is going to fly" he quips, continuing to joke about his proneness toward melancholy. "I keep looking at them and thinking ' My God. This is ugly.' " He has recently started gigging as a solo performer, playing his first European date in Paris in July on a boat on the Seine as part of the French capital's Music Day. He also played a benefit gig in Boston in September for a popular local DJ, Mikey Dee, who has been left paralysed after suffering a stroke. He remains uncertain at the moment about quite what the future will hold for Magic 12 , but, like his close friend Willard Grant Conspiracy frontman Robert Fisher, rather than have a regular group again, hopes to run it as a consortium. "I will still bring the songs to the table " he says. "But I see Magic 12 more these days as an entity. It's more like the Willard Grant. Robert's the songwriter there, and brings all these people in to help him pursue his vision. I have grown into that idea as well. When I finally got to the studio with Pete, Nick and Rich , it worked well for me and I found it less stressful and fun." Ingalls' immediate concern though is to promote 'High', which will be released in mid November on his own label Dumb Luck recordings. He plans to play a lot more gigs, and maybe to tour with it next year. It is, despite the anguish and hassles that he went through to get it recorded,an album that he is immensely proud of. "When I first started playing out in music, I had this real 'us against them 'vision of being in a band" Ingalls concludes. "I have got to a stage where I am now nearly 40 years old and I am still continuing to write and to play music,and I have got to a point where I feel about myself 'You're a songwriter. This is what you do. You've got to do what it takes to get your material out there.'" It has been a hard and personal struggle creating this record. It is an album that contrasts in many ways completely to both 'Magic 12' and 'Dear Diary', but in it Ingalls has produced another fine and remarkable record, one which will appeal to both his old fans and new listeners alike. Against all the odds, he has come out on top.

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Magic 12 - Interview-Divorce and the Single Man

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