Merci, Merci, MerciMagma

Long live Magma

by John Payne

This article is a little batch of I hope enlightening tidbits for Magma fans and of course for anyone who might have an interest in the whys and wherefores of a most distinguished and famously different musical ensemble. (For more info on the history and mystery, see

Magma is currently in the midst of an extensive world tour, with dates all over the U.S., Europe, Japan and China. I recently had a conversation via Skype with the band’s guiding lights, vocalist Stella Vander and drummer-composer Christian Vander. They spoke with me from backstage at their home base, Le Triton club in Paris.

To kick off the interview, I first had my 13-year-old French-speaking drummer laddie Shogo read this statement. en Français. In English, it goes something like this:

“Magma was my favorite band since reading about them in Melody Maker in 1973, in the articles written by Steve Lake. Someone from Eurodisc connected me with Jacques Chabiron, a label rep who’d arranged my visit to your rehearsals in September ‘78 in Versailles. You were practicing in a small auditorium at a wayward girls school at #18 Rue de Refuge; you called it “the Real Soul Room.” For three days I went to watch you rehearse; this was the lineup of the band with two bass players, one of whom bought me a cheese sandwich for lunch; René Garber –– a.k.a. Stundehr –– was with us, too. They were very nice and cool people, good guys. I also got to meet and talk with Maria Popkovich and Lisa Deluxe, two of your singers in that lineup of the band.

“I remember just about everything about those three days, though in a daze much of the time. It was like a dream. I stood in the back of the room and watched. I didn’t want to interfere. Finally, I did speak three words to Christian Vander: ‘Je suis Magma.’

“Since age 18 I have loved Magma. This music is now an essential part of my psychological, philosophical and spiritual makeup. It’s imprinted in my DNA. I am deeply grateful for this. I am thrilled that Magma not just survives in 2016, but that Christian and Stella have stayed true to their idiosyncratic muse, and keep the faith that this music is what they must do, and what must be done. And that they still love it, too. Merci, Christian and Stella.”

In this interview, Stella translates from the French for Christian, and adds her own comments:

BLUEFAT: In recent years your tours have become more far-ranging, including trips to Japan and China. Does the change in physical environment change your perspective on your music?

STELLA VANDER: What is nice is to see the reactions of people we never met before. In Japan we’ve been many times, but China, it was the first time and we were surprised to see that we had quite a big fan base. People said before, “Oh, it’s going to be only expats, there are very few Chinese people who know about Magma,” but no, there were a lot of Chinese people and they were really into Magma, they had all the records, and T-shirts that they made themselves, and we were really surprised. We were surpised that they were so friendly. [laughs]

Are there any Magma-influenced bands in China?

This I don’t know. In Japan, for sure, bands like Ruins and a few others. But in Shanghai we didn’t stay long enough to meet musicians. It was so quick, like three gigs in five days, and it was all long distances, and we didn’t have a chance to meet a lot of people except fans at the concert.

For a long time Magma’s tours had been mostly confined to Europe. Why the change?

[laughs] It’s funny, but Christian hates –– well, he hated, it’s better now –– he doesn’t like to fly. So it’s always a challenge to take him far away. We went to America for a festival, and to Japan, because he likes a lot to go to Japan, but otherwise it was really complicated, he really hated to fly. And now he’s getting used to it, so it’s better, so we can go further.

Christian, how much contemporary music makes its way to your ears? Do you listen to new bands and musicians?

He’s not really looking for that, but some friends around come and say, “Oh didn’t you listen to that?” He listens to some stuff from time to time, and there’s many musicians who are interesting, but not especially in bands, or inside the band there is one musician that he really likes. There are some that are lacking a real concept or ambience in the whole record. Many times Christian is listening to one track which is real interesting and the next one is completely different and not so interesting, as if it was completely from another record.

Yeah, in fact when Christian listens to some guy who he thinks is interesting, he’s looking for his name but he can’t remember it! You know, like it’s written somewhere, “Oh, this guy, I should maybe contact him to see if he wants to play with us.” He didn’t do that yet because we have around us enough people to play at the moment. [laughs]

The lineup of the band has evolved quite a bit over the years.

Recently we had to rehearse with a new pianist because the old pianist left. And also a new guitarist, because we had a problem with James MacGaw, our guitarist, I don’t know if you heard about it. When we came back from China and Japan, not even one month after, he started having troubles with speaking and so –– he has a brain tumor, which is quite bad. It was a real shock, and we did all the concerts that were planned without him, because it was too difficult to play with someone else. And he said, “Well, you shouldn’t stay like this,” and he wanted us to play with a replacement. So we are replacing him for a few more months, we don’t know for how long a time, of course.

Christian, I wanted to ask you about some other drummers, how you rate them and their impact on drumming and music. I understand that you were friends with [Gong’s] Pierre Moerlen.

You know that Pierre played with Magma for a short while? Yeah, he came like a few months in 1982, something like that, and he played a few gigs with us. Christian says that Pierre’s drumming was music for itself; if you listened to it without listening to the rest that was around it, it was still music. It was a mysterious and very specific kind of playing, and always passionate –– no, not passionate. Oh, I can’t find the word [laughs] –– amazing is the word.

I hear colors when I hear his playing.

Exactly. A colorful player.

Christian, you developed your own style at a pretty young age, and I know you drew a lot from Elvin Jones. But had you listened to Tony Williams as well?

Oh yes, very much. Christian was really, really fond of, he is still very fond of Tony Williams. Besides Elvin, it’s one of the drummers he liked the most. One of the greatest drummers ever. We can’t compare, it's completely different from Elvin, of course. Yeah, Elvin was like a father for Tony Williams as well, and Tony Williams of course listened a lot to Elvin, that was a big influence. Both are great musicians, not only great drummers.

Any thoughts on Billy Cobham’s drumming with Mahavishnu Orchestra?

Billy Cobham is a great drummer as well, but it’s easier to situate him –– he is more classifiable. And he doesn’t come really from the bottom of jazz music. He’s still a very good drummer, but it doesn’t have the same kind of magic: You can touch him, the others you can’t. Elvin Jones and Tony Williams, you can’t touch them.

Christian, do you feel that John Coltrane’s playing changed fundamentally when he started to play with Rashied Ali?

John needed to have this kind of drumming at some point, to play a rhythm rain –– I translate the French word literally –– a multiple rhythm where Coltrane can play his notes wherever and whenever he wants. Like a rug of notes, or something to support his notes wherever he wanted to play them, so wherever he wanted to go, he always found the foundation –– as opposite to Elvin Jones, who was creating a lot of space. In the beginning John wanted to play with both Elvin Jones and Rashied Ali. But Elvin Jones didn’t stand to play with any other drummer, so he left the band.

But let me add something: It’s well known among musicians that Elvin never wanted to play with any other drummer, but in fact he did play with Christian once. It was in 1987, when we shared the stage with him. We were playing with Offering in a festival in France, and we invited Elvin. And at the end of each show, they played a blues together, Christian and Elvin. Two drummers.

Wow! Is there a recording of that?

Yes, we have it, but we never wanted to release it because we never would do that without permission, of course.

Christian, how did you feel being on the same stage with your hero Elvin Jones? It must have been magical.

Yeah, Christian was very moved, especially because people said, “He will never play with you, because he never plays with anyone.” [laughs] But Elvin knew Christian when he was a kid. So I remember that Christian was singing, and I was on the side of the stage at that moment, and Elvin came and said, “I’m here to see my boy.” Talking about Christian. So there was a lot between them.

On these long tours, or at any of Magma’s live performances, the stamina required seems enormous. Do you have a routine for keeping in shape?

Christian is not spending any energy anywhere else other than related to music. Even when he walks in the park, he walks but he’s not doing exercise. He walks thinking about music and thinking about the touch of the drums or whatever. Even the way he’s putting his feet on the ground is always related to music. It’s like where you’re plugged in to something and it gives you energy.

And also, while on tour, avoid anything that could be tiring or not interesting, and going right after the gig to the hotel and rest. Obviously, if you want to be onstage the same that you were 40 years ago, you need more time to recover, so you have to be careful.

Do you require a lot of warmup before a performance?

Not especially. Christian is just playing on the pad with sticks, but not too hard, to relax the wrists and the ankles, and moving the feet. But preparation is way earlier than this, it’s not just before the gig.

What do you like to hear in your monitor mix?

He only needs piano and a bit of vocals, because he hears the bass directly, of course, and the guitar as well [through big amps] on the other side.

Do you wear in-ear monitors or earplugs?

Only the three vocalists have ear monitors, but it’s mainly to keep us out of the really loud sound. I [Stella] started to work with ear monitors because I couldn’t stand anymore the loudness on the stage. The purpose wasn’t to hear myself better, because I’m really used to not hearing myself since years [laughs], but it’s better because I can put the sound much lower than the sound actually is onstage.

Christian, any problems with blisters or cramps?

For a long time he had sores on the hands, and before each gig he was putting plasters on some places around the fingers. It was always at these places that the sores were coming. But, he said, as long as you want to make music, you can have this sort of problem. You can get hurt. The other way around, music comes to you and asks you to come to it.

Onstage or in the studio, have you considered electronic pads and triggers for the drums?

No, no, no, he’s not really into that. We like the sound of the drumheads. The idea is to make music even though you are in the middle of the woods and you don’t have any electricity around, and you should be able to make music.

Christian, do you play heels up or heels down, or both?

Heels up. Especially, the fingers inside the shoe are working like his hands –– what is the English word?


Yes, the toes. You look at the shoes, but there is a lot of work done by the toes inside the shoe.

I wanted to mention that it was fortuitous for you to find Philippe Bussonnet. He is a fantastic bass player, and a perfect fit for Christian.

Yeah, we were very lucky to find Philippe. He came to us, in fact, he was like 22, 23 when we met him. He was a physics teacher, and he was in a band playing Magma covers. And in the beginning he was playing with us and he was still teaching, and I remember he asked me for advice. And I said, “Quit teaching, don’t worry, you will live with music, no problem.”

Re Christian’s composing: Do you get a burst of inspiration in the middle of the night, or do you sit at the piano on a schedule, in a disciplined way?

No, he’s not on a schedule. As long as your mind is ready you can write at any time. When he says, “Okay, I need to compose something,” he sits at the piano and he tries, and something comes, but usually it lasts a week and then he’ll throw it away, because it’s not the right thing.

The music comes from elsewhere and it comes whenever it comes. As long as your mind is ready, that’s what matters. You have to keep your mind at the level of the music you are intent to do, and that's not always easy.

Describe the compositional intent behind one of your most fascinating pieces, the mysterious “Kohntarkosz.” How do you see its shape and scope?

The first thing that Christian discovered and that led him to “Kohntarkosz” is that the time and counter time is actually at the same level, with the same intention. That’s when he started to be able to play like this. The intention has to be exactly the same wherever you are, on the time or opposite of the time. So he experienced that whatever he was thinking on the time, to also put it on the other way around, and then he discovered it was creating a completely different effect on the body.

In the beginning, many people that were listening to “Kohntarkosz” thought that everything was on the time and not on the counter time; in fact, it was only people who were really into music that realized that it was going that way and not on the time; even musicians were thinking about “Kohntarkosz” on the time and not counter to the time. The process is to get a completely different feeling physically.

Magma performs at the Regent Theatre in Los Angeles on Weds., March 16.

–– John Payne

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