EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW: Will Magid
Will Magid is a trumpeter/singer/songwriter/producer/connoisseur of music from all corners of the world. After catching his excellent and energetic live show with his Will Magid Trio, we sat down with the San Francisco-based polymath to discuss his EP, Midnight High, his travels and collaborations with artists from a variety of genres, and the weirdest gig of his life.
The Owl Mag: On your album, you weave together different sounds like Gypsy jazz trumpet, and electronic dance music [EDM] in a way that sounds organic. Is there a common thread through all those types of music?
Will Magid: I’d say the most common thread is movement. EDM is a great equalizer. When you have a dancing beat, you can get away with anything. My background is in jazz, funk, and Afrobeat. I played with a lot of West African musicians when I lived there in 2006. I realized so profoundly that when you get a dance rhythm going so hard, peoples’ minds open up to things.
The Owl Mag: How does it feel to play a place like [LA Bar] The One-Eyed Gypsy, and get a crowd that may not be too familiar with your music really dancing and excited?
Will Magid: It feels great. We could do the same set at the Catalina Jazz Club, and it would feel very different. There’s some infectious energy just being in a room, with a bunch of people from tons of different backgrounds — One-Eyed Gypsy’s such a great place for that reason. It’s got this hipster, artsy, a little grungy-in-the-right-ways feel to it. Just having those right variables is really important.
In San Francisco, that’s something we’re very rich in. In the Mission District, where I live, there’s a club called Elbo Room, and it has that same sort of energy. If I see that people are really getting off on one sound, I might put in more of that, and then I’ll just throw in a little test, like a remix of a Bill Withers song, or even a Beyonce mashup. It’s so fun. You’re playing a pop song, but because you’ve already got them dancing, they accept that. The people who are into the pop songs will accept some of the weirder things you’re doing, too. You can start doing some Balkan brass that they’ve never heard before. I really like that.
The idea is to grab as many people as possible, and be true to myself. That’s something that I feel really fortunate about. Playing trumpet is really cool because when I’m playing, I’m not thinking, I’m just playing my heart out.
The Owl Mag: Do you consciously try to blend genres, or does that just happen?
Will Magid: It happens pretty naturally. I listen to a ton of music, and I reorganize all of it. I have all of these weird color-coding things I do with music, like red is a hot dance track, purple might have a romantic, ambient color to it. Green is just a happy, upbeat song. So I color code all these things, which really helps me when I DJ. It takes a lot of time in pre-production, listening to tons of music and cataloging it, so I can just pick a track, and then pick up my trumpet, and not be like “what is this?”
The Owl Mag: Can you give us some examples of that?
Will Magid: Sure. On my record, “Love Step” would be a totally red track. It’s kind of aggressive, the dance banger on the album. “The Box” would be a green track, a fun, vibey song. I’ve only been color coding things for dance floors, though. I’ve been trying to figure out ways to incorporate a track like “Brown Paper Bag” at a gig where everyone’s dancing, and it’s like this real sentimental song.
The Owl Mag: Yeah, it’s very contemplative, I could see how it might not blend in as easily to a dance vibe.
Will Magid: That was one of those songs that I wrote on the guitar. I was thinking about my mom making me lunch as a kid, I had just moved back to the Bay Area after college. I don’t know why, but these words came in my mind, about a brown paper bag. First I wrote the lyrics, which is a very different process for me. Normally it starts with a groove or a trumpet idea. I was just experimenting, singing the lyrics and it had a cool, childlike quality that I liked, and I decided to record it.
I was listening to Animal Collective a ton at that point, right after Merriweather Post Pavilion came out. For me, it was one of these a-ha moments where these guys are blending all these sounds that I had been hearing: African music, minimalist music, pop, folk. They did it in a brilliant way, so accessible, and danceable, fun, and beautiful. So I was listening to that, and it just gave me so much confidence. I can blend all of this stuff, and not even worry about “oh, am I gonna put this in the jazz bin, or the world bin, or the electronic bin, or the rock bin?”
The Owl Mag: Do you think the accessibility that we now have to so many different genres of music at the push of a button, has helped prepare the audience for your type of music?
Will Magid: There was a time in our history when people were going to great lengths to get music. Napster was pretty much the beginning of the ability to find anything at any time and share with people.
I think that we can’t lose sight of the role of a DJ at best, like on KCRW [in LA] or KEXP in Seattle, these great radio stations. Most of these music apps are smart enough to know this. They know that people don’t just want to hear the same thing over and over again.
I’m also developing a music discovery app with a friend. Right now we have a prototype where you can go to any area of the world and hear curated playlists from different time periods. It’s challenging. In Cuba, for example, you have Afro-Cuban population. These rhythms are from West Africa, and then you have the Spanish influence, so you have to look at it not as an isolated place, but as a node in this global network. We’re trying to do that with a globe, where you find a song and you see all the places that it’s connected to, and you can trace that lineage. Pandora works on aesthetic quality, what we’re trying to do is find the anthropological DNA of songs. Through all these paths, you can travel through time, space, and peoples.
The Owl Mag: Everything has roots somewhere. Punk rock might sound simple, but its influences came from somewhere, and that came from somewhere, etc.
Will Magid: Punk is a really interesting example because in London, in the ‘70s, you had all of these skinhead punks introducing ska and reggae into their music. Rastas and skinheads into the same music? How does that happen? It’s because the roots are so much deeper than…
The Owl Mag: Than any differences.
Will Magid: Exactly, and you can’t deny a certain push or pull, or a certain aesthetic. It’s like “wow, that is really cool, I don’t care where that person is from, they have something that I wanna be a part of,” and that’s the entry point, I think.
The Owl Mag: Where did you grow up, and how did you get introduced to world music?
Will Magid: I grew up in Palo Alto [California].The first time I got really interested in music, from a curiosity standpoint, was from friend in my sophomore year of high school. He was like, “have you heard of Fela Kuti? He created a music genre in West Africa.” As a musician, it’s like, wow, how does someone just create a music genre? So I did more research and found that, yeah, he’s pretty much single-handedly credited with creating Afrobeat.
Not only was he credited with this genre, he was also a revolutionary. He ran for political office, his house was stormed by the military state, they killed his mom. It was such a change from the climate of music that was the standard growing up in the ‘90s. Before even listening to his music, it was really fascinating. These things aren’t separated, the fact that he invented a genre, and that he was a revolutionary.
Music is not just about stories, at its height it’s about context. The perfect example is walking into an art gallery with no concept of what’s going on. You might look at a Jackson Pollock and say, “this is quite bizarre.” It’s only by understanding that the invention of photography totally questioned the role of art in our society, that these things begin to make sense. Suddenly, painting a scene literally became meaningless. So abstract art and impressionism, they’re all tied together, with history, with context, and I think music can be the same way.
The Owl Mag: What countries have you been to?
Will Magid: My dad’s a technology journalist, so I was always going to conferences with him, even before I was in high school. Australia, Jamaica, Puerto Rico, Barbados, England, France. Since my career’s gotten going, I’ve done three tours in Japan, which were awesome. I was in Cuba recently at the Havana Jazz Festival.
The Owl Mag: What was that like?
Will Magid: We had an amazing trip. We went with my manager’s friend, who wrote the Lonely Planet guide to Cuba, so right off the bat, we were staying with this amazing resource who knew everyone in the country.
The Owl Mag: How did your collaboration with Solomon Burke come about?
Will Magid: I played a few shows with his son, Solomon Burke, Jr. His dad had needed horn players, and I was like hell yeah. I played with him in LA, and it was amazing. His trumpet player, a good friend of mine, ended up quitting. Solomon Burke called me, saying, “we’re going on tour, playing all of the biggest jazz festivals in Europe, and would love to have you on board.”
I was 18 or 19, having this big break, but I really wanted to go to West Africa, which was also a once in a lifetime opportunity. I’d already paid the deposit, I’d even gotten some of the immunizations, so I turned it down. It was hard. When I was in Ghana, I picked up a Time Magazine with an ad for the Amsterdam Jazz Festival with his name on it. I remember being in my dorm room with no working toilets or power, and no drinking water, thinking “I could be there right now!”
Anyway, I had an amazing time in Ghana. Years go by, not only does he call and ask if I want to play with him, he asks me to put together a horn section for him. I played Bumbershoot in Seattle with him, and it was the last show he ever played before he passed away.
The Owl Mag: With all of the gigs you’ve played with other artists, what made you want to make your own album?
Will Magid: Part of it is trying to make sense of all of these ideas and experiences that are loosely connected. I’ve played with an R&B soul group, I’ve played Afrobeat, I played bass in a punk band growing up. Trying to make something concise where I feel like I’m including all these things, and just being the best musician I can be. That’s where the album started. “Brown Paper Bag” was the first song I started working on, in 2009, and it grew from there.
The Owl Mag: Is each song a snapshot of the moment in time when you created it?
Will Magid: Totally.
The two biggest things that have helped me in releasing tracks are deadlines, and my manager, who gets on my case. Right now, Izzy Wise and I are doing one track a month, collaborating over e-mail. I’m excited about it because it lets you put a ton of time into something, make it as good as you can, and then do another track and build from those experiences. On an album, you’re working on multiple tracks at the same time, which is beautiful, but a lot slower.
The Owl Mag: On Facebook, you listed your influences as “Green Tea, Boysenberry pie, and 1995.” What did you mean by that?
Will Magid: In 1995, I was nine years old listening to Green Day and Pete Seeger. I had just started playing trumpet, I was already playing keyboard. My cousin was a music teacher, and gave me Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue, which I listened to all the time. So yeah, that year was a big influence on me.
My grandparents had a boysenberry tree, and we always made pie with it. It’s an emotive thing in my life. I like what green tea represents, it’s natural, but energetic at the same time. I have a tendency to get really excited onstage, so I try to remind myself that pacing is really important. When everyone’s dancing, I wanna elevate them even more. If they’re jumping in the air, I want them doing backflips. Ideally, people would wanna listen to the album while driving home.
The Owl Mag: When you see big bands like Muse and No Doubt use EDM elements, how does that make you feel about the future of music?
Will Magid: Those are two interesting examples, they’ve been around for some time now, and certainly didn’t have that in their roots. At a certain point, you just want to try new things out. It reminds you of when you’re a kid, and you hear a guitar for the first time, and you want to learn it because it’s powerful at that moment. I do think that music is going in that direction. The vernacular changes, too. At one point, anything with a drum machine was “techno.” Now, people are using terms like “complextro,” getting more used to the diversity within the field. EDM is this thing that includes live acoustic music. At one point, using a guitar was “electronic music.”
The Owl Mag: Dylan goes electric.
Will Magid: Exactly! And that’s pretty recent, too. The only reason I use the term EDM is because I play trumpet. Trumpet is associated with jazz, but my head’s with what’s happening right now. I hope we can get past this idea of “electronic dance music.” I’m always searching for communities and people that are open. That’s where EDM is at.
I have no idea what direction music is going in, but I will say people need certain qualities: A) something people can move to, even a small sway to a folk song; B) something that hits you with an emotion; and C) something that takes that emotion and builds from it. I think as long as you operate really committed to those qualities, you can have currency as an artist. That’s something that I try to keep in mind.
The Owl Mag: Are there any artists that are experimenting now that inspire you with the things they’re doing?
Will Magid: There’s a producer named Jamie Berry. He’ll blend really nasty sub-basses with swing elements. Nickodemus adds a hip-hop swagger to everything he does. I’m obsessed with Pretty Lights and Gramatik. These guys are taking classic funk and soul and freaking them out with new sounds, bringing them to modern times.
The Owl Mag: What’s next for you?
Will Magid: Definitely collaborating more. I’m putting together a World Wide Dance Party [benefit gigs that Magid has organized, each for a different cause. The fourth and most recent one raised money to help stop illegal weapons trading in Africa.] in LA with local and international artists. I’d like to go to New York and play with some New York musicians like Nickodemus, Nappy G, and Zongo Junction. I want to go to Europe and spend three or four months out there with my laptop and my trumpet playing with local musicians, just trying to absorb what’s going on out there.
The Owl Mag: Do you have any closing words for our audience?
Will Magid: My last name is an old Hebrew word that means storyteller. It was a class in society who would travel, and tell colloquial stories about their travels, trying to connect dots. That’s what I’m trying to do with music.
I’d also just like to encourage everyone to read David Byrne’s New York Times piece on the term “world music.” Labeling something as “world music” is actually the opposite of what I’m trying to do, which is finding the connections between, say, 20th century American music, and modern music from Shanghai. Every time I see my music associated with “world music,” I feel like I’m doing something wrong.
Will Magid’s debut EP, Midnight High, is available now on iTunes. Magid will be playing with Afrolicious at The Great American Music Hall in San Francisco on Friday, March 15th. The Will Magid Trio plays the last Friday of every month at The One-Eyed Gypsy in Los Angeles. For more information, including more tour dates, visit: http://onesheet.com/willmagid/splash/