The chart battle was a fierce one. In one corner, a much-loved and general champions-of-Dork indie band. In the other, a band of global pop superstars. Caught in a fight against overwhelming odds, our plucky underdogs still managed to punch way, way above their weight. If only they’d invented unlimited bundles back then, hey? Because without them, The Magic Gang just couldn’t quite manage to compete with, amongst others, the combined ‘talents’ of Sam Smith, Ed Sheeran and Eminem, finishing just outside the top ten in the spring of 2018.
Along with fellow Brightonians Fickle Friends, who also charted highly that week, they were one of what felt like, until now, the last wave of Great Indie Hopes to bother the top of the charts. In many ways, it feels like they have earned their place amongst indie royalty these days, and so it was that Dork was summoned to a video chat with two of the gang, guitarist/vocalist Kris Smith and drummer Paeris Giles at Kris’ South London home.
Like many first records, their self-titled debut didn’t so much reflect where the band were as where they had come from. With them all living together in Brighton, in a house of eight that Kris still fondly, and glamorously, describes today as “mucky, untidy, with a living room full of ashtrays” (where do we sign up?), it portrayed life in its everyday ups and downs, basking in sunny moments pulled from every stage of love. Stick it on now, and it still feels like A Proper Indie Moment from start to finish.
“I think it’s kind of a weird one for ourselves now,” admits Paeris as the pair look back at that debut that walked the familiar tightrope of having to contain older work without feeling like just a retread. “I don’t think it’s where we were at at the time, but it would have been doing everyone an injustice not to have all of those songs in the bank I guess? And people seemed appreciative, it obviously did quite well so on that basis you can’t be too snotty about it,” he grins with an understatement.
It would be easy to forgive them for sticking close to a tried and tested formula for album number two then. No chance. ‘Death Of The Party’ isn’t so much about the end of something, but rather the start of a whole new adventure altogether.
Just like the album title suggests, every good time has to end eventually. Because after every good party, there is usually a hangover following right on its heels. Paeris today likens the record as a descent into madness, while Kris settles for describing it as “a record that starts quite positive and energetic, and then it just slowly gets more grim from there.”
Both of them seem obviously entirely relaxed about the concept of how to make a record sound appealing, but they’re not ‘entirely’ serious. We hope. The title-track itself came from a party attended separately by both Kris and Jack. For Jack, times were good. For Kris though, it felt very different.
“That song is like how everyone but you seems to be on this kind of mutual wave at a party sometimes. It’s about feeling alone in a crowded room,” he explains. “It’s about being alienated and feeling like you’re maybe drawing negative energy when you’re in an ultimately positive and euphoric place.”
Admitting that he changed some of the details to save his own dignity, it is striking that the subject matter is a world away from their debut’s love letters. “In hindsight, it seems like such a strange thing to write those kind of love songs, which weren’t really about anybody,” he agrees. “But this was a way where I was able to write about everything more seriously. Still done with a layer of humour and fiction, but it’s a good way to get everything out of your system.”
Jack has described the album previously as like individual diary entries, something Kris confirms as an almost unconscious continuity as the ideas flowed from all four in the band. Admitting that lyrics were almost an afterthought previously, there is a sense of how Kris and the gang have grown in their song-writing. “I just started noticing lyrics on records really,” he laughs, “And so I thought ‘oh, I might try this on my own songs’. I think on the first album, they were just like a vehicle for the songs, and it was like ‘we need to put some words to this melody’.”
For a band who have always happy to wear their musical influences on their sleeves in the past, the same is very much true this time around, too. Chucking elements of Northern Soul, Motown and good old guitar-based indie-pop into a pot might seem unlikely to work, but one listen to lead single ‘Think’ and those horns are enough to get anyone dancing like an amped-up TikToker. Recognisably still the same people, it is a subtle progression in sound, a move into perhaps a more mature world of indie-pop. Tracks like ‘Gonna Bounce Back’ and ‘Just A Minute’ are still the work of a band packed with vibrancy and fun, bops aplenty, but perhaps mark the moment when some of those teenage shenanigans start to move into their slipstream. It shows a life where victory and progress comes in the form of only having to make a two-hour train journey as opposed to five hours on a coach, and while revolution is in the air, it is out there happening to everybody else because you’re sat inside. Having kept everything deliberately vague on their debut, it seems that now the band are more comfortable, and confident, in making their songs specific.
“I think people would perhaps grow a bit tired of it if we had kept everything vague again,” offers Paeris. “Because actually, I’ve sort of had a few more adult experiences that will probably resonate with a lot of people now. So we were just trying to get them out as a sort of coping mechanism.”
Though Paeris and Kris carry the easy air of people who know they have nailed it on this album, it is also easy to sense the same frustration at current events that everyone on Planet Earth currently carry. Their last headline tour came in support of that debut, and what was meant to be a fairly quiet 2019 in preparation for a frenetic album tour and prestigious support run has now turned unavoidably into two years spent largely away from the stage. For a band who were known for their prodigious gig output in the past, it is a massive bummer. The record itself was completed at the end of last August after a recording session over in Atlanta (“We rushed it to get it out early!” laughs Kris), a period that, with the exception of a brutal US heatwave, sounds idyllic and free from any tricky second-album-cliches.
It almost came together so easily that perhaps we should have known. With the Blossoms support tour being forced to end before they even felt like they were hitting their stride, Kris admits that he is anxious to get going again. The band have already returned to the studio, with the first steps of writing album number three having begun.
“I think it’s about making sure that we are bringing something new to the table, to be honest,” is how Kris describes it. “Because we’ve put out a lot of flipping music, so it needs to be different. I think a lot of what we’ve written is like a response to the record we just made.”
What it will sound like (and how many new records we will have to cope with in 2021 at this rate) is anybody’s guess. With Paeris having earlier described the freewheeling nature and genre-hopping tradition of bands like The Clash as a blueprint for how he sees the band operate, Kris is currently listening to the likes of Jessie Ware, HAIM and LA Priest. Discussing how bands like The Maccabees were able to paint a vivid picture within and around every song, Kris dangles the tantalising idea that his own thoughts lie in the same direction.
“I feel like that’s something we’ve neglected at times, that sense of it not being just a song but a feeling or atmosphere. I think we did a good job of it this time around, but I think it’s definitely something we can build on in the future.”
And that is The Magic Gang all over, a band already looking to move forwards through both the good times and the bad, determined to not fall into the trap of repeating themselves. Get that next party started.
Taken from the September issue of Dork. The Magic Gang’s album ‘Death Of The Party’ is out 28th August.
Words: Jamie MacMillan