by Steven Sanchez
On Friday, March 2, the up-and-coming indie folk band, Magic Giant, set Strummer’s on fire (pun intended, from their 2017 song “Set on Fire”) with a unique fusion of folk, rock, and alternative. The eccentric LA-based trio made Fresno their destination for this concert, to coincide with their nationwide Magic Misfits Tour in support of their debut album In the Wind. The all-ages audience was enraptured by the band’s diversified performance and presentation. There’s no one reason for their wide appeal, but several contributing factors can be credited: 1) the lively bravado of their multi-instrumental playing; 2) the retro 60s-hippie and gypsy design stage setup; and 3) the fact the band showed no qualms or hesitations on becoming one with their audience by actually going out and playing in the middle of the venue amongst their fans. With that kind of evidence, one can’t refute Billboard’s choice when they voted Magic Giants as one of the Top 10 bands to see at the popular Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival.
The buzz is building around the Southern California threesome. Rolling Stone included them in their list of 10 Artists You Need to Know. The lineup consists of: lead singer Austin Bisnow, Zambricki Li, and Zang (Brian Zaghi). I would distinguish them by the roles they had based on the instruments they played, such as guitarist and bassist; but they are anything but conventional since each band member plays an assortment of instruments. Austin, hailing from Washington D.C., was making waves already as a songwriter and producer collaborating with John Legend, David Guetta, and others. New Jersey boy, Zambricki, taught himself the violin in a matter of four days after being in a coma due to a car accident when he was 12 years old, resulting in him having Acquired Savant Syndrome. Zang, the true City of Angels resident of the group, and the son of Persian immigrants, played upright bass in the Los Angeles Junior Philharmonic Orchestra before graduating to guitar and learning salsa dance. Actually, it was the online videos of him doing salsa that caught the eyes of Austin and Zambricki that convinced them to ask him to join the band.
With this eclectic musical talent, and making a mark on Billboard’s top 25 US Alternative chart, they’re on the trajectory to join the company of pop-folk contemporaries, such as The Lumineers, The Avett Brothers, Mumford & Sons, and others. I was able to meet up with the group backstage before the show, and I can declare first hand that they are just as funny and energetic offstage as they are onstage. It was a challenge to try to keep a straight face during the interview, as I found myself entertained and amused by their personalities that equaled the same feelings I had when watching them live. Even conducting the interview in a shipping container that had a room in it that was considered the dressing room—which was covered in graffiti—they can bring energy and spirit to their surroundings no matter what environment it is.
There’s no denying that their array of instruments is eye-catching, ranging from orchestral drums, banjo, trumpet, saxophone, harmonica, synthesizers, electric bass, cello, viola, violin, dobro, lap steel, and mandolin. So, their musicianship and influences were topics I felt compelled to dive into. Zang announces that Queen was a huge inspiration for him because, “the way they craft songs, they did their own thing, and I love the element of the way they wrote songs.
“I was influenced by Jimi Hendrix when I was in high school, and part of the reason was that he was a virtuoso genius, but had a psychedelic element to him where he was like larger than life,” declares Zambricki. “From the music he wrote, to the sounds he was getting out of his instrument, he was innovating every aspect of it, and he was the first artist where I was like I couldn’t wrap my head around it.”
“From a career standpoint, Bruce Springsteen, because of his career longevity and he’s still doing his thing at 70,” Austin proclaims.
Inspiration…check. So, it makes me wonder, how do they construct a song when they have that many instruments at their disposal? Instrument first, then a lyric or song title that matures into a song, or is it the other way around? “We usually have the song written first on acoustic guitar and we move into recording it,” Zambricki says. “We have this palette of instruments to choose from and the song usually dictates the instrument, and you can’t get in the way of the song, and it’s obvious when it’s the right instrument,” Zang concludes.
In this day and age of the music industry, most people are sampling other musical sounds and making music on computers, where the lines are being blurred between what is a “real” musician or artist and what is not. Magic Giant is pretty upfront, in terms of style, on what separates them from their musical peers. Zambricki informs me that, “The instruments we play help shape our sound, and if Zang decides to play trombone, it’ll be from him, not some plug-in, so it’s all based on who we are and not what’s the cool beat this year.” Most bands have a distinct sound, that can be identified after hearing it for a few seconds. Whether it’s from a solo drum, a voice, anything like that, a name springs to mind. In that vein, how does a group with a library of musical tools formulate a distinct sound that one recognizes instantly? “What I like about this group is our voice feels like this vague fourth person, a spirit animal that we’ve created through our voices that I feel is true to us. It doesn’t sound like my voice, or anyone specifically in the band, it’s a different being where I can picture this different animal that is speaking on our behalf, and I’m not sure if other people have that similar experience where there’s this collaboration of mind flow, or something,” Zang philosophically states. Whoa.
The freedom of their collective musical prowess complements their freedom to choose to travel the country to record their debut album. They built themselves a solar-powered mobile recording studio and journeyed through California, Washington, and Colorado, to name a few places, where they constructed their first-time effort. In my memory, not since R.E.M. has a band used the open road as an inspirational ingredient to the recording process. Most bands prefer one location and a specific studio in which to record and mix their albums. The answer: “The music we are making and the ideas we are coming up with is very much associated with where we are, but it doesn’t have to be geographic,” Austin mentions. Zang adds, “Not even with location but through travel there is plenty of experience, like the people that you meet. This interview is an experience that will shape our day, and this day may shape our week, and it all has an effect on what you’re feeling and what you produce and what kind of emotion you’ll put into a song. So, travel has a lot to do with the location and the experiences you make and the people and the stories you make along the way.”
With all this chatter in regard to musicianship, creativity, and environment, one must beg the query…where is ability like this created? Is it where you’re from, like a hometown that helps nurture a taste for music along with skill to play, or is it a gift that’s within you? Zambricki says, “I believe it evolves naturally. There’s something about where you come from that’s always in you, but every artist is on a journey…the place you’re from isn’t where you end up, but you have a series of adventures, and all those things influence your songwriting and the sound of your music. You’re always going to be the person from where you were born, but as an artist, it’s your job to absorb all these experiences and condense that into your music.” The band’s motto in regard to the theme was: “You’re never there, you’re never not there, you’re always on the way.”
And it’s precisely their way that led them to being featured on NBC’s The Today Show with Hoda Kotb and Kathy Lee Gifford. They were picked to be on Elvis Duran’s Artist of the Month segment where they played the song “Set on Fire” in front of a live national audience. And the official music video for the single “The Great Divide,” can be seen on The Today Show’s YouTube page. By no means has that exposure gone to their heads at all.
“I don’t necessarily think it means one thing. We’re just out here trying to make the best music we can, and have a good time and try to connect with the fans and have a real experience,” says Zambricki. “No matter what event it is, whether if it’s small or big, like tonight, here in Fresno, we’re going to rock it just as hard. Our philosophy is: let’s play it like it’s Madison’s Square Garden, so if we do get the chance to play the Garden, we’ll play it like we’ve already been there.”
The upbeat, energetic, and shenanigan-like demeanor of these young-at-heart characters is best demonstrated through their music videos. “The Great Divide” shows them tackling and throwing each other, and dancing around above and below water at a beach. “Shake Me Up” tells the short story of an older man, living out a typical senior day playing chess at a park, until he witnesses a game of flag football taking place. He decides to join in to show off to the youngsters (including members of the band) playing, and also to the older gentlemen watching, that age hasn’t gotten the best of him. His overwhelming joy is then followed by a big dance number with the entire cast. Was it all real or a daydream played out in his head? “Window” is a playful fantasy that follows a young girl into her bedroom after an argument with her father. While listening to music on her bed, riding toward her house is Magic Giant coming to the rescue. Equipped with a magical guitar case from which they pull out random items like a Mary Poppins bag, they try to sneak through her window. No, it’s not like that. They persuade her for an invite with hand puppets and a puppy. Once in, a performance, a pillow fight, and a full-fledged party ensues. Cut to her, by herself, listening to the music. Did all that stuff happen? She turns to look at her window but surprisingly it is open. Gasp!
There is absolutely no change in personality from the music videos to the live performances. It all remains the same. Zang remarks that, “The common thing to think about when it comes to image, how you feel, and wanting to be a rock star is to be cool, to be jaded, and to not feel happy, and to not look like you’re having a good time, like you’re too cool for it. As a band, we got this feeling like you don’t have to be too cool for school, and being happy is cool, and we adopted it as ours.” Afterward, Zambricki says, “There’s a self-seriousness nature to a lot of people that do different kinds of art, but if you can’t laugh at yourself and the ridiculousness of what you’re doing, then you’re not fully enjoying it.”
For the last decade or so, the music mainstream has seen an uprising in indie folk music, such as the contemporaries I previously mentioned, including Of Monsters and Men, Fleet Foxes, The Decemberists, The Shins, Judah & The Lion, Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros, and Walk the Moon. “Life is a balance; you need the acoustic, electronic, and big beat. To live in harmony you need a balance of it all, including music,” Zang says. “We’ve driven so deep into electronic music as a society that once a folk instrument came about it was like ‘oh my god, what is that?’ It sounded so new and fresh that it almost became new again, because it had been so long since we have heard that sound.”
Folk Music 101, the foundation of the genre and its reputation, is rooted in protest and speaking out against the establishment, the government in particular. The legends from the genre in the 60s and 70s used their six-strings and lyrics as metaphorical weapons in the resistance movements against war and racism, and sticking up for equality and peace. The political climate has intensified these last few years, and maybe it’s no coincidence that folk is making itself relevant by counteracting the controversies taking place in American politics. Magic Giant’s music is in no way considered protest anthems or rallying cries. If anything, their exuberance and positivity is their own form of protest, to challenge the cloud of uncertainty and divisiveness hovering over us as a nation, to let us know that in the end, things are going to be okay.
Magic Giant has so much to prove, that whether or not they match the same impact, musically or culturally like their predecessors or peers, is not even a thought in their mind. Above all that, they are surrounded by a good support system of musical acts following in their tracks. The opening acts, The Brevet (an alternative rock band from Irvine), and Fresno’s own The Medium Blue, accentuated the night’s atmosphere of good vibes with crowd-pleasing songs. The Brevet’s music has been featured in film and television shows, but as the opener for the remainder of Magic Giant’s tour, they are really pushing their new single “Locked and Loaded” from their recent album “LEGS.” With a mixture of rock, blues, and a country element, it was very easy for the crowd to sing along to their anthems, clapping their hands like a choir. The Medium Blue are similar to Magic Giant, like a younger brother version. They’re a little more up-tempo and their soulful beats set the tone for the night to come.
The highlight of the night was obviously when the group stood in the middle of the crowd and proceeded to play their jams surrounded by the fans. The crowd reached out their hands to touch them, chanted their lyrics, and waved around the lights to their phones as if it were a musical vigil. It was in that moment where my memory harkened back to the discussion we had about how to create a song, and Zambricki mentioned that that night, in Fresno, it’s an experience that can probably inspire a song. I’m not sure if it did, but at that time, for that hour-and-a-half set, I went from journalist to a big fan, and what I know it did was inspire a memorable experience that those in attendance won’t forget. In this world, with everything going on, we may feel small, but inside this tiny downtown venue, when we let the music take us away and we breathed in the words, we all felt like a Magic Giant.
Check out Steven’s Magic Giant video on YouTube.
The Medium Blue