Since releasing their debut album, Memphis, at the end of the summer, the local sextet Magic Kids — Bennett Foster, Will McElroy, Alex Gates, Michael Peery, Ben Bauermeister, and Alice Buchanan — have mostly been on the road, playing festivals, traveling to Europe for the first time, and embarking on their first headlining tour.Bosco Delrey, Bake Sale, Kruxe, and Judith Stevens — to join them.
I caught up with the band earlier this week as they were traveling from New York to Cleveland en route home to Memphis, their tour van swelled to eight with the addition of opening act Delrey and a New York photographer who decided to travel back to Memphis with them.
"We haven't had bigger bands like Girls and Ariel Pink to piggyback on," Foster says of the current tour. "So its basically just us. It's kind of like a trial for us to be the headliner.
Though the Magic Kids have become one of the year's most buzzed-about new indie bands, the crowds have been understandably erratic for a new band touring in support of its first album.
"The first little tour we did on our own, we played in the bigger cities to more people and then we played in some small towns in between those shows to maybe one person. The sound guy maybe," Foster jokes. "In Europe, it seems like people caught on more than in the States and we had a lot bigger crowds. They seemed to enjoy it more. I don't know if the way they react to live music is different. But the shows we just did in New York were really, really fun."
The Magic Kids, who released a terrific seven-inch single late last year on the local Goner label and then toured with celebrated indie band Girls, were signed to True Panther, an imprint of vaunted indie label Matador, for their debut album. The band's swift rise to national — and even international — prominence was something new for a Memphis-based indie band.
"I don't think it was something we consciously predicted," McElroy says of the band's success. "But I think we knew what we were doing was good."
Official Video for "Superball":
Essentially, the Magic Kids are the first local band launched, in large part, by the new indie-rock internet/blogosphere landscape, where bands are embraced and hyped very early (perhaps too early, and often discarded too early as well) and introduced to likeminded fans across the Western world at essentially the same time. The late Jay Reatard benefited from this culture when he rose to national prominence a couple of years ago, but with Reatard his rise had been a decade and many, many records in the making. The Magic Kids were swept up in this dynamic after a lone single.
"We're definitely of the generation where it makes sense to put a song up on Myspace as soon as you record it," says McElroy, citing the various pre-Magic Kids bands the group members were in and agreeing that the indie internet culture boosted the band. "That's just the best way for people to hear your music. But I'm glad the same thing didn't happen to one of our previous bands. I almost wish it hadn't taken off as quickly as it did [with Magic Kids]. Once something takes off like that, it gets taken out of your hands a little bit. It's always nice to have time to figure out what you're doing. I guess we're learning on the job now."
That learning on the job has taken the band to some unlikely places. Recently, the band met DJ/producer Mark Ronson at a radio station where they were doing an interview and were invited to a party Ronson was DJing that night, alongside rapper Q-Tip (of classic ’90s group A Tribe Called Quest).
"We weren't really sure what to expect, but it turned out to be the kind of party where people dressed really nice and I think like Jay-Z and Beyonce were there," Foster says. "It was an interesting kind New York thing you hear of and see on TV."
The band has also crossed paths several times on their current tours with another Memphis-connected band that rose swiftly on the indie net-culture wave, Brooklyn-based MGMT, which features Memphian Andrew VanWyngarden [son of Flyer editor Bruce VanWyngarden]. The bands first crossed paths in Europe.
At one point, as Foster remembers, Q-Tip announced to the crowd, "We got Magic Kids in the house. We got MGMT in the house."
There may be a fluky element to the Magic Kids' sudden success — as there pretty much always is in the fickle, unpredictable music business — but the band's charming debut album and always joyous live show make them more than worthy of the big break.
The band’s ramshackle deployment of pre-punk influences — Peppermint Twist rhythms, Foster’s Lou Christie-style near-falsetto lead vocals, Beach Boys melodies, girl-group harmonies, twinkling Phil Spector touches, orchestral settings — is so energizing in part for its lack of reverence.
"I feel like we're influenced a lot more by each other than by the records we're listening too," McElroy says. "It's an evolution from what we were doing in the Barbaras [a pre-Magic Kids band that featured McElroy, Foster, and Gates] rather than consciously drawing on old records. It's a continuation of the excitement we felt the first time we realized we could overdub handclaps."
The Magic Kids with the Memphis Youth Symphony at their local album-release show in August:
This array of roots sounds is not typical of the musical heritage of the hometown the band named its debut album after, but for Magic Kids, "Memphis" stands as more of a coming-of-age locale and low-key breeding ground for creativity than as a direct musical influence.
"It seemed like context was pretty important for understanding our music," McElroy says of the decision to name the album Memphis. "We wanted to give it a context true to where the music was coming from. And we feel like Memphis played a big part in making us who we are. That record was sort of enabled by Memphis, the city's ability to let people toil away on projects without distraction. And there seemed to be a lot of childhood themes throughout the album, invoking our own childhoods through the title. But a lot of people feel like we sound like we're from California."
The Magic Kids have been the new kids on the local indie block for awhile now, but for this homecoming show they'll celebrate a young scene that's been rising in the wake of their success, building a five-band bill that will also feature Bosco Delrey, Kruxe, Bake Sale, and former Warble member Judith Stevens.
"It's been so long since we played in Memphis that we wanted to have a big blowout and invite all these bands that we feel a sense of camaraderie with or bands we're excited about," McElroy says. "For a while, it seemed like every young band in Memphis was someone in our band — someone that was in the Barbaras, or Magic Kids, or Girls of the Gravitron or some combination of the same people. And now there are new people, and it's exciting because they're from out of town and not cynical yet."
Be sure to show up early for this celebratory five-band bill at the Hi-Tone Café, Friday, November 19th, as music is set to start at 9 p.m. sharp. Door opens at 8 p.m. Admission is $8.