Austin Bisnow | Lead Vocals, Cello, Synthesizer, Percussion
Zambricki Li | Banjo, Fiddle, Viola, Cello, Harmonica, Mandolin, Octave Mandolin, Acoustic Guitar, Dobro, Lap Steel, Backing Vocals (HOLY $#!&)
Zang | Acoustic Guitar, Cello, Bass, Percussion, Backing Vocals
Basically they can play every instrument you’ve ever heard of.
Indie folk-poppers Magic Giant packed the Riot Room on Tuesday, June 6th, 2017 for their first show in Kansas City, bringing a live performance chock full of memorable moments. The band conjured a communal, heartfelt experience that whisked the crowd into a whirlwind blur, swapping instruments on-the-fly, summoning anthemic sing-alongs, and dancing toe-to-toe with the audience. Bohemian, patterned strips of cloth hung from nearly everything and instruments littered the stage, evoking the sense that we were gathered before a traveling troupe of troubadours (which is true, in a sense).
The band’s genuine approach to crowd interaction led to some moments that made me smile — members joined the audience on the floor and crouched to the ground during a hushed moment, and Austin, the lead vocalist, took a woman’s hand and twirled her around from the stage. None of this felt forced, but fun. Everyone was letting go with the band at the lead. What’s more, the band’s positive impact extended to their merch, which I discovered is sustainably produced and even includes upcycled items. For the band’s first Kansas City outing, I was impressed at the level of energy they injected into the room, and left the show feeling that there was a bit more freshness in the atmosphere, even, In the Wind. (I’ll see myself out). With their live show, Magic Giant proves that they are on a mission of joy, and they are succeeding.
Interview – Austin Bisnow
I got a chance to speak with Austin Bisnow, lead vocalist of Magic Giant, about the band’s journey so far, their approach to creating their debut 2017 record, In the Wind, and what’s to come in the future
Could you introduce yourself for the Playlistplay readers at home?
AUSTIN: I’m Austin. I’m from Washington D.C. originally, and I mostly sing in the band, but I also play a little cello and drums… and keys. (Laughs) I have to think about each song and what I actually play on it!
Just from listening it sounds like you all have a wide range of instruments that you’re proficient with. Which one did you actually start with — were you a vocalist first?
A: I started with… flute, I suppose, and then I started writing music actually with a mouse on the computer when I was about twelve. And then I learned piano and fell in love with the piano because I just loved playing the songs on the radio and playing them by ear. But we don’t have piano – there are very few songs on [In the Wind] that have piano on them, though there is some keyboard stuff that I do.
Do you all use a lot of keys and sequencing and samplers and that sort of thing? How are you getting those digital sounds on the record?
A: Yeah, we have Zang on guitar (who plays cello as well) — he’s triggering stuff with his foot, and then I’m emulating some of the stuff on keys. I mean, Zang does some stuff on vocals like *singing* “WAH-wuh-WAH-wuh-WAH-WAH,” so he’s doing some sound effects with his voice. Sometimes he’ll just try to play the part that is synthesized in the recording with a live instrument. Sometimes we’ll just have it sampled to [a trigger under] Zang’s foot.
You guys are able to actually fuse together two diametrically-opposed or polar opposite schools of thought when it comes to your sound by fusing roots folk and digital pop, so what compelled you to do that? What’s the thought behind your guys’ sound?
A: If you’re talking to each of us, I have a different answer. And I think that’s the answer, is that we are all so different and what comes out is not a reflection of anyone individually, it’s like a new creation that only the three of us can make together, just like something only a set of three other people could create together. We just have such a wide array of influences, and we all appreciate what we don’t know that the other can do. I have this pop background and Zambricki can appreciate that. Zang has this indie background and we can appreciate that. The writing process is so collaborative that it’s a new entity that we create every time we make a song that’s really a hybrid of the three approaches.
Well that’s a great transition to my next question: what are your and some of the band’s influences?
A: Bruce Springsteen for his longevity in his performance career. And Queen, because their productions are so off the wall and different, and they take you on a journey, and because of [Freddy Mercury’s] vocals and stage presence. Some of Zang’s influences are Julian Casablancas from the Strokes, Ray LeMontagne for his lyrics. We love Julian’s personality and his courage to be different. Zambricki is into Johnny Cash — I know he likes the Avett Brothers. He spent time in Nashville and South Carolina and learned from some amazing Roots and Americana people.
How has the approach to sound changed from your last record to this newest one, In the Wind?
A: So one thing that we were just talking about yesterday was that we recorded live drums on every song on the album, and it was all programmed on the EP. It’s just a fuller, wider, bigger sound. We want it to be moving on the first listen and also have depth and legs so that you can listen to it and it’s classic years from now. We spend a lot of time mixing it up with concepts and lyrics, and in terms of production we did a lot of recording techniques using sounds you couldn’t just get from a library.
On “Window,” we did a muted guitar and pitched it down a half step, and that makes that *singing* “BUNKA-buh-BOMP-BOMP, buh-BOMP-BOMP” sound. We’d hit some of the actual strings of the piano and pitch those around. We did some stuff with the trumpet like on “Eyes Wide,” where we’d get an organic take of a trumpet player, and we’d mess with it and chop it up and pitch it. And we recorded out in nature. In the intro to “Jade,” you can actually hear birds chirping. I remember us thinking it was so beautiful when we did it because the first line of the song is sang the bird forever / and then she flew away, and there were birds chirping. When we listened back to it we were like, this is too on the nose. We can’t have birds chirping. People are going to think we added birds. So we actually put distortion on it since we couldn’t get rid of the birds but it was like the perfect take. We tried to repeat it in the studio but we couldn’t. That’s a one-of-a-kind thing, we’re never gonna get that moment again so we try to make the record as special as the show and the show as special as the record. Recording out in nature is just a different experience that you just can’t get in the studio. Not saying one is better, who knows what we’ll do in the future, but you’re singing and playing looking at mountains or playing inside of a redwood tree… you’re going to pull out something different than if you’re playing inside concrete walls.
Is there anything we should be on the lookout for?
One thing that might interest you, since you’re a bass player is that we actually have a cello that we play like a bass. We wanted to be able to move around and still have the woody upright bass sound, but an upright is so big that we strap on a cello tune it like a bass. You’ll see that at the show!
In terms of what’s coming up, we just released our album, In the Wind, only a couple of weeks ago, which is our debut album, and we’re going around the country on this tour, which is the longest tour we’ve played. I’m really excited because we’ve never been to St. Louis, never played in Kansas City, all these different places, and it’s like our first time there and it’s so cool seeing people. People came up to us in Wichita that heard us on the Today Show or on Spotify. A grandma came up to us after the show yesterday and said she was in a depression and now she’s not, and a younger woman came up to us and let us know it was her first show– it was just really cool to see the range of people that are coming out to our shows and how the experience is affecting them.
We’ve also put out a video for “Great Divide,” which is something we’re really proud of. It was a really fun one to shoot, but also a very hard one to shoot. It was freezing, and there were all these obstacles, like we were getting close to hypothermia … (laughs) the closest we’ve ever been. We were fully clothed in the ocean, and then Zang hit his eyebrow on my head and had to go to the hospital, so in one of the scenes you can see that he’s bleeding from his eyebrow underwater.
Oh my god! I’m glad you’re all OK! (Thanks for the Easter Egg, though)
Yes, we’re all OK! And now we’ve got stories to tell!
Thanks to Austin Bisnow for the fantastic interview, and to Magic Giant for the great performance at the Riot Room! You can check out their video for “Great Divide” here and see the rest of their tour dates here!