Making music using only their gobs.
Nic Doodman is 15 minutes late calling from the UK. He is extremely apologetic, in a very British way, when he does make the call. I tell him its fine but he’s clearly unhappy that he may have appeared impolite and apologises emphatically for any inconvenience.
The Magnets area six piece a cappella outfit from the UK who have been playing for over ten years. They are one of the very few a cappella outfits that do not use any backtracks or drum machines when they perform. Every sound they make comes out of their mouths. Their amazing vocals and slick showmanship have seen them touring with Tom Jones and playing some strange places including Buckingham Palace and Elle McPherson’s living room. With several sell out Edinburgh Fringe festivals and extensive European tours under their belts The Magnets are heading to Australia for the first time as part of the Adelaide Cabaret festival.
Nic is the guy behind the Magnets. The earliest version was put together while still at university in London. After meeting the others in auditions for a production of Guys and Dolls he saw they were kindred spirits who loved to sing.
“I grew up in New Jersey in America and there is a very strong tradition of male a cappella singing that harks back to the doo-wop singing in the 1950s. And you had barbershop quartets. So when I was at high school in America I was a member of an a cappella group and when I went to London to continue my study there wasn’t any a cappella groups, so I started my own. But it was at that musical that I met the other guys that would become The Magnets. The idea at first was that we could get into functions, balls and dances for free, if you are performing you don’t need a ticket and we had no money in those days. And to meet girls! Then we started busking in Covent Garden and we would put the hat down and could end up with forty or fifty pounds for half an hour. We’d take that and go to the pub, get some beers, have some food, meet some girls. It could have been something that stopped when we left university, but the more we did it the more people like it and we started doing our own arrangements and writing our own songs and it just carried on from there really.”
That collegiate choir tradition in the States does not seem to happen anywhere else in the world does it?
“No it doesn’t, but it is starting to get more popular because things like the TV series Glee.”
I was wondering wether I should mention the G word.
“(laughing) Oh yeah. In high school I was in a group not dissimilar to the one on Glee. The background knowledge that people get from Glee has been quite good for us quite frankly. Rather than needing a lot of explaining about what we do people have some idea. We are nothing like a show-choir mentality, but in terms of doing songs vocally in an interesting way it’s pretty similar. It hasn’t changed what people expect from us but we don’t have to explain what we do as much as we once did.”
I’ve always had a bee in my bonnet about a cappella acts that use backing tapes, drum tracks and samples, but The Magnets get an amazing sound from just six guys are 100% vocals only right?
“Well thank you. I have never understood the use of backing tracks either. If you are going to be a cappella you don’t need them. It’s a lot of work and it has evolved over the years, and maybe if you’d have heard us when we started out it wouldn’t have been very pleasant (laughs). But over the years we have spent a lot of time in rehearsal rooms working out what we are capable of doing and what sounds we can make, plus we’ve done....I couldn’t even tell you a number but thousands of gigs over the years and all over the world and it has developed and got better over time.”
Your beat boxer Andy is incredible does he have a hip hop background?
“He has a background in drumming. He left school at 15 and was the youngest professional drummer in the UK. So hip hop beat boxers make some astonishing noises but the difference is that he makes slightly different sounds and he is a musician. So he knows when less is more and most hip hop beat boxers aren’t doing an hour and a half show. He also knows how to frame. He knows when there needs to be a break or a crash or a fill so he is a remarkable musician.”
Twenty years ago I saw another English a cappella act The Flying Pickets in the same venue you guys will be in for the Cabaret Festival.
“Oh really? Everybody in the a cappella world knows the Flying Pickets, especially in the UK where they famously had a number one hit single with Only You (a cover of the Yazoo song). In fact they are still going as a matter of fact. I know some of the guys very well, and they still tour a lot in places like Switzerland and Italy.”
Europe does seem to love this style of music you have a huge European tour coming up later this year; with I notice a lot of shows in Germany. The Germans do like precision is this why The Magnets particularly popular with the Germans?
“We are very popular in Germany and they do like precision harmonies. We’ve done a lot of gigs there and have built up quite a following there. It’s a place I never would have thought to have gone. When you come from Britain you don’t really think about it as a destination. It has nothing to do with historical things it’s just we, as a nation, tend to aim for places that are hotter, sunnier locations. But it’s a brilliant place we love playing there now.”
Ordinarily Australia would be precisely the hotter place you’d be looking for but its winter here at the moment.
“It is just getting lovely here at the moment and we are about to leave the British sunshine and head down to the Australian winter. (Laughs). But this is our first trip and we are doing some TV shows and hopefully people we hear about us and invite us back in February / March to do more festivals.”
Your set is a mix of originals and covers what sort of things can we expect to hear?
“You’ll never hear us do a cover in the style of the original. We do Bossa Nova Bon Jovi and a dance waltz version of Kraftwerk’s The Model. There's a rockier version of Let’s Dance by Bowie. So what you will get is songs people recognize done in a way you’ve never heard before. So people are usually surprised by the song choices, the arrangements and also that we can make all those sounds with our gobs. And charmed. There is quite a lot of charm in the show and we try to make sure everybody leaves singing and dancing.”
One of the highlights of the show is called ‘A to Z’ where they do songs by artists starting with each letter of the alphabet.
“So we do 26 different songs in seven minutes. We encourage people to yell out the artists as they recognise them. So we start with AC/DC a great Australian band and end up with the Zutons. There’s a movie one too which goes from the A-Team to Zulu.”
We have mentioned a couple of odd gigs the band has done, what’s the weirdest?
“I’ll give you three and you can decide. Singing a mile and a half down a salt mine in Switzerland. Second one would be carting all our gear in cable cars and singing on a mountain ledge in Austria. And the third singing in a swimming spa in East Germany. So there was the swimming pool and then us and the audience was in the pool. It was very weird. In the last song we stripped down to our underwear and jumped in the pool.”
THE MAGNETS play the Dunstan Playhouse on June 10-12.