There must be something artistically inspirational in the water of rural France. Lifelong friends Sam Vanderhoop Lee and Alex Caplow spent a summer working on farms in exchange for room and board. In their spare time, the guitarist/keyboardist (Lee) and vocalist (Caplow) worked on songwriting in the nation’s idyllic countryside, and reached their “a-ha moment” of creativity that propelled them toward their professional goals.
The duo laid the groundwork for Magic Man in 2009 after their freshman year in college. During the day they worked. And in their free time, they wrote lo-fi tunes with the assistance of a laptop.
“The weather was incredibly nice (and) it’s also pretty secluded,” Lee recalls. “Not a lot to do, so when we had time from working on the farms, we spent the time working on new songs. We were feeling kind of inspired.”
Even the name of their band came from the experience. When Lee and Caplow turned up at one farm expecting to perform the typical vegetable-picking and handling work, they instead found a travelling circus setting up for a festival the very next day. They helped pitch tents and set up stages instead.
“We didn’t know anybody there, and there was this kid who called himself the Magic Man,” Lee says, describing a card trick magician. “He showed us around and introduced us to different people. He was one of the first people we played our music to as well.”
When the duo returned home, they began playing those new songs at all forms of DIY shows in basements, frat houses and warehouses that Lee says is a staple of the New England music scene. The following year they self-released a debut album – though “debut” may not be the correct term, since the two have played in numerous bands together since high school, including a “pretty mediocre garage rock band” and a folk-rock duo.
Wanting to make their live shows more exciting and rely less on the back-up musician, the laptop, the duo began incorporating live drums, guitar and bass in 2013. That year, they landed school friends Gabe Goodman (bass), Justine Bowe (keyboards) and Joey Sulkowski (drums).
“It added a whole new element to the shows; gave them more of a rock feel, brought a lot more intensity and energy,” Lee says. “So we started thinking about songwriting with that sound in mind.”
Their infused sound, made richer with catchy choruses and guitar hooks that drew comparisons to fellow Bostonians Passion Pit; and introspective, longing lyrics in radio-ready songs like “Paris,” and “Waves” garnered attention from Columbia Records. The label helped the band create a metaphorical path to follow to accomplish something Lee and Caplow always wanted, but couldn’t quite do so by themselves. Before The Waves, produced by frequent Passion Pit collaborator Alex Aldi, was released in summer 2014. Since then the quintet has lived life on the road.
“I think we always knew we wanted to do music as much as possible, even if we had other jobs after college,” Lee says.
Although Caplow, Lee and friends now play actual stages with professional production instead of a sweaty house party living room, they still bring the New England house DIY aesthetic and intensity to their shows.
“We learned from playing shows in that environment,” Lee says. “What people respond to most is energy and intensity, rather than a really slick production.”
Magic Man, Great Good Fine OK, Vinyl Theatre, DJ Safe Sex
March 26, 2015
7pm, $18 (6+)