It’s mid-afternoon on a still, sunny day in early March, the likes of which Brighton hasn’t experienced for several months. Anyone not cooped up in an office has flocked to the beach, where it’s a few degrees above freezing—mild enough to justify sitting outside. Hungry seagulls hover around a family eating a picnic. Beside them the four members of The Magic Gang take advantage of this rare pause in an otherwise cruel, relentlessly cold winter, nursing their second pints of the day and chain-rolling cigarettes.
The last time I visited Brighton to speak to The Magic Gang in 2016, they shared a place with five other musicians, slap-bang in the city centre, the local Pavilion and Palace Pier within eyeshot. But despite the fact the band is finally taking off, having signed a deal with Warner, they’re back home living with parents (which says something in itself about the non-luxury of playing in a band in 2018). “Don’t tell anyone!” frontman Jack Kaye jokes, when I meet him in a cafe outside the station. He forks around with his veggie breakfast. “It felt like the right time to move. We were living in a house together that whole time, under the same roof.”
Between 2013 and 2017, The Magic Gang became by definition a “Brighton band,” helping to build a scene. Right from the start, it was clear they were a vital part of their city’s fledging reputation for bright, purposeful new bands, which has since included politicized punks Dream Wife and grubby grungers Birdskulls. As such their debut record is a capsule containing the ups and downs that have followed the band these past five years and the characters they met along the way. “A lot of the songs are about being in Brighton and the experiences we had here,” says bassist Gus Taylor. “It’s all tied up in this record.” So what’s that story?
Let's start with the house—a loose term that takes in several properties over their five years here, where they turned bedrooms into practice spaces, slept on the same cigarette-stained floors and cobbled together rent. Though they turned one place into a recording studio—and the de-facto site of their own record label, Echochamp—it was, to put it lightly, a hellhole. Empty beer cans, left for days, were scattered everywhere. Dirty dishes were piled up so high it was pointless figuring out who they belonged to. Ash stains marked the carpets. At their last place, one resident slept in the living room, his only privacy being a thin piece of patterned, hippie-style fabric, acting as a doorway and separating one side of the shared space from the other. It was enough to send any poor soul crawling back to their parents, tails between their knees.
The weird thing was, nobody living there seemed to care about the state of decay. They were wrapped up in a bubble, writing songs until 4AM, throwing parties every other night. The old, charming, pre-gentrified boozer next door to the house where they formed in 2013 used to host lock-ins on weekends, giving the band license to play as loud as they wanted. “Our neighbors weren’t really there either,” Taylor remembers, as the rest of the group tuck in to their greasy fry-ups. They used to throw impromptu gigs in the basement. After the city’s industry new music festival The Great Escape, while A&Rs powdered their noses at a nearby hotel, local kids flocked to The Magic Gang’s house, crowd surfing until they almost tore a hole in the ceiling. Their post-festival parties became the stuff of legend. It also became depressing. “It’s when you throw a party and a month later, you’re waking up to go to the call center and you’re bruising yourself on NOS canisters. That’s when the joke stops being funny,” remembers drummer Paeris Giles.
This may sound like the standard scenario for a bunch of mates forming a band, but a couple of factors immediately set The Magic Gang apart. Three members—Kaye, Smith and Taylor—were already frontmen in other projects. All confident vocalists, they shared a love for The Beach Boys’ harmonies. Giles and Taylor had played together before too, so the rhythm section was “locked in”. Kaye remembers thinking: ‘If we were gonna do this, we’d have three different guys singing, make it a vocal-heavy group.’ Smith, whose dry sense of humor can easily be mistaken for frank seriousness, compares their set-up to a more low-key Traveling Wilburys. Only instead of Bob Dylan, George Harrison, Jeff Lynne, Roy Orbison and Tom Petty, you had four students who knew a thing or two about vocal arrangements.
I mention how their sound has often been compared to fellow Brighton indie band The Kooks. “Which is just a joke,” Taylor quips. Kaye, ever the peacekeeper, adds, “Not to be nasty about anyone, but…”
“It’s such an entry level way of approaching our music,” Taylor continues. Giles, the most reserved of the group, shuffles in his seat awkwardly. But Smith decides to play devil’s advocate, saying: “The Kooks just wrote good songs.” They make fair points. The Kooks didn’t fully represent landfill indie’s grand demise. Nor do the Magic Gang sound that much like them, or indeed like any other guitar band.
The songs on their debut are spiky and rough around the edges, but they also square up to the mainstream. Recent single “Getting Along” made the Radio 1 playlist, and their next UK tour includes sold out shows at 1,000+ capacity venues. They’re too neat and pop-oriented to be considered truly alternative, but they’re still trying to write direct songs for the masses. “It’s funny ground to find yourself in,” Taylor admits. Smith sums up their mantra by saying there’s no point being anti-establishment for the sake of it. “I understand the radio’s full of shit, but the only way you’ll change the game is by doing it in a clever way. Don’t just shut yourself off and alienate other people. It’s bullshit. Some bands are so wrapped up in being cool that they don’t even think about writing songs.” He stops short of naming names.
As the sun begins to set, we wander towards the Green Door Store, where the band played their first show. Huddled under Brighton station’s train arch, it’s covered in construction works, so we angle to The Prince Albert, a fabled pub next door covered in wall murals of musical greats like John Peel, The Beatles and Jimi Hendrix. Inside Smith immediately points out a framed drawing by members of The Maccabees, signed by guitarist Felix White: “Dear Prince Albert, never get rid of the mixed fruit cider. Love, Felix.” These days, White acts as a part-mentor for The Magic Gang, after they signed to his singles label Yala! Records.
It’s hard to glean from the debut, or each member’s personal tastes, but the band first got together united by a love of alternative, oddball Canadian acts: Mac DeMarco in the Rock and Roll Night Club era, before alt-bros started dressing like him; the pristine pop of Tops; the art performance of Sean Nicholas Savage and the smooth songwriting of Travis Bretzer. From there, they took a relatively slow yet measured climb towards where they are now. Three EPs came out before their full-length. Meanwhile, they relentlessly toured the UK and sold out London Scala without a record deal, having turned down offers almost as soon as they’d formed.
There remained a feeling, however, that the band might not go any further without extra cash. Guitar music hasn’t been in vogue for years, and the band’s existence can be traced back to when it was fully out of fashion. They still don’t fit in, not even with 2018’s wave of forward-thinking, political south London bands like Shame, Sorry and Goat Girl. Without trying to set a cat amongst the pigeons, I ask if there’s any resentment in seeing these new bands given a bigger platform, when The Magic Gang have been plugging away for five years. “I don’t feel any envy at all,” Taylor replies. “We’ve just done it our way where we’ve spent years trying to work on ourselves.” “We would have made [a record] and put it out ourselves anyway,” Smith insists.
Had it been self-released, The Magic Gang’s first work might have consisted entirely of new songs. As it stands, they’ve mixed old fan favorites like “Alright” and “Jasmine”—tracks written in the four walls of their first shared house—with different spins on their harmony-first approach. Take the Taylor-led “Take Care”, a piano number that resembles another Canadian hero of theirs, Tobias Jesso Jr. The song documents a “brutal” break-up, which he mentions in passing as we walk Brighton’s streets. For a sunny-side-up band, there’s a fair share of torment on this record. Lost loves aren’t the only subject. On “Caroline,” Kaye recites a group therapy session he attended, where he met a stranger who was at her lowest ebb. “Hold on tight, don’t fret / Things will be different,” he sings, in a departure from the group’s default break-up bangers.
It’s not as if The Magic Gang are miserable in person, but they’re affected by the same things most twenty-somethings deal with everyday: crippling rent; tedious day jobs; enough self-doubt to knock us off our stride. Taylor remembers being in their former Brighton home, “wondering, ‘Where is this going?’” He adds: “If you go back a couple generations, people could have a house and go and get married. Now it’s incredibly difficult to earn decent money and then get on the ladder. There’s nothing wrong with renting, but in terms of where your life goes… Everyone questions what they’re doing.” Smith chimes in: “I was thinking the other day… I don’t have any money. Any savings. I don’t own anything!”
But after years bundled in the same knackered tour van and under the same crumbling roof, all four seem predisposed to being broke, but a long way from hopeless. Giles talks about local café Langlees’ £4 breakfast—their go-to meal between practice sessions in 2013—like it’s the greatest grub on Earth. “You’d go for two in a day sometimes,” he beams. He also remembers putting on shows at nearby venue Bleach, where ten bands would play in the space of six hours, and he wouldn’t earn a penny. It was just for fun. They all took up part-time jobs to keep the band going, and they’ve never been swayed by money, even if it would have given them a more direct route to the top. Their current living situation, away from their favorite city and under the supervision of parents, isn’t ideal, but they see it as a means to an end.
As we snake out the Albert, day-drunk and glazed, we’re greeted by evening commuters shooting past in a rush. It’s been a brief day trip to their hometown-by-heart, and there’s a chance they might never live here again. Taylor says that now the record’s finished, he sees Brighton in a new light. A bundle of youthful energy, the album reflects who they were at the time; naive kids who finally found the band they dreamt of forming. “It’s a nice thing for it to be coming out now,” he says. “It feels like it ties the knot of that era. Personally, that’s how I see it.” First loves, nights spent on the beach watching the sun rise, parties broken up by the police—they’re all contained within this first work.
“I knew it wouldn’t last forever, but it did suddenly come to a halt,” Smith agrees, suggesting they’d share the same grotty hub in a flash, given the opportunity. “Whenever I listen to the music we or our friends have produced, you can feel the essence of that last house, the spirit of it. I get really emotional.” Taylor peers down Trafalgar Street one last time before heading back towards the station. “I’m hoping to move back here soon. In the summer, hopefully.” It’s hard to imagine them shaking off this city, no matter where they go next.
You can find Jamie on Twitter.
This article originally appeared on Noisey UK.