Indietracks interview #5: The Magic Theatre

Today we’re chatting to Dan Popplewell and Sophia Churney from new Elefant Records signings The Magic Theatre, who will be making their first live appearance at this year’s Indietracks!

Their debut album ‘London Town’ (2010) was a time-travelling love story bursting with melodic sunshine/baroque pop, featuring orchestral recordings with The Slovak Radio Orchestra and the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir. They’ve just put the finishing touches on their second album, to be released on Elefant in the autumn and preceeded by a four track single in June/July. As front people in Ooberman, Dan and Sophia released a string of acclaimed and ambitious albums, enjoyed chart hits and and were championed by John Peel, Blur’s Graham Coxon and BBC Radio’s Mark Radcliffe .

The Magic Theatre has been going for several years, yet this is the first proper show! How are you feeling about playing the songs live at Indietracks?

Sophia: I’m a bit nervous. This is the first show I’ve done where I’m the main singer. When we were in Ooberman, Dan was the lead singer, so I’m feeling the responsibility weighing on me a bit. I’m excited about it too though. Let’s just hope I don’t panic and run off stage!

Dan: I was at Indietracks last year and really loved it. I left determined that we had to come back and play this year!

The first album was based around a time-travelling romance story set in 1960s and 1880s London. Will the theme continue on the forthcoming EP and album, or is there a new storyline?

Sophia: No, that story ended in The Old Cottage (the last track on the London Town album). There’s no actual storyline for the new album, but I’d say there’s a strong theme running through it.

Dan: There’s no storyline now, just an overall theme about renewal, remembering and rediscovering your lost confidence. Having a story is great but it forces you to have tracks in the story order instead of what completely works best, so it was nice this time to have the freedom to cherry-pick the best songs and put them in an order that worked well together.

You used full live orchestras from Slovakia and Estonia on the first album. How did that come about, and have you used the same approach for the new songs?

Dan: I was writing instrumental orchestral music for use on TV and movie trailers and decided to write some of them around Magic Theatre songs so that I could use the expensive orchestral recordings on the first album (London Town). I managed to get permission from the publishing paymasters who bankrolled them, but it did tie me up in all manner of legal restrictions meaning the album could never get a full label release. Elefant Records tried to negotiate it, but they would have lost money on every album sold so they couldn’t do it. So, never again!

This time the live strings were recorded just for this album, performed by players from the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra. They’re world class and better sight readers than the Slovaks so in the end I got better results AND there’s no copyright complications preventing a proper release which is nice.

Sophia sings most of the Magic Theatre songs, having stepped forward since the Ooberman days when Dan mostly sang. Was that a natural switch and will it continue on the upcoming album?

Sophia: Yes, I’m singing the main vocal on the new album. Dan is there singing lovely harmonies though. I don’t know if it was a natural switch for me to sing the lead really. Maybe I just steamrollered my way in!

Dan: Her voice is much nicer than mine. I was only ever a singer because my voice was the least bad out of the three founder members. When Soph joined it was as a keyboard player with her just doing the odd bit. Like a good scientist, empirical experiments revealed a direct correlation between the amount of her voice on the track and how good it sounded. Once the last strains of my voice were removed they were perfect! 🙂

How has your experience with Ooberman affected how you approach The Magic Theatre?

Sophia: I approach The Magic Theatre with more enjoyment, more excitement and freedom to be creative. I’ve learned from the mistakes I made in Ooberman. I used to focus too much on things that didn’t matter and I’d get anxious and embroiled in petty problems. TMT has been a happier experience for me because I’ve been a bigger part of the creative process and by singing the lead vocal I’ve been able to convey my own emotional interpretations of the songs, I suppose. There are some Ooberman songs I’d really like to re-record because I love them so much, I want to sing the lead so I can put my heart in them. Dodo was Made for Heaven springs to mind, but there’re quite a few I’d like to put my tears into!

Dan: I suppose I learned a fair bit about writing, performing and production so that’s all carried forward. There were things I didn’t like that I didn’t want to repeat – it became a very difficult environment in the band as our fortunes declined – differences of opinion amongst the band, with management and the record label. This time it’s been all the good stuff – enjoying writing and recording together – without all the stress. So, I prefer this and I think the music sounds more open and uplifting as a result.

Your new album is on Elefant Records (who we love, and collaborated with for our 2009 festival). Is there still an important role for labels now that everything’s available digitally?

Sophia: I think they’re important, yes. A label like Elefant, run by people who absolutely care about music and artists. Who are genuinely creative music-lovers, with so much talent in having a holistic vision for their bands and the experience to promote them with expertise and enthusiasm. For me, that’s tons better than doing it yourself online, or whatever.

Dan: I ran my own label for a while because I had no choice. Possibly I could have put a big effort into trying to find a new small indie label for Ooberman but I felt that I needed to focus on the recording not searching for labels. But then, it was an enormous amount of work organising promotion: tours, merchandise, design, press and radio. And I didn’t have the time, knowledge or network of contacts to do it very well.

With a label you have someone whose skills, knowledge, network of fans and chosen life’s work is all in this area of promotion, and so if it’s a good label (and I can’t imagine a better one than Elefant), you then get the job done far better than you can on your own. And not only is it a much better job, but all that hard work being done by someone else frees you to focus on the music. So yes, labels certainly have an important role as far as I’m concerned.

As for whether the market can actually support labels these days – well indie labels will have to find ever more resourceful ways of earning money, including getting tracks in TV shows and so on, because as I understand it, sales are not what they were.

The new album contains a song about memories from the 1996 Phoenix Festival – are you big festival fans? What makes a good festival for you?

Sophia: I love festivals. I’ve got such happy memories of walking across hot dusty fields in flip flops in the sun with a plastic glass full of beer. I love all the different music coming from various stages, the smell of the food stalls, the sense of freedom, getting into a new band and dancing on my own at the edge of the crowd! I just love it. Not so keen on drinking tons of Red Stripe and then eating veg tempura and being sick in public though. I won’t do that again.

Dan: Sunshine helps! Hmm… steam trains, beer, cider, falafels and noodles help too. And I can cope with bands as long as they mostly sing in tune 🙂

Do you have any plans for future Magic Theatre shows or a tour when the new album comes out?

Sophia: I’d like to do some gigs…I guess we’ll see what happens.

Dan: Maybe there’ll be a limited set of appearances but nothing’s planned yet. The album’s out in autumn so let’s see.

Thanks guys, look forward to seeing you in July!