- By Morgan Ågren, February 2002
- Translation by Jean François Devanneaux
you think I was kidding, if I claimed that one of the most charismatic
musicians around is a drummer living in France, that formed his
own band more than 30 years ago. And that this band sings in his
own made up language, called Kobaïan...
AND, that you probably haven´t heard about it at all?
In any case. Two years ago I went to Paris to see drummer Christian
Vander and his legendary group Magma celebrating their 30 year anniversary.
I had some tapes of Magma already in my mid teens, but I had never
got a chance too see them live. This time, a French friend of mine
called me up and told me about the three Magma concerts that was
going to be held in Paris due to their 30 years anniversary. I live
in Stockholm/Sweden, and you can fly from here to Paris in less
then three hours, so that´s what I did.
Now, I am not a journalist at all, I make my living as a drummer
myself. But when I went to Paris to see Magma for the second time
two years later, I met Christian again and thought; why not do an
interview with him? It would be fun for sure, and maybe I can have
it published in a magazine somewhere. In fact, I knew that Christian
had never been in Modern Drummer at all, which was impossible for
me to understand. I asked Christian; did you say no thanks, or did
nobody ask you? - 'Nobody asked', he said.
It is hard to describe the sound of Christian and Magma. The mood
and expression he possesses while playing must be seen too. But
just to give you an idea, imagine the power of someone like Narada
or Bozzio, but played on Elvin Jones Drumkit. It is intense, loud
and sharp. But the 'jazzsound' of Christian´s drums makes
it very different too, cause drummers don´t normally play
like that when having an 18-inch bassdrum.
The music of Magma sometimes sounds like a cross between Carl Orfs
'Carmina Burana' and Mahavishnu Orchestra… cheap comparison
maybe, but just so you will get an idea.
And as I said, they sing in their own language, made up by Christian.
There is the planet Kobaïa, Univeria Zekt, Zeuhl Musik, Mekanïk
Destruktïw Kommandöh etc. However, these 'things' are
not that important now, and I don´t have enough data to do
a lecture about it anyway. BUT, you don´t have to be interested
in this part in order to get a good kick out of Christian Vander´s
drumming, and the music that Magma plays.
Just check it out. I did, and I don´t regret it… I will
go and see them again. And sincerely, there ain´t that many
bands or drummers I would care for so much that I would travel away
from my town just like that. - Uduu wuudu, slaush!
and when did it first come to you, this vision of Kobaïa, the
words of Magma and its musical universe?
It's always been a question of circumstances. I've come to discover
this world, or this vision of the world, by a series of events that
happened in my life. Even as a child, through my mother who knew
a lot of renowned musicians like Elvin Jones, Billie Holiday, Chet
baker... who were close friends. I was in contact with very different
people, and without knowing what I was going to propose, I've always
known I was going to make music, very early, at the age of 3, I
knew I wanted to make music
But what about the
language? When you use Kobaïan words, is the musical and rhythmic
sound of the words as important as the meaning itself ?
The words are conceived, or are coming at the same time as the composition.
I mean at the same instant, so they certainly have a profound meaning...
Well, either they are sung, or they can also be said with or without
music. But generally they're coming directly with the music, they're
conceived straight away, so they are tied in a certain manner. For
the meaning, I often search in accordance with atmospheres, after,
to discover in which type of ambiance I repeat certain words, to
try to find the key.
Did you ever have a second
thought or any doubts, thinking you should have written the lyrics
in French rather than in Kobaïan?
It's in the order it was made, I didn't have any doubts. Like I've
often said, there are a lot of things that could have been written
in French, or some meanings that were attributed. There was also
a whole sense that I had to understand myself, because I was looking
for certain things on a musical level. Some workings of the being,
so I had to discover these things naturally in time. This I continue
to do, prior to propose me new words that would be another muddle,
bringing more questions than answers.
Since I know
how hard it is to make a living out of making music that isn´t
being played on the radio and TV so much, I was wondering if you
ever had any problems to pay your rent and stuff like that. For
instance, did you ever have a regular day job?
Actually no, in the beginning of Magma, Stella, who sings with me
today, helped me. She had a regular job and could cater for my needs...
minimal... to pay a studio... well, we could get by. Anyway, important
thing, I did the music knowing it was going to be difficult, maybe
not at this point but, there are always ups and downs, it's never
safe. Anyhow, you mustn't reassure yourself, when doing this music
you have to make a choice, for those who made it before us. Sometimes
there can be a bit money, but you can't expect that, it passes,
so it is. All the great musicians I knew didn't have money. So I
went on my way, I had nothing to lose. If once in a while there
is money, it's good... but you mustn't do anything for it...
How many CD's do you press at each new release?
I don't know, you should ask Stella maybe.
I think we press 5000 at the beginning, after I don't know.
Which is your favorite Magma album?
Often the last one, the one that's just been released, because I
always try to bring something new.
But if you have
to choose an old one?
Not so long ago, I listened to the first record again, there are
a lot of things in it too... Every record has a story, and the first
one has a great story. It was very badly recorded but there are
a lot of things inside. I could also say Mekanïk Destruktïw
Kommandöh, but there are so many things each time that it's
difficult for me to be objective.
Is there anything
in music today, on radio or TV, that you can enjoy listening to?
I often have opportunities to hear things, but honestly, I don't
have that much time to listen. I work a lot on the music I practice
and it's once in a while that I listen, sometimes there are things...
but I still learn a lot from John Coltrane.
do you ever buy CD's today, except for old ones?
Have you ever wanted to move outside France?
Sometimes, because it's a difficult country on the musical level.
In the French language culture, it's more literature, painting and
last of all music. And it can be felt a lot with people who are
not ready, or don't have that much rhythmic sense, it's a bit strange
So where did you think of going?
I thought "I am here, I will do it here", it's simple.
Anyway, going to the United States for example, well... to play
jazz ? No, because it's not my music, and if I come from Europe,
I had to bring something to the rather continental music. I can't
bring anything new in jazz, I don't think so. I love jazz, but it's
not my music.
What about doing your own music in
I don't think so, because I am more like a receiver. I wait for
the music to come to me, and I'm not influenced, except for a few
tiny things, by external events... in any case, unconsciously. I
let the music come, it's very important, I don't make the music.
Any phone calls from US asking to come over?
At the beginning, just at the start of Magma, John Hicks, the pianist
who played a long time with Pharoah Sanders, asked me to come with
him to New York to work. I played with him and he said : "you
remind me of a friend...", it was Jack DeJohnette, and he said
: "you play like Jack DeJohnette, you must come to the United
States, come with me to New York", well, he wanted to take
me along, and I had just put on Magma then. It was a difficult choice
for me, that's true, I loved John Hicks very much... but no. We
each made our choice and I think, maybe, we made a good choice,
at least I hope so.
Maybe I could bring them more by working for them from here also
than from there, I don't know.
But you played with
Magma in the US?
20 times, 10 times…?
In concert? - more than 20 times.
In the seventies?
But did you play there in the seventies too?
Yes, in 1973 at the Newport Jazz Festival. We played with the Brecker
Brothers who performed Mekanïk Destruktïw Kommandöh
with us, and Teddy Lasry, who was then the soprano sax player of
the band, was directing the horn section.
I know Daniel Denis - drummer from Univers Zero. He told me he was
also part of Magma for a little while.
But there are no recordings of that?
No, nothing, we rehearsed, and then it didn't make it. I was trying
to play with a second drummer at that time but it wasn't the good
moment, we were not ready.
Did you study music
somewhere, in a music school?
No, I mostly worked by myself. Actually, at the very beginning,
I met Elvin Jones who gave me some smatterings, and Chet who used
to learn me to play things, some 4/4's...we worked like that. I
was working all by myself and I decided to go to the conservatory.
But it was in the middle of the year then, and the drum professor,
who saw me coming in with my sticks under the arm, told me: 'Oh,
you know, students here already have 2 years of drumming...', and
he asked a student to play, and the boy played what he had learnt
in 2 years. I looked at him and I said: 'All right, I'm gonna go
on by myself '.
Talking about US, I already asked
you this when we met last time, the reason why you haven't been
in Modern Drummer. Was it because they never called you, or did
they call and you said no?
No, I think they didn't call. Personally, I didn't refuse.
Can you tell which are your three all times favorite records?
'Expression' by John Coltrane, 'Lohengrin' by Wagner... I like Wagner's
overtures very much. And... I don't know... anyway, that's already
Did you start Seventh Records because nobody
else wanted to release your stuff, or because you wanted to have
complete control over the music?
At the beginning we were with big companies, A&M... people like
that, and somebody bought back Magma from A&M and, like we say,
we were put in an impossible shit. It was bought back by some Americans,
we had no contact, they were not releasing the records, they were
not sending royalty income to work in studio, well then, we had
big problems. Anyway, these people don't want this music. They don't
want this kind of things. They listen very quickly and they say:
'you must cut this, here it's too long, you must change that...'
But they don't know music at all. You're not free, there's no freedom.
I know it will be hard, but that's how it is, you have to act that
way. Unless if tomorrow, a big company proposes that you can express
yourself freely, even on one hour long themes, it's not a problem.
But we also put on Seventh to gather together all the works, all
Magma pieces from the beginning, to revise the sleeves, to try to
bring us back together a bit, and it happened that way.
The goal was also to restore everything in the chronology, it's
very important too, so that you can listen to follow a story. When
I discovered that there was a story, continuity... I already knew
it, but I wanted to put back things in order, because I know that
as time passes you can confuse on a story. I'm very much attached
to chronology. I think it's by listening to John Coltrane's music
that I've discovered that. Because I realized that each record was
already containing the key of the following one. You could feel
the early stirrings of what was gonna come next. There was always
a message, in each album, there was an evolution from a record to
another. So, I always recorded as long as I had something new to
propose, either a brighting new idea, or just a little thing, a
grain, but there was always something new.
have distribution contracts outside Europe?
Yes, but I think it must be Harmonia Mundi (French distributor)
dealing with that.
But they are outside Europe
too, or only in France?
I think distribution is rather difficult, you don't always have
contacts, it's not easy. For example, at the present time, we don't
have any distributor in Germany.
So it works by
mail orders ? You ship CD's?
I don't know exactly how it works, it might seem crazy, but I frankly
confess that I only deal with the music and I don't know really.
This is the kind of question you should ask Stella maybe. We have
a distributor in Japan but, there are some countries like Germany
for example, where there's no distributor.
There are some Magma CD's available in Stockholm
Yes, they bought some CD's. There's a guy there nowadays, who buys
CD's to sell.
Future projects, future plans?
I've just finished a record that I composed between 1982 and 1997,
which is called "Les Cygnes et les Corbeaux" ("The
Swans and the Ravens"). This is a one hour five minutes long
piece which is the result of 15 years of work. Apart from this,
I composed other things, but chronologically, I had to record this
first, that's why it took a so long time. Now it's recorded, it's
finished and should be released in March.
you teach a new composition to your musicians?
Do you write something on paper?
I work a lot with tapes, and after that, we rehearse with the band.
I propose the parts to the musicians, the parts are written, each
one has his own written part.
So you play on a
piano and you write it up?
No, I record because, like I often say, I don't consider that I
compose, sometimes it takes me several years to put together all
the elements. But many times, I can also compose a 30 minutes long
piece without interruption, it's coming naturally that way, and
after that, we pick it up.
You play the piano then,
or any other instrument?
I saw a picture of you holding a saxophone!
Oh no, no... you know... just harmonics...
No, I'd like to play saxophone, but you can't do everything. However,
in the last record, "Les Cygnes et les Corbeaux", it's
recorded a bit like a classical ensemble, I play all the instruments,
but on a keyboard; strings, bass, horns... all the elements of a
great symphonic orchestra. By the way, there's no drum in the record,
For this last one, I will say
something and you say the three first words that come to your mind!
I love him
...I don't know
...I don't know really
Mmhh, Frank Zappa... there's a word I always say, it's "derision"
Some good things
Good single strokes
The sense of vibration
I know less
Stravinsky or Olivier Messiaen?
Billy Cobham or Narada Michael
Terry Bozzio or Vinnie Colaiuta?
Jack DeJohnette or Tony Williams?
Drums or cymbals?
There's one thing we didn't talk about, but maybe it will be for
a next time, it's something in music which is essential to me, this
is the vibratory side. It's a matter you can't see with your eyes,
but which exists and occurs so that you can connect the music in
space in a way you call 'magical'. Actually, there's no magic, it's
simply to reach a certain degree of rhythmic division so that you
disregard caesuras. That means something that doesn't belong anymore
to quantitative calculation. It's the fact to go further than what
can be quantified and at this point, the music is then hung in space
by something unpalpable, and yet it is.
This thing that occurs in all the great musicians we know, you have
to reach it and from there, music becomes something else, completely.
It's the work, you're functioning inside the music. But well, it
has to be developed, it can bring questions sometimes, maybe for
a next time... Music and movement.
My time with Frank Zappa
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