CHRISTIAN VANDER INTERVIEW
- By Morgan Ågren, February 2002
- Translation by Jean François Devanneaux
Would 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 havenīt 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 thatīs 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 Christianīs drums makes it very different too, cause drummers donīt 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 donīt have enough data to do a lecture about it anyway. BUT, you donīt have to be interested in this part in order to get a good kick out of Christian Vanderīs drumming, and the music that Magma plays.
Just check it out. I did, and I donīt regret it… I will go and see them again. And sincerely, there ainīt 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!
How 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
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 isnīt 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.
So, 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 sometimes.
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 another country?
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 a lot.
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.
Do you 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.
How do 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, just tambourine.
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 Walden?
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.