I caught up with John Magnie of the subdudes by phone from Madison, CT where he boasted about the ocean view from his room. The subdudes are currently on tour and will soon release their 7th record, “Street Symphony.”
JP: Okay, the dreaded question: how do you describe your sound or music style? If you met someone on a plane and they asked what kind of music you play…
JM: Ahhhh. It’s kinda hard to describe, but on the other hand, we are just taking the music we grew up with and really love - American roots music - and giving it our own spin. There’s a large does of influence from New Orleans. We also like a lot of country stuff.
JP: What makes the subdudes distinctive, besides your New Orleans, rhythm-oriented approach?
JM: We came up with a lot of bands in New Orleans who were doing similar music. What we seem to do well and that people like - is our harmonies and the minimalistic approach. It’s what really works for us. The first night we played as the subdues [at Tipitina’s in New Orleans], the idea was to get by with the least that you could. I had a stack of keyboards, but I brought an accordion. Steve Amedee brought a tambourine. Tommy Malone brought an acoustic guitar. It was an almost folk approach.
JP: How did you find your way to the accordion?
JM: It was really that idea on that first night...the layout of the subdudes was to bring the smallest instrument or the most minimal representation of your instrument. The accordion was that: portable. It started with that idea. I had played the accordion some before that but played it full time when the subdudes started. Then I really fell in love with the instrument. It had a stigma [laughs] for most of us…with polka. I realized you can do the same thing rhythmically as fiddles or horns. I discovered what a versatile instrument it was. There weren’t many players around New Orleans using the accordion. It was a little different to use the accordion in a rock & roll band.
JP: The last time we spoke, you said you were proud of the fact that the band got back together after almost six years apart. So how is it going?
JM: I’m still proud of that fact. We’re five years into reuniting and things just seem to go a little better all the time as long as we can stick together. One gift is that it works when we get together to write songs: a collaborative system. Our last record…we ended up writing it over a four-month period. Usually we always played songs on the road for a few months before recording them. This time we finished writing and jumped right in the studio and recorded them. I think we can do that because we’ve been playing together so long.
JP: What was it like working with producer George Massenburg in his Nashville studio for your upcoming “Street Symphony” release?
JM: It’s ironic that George is a super engineer…he actually invented the parametric equalizer. He comes out of being an engineer and inventor. As a producer, he’s very hands on and very warm and really knows how to inspire the band. He lets the music lead the way then he puts his super engineering skills to work after that. He makes it very comfortable. He spent a lot of time mixing and working on sounds, probably obsessed on getting sounds just right. He’d do that by himself and then he’d bring the band back in to get our take on it. The process was totally done in a month. Usually we’d record for a month then mix for a couple of months. His studio is totally set up on his sound engineering ideas. He has this odd thing where he has all these sticks coming out of the room about 200,000 of them. They are all different lengths. It breaks up the sound and it tunes the room. The room has this vibration. It’s a specially tuned room where you record in. He likes everyone to play together and lets the instruments bleed onto each other somewhat. We like to record just how we practice: standing or sitting around in a circle.
JP: How did the new songs on “Street Symphony” come together?
JM: We did a session in Colorado, then one in New Orleans, then one in Colorado. We had three-day sessions where we’d be pretty well exhausted with ideas. We don’t have a whole lot of themes music or lyrical. We just start jamming in the room, then another person would try to add to that idea. This time the theme was kind of a hangover from [hurricane] Katrina, with a couple of our members still there in New Orleans. The single, “Poor Man’s Paradise,” is an example of how people in Louisiana have been battered by the winds, flooding, and how they just keep going…and can even party in the midst of it; the strength of the human spirit…to just keeping on going. There’s another song that’s political, “Thorn in Her Side,” about frustration over Katrina and the government’s reaction to Katrina. The record kind of runs a range of themes. It’s all its own painting.
JP: What music excites you these days?
JM: I just seem to keep going back to that old gospel music…the great American music made over the last century.
JP: Any unusual gigs lately to tell me about?
JM: Just last week we went over to Europe. We only played in two places: Switzerland and Italy. It seemed ironic that the Swiss personality is generally pretty calm, but at these festivals, they were kinda wild! They danced a good bit. Maybe it was more beer fueled [laughs]. In Italy, personalities are vivacious and talkative, but when we played for them, the audience just stood still and watched us very intently. At the end of the song, they let us know they really liked it, but they didn’t dance or move at all. They paid attention…but they were very still [laughs].