Interview with San Francisco-Based Band, Mahgeetah
20 Nov, 2012
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If there is a word to describe Mahgeetah it would be “cohesive.” For a band whose formidable years were spent performing cover songs in a garage, both their songwriting and performances feature an astounding amount of maturity and originality. This is not to say that they do not wear their influences on their sleeve, nor do they shy away from acknowledging those they admire most. What they are doing is continuing a legacy that great artists have always presented to the masses, and that is to blend a modern interpretation with what has come before. In other words, move music forward. Within a group setting, the rewards are even more profound because the individual personalities become intermingled and contrasted so readily that the lines between uniform and chaos get blurred; and the result is usually a refreshing new style of music and form.
Mahgeetah’s debut album, Heavy Baby, combines the richness of early blues and American roots with not only the large rock sound from the 1960s and 70s, but the integrity of a modern day indie act. It is a promising effort from a group of guys at the early stages of their career, and who appear to have the wherewithal to understand the type of dedication needed to become successful. Through their impassioned live shows and their keen insight to produce an amazing sound, Mahgeetah is poised to be one of the great acts to come out of San Francisco. On the heels of releasing Heavy Baby, I was fortunate enough to talk with members Ryan Fisher and J.J. Mellon and discuss their humble beginnings, the new album, and the San Francisco scene.
[Interviewed on Nov. 10, 2011]
Richard Morales: When did you guys start playing music together?
Ryan: We all went to the same high school, this was 2001-2005. Everyone is from the San Fernando Valley in L.A., and as high school went on it just started off as fun jams in my garage. It was nice because my parents didn’t come home early so the garage would always be open and it was a place where we could crank our amps and explore what it was like to be loud.
J.J.: You can say we laid the foundation for the band in high school. We all shared love for the same music, and we’d all have these long drawn out jams after school every day. You know, twenty minute Pink Floyd “Echoes” jams. Then, we’d play a couple gigs in different formations around L.A., but it was just covers; Beatles, Zeppelin, Cream, and blues stuff.
So those are your main influences?
J.J.: I have a big blues influence, which is where Ryan and I bonded initially—Ryan was more of an acoustic blues guy, Ledbelly, Blind Lemon Jefferson, Robert Johnson, where I was more into Freddie King, Buddy Guy, B. B. King. You could say that sound still comes through, but we also have these modern influences now; we love My Morning Jacket, we love Wilco, we love Dr. Dog. Those are bands we respect, so it’s kind of an incorporation of classic American roots music with a modern rock sound.
That’s apparent in the individual songwriting. Does the rest of the band share those influences?
Ryan: Well, everyone in the band is really particular and selective about what they really like so there’s not one person who is the model for showing the other people music. We’re always showing each other different artists and different bands. So if I hear a great Dr. Dog song—and down the road if I would love to have a song that has that sort of feeling, it’ll start off that way, but it will end up being something different. Especially as I look to J.J., Tim, and Alex to fill up the space that I can’t. The mentality would be like, “Here’s a song, it’s not set in stone, so let’s work on it together.” I mean some basic progressions will be there, but they become these open books and everyone else colors it in. And I love that. It’s not like, “Here’s the song everybody, learn it, now play it this way.” It all starts off very simple.
J.J.: There’s a song on the album called “West Coast Air” that I wrote, and if you were to hear my demo it’s just me and a guitar, and it’s kind of a slow, melancholy song. We played it a couple times and I think it was Ryan who had the idea to speed it up a bit, distort the guitars, turn it up and make it a rock song. That’s how it appears on the album and that’s how we play it live now. You know, if that was a song I released as a solo song, it would have been just a soft acoustic ballad, whereas with the band it became almost like a Dawes song. Now, I couldn’t imagine going back to what it was initially.
The band seems to be catching on pretty quickly. What approach do you guys take in getting Mahgeetah’s name out there?
Ryan: I think with the shows we’ve played in the last year and a half we’ve made good impressions. Other bands have been there to check us out. If anything we rely more on making an impression live. The album is a nice representation of the songs, but we definitely give a full idea of what we are about through our live shows. That’s why we like to play as much as possible and to encourage people to come out.
Tell me a little bit about how the new album was recorded.
J.J.: We recorded down at Radical Studios, down in Bay Shore—the very industrial area of the City. We recorded on 2″ tape using a lot of great classic equipment, getting a nice vintage sound. And we all contributed equally on the songwriting duties.
We all work day jobs so we pulled some long nights. Like we’d get there around seven or eight, and then stay until about two in the morning. It wasn’t an easy process to make this work. We all have very different schedules, we all work very different jobs. So to come together to try and make our art was a little bit of a struggle.
Did that have an effect on how the album was recorded? Was it rushed through in any way?
Ryan: No, we took our time with it. I think that everything that’s been recorded and everything you hear on the record was everything we wanted. It’s our first record so I think there could be that fear of, “Oh, could this song have been better if we threw on, like a synth or something like that.” But I think we’re pretty happy with what sounds we were able to capture even though there was a bit of eagerness because we got presented with this great opportunity. Our engineer/producer was this guy Chuck Gonzales who works around in the City, and he presented us with this window to come in. On our first trial recording date he said he’d give us a session for free. So we went in and recorded one of the songs in one night, actually. We were just really taken aback by the studio, in a good way. Seriously, this place had like every guitar, amp, pedal imaginable, and we sort of knew at that point that we should make a record here.
Do you think the energy from your live shows was accurately captured on your record?
Ryan: Well, with a live show our tendency is to play a little faster or a little bit louder, so our drummer Alex was constantly reminding us, “Let’s take it nice and easy.” A couple of the songs were considerably slower than we would have played them live, then listening back we thought, “I don’t know if this is that accurate.” So we’d take a little more natural approach and count it off, and for a lot of the songs those were the takes we ended up using. It was more of an honest capture that someone at one of our shows would hear.
Will the fact that you all have separate jobs inhibit you from going on an extended tour?
J.J.: It’ll be a difficult choice, when push comes to shove, but hopefully we can work something out with our employers and get the best of both worlds: to have financial comfort waiting for us but still be able to live our dreams.
Until you get to the point where you can quit your day jobs.
Ryan: Absolutely. We’ve brought it up to Tim and Alex and they’ve never been more sure of something. Yeah, there’s a risk level involved. It’s a roll of the dice. I think with even the moderately successful bands those things are always risky. You’ve got to leave home for a while. Are you going to make money? But we wouldn’t be putting all this effort and time and money if this was all on the side. I mean, this is something we want to pursue and we want to see what can happen. It’s already been encouraging just getting positive feedback. I mean, the support that we have with people in the City is a big reason why I feel encouraged to do it. They believe in us.
Do you feel you fit in with the rest of the current indie acts coming out of the San Francisco scene?
J.J.: It’s funny, I don’t think we quite fit into the San Francisco scene that’s gotten big at the moment, which is kind of the garage rock scene. I think we can identify a lot with that music, and I think we might have some overlap with it; but I wouldn’t necessarily want to be pigeon-holed into that scene, per se. I think we’re kind of starting to create our own thing in a way. We don’t want to be this hipster band that is playing into any set scene. We want the mass appeal, in a way, but not on a pop-level.
Ryan: Yeah, I think we’re excited about being this alternative rock n’ roll band. We’ve seen a lot of the bands we like, and draw from, and are totally influenced by, and seeing how admired and popular they’re getting. It’s encouraging for us. I think at heart we want to be like one of those independent bands which is expansive, and has a bunch of different types of sounds, that’s not that predictable.
Which is the great thing about indie music.
J.J.: Indie in the sense that we’re an independent rock band and plan to stay that way for as long as possible. The beauty of the age we’re kind of coming up in is that you don’t need a label anymore. We could release our record under “Mahgeetah Music” and be perfectly happy. I mean, sure you don’t get that promotion and the distribution, on the physical level, that comes with being on a label, but we can pretty much achieve everything we want to achieve on our own terms. I guess the sacrifice you’re making is that you might not reach as many ears, but you’ll reach the right ones.
Ryan: At the core we are still paying attention to, and playing to, what originally rock n’ roll set out to do. It’s supposed to have this nice mass appeal, it’s not supposed to be isolating or particular. We throw on a lot of elements—especially on this record—that fans of different music can pick and choose. That’s what gets me excited about this record. You’re not going to put it on and say, “Oh, this is a folk album” or “This is a blues-rock album.” It’s eclectic and I think that will work more into our favor, rather than hurt us. It keeps it interesting.
For more information visit: www.MahgeetahMusic.com