From their look and sound to their history and attitude, The Magic Numbers contradict most of the conventions that define the British obsession for next-big-thing-ism; at the moment, this is best exemplified by Arctic Monkeys, who have sold more than 100,000 copies of their debut album in two weeks with a guitar sound that takes the swaggering rock-star model to the next predictable level.
The Magic Numbers’ sweet pop-rock is anti-swagger. Critics cite scads of influences with one thing in common: They all come from the 1960s. The quartet sounds like all these — Lovin’ Spoonful, CSNY, Mamas & Papas — and none of them. They recapture the pop essence of the ’60s, when fresh melodies seemed to grow on trees, without actually stealing anything — a bigger accomplishment than it sounds. And they’re 100 percent irony-free.
Singer-songwriter-guitarist Romeo Stodart and drummer Sean Gannon met in London and played with various bands for about seven years, gaining much in the way of experience but little in the way of advancement.
“It took a really long time before I ever felt I was in the right band with the right people,” Stodart says over the phone from Sydney, where they’re doing the Big Day Out Festival with acts like The White Stripes and Iggy Pop. “People were in the bands for all sorts of reasons . . . I wanted to just come up with songs that meant something and be able to play them well.”
The breakthrough came when Stodart and Gannon each recruited a younger sister — Michelle Stodart, who joined on bass, and Angela Gannon, who added harmony vocals and melodica. “Sean and I are good mates, we’ve stuck together a long time, but Michelle is like the perfect sounding board for me. It’s something I didn’t have before, and when I did, it just made me so much stronger.”
Their core sound is the interplay between Michelle’s melodic bass lines, which drive the songs with the kind of urgency that the legendary James Jamerson added to classic Motown singles, and Romeo’s intricate rhythm guitar fills. But the group’s central appeal is its vocals. Stodart’s preternaturally smiley voice, which sounds the same whether he’s talking or singing, will probably be an acquired taste to rock purists, but in combination with Michelle and Angela it’s harmony of the highest order.
Critics sometimes credit their sunny sound to the Stodarts’ childhood, which was spent in Trinidad, though one would be hard pressed to pick out any tropical references. “It’s really weird,” he says. “In the Caribbean, all you hear is reggae, heavy dub, Caplypso — and country music. Seriously. They might not know the latest big thing, but they know everything about Johnny Cash or Tammy Wynette or Patsy Cline.”
Following a coup d’etat on the island, the Stodarts moved to New York City in the early ’90s, where Romeo became a club kid.
“I used to go see a lot of gigs and would hang out with all the bands,” he recalls. “It was an obsession, and I thought this is what I want to do. I’d go to CBGBs and all those places. My cousins were older than me and they’re girls. People would let them in and since I was with them they’d let me in, too. I already had a beard. I was a real hairy kid.”
He remembers seeing Blur and Teenage Fanclub, but he mostly hung out with a metal crowd who were into White Zombie and Slayer. “It was funny, because I would go to these gigs with my friends and then come home and listen to The Beach Boys or The Smiths, which they thought was pretty lame.”
Stodart’s listening habits as a teen sprang from his own curiosity. “I get annoyed when journalists assume my mom and dad had a thousand records and would say to me, ‘Now you listen to this and learn!’ I found out about Neil Young by myself, and from there The Byrds and Buffalo Springfield. And then I bought Leonard Cohen’s Greatest Hits . . . and my whole life changed. The Beach Boys thing was my neighbor, this girl I used to see in New York. She had ‘Pet Sounds,’ and I thought it was amazing.”
When he was 16, the family moved again, this time to London. “I bought a guitar just before we left. I’m moving to a new country again. I’m not going to know anyone, so I’ll just lock myself in my room and learn this f**king thing.”
He turned his room in the West London suburb of Hanwell into a soundproof studio where he worked out his songs of love and loss, themes that seem to clash with the brightness of his melodies and the fair-weather arrangements. Stodart has described the debut as a breakup album, and several songs turn out to be surprisingly bitter when you actually listen to the words.
“The thing is, as soon as my sister starts adding the bass parts, she finds these little hooks and things,” he explains. “When there’s all four of us, the song takes off to different places. We’re all sort of happy, but you’re always walking a line where you’re not sure how to feel.”
There’s a lot to be happy about. By the time they signed with Heavenly Records two years ago, they were selling out auditoriums. “The Magic Numbers” spent 20 weeks in the U.K. Top 30, went platinum and was nominated for the Mercury Prize.
But Stodart measures success more intimately. “The three standout experiences of my life so far were, first, seeing the record in the shops; second, singing backup with Brian Wilson on stage [last summer] on “Love and Mercy”; and, third, getting Elliot Roberts as our U.S. manager.”
Roberts is the legendary rock impresario who guided the careers of Neil Young, David Crosby and Joni Mitchell. “He heard our record and came all the way to Germany from America to see us play. He told stories about the ’60s, and then he said if we had been around back then he would have definitely managed us.”
Roberts has since helped the band’s stateside invasion. They’ve shared stages with Bright Eyes, The Chemical Brothers and U2, but Stodart says he doesn’t really listen to many contemporary artists.
“It’s funny,” he muses. “A lot of the bands we play festivals with, like Kaiser Chiefs and Maximo Park, I think, that’s a great song, but I would probably never listen to their records.”
It may simply be that he doesn’t have time — The Magic Numbers have essentially been on the road for two years. And he doesn’t have time to worry about the fickle British music press either. He leaves that to his parents. “My mom and dad buy the papers to see how we’re doing,” he says. “They’ve even started buying NME. I’ll call my dad and he’ll say, ‘There’s a mention of you in the NME, and who exactly are these Antony and the Johnsons?’ “