For a quarter of a century Christian Vander’s Magma have been engaged in a musical quest that frames visions of apocalypse and redemption with bulldozing experimental fusion. In this exclusive interview, Vander talks to Paul Stump about invented languages, John Coltrane, children’s songs and the striving towards the light. This article originally appeared in The Wire 137 (July 1995).
I'm sitting in a tiny theatre in Paris waiting so see my first performance by (and conduct my first interview with) Christian Vander. Magma. The name of the group that Vander has led, on and off, for much of the last quarter of a century is an appropriate tag for his music; suggestive of seismic activity, volcanic eruptions, torrential flows of molten lava cooling into huge edifices of solid rock. In those 25 years, Vander has recorded the most towering and ambitious music ever to be damned by the label 'Progressive rock'. But the audience at this particular Paris show isn't made up of the acid-casualties, Kobaïan kompletists and fortysomething Prog nostalgia freaks one might expect. Instead, I'm surrounded by sickeningly winsome under-fives. Vander's latest project, A Tous Les Enfants, isn't another brontosaurial cosmic epic. It is, as the title suggests, a show for kids, "I don't just write Magma-type stuff, you know," he says, fixing me with his spookily intense state. But isn't this a bit offbeat, even for you, Christian? "No", he says mildly. "All my music has at its heart a logical progression. I just write it for different occasions. There are various aspects of it. At the moment I just happen to be writing for children. And it's a real pleasure performing to them…"
The mythology that has built up around Vander, of a grim, obsessive paramilitary, is an apt counterpoint to the phantasmagoria he has catalogued in his work. But like all myths, it admixes a little more fiction than fact. And despite two and a half decades of unrelenting media enmity of the sort that vilifies pre-punk 70s rock (and groups like Magma in particular) as a kind of giant historical aberration, the myth still has a following. The response to a brief Magma name check in The Wire last year indicated that it wasn't only the Ambient rediscoveries of Krautrock (so admirably outlined in these pages by Julian Cope in The Wire 130) that warranted a journey back in time and space: it was time to reopen the files on another Euro-rock legend long since lingered as one of pop's bêtes noires.
"Ask me anything you want," he says. "I'll try and help." But it isn't easy the myth gets in the way. I expected to meet a wild-eyed, polysyllabic fount of Gallic enigmas, but the hirsute Vander, for all his musical excesses, is a remarkably reticent man and tends towards shy generalisations in his answers. "I don't understand where everyone gets this image of me from," he complains.
Maybe from the score-or-so albums, recorded under various pseudonyms (Magma simply being the best known), with which Vander has produced some of Europe's most relentlessly bizarre popular music. While 'popular' may not mean what it once did to Vander (and Magma were very big in Europe in the 70s), his esoteric odyssey continues.
Magma's formation, in 1969, coincided with the belated
consecration of a French rock culture. Fertilised more by
indigenous folk and parlour song as well as the musics of Eastern
and Southern European immigrants, French pop songs only paid
comparatively token homage to the jazz and blues elements so
central to Anglophone pop, and it was this that the roisterous
bouleversements of 60s youth culture sought to subvert in
their music. But in discovering The Beatles, Jimi Hendrix and Pink
Floyd, putative French rockers (the better ones, in any case) found
the traditional bonds on their musical upbringing more of an
inspiration than an encumbrance. Additionally, there was French
jazz (largely, but not entirely, independent of the French chanson
heritage) to draw on as well. And so, as Situationism sought to
dismantle the Spectacle, the French rock scene set about
rearranging the pieces in some stunning musical hybrids all but
unknown to British audiences: Ange (Brel versus Genesis), Barricade
(Zazou 'n' Racaille before the event), Etron Fou Leloublan (Folk
Rock In Opposition), and, inevitably, Magma. As Germany's
technocrat post-war miracle and resultant urban alienation fed the
futuristic, hardware-oriented inspiration of the Krautrock groups,
so multicultural vibrancy and instability of 60s Paris informed
French rock's own Year Zero of 1969. But to Vander's reckoning,
only one year counts.
"1967," he says. "The year John Coltrane died. It seemed to me that afterwards, it was as though music had to try to start all over again. Someone had to pick up the pieces, go on searching in the way that he had. Nobody could match him, but people could pick up the flame. It was almost impossible for anyone to do anything new after Coltrane, but you had to try, try to find other new directions. So that's what I tried to do with Magma. I was a bit young at the time, but…" He tried anyway. "Sure, things were happening in 1968," he says now. "I just tried to contribute what I could on the musical front.
Magma may not have been the most subversive of French groups but they were certainly the most arresting. Their first album (Magma, 1970) set the tone; a double LP of explosive and frequently cacophonous semi-improvised rock, bulldozed on by Vander's astonishing drumming and Francis Moze's apocalyptic playing. Magma, the relation in music of a vast interplanetary voyage, was the first part of a multi-album extravaganza, Theusz Hahmtaahk, which set out to chronicle the death of Earth and the migration of humanity to Vander's invented planet Kobaïa and the ultimate return of the all-powerful deity Ptäh. All this was (is) related in Vander's own Kobaïan language (which took its 'vocabulary' partly from Leone Thomas's scat-yodelling vocal style), and declaimed either by the steely-brilliant voice of Vander's wife Stella, the powerhouse singer Klaus Blasquiz or massive quasi-operatic choruses. (As Magma expert Michael Draine has observed, "The abstraction provided by the Kobaïan verse seems to inspire Magma's singers to heights of emotional abandon rarely permitted by conventional lyrics.") "It wasn't at all easy to compose for forces like that at first," admits Vander now. "I was only in my very early twenties. But it was the only way to say what I wanted to say …"
What followed was a voyage appropriately as vast as that recounted on Magma. The music didn't change much, but then it didn't have to. It was a towering bricolage of styles; unique, at least in terms of the rock tradition Magma were shoehorned into. Although the metric propulsion of Vander and Moze recalled contemporary jazz rock, the music was never of the cheesecloth-shirted, funkily suburban kind that would have attracted major record labels. No Corea-style whimsy here; no McLaughlinesque lushness: instead, an apocalypse of massively amplified collective improvisation. "Jazz is very important in my music," says Vander. "I listened to all the greats – thanks to my mother. We moved to Paris when I was very young and I was introduced to the Parisian club scene in the late 50s and early 60s. I was lucky – I was able to see and hear wonderful musicians, Great drummers: Max Roach, Elvin Jones, Kenny Clarke, Tony Williams later on. And Chet Baker gave me first drum kit."
Vander incorporated Western classical elements too, but not the grade five Bach transcriptions of most Prog rock. "Wagner, of course; everyone always mentions Wagner," he smiles. "But that's largely to do with scale and structure. I was also very receptive to more contemporary composers: Stravinsky [hear how Vander uses rhythm as a basis for melody]; Bartók, too [ditto the shrill Eastern European folk influences]." Coltrane's influence was echoed in long stretches of music reserved for fast and hard-blowing soloists that also recalled Ornette Coleman. While other musicians who had come to fusion via circuitous routes (R&B, classical training, jazz studies, genre musics) studied sitar notation or buddied up to Sri Chinmoy, Vander was into Transylvanian harmolodics; with the cosmic angle thrown in, it was like a Rocked-up take on Sun Ra's Myth Arkestra. But nobody ever accused Sun Ra of pretentiousness the way they've mercilessly pilloried Vander.
It was popular pretension, though; Magma's marathon concerts drew considerable crowds and the group stormed the 1973 Newport Jazz Festival, even bringing some attention from the traditionally parochial UK. "The French reaction to Magma was, initially, one of complete surprise. At the quality, for a start," he grins. "They didn't believe Frenchmen could play like that. And they found the music too violent, too aggressive… too hard." Surprisingly (and a little ingenuously) he denies any native influence. "I don't think there's anything French about my music [it's always 'my music'] because my roots are Eastern European. [There are many Hungarian and Romanian elements in the Kobaan 'tongue']. You can hear that in the music. France hardly comes into it at all. Perhaps a bit, but not consciously."
What is surprising about Vander's resolutely monumental and
ritualistic music is its abrasiveness and intensity. Hhai:
Live, which documents a Magma live performance, is
perhaps the best recorded example of the group's sound. The music
often remains largely tonal, lavish in conception, and
symphonically structured into sweeping sections. Although it lacks
the improvisational jouissance of Zappa or Hendrix at full tilt,
the energy level is staggering, capsizing, in a unique way,
conventional notions of how such opulent musical resources should
be treated. Moveover, there are no Floydian bliss-outs or
synthesized sybaritism. ("I'm not keen on too many electronic
instruments," says Vander. "They're not always very practical.")
What about the death-defying balance of the composed and improvised in his music? Here Vander is a big vague. "There are some themes I put together strictly for group working out, for solo or group improvisations. Others are wholly structured. But if anyone wants to contribute anything…" He shrugs, giving the lie to the popular notion of his as Nemoid control freak.
Throughout the 70s, Magma's pre-eminence brought French musicians flocking. Sidemen came and went at will (one of the most notable being the brilliant bassist Jannick Top), forming and dissolving their own Vander-influenced groups, (Zao, Weidorje). There were even links with avant garde noisemakers Heldon, Magma's only real rival in the French underground, and other darkside Eurorockers such as Art Zoyd and Universe Zero admitted a debt to Vander's vision. Even today, younger groups attempting to write the European Prog tradition Xaal (France), Anekdoten (Sweden) - freely cite his influence.
Magma fell dormant in 1984, but it meant little; the music was always Vander's (he coined the term 'zeuhl music' to describe the canon he was creating). "Magma was just a name I used for it. I wanted to compose and play on different levels. I started up a jazz trio [to act as an outlet for his still-obsessive love of Coltrane], and also I started up Offering – a bit controversially." Offering a percussion and voice-dominated ensemble in the Magma musical tradition, showed signs of jettisoning the chugging rock pulses which had underpinned Vander's music for so long. Now it seemed as if he was willing to let some light into the music, learning to use space as an enriching compositional device rather than fitting subject matter for a concept album.
Does he take much notice of contemporary musical developments? "Not very much", he sighs. "I never listen to the radio. I don't watch TV. Mind you, I never did listen to much else. I'm often too busy with my own work. I try to keep up with what's happening in jazz; a lot of my musicians are active in that sphere, but that's about it. There's a real problem for creative music now. There are so many schools, so many genres of music, it's getting difficult to achieve anything new. It's almost like we have to unlearn in order to rediscover ways of seeing and doing." It's much the same when I ask him how he perceives his audience: are his followers young or old? "I don't know!" He laughs this time. "I'm told there's many young people in the audience still which is great. But when I get out on stage behind the drums, I just play. I never look – I just want to do my best. Now, playing in front of kids – that's different. They're so receptive."
Christian Vander is still as hyperactive as his best music. One
current project, Les Voix Du Magma, a 12 piece featuring seven
vocalists and five instrumentalists, is to be augmented soon by an
orchestral project ("Anything between 50 and 150 musicians"),
incorporating a transcription of the whole of Theusz Hahmaahk.
Originally, I'd wanted to do Theusz Hahmaahk for orchestra, bit it
was impossible to put together in the 70s. Now, who knows? In fact,
I'd love to do more with the orchestra, full stop. But it's
difficult. What I need is a Mad King Ludwig to finance me!" he
says, referring to Wagner's great benefactor.
Vander stresses that he is keen to emphasise his personality in his music, and there's certainly little chance of him ever hiding his light under a bushel. For example, A Tous Les Enfants might have been conceived as a performance for children, but the Paris show contained systems music, MOR passages, ballads, sampled atmospherics, clowning and closing Section which turned a traditional French lullaby into a nightmarish, polytonal Gregorian invocation.
Vander seems to adhere not just to Coltrane's musical vision but also his conception of music as something intrinsically transcendent. Certainly this notion seems to inform his fanatical missionary zeal, and his idealist striving for absolutes burn as brightly as ever: when I asked him about A Tous Les Enfants, the first thing he said was, "It's vital to get across to children that they are the future, and that they should be valued for that reason.
"A Tous Les Enfants," he continues, "is a work that banishes all contradictions – wealth and poverty, happiness and sadness. I disliked such things. Kobaïan, the language, is meant to eliminate ambiguities in human expression, the oppositions which divide humanity. My message is a positive one: life, the striving towards the light."
The whole concept of Kobaïa, it seems, is less a mere tool for communicating ideas or a planetary imagining of Vander's distant past; it's an entire holistic mindset (the striking Kobaïa logo which Vander wears perennially around his neck is an example).
"Of course I will go on working in Kobaïan", he says. (For the record, A Tous Les Enfants is in French). "I invented Kobaïan because French just wasn't expressive enough. Either for the story or for the sound of the music." In a sense, then, Kobaïan is something of a red herring – the new language Vander invented wasn't just one of words, but of music also: the two are separable.
The music of Christian Vander is no longer at the cutting edge. If he's aware of that – and one gets the impression that he is – he doesn't care. Because to be at the cutting edge means being a constituent of something else, and that's one thing Vander's music has never been.
Vander doesn't march to the beat of a different drummer. He is a different drummer. And that's surely something worth celebrating, irrespective of what language you use.
Some records: Magma (aka Kobaïa) (Seventh REX 1V/V); 1001 Centigrade (Seventh REX V1); Mekanïk Destruktïw Kommandöh (Seventh REX V11); Wurdah Ïtah (Seventh REX 1X); Köhntarkösz (Seventh REX V111); Hhaï/Live (Seventh REX X/1X) dü Wüdü (Seventh REX X11); Attahk (Seventh REX X111).
In addition to the above releases, most of Christian Vander's recordings are now available on the Seventh label and are distributed in the UK by Harmonia Mundi. For more information contact Seventh Records, 101 Avenue Jean Jaures, 93800 Epinay-Sur-Seine, France. The Magma fanzine, Ork Alarm! Can be reached at PO Box 419, Erith, Kent DA8 1T3E. Special thanks to Stephen Farmer, Paul Mummery, Christian Vander, Pascal Zelcer, Christelle Chaigné and Trevor Manwaring.