Artmagic is Suede guitarist Richard Oakes and vocalist/producer/songwriter Sean McGhee (Robyn, Britney, Imogen Heap). A few years back, the two decided to “get into a room together and try and write something”, the immediate result being their now recently released first single, Forever In Negative. Describing it as ‘an outpouring, a really important song for both of us emotionally’, the writing continued until eventually Artmagic became a project. Sean says ‘it flipped around without either of us expecting it, in the best possible way.’ The four-track I Keep On Walking EP came out last year, showing the same story from three different perspectives. Their debut full-length, Become The One You Love, was released this July 2nd. The album is a strong, reflective pop record that opens up more with each listen. The following week they played St. Pancras Old Church, and hearing the songs live revealed even more depth, giving a fuller appreciation of their work. Half Life is particularly beautiful and the dreamily floating Blue On Blue was one highlight of a captivating set. On the other side of the spectrum, Down In The River is an energetic pop number sure to get stuck in your head. They performed as a five-piece band that evening but when an encore was called for, Sean and Richard walked out into the crowd for a completely unplugged, intimate version of Scruff Of The Neck from that first EP. I caught up with them in the church’s lovely historic grounds before the gig to discuss the nature of their songs, what makes pop music so special, and the neverending quest for perfection.
Artmagic is a great band name. How did you come up with that?
Sean: I nicked it from John Waters, the American filmmaker. I know that might seem odd, because we do something that we see and describe as ‘spectral melancholy pop’, it’s quite crafted, and people might say (quizzical voice) ‘Oh, John Waters?’, thinking of things like Pink Flamingos. But obviously he takes what he does incredibly seriously as well. The quote comes from something he was talking about to do with modern art, because on the quiet he’s also a modern artist. He was saying that the thing about modern art is that it lets you take any old trash and turn it into art by arranging it the right way, so art is like alchemy, and I thought ‘that’s brilliant’. I think that sums up what we do as writers quite well, because songwriting is always a transforming process, taking little fragments of ideas, and emotions and thoughts, and cramming them into a final whole that’s beautiful. That’s the craft of it.
What does Magic mean to you?
Sean: Inexplicable phenomenon, I suppose. When you relate that to the work that we do, it’s the idea that you go in one day with nothing and you come out at the end of the day with a song. And it seems to have formed itself out of the air.
Richard: Yeah. Not being able to explain how you did it. That’s kind of magic.
Sean: The trick, if you like, of songwriting is that it’s not a piece of sleight-of-hand, you can’t do a Penn & Teller thing where you do the trick and then you show people how to do the trick.
Richard: No, it comes from raw feelings, raw emotions. You’re trying to put it into music and convey those exact same feelings to the listener. It happens every time you listen to a great record yourself, you get that feeling and afterwards think ‘that is the magic, how they managed to…’ Even when the record is years old, you still get that feeling of that’s where the magic is.
Become The One You Love is very much a mood record.
Richard: A mood swing, I’d call it (laughs).
It definitely gets lighter by the end. Transformation might be too strong a word, but it’s a definite flow.
Richard: It does. I don’t think it’s schizophrenic, but there’s definitely…the great example to use is the songs The Choice and Half-Life, which are about essentially the same thing. Sean wrote the lyrics so I’ll let him explain.
Sean: They’re sort of mirror twins, they’re about the same subject matter seen from a positive and a negative angle, effectively. So The Choice is about having total belief in what you’re doing and believing that what you’re doing with your life and with your creativity and your career is all the right thing to be doing, and Half-Life is expressing vast doubts about the same thing. So it made sense to space those at equal points throughout the album rather than to bunch them together. We did try out a lot of different orders for the record and we tried the sticking the really pop ones, the big hitters, right at the front thing.
Richard: Yeah, the old-fashioned frontloaded pop record. We all like that but it’s you know… (laughs)
Sean: It felt a bit forced and I think, I don’t know about you, Richard, but I was still thinking in terms of Side A and Side B.
Richard: Definitely Side A and Side B.
Sean: Cause I like it when albums change. At the halfway point. You can really spot in the cd era, the inept sequencing where it hasn’t been thought that people might want to take a break. And I’m quite proud of the fact that the album is almost exactly 45 minutes long, which is the key time for an album. I actually don’t mind things like Joanna Newsom doing Have One On Me, where it’s a triple album, because it’s a triple album where each disc is about 45-50 minutes long. It’s not an overwhelming slap in the face. I like the fact that it’s quite well-ordered and it does feel like it’s taking you on a journey through the record rather than just being a load of fast ones, a load of slow ones, then a big song to finish.
Richard: I think albums should take you on a journey. As much as we’ve all got used to ipods and music being shuffled around in your iTunes library and all that kind of stuff, it does take away the magic of an album being a journey. And if you’ve put a lot of thought into the way it’s sequenced and the journey it takes you on, as we did, you want people to experience it from the starting point to the ending point all in the right order (laughs).
Sean: Actually, nobody I know who loves music, and that’s a lot of people, listens to music on shuffle. At all. They’re quite respectful of the album as a form. Now I know that there’s a vast amount of people out there who probably do think like that, and just cherry pick records, and that’s absolutely fine if you wanna do that, there’s plenty of pop records I do that with, where they’re 70 minutes long and you really just want the singles. But we put a lot of effort into crafting what we were doing as an album to make it an experience from start to finish. And so everything we thought about in the process was thinking ahead towards that moment really.
Richard: I think maybe cds started it. The moment the skip button was invented, that killed the album. People going ‘I don’t like this one, skip’. You can’t do that with a cassette, it’s too much faff to fast forward it. And with a record you’ve got to be careful. It’s the skip button’s fault. (laughs)
Is it coming out on vinyl?
Sean: We’d like to put it out on vinyl next year. A lot will depend on the reception, really.
We were talking about mood. What are some of your favourite mood records?
Sean: I’m mildly obsessed with Hejira by Joni Mitchell. Which is a total mood record and it’s kind of a concept album as well because it’s about her doing a cross-country adventure by car in America, having come out of a difficult love affair. And the songs touch on a lot of her feelings about being one person completely in the middle-of-nowhere on her own, surrounded by unfamiliar things and unfamiliar people, and thinking back wistfully to her childhood, thinking back to the love affair that she just had, talking salaciously about the one-night-stands she’s had along the way, but the whole thing, cause it’s a very reduced band – percussion, guitar, and fretless bass – it’s very, very simple and it can’t help but draw you in. That’s absolutely one of my favourite mood records.
Richard: I think a band that are very good at doing mood records, largely based on the singer, is The Fall. Mark E. Smith, he goes through good periods and down periods in his life, and you can tell within the first few tracks of an album whether it’s gonna be an angry record or you’re gonna get some relief at some point (laughs), a little bit of not quite so much anger basically. There was a period in the mid-90s where I think he was going through a tough time, physically and mentally, albums like Cerebral Caustic and stuff like that, and most of the tracks on that are just he hates you and he hates everything about the world. Those are mood albums. And then there was a lot of stuff in the 60s as well, probably when people were experimenting with drugs and ended up feeling a bit lost and not knowing who they were. Records like Then Play On by Fleetwood Mac and stuff like that, some of the Pink Floyd stuff, where the mood is ‘we could do anything but we don’t know where we’re going, we don’t know who we are, and we don’t know what to do, and so we’re looking to the skies for inspiration’. I like that kind of mood in a record.
I found the songs on your record very philosophical. Especially The Choice.
Sean: It is philosophical, I suppose, because it’s trying to take a measured look. Every song on the record is drawn pretty much from my own experiences, and sometimes I’ve inflated and painted around them. But The Choice is absolutely drawn from life. It was about me going through a big change and working out what am I really doing here? What do I really want to be doing with my life and my creativity? And am I making the right choices? And the choice is philosophical. And it’s also positive and maybe even slightly self-delusional saying ‘yes, it’s all gonna work out, it’s all gonna be brilliant’. And Half-Life is philosophical in a different way. But at the same time I think some of the songs on the record could be viewed like that but I feel most of them are just quite raw emotionally. It’s not a very rough sounding record. It’s not soft and middle-of-the-road but it’s not shouty and distorted and scratchy, there are a lot of layers to it. It’s built to try and draw you in, and so a lot of the things I’m singing about are deliberately quite emotional. I’m singing about important things that I’ve been through and also melodically I’m trying to make it catch on as well. So you have a bit of both. To me it feels like a quite raw but quite soft record.
It’s very reflective.
Sean: Reflective is a very good word for it. It’s a very reflective record. And it’s interesting because I know I don’t want us to make another really reflective record. I think that’s an important part of our palette. I think it’s a colour that we do very well. Certainly lyrically on the next record I want it to be a bit harder.
With Forever In Negative and then the first line of I Keep On Walking mentions a camera. Were you aware of that as a motif?
Sean: Yeah, actually, cameras have popped up. I’ve noticed I have a couple of motifs which won’t be reappearing on album two, and the camera is one of them.
Richard: (laughs) It’s like The Magnetic Fields and Stephin Merritt’s moon obsession. Every song is about the moon. (laughs)
Sean: The camera in I Keep On Walking, it was more an idea to set the scene. It was giving an excuse for the woman to be doing something so these two guys could effectively be cruising each other. And that seemed like the most natural thing for somebody on a walk to be doing, would be to have a camera. Whereas Forever In Negative is about a photograph, it’s about a very specific photograph from my past, and a very specific person in that photograph. So the camera had to be mentioned really. So one was drawn from truth and one was just a framing device if you’ll pardon the pun (laughs), so I can’t imagine I’ll be using that again really. Again, you only really notice these things after the fact. When you look at the lyrics subsequently and you go ‘oh yeah, I was using that a lot’. Mirrors are another one. There are at least two mirrors on the record. One song is effectively about a mirror, and it’s like ‘I’m glad I’ve said that, now let’s not say that again’. So I have a notebook full of different ideas for the next record and I’m genuinely going to have a list of subject matter and certain phrases and turns of phrase and words that I don’t want to go near. Cause I think it’s good to always remove options at any point, limited options generally make for better work.
So you’re already thinking about the next record?
Sean: Oh yeah. We were having some broad conversations about it and then the other day we had quite a focused conversation about what we think we might try to do next. We’re not gonna throw all the existing ideas away and say we’re gonna invent a brand new way of working but I think we’re gonna try and do things a bit differently.
Richard: I think that’s part of the process of having made an album. You spend a long time making an album, writing an album, recording it, getting it finished. You then need a period away from it, really, so you can actually realize what it is. And I don’t think any true artist who takes what they do seriously will ever think that what they’ve done is perfect, it can’t be topped. They’ll always look back at it and think ‘yeah, ok, it’s as good as we could have got it but I’m gonna try and improve that next time, here are the things I think I didn’t do well enough on’. And that’s happened with every record I’ve made, I’m sure every record you’ve made-
Sean: Yeah, I mean even the records I’ve made in the past where I think ‘this is great, this is as close to perfect as I can get it’-
Richard: After 3 months you’re thinking ‘I can do it better next time’-
Sean: But even then there’s a hundred things a week after the final mix is done where you could say ‘Oh, I should’ve done this, I wish I’d fixed this, I should’ve changed this’ and I’m not at that process yet with this record because the one thing we do have is we’re performing live, we’re still at the stage of delivering these songs to people, that brings a new cast…the record to me feels like history because it’s all about performing it now. And I can grab hold of the songs in a different way when we do our shows. We do a lot of shows – tonight’s a five-piece, full band show, we do a lot of shows as a two-piece and as a three-piece, and it lets you grab hold of the songs in a more subtle and interesting way and you can draw different things out of them. So I’m still really enjoying that process now. There’s nothing when I’m singing any of the songs where I sort of cringe and go ‘oo, I should’ve changed that’ but there’s always things on the record, there’s a sound or there might be a production moment or something. But you’ll never be happy, it’s in the nature of being an artist.
Richard: Yeah, you’ll always think ‘I can nail this next time!’ And then you do nail it next time and then after a while you’re thinking ‘I can nail it better next time!’ So you just have to always have the urge to improve yourself, otherwise there’s no point in doing what you do.
Sean: I mean anybody who claims that they are 100% happy with a record is either lying or they genuinely don’t care.
Richard: Or they’re just trying to flog it, aren’t they? ‘This is perfect, buy it’, you know, that’s what we should be saying (laughs), we’re too honest.
Sean: I mean, don’t get me wrong, I am extraordinarily proud of it and I think it’s a brilliant record. George Orwell said that ‘Every life viewed from the inside is a series of failures’ and I think that’s true from everyone at the very, very top of their game to the very, very bottom. I’m sure that Roger Federer was looking at his performance on Sunday and thinking he could have done better. I feel the same way, I don’t think the record’s a failure at all but there are things about it that I wouldn’t repeat.
Do you ever feel that you’ve nailed it live?
Richard: Every single gig is different. Playing live is such an organic thing, such a malleable, living thing as opposed to the record. The record is the record but every single gig you do is different. And so you can have a different feeling after every show.
Sean: We did an in-store the other day, which was just Richard and I and a guitar, no microphones and no p.a., and we sang our song Scruff Of The Neck, from our first e.p., and Richard said to me afterwards ‘That’s the best we’ve ever done that’.
Richard: Yeah, I felt we were able to perform the song a bit better, a cappella, I almost said Acapulco (laughs)
Sean: There’s just something, you can never really tell, we’ve never done a gig where I’ve come off afterwards and gone ‘god, that was a disaster’ but sometimes it’s like trying to grab hold of smoke in the air. Sometimes you grab it and you can make a song really speak in a certain way, that’s only for yourself, and sometimes you feel that you don’t achieve that but the key thing is if you’re looking at the audience you can see that they’re really enjoying it-
Richard: And there’s many different reasons for that.
Sean: It’s more whether it’s doing it right for you. And that’s always the quest, isn’t it? I think anybody who plays live would say the same thing, it’s always trying to grab hold of that feeling, every single time. Obviously you work as hard as you can to do that but it is something ephemeral…it’s back to the magic thing, it’s hard to define, impossible to explain, sometimes you can grab a hold of it as if you’re just catching a ball in the air and sometimes it’s like trying to shovel smoke and you just can’t do it.
Richard: And a band like The Rolling Stones, when you get to the stage in their career where they play these enormous gigs, they play all their hits, everybody in the audience goes home ecstatic, cause they’ve heard exactly what they wanted to hear, they’ve seen the performance they wanted to see, but you kind of wonder when the band go home, whether it makes any difference to them what they’ve played cause they’ve done it so many times, for so many years-
Sean: I think it must do, I mean there must be times when they play Tumbling Dice where they think ‘I didn’t play that as well tonight as I did last night’ even though they have played it 100,000 times.
I just finished Bill Drummond’s 17 book and he was using the Stones as an example. The songs they’re playing now, do they have any relation to their lives at the moment? They’ve been playing these hits forever.
Richard: Well, that’s the other thing isn’t it, you’ve got to try and…I’m kind of going through this with my other band, Suede, at the moment, finding meaning in things that meant everything and meant a very specific thing years ago, presenting them in a kind of modern way.
I always say that there’s something about a really great pop song that’s akin to the feeling you have after you’ve first kissed someone you’ve really fancied for a while.
Richard: Yeah. With your nerves going like that (makes fluttering motion with hand), definitely, yeah.
Do you have any similar comparisons? What do you think is inherent in all great songs?
Sean: It’s difficult really, it’s not an intellectual process with me at all, but it’s that feeling of your ears just prick up, dog-like. You could be in a crowded bar and you hear a song you’ve never heard for the first time and you just go ‘What the hell is this?’ And then it’s the desperate scrabble to the barman or the DJ, ‘What is this song? I need to know.’ I’ve done that many times. It’s more like a hunger, really, rather than that kind of post-kissing ecstasy, it’s like a need. The addict desperately needs his fix. ‘I’ve heard this thing, I’ve got to have it! I can’t wait and I have to have it right now! I need it right now.’ One of my little theories about pop records, which might not be so true now in the age of Spotify, but I always thought that pop records that are mildly annoying tend to be the most successful. And the reason for that is that they get stuck in your head, you can’t get rid of them, and the bargain you make when you buy it, when you can access it any time it means that it doesn’t spin round in your head endlessly anymore. And that’s my little theory, one of the ways you can write a very popular pop song is make it mildly annoying. Fat Boy Slim’s a master of that. You listen to how many of his records through the 90s and the 2000s where they’ve got an incredibly hooky and incredibly annoying vocal sample that repeats endlessly.
Richard: I think the time when I get excited about music is when I’ve bought an album and it’s turned from an amuse bouche into a banquet. Where you know that you’re going to get several different depths out of it. It’s usually on about the second listen, and that normally happens with bands like Field Music, cause I know I’m gonna get more out of their records than just on first listen. So I’ll listen to it once through, get to know the songs a bit, second time you listen, one of the songs will jump out at you and you’ll think ‘that’s my favourite! I’ll play that again when I get to the end’, you know that you’re going to listen to it all the way through a number of times and you’re going to get something different each time. That’s probably why I’m not really into pop music, chart music, on the whole. Cause that is very surface-
Sean: It’s more of a sugar rush.
Richard: Sugar rush, yeah, but I need something to be several depths below that.
Sean: I like both, a balanced diet. I do like a fair amount of sugar in my diet, so you’ve got to have a bit of whatever’s in the charts right now. 11 o’clock at night you’ll find me on Twitter tweeting about whatever’s on the hits or any given music station at any time. And I do love all that stuff, but you know man cannot survive on sugar alone. So it’s like I am listening to Rihanna but I’m also listening to John Grant, I’m listening to Katy Perry but I’m also listening to Joanna Newsom. I like to have both. And I do see the world in quite pop terms. That’s sort of what I’ve reduced the world to in the end. The writing process for us, I’m not ashamed to say that there were a lot of times when I was writing melodies thinking ‘this has to be as good as Rule The World by Take That, or Patience, a song like that, it’s got to be that strong, it’s got to be that hooky and really grab hold of you’. You don’t necessarily get that but you reach for it. I’m into making what we do accessible. I don’t want to be an obscurist because I don’t naturally do that. I naturally write melodic, quite instant things and that melds itself very well with what Richard does musically. That’s what I think is at the heart of what we do. And I wouldn’t be very good at being an obscurist. It’d be like asking Mark E. Smith to write for Rihanna. (we all laugh) Amusing as that would obviously be…
Richard: Just to see his face would be brilliant.
And my final question is always – say you’ve stolen a space shuttle and are flying it directly into the sun, for whatever reason you have, what would you want the soundtrack to be?
Richard: Disaster Area. I’m just saying that because I’m a sci-fi nerd. From Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy, that was the climax of their show, they fly a spaceship into the sun (laughs). No, that’s a silly answer, a sensible answer (laughs)…would be probably a record from my childhood, Caravan or something like that. Because those are the records that always take me back somewhere else. Always. I listen to them and I go back to being a 25-year-old, being in the music business but thinking ‘I still love this music’. I go back to being a 15-year-old, before I’d entered and I was just dreaming about doing it, and I go back to being a 7-year-old who’d just learnt to put his first record on. It’s the soundtrack to my whole formative growing up.
Sean: I’m trying desperately to think, I’d need to sort of know what reason I was deciding to crash this shuttle into the sun. Cause if I’d just lost my mind and I genuinely didn’t care then I’d probably want to be dancing. And if I was dancing then I’d want to be listening to Britney. And if I was listening to Britney then I’d want to be listening to – there’s an album track on Blackout called Hot As Ice, which I think should’ve topped every chart in the world, which I think is absolutely amazing and I suspect (to Richard) you would probably hate it (Richard laughs). It’s just super amazing.
Richard: It doesn’t matter, we’re flying towards the sun (laughs)
Sean: And I also thought, there’s a song by Grandaddy called The Warming Sun. It’s not even because of the sun relation, but it’s just the most sad, reflective, beautiful, fatalist song, which is something that he’s very good at anyway. It’s really gorgeous, the second to last track on Sumday. It’s really beautiful and sad, quite widescreen. And I can imagine the corona of the sun filling the viewscreen as the end of the song comes in just before I get burned to a crisp. So possibly one or the other. I can’t really imagine myself wanting to put on something dead weepy, some adagio for strings, and just sit there crying in the cockpit. I think I’d much rather be dancing my way out or just having something which is more melancholic, and more reflective of life generally. And that’s kind of back to our record, that’s what it is, it’s reflective of life, because it’s trying to show you both sides, it’s not Hot As Ice and it’s not The Warming Sun, it’s trying to be both at once.