“Chet Baker gave me a drum kit. Years later, I discovered he'd stolen it from his own drummer!” How Magma’s Christian Vander got his start

A portrait of Christian Vander

There is almost no useful frame of reference to describe the music of Magma. Founded in 1969 by French pianist/drummer Christian Vander, Magma have never conformed to conventional ideas about genre, or much else for that matter.

A constantly rotating line-up of musicians have passed through Magma’s ranks, and the band have released more than a dozen studio albums, at least as many live albums, plus numerous compilations, DVDs and boxed sets. Vander’s side projects – a jazz trio and quartet, plus an 80s-era spin-off project called Offering – are relevant within the Magma universe as well.

Magma have never existed anywhere near the musical mainstream. However, the group’s works have received enthusiastic praise from open-minded critics – Rolling Stone place 1973’s Mëkanïk Dëstruktïw` Kömmandöh at No.24 on its list of the greatest albums in progressive rock. And some prominent tastemakers count themselves among Magma’s coterie of hardcore fans: a new documentary film, To Life, Death And Beyond: The Music Of Magma features passionate commentary from Trey Gunn, Jello Biafra and Metallica’s Robert Trujillo, among others.

Magma all but define underground music: early on, Vander was inspired to create nearly all of Magma’s lyrics in Kobaïan, a language of his own construction. And the group’s uncompromising style – often characterised by martial-sounding music with angelic, operatic vocals – demands much from the listener.

As unlikely as it might seem, today Magma are as busy as ever, with a high-profile documentary, recent career‑spanning boxed sets and reissues, and even a string of concert dates in the US.

Christian Vander speaks very little English. His wife Stella, Magma’s vocalist since 1973, provided the translation during a 2017 conversation with Prog.

The latest line-up of the ever-evolving band, with Christian Vander (centre)

The latest line-up of the ever-evolving band, with Christian Vander (centre)

What was your musical training and background before Magma?

I started to work with a drum teacher only on the tambour, the classical snare drum. But I was also always going to jam in the jazz clubs, and I didn’t work with this teacher for very long anyway, because I thought it wasn’t the right thing for me to do. And even before that, when I was a kid, my mother was a very good friend of Elvin Jones. Elvin was hanging out at my mother’s place and he showed me a few tricks. Not on a real drum, but whatever he could find to serve as a drum at home, like a toy.

Also, Chet Baker was a good friend of my mother, so he was the one who would teach me how to do the 4/4. He gave me my first drum kit when I was 14 or 15 years old. He had said to me, “You come tonight with a taxi at the door of Le Chat Qui Pêche” – it was a jazz club in Paris where he was playing – “and I will wait here with a drum kit for you.” So, I came and took the drum kit. And many years after, I discovered that Chet stole the drum kit from his own drummer and gave it to me. In fact, people from the police came and said, “You are holding a stolen drum kit. You have to give it back!”

How did the concept of Magma originally come about?

I was listening to a lot to John Coltrane. He didn’t want to play other people’s music: he decided that he had to do his own thing. In 1967, I decided I had to leave France, so I went to Italy and played with funky bands, playing funky music, rhythm and blues.

In 1969 I suddenly felt very strongly that I had to go back to France and do something: that was probably the beginning of Magma in my head. I didn’t know what it was at that moment, but I felt something very strong telling me, “You are to go, and you have to do your own thing. You have to do your music.”

So I left Italy within a few hours, went back to France and started to look for people who could be interested. And that’s when Magma started.

For many years, much of Magma’s music centred around the Kobaïan story. Is that tale now complete?

The story of these people leaving Earth for a better place, another planet, is not finished. Because as [early Magma bassist] Laurent Thibault said, Kobaïa is a planet… Kobaïa is like Earth, but without – how do you say – the stupid, the dumb people. Instead it had people with something in mind, and who wanted to work for a better place. They wanted to make this place a better place, but they had to do it on another planet. Because it looks like it’s impossible to do that on Earth. We could verify this, you know?

So, it’s not science fiction. You see what I mean? It’s not about another planet with other people already living there. It’s just about escaping from here, and there are many different ways to escape. But this is one of the ways, trying to create another planet somewhere. It doesn’t have to be in space.

What do you seek to communicate in the Kobaïan lyrics of Magma’s music?

The main purpose of the lyrics is to allow the music to be as expressive as possible. I’m always giving the example of John Coltrane, who was playing an instrument: any people who are playing an instrument are expressing something that people can understand, even if there are no words. So, the lyrics are the closest possible to the music to make it sound right, because I never wanted to write in French, except for a few words in French, and a few in English. Because the idea is to have a novel of sounds that expresses the most from the music, and that’s why I invented the language: because I couldn’t do it with any existing language.

The sound of the vocal is very important in Magma’s music. It has to not distract from the expression felt by the people listening to it.

In general, do your musical works arise from composition or improvisation?

The process starts this way. Almost every day I’m on my piano, playing and singing. Things come like this and that and differently from one day to the other, and music is probably working somewhere in my mind. It’s like a singer speaking before he thinks, because suddenly the next day something comes and it’s much more organised and different than it was the previous day. And it looks like the beginning of something; that’s the way a real composition starts.

But before that, for a few days, or a few weeks, or maybe a few months, it’s improvisation around many different things. Suddenly the shapes arise, but as I said, it’s more the singing that does the trick, even before the mind.

Do you think of live performance as an extension of what you create in the studio, or is studio work an attempt to capture the essence of live performance?

Well, this could be both because usually Magma always play on stage before recording. Almost all Magma albums were recorded a long time after we tried it onstage in many different ways with many different changes. But then after we record it, because in the studio…

Stella: You know, Christian is very tiring for people, because he has an idea every five minutes. So even though it’s complete and we’re going in the studio because it’s complete and we’re going to record it the way it is, it’s not true! Because he’s going to change something else at the end.

And then after we’ve recorded it and we play it again on stage, we can change things that we did onstage for months, or maybe even years, depending on what we changed in the studio to do the recording, you see. So it’s endless.

How has the music of composer Carl Orff influenced you?

When I started to compose Mëkanïk Dëstruktïw` Kömmandöh, I had never listened to Carl Orff. Magma’s pianist of that time, Faton Cahen, told me, “That sounds a lot like a composer called Carl Orff,” and he had me listen to Orff. And when I listened to that, I said, “Oh, this is the ideal orchestra for Magma; this kind of orchestra would be really nice to have.” But because I never listened to him before that, his music didn’t have a real influence on those compositions.

Magma don’t sound like anyone else. But people do apply the ‘prog’ label to your music.

You know, I barely listened to all those bands from the same era. I was listening to jazz all the time, especially John Coltrane. Sometimes, someone would say, “You should listen to this or that.” But I always learned more from jazz music than from any other kind of music, especially more than – what’s it called? – prog rock. And I think Magma is not a prog rock group at all!

Do you feel a kinship with the jazz artists who were working in the late 60s and 70s?

Yes. I was listening to jazz musicians from that time. For example, Tony Williams. His drumming was very inspiring. Also, for example, Weather Report. In fact, I was working on a composition at that time, and I listened to that album [1974’s Mysterious Traveller] from Weather Report with the song Nubian Sundance. It was very much like what I was working on at that time, and so I stopped to work on that composition, because I thought that it was well done by the people from Weather Report.

So could Magma’s music be considered jazz fusion?

I don’t agree with the label jazz rock fusion, because we don’t want to have any labels put on Magma’s music. When I meet people and they say, “Well, what do you do?” I say, “I’m in a band called Magma,” and blah blah. “And what kind of music?” I use only one word: unclassifiable. That’s why we made the word zeuhl for that: to avoid any other label.

Other artists have made music in the zeuhl style. Are you pleased this has happened?

Well of course we’re pleased because it became a new genre: you have jazz, you have pop, and then you have zeuhl. It’s a very good thing to be able to say, “Okay, I’m doing my own kind of music and I’m not the only one to do it.”

Magma had a logo a long time before doing so was a common thing for bands. How important to you is the concept of branding?

We released a DVD earlier this year. We put the logo on the cover, but we didn’t put the name Magma on the cover. We think now we can only use the logo and people know what it’s about. And when they don’t know, they ask, “Oh, what is this logo?” And they look into it.

And we think it’s very important to stick to a kind of logo when you’re happy with it. Even outside of music, brands like Coca-Cola, for example, or Volkswagen, they never change the first logo they created.

Who developed the logo?

I made a drawing of the kind of necklace I wanted to have around my neck, and from that I worked with Laurent Thibault’s sister, who was a graphic designer. It changed from the original design. We worked together and we came to that logo, and then that was kept. It was hung to a chain and became the logo we’re wearing and all the fans are wearing.

Stella: You know, in the beginning, it was a whole necklace all around the neck. I don’t know if Christian still has the original drawing. Yeah, he wore that necklace that was going all around the neck, but he wanted to have it like a pendant instead. Laurent’s sister worked to be able to hang it from a chain, to make a pendant from it.

The pendant was pretty big…

Yeah. The first one that all the Magma musicians were wearing was large, but nowadays it’s more a small logo that all the fans want to have. There are big logos on the T-shirt. In the early days, the logo pendants were made out of copper and they were very heavy – almost half a kilo – and, getting older, it’s beginning to be a problem to hold that around your neck all the time!

How has your approach to making music changed in the close to 50 years since Magma began?

It’s still the same approach, but we always want to bring something new. We don’t want to use what we already did to make something else from that. I’m always trying to do something different, from scratch.

In 1970, did you ever think Magma would continue into the 21st century?

Yeah, it’s written on the album cover. Magma: To Life, Death And Beyond.

The musicians in Magma have changed almost constantly since the beginning. Do you view that as a challenge or as an opportunity?

In fact, it’s been both. Because sometimes we thought that someone would be here forever and we were very disappointed when they decided to leave, whatever the reasons. And sometimes it was really challenging to find someone that could fit as well, but sometimes we could find someone who was even… not better, that’s not the word… was bringing something more and different on the top of all that was already done. So, sometimes a challenge, sometimes an opportunity, and sometimes both at the same time.

As the 50th anniversary of Magma approaches, what does the future hold for the band?

Stella: The future is to go on as long as we can. As Christian said, “To life, death and beyond.” So, for the 50th anniversary, we will probably think about something. We already have an option on a very special venue in Paris, which is called le Philharmonie de Paris. Brand new. We have an option for a concert here, and we don’t know what we’re going to do yet, but we will probably come out with something. And there will probably be other events and maybe other places worldwide where we’re going to try to do something very important.

The 50th anniversary is getting closer. We celebrated the 10th, and the 20th and the 25th. You start by decades, and then you do it every five years because you don’t know how long you’re going to be there!

I remember when we celebrated the 30th anniversary, we had a concert with many musicians that were a part of the band at some time, and one of them said, “I’m here for the 30th anniversary, but who knows? I’m going to be here also for the 50th anniversary!” At that time, 50 was a long time after, and now it happens to be in two years.

You returned to the States in August for Psycho Las Vegas… a metal festival?

Stella: Yes! We’re very trendy on the metal scene. We did several very big metal festivals like Roadburn in Holland and Hellfest Open Air in France, and we were invited to play at Psycho Las Vegas, which is a very big metal festival. Yeah, this is amazing: Magma in Las Vegas! I would never have thought about that, but we are very happy.

Christian: We didn’t know what kind of audience was listening to metal music. In fact, we had a false idea – they’re really open to many other kinds of music and it looks like they’re really into Magma now. In fact, we barely play jazz festivals any more.

Stella: There are a lot of young musicians from bands like Opeth, Baroness, Melvins and many others that are really into Magma. Sometimes we see official photos from a band that we don’t even know and the guys are wearing Magma T-shirts! Metal is a new audience for us, and it’s great.

When Magma’s history is written, how would you like the band to be remembered?

Almost every week we have a call from a music teacher saying, “I want to put on a project with my pupils. I would like them to play this piece of music or that piece of music. May we do it?”

Recently, we had a call from Les Percussions de Strasbourg: it’s a very famous classical ensemble from the east of France, and they want to put on some Magma music. So, this would be the best way to be remembered, if it’s performed the way it should be. Because one time I had the chance to listen to a tape of music from Béla Bartók conducted by Béla Bartók. And it’s very different than what you hear now, the way it’s conducted now. But we have a lot of reference of recordings, and people can refer to that. We have a good chance that it can be performed the right way, and that would be even better than words because, as I said, music comes first.

This would be the nicest way to be part of the music of these two centuries: to have people who aren’t even born now go on to play Magma’s music.