A Gretsch Abroad — Exclusive Interview with Gretsch Drumming Legend Christian Vander of Magma
It’s the early 1960’s somewhere in Paris and a young Christian Vander of Magma fame is sitting up close to Elvin Jones on stage as he performs with the John Coltrane Quartet. The great Elvin Jones plays his signature polyrythmic pulses, organic and wild. All the while a seismic shift occurs inside the brain of the young Christian Vander. New worlds with new rules and new stories and new languages are created. That’s what can happen when a young creative mind witnesses true masters like Elvin Jones and John Coltrane at work.
Some 55 years later I meet Christian Vander after a Magma performance in Malmö, Sweden. When I first started asking Christian Vander questions, I didn’t know whether to speak English, French, or Kobaïan, his self-invented lyrical language. Kobaïan is the language of Kobaïa, a fictional planet created by Christian Vander and the setting for ten of his concept albums.
I’m not really a sci-fi guy per se, but I do admit that I love where this is going. I am into anything that will take me away from the humdrum of our consumer-driven society. An art form that takes me away to a place where there are no rules and unlimited creativity is allowed. That’s where the musical magic happens, an innovatory world where unrestrained expression is allowed. That’s the world of Christian Vander and Magma, and throughout the past half century, they have managed to forge their own musical trajectory nonobservant of outside trends. Experiencing a Magma concert live is an absolute expression of creative freedom, a triumph for musicianship, and an instant removal from the trivialities of modern day living.
I was fortunate enough to sit down with Christian and talk Gretsch drums, Coltrane, the creative process and the future of Magma.
Q: My family would like to take this opportunity to thank you for your commitment to Gretsch drums over the past 50 years, night-in and night-out. Why do you play Gretsch drums?
A: Only with a Gretsch drumkit do I feel like I’m expressing all I have inside of me, it’s the only drumkit that resembles me, that looks like me. When I look at my Gretsch kit I see it as ME. It reminds me of one time when I accidentally bumped into the drumkit of Muhammed Ali (not the boxer but the Paris-based free jazz drummer) and he yelled “don’t touch me”. He had the same idea.
Q: When and where did you see Elvin Jones for the first time with your mother? How old were you?
A: My mother used to take me to jazz clubs in and around Paris when I was 5 or 6 years old. There I had the chance to be near incredible drummers and I was fascinated by the sound of their cymbals. It was through my mother, who happened to be very good friends with Billie Holiday and Bobby Jaspar, that I met Elvin Jones. Bobby introduced Elvin to my mother, saying that we will hear about Elvin soon enough. A few months later he was playing with John Coltrane. When Coltrane was performing in Paris, I was lucky enough to be on stage, seated right next to them! Elvin used to visit my mother each time he was in Paris, and that’s how I met him. I already knew “That Great Gretsch Sound” and especially Elvin’s Gretsch sound from the album Gretsch Drum Night at Birdland. Unfortunately, Gretsch drums were not available in France at that time. Even if they were I couldn’t have afforded it!
Q: Your songs are quite complex, consisting of many parts. Do you do a lot of conducting through your drumming during a show? Or is everybody just completely aware of the structures and changes at all times?
A: Everyone is aware of what he or she has to play. We rehearse a lot when we are preparing to perform a new song. I add the drum parts at the very end, I don’t compose around the drums, I compose only on the piano. During the show the thing is to get the band moving forward as one complete unit.
Q: While watching the Magma performance in Malmö, Sweden, I had the experience of going on a voyage or engaging in a story, much more so than with most other bands, maybe because there are so few pauses that might break the spell. Do the stories told by the Kobaïan lyrics shape the musical choices? Or do the musical choices shape the Kobaïan lyrics?
A: French wasn’t expressive enough for the sound of the music I had in my head and I’m not fluent enough in English. Kobaïan is a language that is constantly evolving and the sounds/words come organically when I’m composing. I don’t decide if I’m going to compose in a specific language. Music and words comes together, it can be in Kobaïan, in French or any other language, that doesn’t make any difference. When I write lyrics in French, they come naturally as well. I sing them while recording, then I listen to the tape and write the text and work on it if it needs some modifications.
Q: I’ve read that Magma was founded to continue the musical legacy of John Coltrane. What was it about Coltrane’s oeuvre that inspired Magma’s music? Do you have a favorite Coltrane album?
A: It’s the energy, the fury of playing, the construction, the “sound,” and the long-term vision that inspired me. The music of John Coltrane is an inexhaustible source, a force that conquers all. If John’s music was only music, I might have grown tired of it at some point. There is something else in his music that goes beyond. He certainly opened the door to a world we did not know. It’s probably this unbridled spiritual quest that led him there. For these reasons, I listen to John regularly. He accompanies me in every period of my life, I always hear his music differently, I re-discover him every time and it always fascinates me. It’s difficult for me to choose a favorite album, each album takes us to a new world. If I had to choose I would say that my favorite album is his last one, Expression.
Q: Creating your own language is a brave choice for an artist, and you could argue that Coltrane did something similar through his playing style. For Magma, what has been the most important artistic benefits of creating your own language?
A: John Coltrane found out his own language, he didn’t have to use any words to make us feel and understand what he was telling us. Listening to my music with Kobaïan lyrics allows the listener to create his own world, his own story, with different stages and meanings for each person. It can evolve throughout the years, the same person can feel and hear it differently through time…assuming they keep on listening to it 🙂 ! As I get older I have noticed that I listen more deeply and more intensely to Coltrane’s music than ever before.
Q: Have you ever been asked to consider allowing the telling of the mythology of Kobaïa through a medium other than music and song, like maybe film or graphic novels? Or, do you feel that this fictional universe is accessible only through the music of Magma and the Kobaïan language?
A: I’ve never been asked but it would be very interesting although it would probably be a very expensive movie!! I mean they would need a large budget, like they have for Star Wars or something :-)…and just getting the subtitles right would require a huge effort!
Q: The song “Ehn Deïss” really blew me away at your show in Malmö. The vocal performance moved me so much, yet I was fascinated by the fact that these words I didn’t understand at all could have such a deep, emotional impact. As if the meaning takes on an added weight when it is just that little bit out of reach. Can you talk a little bit more about this song?
A: Ehn Deïss obviously is about spirituality. Without spirituality the world cannot exist, cannot survive.
Q: Do you compose Magma songs using different compositional approaches, or is the process always basically the same?
A: I’m more of a receiver and transmitter of sound, like a channeler. I let the music “speak,” and I don’t need to try too hard to make it. It comes to me and I let it talk. I’m always here and available to let the music flow.
Q: What is happening in the near future for Magma?
A: We’re going to record a new album in 2018 and release it in 2019 for Magma’s 50th anniversary celebration including a worldwide tour!
Q: And long term? Is there a master plan for Magma?
A: For us long term is 2018 and 2019. We of course hope to be around and on stage for many years to come.
Special thanks to Stella Vander for her help translating and making this interview happen. Since Stella is the singer of Magma and stands in front of Christian on stage, the saying “in front of every man is a great woman” rings very true in the Magma universe, particularly when you consider that Stella also moonlights as the manager for Magma. Enjoy a nice interview about her extraordinary life and career.
Learn more about Christian and Magma by visiting their website (link above) or Facebook page.
— Lucas von Gretsch
(Gretsch Generation 5)