Photo courtesy of Seventh Records
Not particularly relishing it, I unwittingly became a club employee and a band manager at the same time when I arrived to interview the masters of Zeuhl music for their first New York show (July 1999) in over a quarter of a century. I had long been enamored by drummer/mastermind Christian Vander, who was/is so committed to his own mythologies which he created in the late sixties/early seventies. Even though the group originated out of France and created a new language (Kobaian) to tell their tales, they might as well have been some interstellar visitors as such.
Christian Vander interview
by Jason Gross (January 2001)
Arriving early to the club to meet Christian, his wife Stella (also a singer in the group) thought I was part of the club management and asked me about payment for the show. I dutifully passed the message along to the owners, who then wanted to know if I was their manager. Slipping out of this slippery slope, I was then commandeered by Stella to get mineral water for the band. Being so accommodating (not to mention a fan), I dutifully went out to a deli and lugged back a dozen bottles to the club for the whole band. At the end of the rehearsal, Stella (who I had been in touch with only by phone previously) called out from the stage for me, saying that we should do our interview now. I came to say hello and it dawned on her that I was the writer she spoke to before and not a club employee. We both had a good laugh over that one (mostly her actually).
If that wasn't confusing enough, the problem then came with doing the interview itself. While Stella was gloriously bi-lingual, Christian only knew French and I only knew the Queen's English (or gibberish, to be more exact). She agreed to translate my questions but since time was tight, she said that I'd have to find someone else to translate Christian's answers. Not a problem, I thought. I ended our chat by blurting out the few words of French I remembered from high school: 'au revoir,' 'merci beaucoup' (I also remembered how to ask where the bathroom is but I didn't think that was appropriate).
Sadly, several people who seemed willing to help with this didn't come through and I was left with an interview tape gathering dust, wondering what to do. I suppose that it's appropriate that the reason an interview I had done over a year ago languished for that long because of a language problem- after all, this is a group that invented their own language.
When all hope seemed to be lost, a plea was made in the Progressive Rock newsgroup. Amazingly, we got back numerous responses to help. The kind and wonderful person who did the honors in the end was Steven Hegede, who we owe a great deal of debt, needless to say. Thanks also to Olivier Jouan, who helped to formulate some of the questions below. Also 'merci beaucoup' to Shawn Ahearn and Pascal Zelcer for helping to arrange the interview itself.
And so, without further adieu...
PSF: Can you talk about you musical background before Magma?
Well, honestly I didn't really know what was happening in France musically at that time. I had some idea of what was going on. But I was mostly attracted to other types of music. Especially the music of John Coltrane, which occupied me, and served as my "daily bread." It's a long story, but the music of Magma started one day because, in my opinion, it had to come out. I would call it a revelation. The music came out of me naturally, without the need to compose it. The music had a need to come out, whether it was through me or someone else.
PSF: The story behind Kobaia, was it influenced alot by science-fiction?
No, not at all. It was more of a transposition. We were looking for something new. We baptised that other world "Kobaia". But, looking back at this today, Kobaia refers to Earth.
PSF: What was the intention for inventing a new language?
The language itself came parallel with composing. Meaning that when I was composing on piano, certain sounds would appear. And, at the same time, we had words in use that we baptised as Kobaian. The first word that I ever pronounced was "Kobaia." The other words came as a result of the music, it was a natural process.
PSF: There was some talk that the whole concept was supposed to be a nine-album set?
No, I think that there is some confusion with Zess. I mentioned one day that Zess would probably fill 5 records. At the time, 5 records was equal to about 3 hours of music. So I imagined Zess to be 3 hours long. So I probably mentioned "5 albums" one day. But it wasn't about Theusz Hamtaahk but rather Zess. 45-minutes is already an LP. But it's possible that I also said 5 hours, instead of 5 hours.
PSF: For Zess?
Yes, Zess I was refering to Zess. But we never talked about 9 albums. Maybe 5 albums? I probably said 5.
PSF: By the time of Mekanik Destruktiw Kommandoh, things seems to be changing for the group. How did the changes in personnel change the music?
Well, we were allowed to go further musically. Jannick's (Top, bassist) sound, and spirit, allowed us to advance further and faster. Now, I'm not saying that the previous musicians were not excellent musicians. But Jannick brought along with him a sound which was musical on the one hand, but on top of that he superimposed melodies (translator note: Christian is refering to countermelodies). Jannick brough a new level to the band. And he was the bassist that we had hoped for at the time.
PSF: Was the story of Kobaia changed by the time of Kohntarkosz?
As I mentioned earlier, we had transposed the story a bit. Progressively, we were finding ourselves within the story. Anyway, we were finding that we were actually talking about the story of planet Earth. Whether the story happened here or somewhere else, it really didn't matter. We were finding sources to try to explain that which supports us. The importance was that Kontark had to be told in a profound manner. It's a story that many people look for when trying to find their meaning in life. To know our place within the world, and in a manner that is positive. It's in reference to Earth and life.
PSF: The version of Kohntarkosz that appears on the BBC release is very different. Especially the first half. I was wondering if it envolved into the final version. Or did you rework it quickly?
No, Kohntarkosz at that time was a work in progress. It wasn't finished. At the time, I was trying to finish the theme while, at the same time, we were playing a version it. The colors were somewhat there, but it wasn't finished. As soon as I finished writing the structure, we recorded it. It was ready, but not totally finished. The finale wasn't yet composed when we recorded Kohntarkosz. But it was finished at the time of "Kohntark".
PSF: Why were there many band members joining and leaving Magma?
Bands change personnel due to natural occurrences. Many musicians become exhausted by fatigue. We would do 25 concerts a month with little free time in between. Musicians would drop out due to exhaustion even when they weren't interested in changing bands. But we were fortunate to find a few musicians who had the will to continue.
PSF: Why did Magma stop in the '80's?
First of all, he were offered very little work. But at the same time, it allowed us to work on other projects. For example, during that period we started a new group called Offering. Which permitted us to create a lot of new ideas that later went back in Magma. It's two different ways of reaching the same goal. The goal of taking music further and discovering new sounds.
PSF: What inspired you to start Magma again?
We could have done it before because we were always ready. It was after a suggestion from a friend, Bernard Ivan, who proposed a tour. Thanks to him we rebuilt the band again. It had been proposed several times in the past, but nothing was solid. This time it was thanks to Bernard Ivan. But we were always ready.
PSF: It is important to reprise your older material or to play new compositions now?
It is important that we replay the older compositions for a newer generation of Magma fans. But we are going to quickly move to newer music. Hopefully.
PSF: What do you think of the bands that play Zeuhl music?
I don't know all of them. There are certainly a lot of good ideas (out there), but there are also a lot of bad ones. The idea isn't to copy our sound, but rather to feel something deeper within. But, as the founders of Zeuhl, we also have the responsibility to make the idea clearer and expressive. Once that idea is clearer and more expressive, people will be able to create something real out of it without misinterpreting the message.
PSF: How do you see the future of Magma?
I live day to day. I can't talk about things that haven't happened yet. I work so that Magma can continue. In my opinion, music and spirit co-exists together. The idea is to continue and progress.
PSF: Over the years, have you seen another band that you consider contemporaries, brothers and/or sisters?, fellow travelers?
No, I can't say that. Maybe I haven't heard anything new from Univers Zero, but their music sounds diluted on a spiritual level.
Stella Vander: No, not just about Univers Zero. Any band, really.
Christian: A brother-like band... nothing at this moment.
PSF: How about Xaal?
There were some correspondence between both bands, but very little outside of them.
PSF: I know that you're a big John Coltrane fan. Which of his records would he recommend Magma fans?
Well, there are different fans of Magma. If you're looking for a certain sort of obsessional "dance"... "My Favorite Things." It wasn't written by Coltrane, but he made it immortal. If not, Expression.
See some of Christian Vander's favorite music plus a 1995 interview with Vander and our 2011 article on magma
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