Saturday, July 14, 2012

English Translation of Vander Interview in Reflechir & Agir

Thanks to a talented bassist, whose playing we have featured here before, we have the translation of the Christian Vander interview that was done in Reflechir & Agir No. 41.

Christian Vander

A Journey into Zheul

Magma’s shaman sorcerer Christian Vander welcomed R&A [name of the magazine] inside his home in Haut Marnes [somewhere in france] . Time to have a look back on a career like no other and on an authentic European and euro-pagan music.

Caption : “When I was a kid, I was an Indian, dancing and swinging my tomahawk while listening to Bach !”

Q : Did you hesitate answering such a controversial magazine as ours ?

A : Not a second, because you actually make the effort of interesting yourselves in Magma’s music, and you have a genuine curiosity which a lot of media lost. I think that’s a very good thing.

Q : How did you get started into music ?

A : I’ve been bathed in jazz by my mother Irene, who was a music lover as well as a accomplished be-bop dancer. You should know that at the time, people still danced on jazz. I owe my stepfather as well (famous piano player Maurice Vander, who played with Claude Nougaro). At a very young age, I was 3 or 4 y.o. I went to clubs and saw the greatest drummers : Art Blakey, Philly Joe Jones, Kelly Clarke.

We also listened to a lot of classical music at home. I discovered the “concertos brandebourgeois” when I was 4. I used to dance along and call it “savage music” (laughs). When I was a kid, I was an Indian, dancing and swinging my tomahawk while listening to Bach ! I knew from a very young age I wanted to be a musician, I felt it. Then I was lucky enough to meet John Coltrane’s future drummer Elvin Jones thanks to my mum’s best friend, Belgian sax and flute player Bobby Gaspard, who told us “one day this guy is going to be famous” . Elvin’s style was widely disliked and underrated. Then six months later he joined John Coltrane’s quartet. He’s one of the greatest drummers ever. Elvin always asked for news of me. They are very loyal and beautiful people. Coltrane was lucky enough to meet three “geniuses” . Although I don’t really like the word, let’s say these people were more than gifted, they were magical : Elvin Jones, Jimmy Garrisson, McCoy Tyner, these guys revolutionized jazz. Each could free themselves thanks to John and vice-versa.
(page 2)
Q : How did Magma begin ?

A : So as I said I had the chance to meet such talented people, that when I started Magma I had a conception of rhythm which “rock” drummers had not, I was ahead of most musicians, and not only the French ones. When Magma came about in 1969 it was completely modern, hard to compare with anything at the time. Magma was a shock. People were shocked. I remember our first concert in England, at the Marquee’s in 1973 with Jannick. People hated us because we were French and as it was often the case we were mistaken (and rightly so as French bands were stammering) for plagiarists. We got a stream of abuse up until we got on stage, “frogs” etc, and we began playing with Klaus shouting “Hamataï !” … Köhntarkösz… and from the beginning to the end there was silence. The attitude changed and they liked it immediately. We got them with fear. Just like in Cocteau’s L’Eternel Retour : “they came to fear the Morholt.” (laughs) . People came to see us afterwards, they said “you guys are demons !” They were terrorized and they loved it. That was exactly our idea.

Caption : “If Coltrane’s music was just music, I would have stopped listening to it a long time ago.”

Q : What happened after the culminating worldwide fame around 1976 ? What about all these changes in the line up ?

A : I had been on the road since 1969, it had been 7 years, we were exhausted, playing 25 concerts per month, for free or 30 francs [That would be what, 5 bucks ?] (our beloved producer, Giorgio Golmesky had been accused a fraud and fired by the Stones) , travelling –why not - from Nice to Calais in an uncomfortable puny truck, and considering there were no highways at the time… you get the idea.

And then in 1976 we had a huge european tour all planned out, three big trucks, the entire Europe, Germany, Scandinavia… I was just skin and bones. And most of all I was disillusioned, all I saw before us was ghosts. I believed… I loved a music, and that to me was something definitive… Faithfulness… The response was dull, empty, the applause was flawed. What’s more the band was falling down, and the lower it fell the more success we met, each and every time, as if it was a certainty, as if Magma on stage was a fully established thing. I couldn’t stand the fact that people didn’t realize… Patrick Gauthier joined the band to play keyboards and he wasn’t ready, it was a little unbalanced, something unusual for Magma. I tried compensating by intensifying the energy and the tempi, faster and faster so as to avoid accepting things that were too tense and too slow, and get the thing to move on. It was thunder, but thunder that time… It seems the gods weren’t on our side… and so I ditched the tour. It was going to be our reckoning day. Everybody was crying, “you can’t do that.” Nobody understood obviously. And we had to pay the price, for a very very long time. I needed to recharge.

Photo caption : Magma on stage in the 70s .
(page 3)
Caption : “In fact, we trained a lot of artists who now serve the music we hate !”

Q : Tell us about Kobaïan…

A : It’s not (dis-)Esperanto. Kobaïan wasn’t created in an intellectual process, it is a language which imposed itself naturally onto the music and sounds. The music makes the demands. Sometimes the piano dictated series of vocal movements that I would not have found otherwise. You have to gather all ideas at the same time and speak them.

Q : Were you often bothered with rumors of Magma being a nazi band ?

A: Wow, very quickly actually. Many rumors… There are a lot of festivals in which we never play. We’ve been banned from Strasbourg for 10 years… I remember a concert in Bordeaux, before 7000 people. That asshole Jérome Savary had come with a whole protesting crowd shouting “Fascists !” and… giving us the finger [I think that’s what he means, not 100% sure though] ! They were throwing bottles of wine on the stage. I didn’t move and continued playing thinking that wouldn’t reach me. Our roadie Loulou threw away people that were trying to get on stage. There were dudes flying over my drumset ! (laughs) It was very violent. What was funny though was that inbetween two songs, I went to speak with a guy holding his arm up before me on the front row. And I said “What’s up with you, what do you want ?” and the guy answered “No, nothing, I’m on your side !” (laughs)

Q : Where does the aesthetic aspect of the group come from ?

A : I’ve always liked black, even as a child. It teaches silence and concentration.

Q : How do you record your discs ?

A : We almost always recorded in live conditions, as much as we could, all together in one take.

Q : How do you compose ?

A : I wanted something else, I composed what I missed, all musics were there we might say, and what I didn’t hear, I tried to compose. I don’t compose music for the people, I compose for myself before all. I don’t cheat with that. If I don’t want to hear it, then who will ? … That is also why I accept criticism. That is my way of proposing things, without making concessions. There are no concessions in this music and never have I been imposed anything. Music arrives when it is due to arrive, I don’t actually seek the music, I’m more of a receiver.

Q : What do you think of today’s music ?

A : What surprises me, or actually what in the end surprises me not, is hearing many repetitions of things that have already be done, and done greatly. I never get surprised listening to these music. That is never a good sign. I’m just like anybody else, I wouldn’t listen to Magma exclusively, however aside from things I’ve listened to a long time ago and to which I still listen, because they’re the ones I get the most out of, I discover nothing new. The rhythms are as poor as ever, no risks taken… I can’t get surprised and that’s what I’m looking for, I want to be drowned in an ocean of notes, discover new things, learn things…

Q : Jannick Top, genius ?

A : Consider Bernard Paganotti, he had a gift and lost everything ! He came back in Magma when Jannick Top left, Top being more than gifted since he indeed comes close to a genius. I had to teach Bernard again how to rearticulate things, because he wasn’t involved anymore, he played in balls with variety singers such as Cheval Cabrel [I don’t know if that’s an actual singer or if it’s a sort of insult to Francis Cabrel] … This is a serious problem… We actually trained a lot of artists who now serve the music we hate ! Even Jannick ! Everytime he tells me he’s going to quit and come back. I have been waiting for 20 years now, he’s welcome whenever he wants to, but I’m not waiting for him anymore because we’re wasting time… Plus he relies too much on the “clic” (headphone metronome) which restrains freedom. When you rely too much on clicks and accessories [“clics et cliques”, the pun there is kinda hard to translate], if you have to play something that moves a little – for music is something alive, it has to be moving, shifting, and I play around that a lot - , well he gets lost, I make him uncomfortable, and so in order to avoid the difficulty : clic clic in the headset… That is really too bad, Jannick has such powerful and deep music… Music that remains unknown…

Caption : “ I want to be surprised, to be drowned in an ocean of notes, discover new things. But that doesn’t happen.”

Q : Do you plan on recording a studio version of Zëss ?

... A : I regularly get that question, however Zëss is a song that is outside of Time... It tells the Day of Nothingness. Should I record it, then it’s all over, there is nothing afterwards... It is the day Eternity lost its name.

Q : Three beautiful live versions have already been released...

A : Yes, but that is not the full song, that is nothing, the whole thing should be 5 hours long. My few minutes of speech on stage should have lasted 30 minutes... Madness... All was said ! One person spoke in a nonsensical Kobaïan while another one did the translation in French simultaneously, the transe builds up to the point of obsession, and after a while... No more translation, it is impossible and probably better that way... And then the brass section starts to build up...

Q : In 1983 you recorded “Merci” , is that more of a “soul” album ?

A : I had to say thanks to some people at that time [actually, “remercier” in french can mean “say thanks” as well as “say goodbye” like an employer would someone he doesn’t deem useful anymore. Hard to translate but I think Christian fully plays on the double meaning there]... When I started doing music, I played in rhythm and blues bands with Bernard Paganotti. I learned a lot from that, about holding a rhythm. There are codes and a certain spirit to it. Same thing with the Tamla Motown. It taught me discipline, regularity, at a time when I was still a young savage. Then when I reached that point, I could go the other direction and try to distend the rhythm, almost even bend it.

Q : What did you think of “Zheul” bands (movement inspired by Magma, although Vander refuses the term as for him Zheul music has yet to be proposed) , such as Univers Zero, Art Zoid, Présent ?

A : It is Zheul sub-music. That being said I hold nothing against these people, they are trying to do something. However they have drawn too much inspiration from Magma, and actually from our clothes. They played dressed in black, in a martial, yet too stiff, way. This is not what we are, we can exchange smiles in the euphoria of music, wearing a certain type of clothes, but never in a robotic way. They only understood one aspect of things. Same thing for their music, they want to do strange, mysterious music. That is very simple, you just have to play notes that are outside the chord... That isn’t melody to me. I’m a melody lover. You have to create some harmonic atmosphere out of which the melody comes, not torture something useless. Sadly that has always been done, and especially here.

Q : What about the first Pink Floyd albums, what do you think of them ?

A : Well, at the time some used to work with 2-3 chords and add reverberation [you know, that guitar effect which produces a sort of “echo”] … I can understand that when you know nothing else, it can have an impact, and create good memories, however I was never moved by this. At that time I listened such lively, fast and expressive music… When you think of John Coltrane, you can say each bar is a small symphony in itself, it was excessively fast, strong and mad… And what happened on that level since he left in 1967 ? … So all these bands we could almost all quote, they all seemed kind of slow in their expression, kind of poor. I have nothing to do with these bands, I always thought they lacked something. That’s why I made Magma. Not only as a reaction, but also simply in order to say a lot of things quickly. That is why from the start of Magma you get a profusion of melodies, each of which you could develop for a long time. However that corresponded my desire not to linger on a dream… All these people used to get high a lot, their minds was filled with smoke. I remember our concerts in Holland in the early 70s, people literally slept in front of the stage. They were completely stoned.

Q : Is it true that Mike Oldfield stole Tubular Bells from you ? (famous song which became the theme of The Exorcist)

A : Yes. And as he stole that, he stole Magma’s spirit. That song, “La” Dawotsin, is typically Magma’s music at the time. Oldfield was in the English studio where we were recording that theme for Mekanik Destruktiw Kommandoh. He stole a few bars and it became worldwide famous. I was at the premiere of The Exorcist and I thought “Hey, that music is great, and that’s funny, it reminds me of something…” (laughs) And indeed, something very close, it was a composition to my grand-father… And so I didn’t record the song, I waited for years because I thought as it became so famous, people were going to say I stole it… The irony ! In Oldfield music, there is nothing announcing Tubular Bells, it’s quite common until that thing comes out of nowhere, and then afterwards there is nothing reminding it. He lacks the starting point. It’s not his and it shows… And then hundreds of horror films drew inspiration from that theme.

Q : What do you think of identitary rock ? [again, a difficult notion to translate, that would be rock bands defending local, possibly nationalistic values, or re-asserting a culture…]

A : They lack an European music.

Q : Could Magma get the job done ?

A : There is a problem in musical culture. Even when they cover European chants or marches, very often they don’t have what it takes. Unfortunately that is a people and a country which has been hurt in a way, not very gifted with rhythms, and which hasn’t sung for a while. You hear that especially tune-wise.

Photo caption : The Deer Hunter, by Michel Cimino.

Q : Céline said that music is above everything else. That in the beginning was emotion, not words…
A : Yes, as Stefan George said, in the beginning was action. In France, music is considered a lesser art. Literature and painting are put forward. In Germany, music comes first. In England, you have to wait until the mid-20th century to find Britten. Then compare that to the amount of German composers in the last 300 years…

Q : By the way, what’s your opinion on rap ?
A : If that was really a dangerous music, it wouldn’t air on radio. It’s a music that wouldn’t scare a fly. Magma must be dangerous since it doesn’t air on radio.

Q : Have you read Philippe Gonin’s book on Magma ?
A : Well, what a pile of mud. A complete and utter lie. We were willing to intervene, correct some things, give a helping hand, and he didn’t even want to meet us. A guy noticed at least 50 mistakes in there, not to mention his personal opinions. He’s a crook. Better forget him.

Q : Have you been influenced by Druillet ?
A : Quite the opposite actually, Druillet drew inspiration from Magma. He was a fan, not the other way around. There was also Hubert Reeves who followed us a lot, that’s better isn’t it ? As for BD [ = Bandes Dessinées, that would be our “comic books” ] , I’m more a fan of the clear line, especially Edgar P. Jacobs. That’s expressive, it says everything, there is text in there, it’s a blast. And then of course Hergé.

Q : What about literature, what left a mark on you ?
A : I like Andersen very much. Grimm too, but you might say Andersen is closest to situations I experienced during my childhood. I recognized myself in all these things… Ib and Christine, Sous le saule [titles from Andersen]. I was living so much of that… Andersen, that’s dry and tough.
Q : And in cinema ?
A : The Deer Hunter. If that was only cinema, I’d have forgotten it a long time ago… Also a few others such as l’Eternel Retour (1942), that is pure magic.

Photo caption : Christian Vander wears a solar symbol which serves as a symbol for Magma.

[The rest of the text in the frame is entitled “discover Magma”, and sums up Vander’s career in Magma as well as in Offering, which I don’t think is useful to translate since if you’re reading this either on the FB page or on Marc’s blog, I would guess you already know all this. ]


  1. Music arrives when it is due to arrive, I don’t actually seek the music, I’m more of a receiver.

    That line jumps right out at me. Whatever kind of person Vander is, he's just a man after all. By all accounts an odd man indeed. I can quite believe he might hold views that are (a) objectionable and (b) contradictory/impossible for us to reconcile with that which he professes to love. But personally, I feel the music of Magma is bigger than him, and does not belong solely to him. He's a receiver, yes, a conduit. He may pollute it slightly with his own biases during that process, but even that can't mar the loveliness of it. The meaning of it cannot be defined solely by him. The composer is, in a way, the least important person in the making of music. The music belongs very much more to the audience; its final form and significance is determined by the people who hear it, take it inside their minds, think upon it, feel things about it. I would like to think that whilst there will always be a minority of listeners finding succour for extreme views in this music, the rest of us are responding in a far more harmonious way. It makes me sad to see it handed on a plate to those labouring under an extreme right-wing misapprehension, but in another way this only makes me more determined to live the alternative.

    Love conquers fear, unmans hatred! :-D

  2. Y'know I am struggling. Clearly, this interview, in this magazine, is a provocation, and CV cannot be so blind as to not understand that. In fact, his response to the query as to why he agreed to be interviewed in the magazine, with its known right-wing associations, basically says that the ends justify the means- that is, he agreed because they like his music, nothing more. But here in America, there would be guilt by association- Mitt Romney or Barack Obama are not going to be interviewed by the KKK, despite whatever might accrue if they did so. And to be blunt, there is no benefit for CV in doing this at all. That begs the question: why do it, then? To provoke? At a time when you just released a new CD? That would be stupid. So CV is either truly dumb and cannot recognize the danger he is in, or he full well knows and does not care. The latter is troubling.

    I am also troubled by his non-response about the Nazi question- he really never comes out and says, no, I am not. He provides an example from a show in 1973, but it is not 1973 any more; it is 39 years later and the world is a vastly different place.

    I am led to believe that there is some truth in all of this- more than one musician who used to play with CV have commented on it. And there is my dilemma. Do you still think Joe Paterno is the best coach ever now that you know he covered up serious child abuse and rape? Do you enjoy Roman Polanski movies though he ran after being accused or raping and sodomizing an adolescent girl? Do you support Magma because you have loved its music for 40 years now that you find its leader may harbor far right-wing and potentially anti-semitic and racist beliefs? His marriage to Stella, Jewish though she is, ended many many years ago. And it is still possible to hate a group while loving a single member of that group; her Jewishness proves nothing. What to do?


  3. "Q : Were you often bothered with rumors of Magma being a nazi band ?

    A: Wow, very quickly actually. Many rumors… "

    - This seems to imply that Magma is NOT a Nazi band. Why would he be bothered by rumors if they were true? Please don't read into what is not there...

    What's the political affiliation of the magazine have to do with Christian's views?

  4. I find the comparison between hypothetical extreme right wing views and proved child abuse and rape extremely relevant.
    Good job!

  5. I see the dilemma, DJL. Absolutely. However, I've made it a rule to look away from the artist's personal life when taking in a work of art. Consider Miles Davis. Hardly a sympathetic man. According to some sources, he was even quite the racist. And yet his body of work is amazing - one you cannot look away from and - much like Vander - certainly one that is bigger and more important than the man behind it. His music doesn't deserve to be tainted by his own imperfections. Same goes for a guy like John Lennon - supposedly an abusive drunk who alledgedly had sexual relations to his mother and was more than a little mean to his children. But would that make you want to stop listening to The Beatles?

    Granted, these may be weak examples compared to Vander. But as some people have stated, at least he has not carried out any acts of violence as demonstrations of his beliefs, unlike other artists. It's sad to realise that the music you treasure is supposed to be a vessel for - in my humble opinion - xenophobia and narrowmindedness, but as I stated in another comment, I do believe I can listen to the music of Magma for the beauty that I CAN actually hear in the music, rather than all the crap I CAN'T hear.

  6. Anon- point is, can you separate the artist from his or her depredations. You know that, of course.

  7. So just say it like that instead of confusing opinions with rape.

  8. In the interview Vander speaks of his mum's best friend, Belgium jazz musician Bobby Jaspar, (wrongly spelled Gaspard by R&A). Bobby Jaspar was one of the major tenorists of his time, also known as a composer and flutist. He came to live in Paris in 1950, married singer Blossom Dearie and left for the United States of America a few years after. There he worked with Miles Davis and Bill Evans, among others. He returned to Europe in the early sixties, touring with guitarist René Thomas and the legendary Chet Baker, untill his sudden death in 1963 (at the age of 37).

    Probably the young Vander met Jaspar already during his Paris-period untill the mid fifties, between Vander's 2nd and 7th year (CV being born in 1948). However, the remarks on Elvin Jones by Jaspar were done half a year before Jones' joining the Coltrane Quartet which happened in 1960 (when CV was about 12 years old).

  9. vander is quoted in this interview about inspiring masters of drums. "I went to clubs and saw the greatest drummers: Art Blakey, Philly Joe Jones, K e l l y Clarke." Of course this must be Kenny Klook-Mop Clarke (later aka Liaqat Ali Salaam), famous drummer with Bud Powell, Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis and Thelonious Monk - among others. Clarke came to live in Paris in 1956 and stayed there untill his death in 1985.

  10. Talk about lost in translation..i think the Cheval Cabrel ,mentioned is the guitar by French Luthier Franck Cheval who makes model Cabrel...was Jannick trying to tell him,,,that he had been playing a super acoustic guitar,,and Vander completely misunderstood ,thinking this was some kind of spin of pastiche of Francis Cabrel? seems so.