Chase or Park?
At This Stage, Magnapop Just Wants to Make Good Music
The last time I’d sat down for an interview with Linda Hopper and Ruthie Morris, it was 1996, in some hotel off of Peachtree Street near Tower Place. Why was I interviewing an Atlanta band in a Buckhead hotel room? Because by that point, Hopper and Morris were just passing through, having recently moved to Los Angeles. You know, closer to the industry. Their band, Magnapop, was plugging away, diligently digging for a piece of the ’90s alt-rock gold. They’d had records produced by Stipe and Mould, toured with Sugar, Juliana Hatfield and The Lemonheads among many other acts, had been on MTV, done every demeaning radio gig they could and had made a splash at European festivals. Their third album, Rubbing Doesn’t Help, had just been released by Priority Records, and it was a solid, appealing and at times deeply poignant pop-rock winner, cleanly produced and full of catchy songs with airplay breakthrough potential. Good things seemed to be happening. And yet, I distinctly remember how unhappy they seemed. Tired. Depressed. Barely smiling at all.
“It was the weirdest thing – when we were finally able to get our own hotel rooms, we were just miserable!” Morris laughs. “There was a lot of pressure. There was. And what’s interesting was, I feel like we got as far as we did because of nothing but solid work, and some really cool people that liked us. Because we were not on a label that there was any kind of cool attachment to.”
“We were on the road constantly, for years! With absolutely no life,” stresses Hopper, “and that’s what you were seeing [at the hotel interview]. I had no other life. I was just there to, like, sit in a restaurant and eat dinner and go play a show. And I tell you what…” She pauses for a bit, then changes direction: “It was awesome!” she concludes, smiling. “It was fucking awesome!”
It was, I suggest, what she’d been working toward in some form for fifteen years by that point, having previously logged time in Athens’ enigmatic Oh-OK and DC-based group Holiday.
“And be careful what you want to do, because it’s true – you have to sort of learn how to enjoy it along the way,” she says. “Because it’ll take the fucking life out of you.”
Both women seemed a lot happier on the recent evening we convened for a few drinks and conversation at the EARL. Happier, but perhaps a bit…lost? Or uncertain, maybe, is a better word.
When vocalist/lyricist Hopper and guitarist/vocalist Morris disbanded Magnapop in 1998, following several years of rhythm section shuffles and the dissolving of Priority’s rock division (it was primarily a rap label), the band was severely dispirited. The founders went their separate ways, Morris to Seattle and Hopper eventually back to Atlanta. Yet they continued to collaborate on songs long distance, and ended up reforming Magnapop for a show at South by Southwest in 2002. This led to further gigs, in the States and abroad (including a few with golden era bassist Shannon Mulvaney), and since that time they’ve basically been an active band again. But the musical landscape has changed. They were never big enough for a huge deal to be made of their return, a la Pavement. Yet they had enough success to where they can still tour places like Belgium and the Netherlands and attract significantly larger crowds than they do in their own hometown, where in many circles they’re considered old news. The local scene has changed so much that what’s considered “cool” has shifted. A band like Athens’ Pylon, who nobody gave a flip about in the ’90s, has been embraced as a key influence by a new generation. Even the career of soulman Herman Hitson, who was completely overlooked by the Atlanta rock scene for decades, has been reinvigorated by tight-jeansed hipsters. Yet Magnapop are almost an afterthought locally, in that world. It’s more of a dude party. They fit in more with groups like the sadly departed Luigi (whose bassist, Scott Rowe, is currently with Magnapop) and The Preakness (also recently defunct), great bands whose ties to punchy, mixed-gender ’90s indie pop and rock were apparent and proud, yet who never cracked into the more celebrated end of the Atlanta scene. I’m sure a major revival of interest in moderately successful 1990s alt-rock bands is just around the corner, but when it comes, will Magnapop reap any of the rewards? Or will The Breeders and Buffalo Tom get all the hoo-hahs? I have no idea, just like I couldn’t definitively answer the numerous business-type questions Hopper and Morris directed at me during our exchange. “How do bands do things now?” “Are there still A&R people?” “How do we get our records in stores?” “You think we should send our CDs to independent labels?” Hell, I don’t know. Every band does things its own way. There aren’t any sure answers anymore.
You see, Magnapop’s first comeback album, 2005’s Mouthfeel had Amy Ray’s Daemon Records behind it, for whatever muscle that was worth by that point. Their new one, Chase Park, they’re releasing themselves, in the States at least. And while that’s a pretty commonplace thing for bands to do now, it’s a situation Magnapop have never had to deal with. Forming in 1989 as Homemade Sister, Magnapop worked their tails off in the ’90s, no question. But attention early on from Michael Stipe led to a prominent showcase at 1991’s New Music Seminar in New York, which in turn led to prime slots at a Dutch music festival that summer, which led to a deal with Euro label Play It Again Sam, which led to a US deal with Caroline, which led to more touring and festival dates, which led to the Priority deal, which… Anyway, the point being, for all of their setbacks (and there were many, most of which we’ll spare you from here), they were quite blessed in numerous regards, and they certainly never had to think about how to release, market and promote their own recordings.
It’s not necessarily something I’d advise people at 46 (Morris) and 50 (Hopper) to attempt to learn. But as with anything, it mostly depends on their aspirations for the band at this point, how far they want to try to take it. Do they want to go for the uphill battle of trying to tour the east coast or get an indie label’s attention? Or are they content to keep it largely local at this point, selling their music via the internet and flying over to Europe (where they’ve just returned from a tour, and where Chase Park is at least on a small label with some distro) when their bandmates’ adult schedules permit?
That’s something they’ll have to decide among themselves. I get the feeling Ruthie, now living in Decatur, wouldn’t mind going for something bigger, while Linda, a self-described “homebody” who owns a house in East Atlanta, would rather keep it close to the ground. “I’m more into low-key word-of-mouth,” Hopper tells me. “I’ve given a lot of myself to traveling and performing. I wonder – would I wanna sleep four people in one hotel room now? It would be great to hook up with another band – but I don’t know who would make sense – and do some dates together. But, as far as…I’m overwhelmed thinking about, like, contacting radio or something like that.”
Despite all the hesitations and reservations, the truth is that, like Mouthfeel, Chase Park (named after the Athens studio where it was recorded, with producer Brian Paulson) is a delightfully impressive showing from the latter-day Magnapop, radiating all the attractive qualities that made the group such a gem in the first place. The opening song, “Bring It to Me,” stands among the band’s best, letting you know immediately that Magnapop isn’t coasting to the finish line. The way that song bounces and rolls, so effortless and irresistibly catchy, pulls you in without a struggle, Hopper’s ever-cheery vocals counter-balancing the little puzzles her curious lyrics always spin. She always seems buried under Morris’s crunchy guitar snarl (by design, I’d maintain – that’s always been their sound, and it’s a good one), but on much of Chase Park her sunny chirp combines with dual assists from Morris and Rowe for the strongest harmonies they’ve ever had. There are numerous high points – “Q-Tip,” “Lions & Lambs,” “Looking for Ghosts,” “Feedback Blues,” “Future Forward” – more than enough to justify Magnapop’s continued existence.
Which is good news, because as Linda puts it, “we’re always gonna do this,” before adding the qualifier: “I think.
“We’re going to write songs,” she continues, “and I guess as we come to terms with how this is and how it’s going, we’ll decide how to put it out. There’s a million bands, and only an X amount of people who’ll listen to them.”
The creative bond, and certainly the friendship, between Hopper and Morris is obvious, even if they struggle for a way to describe it.
“I think we just, like, get the way each other works,” offers Hopper. “Actually it’s taken years to kind of sculpt into this. It’s not like we’re all that prolific, but we always are working on stuff…And I think [Ruthie] comes up with music that always is very challenging to me. It’s not necessarily what I would come up with.”
“The first day [we met], we wrote a song,” remembers Morris. “It was real easy, and that’s pretty rare, when you can sit down with somebody you just met and write a song. We clicked immediately. I found my soul mate.”
We wind down the conversation with me encouraging them to conversely do a few more acoustic shows minus Rowe and current drummer Chad Williams, with just the two of them (the time I saw them open for Alejandro Escovedo in that format, it was rewarding and revealing, with Hopper’s words coming so much more into the clear) and also mix up the set-lists at their full-band local shows, so old fans don’t grow bored with the same ol’ songs over and over. “Check” on both counts, they tell me. Too bad I have such little advice on their other pressing concerns at the moment. Like them, I tend to focus on enjoying the music, and leave the behind-the-scenes headaches to those better suited for them. But they are happy now, and not tired or bitter, but proud and grateful for all they’ve accomplished. And that ain’t bad.
“Actually,” Linda says, showing me her arm, “this bracelet says in Dutch, ‘I am lucky.’ I know I’m lucky. I absolutely believe that.”