Elisa Ambrogio is happy today. Her duo with dummer Pete Nolan, Magik Markers, was recently profiled in her hometown paper, the Hartford Courant. Since then, she’s been deluged with compliments from her grandmother’s friends. “If I can reach just one lady, my grandma’s age, I’d say I’ve made it,” she says on the phone from her father’s house in Connecticut, where she’s staying in advance of a tour with Japanese psych legends Ghost.
Since 2003, the band has evolved from a violently raw punk spasm to a more restrained, yet equally challenging, psychic beast. Evidence of this change can be found on their latest album–and first for the esteemed Drag City label–Balf Quarry. The album features the full range of the Markers’ abilities, from the hardcore inspired “Jerks,” to the Nico-esqe Harmonium anthem “Shells.” Ambrogio and Nolan seem more direct and confident than in the past, whether on record or otherwise.
“I was more willing to say things,” Ambrogio says, regarding the new album. “The more things you make, the better you are about communicating clearly, and getting what you want to say out. I was listening to the greatest hits of Jimmy Webb this year and found he wrote a book on songwriting. Cause who’s a more killer dude than Jimmy Webb? So I followed some of his advice in terms of how to construct a story in song. I really like the way he spoke about the words and the music and how the details were just as important as in any other form of writing.”
“Don’t Talk in Your Sleep” is a song that’s a warning to a lover from a woman’s perspective. “I love the idea that you can be responsible for your unconscious,” says Ambrogio. “When you fall in love with someone–there are so many men who sing songs like ‘I’d rather see you dead little girl than with another man.’ “Hey Joe” for instance. There are so many beautiful, killer songs about killing women! So I thought it would be fun to take some of the scary stuff and put it in the context of a woman singing it. Your subconscious just becomes a wild dangerous animal, galloping across the plains at night.”
By now, the band has mostly distanced itself from its violently aggressive early shows, which would often end in either the band–formerly a trio with Leah Quimby on bass–or the audience covered in blood. “We didn’t know how to tour then, or deal with being on the road for two months at a time and learning how to play every night. I think that improvising every night, you absorb anything coming at you, whether it’s negative or positive. It was just so hard. Now Pete and I both look at playing live more of exaltation than a death sentence. It used to be like, ‘our back’s against the wall, shit is fucked and everything is horrible.’ It was always negative. If it were like that every night you just wouldn’t still be doing it because it’s bad. It’s a little bit like you’re playing guitar and it’s vibrating and the amps are vibrating and there are drums and people and you do it every night–it becomes a weird repetition, it’s like a crowbar and it keeps creaking away at the box. At first it’s the hardest cause you have the crowbar in there and you’re straining and it’s horrible. I would hate to be in the Magik Markers a couple of years ago. I mean its still no picnic but a few years ago it was just dread. I didn’t want to do it,” admits Ambrogio, before going on:
“The band was literally exposed skin and flesh, raw painful nerves in our bodies and in our heads. If you do the same thing day after day, year after year, you’re a fucking joke. You’re noise karaoke. You can be a raw nerve, but you have to find a way to create a new experience that is sincere, that is honest in the room without it being pantomime, so that it’s not Andrew Lloyd Weber’s Magik Markers presents: Cats! And we go into the audience and touch your face. I don’t want my audience to be some a jackolopes that want some kind of full contact rugby game. People will say that they like the record but are confused that it’s not as noisy or something. But that’s the progression we had to go through. We didn’t want to become a pool of stagnant refuse and mosquitoes.”
And though the Markers’ entirely spontaneous approach to song-writing is still present, the band’s recent fascination with more traditional structure on Balf Quarry is surprisingly rewarding.You can hum the melodies.
“I don’t think I had the belief it takes to write a song,” Ambrogio confesses. “I believe in improvisation and the natural inclination toward being able to communicate some universal things. The best bands sound familiar and new at the same time and that’s what would maybe happen at shows. It was about getting out of the way of what was there already. I believe really strongly about control and seeing what’s happening, and then getting out of the way. But now it’s everyday writing and everyday playing, and then losing control that way. Some of it is going to resonate and stay with you.”
You can experience some of the Magik for yourself when the band plays with Ghost at the Williamsburg Hall of Music, Saturday, 9pm, $14. Tickets are still available here.