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Luke Temple recorded the first Here We Go Magic LP – a lo-fi blur of electronic ambience, noisy loops and angelic croon – on a four-track in his Brooklyn apartment, experimenting with an acoustic guitar, synthesizer and lone tom-tom. But by 2012, Magic had evolved into a legitimate band with a more expansive scope: The quintet recorded their third LP, A Different Ship, with studio god Nigel Godrich (Radiohead, Beck), who lent pristine engineering and hi-fi color to their twitchy kraut-folk-rock. Then, at their peak of cohesiveness, the band collapsed: Bassist Jennifer Turner and keyboardist Kristina Lieberson both quit, and drummer Peter Hale moved to Maine to focus on raising his first child. Temple, after making a sophisti-pop detour with his 2013 solo LP, Good Mood Fool, was left to reconfigure the project from the ground up, albeit in a familiar environment.
“I moved to this tiny tenement apartment in Chinatown by myself [last August],” he says, detailing the back-to-basics approach of the latest Magic LP, the fittingly titled Be Small. “I moved my recording studio in there, and it was the first time I had my own space to work on stuff. I just started recording, and I realized I was making the next Here We Go Magic record. Once I had that in mind, it was full-speed for five months. It just sort of happened.”
The initial plan was to re-team with Godrich, but conflicting schedules forced the songwriter to hunker down and self-produce his new songs at home. Inspired by the optimistic, intentional simplicity of Brian Eno & John Cale’s joint 1990 LP, Wrong Way Up, and Robert Wyatt’s “Heaps of Sheeps,” Temple and guitarist Michael Bloch carved out a reliable balance of folky introspection (the soulful title-track) and futuristic art-rock grooves (“Falling”). Be Small feels scrappy compared to the robust mix of A Different Ship, but the songs are vintage Temple, full of zoomed-in character portraits and sophisticated harmonies.
The tender “Girls in the Early Morning” was inspired by noticing the hustle of “very attractive, stylish women rushing off to work to get on the subway with their hair still wet” as he surveyed the city streets outside his apartment window. And Temple captures that daydream atmosphere in the song’s soft-rock arrangement, crooning over synth haze and barely-there acoustic strums. “Maybe as the day progresses, as you sort of catch up with yourself and your vanity kicks in, people become more self-conscious in their faces,” he says. “But early in the morning, there’s this kind of innocence, an un-self-conscious quality to the face.”
The fried prog-funk groove of “Candy Apple” was informed equally by the “so-called dissonance” of Duke Ellington, the harmonic voices of the Bulgarian Women’s Choir, and a fuzzed-out Sixties psych-rock tune Temple heard while eating in a Thai restaurant above Elvis Guesthouse. “That bass line kept running around my head,” he says, “and by the time I got home, it had gone through the washing machine of my brain.”
On paper, returning to a less refined production style looks like a downgrade. But for Temple, the methodology is irrelevant. “Records can be effective spanning the spectrum of fidelity,” he says. “I think A Different Ship was an exercise in this really pristine production, but I can let that go really easily if I’m inspired to work in a different medium. Like if I just had my four-track and was inspired to make a record, I would do that. There’s not really a connection between the two in terms of Be Small being reactionary to A Different Ship – it’s just that life poses different circumstances at different times, and sometimes inspiration strikes in different circumstances, and you just have to go with it. I don’t view recording or making the album with some sort of linear progression, that you start with home recording on a cassette four-track, and when you get really good, you make an album with Nigel Godrich; that you’ve reached the mountaintop, and that’s where you need to stay.
“Each album you make is this holistic thing: the way it’s done, where it’s done,” he continues. “The limitations that are imposed on you are integral to how the record sounds and feels. Be Small is just a place and a time. There’s a certain freedom you have when you’re working alone that you don’t have when you’re working with a group. A lot of amazing things come out of compromise with a group, but a lot of amazing things also come out of going into the wormhole of your [individual] mind.”
Here We Go Magic play Bowery Ballroom on October 24.