Magma Man: Christian Vander Interview Pt 1

Following on from Rockfort's radio special on Christian Vander and his mythical progressive group, Magma (formed in Paris in 1969), Rockfort presents the first part of an English-language transcript, as well as a tracklist for the show. The interview was held at The Barbican prior to the Celestial Mass event earlier this year, that also featured Jean-Pierre Massiera and Chrome Hoof.

(Magma circa '73-'74. Christian Vander is the third from left)

Rockfort: Would Magma have existed without John Coltrane? 

CV: It’s difficult to answer a question like that… let’s say that what I looked for in the nature of Coltrane’s music is what I’ve looked for with Magma as well, a kind of cry. But I was looking for it anyway. Before Coltrane I listened to Ray Charles a lot, before he entered a more syrupy phase, because there was this kind of cry. And when Ray Charles entered a different period, John Coltrane arrived immediately afterwards. It’s what I look for in music: spirituality, a cry, pain. Rather serious music, I suppose!
Rockfort: Why pain?
CV: I don’t know… I feel as though that’s what I’ve experienced since I’ve been in this world. I haven’t been lucky enough to be spared that – ok, at the end of the day, I’m still here – but at a certain level, a spiritual one perhaps, I don’t feel that I’ve been particularly fortunate. In the end, I’ve felt more pain in this world than joy.
Rockfort: Does Magma help you to cope with that? What’s the link between pain and the music of Magma?
CV: I don’t feel the way John Coltrane did that he would heal people with the notes he played. But it’s true that in some way he achieved that, because when John Coltrane left this world I wanted to follow. And I tried as hard as I could to do just that. I didn’t manage it. And one day I had a kind of revelation with Magma, as if John Coltrane had said “Hang on, I didn’t do what I did for you to just die.” So, in some way, he gave me back life, and hope.
So I think, to begin with, it was a cry, that in some way, in this sleepy and somewhat amorphous world, would wake it up. I felt as though it would be easy, everything seemed to be in a state of slumber. So I thought to myself that this music would arrive at a point in time – I wasn’t looking to really compose at this stage, the music just came in a blaze – and that it would be absolutely what had to be played. A lot of groups at the time played with a lot of reverb, paid attention to each chord and dreamed about things… well, it was the era… like birds and flowers and peace and love.
But that wasn’t really what was needed – did we really have time to dream? You see, I was coming from, as I said before, the music of John Coltrane, where every phrase was like a little symphony, while people were going into reveries over a couple of chords. And I thought something had to happen to get things moving. What I didn’t realise was that, in the end, that’s what the world was looking for – well, the press at least.
Rockfort: Who was composing initially?
CV: Everything that was written by me was credited to me at the time. But we shared everything, in the sense that there were compositions by each musician – there was François Cahen who wrote a bit more than others, Teddy Lasry, and me. Claude Engel the guitarist wrote as well, but progressively I found my self the sole composer. But the idea with Magma was that everyone could write.
Rockfort: Why did you end up writing alone?
CV: It changed with time. When we started Magma we didn’t really know each other that well, we just thought “Let’s do it”, we wanted to embark on an adventure. Aftewards people changed. There were people who joined Magma because they knew about us, musicians sought us out and wanted to participate for a while, either to learn things or just for the experience, and then left again. But what burned a lot of people up was tiredness, from touring and that kind of thing. It was tiring and gruelling for the musicians.
You always hope that when you work with extraordinary musicians that it’ll last forever, it’s a youthful dream to think that you start out together and it’s going to last for years. But in the end, you waste time because you don’t communicate any more and it becomes like a family saga, people don’t dare speak their minds. But with a group like the one I’ve got today I feel like I can make up that lost time (laughs).
Rockfort: To go back to what you were saying about the 60s, peace and love and so on, was Magma and the mythology you created a reaction to that?
CV: Yes, perhaps there was a reaction, I think it was natural. I wasn’t from the same world, because at the time people listened either to rock, or jazz, or classical – ok, Miles Davis said he listened to Debussy as well as a whole host of other things – but rock musicians were more sectarian. Maybe not so much the English musicians, or even in the US, but in France it was bad.
I’ve got a story: I had a friend who played me Eric Clapton – who I think is a terrific guitarist, of course! – but at the time I was into John Coltrane, and I said “yes, it’s fine, but after ten minutes I really want to get back to John!” And I tried to play him John Coltrane, and he said “It’s too complicated, it’s intellectual.” Then, years later, I don’t remember whether it was in the UK or the US, I was playing somewhere and I had the opportunity of speaking to Eric Clapton. And I asked him “What where you listening to back then?” And he said “Me? John Coltrane.” (laughs).
So that was the situation in France – nothing was happening, there was a real lack of nerve. And I arrived in the middle of that and thought I was going to turn it all upside down, I was going to explode the whole thing. But that’s not what happened – people asked us questions, like (adopts sneery tone) “Why are you all dressed in black?” Everything apart from the music. Whereas for me, black represented silence in some way, meditation. And there were very few lights on stage, I wasn’t about being blinded by clever tricks. It was just two spotlights, a green one for the first part of the show and a red one for the second part. Or vice-versa (laughs). And that was it!
Read part 2 of the interview here
Interview by David McKenna and Ludovic Merle, translation by David McKenna
- Dondai  (from the 1977 album Attahk)
 - The Last Seven Minutes (from the live recording Magma AKT XV – Bourges 1979). Here is the studio version.
- HHai  (also from the live recording Magma AKT XV – Bourges 1979). Here's a version from French TV.
- Da Zeuhl Wòrtz Mëkanïk (from the 1973 album Mëkanïk Dëstruktïw Kommandöh)
- Köhntarkösz (part 2) (from the 1974 album Köhntarkösz). Here's a live version.
- Stella: Beatniks D'Occasion
- Ëmëhntëhtt-Rê (Part3) (from the 2009 album Ëmëhntëhtt-Rê)