"Magma, c'est moi": Christian Vander Interview Pt 2

In the second and concluding part of our interview with drummer Christian Vander, the founder of the legendary Magma talks about the Kobaïan language he invented, the musicians he plays with today, and how he met his wife and fellow traveller in Magma, Stella.

Rockfort: The idea of a group creating its own mythology, and its own language – Kobaïan –  in all seriousness is a difficult thing for some people to fathom nowadays… 

CV: People don’t understand Kobaïan full stop anyway. But you know, if they listen to an opera in Russian they won’t necessarily understand that either. The thing was that it was difficult to sing in English when we started Magma anyway, and the sounds of the English language weren’t necessarily suited to this kind of music. When I wrote, the sounds came naturally with it – I didn’t intellectualise the process by saying “Ok, now I’m going to write some words in a particular language”, it was really sounds that were coming at the same time as the music. And often they expressed more than if I had translated them.
It was Marvin Gaye, or someone from the Motown team, who said “You know, the words we were singing weren’t very important, ‘I love you, baby’ and that kind of thing. What drew us to this music was its spirituality.” In fact, he listened to it the way we listened to it, because we didn’t understand English, not the way Marvin Gaye did anyway! But we heard him, we heard the spirituality in his music. And that’s what grabbed us. Words are complicated; there are a lot of things that have already been said, whether it’s about love, life, philosophy or whatever else.
Rockfort: So how was Kobaïan received in France, a country where the words of a song are held in such esteem?
CV: Not too badly… pretty well, actually. What they didn’t understand was our attitude – we didn’t dress the same way, we weren’t frozen in that era. We moved through an era but we weren’t imprisoned by it, and I think that bothered people. That’s an important thing, not remaining frozen in a particular time… because that’s what people want. They will always ask me for ‘Mekanik Kommandoh’, to keep doing the same thing…
Rockfort: Why did you feel the need to start a parallel group, Offering?
CV: It’s difficult to analyse just like that, but I think at certain points I felt a need to make music that was more improvisational than that of Magma – Magma is very structured. Also, I needed to sing, to work on my singing, and to begin with it was rather difficult. When you sing at home, and even if you sing for three or four hours so that you lose your voice, you don’t necessarily then have to sing the next day. With Offering, we had a repertoire that was two to three hours long, and sometimes after ten minutes on stage my voice would already be gone. So I really developed certain ideas, and I learned how to place my voice within a rhythm. At the beginning, I sang like a drummer, and some notes were… well, you get my point! (laughs).
Rockfort: What do you think draws younger listeners to Magma?
CV: I think it’s an energy and… maybe not a sound, because it’s music created with conventional and classical instruments… but an atmosphere and an energy that they don’t find in anything else. It gives them hope to see that there are still people exploring, in spite of that fact they’re told how things should be and what they should like. What we’ve noticed a couple of times we’ve been here is that the audience in England is older, whereas in France it’s largely a young audience, 14, 15, 17 year olds even.
Rockfort: What do you think about groups that you’ve influenced, or who have drawn on an aspect of Magma’s sound?
CV: If someone draws on an element of Magma’s sound, they’re not going to be doing anything new. Maybe they could do something new with an aspect of Françoise Hardy! (laughs). For me, there’s music that has a certain vibration, where there’s a certain rhythmic space between the sounds that mean that this music is alive. Rhythm, and the manner in which rhythm is used in space, demonstrates that someone has a fresh approach. And I think that on that level the evolution of music is a little slow. People are always working in the same way, with the same approach to rhythm. You can call it what you like, and add different sounds… but I hear things and I think “Ok, so we’re still at that stage.”
Rockfort: When you founded Magma, did you imagine you’d still be doing this all these years later?
CV: I once wrote “À la vie, à la mort et après” (“To life, death and everything after”) so for me there are no worries, it could last 10, 20, 40 years or more, why not? If Magma comes to an end, it will be because I’m gone.
Rockfort: Magma is you…
CV: It’s me… it was a group, but it’s still me… but I’m always waiting for a musician who feels it, who feels ready. I look for musicians who have a particular spirit, who don’t just play the same old things.
Rockfort: What does the group of musicians you play with now bring you? Is it youth, fresh ideas…?
CV: Well, firstly it’s important to have musicians who are willing to work, and naturally they also have to have a certain technical ability. And the harder it is, the happier they are, and the more work there is, the more they want to do. That’s essential. It requires… it’s highly stimulating, you have to compose, and be focused constantly. On stage, nothing can slip. But I have to be there for them too. If they felt that they were only there to assist me, there would be no exchange of ideas.
Rockfort: Is playing live more important for you than recording?
CV: Recording helps you to confirm certain ideas, but the reaction on stage is far more important because there you have to really be alive. In the studio you can always start again. On stage you really have to be in the present. Obviously, that’s dependent on having a sympathetic audience, there are some concerts which are tougher than others, it’s true… but for me, it’s life itself. I could live without studio recordings. Ok, it has to be said that thanks to the studio we’ve been able to do things like add more vocals – whereas on stage there are three voices, on record we can put 10 or 15, so people can get a better idea of how a song was structured harmonically…
(Above, Magma in '75 with Stella and Christian far left)
Rockfort: Speaking of voices, how did you meet your wife Stella, also a member of the band? She started her career as a pop singer in the 60s, but with songs that poked fun at the pop scene…
CV: I know that she met me before I met her, which is to say… I used to take part in jams in a club that Stella went to regularly, and it seems that one day I broke my hi-hat, and everyone said to Stella “Go and fix it for him!” So Stella came to fix it so that I would see her, and I didn’t take any notice, I didn’t even say thank you! And then when found ourselves together one day in a place where I was recording, and she gave me a lift, and it started like that… 
Rockfort: She stalked you!
CV: You could say that! (laughs) But she was looking for something else, she had already had her success in the context of ‘variété’ and she was already part of the circle of musicians in Paris. She heard about me, this drummer who was a bit crazy, and that intrigued her so she came to find me!
Interview by David McKenna and Ludovic Merle, translated by David McKenna

(Magma, present line-up)