By Harriet Kaplan
Magic Giant is an L.A.-based indie-rock band with a strong and growing following on social media that has been moved by the group’s eclectic and uplifting sound and lyrics. Formed a year and a half ago, Magic Giant has sold out venues ranging from the Troubadour in Los Angeles to the Mercury Lounge in New York City to The Silver Dollar Room in Toronto, headlining festivals like RiSE for 14,000 people in the Mojave Desert and events like Rock the Vote in Austin, Texas. “Set On Fire,” charted #4 on Spotify’s U.S. Viral 50. The potent combination of lead singer Austin Bisnow, Zambricki on banjo, mandolin and fiddle and Brian Zaghi on upright bass and guitar together forms Magic Giant. The unit are true and equal collaborators in every sense of the word in writing songs. Musically, the band creates infectious sing-alongs and communal live experience and blend folk instruments with big drums and dance rhythms. The charismatic Zaghi spoke to BoC recently in person and discussed recording their sophomore EP from their 1940s bomb-shelter-turned-studio in Silver Lake, CA, editing live footage from their RiSE performance for their official video for “Set On Fire” and how the band got together and things progressed quickly and with immediate success.
What is the story behind Magic Giant and what lead to the formation that band?
Zaghi: Austin and Zambricki had a project in 2012. We didn’t start Magic Giant until almost two years ago. It will be two years in March. They had played a couple of shows and were trying things out as far as writing songs together. They had another endeavors they were involved with individually. Zambricki was composing for movies. Austin was writing songs for other people. So the interest wasn’t too much in creating a band. Then Sweetlife [Festival] hits them up and expresses interest in them playing. Sweetlife saw an early show of theirs. They reached out to Austin and said: “We’d love for your band to play our festival.” Austin says, of course, then calls Zambricki and says: “Hey, lets get the band back together!” So they did, and rekindled their songwriting relationship and passion together. They tried to come up with ideas for different songs for this new project which started to form in that coming year. This was 2014. So they put it all together. They felt they needed a couple more members. Austin found me playing with another mutual friend of mine at a show. I was playing electric bass. I had a curled mustache at the time. It was a spectacle. Austin asked if I wanted to check out some songs. He said: “I have this group if you want to get together.” I wasn’t really interested at first. But I gave Austin number and said: “Sure, lets jam – hit me up.”
Were you discovered through an iPhone doing salsa dancing?
Zaghi: Austin looked me up online and sees a ton of YouTube videos of other bands I’m in and me salsa dancing. He was blown away when he called me. He said: “You are not just a bassist but a performer. This is something different.” He told me he was eager to work with me. Again, I still wasn’t interested yet.
You didn’t have to audition?
Zaghi: Austin saw me play and so I didn’t have to audition. He knew I could play well enough to play with his band. So I said to him, I’ll try it out and see what is going on with this guy. Then I fell in love with “characters” – Zambricki and Austin. I dropped everything else. I’ve been doing Magic Giant ever since.
What music did you grow up on and what inspired you? Did you have a kinship with the band with those influences, too?
Zaghi: No, not exactly. Zambricki comes from an Avett Brothers, folk, blues and bluegrass background. Austin comes from a very pop background. I come from indie and the underground dance scene. Together we blend into folk revival that’s fun to dance to with melodies that keep getting stuck in our heads.
Is there a folk revival going on? I had no idea. According to the band press release there is.
Zaghi: We’re trying to revive it (smiles and laughs). Zambricki did his time in Nashville. He plays the fiddle, banjo, harmonica and lap steel. He brings all those folky instruments to the band. I play upright bass. So it’s mostly the instrumentations we grew up on and love to play. We are bringing that with a modern twist.
You’ve had a lot of input in the band?
Zaghi: A lot of what I brought to the band is this indie element. Lending a, “That’s not cool,” or, “That’s a little too geeky, or too cheesy or it doesn’t make sense.” The guys say I tied everything together and made it more of “a band”. The three of us write and produce. It’s a true collaboration.
What is the direction now with the songs and what has changed?
Zaghi: A lot of what the band used to be before, was too much of a rip off of pop culture. Too generic. I said let’s make it funkier and bring in a new element. Distort it and make it not obvious to someone what it is and what’s making a certain noise. Make it more obscure. Yet keep it catchy and fun.
As far as lyrics, what inspires you?
Zaghi: A lot of my past and history. My father is ill and that has taken a toll on me. It’s inspired me to be proud and happier. To being lighter with life because so many things could happen. You control your mentality so you should always be positive. That’s the message of Magic Giant.
What is it like getting this buzz and playing big events? Are you surprised?
Zaghi: I’m not surprised. Austin and Zambricki were already getting a buzz with their own careers. We were individually doing interesting stuff. So with the three of us together, I knew were going to make some really cool shit and do something really fun.
So the band is recording its debut EP in a bomb shelter? Can you tell me about it?
Zaghi: It’s in Silver Lake. Zambricki found this beautiful home right off of Sunset Junction. As the agent was selling it to him, he said: “Don’t go over there.” It was some shed door that went underground. The agent said: “You can use it as storage but it’s kind of beat up.” Zambricki went down there and acted like he wasn’t impressed because it was flooded and the walls had old paint on them. But he ended up purchasing the home and we went in and renovated the bunker. It goes 20 feet underground!
Did it feel weird walking down into the bunker?
Zaghi: I loved the feeling. It was like you are connected to the Earth. We put electricity in there. Painted the walls. It has such a cool vibe you get when you go down there now. It sounds gorgeous and is absolutely stunning. You can record drums or play all night and no one can hear.
Did you have to tweak anything acoustically to the shelter?
Zaghi: We had two family friends build sound panels out of wood and foam wrapped with different patterned fabrics and put them all over the walls. It helps the acoustics. And we added a carpet. When you used to enter, you could drop a pin and it would reverberate for 30 seconds. We sound deadened it so we could record in there.
You tell me more about the EP?
Zaghi: There’s going to be four or five songs on it. It’s some of our favorite songs we’ve been writing and reflections on our lives. After we write songs, we hash them out on the road and usually realize we need to change this or that. For example, audiences aren’t reacting the way we want. So we change it till we get the perfect form.
Is the band playing now or devoting time to recording the new EP?
Zaghi: We are off tour from January through February. In March, we will head back out. We will still play some spot shows here and there. Some fly dates that are quick we can go out and come back and keep working on the recordings. We are self producing and recording. We have a great mixer and master that will put the finishing touches on the project.
Can you talk more about the songs?
Zaghi: “Set on Fire” will be on the EP. Also “Window” which is another big one for us live. Possibly “Love or Die.” Also “Crazy Fools.” And there are a couple others we’ve been working on. We are not sure what we will do. We’ll let it be a surprise.
The songs are more anthemic, upbeat and mediating on life?
Zaghi: Yes. One is titled “Love or Die.” The message there is you have to love someone and let them know you love then now or live alone. It’s about the extreme measures you go through for love. You should just commit to them or flee.
You also have a video out?
Zaghi: Yes, for “Set on Fire.” We have a live video and one we recorded in the bomb shelter. We put that out a couple of weeks ago. Right now, we are editing another for the official video for Set on Fire which we shot at the Rise Festival. We have drones and a ton of cameras. It was such a beautiful scene to see 14,000 [biodegradable] lanterns enter the sky with everyone’s intentions written on them. We captured that and the show. Expect to see that in the coming weeks.
What is the origins of the name Magic Giant?
Zaghi: We were watching a TED Talk. The visual artist, Peter Tunney was speaking. He described his lifelong mentor as a giant in every sense of the word. At the end of the talk, he showed a photo of an older man who was maybe five foot tall and it made us wonder and think you don’t have to be big to be a giant. It was such a cool aspect. Magic Giant came out of thinking of that giant.