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Electromagnets Interview

The Electromagnets! '70's style.Why did you decide to bring Eric into the Electromagnets? Didn't you have a horn section before that?

BILL: We had a guy that I went to school with at UT, a percussionist named Larry Crook. He played vibes and percussion. And a woodwind player – a guy named Nick Phelps. We actually started that band in '73.

ERIC: They were doing even more esoteric stuff than when we got together.

STEPHEN: We were kind of that first incarnation which didn't have any guitar. We knew of Eric, of course, at that time. He was playing with bands around Austin.

BILL: So we did that for about a year, and then in '74 Chick Corea released Hymn of the Seventh Galaxy with Bill Connors on guitar. I heard that and I said, "Man, that's the future of music right there." It had the energy of rock with the blazing guitar and the complexities and intricacies of jazz.

ERIC: I think it was that turn of events – the Chick Corea album came out with Bill Connors, and of course The Inner Mounting Flame with John McLaughlin, and Larry Coryell was doing the fusion thing. I think the consciousness was kind of changing to where it was, "Oh, what about guitar with this jazz rock thing?" I think Bill Connors kind of pulled me into fusion music. He had a little bit of blues influence and that kind of rock tone. He went into playing these fusion licks, whereas a lot of the other guys were coming from more of a jazz place. I appreciated their playing, but I didn't relate to it as much. I'd come from, like, the Clapton-era thing, and Bill Connors had a little bit of that in his thing, and so that kind of got me interested.

BILL: I first heard about Eric in 1970. I played in a fairly well-known (at least for the West Texas region) copy band in high school. So, you know, you kind of want to protect your turf. Well, we had heard about this kid from Austin – this hotshot guitar player named Eric Johnson. And he happened to be playing in Abilene one night down at the Civic Center with a copy band, believe it or not. Me and my bandmates went down there, and I saw little, skinny kid with a big, old, red 335 and a Marshall stack. We were impressed. [To Eric] I think I went up and talked to you. I think I went up and shook hands and introduced myself. Yeah, you were about 10 at the time. Naw. [Everyone laughs]

So we had heard about Eric. And so when I had that revelation that we needed to get a guitar player in the Magnets, Eric was the only person that came to mind. So I called him, and I think he had jammed with Kyle and a drummer friend of ours named Jay Atkinson, so they knew Eric. Back then everybody kind of knew who the hot players where. We knew Eric was a great guitar player, and called him and said "Come on, let's get together and jam." I think we had jammed one time, and we just kind of lured him into the fold.

ERIC: I knew Kyle from previous times, and then Bill and Steve just asked me to come over and jam. So I came over and jammed with the guys and they asked me to join the band.

STEPHEN: It was just a real serendipity. We happened to come in, and our paths crossed. When we got together for a rehearsal, and once after that rehearsal, everything was pretty much sealed in the fate of the Magnets, you know. We knew essentially when it happened that we had something that was pretty unique.

When did Park Street become involved with the Electromagnets?

BILL: After our first or second gig, Park happened to be in the audience. Kyle's girlfriend at the time cut hair, and a girl that she worked with knew Park.

PARK: Yeah, a friend of mine said, "You have to come hear these guys." The girl that I was dating back then and I went. She played keyboards and I played guitar. We went into this really fairly crummy, little club down on 6th Street called The Gig. [Bill and Eric start laughing] They opened up, and I stared at Eric all night and she stared at Steve all night. And we also noticed that the rest of the band was really, really good. [Laughs] After the concert was over, they took me up to meet the band and I said, "If there's anything I can do to help, just let me know." And they all smiled. Those were the famous last words.

When did you decide to record an album as the Electromagnets?

ERIC: Well, I'd say within six months after we were together, there were plans to make a record.

BILL: We did some demos. I've still got the rejection from RCA Records' Steven Hobben. He was in A&R.

PARK: We wanted something to be able to get bookings off of. We figured that the legitimacy of the band was right if we could actually send out a record with the promo stuff. So we decided, since nobody else wanted to put it out, we'd put it out ourselves.

Did Frank Zappa actually try to sign the band?

PARK: Zappa would have signed the band, but we couldn't figure out why we would want to do it, to be honest. He was having terrible problems with his distribution and with his record label. At the same time, we were really trying to get on Arista. It came down to either the Brecker Brothers or the Magnets. They went into a big conference, and when they came out, they singed the Brecker Brothers. I saw Randy Brecker 15 years later and I told him that story and he said, "I wish they'd have signed you, because we still owe them $50,000!"

Did you already have a lot of the material before you started recording?

ERIC: Yeah, pretty much. We got together, and Bill – Bill was kind of the leader of the group – came in and said, "Okay, now I guess we're a band." You know, we decided that in a few days. He said, "Okay, we better get some material together, because in two or three weeks we have a gig!" But Steve Barber is a real prolific writer, and for every tune we came up with he'd have two or three.

How did you end up with Christopher Cross on Electromagnets?

STEPHEN: Well Chris was really a friend. At that time, Chris had a cover band. That was with Tommy Taylor, Rob Meurer and Andy Salmon. They were playing around and were a really, really good band. We, of course, loved his voice. We knew him through the studio, through Chet Himes, who was one of the engineers at Oddessy, where we recorded the Magnets record. Chris was doing some recording there as well.

What was the recording situation like? It sounds like you guys just set up and recorded it live.

ERIC: Yeah, that's all there was to it. It took, like, three days or so.

Did you use Hi-Watts on the album?

ERIC: Yeah, I used a Hi-Watt 100 head though a Marshall cabinet. And I used an early-'70s Marshall 100-watt head through a Marshall cabinet. And an Echoplex, probably the Fresh Fuzz. I used either Bill Maddox's '57 Strat, and I used my 335. Oh, and then I used a 1960 Les Paul Standard on Salem through a 100-watt Boogie head through a Marshall cabinet.

Is this the same gear that was used in the Electromagnets video?

ERIC: That's that same Les Paul through a Boogie head and a 4x12 cabinet.

The Electromagnets album sold really well in Texas, didn't it?

PARK: What do you mean by really well? [Everyone laughs]

Well, you sold every copy you printed at the time, right?

PARK: I've still got a few copies. We sold, like, 28 or 29 hundred copies or something.

Was this done mostly through gigs?

PARK: We were distributed by JEM records. They were an import company that brought in things like Bob Marley and German rock albums. We were the only record that they imported into the United States from Texas!

Why did you guys decide to wait so long to re-release it?

PARK: The major thing was that we didn't want to form our own record company and release it again and do all the distribution and all of that. We did not have a legitimate offer from a major record company until Rhino came into the picture.

What about the video?

PARK: The video was done through a program called Playback in Atlanta. It was basically the equivalent of Austin City Limits in Atlanta.

How did you arrange the songs on the Magnets disc?

KYLE: I'd say 90% were songs brought in by the composer and then arranged by the group.

How much did the songs change when you started playing them live?

KYLE: The solos would get extended however long the soloist wanted. The main format of bridge, chorus and verses would pretty much stay the same, if you could call them that. The intensity would change.

How much touring did you do as the Electromagnets?

KYLE: Texas, of course, all around. And a couple of East Coast tours that Park had set up.

Did you do more vocal tunes live?

KYLE: Towards the end. Eric would do some, and Bill and Steve.

Did you open a lot of shows for bigger artists?

KYLE: Yeah, we did some, like Kiss, the Dixie Dregs, and Captain Beefheart.

What are your personal favorites on the album?

KYLE: "Motion" and "Black Hole."

BILL: I've always liked "Hawaiian Punch." I mean, it's very simple but it's just very funky. There's a lot of cool interaction there between the different solos. I've always liked that track.

Why did the Electromagnets disband?

BILL: We had given it two or three years. Stephen wanted to move to New York to study with John Corigliano. He's a well-known classical composer. He was teaching at Juilliard, and Stephen wanted to study with him. That was pretty much the end of that.

STEPHEN: I was really interested in just kind of moving on. At that time, I was doing a lot of writing and composition, and I wanted to get into more of an orchestral palate and also a pan-cultural palate – to live in a city that had a lot of different varieties of people and culture. Austin, of course, was different than it is now. Now little Austin really has a diverse culture to it. At that time, and where the music was then, I felt like I needed more. So I moved to New York in April of '77.

Did you know the band was over?

STEPHEN: I think it was a matter of gravitation. During the time when we first started, we had an incredible amount of focus and a very centered-ness to the music and the direction. I think, once we started to lose centered-ness, we essentially said what we had to say for that time. It was not at all in a sense of where there was any bad blood. It was just the acceptance of change. We moved along, and Eric started his path into music and songwriting in the sense of having vocals and that kind of thing. Mine was really a different path. I was more interested – and I hate to use that word "classical," because it really doesn't make any sense – but it was more towards that kind of concert, towards chamber groups and soloists. I was kind of working in that, and kind of funneled into arranging, which I do now. So that was the byproduct of all that stuff. I still love to compose music. It's very difficult as a composer. I've had things performed, and I've been very, very lucky, but a lot of the bread and butter has really come from arranging now.

Even with all of that, you still found some time to tour with Eric.

STEPHEN: I did, yeah. We toured for a couple of years, actually. I still always keep musical relationships with Eric. I mean, I just love working with him. We worked on a Christmas album together with Steve Vai and continue to work on his new endeavor now, which should be coming out sometime next year. He's been cracking away at that. We all worked with each other in one way or another, and continue to. It's just a change. It's not like we separated, as now Billy's now playing with Eric again in Alien Love Child. It's not like we ever feel like the Magnets really ever really broke up because of our relations and our musical relationships.

Whose idea was it to form Alien Love Child? Didn't you quit the drums to play guitar, Bill?

BILL: I actually quit music for about three years.

PARK: He went to work for a small company!

BILL: [Laughing] Yeah, I went to work for a PC company that later became Dell Computers.

That's pretty serious!

BILL: Yeah, I was with them for a little over nine years, and it was quite an amazing ride. I was one of the first 60 employees.

It would have been nice to own some shares in that company!

BILL: Yup. [Everyone laughs] Actually, in 1990 I went and heard Janet Jackson on the Rhythm Nation tour. She had a great drummer with her on that tour, and it kind of inspired me to want to start playing again. I started going out in my studio and playing with some guys. Dell had a zillion frustrated musicians there working as engineers. Computers and music go hand in hand. So I played in a little with some guys there. Eventually, I got a band with an R&B act around town.

When did the Magnets officially stop playing gigs?

BILL: In '77. I was actually looking in my calendar. In '77, Steve came back from New York and we did a couple of reunion shows at Liberty Lunch. By that time, Eric and Kyle and I were already playing together again as the Eric Johnson Group. Occasionally, Steve would come and join the three of us at odd gigs. We did a gig at the Ritz Theatre in Austin. [To the others:] And didn't he join us for the Chickenfest? Remember the Chinkenfest? [Laughs]

THE GROUP: Oh yeah.

ERIC: I think that was probably in Beaumont.

BILL: When Steve was in town, he'd come and sit in with us. We did a couple of official reunion gigs to just cash in on that. [Laughs]

How do you feel about all of this coming out now?

KYLE: It felt great. We kind of got delayed, but our vision finally realized itself, and we got a label contract, and it got out all over the US, and we actually saw a little money out of it when it was all over! [Everyone laughs] It was 25 years late, but it finally happened. I guess a lot of people got to hear it that had been listening to the old, taped version of an album (if they could even find an album and pass it around among friends).

ERIC: The Electromagnets thing did come out then but we just weren't able to rally enough interest in it. I'm very happy that it came out and that Richard re-mixed it, and I think it's a neat recording.

BILL: I love the Magnets album, and I love Seven Worlds. I can't believe it. You know, it sounds a little dated, but I think the music holds up, you know.

STEPHEN: Yes, it does sound dated, because it came out 20 years ago. So it should. I don't really look at that as a bad word. There are things that are pretty much the sign of the times and the representation in the recording. I look very much towards recordings like photographs. People look better in some photographs than in others. I think that for that time – we had only been together for just a few months... I really have no regrets. What did make me a little happier was that we did have the live cuts on there that were a little bit more mature.

How did you guys choose the live, bonus songs at the end?

BILL: I've always wanted some live stuff to come out, to just to show the difference between the album and what we were really doing a year later. We just went through some tapes and I found those two. You know, it was a little extra, added bonus for the people that had the album for years.

PARK: The album was pretty cerebral compared to the way the band really was, just energy-wise. And the manic, anything-can-happen onstage (and a lot of times did) from the live thing – the studio representation of the band was pretty tame in comparison. The way the band made its reputation was through live gigs. And even though the fidelity of those two live recordings is very poor, if you listen to what's going on onstage there's some intense energy going on. How much were you involved in the re-mix of Electromagnets?

ERIC: Well, very, very little was I involved in that remix. That's almost totally Richard Mullen doing it on his own.

BILL: I think Richard Mullen did an amazing job re-mixing the Magnets album.

PARK: Richard improved it like 200%.

KYLE: Yeah, he made it listenable again, and not as much hiss. He was able to capture actually what we were going for, and didn't change it or modernize it at all. He just put the modern equipment on it, and it came out great.

BILL: The album copy – even if you had an immaculate copy of the album – the way they mastered it and pressed it... I don't even know if they mastered it! We sent it to a local record manufacturer in Dallas. We just sent them the tape, nobody went up there with it. And they just kind of cut it and pressed it. Some of them came out oval. [Laughs] It just really squashed the sound from the master tape. It's nice that it's on CD now, for historical purposes. You can actually hear everything that's there. People were passing around old, scratchy albums and making cassette tapes and making copies of that. You know, cassettes are a little bit muddier.

That's exactly what I've had for the last decade!

BILL: Well, you know then. It's nice to hear it.

Was the mixing of Electromagnets the first time you'd used Pro Tools?

ERIC: Yeah, it sure was.

Are you using Pro Tools on your next solo album, Eric?

ERIC: Yeah. Either that or two-inch analog [tape]. I still like using that a lot. It still, to me, sounds a little better. But Pro Tools is the best-sounding digital stuff I've ever heard. It's getting a lot closer.

Do you guys plan on releasing any more CDs or videos?

KYLE: That was it for video. There are some other recordings.

PARK: We might release something. We'll just see. We've got some studio tapes that are from another studio recording session that will probably be the backbone of another release, along with some live stuff on it. We'll just see what happens.

KYLE: Yeah, in another 25 years, on our Golden Anniversary!

ERIC: Yeah, we're going on the road in 20 years!

Was there any pressure to perform as the Electromagnets again when the disc was re-released?

BILL: Yeah, there were a lot of people requesting that. Most of my friends and acquaintances. People I'd run into at the drum shop and music stores and so forth were saying, "Hey, why don't you do some gigs?" It's just the scheduling that makes that really hard to do. I'd like to do it though, personally. But life gets in way.

Do you all have anything to add?

BILL: We've made some great friendships, and the whole thing was a blessing for us all.

PARK: Absolutely. Nobody could have ever been involved with anybody any nicer than these four people.

STEPHEN: I hope that we might be able to have an opportunity to rustle up some of the later incarnations of the Magnets. Towards the later years, when I think the band really started to gain a tremendous amount of creative momentum. I hope that we might be able to find some recordings right before we just kind of disengaged. We do have some, but it's a matter of just aggregated a lot of it. There were some pretty remarkable live gigs that we did that I remember were recorded. The weave of the band got tighter, the song got stronger, and the playing got better. Also, just kind of that telepathic communication became almost, at times, just outrageous. Being able to pull anarchy into order became really effortless at times. There was a lot of magic in that band. No question about it.


VGM would like to thank Stephen Barber, Kyle Brock, Eric Johnson, Bill Maddox, and the members of the Official Eric Johnson Mailing List. VGM is eternally indebted to Park Street.