Thursday, April 19, 2012

Cuddle Magic bringing chamber pop sound to Chicago area


Whether you call Cuddle Magic a chamber pop collective or an arty dream-pop band, the group continue to set itself apart through its intensely reflective music.

The Brooklyn/Philadelphia group, comprised of brothers Ben and Tim Davis, along with Alec Spiegelman, Kristin Slipp, Christopher McDonald, Cole Kamen-Green and David Flaherty, in March released its third full-length album, "Info Nympho." Cuddle Magic will perform April 20 at S.P.A.C.E., 1245 Chicago Ave., Evanston.

Anais Mitchell also is on the bill. The show starts at 7:30 p.m., and tickets range from $12 to $24, available at

I had the chance to talk to the members of Cuddle Magic,, about the new album.

Q - The new album opens with the song "Disgrace Note," which revolves around the theme of suicide. That's a complex issue to discuss, let alone address it in your opening song. What made you want to address the topic and what would you like people to come away with after listening to the song?
Tim Davis- Ben and I took Christmas Day two years ago as a working day. We were alone at my house sitting down to write when I found out Vic Chesnutt, who is my favorite songwriter of all time, had killed himself. 

The song is no more than a record of trying to sit down and write when confronted by such a loss. It would be like sitting down to design a giant skyscraper on 9/11. 

So I  just thought of all the suicides I could name and wrote them into the song too. It's a list song, like "I've Got Life," from Hair, but sadder. In the end, it made me feel so much better to write and produce something I think Vic would've liked.

Q - The album was engineered and mixed by Bryce Goggins, known for his work with Swans, Akron/Family and Larkin Grimm. What did he bring to the table? Are you a fan of any of the bands that he's worked with?

Ben - I really like the Larkin Grimm album "Parplar," which Bryce mixed. Recently, I've had the pleasure to play bass with Larkin, which has been fascinating and inspiring.

Q - Describe the collaboration between the band members in writing the songs for the album. I understand that with the song "Baby Girl," all of the parts in this song are comprised of strict subsets of a single 21-note cycle.

Alec - I started writing "Baby Girl" when I was recovering from oral surgery and playing lots of guitar (and no wind instruments!).  

I was also listening to a lot of Mississippi John Hurt, and thinking about how he would sing vocal melodies that matched up exactly with some of the notes in his flowing finger picking patters.

For instance, he might sing every fourth note he played, and hold those out as the guitar continued underneath.  With "Baby Girl," I wanted to see how much melodic and formal variety I could squeeze out of a relatively short finger picking pattern.  

I brought in the vocal melodies (and lyrics) and a few counterpoint lines and bass lines. And then, in typical Cuddle Magic fashion, the entire band learned the 21-note cycle and the 'rules' of the compositional world together, and contributed much of the arrangement as we workshopped the piece.
With so many writers in the band, we're constantly inspiring and pushing each other:  This method of composition, which we've started calling "baby lines" amongst ourselves, can be found in nascent form in earlier Cuddle Magic songs (Ben Davis' "Anyone," from the album "Picture"), and many other places, sometimes less or more strictly, as in Kristin Slipp's song "Handwrit."

Q - You've been described as a chamber pop collective. Is that an accurate description? How would you describe the band?

Cole- Often when describing the band I use the word "chamber," and after that the descriptive words vary. Sometimes "pop", "indie", "rock," etc.  

It is hard to prescribe a genre to new music which draws from so many places.Chamber-something seems right because of the instrumentation and the specific arranging ideas.

Or if you could imagine different artists having a baby together they would birth a child named Cuddle Magic. How about if Micachu and The Notwist had a baby and somewhere along the line David Longstreth's guitar and Morton Feldman hung out with that baby? 

As a toddler, this child spent time in West Africa and North India before returning to the U.S. Here the child soldered circuits of vintage Casio keyboards and sculpted unique percussion contraptions.

People always like a story or at least something they can relate to. Sometimes genres can be either too specific or encompass to wide a rage of sound. It is through giving examples of other bands, or an imagined scene, or a story that the sound of Cuddle Magic can be as imaginatively described as the music is conceived and heard.

Q - When the band first formed at New England Conservatory in Boston, what were your goals? Do you think the band has achieved those goals?

Q - Does the band find it hard recreating its songs live? Which do you prefer, being in the studio or playing live? Or do you need both?

Alec - That's a particularly interesting question relative to our newest album, "Info Nympho", which we recorded with all the players live in one room. So the arrangements were developed for live performance with those ten musicians, with all the concurrent limitations. 

We did a similar thing for our first, self-titled record, "Cuddle Magic." I think much of our band's energy and cohesion comes from the fact that we've always put so much emphasis on live performance.

That said, we can also enjoy the freedom studio work allows for overdubs and a different style of post-production composition. There's more of that on "Picture" and there will probably be more of that on the next record.

Q - The band started out not using any amplification. Has the fact that you are plugged in now changed the direction of the music?

Alec - Without changing anything too drastically, it's introduced a few new sounds.  Now that we've allowed ourselves to plug in, a necessity of sounding good in rock clubs and on festival stages, we've started imagining more parts for burbling synth bass and for the crackle of an overdriven circuit bent toy keyboard.

Q - The members of the band have collaborated with a wide variety of artists, including Beyonce, guitarist and composer Fred Frith and progressive string band Joy Kills Sorrow. Do you need those collaborations to fulfill your musical needs away from Cuddle Magic?

Kristin - I wouldn't see it as a need, necessarily, but a want. Personally, it's kind of an unspoken goal of mine to try and collaborate with as many different kinds of musicians as possible. 

I always learn something from each of these experiences, whether it's recording a vocal piece for Zeena Parkins or singing at a wedding. The more varied my musical experiences are, the better I feel I can communicate the music in Cuddle Magic. 

And the better I can perform our music, the more fulfilled I feel.

Q - Does the band ever find it frustrating to draw attention to what it is doing? What are the band's short-term and long-term goals?
Cole-We all feel very fortunate that we spend most of our time playing music together and with others around the world. All of us have put so much time and effort making Cuddle Magic what it is today. 

Personally, it is a bit frustrating to not always feel like you are getting back what you put in to the music, the booking, the records, etc. However, we have done everything on out own terms.

We have our own label, we are not in debt to anyone, we have never compromised our vision, and many people appreciate what we are doing. These things go a long way, although in many cases not long enough where many of us are not stressing about rent, student loans, etc. 

I'd say we are taking the slow but sure route to sustainable success. Rock star status was never the goal, but a sizable following  would defiantly be nice. We are just about 6 years in, and we still feel our best is yet to come.