These days it’s close to impossible to read, watch, listen to or otherwise experience things without consciously or unconsciously analyzing the content of those things based on whether those things were created pre- or post-pandemic, and adjusting your perception and understanding to absorb what you’re consuming with the relevant lens. And that additional layer of thinking when reading or listening to music for pleasure can be tiring and distracting and a quick way to remove any actual pleasure from the equation.
Strange Magic’s latest release, Melatonin Doomsday Blues is too hooky and pure to let you get distracted with such annoyances. Written, performed, recorded and released by Strange Magic’s sole band member Javier Romero (from The Cherry Tempo and Mistletoe), the songs rock and sway with a deceptive effortlessness. Of course we all know that DIY requires no shortage of effort, so I interviewed Javier via email to get the backstory on this eminently pleasurable new release.
Peri Pakroo: From what I understand you intend to give a damn. How is that going?
Javier Romero: Ha! Right off the bat you’re quoting my lyrics?! Yeah, I do intend to! It’s my unofficial mantra!
The song that is from, to me, is about nostalgia and sorta reckoning with being of a certain age and coming to grips with the younger person that is still hanging out in your psyche. I think when I wrote that lyric I was alluding to the “slacker” culture that I grew up in, in the ’90s. It was the cool pose to not care. In the ’90s that was pretty easy to do. But, even back then, creatively, I really cared! I wanted to do my best! I was a real try-hard, real “extra” as the youth say.
In the context of right now, I think it’s a daily effort to “give a damn.” I feel pretty fatigued by [gestures broadly]. I think it’s pretty easy to want to tune out and escape into Animal Crossing or whatever. I’m not saying that I do enough, but I try to do the small bit I can, and I’m trying to be a force for good.
I read you recorded Melatonin Doomsday Blues in late 2019 so it’s really interesting to listen now with “pandemic ears.” The lyrics paint a slightly pissed off and melancholic set of observations, struggles and memories which I can only imagine have become more melancholic and quite possibly way more pissed off in the last few months. How much do these songs still speak to what’s going on in your head, now that the world has shifted so radically?
I think it’s really interesting to listen to the songs now and connect dots that maybe weren’t there or were different just last year. Some of the prevailing problems and subjects these songs address more or less existed always, or at very least since the last presidential election. I think COVID has probably exacerbated things even further. Maybe because it’s all I think about, it’s how I think of these songs now.
What’s new and different about this set of songs from Strange Magic’s previous albums?
There’s actually another older album that isn’t on Bandcamp that I should probably post at some point. I’d say that mystery album is the closest to this one stylistically speaking. The other two albums, VVolly and Retreater, I think are more frivolous.
VVolly is a really silly idea. I was inspired by a trip to the Clovis, New Mexico studio where Buddy Holly recorded many of his hits. I didn’t think much of it until I entered the control room and got to sit in the chair where (presumably) he and many other really famous people got to hear their recordings played back to them for the first time. I had tears in my eyes. Later, I wondered if Weezer — who had a bit hit called “Buddy Holly” — had ever covered a Buddy Holly song. They hadn’t, and I really wanted to hear generally what that might sound like, so I recorded a bunch of Buddy Holly songs in the style of Weezer!
Retreater is more or less a collection of songs I’d recorded in the midst of the VVolly stuff. I wouldn’t say it’s cohesive, it’s just what was around at the time.
How would you describe Strange Magic as a band? What direction have you taken with it from your previous bands?
First, it’s not really an existing band. It was for a little while about five years ago, and we played mostly stuff from that first mystery album. Previous bands, Mistletoe (1995 to 2004) and The Cherry Tempo (2005 to 2009) were real bands that toured and tried really hard to make it. I think both were of the prevailing style of their times. Mistletoe was kinda emo-ish, and Cherry Tempo was straight up indie rock. Strange Magic, is really just a songwriting / recording project. I don’t think there is a distinct prevailing style. I really admire bands and songwriters that can be broad stylistically but still retain some foundational essence, so that’s what I try to do as well.
In your other bands, were you the primary songwriter? How is songwriting different for you when doing a fully DIY recording versus playing with a band?
Mistletoe was more a partnership between myself and Alex Rose (of Minus the Bear fame). Cherry Tempo started out with songs I’d written and demoed, but ended up being a bit more of a democracy creatively. Toward the end, a majority of the songs we built in practice and I’d write lyrics that would fit the songs.
What sounds are you obsessed with? Can you describe a tone or effect that is particularly elusive?
To a fault I’m obsessed with adding the phaser effect to things that probably don’t need phaser effect. This is a holdover from mine and Alex’s early days recording things in his bedroom, we looooved phaser!
Otherwise, I don’t think I’m particularly obsessed with tones or sounds. That’s probably a pretty boring answer. I do get excited when I’m in the middle of recording and get a feel for what I think a song wants to sound like.
What’s your primary instrument(s)? What’s the hardest instrument for you that you include in your recordings?
I’ve always mainly been a singer and guitarist. The other instruments — drums, bass, and keys — are more difficult for me and it’s pretty fun to fudge my way through those parts. I’m obsessed with drums and I really admire drummers the most. They are who I watch when I watch a live show. I don’t think I’m particularly great at them myself. Bass is the most challenging and I usually track bass last. I think bass can be the glue to a song and I enjoy trying to play off the other instruments and parts.
How do you conceptualize your recording projects and decide how to package and release them? What does the concept of an album, or “releasing music” mean to you these days?
This album is probably the most deliberate attempt at packaging and releasing as far as Strange Magic goes.
I’ve been wanting to do something based on these awesome discarded in-store tapes from K-Mart that someone posted on the internet.
I don’t know if albums are particularly relevant anymore as a medium, but that’s how I enjoy music. When I’m listening to music, I generally like to play full albums as opposed to random playlists. At any given time I have maybe 100 to 200 “mumble jams” as I like to call them. They’re usually voice recordings on my phone, and I’ll work on a batch of a dozen or so in various states of development. The songs on Melatonin come from a period starting from the day after the 2016 election to the fall of 2019. They just seemed to go together in a weird way. Honestly, I didn’t think they were a very cohesive batch at first, but I think the flow of the tracklisting works well and lends it some cohesion.
I half-heartedly made the album public for people a few months ago, then COVID made me realize that I wanted to “give a damn” (see what I did there?) and attempt an honest-to-goodness release with PR and a real release date. Early in this COVID business, I was thinking about the real possibility of succumbing to this thing and was taking stock of things. I’d decided if I wanted to be remembered for anything (not including family) that I wanted to be remembered for my music and songwriting. I’ve been doing music the longest, and I think what I do is as good as anything out there right now. My goal right then was to try to get some recognition outside of New Mexico. For a moment I’d considered squandering my stimulus check on a real PR campaign with an actual agency, but I was quickly talked off that ledge. I put in some effort to do it DIY and learn how to do my own PR, which was a cool learning experience and has resulted in some success already!
How has the pandemic been for you in terms of playing or songwriting? Or recording?
Right now, it’s pretty hard to record. The whole family is home all day in a pretty small house, and I don’t think anyone wants to hear me struggle through endless takes of some tasty lick (haha) that I’m trying to fudge my way through. I have recorded one song though, I think the girls were away for an evening and I just got it done to prove I could still do it.
Are you working on anything now music-wise?
Recently, I’ve been wanting to do something based on these awesome discarded in-store tapes from K-Mart that someone posted on the internet. I think it might involve learning Ableton Live which lends itself to quiet headphone-based COVID creation.
What are your best tips for home recording?
I’ve found that it’s a good practice to keep your recording situation at home as portable and simple as possible. I try to minimize all the cords and plugs I use. It really makes it easy to quickly switch between instruments and get things down in a comfortable environment. To be nerdy and technical, I use a little smartphone sized thing, the Apogee One to record. It plugs into my laptop and I can plug my guitar or microphone into it. It also has a pretty decent built-in mic which I used for the piano parts. The electronics in the Apogee One are pro-level from what I’ve been told, so you get a lot of bang for your buck.