|Baz Francis - Magic Eight Ball - Uber Rock Interview Exclusive|
|Written by Ben Hughes|
|Saturday, 16 November 2013 03:30|
He's best buddies with Donnie Vie, writes fine and dandy Power Pop tunes to die for and under the name of Magic Eight Ball has just released an Uber Rock approved album called 'Sorry We're Late But We're Worth The Wait'. I caught up with Baz to get the finer details on that debut album, get the lowdown on touring with Donnie Vie and find out exactly what his influences are. You will also discover how best to fool an Uber Rock writer into believing your video was shot in Russia when it was really shot in Egham or somewhere equally un-exotic.
Thank you so much, Ben. You've really been there for us from a long way back and that has never been forgotten. It sure is a relief to finally have this album in the bag, but I'm already making plans as to where to go from here, so it's no rest on that front.
I must say it surprised me how good it actually is, I mean I knew you had the songs, but I feel you have really taken things to another level here. There is a much more guitar driven and anthemic feel to it overall, was this something you strived to accomplish or just a natural progression?
I guess with time and experience gained I know a bit more now about what styles work in given situations, whether that be at a gig or on a record. With this album it was a conscious decision to make it a record of 10 A-Sides, or 10 counts of "here we are and you can't ignore us."
Previous Magic Eight Ball EPs were more jangly affairs yet now the guitars are plugged in and up front and the older songs especially benefit from the fresh new sound, don't you think?
The two Magic Eight Ball EPs that preceded this album were little bodies of work within their own right, and those sets of recordings worked together for those discs, but it was apparent after multiple listens to them that an album would need to take things a step or three further. One reason the EPs are more 'jangly' is because at those times I was more interested in getting the recordings pristine so as not to cover up any of the pop hooks. I still think it was a bold move for a gigging rock band to make our first EP so acoustic-driven, but I was thinking about what was more ambitious for a band like us to do. 'A Peacock's Tale' cost us some gigs and fans in certain 'rock' cliques, but I've still not heard another rock n' roll band come out since then with anything that proudly poppy on their first release.
I then thought we should make the second EP deliberately rockier to answer our critics and show our heavier credentials, but then I realised that would have been a complete waste of time, and pandering to the people I always felt didn't see the bigger picture anyway. It just so happened that as I was writing and beginning recording for 'Mother Nature's Candy' I was listening to a lot of classic power pop bands like Big Star, Teenage Fanclub, Raspberries, Jellyfish and so forth, and although it sounded heavier to me at the time, there are still moments on that EP that show me loosening things up a little and just letting go. By the end of that set of recording sessions, though, I believed that songs like 'Big Star' and 'Love Makes You Do Some Funny Things' deserved to go out in their present form, but that the future album versions of such tracks would ultimately be different in this and that way. By then I had just started working with Dave Draper who I knew was fit for handling just that job further down the line.
Although the EPs are certainly not stop-gap releases, they did teach me who to work with and how to ultimately improve my songs and the band's general sound for a Magic Eight Ball album. Realising that tidiness is not necessarily the key to making a good record, plus finally finding a way to fuse our brands of pop and rock together meant that the time was finally right to have a shot at the long-form.
Your obvious love of the Manics shines through, especially on the likes of 'Something Better Has Come Along' and 'Russian Ballet'. Have they always been a big influence?
I pursued singing and playing guitar because of James Dean Bradfield, my first gig was the Manics when I was 15, and they have been a key part of the soundtrack to over half my life. If it wasn't for hearing them as a teenager then I might not ever have started a band in the first place as they really are that important to me (and have been since I started playing myself).
It's a very uplifting album, especially songs like 'Big Star' which just sounds so catchy and downright happy. Is Baz Francis a man in a happy place right now?
I'm such a miserable git! I say that and it is true, but 'miserable' in as far as I love a good bitch and moan. I live the best life for me really. I'm healthy, I'm surrounded by pockets of real love rather than an abundance of the false kind, and I'm doing what I love to with my days, so yes, I am in a good place but just don't expect me to always be smiling! I'm often happiest at home with my cats, guitars and collection of teas as I can't stand going out just for the sake of it. I'd much rather be productive and creative than propped up at some bar wasting my time away there.
You have toured extensively with Enuff Z'Nuff and, of course, more recently with Donnie Vie. As Donnie is a hero of yours what was it like being on the road and even playing with the man?
Donnie is like a big brother to me these days, and as amazing as it is to think about how that has come to be, and as much of an influence he remains in my life, we don't really have that hero-worshipping relationship anymore. These days he is to me my good friend who cooks amazing food, tells me great stories, but also happens to be a genius at what he does.
Do you have any road stories you would care to share?
Plenty! The scariest though was stopping up a hill near Genoa in Italy to take photos of the glorious view. When I moved back onto the road from the lay-by on the farther side to my correct lane, I commenced pulling out and going back up the hill when some guy came careering round the corner on this scooter with his little kid strapped to the front of him! Donnie and I both screamed as I clearly wasn't going to make it to the other lane in time to avoid a collision, but miraculously this guy screeched to a stop just as we prepared for impact! It was one of those moments where no-one got angry 'cos the guy knew he was being reckless and we were just relieved not to have a dead child splattered across our car.
Donnie also appears on 'Before It Was Murder (You Got Me Talking)', how did that collaboration come about?
Well the song itself was largely recorded by midsummer, but then there was a break in the sessions for me to go on tour with Donnie, which proved rather fortuitous in this instance. Whilst we were still in Italy I told Donnie that I had a song on the album that I'd be honoured if he'd sing backing vocals on, and he very sweetly said he'd do it, no problem. Once we got back to England I set up a homemade studio to capture Donnie's vocal, and he was just on a roll that day as he created beautiful layered harmony blocks on the spot. He was done recording all the parts within 45 minutes. He was staggeringly good that night.
He is also credited as executive producer, how much input did he actually have?
Like I said, with 'Before It Was Murder (You Got Me Talking)' Donnie came into the picture late on in proceedings, and he took the backing vocal idea I asked him to sing and moulded it into something better. For that I gave him the songwriting credit on that song. As for production, Donnie and I spent a lot of time together over the summer and so over that time he made some key suggestions as to how to make the recordings sparkle that little bit more. Overall though, Dave Draper was the man most responsible for guiding how the record should sound, me a close second, and later on Donnie made valued production suggestions to me which I in turn relayed to Dave.
How did your love of Enuff Z'Nuff come about, you must've been about 10 years old at the height of their success when 'Strength' came out?
I got into them real late. I'd increasingly liked The Wildhearts' B-Side 'Time To Let You Go' since 2003, but it wasn't until 2008 that I tracked down the original, and one 'Greatest Hits' later and I was mesmerised. I then detoured a trip to California to see Enuff Z’Nuff play down in San Diego, only for the show to be postponed… as I turned up at the venue thousands of miles from home! I then feared I'd never get to see this band live and that their music would forever be ruined for me now because of this horrid experience. I could never have imagined doing 30+ gigs with those guys over the coming years, let alone becoming friends with them too.
I see a Donnie Vie-less EZN are touring here in December, can we expect to see you in some more live action with them?
I've actually heard from Johnny and Randi over the last week in fact, and they were both very sweet about the album, but Magic Eight Ball are not playing on this tour, no.
Magic Eight Ball are officially a 3 piece band yet with several line up changes and you being the main songwriter/guitarist/manager is Magic Eight Ball really just a front for Baz Francis the solo artist or is this now a stable line up?
This is a question I get asked a lot actually, and without wanting to speak for Robbie or Ryan, I think we are a pretty stable unit now. The thing is, making records can be one thing, but performing live is totally another, and I think my bandmates would rightly contest the notion that they are not as much a part of this band for their involvement in bringing the songs alive onstage, to name but one element of their collective role. I do write the songs and also do a lot of the legwork for Magic Eight Ball, but Rob and Ryan put in the hours of work and dedication too and are certainly no backing musicians to yours truly.
Being the main artist/manager and having to do all the work yourself must be a lot of pressure and responsibility especially with the record industry in the state it is today, how do you manage it on a day to day basis?
Like with most things it's a case of feeling your way around, throwing the proverbial to the wall and seeing what sticks. This band brings me a relatively large amount of stress, but it has its rewards too, unlike some of the truly hard jobs some people have that come with no joy attached. Sometimes I take on too much, but when my desk is empty then I get twitchy, so I can't complain about a thing really.
I've been to a lot of half empty gigs this year and with the recent closure of Bogiez in Cardiff along with Trillians and Legends in Newcastle it is hard times indeed for up and coming bands and live music in general. Have you noticed the decline at gigs and where do you see things going?
To be frank with you, a couple of those very venues you just named were incredibly unhelpful or rude to me over the summer, so I would put their own particular misfortunes down to the individuals involved rather than the state of the industry as a whole. You will always have a great band playing some toilet and some talentless fad filling the arena next door, but ultimately the live scene will live through the drought. It will have to adapt to fads, fashions and technology in order to entertain the increasingly spoilt-for-choice public who seek entertainment in its sweaty embrace, but live music isn’t going anywhere too far away. Not on my watch!
I have referenced Redd Kross, Jellyfish and the Manics before as influences, but what other crazy sounds float the Magic Eight Ball boat?
Well this year the real big influences have been old flames from Marvin Gaye through to Metallica via Faith No More. This was also the year I fell in love with Honeycrack and also remembered just how great Rage Against The Machine are.
'Earth Vs The Wildhearts' is the one album that changed everything for me back in the early '90s, it became the benchmark for all others to live up to. Is there one defining album that changed your life?
That one's easy, 'Everything Must Go' by Manic Street Preachers. It was the moment I went from having no real specific goal in my earlier years to wanting to be something not too dissimilar from the man I am now. It is such a majestic, beautiful, intelligent yet simple work of art that has in all honesty has had more of a meaningful impact on my life than about 90% of the people I have ever met.
What current artists or bands would you like to tour with?
The Darkness, Cheap Trick and Redd Kross would be nice. That's as contemporary as I get I'm afraid!
Now you have written music with Donnie Vie, who is next on the hit list for a musical collaboration?
Another easy one: Brian May. He's actually the only other musician in the world I'd really like to work with. Most musicians bore the living crap out of me and I have no desire to meet anyone else from my record collection, but Brian May, now there's the exception to the rule.
You have toured extensively through Europe and even in the US I believe, how has the crowd reaction been to you compared to the UK?
It's the same the world over to be honest: there's the people trying hard to look unimpressed, the sycophants who give the same overly glowing review to every person they see perform, the drunk crowd who are only there for the drink offers at the bar; but then there's always in at least some small quantity the lovely people who make it all worthwhile for musicians like us: the people who genuinely love the music. Regardless of the country, these groups of people thankfully always seem to exist.
What is your favourite city to visit and your favourite venue to play?
I loved Los Angeles and I'm dying to go back there, but venues are just bricks and mortar. It would be more accurate to specify a venue but with the date attached as well, as the vibe of a place is totally dependent on the crowd you have in that night.
'Russian Ballet' has a quite stark and contrasting video shot in St. Petersburg, Russia. What's the story behind that?
Well first of all, the director Emil Kunda must have done a good job because it was actually filmed about 1500 west of there! The song is actually about my wonderful first trip to St. Petersburg in 2010, but I wanted the video to tell a dramatised version of what happened on my nightmare return the following year. I actually think the positivity of the song and negativity of the video combine really well and help create an overall picture of my Russian experiences. Emil's great work has a lot to do with that though.
So what's next for Magic Eight Ball?
Well after opening for [spunge] and Hey You Guys! at the O2 Islington Academy 2 on 15th November we play our Christmas show at The Royal Oak in Ipswich on 21st December. Then in the new year work will begin on the second Magic Eight Ball album.
Bang your iPod on shuffle and give me the first 5 songs...no cheating now!!
1. Queen - 'Tear It Up'
Finally Baz, please can you tell me where that melody in 'Love Makes You Do Some Funny Things' is from? It's driving me crazy, I had a long think and I reckon you pinched it from 'Combine Harvester' by The Wurzels....true or false?
Haha!! I can honestly say that no Wurzels-plagiarism was at hand here, my good sir! I can't even think of a melody that sounds like this one, but if you think you can do a 'Love Makin' Combine Harvester' mash-up then I want to be the first to hear it!