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Photograph by Kevin A. Roberts
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Given that rock music is so often associated with self-destructive lifestyles and brilliant crash-and-burn careers, the fact of the genre’s survival, despite generations of would-be Cassandras predicting the “end of rock as we know it,” is somewhat of a miracle. If Don McLean is to be believed, didn’t the music start dying 50 years ago, when Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, and J.P. “The Big Bopper” Richardson crashed en route from Iowa to Minnesota?
Apparently not. Looking at the musical landscape we currently inhabit, turntables have not replaced guitars, the major labels did not kill off their indie counterparts, and neither corporate radio or music distributed by cassette tape, compact disc, and digital download has had the predicted fatal effects on the underground scene or more mainstream acts. To what might we attribute the unlikely survival of a genre that’s been on its deathbed since its infancy? For your consideration, I offer one likely hypothesis: bands like St. Louis’ Magnolia Summer. Or more specifically, musicians like its members: Chris Grabau, John Horton, Greg Lamb, and John Baldus. Interviewing the band over falafel at a South City coffee shop, I am struck by its decidedly Zen approach to making music. Active musicianship is not a passing phase for these fellows; all have played in a variety of projects prior to Magnolia Summer, and all continue to play in several projects in addition to this one. Grabau, the band’s leader and main songwriter, points out: “We’ve been playing music collectively for a while now. But individually and with other projects, we’ve been playing for decades.” This is a band of musicians who are, as bass player Greg Lamb puts it, in it for “the long haul.” “It’s a long-term thing,” he explains. “It’d be great to achieve any kind of success, but it isn’t a goal. It’s a lifestyle that we’re pursuing. It’s a body of work that you look back on after years that hopefully we’ll still be proud of, that we can make for new audiences.”
Listen to tracks from Magnolia Summer
Because Magnolia Summer is focused on building a body of work and living a lifestyle built around its music, the songs are able to breathe and mature in a way ordinarily associated more with a fine Burgundy than a pop song. But rock music is the band’s craft, and on its 2008 release, Lines From the Frame, and recently released twin EPs The Slip That Leads Into the Fall and The Current Moves, Grabau and Co. prove themselves extremely proficient practitioners. Grabau, who refers to the new EPs as “novelettes,” writes three-dimensional songs that deliver more than a quick sugar rush. His lyrics are emotionally dense and nuanced without being ponderous; these are songs written by an adult, not a 17-year-old, and their emotional depth shines through with crystalline clarity.
If Magnolia Summer is the Zen incarnation of a rock ’n’ roll band, then its mantra, as stated multiple times by Grabau over the course of our interview, is “The song is boss.” What Grabau means is that in recording, a song is fleshed out by whatever means necessary, with whatever instrumentation or effects it calls for. While Magnolia Summer is very much a guitar band—acoustic guitar lines intertwine sinuously with electric riffs, and solos are sprinkled throughout—it enthusiastically incorporates horns, organ, and strings, providing an instrumental counterpart to the lyrical content. Collaboration is a central part of the project, and the band is happy to take advantage of the resources available in the St. Louis music community.
“There’s a very communal spirit to St. Louis particularly,” says Lamb. “There’s this huge community of musicians that really aren’t ego-driven; they want be part of the scene, the community… There’s a lot of access to musicians. In other cities you wouldn’t feel comfortable approaching people, saying, ‘Hey, you want to work on my project?’ without having something to give them, or something to offer. But in St. Louis, everyone just lends a hand.”
To Grabau, this openness to collaboration enriches not only the songs, but also the musicians playing them. “It keeps you sharp, ultimately… If you have the notion that [a song] might require something, such as strings or horns or something, you can try it. I love the idea of collaborating with people. I love that music is a shared effort. It’s a collection of voices. I like dabbling; I like to explore a little bit.”
Eschewing ego and focusing on sustainable modes of musical production may not be conventional paths in rock musicianship, but Magnolia Summer seems to do quite well for itself by bucking tradition. During the two-day LouFest in Forest Park this August, the band will be one of a few local acts lucky enough to share a stage with national touring acts such as indie darlings Broken Social Scene, Built to Spill, and She & Him, as well as hometown hero of sorts Jeff Tweedy, lead singer/songwriter of Wilco.
In 2009, Bob Harris, a British BBC Radio 2 host and co-founder of Time Out magazine, named Lines From the Frame one of his top albums of the year, and extended an open invitation to Magnolia Summer to appear on his show. Could a U.K. tour be in the works? “It just has to make sense,” says Grabau. “We don’t want to lose our ass.”
Wisdom handed down from the mount. In beating back the perpetual death knell sounded for rock music, Magnolia Summer shows there are ways of rocking that won’t destroy your liver and blow multiple fortunes—and that produce a sound that’s just as raw, just as powerful, and just as satisfying to true fans of the genre.
Magnolia Summer plays LouFest Sunday, August 29, at 1 p.m. For more information, go to loufest.com. Stay apprised of shows and new releases at magnoliasummer.com. The band’s releases are available online through Undertow Records, undertowstore.com/artist/magnolia-summer.