I Took A Greyhound To Spend An Evening With Christian Vander and Magma

Let’s go back in time. March 26, 2016. A different time in American history. Donald Trump (remember him?) had a ten point lead on Ted Cruz in the Republican Presidential Primary. Hillary Clinton (remember her) had a seven-point lead over Trump. A Clinton victory seemed inevitable, as the former Secretary of State would ascend to the highest office in the land and become the first female President. David Bowie died in January. Prince was still with us. It was my thirty-eighth birthday.

I sat on a Greyhound bus headed from Louisville to Chicago. I was on my way to see a French music group called Magma.

When I first heard of Magma, it was Matt and Rafe showing me a video of them playing live in 1977. If you watch this video (forgive the quality), you’ll see the drummer playing like a man possessed and looking extremely crazy. He is a gift that keeps on giving.

That drummer is Christian Vander, and he is the leader, main composer and sometimes lead vocalist of Magma, a band that has a rotating cast of members with Vander as the only constant. There is no point in me posting a picture of the band because the lineup changes so often it’s ridiculous.

I have no idea how to explain what they sound like. If you have the slightest interest in what they sound like, check out their 1973 album Mekanïk Destruktïẁ Kommandöh, I am going to say it is part rock, part jazz, part space opera. The band itself describes it as “Zeuhl”. Magma sings in a language they made up called Kobaïan. Sigur Rós also sing in their own language (Hopelandic) but Magma were doing it about twenty-five years before them. I am not saying Sigur Rós was influenced by Magma because they sound nothing alike.

After some investigation, I ended up liking this band. An extremely crazy drummer leading a jazz/rock/opera band singing songs in a language they made up? Sign me up.

For what it’s worth, the studio version of “De Futura” is really good. It’s so good Death Grips sampled that shit. Trigger warning: This song is seventeen minutes long.

But what sealed it for me was their 1975 live album Live/Hhaï. The title track is one of the greatest things I’ve ever heard. It has brought tears to my eyes. Listen to the violin on here. Anybody who can do that has earned my fandom. Trigger warning: this song is nearly nine minutes long and has violin on it.

Music like this is why I was willing to take a Greyhound bus to Chicago to see Magma in 2016. The opportunity was literally once in a lifetime. I think Magma’s last U.S. appearance was 1973. Since Christian Vander was sixty-eight years old in 2016, I figured this would never happen again. There were problems though. My car, a 1999 Lincoln Town Car, would never make it to Chicago and back. Also I couldn’t afford a ticket due to my fixed income.

Luckily, my friend Rafe came through. He got me a ticket and a round-trip bus ticket. Now it was up to me. A ten-hour trip to Chicago with a long layover in Indianapolis and an eight-hour trip back to Louisville. I spent about three hours total in Chicago and most of that was at the venue.

Magma played came out, three vocalists, a guitarist, a bassist, and two keyboardists. Then Christian Vander, the man himself. One of Rolling Stone’s 100 Greatest Drummers. Granted, they put him at #100 but it counts. They played a total of FOUR songs. The first two, Theusz Hamtaahk (Kobaïan for “Time of Hatred”) and Mekanïk Destruktïẁ Kommandöh, were about thirty-five minutes apiece. I want to make something clear: this is not a jam band. They did not wank off for any of those thirty-five minutes. That was a tight performance. There might have been spots where people were allowed to solo but there was a structure to everything and Vander had it all under control. It was dizzying to see. Nobody in the crowd sang along as it would be impossible.

The next two songs, Zombies and Kobaïa were ten and seven minutes a piece. I had hoped for “De Futura” or “Hhai” but I couldn’t complain with what I was given. Concert concluded, I got into an Uber and went to the bus station for my trip back to Louisville. It was the most unique concert of my life, which says a lot given I saw the Boredoms in Chicago on my thirtieth birthday.

I put myself through the most strenuous road trip of my entire life to hear the strangest music I will ever hear. I wish I had a tape of it. This is the fortunate thing about the era of streaming audio that I can listen to Magma whenever I want or that I discovered them in the first place. I still remember feeling like I was one of the youngest people in the building, not counting staff. It’s like most of these old men had waited forty years for this opportunity where I had only waited a few. Sitting to my left was an elderly gentleman who told me his first concert was The Who at his high school gymnasium in 1967 with Ted Nugent and The Amboy Dukes as opener. “Before Ted went crazy”, he told me. On my right sat a college exchange student from Southeast Asia who was attending her first concert ever. Magma? First concert? What a choice!

If I could recommend anything I would suggest 1973’s Mekanïk Destruktïẁ Kommandöh, 1975’s Live/Hhaï, 1976’s Üdü Ẁüdü, and 1977’s Attahk. Expect high-pitch scat singing, operatic vocals, punishing repetition that is almost militaristic at times and some of the best musicianship you will ever hear. Does this kind of life sound interesting to you? Attahk is the least characteristic of the album I’ve mentioned, with a greater emphasis on soul and funk, more based on song-based format instead of long-form composition. In some ways, it’s the one I come back to the most.

The Last Seven Minutes – from Attahk (1977)

Christian Vander formed Magma in 1969 after experiencing a vision of humanity’s spiritual and ecological future that disturbed him, according to Wikipedia. I called him extremely crazy earlier but what else do you do when you see the world falling apart? What would you do? This is what he chose to do. I think he chose wisely.

Now it is 2021. I am forty-three years old. Christian Vander is thirty years older than me. It is a vastly different world than it was five years prior. I am absolutely certain Magma will never perform in the U.S. again. I am incredibly thankful for that moment and that concert and for Rafe getting me the ticket to see them live when we had the chance. I will never forget it as long as I live.