Dancing with the misfits: A conversation with Magic Giant

Jonah Goldberg | Contributing Writer

In the opening bars of “Jade,” the first song on Magic Giant’s debut album, “In the Wind,” you can hear birds chirping in the background. This effect is neither intentional nor artificial: “Jade” features birds because the band members found it impossible to remove them from the recording studio or edit out their calls from the rest of the sound. While this may seem like a strange problem to have, it makes much more sense with the context that the recording studio for most of “Jade” was the inside of a redwood tree.

This is the heart of what makes indie-folk band Magic Giant so unique and entertaining. Singer Austin Bisnow, lead guitarist Brian Zaghi (Zang) and multi-instrumentalist Zambricki Li are steadily breaking down every barrier between themselves, their audience and nature. This mission has manifested in arguably crazy ways, from recording live from a chairlift to hosting Camp Misfits, a weekend nature retreat entirely run by the band, full of campfire song sessions and music-accompanied hikes, now gearing up for its second year.

This Thursday, Feb. 21, Magic Giant will be performing at Off Broadway in St. Louis. In advance of their show, Student Life caught up with Li before the band began their sound check in Detroit.

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.

Jonah Goldberg: What’s your daily routine on tour?

Zambricki Li: We drive through the night, so, we usually wake up in a new city. Normally, we go find the best local coffee that we can find, and if there’s a park, or something where we can get the best of what the city could offer quickly, before sound check, we’ll try to find that. Then we have a little recording studio in the back of the bus, so sometimes we’ll work on new music for an hour. Then we have sound check, and then we’ll often do an acoustic show between that and the show. We’re trying to enjoy as much as we can in the limited time we have, since we’re basically in a new city every day.

JG: I feel like one of the hallmarks of Magic Giant is the intimate, acoustic shows. Was the degree of audience participation and closeness something you tried to include from the beginning, or did it just evolve naturally?

ZL: We actually had a show that got canceled because of the rain, at a small radio festival. We ended up with, even though it had been canceled, a bunch of people who still came. So, we did a small acoustic show for the people who still showed up. We hadn’t played like that before, and it ended up being really great; the songs kind of take on a new meaning when you’re face to face with somebody and don’t have drums and all the production behind you. It went so well that we started doing it at shows, and because of that we ended up doing an acoustic record.

JG: Is there a particular moment that’s stood out to you as feeling like, “This is why we make music?”

ZL: Camp Misfits was a big one. You know, we found the land in the Redwoods, and we decided to do it, but we weren’t really sure if people would come. It’s easy when it’s in your city, but this was four hours from San Francisco, totally removed from the rest of the world. We were kind of wondering, are people going to trust us? And they did. People didn’t necessarily know what to expect, but they trusted that we would take care of them. So, really the second day of Camp Misfits, when we were doing a show, and we had people who had come from all over the world, and for many of them it was their first time in California, their first time seeing the Pacific Ocean. For some of the people, they were trusting us with their first adventure, because it wasn’t really a vacation; we were in the middle of the Redwoods. That was probably the greatest moment for me.

JG: Camp Misfits is a pretty unique experience. Where did the idea come from? What were some of the highlights from last year?

ZL: That also came from the the acoustic shows. We had fans that would come to multiple shows on a tour, in the VIP, and we just really got to know some of these people on a closer basis because it’s such an intimate environment. We really wanted to do something that Magic Giant could completely control, from the way it feels, to the way it looks, to where it is, to who comes, to the food that’s there, basically to create our own little world. When we’re on tour, even when we’re playing at a great venue, we’re in the venue’s world. We can alter it, but it’s always still going to be a venue. Whereas Camp Misfits is our venue.

JG: How else do you like to stay connected to your fans?

ZL: Besides doing the VIPs and Camp Misfits, we try to stay in touch with everybody. There’s a Facebook group, and they self-organize and they’ll message us. If there’s ever a kind of a moment we can create with the fans outside of touring, we’ll try to do that, even if that’s just a meet-up or just making sure everybody’s okay. One thing that’s really good about people who come to a lot of our shows is that they kind of take care of each other; they’ll travel together and look out for each other.

JG: Is there a message you try to leave your listeners with?

ZL: In the songwriting, we find ourselves being really drawn to the triumph of the human spirit. Even when things aren’t going amazing or how you thought they were going to be, you can triumph over that. It’s not necessarily just remaining positive, but being open to the possibility that this will pass and that there are finer things ahead.

JG: What’s the songwriting process for the band?

ZL: We’ll start writing songs individually, coming up the basic concepts. Then we’ll share our songs with each other and talk through what the song’s about, and make sure it’s something everyone’s excited about. When it comes to songs, they usually speak for themselves, and usually it’s pretty obvious the ones everyone connects to. Then, a lot of times, we’ll rewrite them as we go. Even along this tour, we started with songs that were “finished,;” we’ll play them at shows and then see if there are any improvements we can make. Because we pretty much have a studio with us, we’re able to go in and change,; and by the time we finish the tour, some of the songs will be more fully realized.

JG: What’s been your favorite studio experience?

ZL: We had our new song come out on Friday called “Rocketman,” and that’s been really fun because it was the first new song we’ve done since our album came out—and we were able to take all the things we learned from the first record and apply that to this new batch of songs. It’s also a bit of a reflection of the touring life. We started writing it in Paris. And this song is kind of about loving someone the way they want to be treated and loved.

JG: Who are your non-musical idols?

ZL: I really like Tim Ferriss [entrepreneur and author of “The 4-Hour Workweek”]. He talks about lifestyle design, and none of it is directly tied to entertainment, but I like his form of experimentation and how he goes into very specific details on how to live. It works nicely in parallel with touring, because things can be kind of hectic and overwhelming, and Tim Ferriss has a good way to explore taking care of yourselves and almost making a game out of it.

JG: How many instruments do you play?

ZL: When it’s live, I play violin, viola, banjo and harmonica. And I have a rule where I don’t really say I play an instrument unless I’ve committed my life to it and own it. So, in studio, I’ll play guitar, piano, ukulele and these others where I could probably give you a little tune on it, but there are eight that I’ve really given my life to.

JG: Have you or the other band members picked up any new skills since starting the band?

ZL: We all have. When we first met Zang, he was a bass player. We were just so attracted to his vibe and the overall person he is that we brought him in, and he literally became a guitar player. And I’ve learned a lot from Zang about creating videos and how to frame something, to look at something and see it in an artistic way.

JG: What’s next for the band after this tour?

ZL: “Rocketman” came out this week. Then we have a music video that we shot for it in the Bahamas, coming out a week after. We’ll also be playing at Firefly in Delaware and a few other festivals, and then Camp Misfits comes again in late September. Then we’re going to finish the rest of our second album, most of which we’ve written on tour. When we come off the road, we’re going to take some of the time to let the dust settle and complete which songs we’re putting on the album.

Sign up for the email edition

Stay up to date with everything happening at Washington University and beyond.