Stories from the Rotterdam Poppodium: Dion and the Magic Chords
One can say many things about Rotterdam, but not that it lacks artistic potential. This series aims to introduce you to Dutch musicians in Rotterdam who are definitely worth listening to.
Have you ever noticed how contemporary art forms, such as industrial installations or multimedia performances, rather than create from scratch, often re-assemble or even recycle fragments, styles and themes? It is a phenomenon Michel Foucault referred to as postmodernism, and the frame through which I became interested in Dion and the Magic Chords.
The duo composed of Dion Woestenburg ("organ, keys, buttons, switches, knobs," according to the band’s official website) and Griffin Stuip (drums) use organ sampled instrumentals, drum beats, and visual puzzles made of Youtube videos and movie clips to create what Woestenburg describes as "catchy and dark" sound.
A sound that is hard to place in any music genre. Some might call it bubblegum pop, others might refer to it as krautrock, but it’s most definitely cinematic. The keyboard buttons they press can be anything from ska, to bossa nova, or harp, and as they are mixed, the music experience becomes as original as it is postmodern.
The band’s first LP is scheduled for release on vinyl and for download on December 21, as part of the Paradise Garage series of events in Gay Palace Rotterdam. The LP is entitled "Curiosa" because "all songs are made out of curiosity of trying out sounds on instruments," as Dion puts it, and each of the ten tracks on the album are curiosities in and of themselves, featuring complex sound arrangements and guest musicians playing saxophone, guitar, trumpet, and violin.
Dion and The Magic Chords began making music in 2006, when Dion was giving live performances using tape recordings to create soundscapes and try to convey stories. He describes those early days as "A bit too experimental, even for my taste." When drummer Griffin Stuip joined the project, the music acquired more energy and structure.
Since it can be difficult to retain an audience’s attention when music is only instrumental, Dion teamed up with a visual artist, who complemented the music with videos, mostly made up of images from films, videos, ads, and the web which each track evokes for Dion.
Ideas for the visuals came from the 1982 movie "Koyaanisqatsi" ("Life out of Balance"), which is basically an array of photographs set to the music of Phillip Glass by documentary maker Godfrey Reggio.
As it is now, the live performance creates a psychedelic, fun, and at times funny experience, with shifts in the music corresponding to movements on screen and pulling you into the music as into a video game, featuring cars driving through in the desert, caramel sliding onto a bar of Snickers, and a contestant competing on "The Price is Right." No wonder the duo have built up a following at their gigs around Rotterdam’s alternative venues and festivals.
The name of the band reminds me of a children’s superhero book title, and Dion is in fact in the process of writing a children’s book called "The Red Balloon." Some motifs from the book even appear in the band’s visuals, such as the balloon itself, as well as a snake charmer.
However, the band’s name actually comes from a late ‘70s GEM Rodeo organ Dion got from a friend which has a button called "magic chords." Those chords are the starting point of the creation process, as Dion listens to the different sounds and modulates them into a melody.
For Dion, music is a part of his life, a "diary." Music contains time, and archetypes, as he finds more in pieces of music than meets the ear. Though he believes that his music "shouldn’t sound like anything, but be played as it is," it nevertheless is inspired by things like Kraftwerk, Genesis (which is not really obvious), the "Deer Hunter" theme as played by The Shadows, and even Jonny Greenwoods’s "Bodysong."
Dion also listened to the album "Kid A" by Radiohead every night for a year, fascinated by the instrumental parts. For Griffin, inspiration comes from bands such as Led Zeppelin and Trans Am.
The biggest challenge for Dion and the Magic Chords is making sure their concerts have a good sound, despite their use of rather old music instruments. The band members often handle the technical aspect of performing as well, and during live shows, Dion is busy with both the music and the mixing.
"One button can make a difference between sound and no sound," he says, adding that having to focus on the music is another reason it can be hard sometimes to connect with the audience.
"Do you seek fame and fortune?" I ask. "Yes," Dion answers. Dion and the Magic Chords wish to make it big... in the underground. While Dion is well aware of the modest place his band currently occupies in the music scene, he’s preoccupied with making an album that sounds like it does in his head - an "egocentric fate," he adds.