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Electromagnets - Selling Jazz to the Schlock-Rock Hardheads

by Cliff Endres

"The 'Magnets are the best fu**in' band in the world!"
- Restroom wall at Castle Creek

The Electromagnets, winners of the jazz division of the Sun's band poll, have been blessed from the start with an audience which, if not enormous, has always been fervent. In the summer of 1973, when they made their debut at the Nickel Keg, an out of the way club in San Marcos, it sometimes numbered five.

The Electromagnets at the 'Dillo!Times have changed. With no loss of enthusiasm, their audiences have multiplied so that the band can count on a couple of hundred listeners at any of their increasingly rare Austin performances. Not bad for a non-boogie, non-glitter, non-progressive country quartet of serious musicians.

Now at last a record has appeared. With it, critical pats on the back have begun to trickle in summer finds them in the process of trying to break from the regional to the national scene, from around the country, and the 'Magnets are thinking of bigger and better things. This an especially tricky feat, since their appeal is to the listener with intellectual quality seldom associated mass audiences.

The Electromagnets music is difficult to describe, but "jazz-rock" is as close as anything else around. Influenced especially by Weather Report and Chick Corea's Return to Forever, the 'Magnets differ from many another group playing jazzy rock by their deep familiarity with jazz structures and their ability to fuse these patterns with, not simply pile them upon, rock rhythms.

At present, Electromagnets is a four man band with Bill Maddox on drums, Kyle Brock on bass, Steve Barber on keyboards, and Eric Johnson on guitar. Their story is a central chapter in the history of jazz in Austin.

Eric Johnson in 1976!The nucleus was a thing called Aussenhorowitz, which consisted solely of Bill Maddox and Steve Barber sounding like twice as many people as they combined drums, keyboards, and a shared bass line to mix jazz-like harmonies with your basic boogie. Aussenhorowitz, however like its prototype, The Booger Band from Atlanta, met with zero commercial success and quickly perished.

Maddox and Barber then picked up bassist Brock and reedman Tomas Ramirez and formed a group called the Edsels. Ramirez of course went on to work with the Lost Gonzo Band and, Lately, the Jazzmanian Devils, but he was one of the first and most important shapers of the jazz element in the Electromagnets.

More jazzmen came and went. The Edsels expanded into an 11 piece band including Larry Crook and Nick Phelps (both now with Nova) and John Treanor (currently with 47X) and changed their name to the Lurching-Id Bop Orchestra. Influenced by a range of musicians from Albert Ayler to Tower of Power, their ascent was incandescent but regrettably brief. The Austin area was not ready for the Lurching-Id Bop Orchestra.

But the LIBO was an interesting and zany focus for the embryonic Austin jazz scene of that time, and out of it came the original Electromagnets in the summer of 73. This band consisted of the original band minus Eric Johnson plus assorted floating percussionists and horn men and was crazy. At the Nickel Keg the band gleefully enjoyed concocting sight gags, ritually sacrificing hamburgers and performing similar spontaneities specifically designed to alienate proponents of boogie music. In between tricks they also played some good stuff. As a San Marcos newspaper, coincidentally named Weather Report, said, "These guys are incredible. Sure it;s hard to boogie to an intricate 35/4 rhythm, but then, this is music...The next morning, I woke up and all my warts were gone."

Stephen Barber in the Electromagnets!In January 74 the Magnets dropped the horn section and added Eric Johnson and their music began growing into its present somewhat more commercially viable form. Although trained in classical music, Johnson was very much influenced by Jimi Hendrix and other hard rockers like Led Zepplin. He came to the Magnets from Mariani, a rock band at on home the bills with ZZ Top and Bloodrock. Johnson is a brilliant guitarist by any standards more accessible to an audience of whom a large part has never heard of John Coltrane or Eric Dolphy. In Johnson's solos you can hear Allman and Clapton--bright stars in his galaxy and his ability to blend rock riffs into jazz arrangements has made the 'Magnets material of models--but if you listen more closely you can sense Django Reinhardt and Charlie Christian coming up over the horizon.

An outstanding trait of the Electromagnets is their ability to listen to one another and therefore to function as a unit rather than a rhythm section supporting a couple of flashy soloists. True, Barber and Johnson often exchange leads in intricate and soaring dialogues that leave the listeners spinning, but their ears remain wired to percussion and bass. A nod from Maddox and the music turns on a dime, the time shifts, Brock bass launches into a run and Johnson and Barber are there riffing behind him. ESP, some call it, but the 'Magnets call it the New Electric Musik.

Larger Audiences and Regular Meals

The Original Album from the Electromagnets!Their new album is called Electromagnets. Recorded at Odyssey Sound in Austin, originally as a demo tape, it was re-mastered at A&R Records in Dallas. To produce the record the 'Magnets formed their own record company, but it will be distributed by Jem Records, Inc. Jem is also chief importer of ECM and Island Records, notable respectively for European jazz and Jamaican reggae.

Mostly pleased with their new effort, the band is hoping that the album will gain them a larger audience and more regular meals. For the 'Magnets are faced with a problem common to avant-garde jazz groups in a schlock-rock culture: how to maintain integrity and at the same time survive. Recently, for example, they were fired from a Houston club because their music "didn't sell enough whiskey." The answer, as they see it, is to educate their audiences--not to drink whiskey, but to appreciate advanced music. So, with over seven hours of material to draw on, they tailor their music to the audience, beginning with the a pronounced rock orientation and gradually moving into more subtle rhythms and harmonic complexities.

The crusade appears successful, since not only 'Magnets audiences but the local jazz scene has grown remarkably in the last three years. Commenting on KLRN'-TV's Austin City Limits program, Electromagnets manager Park Street noted " Jazz in Austin is expanding, while progressive country has leveled out. That title 'Austin City Limits' is totally misleading, and it's a disservice to serious musicians. People will think there's nothing here but rednecks."

Like the 'Magnets live work, most of the material on the album is instrumental. A couple of tracks contain vocal work by Steve Barber and Chris Geppert, but it is mere flavoring. The record's material is obviously the result of a joint effort, and credits are divided fairly evenly among the band, still, the guiding hand of Barber appears most distinctively. This is only natural, since the keyboard man has years of training in composition at Southwest Texas, where he studied harmonics theory and became extremely interested in twentieth century 'serious' music, especially Stockhausen's.

Thus the jazz of the 'Magnets is less blues and funk oriented and more cerebral than is usual. It is also admirably suited to electronic instruments, as Barber's work on electric piano, organ, and Mini Moog synthesizer testifies.

Electromagnets offers a pleasing variety of tunes ranging over the large part of the spectrum from rock to jazz. Tomas Ramirez and John Treanor join the band to good effect on "Minus Mufflers," inspiring hope that the 'Magnets might once more step out into the flora and fauna of horns and reeds. From now on they won't have to play to an audience of five.

This article was from the Austin Sun, a now defunct Austin counter culture paper, and was written by Cliff Endres, a non defunct professor now living in Turkey.

For other memories, please see the story
on the "Teargassing at the Armadillo".