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Interviews Magma Dragon

Interview with Dan Clark (guitars, vocals) and Kara Phillips (vocals)

Interview conducted by Edward T. Head

Date online: December 19, 2015

Magma Dragon is a relatively new Power/Folk Metal band from Milwaukee, Wisconsin. The band takes its cues from the Pathfinder series of table-top role-playing games, adding its own unique spin to the fantasy-laden metal genre. In 2014, Magma Dragon released Full Attack Action, which included all three previous demos along with six additional tracks. The band has since begun working on new material, with an EP slated in 2016, and a new full-length to follow. Vocalist/guitarist/lyricist/composer, Dan Clark, and vocalist/lyricist/composer, Kara Phillips, visited Ye Olde Metal Crypt Tavern to tell tales of their grand adventures.

Edward T. Head: For starters, tell me a bit about the formation of Magma Dragon. How did the band come together, etc.?

Dan: The band actually came together pretty quickly. Our original drummer, Dave, is a good friend of mine and he had played drums for me in one of my other bands - The Dark Clan. He had to leave that project, then a few years later, like mid-2013, got in touch to see if I wanted to start a metal band, which was something we'd talked about before, but didn't have time to make it happen. Well, this time we both had enough room in our respective schedules to make it work. We got our first bass player, Brent, pretty quickly and luckily through musician classifieds, and our keyboardist, Mercy, is my partner and also is in The Dark Clan, so it was kind of a natural fit. Because I already front (or co-front) a few other projects, like The Dark Clan, The Mighty Chouffe, and Justin Vernon's Goddamn Cabin, I didn't want to sing for Magma Dragon, but we had no luck getting a singer that we were happy with and who would stick around, so I started singing just by default so we get things rolling, with the hope that we could get a dedicated frontman. Then in 2014, Kara, our current singer, got in touch via Soundcloud, asking if we still wanted a vocalist. [She] came in and absolutely CRUSHED her audition, and has been singing for us ever since, and I stepped back to do backing vocals. It's nice because she and Mercy and I can now do three-part harmonies and such live, which we love.

Unfortunately, last December both Brent and Dave had to leave the band for a variety of personal reasons, and now we have Fabian on drums and Zakk on bass, both of whom are incredible players and terrific additions to the band. I'm really excited for our new recordings to come out so everyone can hear them.

Edward T. Head: Your Bandcamp page says that the band's lyrical inspiration is drawn from the Pathfinder games. Tell me a little about the games, and how important they are to the band.

Dan: Oh, they're very important! I play lots of Pathfinder and other tabletop RPGs (though really, mostly Pathfinder), and spend most of that play time GMing adventures, including a couple long-running campaigns that have been going for five years each, now. I also run events at GenCon, and the last two years I competed in the Iron GM World Championships down at GenCon. Last year I took second, and this year I won! I gotta plug that event, too, 'cause I played before I competed, and Iron GM is just such an incredible, well-run event that's a huge honor to be part of, and to place at all, much less win the whole thing. Anyone into tabletop RPGs should totally check it out. Lou (Agresta, event organizer) and his whole crew do an amazing job year after year.

But anyway, yeah; basically all of the songs on Full Attack Action except for "Crimson", come directly from my PFR adventures. For example, "War Cleric" is about one of my players' super-powerful character; "Rune Giant" is about when one of the groups was trying to defend a city against a siege; "Two Weeks on the Westergale" is about a particularly harrowing sea journey three PCs took, etc. One of the many cool things about having Kara in the band is she is a badass World of Warcraft player, so now we have lyrics about Pathfinder TTRPG adventures, AND video game MMORPG adventures. Variety really is the spice of life!

Edward T. Head: So Dan, along with being the vocalist and guitarist, are you also the primary songwriter and lyricist? How does a typical song come together?

Dan: I am indeed. Typically, I'll do a full demo with all the parts done – orchestra/keys arrangements, drums, bass, vox, everything – and give that to the band, then they'll learn their parts and tweak them to make them their own and we'll go from there. Lately, Kara has been getting more and more involved in writing the main vocal lines and lyrics, and that's been working out well since we have really similar mindsets about song structure and melody, and she has a great ear for a hook. She wrote all the vocals on our upcoming EP, and they're all completely awesome. I love her work. I also want to make sure I call out everybody else's contributions as well - Zakk plays five- and six-string basses and does terrific work rearranging the bass lines to more fully take advantage of the added range those instruments provide. I do the demos on a four-string bass, so it's really cool to hear what he makes happen with more bottom end. Mercy does an incredible job arranging the orchestra and/or keyboard parts in such a way they can be played by one person and still sound full and epic. Fabian adds so much life and dynamics to the drums that it's always really exciting to have that first rehearsal with a new song so I can hear the drums done in such a more detailed and dynamic way.

I also hasten to add that while this is the typical workflow, I have no problem working off other people's riffs or writing in a more collaborative manner, this is just what's been working best so far, so it's what we're sticking with. I'm totally non-dogmatic about the songwriting process. All I care about is doing what sounds good, you know? Doing what works.

Edward T. Head: So what made you decide to put together Full Attack Action?

Dan: Well, we wanted a full-length, but didn't want to record a whole new pile of songs for it, so we just compiled all our EP tracks and added our live intros/interstitials and a few new songs and that seemed to work quite well. But yeah; it was just mainly a desire to have a nice solid album in place to build on.

Edward T. Head: Were the additional five new songs (excluding "Crimson") written and recorded specifically for the album? Also tell me about the decision to record "Crimson".

Dan: They were! That's a good observation. We had indeed planned to get those tunes done for the full-length right from the get-go. As for "Crimson", I used to be in (Milwaukee Electronic band) Null Device, and Eric Oehler (Null Device founding member) is still a good friend of mine; we go to Sweetwater's Gearfest together every year, he's the other half of Justin Vernon's Goddamn Cabin with me, and we regularly do remixes and such for each other. He was going to do an album of other bands covering Null Device tracks, and I submitted a version of the classic Null Device song, "Footfalls", as covered by my project Postilion and Dream Horses, and then Magma Dragon's version of "Crimson" was intended to be my second submission to that album. Dunno when or if Eric is gonna release that project, though, so that's why I put it on Full Attack Action. "Crimson" has always been one of my favorite Null Device songs, too, so it was a lot of fun to do.

Edward T. Head: Something that stood out to me is the running order on Full Attack Action. I find it interesting the order from the demos wasn't maintained for the album, and that the new tracks are interwoven throughout. How did you decide the running order?

Dan: That was actually Dave, our original drummer. He put the order together just purely on feel, if I remember correctly. He followed his gut. We did briefly discuss maintaining song order from the EPs, but realized pretty quickly that wouldn't be the best way to sequence the songs overall, given the songs we'd written since then, and our decisions to include the interstitial bits.

Edward T. Head: Has the album drawn Magma Dragon interest from any labels?

Dan: Not in terms of doing any kind of contract deal or anything, though to be fair, we haven't tried. A couple small labels that also run their own physical stores bought a bunch of our records to re-sell, but that's about it. So we'll just continue to go it alone for the foreseeable future.

Edward T. Head: So tell me more about the new material being worked on.

Dan: We have a big pile of new songs done – 13, to be exact – and there are always more in the hopper. As I said, Kara is an avid World of Warcraft player, and she and I wrote a four-song cycle about the Jaina and Arthas mythology that we're in the middle of recording right now. Drums, guitars, and keyboard/orchestra arrangements are all tracked, and we're doing vocals and bass this weekend (Dec. 12-13, 2015). We're planning on releasing it around the time of the Warcraft movie in June. As soon as we're done recording those four tunes, we'll start on the others, with the goal of putting out both the EP and a new full-length next year.

Edward T. Head: Has Magma Dragon toured, or had the opportunity to support any "larger" bands? Any future tour plans at this time? Considering the size of the US, touring is probably not the easiest thing.

Dan: No, no touring yet. We'll get there. The landscape for indie touring is really different now than it used to be, and with the decrease in audience sizes in general at all kinds of shows, it makes less sense to just jump out there, and more sense to try to gather an audience, or at least get contacts with people in other cities via social media, word of mouth, blogs...whatever works. It used to be that you could play at a club in some far-flung town and there would be regulars there, or local bands with a draw, and you could try to win yourself some fans. These days there's not really such thing as "regulars" anymore, it seems – just speaking anecdotally here – and it's harder and harder and harder to draw people out to a club in the age of "Netflix and Chill". It's been observed by a number of nifty writers and culture-watchers that we've reached a new sort-of apex of show-going, where the vast majority of audiences don't care anymore about musicians making music – what they care about is attending an event that will give them social capital in their peer group(s). Also, it's said that while paintings and pictures are ways people decorate space, music and dance are ways people decorate time. Well, these days, folks have less time and less desire to decorate it. All this contributes to the difficulty of getting out there and touring – you gotta be more careful about ensuring that you can make it worthwhile.

Edward T. Head: What's the metal scene like in Milwaukee?

Kara: Milwaukee's metal scene is alive and well, albeit primarily a mix of Doom, Thrash, and Black metal. There is, however, some draw for the Symphonic Metal side of things, and I know there is at least one local promoter that wants to bring more Power Metal to Milwaukee, which could potentially open up more opportunities for us.

Dan: Milwaukee has always loved Thrash for some reason. No idea why. Not saying Thrash is bad, just that I don't know what it is about Milwaukee that makes its metalheads particularly enamored of that one specific genre. But anyway, yeah, still lots of Thrash around here. Also seems to be lots of Death and Black Metal – the deather and blacker the better. One good thing is that there's no shortage of venues to play here. Getting ahold of booking people is hard, but that's always been the case.

Edward T. Head: Any excitement from the Magma Dragon camp over Star Wars: The Force Awakens?

Kara: HECK YES! I have already watched all of the original Star Wars movies recently in preparation for it. Admittedly though, I will be waiting until the craze calms down a bit before venturing to the theater to see it. There isn't much choice in the matter, though, as a lot of the immediate showings are pretty much all sold out. What a bunch of nerf herders!

Dan: While I'm pumped to see The Force Awakens, I'm actually way more excited for Captain America: Civil War. Real talk.

Edward T. Head: Are there any bands/albums you're currently digging?

Kara: Lately I have found myself diving back into the entire Insomnium discography. I just love their sound, and their lyrics are very inspiring and uplifting. Besides that, I have really been into Post-Metal and Post-Rock bands like Caspian, Pelican, and Mogwai.

Dan: Intervals - The Shape of Colour, Worriers - Imaginary Life, Starlito - I'm Moving To Houston, Lizzo - Bangers, Glen Sherley - self-titled, SOMA Soundtrack, CHVRCHES - Every Open Eye, InAeona - Force Rise The Sun, Unleash The Archers - Time Stands Still, DEATH MAGIC - Health, Blood Stain Child - Last Stardust, Bridear - Light In The Dark, Homeboy Sandman - First of a Living Breed, Georgia - Georgia, Ex Machina Soundtrack, The Animal In Me - Words & Actions, Melanie Martinez - Cry Baby, DOLL$BOXX - Dolls Apartment, Tesseract - Polaris, Nile - What Should Not Be Unearthed, Niyaz - The Fourth Light, Monk & Coltrane - Live at Carnegie Hall, Guts - Hip Hop After All, School of Seven Bells - Ghostory, The Wonder Years - No Closer To Heaven, Ex Hex - Rips, Sweet Soubrette - Burning City, Lady Cannon - Whiskey Dear, Nico Vega - Fury Oh Fury, and Abnormality - Contaminating the Hive Mind. That's my whole "most recent, most-played" playlist in iTunes!

Edward T. Head: Lastly, I'm a big craft beer nerd, so I have to ask, what's that scene like in Milwaukee?

Kara: Wisconsin is all about beer (and cheese) and I am pleased to say that the craft beer culture has really evolved and become a beautiful thing! Right here in Milwaukee we have several very notable craft breweries that consistently offer great brews of both the seasonal and year-round varieties. Sprecher and MKE Brewing are probably my top two with Lakefront coming in third. If you ever find your way to the "Brew City", try to stop and check out the brewery tours and tastings. You will not regret it! Cheers!

Edward T. Head: Sounds great! Is there anything else you'd like to add?

Dan: Yeah; RULES! Thanks so much for talking with us!

Other information about Magma Dragon on this site
Review: Full Attack Action

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