By John Adamian
10:40 AM EST, November 13, 2013
Every city gets the indie rock it deserves, you might say. In Connecticut, the psychedelic soul of Bridgeport's Stepkids and the collegiate polish of New-Haven-centric Mates of States, could be used to make that point. And the noisy abrasive blare and sub-surface poetry of the Magik Markers, formed in Hartford, further extends the theory.
The Magik Markers — whose new record, Surrender to the Fantasy, comes out this month on Drag City — are not exactly from Hartford anymore. They've moved on, to Chicago, Seattle, Brooklyn and beyond over the years. (They're touring Europe this month.) But the band, which went from being a trio to a duo and is now back to its potent three-person origins, has retained some serious Hartford pride. And with its members — drummer Pete Nolan, new-ish bassist John Shaw and singer, guitarist and frontperson Elisa Ambrogio — all living now in the Pioneer Valley, just a skip north from (860)-land, the Magik Markers have returned to their New England roots.
We spoke with Ambrogio a few weeks back, in advance of the release. "My grandparents had a house in Hartford," says Ambrogio. "It was really beautiful, one of those houses that got built in the late 19th century." Ambrogio, 33, attended RHAM High School in Hebron as well as a few other schools in the Hartford area before heading off to Smith College in Northampton. She spoke from her home in Holyoke, a city that has a lot in common with Hartford, one could suggest, with its having-seen-better-days and its still-glorious 150-year-old architecture set amidst signs of boarded-up old mills and factory sites.
Ambrogio recalls the mix of Sicilian and Irish immigrants in her grandparents' neighborhood. Her recollections of a youth spent in and around Hartford has seeped into the Magik Markers' songs — though you have to sometimes listen close or get a lyric sheet to make out all of her words, which are often slightly slurred or submerged beneath the band's churning feedback and drones. The band's 2009 record, Balf Quarry, referred to a Hartford-area site famous for youthful debauchery and mysterious explosions.
"There's that thing where when you travel far away from your home it gets kind of hyper-color engraved in your mind," says Ambrogio of her Hartford references and inspirations. "It winds up being where your imagination roams."
Oddly enough, now that she and her bandmates are back in the area (Ambrogio moved to Holyoke in 2010), the lure of her local past isn't as powerful as it once was.
"I'm not in exile," says Ambrogio.
Wherever it is that Ambrogio's imagination may be roaming, the wandering seems to be doing her good. She's working on a novel, and other writing, and she's basically completed a solo record that will likely be released in 2014. And there is something volcanic and vaguely oracular about Ambrogio's outpouring of words as a singer. The Magik Markers are known for cranking out lots of material, some of which they release in small batches and sell on tour. Many of their songs emerge from extended ecstatic or anarchic jams, and Ambrogio often improvises her lyrics. This will come as a frustrating and head-scratching shock to anyone who's struggled — with all the time in the world — to put a decent lyric on the page.
Her semi-impromptu lyrics on the song "Empire Building" from the new record, give you a taste of her skills: "Dating the bones by the tell-tale bites/the elephant cavalry stopped him cold/ ending his empire-building nights/ a gathered storm due to clouds untold." Even if that's just partially off the cuff, it's better than a lot of labored lyrics out there.
It's sometimes hard to sift through the shards of sound to decipher what exactly she's saying, but the effort is rewarded.
"I appreciate the aesthetic of hardcore records, the aesthetic of buried vocals, sometimes," says Ambrogio. "I also think sometimes if you are someone who concentrates on lyrics, the rest of the song can suffer if that's all you care about."
There's a primitivist vibe to the Magik Markers — it can evoke the Velvet Underground, the Stooges, Sonic Youth, or the Shaggs, depending on your sensibilities and what track you listen to. The Markers are not simply high-IQ low-virtuosity noise-makers though. There are real patches of beauty — raw and slightly warped though they might be — like on the slow mellotron-saturated track "Young." It's a kind of melted and haunted folk lullaby, a song about scary innocence, false starts and directionless youth.
If being young and reckless are still Ambrogio's subject matter, as a performer and writer she's moved past some of the seemingly built-in contradictions of playing music that signals an I-couldn't-care-less attitude to the world.
"For me, I feel like there's a self-seriousness that's been hard to reconcile with my natural tendency to not want to take myself or the things I do seriously," she says.
Her bandmates have young families, and, like Ambrogio, they've each got numerous other musical and artistic projects to keep them busy. Ambrogio says the move back to New England has given her a focus and drive, and she's happy simply committing to the creative endeavors.
"I just want to make sure that, with whatever middling potential that I might have, that I don't sell it short," says Ambrogio. "I can do this 100 percent."
The Magik Markers
Surrender to the Fantasy / Drag City Records. Out Nov. 19.