These days it all seems so simple. This past summer, “The Sweetest Touch,” serving as the first single for Gross Magic, arrived as a free download and suddenly a Brighton-based 20-year-old musician named Sam McGariggle was getting knee-jerk comparisons to Nirvana. Those three minutes were certainly filled with unkempt fuzzy riffs and an infectiously bubblegum chorus, but it was the farthest thing from ushering in a neu-wave of grunge. Still, even with as tiny a sample size that “The Sweetest Touch” provided, McGariggle’s unassuming, yet ambitious, song caused an itching want for more. In the following weeks, though, “The Sweetest Touch” grew a life of its own, and Gross Magic a mysterious aura, linking the music to everything from chillwave to Ariel Pink, without anything tangible to hang that speculation upon. Finally, though only an EP, Teen Jamz arrived as a diverse and indifferent micro-statement towards all of the assumptions and genre-tagging lobbed at a guy who just liked making big records in a small bedroom. The EP jumped through a number of influences, balancing the symphonic bombast of ’70s archetypes like the Electric Light Orchestra (whose “Mr. Blue Sky” is the obvious grandfather to “We’re Awake Tonight”) with the glammed-up swagger of T. Rex and the kaleidoscopic psych of early Flaming Lips with the sonic crash of My Bloody Valentine. Grunge and chillwave are nowhere in sight, unless you factor in the in-the-red histrionics of Gross Magic’s recording practices. When McGariggle mentions his process as “messy” in the following interview, he must also be applying this to his sound. These are huge pop hooks, ringing loud and clear, accompanied with a bevy of harmonies and vocal sleight-of-hand, but buried under a mass of blistering filters and effects. Blurred and warped, though, adds to the hallucinogenic hold of Gross Magic, as these are pop songs we’ve all heard before, just never in this headspace.
I recently interviewed McGarrigle via e-mail. Gross Magic was about to make their debut as a live band at CMJ this week, but visa issues prevented them from flying over. Hence, the mystery continues.
Your first project was called Hocus Tocus. How did it switch to Gross Magic and how did it differ musically?
Sam McGariggle: It was pretty simple. A few release offers fell through with Hocus Tocus. I’ve always had solo projects for years. I posted the Gross Magic stuff online and people asked me to play the songs live and then Sounds of Sweet Nothing asked if I wanted to release them. Hocus started in a similar way. The biggest difference musically is that I can do guitar solos in Gross Magic.
Gross Magic is quite an interesting name. Where did that come from?
SM: There’s a kids magic set, and it has eyeballs and stuff in it. I saw it when I was a child and I saw it again years later. It doesn’t mean anything, I just thought it sounded cool.
For your first EP, it’s pretty ambitious musically even though it sounds like you had limited resources to record. Do you play everything on the record?
SM: Well, I don’t have a drum kit or anything. I wrote all of the parts, but some of them had to be fake instruments on my computer. I would have liked to record a real life drummer playing, but I didn’t think anyone would hear the songs anyway.
What’s your process like when you record and play everything yourself?
SM: Messy. A lot of things have changed since I made that EP. It was a very long time ago. I record and write differently now, like how you’re supposed to, I think.
I’m reading a lot of reviews that mention grunge and Nirvana, in particular, when talking about “Sweetest Touch.” I don’t hear it. First, why do you think you’re garnering the comparisons, and secondly, does the comparison bother you?
SM: The comparisons don’t bother me. People can call it whatever they like. I agree, it doesn’t sound like grunge music to me and I wasn’t trying to make it ’90s or grunge. I think the reason people compare it to that stuff is because there are quite a lot of bands who sound like that now, so maybe they just group it together. I guess the bassline in “Sweetest Touch” is a bit like a grunge song. I don’t know.
Something that seems more inspiring to you is British glam. I hear Slade, T. Rex and Bowie. I’m curious to know your experience with that music.
SM: That kind of stuff was a fairly recent discovery for me. I just got bored of listening to American surf-rock inspired music. So for a while i didn’t really know what to listen to. I don’t really listen to any glam rock anymore. Maybe it was just a phase.
In America, those bands are well-known, but never really taken as serious as they are in the UK. As a teen in the UK, is there an indoctrination with these bands at a young age?
SM: I don’t think people take them very seriously in the UK either, especially teenagers. Most of the teenagers in the UK like Ed Shearan. I don’t take his music very seriously, or mine for that matter. Who knows?
I also hear your love of ELO in the recordings and song structures. If you had Jeff Lynne’s studio, would you try your best to make the same pomp and circumstance album as ELO or are you partial to the homespun quality of what you do now?
SM: I’d try and make things sound very big. I still listen to ELO quite a lot. They are one of the few bands I still listen to now that I did when I wrote that EP. It would be great to record a string section. I’m not sure where you put the mics for that though.
How is your first album going to continue what we initially heard on Teen Jamz?
SM: I don”t want it to be like Teen Jamz,. It will probably sound a bit like it, but I think the similarities will be unintentional. To be honest, I don’t really have a clue yet. I’m just getting started on making some songs that might be on my album.