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The Vault

In The Vault, you'll find a collection of old feature pieces from our back issues. Beta started in June 1999, so you'll find a veritable history here.

  The Magic and Sadness of George


Suzy Mangion and Michael Varity are George. They come from Manchester in the north of England. Their 2003 debut album The Magic Lantern went largely unheard, but the people who discovered it probably fell in love with its mesmeric balladry and sad textures. You did, too? Well, you would, too.

An initial listen to Mangion's expressive voice conjures up several impressions: Mimi Parker from the Minnesota band Low, a young Joni Mitchell and possibly a more restrained Kate Bush. Varity takes the lead vocal on only one song on the record, but his instrumental contributions lend the duo's music a steady warm vibe. Although The Magic Lantern is a debut, sometimes lo-fi sounding record, it is charged with a valiant sense of experimentation. Homemade electronics, analog synthesizers and archaic drum machines are the preferred tools, not laptops or Pro-Tools technology. The duo are thrilled with their first flush of success, and speak to Beta's Lee Chung Horn

What was the reception to "The Magic Lantern" like in the UK? The US?

MICHAEL: Well, the main source of feedback came from the internet, from reviews and posted opinions. Most people who reviewed the album loved it. There didn't seem to be any lukewarms or quite-likes, people really liked it, so in that respect, the reception has been very good. In the UK particularly, we could get feedback from our friends and from people at gigs, so I have a pretty good idea it has gone down well.

SUZY: It took us three years to finally finish and secure a release for this record, so it definitely feels as if it was worth it in the end, that we eventually received three years worth of appreciation! I havenít read a single line about the record anywhere that wasnít complimentary, so this makes following it up a little self-conscious.

How did you get promotion for the record?

SUZY: When you release a record on a small independent label, you don't have the capability, nor necessarily the desire, to saturate the market with media coverage in one go. But such a lack of PR resources could have worked in our favor. We got a slow, steady stream of write-ups every month that, I think, extended the shelf-life of our record, and thatís extremely important. You can buy peopleís attention for a limited period, but you cannot buy your way into their life. The only way to do so is make the best record you can and hope that people will sincerely like it enough to listen to it for more than a fortnight, to talk about it, play it to other people. The fact that people listen to it around the world is exciting as it is! Weíre still desirably obscure since I still have to hawk it in Manchester shops myself!

When did you both start, individually and collectively, to make music?

MICHAEL: As a "solo artist", I started playing small keyboards as a little child. Now Iím a big child Iím playing on big keyboards! Suzy and I met at college. Iíd tried writing songs and music before then but never really was serious about it until we met. I think it was a sense of competitiveness on both sides that drove us on to try and better each other, and ourselves.

SUZY: I always remember being musically minded, and started piano at 7. I wasnít allowed lessons before, although I did play at home. I remember my hands were too small; they still are - I really struggle to span a octave with one hand! At 14, I started writing songs and instrumental pieces, and I remember the exact moment when it  happened. It was a sudden realization; I was so tremendously excited by this realization that I could write tunes that didnít belong to anyone else, sounded exactly how I wanted them to be. It really was a precise turning point in my life, as if Iíd suddenly discovered that what I thought was my home was only a small room in a most wonderful, unmappable building. The other defining moment would probably be accidentally meeting Michael at our sixth-form college and deciding to try making music together. That was about 9 years ago now. Double-acts are funny things, peculiar marriages. I think weíve always infuriated each other, but in such a way as to create a positive noise.

Both of you are musicians. Who plays what?

MICHAEL: On all the records we play various things: keyboards, guitars, percussion, organs, banjos, chairs. Itís not exclusive as to who plays what. When weíre working on a song weíll both try lots of things on any of the instruments we have. Itís more a case of what works rather than who plays what.

SUZY: Thank you for asking! There's a deep-rooted misogyny among music press that cannot move past the assumption that a boy-girl duo must be divided into "lady who sings" and "man who does all the complicated music stuff". This assumption really riles me! Itís a very balanced world in the George music room, despite me being the bossy one. We both write, we both sing, we both play guitar, we both play keyboards, and we come up with sounds and rhythms. We both play at being producer together. It really is far more equalized than you might think. But on some tracks, we worked alone. For instance, I have very little to do with "Bandstand", and Michael has very little to do with "Whirligig".

Is it all just the two of you, or are there other musical collaborators?

MICHAEL: In terms of writing and production it is very much just the two of us, but other people have played on our songs. When other people come and help us we gently push them in the direction we would like to go rather than collaborating. Thatís not to say itís a musical dictatorship! Itís more that we know people who volunteer to be session musicians!

SUZY: My husband Anthony has become a wonderful touring part of George. He plays drums, and plays them in splendid Mo Tucker/Ringo Starr style which is perfect for me, those being my favorite drummers. Getting a "real" drummer involved wouldnít be good. Theyíd keep trying to fill the gaps with drum rolls, theyíd be really bored with my orders - "no, no, too many beats". He also plays guitars. We have some friends who play cello and viola sometimes, and have had violin players briefly. Iím very excited as Iím hopefully recording some whistling soon for a track weíre working on. The boss of my day-job, whom I think is an excellent whistler, with a real Roger Whittaker timbre, is helping us. I really like whistling, and yodeling. Two wondrous vocal skills at which I sadly cannot attain proficiency! People do ask to collaborate.

I guess this way you have control.

SUZY: Iím extremely protective about my music. I enjoy working in isolation. When outsiders play on it, itís usually a rehearsed and planned part. I like structure in my music, and I donít know what might happen if I let other people in. I think we need strictness, Iím so fearful of sloppiness and mediocrity. Sometimes I must come across as a control-freak, but the intensity of working with a quiet man like Michael is really far better for me than the democracy of a band collaboration. Much as I may like music made via that method, I have a horror of group improvisation. I can do improvisation but very quickly, Iíll get a tune or a fragment, and want to stop, work on it, use it. I would hate to have to go along with everyone else!

What in your opinion makes for a well written song?

MICHAEL: As a whole, I donít like to think too much about what makes a well-written song. I donít want to deconstruct songs. I canít take the approach of "why is this flower beautiful?" and then trying to find out by pulling the petals off and looking at them in minute detail under a microscope. I try to keep it simple, have a lyric thatís not too wishy-washy, and have a few little surprises if I can!

SUZY: Iím personally always aiming for a piece of music that is completely surprising and new, yet somehow sounding like the song youíve always known, always dreamt about but half-forgotten. As perhaps the most exciting poetic language can infuse the ordinary with a sudden brilliance, or a metaphor can add a new life to an old image, a song should be able to combine these two extremes of "known" and "not yet known". I like to have a small piece of familiarity in the song I write, an inch of home. When you have that space marked out, you can then turn the song into the most unexpected, yet somehow almost inevitable, event. Songs and music, like writing, are stitched together, patchwork-style, from every musical idea youíve heard. I get rather annoyed with music which feels to me to have been stitched together from what I would have thrown away; as if you are folding paper to make a cut-out frieze, cutting carefully around the edges to make a beautiful picture, and someoneís making do with the scraps, and not guessing whatís missing. And lots of pauses and breathing space in the song itself.

Do you tour?

MICHAEL: We hardly used to play gigs, let alone tour. Weíve never hit the road and done a few nights in a row but recently, weíve embraced the gig, doing them quite frequently. I used to hate them. I was frightened by them, absolutely terrified! But now I think Iíve kind of got used to the nerves, and enjoy them now.

SUZY: Ever since The Magic Lantern, weíve been lucky to play some very memorable gigs in the UK, mainly courtesy of Pickled Egg, allowing us to play, for the first time, with other inspiring musicians. We havenít done consecutive gigs yet, just the odd weekend here and there, and weíve never left the country to perform. Iím sure in time these things will unfold, and weíll manage. But at the present time we have day-jobs, and Iím quite a milksop who likes home comforts and cups of tea, and the touring regime isnít one Iím desperate for!

I didn't want to ask this, but I am repeatedly struck by how much you sound like a British version of the Minnesota band Low. Were they ever a favorite or an inspiration, and do you by chance know Alan and Mimi?

MICHAEL: Low were a very big influence in developing our early sound, definitely. Our four-track recordings from about  five or six years ago stand testament to that, most of which haven't yet been released. We didn't try to imitate them, nothing like that. They were in the right place at the right time! And Iím afraid we donít know them. Weíve been to see them play, and Suzy was once brave enough to give them a copy of our old EP "As Houses"!

SUZY: Thatís ok to ask! At least itís not The Carpenters! I have to say that the influence is definitely on my side rather than on Michaelís. Iíd also say itís definitely lessening now, and I donít even listen to them so much now in comparison to when we first got going, but certainly when this band first became just Michael and myself, I was turning from a more conventionally indie background as a teenager, to trying to work out how to make music without all those conventional band-members youíre supposed to have  - you know, lead guitarist and bass player and drummer -- that was when I really started listening in earnest to the hypnotic, intense music of Low, Mazzy Star, Velvet Underground, Nico, Elliot Smith. I remember just as we started rehearsing as a duo making a compilation tape for Michael with music from Songs for A Dead Pilot, the third Velvets record, Nicoís The Marble Index, Red Apple Falls by Smog, Leonard Cohen. I like the melancholic feel, the careful sparseness, and the feeling that this sort of wondrous sound could be made by so few, and on such a small budget. That small-scale or lo-fi doesnít have to sound shoddy or shouty. Secret Name has to be the peak of my Low obsession, it's one of those records you can pinpoint exactly to a particular time in your life, and re-access almost intact feelings from then. The harmonies obviously got to me, and how to record the vocals so they work, but thatís really because Iíve always done harmonies. It just so happened that at the same time I discovered Low I was harmonizing with one other man so the sound was a little coincidental.

Did you meet them?

SUZY: I once went backstage to talk to them, it was a mistake. I think they thought I was about 13, I gave them a vinyl record of ours, they were polite and seemed pleased, but probably not terribly impressed. Iím not very good at such things, I doubt they ever listened to it! Itís been a good lesson to me about not meeting the people you admire. The pedestal is lovelier from afar!

What's behind your band name, George? It's not Van Morrison's "Madame George", is it?

MICHAEL: George is a salute to all Georges from history, it seemed right at the time. Now, really we see it only as our collective name, nothing more than that.

SUZY: Well, itís been there for a long time now, and Iíve kind of lost touch with the reasons why, but the name remains like that given to a child, or an authorís pseudonym. When we record music, when I write it, it feels like it belongs to George rather than to Suzy Mangion. No itís not Van Morrison.

Do you like Van Morrison?

SUZY: When I first listened to that album, probably only about a year ago, I was excited to discover a song called "Madame George", but I have to say I was terribly disappointed. Not very George-like at all! The only song I really like from that record is "The Way Young Lovers Do" which is a sensational, skip-along joyous tune.

What plans for 2004?

MICHAEL: 2004 - hopefully more gigs, and weíre currently in the middle of recording a batch of new songs, but we're not quite sure what form any future releases will take, but weíre getting there. Itís fun all round, which is the main reason for doing this, and keep doing it!

SUZY: Weíve just had an EP released in Spain called All Good Things with four songs, recorded before The Magic Lantern. 2004 so far seems to be a year of banjo playing and whistling. And making really good picnics to take to gigs.

© Beta Music 2004