London’s own Magazine Gap returns to BuzzMusic with their highly anticipated sophomore album, 'What’s That About?' A project that displays the trio’s growth through a collection of songs recorded over the years, Magazine Gap has said that they don’t believe in ‘throwaway tracks’ in order to complete a body of work. Each track provided with 'What’s That About?' tells their own stories through different sounds and genre blends, taking us through an unexpected journey that’s rich in energy, versatility, and sophisticated storytelling. Magazine Gap spent years crafting and tweaking 'What’s That About?' and it’s safe to say that the end product was everything we thought it would be and more.
Opening the album with the fresh and uplifting intro track “Possibilities,” what strikes our attention is the groovy instrumentation right from the start. Giving us a contemporary pop taste through Alex Ho’s playful piano chords, James Keen’s funky electric guitar, and drummer Brian McCook’s smooth and steady rhythm. Once James Keen’s radiant vocals chime in, he starts off the project by delivering lyrics full of curiosity, optimism, and keeping an open mind when adversity arises. A fresh and catchy tune that starts off the album with an array of “Possibilities” to where the next track might lead us to.
James Keen’s funky and nostalgic electric guitar opens up the next energetic track “Superficial,” not to mention the incredible and whole-sounding instrumentals that Magazine Gap provides. The underlying and thrilling piano chord progressions by Alex Ho really emphasize the track’s soaring melodies. Changing up in tempo around the hook where Brian McCook hits on all the right beats and provides exhilarating rhythm with each transition. James Keen sings about pure love, without being sugar-coated and surface level. Coming so far and wanting to start fresh with someone, “Superficial” highlights love in all forms and the desire to form a deeper connection.
Through the third track “For The Ride,” Magazine Gap impressively provides more of an expansive sound through a mid-tempo merge of R&B and hip-hop. Serving us nostalgia through Brian McCook’s drum patterns and Alex Ho’s fluttery piano, the track serves a vibrant love song through James Keen’s lyrics of keeping his word of sticking by someone through thick and thin. Added electric guitar is highlighted around the bridge, and takes the song to another bright and timeless level that rains down with sublime instrumentals. A track full of compassion, honesty, and the three beating hearts that are Magazine Gap, we’re already hooked on the album.
Moving into a more soulful piece with the title track “What’s That About?”, Magazine Gap’s instrumentals just keep getting better and better. Alex Ho’s simple yet brilliant piano takes the forefront of the introduction and pulls us in with these short and sweet melodies. A track with a universal message, especially with these unprecedented times that leave us following our intuition. With lyrics about being led in the wrong direction and sensing that there’s something wrong, Magazine Gap brings in an incredibly soulful and powerful atmosphere through striking instrumentals and lyrics that represent true visionaries.
Opening the next track, “Kings, Queens & Jokers” with beautiful country-pop instrumentals and an introspective and melancholic feel through heartfelt melodies. Yet reaching the chorus, the energy is heightened to the maximum where James Keen vocalizes another universal message of playing the cards you were dealt with, as we all have a stash of “Kings, Queens & Jokers.” What keeps our hearts set on this track is Alex Ho’s mesmerizing piano and Brian McCook’s drum patterns full of life and power. Indeed a touching song lets you realize your own worth and allows you to march to the beat of your own drum.
We can really feel Magazine Gap’s hearts being poured into the captivating ballad that is “In Two Minds”. Starting off with a crashing downbeat into Alex Ho’s heartfelt chord progressions, James Keen’s short plucked electric guitar and Brian McCook’s exceptional precision on the drums. James Keen’s vocals standout with a soulful touch. He really displays his broad vocal range and effortlessly makes us feel something in our hearts. A down-tempo track that highlights a passionate relationship that once was, and that leaves behind the memories of their time together.
Bringing the energy back with the next song “Ran For Cover,” from the jump, we can hear this unique blend of genres through sparkling instrumentals. Including brass elements to add vibrance to the song, Magazine Gap took a different route by incorporating more of an acoustic-pop sound yet with a groovy reggae-like bounce. This track speaks on courage and finding the strength within yourself to choose a fight instead of flight. Reminding us that if we really believe in something or feel a certain way, we should put a voice to our inner power and stand strong on our own two feet.
The next song, “Dancing In Quicksand,” with a jazzy approach through the trio’s instrumentals, establishing that groovy mid-tempo beat. Yet quickly moving into an alt-rock sound at the hook, met with anthemic vocals and striking rock instrumentals. An interesting storyline stands out on this track, a sort of Magazine Gap inner monologue where they worried about taking their music to places outside the UK. All to realize that the most popular musical cities in the USA love and want to hear more from Magazine Gap. It was genuinely refreshing to hear a band’s point of view when planning to expand their brand.
Funk never felt so good with the next track “Snakes & Ladders,” wasting no time and opening with Alex Ho’s upbeat piano playing and Brian McCook’s steady underlying percussion, giving us prime funky melodies through their brilliant instrumental arrangements and James Keen’s fiery vocals. He sings passionately about how life is simply a game of chance, and how sometimes we get thrown into a different path and get hit with unexpected changes. A powerful song about persistence and moving forward, yet dealing with challenges head-on once you slide on down the snake’s belly.
Magazine Gap really thrives through upbeat and modern funk, especially with the next energetic track “Body Language.” Kicking off with James Keen’s groovy electric guitar and Brian McCook’s interesting take on percussion. Giving us a dynamic back and forth between James Keen’s vocals and Alex Ho’s piano, almost conversing in the universal language of music. Magazine Gap forgets all woes with this track, giving us a song to let loose and dance the night away to. It’d be nice to hear this track in a party or day club setting, as the vibes are inviting and warm like no other.
The nostalgia is real with the next song “Calling Card,” right from the intro we’re taken into a time machine through James Keen’s invigorating electric guitar, Alex Ho’s jazzy piano melodies and Brian McCook’s limitless and upbeat rhythm on the drums. Lyrically speaking, this track can really resonate with anyone who listens. Surrounding the theme of being confused in a relationship and not knowing what to do, say, or think at that moment. Knowing that the long line of confused lovers accompanies us, Magazine Gap assures us that we’re not alone in this battle.
Ending off the album with the outro track “Jericho,” Magazine Gap takes an energetic approach to folk-rock music through this textured piece. With everything from violin strings, complex drum patterns, jazzy keys, rounded acoustic guitar, unexpected saxophone, and James Keen’s vocals, we can hear why Magazine Gap chose this well-tooled track to end the album off. A unique lyrical take with this song, surrounding ancient laws and rituals yet in a modern-day sense. Letting us know that when lows are low, it’s natural and incredibly reasonable to be cynical when searching for the truth. An excellent way to end off the 'What’s That About?' album, Magazine Gap, has created 12 tracks of greatness for all to appreciate and relate to.
Be sure to listen to 'What's That About' here.
Welcome back to BuzzMusic, Magazine Gap! We truly weren’t expecting this unique and diverse sound that you provided with all 12 tracks on “What’s That About?”. Could you expand on what pulled the band into this different and experimental route?
Thank you very much – that’s a cool comment, and much appreciated. To your good question, whilst all three us have very different musical experiences and tastes, with some notable overlaps, we all share a desire to create music that is rich, varied, and continually evolving, to not repeat ourselves or sound like anyone else. This album is an extension of a journey we’ve been on for a while, so is borne out of the experience with the first album (and indeed the solo album I made with Cookie before that), wanting to raise the bar even higher. Every song had to offer something we’ve not done before and/or a sound that was new.
Seeing as 9 out of 12 tracks on 'What’s That About?' were created long before the album’s release, how did Magazine Gap arrange the collection of songs to create one fluid body of work?
We actually never set out to make an album as such, but rather keep writing, recording and releasing music, whether as singles or EPs. Whilst each set of tracks was embarking on something new, we were always keenly aware of the ‘thread’ of what runs through the Magazine Gap sound such that you could never put together any of our songs from any album in a playlist and think it’s someone else. Our music is a journey, but the players are the same, so there’s clear consistency – the songs are all produced by Cookie as well, so it’s as much his captaincy of this that makes it sound so seamless when we put all 12 songs together. If anything, it surprised us how wonderfully well they worked together since they weren’t designed to necessarily be combined, but it’s very exciting for people to hear this whole album from start-to-finish and experience that richness.
We’ve heard that Magazine Gap wanted “What’s That About?” to spark and satisfy curiosity, that being said what tracks do you think emphasize this statement the most?
Hard to pick favorites as such, since they are all a labor of love, but will try to answer that specific question! Definitely the first track “Possibilities” because it’s a very contemporary, funk-pop song and we felt it was the standard-bearer for the album. Certainly “Dancing In Quicksand” because it tells something of our story when we started out and has a cool but unexpected vibe. The title track, “What’s That About?”, stands out because it’s like nothing else we’d ever heard and felt like a real result of the three of us putting in ideas that let to something unexpected but very exciting. Probably “Calling Card” because it’s incredibly complex and challenging to write and perform, but all the more rewarding for it. And finally “Jericho” because the lyrics are very thought-provoking and we wanted to emphasize that however much you like the music, we put as much effort into crafting lyrics that say something interesting and different as well as fitting the melody so effortlessly that there is a danger you almost let them wash over you without stopping to dig a little deeper!
It’s been said that Magazine Gap wanted to bring in a completely different sound with “What’s That About”? How did the three of you manage to steer away from any sound you’ve done before and bring in something completely new?
Another really good question! To clarify, and to be consistent with the answer to your second question, it’s not a completely different sound but rather an evolution of ideas with different soundscapes in order not to repeat ourselves. But it still sounds like us. It’s not though the last album was a, say, rock album, and this one is an R&B or reggae album for instance. Our music has always blended different genres.
After the first album, the way we came to write together is to start by jamming through ideas. Maybe it’s a beat that Cookie has been thinking about, maybe it’s a melodic idea that Alex has been working up, or maybe it’s a riff that I’ve been playing around with. But it has to be the three of us in a room throwing in ideas. With our debut album, “Light & Shade”, I would bring a song to the band and we’d then put a Magazine Gap flavor to it – only 3 songs on this new album were like that and they were actually written before we started the new project. Most of them were deliberately written when we were all in the same room so it had to be something that not one of us could have come up with on our own.
In terms of what becomes songs, mostly it’s just spontaneous from playing together and something surprising emerges. Sometimes Cookie just starts playing a particular groove, then Alex bounced off that with something very funky, often leaving me wondering where I can find a place to come it, but eventually I do and then we do more of a call and answer. Critically, we all have to be thinking that it’s something different and surprising.
The key is also to record ourselves doing this so you can just enjoy the flow of where the music takes you without overthinking it or worrying about remembering it, then listen back sometime later and pick out what stands out. I was walking down the street one day with my phone on shuffle and one rehearsal track randomly came up that I barely remembered but immediately realized had something special – I played it to the guys at the next writing sessions and we started writing what became “For The Ride” off the back of it.
Once the lockdown is over, we can’t wait to get back into more of this and once again pushing ourselves and see what comes next. It’ll surprise and delight us first, then after all the typical time and effort poured into crafting a 3+ min song from that, our audience. But that’s for another day. For now, we’re thrilled to showcase what we’ve been beavering away for over these last six years!