Magnus International, The Happy Amateur

A wave of bodies eddy up and down through the vast music cathedral that is Blå, pulsing to and fro to Magnus (Sheenan) International’s remix of Sex Judas’ “Big Sex Thing”. The Norwegian producer’s visage is illuminated in a pale blue from behind the computer screen where he twirls his red bushy beard like some sneaky wizard of Oz ready to pounce on his unsuspecting audience with yet another dance-floor filler. We’re clearly not in Kansas anymore. We’re in Oslo and this is raw Norwegian House music at it’s best. If you’re still not convinced, Prins Thomas is there to persuade you, lurking behind Magnus, shooting fleeting glances over to the computer screen, a smile creeping across his face whenever Magnus plays something off the new album, Echo to Echo. It’s why we’re all here after all, at the official release party for Magnus’ debut LP. Echo to Echo has been two years in the making, and sees Magnus International step back in time to the nineties, capturing that raw feeling of the records he grew up with and those that inspired him towards a career in music. It’s actually quite appropriate that we are here at Blå and that Magnus is behind the controls manipulating the music in a live context, because that is exactly how Echo to Echo was born, with Magnus jamming out each session until he got the perfect take; a very hands- on and physical approach. “It’s always good to feel like you work with music”; says Magnus a couple of weeks earlier when I visited him at his studio.

The attic space is stuffed with the kind of equipment that would make any electronic music geek salivate at thought of touching it. A modular synthesiser sits idly on a table while a Super Jupiter hums in the background. There’s an old MPC on a shelf and tucked away behind layers of gear that’s currently out of use, while an Octatrack just lies under an old box, patiently waiting to be touched. But Magnus couldn’t care less and is nonchalant when it comes the importance of these tools. “The freedom to work wherever you want to work is greater than this fucking equipment.” Magnus is not one to indulge any romanticism around the machines, because like the producers that popularised the machines when they first came around, they are only there to fulfil a purpose and functionality is more important than myth for the artist. It boils down to “a state of mind“, and for Magnus that state of mind can come at any time, even when he’s in his “underpants at home” staring a laptop screen. On the record however he uses “all the equipment”, refining those initial ideas later in the studio using the plethora of machines, going through “takes and takes and takes and takes“ until he lands on the best possible solutions, all in the hope of answering the question “how can this easy thing feel more organic?” This is in part where Echo to Echo gets its raw edge from, and something that Magnus really brings to light through his live performances. It’s something that’s ingrained in Magnus from those early influences of his youth and listening to the type of music that was defined by the very same necessity he likes to indulge. “I think a lot about outsider art when I think about House music, because DJs and early producers, and myself, have never been schooled in this music. There’s the DIY culture behind it.” It’s exactly here where Echo to Echo gets much of its charm. The syncopated hats, the break-beats, the pads and those slinky Juno bass lines, are all entrenched in the DIY aesthetic of dance music’s earliest practises. “The DIY thing is what speaks to me and I think it speaks to a lot of people. Modern house music would have never been the same if the happy amateur hadn’t made those mistakes.”

It was those happy amateurs that inspired Magnus in his pursuit on Echo to Echo to capture some of the music he encountered as a youth, listening to mixtapes like “Detroit’s third Wave.” It’s through compilation albums like that where a young Magnus fell in love with tracks like Claude Young’s “Impolite to Refuse” and particularly the atmosphere they created on those early releases, padding the textures with light synthesised sonic landscapes. “What seems to be the common denominator are the pads and strings. It’s the Carl Craig strings. I was always thinking about making a ‘songs of the revolutionary art’ type album, but I think I failed. I’m not Carl Craig talented.” Magnus breaks out in a hearty laugh as he says this while reclining back in his studio chair. He pulls out Detroit’s Third Wave from a bag of records lying on the floor against the wall, referring to the Impolite to refuse as the Petri dish from which all his music evolved. “A lot of my stuff comes from that song, it really blew my mind.” It’s not necessarily the type of reference you’d expect from a Norwegian artist if you follow the music media’s advice.

I’ve really been surprised lately to see how much of the music media still grasp at the last shreds of the Nu-Disco label when they refer to Norwegian music and especially to Echo to Echo. As Magnus mentions more of the influences on the album – artists like LFO and Carl Craig – it’s obvious that his debut album is so much more than a sub-genre. Echo to Echo is ingrained in a simpler time when “everything just melted together” says Magnus and sub genres hardly existed. “We have so much more music now that you can be rather more snobbish about your style. Ironically the things that were eclectic have become a sub-genre. We have made a monster!” Magnus couldn’t be happier when Echo to Echo confuses journalists. “When I get asked the question, is this really a House album, I get really happy.” His intent was in part to get back to that time, before labels like nu-disco and Tech-house existed, a time when genres occupied merely two, perhaps even one dimension, and all the eclectic stuff in between were appreciated just for that reason. “What does Nu-Disco really mean? You can play Trance and pitch it down and it would be Nu-Disco. Genres in the old days were there to sell music magazines, and now it seems to be a way to index things on Beatport.” But they are here, and it leaves us asking what would Magnus International classify his album as on Betaport? “Balearic Downtempo. That’s where all the guys that mislabel their albums end up.”

Magnus again breaks out in a hearty laugh, that now appears like an echo from a few months earlier, when he and a few friends were sitting in Jæger’s courtyard, trying to come up for a name for his debut LP. “I make music and I call it like ‘test 4/8’.” After some unhelpful titles like “Magnus International’s Schlager hits”, Magnus eventually settled on Echo to Echo as a reference to Arthur Russell. “World of Echo was always a favourite album. I really loved the quote (and I’m paraphrasing here): ‘In the future dance music will not have drums, it will have space.’ I find it to be so poetic and I thought I would have a word play on it. It’s also an homage to the Underground Resistance. It’s a crossbreed between galaxy to galaxy and the echo.” At the time Magnus’ was unaware of R. Kelly’s “Echo”, and we soon drift off into conversation about the controversial American R&B star, which raises another interesting fact about Magnus, and something I hadn’t realised influenced the artist as much as it did. “He’s like a professional wrestler. That’s the other thing; I really wanted to do only wrestling names for the album. Everything I know about promotion and talking, I learnt from wrestling.” Magnus often spends Mondays in front of his computer screen watching the three-hour weekly show, and when he can’t invest the time, he’ll catch up on the latest wrestling news through podcasts, from all over the world. “If you want to be a hipster, wrestling fan, you watch the Japanese stuff.” His favourite wrestler is Japanese acrobat Shinsuke Nakamura whose “character is like a coked-up eighties Michael Jackson impersonator” and I get a clearer impression of Magnus and the entertainment value he appreciates. It’s something I can discern coming through on Echo to Echo too in fact.

Titles, like ‘Zap the Cat’ and ‘A man called Anthony’ are playful yet seriously engaging, much like a wrestler that’s happy to break his back doing stunts for entertainment value. Every track on the album contains some of that quirky charm Magnus is known for and even though we get the odd dance floor track in the form of ‘Synths of Jupiter’ what we get in the end is a listening album that can be enjoyed at home as much as it can liven up the dance floor. “This is music I can do my dishes to.” Although Magnus’ initial sights were set on creating an album of “Dixon” tracks, we was soon persuaded otherwise, by none other than Prins Thomas’ unwavering experience and learning that the track Dixon actually played was “the ambient interlude, Zap the cat – that’s the one he liked.” He cut down some tracks to fit the album format as a result and in his work he soon came to realise that the “more you try to make that club sound, the more clichéd the track gets.”

It’s fortunate for the listener that Magnus came to this realisation, because this gave us the album experience on Echo to Echo that would’ve not arrived on its own through 11 “dance floor” tracks. It’s the most rounded Magnus could’ve been for an album, but it’s also just one of the many ingredients that made it such a significant album. As I speak to Magnus and I witness his live show the following week, I realise that Echo to Echo is not just merely the result of Magnus stepping back into time as an homage to the music grew up with, but it’s more like a convergence of various aspects of the artist coming together as a form of expression, and isn’t that what a debut album should be every time? In Magnus’ case it’s the DIY aesthetic he loves, alongside his focus on the live aspects of the music – the spacey synths and airy strings. It also features the influence of Prins Thomas, guiding him towards, the shorter more concise delivery of songs like “Metroid Boogie” and growing up outside of trend, where almost everything electronic fell under the House umbrella and eclecticism was finding something different within those parameters. Echo to Echo can even lay claim to some influence from Magnus’ favourite past-time, wrestling, and when all these elements converge, it’s not just an album that paraphrases the history of electronic music, but more accurately an Echo of the artist behind the music. Echo to Echo is Magnus International, wrestling fan; the live computer musician; and above all the happy amateur.


* Now go buy Echo to Echo here.