It’s probably safe to say that Piano Magic are not your average pop or rock band. For a start, throughout its six-year history, the band, led by the somewhat maverick Glen Johnson, has been reluctant to play live, and when it deigns to do so the result is often nothing like what they put down on record.
The initial concept of the group was to be a This Mortal Coil-style outfit, with a series of contributors being orchestrated by several core members. This has certainly been the case in recording their latest album, Writers Without Homes, which features a bevvy of musical contributors including ex-Cocteau Twin Simon Raymonde, Paul Anderson from Tram, Tarwater and former ’60s folk starlet Vashti Bunyand. All these as well as Piano Magic regulars, singers Caroline Potter and Charlotte Marionneau.
The band were in town to preview the album, but with so many of the albums contributors not in the core quartet, many of its tracks, such as (Music Won’t Save You From Anything But) Silence, Postal and ‘1.30’, were actually played from a recording prior to the band coming on stage. The music was visually accompanied by a series of grainy, arty films from directors such as Bigas Luna, who recently commissioned Piano Magic to score his film Son De Mar.
The whole evening’s experience was more of a exercise in slowing down the pace of life to focus on the small, significant things which we are normally too busy to notice. The films were repetitive and cyclical, endlessly focusing on things like a solitary floating feather, or a magnified pixellated image of a woman’s face – essentially reflecting the nature of the accompanying music.
By the time the band came on stage, most of the audience were either sitting cross legged on the floor or standing, contemplatively staring into their drinks. Starting off with a homage to Joy Division, the five piece band, comprising Johnson, percussionists Miguel Marin and Jerome Tcherneyan, bassist Alasdair Steer and James Topham (formerly of Whistler) on viola, solemnly played their way through a set which, although varied, sadly lacked the fragile beauty of the tracks accompanying the film. Consequently the band ending up sounding pensive, turgid and ultimately depressing. Minor chords spiralled predictably downwards, giving The Spitz a distinctly morgue-like feel, with ponderous basslines and drum beats which were occasionally so slow a couple of times I had to quickly glance at the drummer to check he hadn’t dozed off.
It is often difficult to recreate even vaguely experimental music live. Even The Beatles gave up touring once they’d begun experimenting in the studio, and it’s clear that playing live isn’t Piano Magic’s forte. However, they still manage to create an intense, intimate atmosphere with an audience who had understandably been turned on to Piano Magic via their recorded material.
And for a band who play live as rarely as Piano Magic (this date was their only UK gig on a European tour), they had clearly made an effort to convey their music in the least compromising way possible under the constrictions placed by a live performance.