Artist Spotlight: Magic Giant
“People come to shows and for the first song they have their arms crossed… By the third song they’re full on krunk. Mothers of two just slam dancing.”
If anyone else would have described their show like this, I would have been skeptical. Magic Giant, however, I believed. I got to sit down with Austin Bis and Zambricki Li between SXSW shows, and never have I been met with so much energy. No handshakes — hugs only, and constant laughing. The band’s personality matches its music. Nothing, however, can compare to Magic Giant’s live shows.
Austin promised me “full on krunk,” but I assumed that a rainy morning show at Whole Foods might be an exception. But the show played out exactly as Magic Giant said it would. The small crowd milled around as the first song started, but within 30 seconds everyone drew near the stage. Within three minutes, we were all out dancing in the pouring rain. The music was infectious, and so was the energy.
Austin singing, Zambricki on harmonica and strings, and Brian Zaghi on cello/bass and guitar. No one ever stopped moving. Austin danced into the crowd and climbed a retaining wall. Needless to say, I attended a second… and a third show. If you haven’t been able to experience a Magic Giant show yourself, get to one soon. But in the meantime, get to know Austin and Zambricki.
Your sound has been described as rave-folk. Is that accurate? How would you describe it?
Austin: We like that because it paints a picture of what the live shows are like. So often people come to the show and the first song they have their arms crossed and by the third song they’re full on krunk. Mothers of two just slam dancing. For that reason “rave folk” is accurate. I don’t know if it’s accurate sonically, necessarily. We do have EDM elements in our music, and it’s a dance party, so we’ll take it.
Zambricki: We were describing ourselves as “folk revival that likes to dance.” We’re more progressive than a lot of bands that would call themselves folk revival.
Austin: A lot of folk that we’re drawn to is so mellow, so “rave folk” nails it, in that it’s banjo and fiddle, but jumping up and down.
Zambricki: We like creating dense party tracks with a lot of organic instruments.
Y’all incorporate a ton of instruments. Zambricki, what’s a mandolin?
Zambricki: The mandolin is tuned like a violin and strummed like a guitar. Using instruments other than guitar lends itself to hearing other things, like the DJ samples. The mandolin gives variation to the sound and makes EDM elements stand out.
Austin: He also plays fiddle, banjo…
Zambricki: Austin went to school for music composition and I’m self taught, all the string instruments. When we’re making recordings it’s really cool because we basically have a full strings section. We did like 87 parts. It’s like Austin’s the conductor and I sit in chairs around the room to create this whole spacial sound. Cello, viola, violin. It’s kinda bananas, creating an orchestra piece-by-piece.
Zambricki: I’m pretty busy during live shows. I play two instruments at a time. That allows us to bring sounds from the recordings to live shows.
Austin: Maybe one day we’ll have a string section.
Zambricki: But for now we’re a four-piece band, and everyone is just really busy.
When did you have your first “we’ve arrived” moment?
Zambricki: Our first show was the Bootleg Theater in Los Angeles. Austin and I knew each other musically and personally for a couple years, but when we got with our bass player Brian, that’s when things crystallized for Magic Giant. Things happened really fast.
Austin: That first show there were 70 people who couldn’t get in.
Zambricki: It’s been 11 months, and we’ve been busy. We self-produced an EP recorded in Venice, just going for it.
What led you to the decision to self-produce?
Austin: We just wanted to create something that was authentically us, where we had full control and experimental creative control to show who we are, putting our thoughts and our hearts into the music.
Zambricki: We have experience writing, so it wasn’t our first rodeo in the sonic realm. We’re absolutely open to working with producers in the future — that’d be dope. But these first couple, we did that. That was us. If there’s ever a situation where we’re recording with someone, since we’ve done it on our own we have a good standard. It’s not like, “Here’s my demo I did it in my bathroom.” It’ll be more like, “How would you get this to the next level?”
What’s your writing process like?
Zambricki: It’s a true collaboration. It goes song by song. Sometimes someone has one solid idea that we can hash out, but sometimes having someone get a complete thought on it is nice because then everyone focuses in on helping rewriting and improving. That can be really powerful. Last song we wrote together was two-and-a-half weeks ago just standing in the kitchen, and it took us an hour-and-a-half. It’s like playing tennis — bam bam bam, bridge, second chorus!
Austin: You never know when inspiration strikes. To be able to have an iPhone in your pocket, waking up from a dream, half asleep, and have an idea, which happened with “Glass Heart.” Or just talking to someone and saying, “Hey that’s a cool way to phrase it, mind if I write that in my phone?” Then we bring it to each other and it can blossom from there, and turn into us.
Zambricki: It’s fun going through voice memos. The other day we were sitting in the yard listening and found 75% of another song. “That’s right… we have another song!” Finger on the trigger, man!
You met Brian through salsa dancing. Let’s hear about that.
Austin: He taught classes at UCLA. He has an amazing mustache. He’s really well known and respected in the salsa community, which is a niche community, but anywhere he goes in the country he’s got salsa friends.
Zambricki: This is his first time playing SXSW, but it’s his third time dancing in Austin. When we played in New York he disappeared. The show was over at 2:30, I’m putting all my stuff up and he’s off to dance in Brooklyn. We created an instrument he plays that’s a hybrid of a cello and a bass.
Austin: He obviously loves dancing and the bass is a big instrument, hard to maneuver and clumsy. So we built something so that he can dance while playing.
I watched the videos y’all filmed with KEXP. How’d you get hooked up with them?
Austin: A series of different people saw our shows and heard we were going to Seattle. All of our LA friends just reached out to people they knew in Portland, Seattle, San Diego, and New York and told their friends, “You have to go to this,” and I guess they told KEXP, “You have to have them.”
Zambricki: When we got there, we were so excited that the DJ we did the show with was a true fan. He was excited we were there and stoked we were there. It was a great show.
Austin: And we look up to him! John Richards — he’s been on the air 15 years.
Zambricki: One woman came up to us [at the next show] and said, “I was on the beach. I heard you on KEXP. I climbed a small mountain because I don’t have a car. I took a bus for six hours.” It was like a pilgrimage. People love KEXP.
Austin: John Richards hadn’t had a band on the air in 2015 because apparently he’s really picky. We really look up to him.
Zambricki: And KEXP turned NPR onto us. NPR featured us on Songs We Love. It was exciting. It was one of those moments when your phone was blowing up with texts saying “heard you on NPR!” They played “Let it Burn,” our current single.
You collaborated with Rashawn Ross of Dave Matthews Band and Spencer Ludwig of Capital Cities. It’s interesting because it seems like DM and CC have pretty different sounds — how does yours mesh with each?
Austin: They’re both renowned trumpet players (Rashawn and Spencer), and they’re both so different.
Zambricki: Spencer is totally new age, super progressive. Rashawn Ross… I felt like we had Charlie Parker at our studio. It’s like having Miles Davis hanging out in your house.
Austin: It’s like any note anyone has every played on the trumpet, he’s played it. He’s amazing.
Zambricki: We did some really innovative stuff with their trumpets. We took some liberties and had a lot of fun. We’re nerds in the studio. We started tweaking it and synthesizing it in a way that’s never been heard before: Rashawn Ross and Spencer Ludwig chopped up and filtered.
Everything about Magic Giant seems serendipitous — the Sweetlife Music Festival guy found you after a six month break. So which do you live by… hard work or fate?
Austin: A little of both.
Zambricki: The little break we had was really cool for our growth. During that time Austin was writing for other artists, like a cut on the David Guetta album Listen.
Austin: I don’t know if we were ready to be with each other back then. The extra time finding ourselves, writing for other artists, meeting Brian. He really completed us.
Zambricki: We became a family. Having a third really balances it. To oversimplify, I’m a little more country and Austin’s a little more rock. So Brian is a third creative partner, but also a sounding board. Someone who has a totally different skill set from us. He’s an engineer; he has a lot of skill with editing and stuff.
Austin: He’s also a good measure of what’s cool. Brian keeps us in check.
Y’all played for a full house at the Troubador in LA after less than a year as a band. What was that like?
Zambricki: Bananas. We did a 17-day tour and ended at Troubador, which was so cool because it was a hometown show after meeting thousands of people all over the country. In LA we have a lot of friends and family that come out to shows, but at Troubador we didn’t recognize anyone there, and it was sold out.
Austin: And they all knew our words. That’s the power of the road. These two girls came to one show two nights ago, then came to yesterday morning’s show, then came to yesterday afternoon’s show, and then tried to come last night but couldn’t get in.
Zambricki: There’s no limit on how many shows you can come to! Come to every show!
Austin: Some fans come up and feel awkward asking for pictures and saying hi, but no one should. They’re the reason we’re doing as well as we are. We want people to keep coming and engaging and bringing friends.
Zambricki: It’s not a party without people. People are really latching on.
Plans for the next step?
Zambricki: It seems like for awhile our schedule is going to be record, tour, record, tour, record, tour.
Austin: It’s the dream.
You heard them — get to a show. Only 11 months old, Magic Giant’s success is meteoric. But more importantly, through the success they remain genuine people with a unique vision. I understand why people are willing to trek to shows far and wide; I plan to whenever possible.
Follow @MagicGiant on Twitter and Instagram, add them on Facebook, Pandora and Spotify, and go to magicgiant.com/join to get a song for free. Keep up with the band through JamFeed to keep up with all of their upcoming releases and tours.