Soundtracks of Our Lives: Elisa Ambrogio of Magik Markers

MAGIK MARKERS came hurtling at us from a Connecticut basement in 2001, full of fire and noise and dirt and excellence.

Back then there were four of them: singer-guitarist Elisa Ambrogio, bassist John Shaw, drummer Pete Nolan and Leah Quimby, but Leah fell by the wayside back around 2006.

They began plying a line in proper raggedy-ass, scuzzy rawk’n’roll of the highest stripe – and crucially, they still do.

A well-matched Sonic Youth tour support in 2004 saw their debut album appear on Thurston Moore’s Ecstatic Peace a year in ’05. They self-released a clutch of CD-Rs and put out albums on a host of labels, including Indiana’s Gulcher, North Carolina’s Three-Lobed Recordings and The Spring Press, before settling in at Chicago’s Drag City, which issued a brace of crackers in the shape of 2009’s Balf Quarry and 2013’s Surrender To The Fantasy.

And then … nuttin’. They vanished; we were saddened.

That’s until July this year and the digital-only, smoke-heavy, Isolated From Exterior Time EP, of which we said: “Speaking as an inhabitant of the British Isles … you wonder how we can never capture or ever produce the raggedy-ass, shredding, loose, stoned, hallucinatory glory of bands like Magik Markers.” 

And now they’ve hit us deep ‘n’ good with their first full-length studio in six whole years, 2020. Read our review over here, but we’ll just note we detected that “… in Magik Markers’ world, the rejoicing in the imperfection is all. The scuzz, the waver, the bent note, the shredded note. That’s where the truth and stickiness of life lies. It’s cathartic and it’s a cracker.”

We leapt at the chance to ask Magik Markers’ Elisa about the soundtrack to her life; the music that made her. And she responded with such depth and with such a breathtaking array of tunes, we’re damn glad we did. She has incredible knowledge.

If you find your listening palette a little dusty and jaded, this playlist is the one for you; it’s like a whole new John Peel show, truly. There’s so many weird and wonderful tunes. You could find a whole clutch of favourite new bands. Read on – you’ll find a handy Spotify playlist at the end to cut out and keep.

Hi Elisa. Thank you for taking us on a trip through the soundtrack of your life. Firstly, what was the track that influenced you to start making music?

The music I loved sounded impossible to make. I would hear what I now know to be three power chords played fast and think, ‘HOW do these masters do it? It is out of the world.’ I guess I still do. It’s always cool to learn that people you thought invented something from whole cloth were deeply influenced by something else. I had never listened to Voivod until this past January, when maybe I played some Cro-Mags for our friend Ben Goldberg and he played us Voivod because the music I was playing him had clear direct ties to that, as did a lot of New York hardcore. It was crazy though, I just thought Cro-Mags made up their sound completely (lol), because it didn’t sound like anything else I had heard up until that time.

Maybe hearing The Fall for the first time, hearing this super-weird dude just yell this great writing, someone so clearly in their own head, not worried about love or typical song tropes, just writing his head. Tiffany maybe; she just looked kind of poor and had a jean jacket and pretty cool bangs.

Tour bus favourite?

Possibly tour Honda favorites. It’s also a little delicate because you have to pick something generally amenable to the different people in the vehicle so no one is bummed out. Socrates’ Waiting for Something. Mountains is a great tour jam because it builds and moves through all these different feelings and it’s really dramatic: good for epic landscapes if everyone is in a good mood. Michael Hurley’s Blue Navigator. Side A of Nite Flights, by The Walker Brothers. 75 Dollar Bill.

Once our friend drove through the Cornwall countryside playing the best of Creedence Clearwater Revival, and it was a pleasing cognitive dissonance to be going fast down narrow country lanes with 16th-century churches and thick foxgloves thwapping the car on either side with John Fogerty instructing me to keep on choogling.

All of Miles Davis’s Get Up With It. “He Loved Him Madly” starts the record and is the whole first side. It moves through so many paces and emotions and beautiful moments. You lose track of it and then are completely inside of it.

For some people any jazz in the van is a no-go. Some drivers get stressed out by free jazz. Some people get stressed out by lap steel. Leah Quimby, Marker Emeritus, had a funny hatred of Neil Young, which seems like the most innocuous crowd-pleasing choice. On one tour she expressed a feeling like she would go insane if we listened to On The Beach again, which to me is a good driving record, but she had a point. Wire: Pink Flag. Chris Corsano and Mick Flowers’ The Four Aims. Gene Clark With The Gosdin Brothers is a happy record that is also sad, but quite peppy. The Dicks’ Kill From The Heart, but can be too ‘punk’ for some drivers… Les Filles De Illighadad’s Eghass Malan. The City, Now That Everything’s Been Said; John Cale, nearly everything.

I was having a rough time last year and listening to Jpeg Mafia’s Veteran on repeat in the car was the best thing; maybe that is more of an alone record— but it is definitely a driving record. It reminded me of listening to Black Flag on my break from my mall job as a teenager and just that same wild-focused, extraterrestrial feeling captured. I love when music can temporarily make something oppressive feeling lift for the moments it is on. My entry was “Baby I’m Bleeding”.

Saturday night tune?

Depends. I don’t understand why, but music is weird for me right now. I associate it so deeply with people, and a collective experience that all music has been making me feel sad and nostalgic for something I cannot have because of the world we’re in. Like when a song reminds you of a breakup, but it is all songs and the whole world. So it depends.

The most focused listening I have done lately has been to podcasts, stand-up comedy and sitcoms I have already seen a million times and more ambient music. The C. Lavender record on Editions Mego is beautiful – Myth Of Equilibrium. Ben Bertrand’s Manes got me through the springtime. I forgot I was listening to more music then. Recently in kind of more good time music— “Hard to Please” by SPELLLING, from Mazy Fly. That whole record rules.

Before the now times/right as the now times were starting, for good time jams I was listening to Lijadu SistersDanger record and T.S.O.L.’s Dance With Me.

And a Sunday morning record?

Yoko Ono’s Approximately Infinite Universe; Phil Cohran and The Artistic Heritage Ensemble. The Rubiyat Of Dorothy Ashby. The new Home Blitz,-All Through The Year. Judy Roderick, Woman Blue; Willie Lane, Known Quantity; Negative Trend, The Pop Sessions; Pharaoh Sanders’ Thembi; 75 Dollar Bill, I Was Real; Mdou Moctar, Sousoume Tamachek; Richard Youngs, Dissident.

The best cover of all time?

I really love “8 Miles High”, by Husker Du. “Woman Blue”, Judy Roderick. I also love Nico’s cover of “I’ll Keep It With Mine” – and I also love Pentangle’s cover of it. The Meters’ “Witchita Lineman”. Patti Smith’s “Gloria”, if that could even be considered a cover, is probably the best cover ever. Roberta Flack covering “That’s No Way To Say Goodbye” is really good. Tiffany’s cover of “I Think We’re Alone Now”, by Tommy James and Shondells. Sun City Girls’ “Tell Me Something Good” has to be one of the best ever.

The best cover version of your music?

I don’t think anyone has ever covered our music, or if they have I don’t know it. Just assume if you have, your version is the best one. One time in front of a pile of dirt in a basement in Birmingham, Alabama, when the show got out down by the cops, Pete played some Markers songs alone on my guitar. That is up there in terms of covers. It was Spectre Folk covering Markers.

The best song we’ve written?

I’m answering this as: these are some songs I like we made. Most recently with mixing, I have been listening to the new record— I really love “CDROM”, “Born Dead” and “Surf’s Up” from the new record. “CDROM” and “Surf’s Up” are, both melodically and lyrically, improvisations. “CDROM” has part of a story from my friend Donovan Quinn inside of it. So it feels like those songs are these weird pure surprises. Which is probably why I like them a lot, they feel like a surprise, and they feel like we didn’t write them. The band as a whole just revved up like one of those annoying hurricane flashlights that only make their dim light through friction.

The song that reminds you most of childhood?

One of my favorite songs as a little girl was Eddie Rabbitt’s “I Love The Rainy Nights”. He was a handsome pop country star of the 80s, and that song was on the radio a lot. There are a lot of things on that song I still love: the clear separation of sound, the way voices harmonize with no musical accompaniment, the prominence of the drumbeat. There is also finger-snapping, which took me forever to learn as a child, so I was probably pretty attached to the effortless, very loud finger snaps in that song which would have impressed me. I was always trying to learn snapping from adults and would ask people to snap for me at family gatherings. Plus it’s about weather, and nothing scary happens. My grandmother was terrified of thunder and lightning storms, haha. Now that I am older I know he had a songwriting relationship with the prolific Nashville songwriter Even Stevens, so it’s cool to hear how organically this song came about. You can hear an interview with Even Stevens on YouTube. I learned Eddie Rabbitt was born in Brooklyn and had an organ-grinding monkey named Jojo who drove Even Stevens crazy. I wonder if The Simpsons got their idea for the helper monkey named Mojo from tales of Eddie Rabbitt’s monkey.

Your favourite track made by friends?

Everything Joshua Burkett has ever done. The recent C. Lavender record on Editions Mego is amazing, but its more of a whole piece than something I would break down track by track. United Waters’ A.R. Nathan Bowles has an incredible track on his last LP called “The Road Reversed”. Heather Leigh Murray’s whole oeuvre. Bill Nace’s whole LP on Drag City is awesome. The new Jackie Lynn record is awesome. Mary Lattimore and Meg Baird’s “Damaged Sunset”; Gary War’s “Windows and Walls”. Long Hots’ “Give & Take”. I’m leaving off things, I know it.

And by the band that should have been/should be bigger?

This is a difficult one. Evie Sands probably, Cleaners From Venus and Pearls Before Swine. David Berman. They’re all pretty big, but just in terms of who I feel like should be a household name? Holly Herndon. Richard Youngs. Alex Neilson. Gary War. Mick Flowers. Pigeons. How are Pigeons not like, headlining arenas? Jen Gelineau, a gifted musician and artist with the coolest ideas. So sick. Nathan Bowles. Again these people are all well regarded and do really well, but they are geniuses and should be like, even bigger.

Your guilty pleasure?

I don’t feel guilty, but if this is where the question is coming from: I think Britney Spears’ Blackout is one of the coolest records production-wise that came out in the 2000s. I kind of hated her as a teen because she was just shoved down your throat as this ideal tan virgin whore that the whole family could masturbate to and I hated what she represented and I hated her songs. Now I have a more horrified vibe about how she was marketed by skeevy adults than directing those feelings toward her. It was kind of an awakening to listen to the hits from Blackout and go, ‘How did they do this?’ It’s really cool on headphones like in the same way Soft Machine or something is cool on headphones. So much happens and the sounds are palpable. The separation of sound, the distinct momentum and hugeness— it’s a weird, cool record. To be fair I really only know the hits from that record, but they are awesome.

The record in your parents’ record collection that attracted attention?

I remember hating the cover of the Supertramp record with the waitress on it, lol [Breakfast In America]. I didn’t know the music, but I hated the way the lady looked.

The words of this song inspire me …

The “Use of Ashes”, by Pearls Before Swine. Shadow Ring, “Watch The Water”; Mike Rep and the Quotas’ “Addictions Of Choice”; Jean Ritchie’s “Morning Come And Maria Gone”; Poni Tails’ “Born Too Late”; Kevin Ayers’ “Shouting in a Bucket Blues”; Judi Sills’ “Lamb Ran Away With The Crown”; Lou Reed’s “Waves of Fear”; Noname’s “Song 32”; Chad and Jeremy’s “A Summer Song”. Six Organs of Admittance, “Hold But Let Go”; Peter Laughner’s “Amphetamine”; Jim Shepard, “Burn Forward”; Arto Lindsay, “Pony”; Lou Reed, “Men Of Good Fortune”; Beach Boys, “Surf’s Up”; Hazel Dickens, “Pretty Bird”; Echo & The Bunnymen, “Seven Seas”; Neil Young, “Revolution Blues”; Dick Diver, “Boomer Class”; Tommy Jay, “I Was There”; Roger Miller, “Little Green Apples”; Chris Bell, “I Am The Cosmos”; Gucci Mane, “Hoodrich”; The Louvin Brothers, “When I Stop Dreaming”; The Walker Brothers, “Shutout”; Black Flag, “Damaged”; Whitehouse, “A Cunt Like You”.

The record that makes me sad?

Sandy Denny, Like An Old Fashioned Waltz; Charlemagne Palestine, Strumming Music; George Jones, I Am What I Am; Anne Briggs, Topic; Gene Clark, White Light; Nico, In Tokyo; Cindy Lee, Act Of Tenderness; Joni Mitchell, Blue; Olga Neauwirth, Goodnight Mommy (Ich Seh, Ich Seh).

The record that gets you on the dancefloor?

Lizzie Mercier Descloux, “Torso Corso”; Newcleus, “Jam On It”; The Normal, “Warm Leatherette”; Nickelus F, “Trill Burr”; Gucci Mane, “Lemonade”; Cameo Parkway, “Boo Go Loo Baby”; Young Thug, Freddie Gibbs & A$AP Ferg, “Old English”; Junglepussy, “Bling Bling”; Cher, “I Walk On Gilded Splinters”; The Monks, “Oh How To Do Now”; Nils, “Der Drummer Mit Dem Holzbein”; and The Fall, “Before The Moon Falls”.

Elisa: it’s been mindblowing. Thank you so much.

Magik Markers’ 2020 is out now on Drag City on digital download, CD and vinyl. If you’re Stateside, you can order direct from Drag City, here; if you’re this side of the pond, the good folks at Rough Trade can look after your needs.

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