Romeo Stodart’s musical love story that is The Magic Numbers ironically starts with a Juliet - his mother.
In mid-1980s Trinidad, Juliet Stodart would appear on a national TV talent show and sing an opera performance so well that she was asked back to repeat the performance 6 times. She became known locally as a genuine musical talent. This love of music and ability for performing the classics would hardly make her a worldwide household name, but it would allow her to instil in Romeo as well as his younger sister Michelle a similar love that would resonate for many years to come.
Life in Trinidad for the Stodarts was relaxed, vibrant and full of music. Summers would be filled with the sounds of reggae, calypso, soca, country and folk music and the Stodart children would grow up happy and content. Until, that is, in 1990 when their carefree Caribbean idyll was shattered by an Islamic coup, which brought martial law and military curfew upon their front door. Their father immediately decided to uproot the family and follow the footsteps of his brother who had recently moved to New York.
You have to be true to yourselves as well as to the people who buy your music and come to your shows.
The Stodarts crammed into a 13 person, 3 bedroom apartment in Queens, and a wide-eyed Romeo, now heading for his teenage years, would listen with glee as his uncle recounted stories of the exciting artists and successful people he’d meet through his job as a professional florist. He’d work on high profile launches, celebrity parties and award shows, even The Grammys, and he’d tell Romeo that if he himself worked hard enough, a life like one of these people could be his some day. Young Romeo would trawl the clubs and gigs of Manhattan most nights seeking out the best in rock and metal whilst dreaming of this bright future. He’d fall in love with the bittersweet romanticism of bands like The Smiths and the song-writing genius of Bob Dylan and Tom Waits.
After 4 years in New York their dad discovered that they could apply for British residency due to the Scottish birth of their grandfather, so the family relocated once again, this time to Hanwell in London. It was not law but Marshall Amps who were upon their doorstep this time, in fact the very factory where Jimi Hendrix would buy his first amp. Charlie Chaplin went to school in Hanwell and it is also said that mental illness was invented there - though how you can invent mental illness I’ll never know! Around the corner from the Stodart’s new home lived the first family they’d really get to know in the neighbourhood - the Gannons, who’d soon become their friends for life.
The four Gannon children were looked after by their father, a carpenter of Irish descent with a keen interest in Irish folk music and an ability to turn his hand at most instruments. Their mother had died when Angela Gannon, the youngest of the family, was a baby. Sean, the oldest, worked as a pizza delivery boy, his younger twins Eileen and Anthony shared a keen interest in music with Romeo who, aged 16, quickly fell for Eileen, his first real love. The youngest sisters in both families, Michelle and Angela sparked up a cute friendship of their own, growing up together to call each other the Baby Gs or the Soul Sisters – a phrase they still use today.
Watching Guns ‘n’ Roses’ Slash playing ‘Sweet Child O’ Mine’ on cable one day made Romeo first pick up a guitar. And after some teenage musical tinkering with Eileen and Anthony he started playing more seriously with Sean who was becoming a decent drummer. Their first teenage band was called Boddah, the name Kurt Cobain gave to his childhood imaginary friend, and a 13-year partnership began that would go through many ups and what seemed like many more downs. They’d use their experimental feet-finding years creating 12 minute alt-rock opuses that Romeo describes as “clearly a bunch of wank”, and fellow band members would come and go… and come… and go.
Sean and Romeo would tirelessly gig and on occasion would turn to their sisters for advice and opinion, with Romeo often waking Michelle in the early hours to road-test new lyrics or melodies. Occasionally both sisters would harmonise with Romeo, or Michelle would add a little bass that she had been learning herself, and as the treadmill of mediocre talent kept on turning gradually the guys started to see what was actually right in front of them. Their younger siblings were exactly who could complete this band.
It’s a soaking wet Thursday afternoon in October when I finally meet The Magic Numbers. We’ve set up the interview in an old ten-pin bowling alley in central London and as I change into my shoes I look around for the band members who seem to be adhering to their reputation for being notoriously late. ‘They told me they liked bowling,’ I’m thinking as I look worriedly at the gaggle of advertising execs who are early for the lane booking after mine. As I’m walking back to the bar I notice a lone long-haired figure sitting with his back to me. As he turns to take his drink I’m thinking it looks like a rough Jesus sipping a White Russian. It’s Sean Gannon, The Magic Numbers’ drummer. Initially guarded and sullen, but soon full of dry wit, we trade Big Lebowski jokes and bowling poses while we await the others. All of a sudden in bursts bassist and vocalist Michelle, who’s hungover but cheery, after a night celebrating her boyfriend’s birthday. Michelle is quickly followed by Angela, the band’s third vocalist and percussionist, who is smiling to herself. A minute later, his long hair wet from the rain but bearded face beaming, Romeo Stodart finally joins them to make up The Magic Numbers. As they greet each other you instantly see the unique bond and hilarity that permanently exists between this seemingly indestructible group. The others change their shoes while Romeo politely apologises and takes me back to the making of the band.
“It was kind of surreal that we had to wait that long for things to come together,” he remembers, before protesting, “but what were we meant to do, grab our little sisters at 11 years old and force them, like ‘come on sis, play the fuckin’ bass, man’? I mean, come on!” After over a decade of constantly trying new options Sean couldn’t really believe what had been staring them in the face. “It felt right the first day they joined. It felt right the first day they played. It was mad… it was like, ‘fucking hell’. It’s SO fucking right but SO fucking wrong!”
The new line-up to The Magic Numbers would take a bit of getting used to, but would finally work. Live performance soon became their forte. In late 2003 they’d been gigging lots in the small London pub The Betsey Trotwood and were still adhering to the ‘add more to the mix to fix’ philosophy. Violinist Angharad Davies was the current star of the band and easily the most talented musically, but the problem was that the other four in the band focused their sound too much around her. One night she didn’t turn up and they were thrown in at the deep end with only vocals, drums and bass to showcase. Surprisingly to them, they’d go down a storm, “albeit in a pub with about 10 people listening!” hoots Angela as she slams a bowl down the lane with alarming accuracy and power.
They’d never look back from this pivotal gig, which quickly taught them that sometimes you need to strip it back to move it forward. Heavenly Records’ Jeff Barrett quickly heard the word on the live circuit and in early 2004 after two songs of a show in Water Rats pub in Kings Cross, he decided to snap The Magic Numbers up immediately. Their live reputation would grow over the coming year and they’d discover and master the soaring three part vocal harmonies that have now become their signature, with Romeo, Michelle and Angela effortlessly capturing that rare beauty when great individual voices actually sound even better when put together and pushed higher. Quickly likened to The Mamas and Papas and the summertime Beach Boys sounds of the late 1960s, The Magic Numbers’ initial song-writing efforts did capture the melodic euphoria of a west-coast American sound. Yet it could be viewed that this was way over simplistic, as they clearly seemed to aim to extol the soul of the great Stax and Motown artists and particularly in Michelle’s deep, gliding basslines also touched upon the blues-rock sounds of great live bands like The Pixies. In May 2005 before their first single proper was released, and after only 500 copies of their debut 7” ‘Hymn To Her’ was put out, they’d sell out the 2000 capacity Forum in North London. It was then they themselves actually realised the buzz that was staring to surround Britain’s most likeable new band.
The songs they had been playing whilst gigging so much were to make up their self-titled debut album. Romeo, at this time, had been going through the heart-wrenching collapse of his now 8-year relationship with Eileen Gannon. Most people wouldn’t notice amongst the signature handclaps, the euphoric bridges and the cheeky bass-lines that Romeo would be laying open a subject matter that had torn him apart.
It’s a subject he still has real difficulty talking about, and as he opens up to me I feel sympathy and apprehension about pushing him too far. “I’m speaking about it with you because we get on,” he reassures me, before expressing his slight distrust almost as a warning. “Sometimes, you know, some people really hone in on it, like they do other areas about us - it’s like they’re waiting for me to crumble. Which I usually do!” But what he agonises over and visibly squirms to verbalise in one to one conversation, he manages to express much more eloquently in song. “I guess you lay your heart out when you are writing or when you go up on stage and sing for an hour and a half. You can feel emotionally drained at the end of it but sometimes you can feel completely lifted out of it. There is no other way for me to really express myself. Being with someone that long, when you’ve grown up together… they have such a huge impact on your life, and it’s always gonna be there… sitting down and writing takes me back to that place.”
That’s the key element. Total honesty. I think if you are anything less then people won’t really connect.
The greatest misconception about The Magic Numbers, the band agree unanimously, is that everyone simplifies them as a happy sunshine band full of musical melodies and lyrical laughter, which is true to an extent, but is only one side of them. “People love the hand claps and the cheeky riffs,” beams Romeo, “but if they listen to the lyrics they see that the songs have a lot more depth. That’s always been the main thing, to be really honest about what we write and how we present it.” Sean counters, “People love how they feel when they leave a Magic Numbers show, that elation and euphoria you get from a song like ‘Love Me Like You’ for example, but if you go home and lie on your bed and actually listen to the content of our CDs you can get a whole different feeling from it.”
I ask how the exposure of Romeo’s deepest feelings for experiences so close to home affects the others, especially when they have to perform these songs. Sean answers quickly, “I think we all take our own meaning from each of the songs, just like a listener would, you don’t think of what the singer has experienced, you think of what you have experienced and apply the words to that. I try not to think about it too specifically because it would do my head in.” Michelle adds, “With any song that deals with a subject close to you, you sometimes have to step out of it in any way you can. ‘This Love’ will always be one I personally have to skip past because it is solely based on the lyrics, there is hardly any music going on and for me is the hardest song to escape from [It deals with her grandmother’s death]. But Sean is right, most people take their own thing from these songs.” Sean finishes, “I do think a person relating properly can only happen if you are truly speaking from the heart. That’s the key element. Total honesty. I think if you are anything less then people won’t really connect.” Romeo returns looking happier with himself after bowling the winning strike and lightens things up with a beaming smile, “I kinda like that old Meryl Haggard quote about country music and I like to apply it to ours too: ‘All you need for a good song is 3 chords and the truth’. It’s so true man!”
Our interview is interrupted at this point as our time expires along with the patience of the team of London city boys we’ve been trying to buy off with free drinks while we eat into their lane time. Unfortunately the band have a horrendously tight schedule and have to head straight off to Europe to do some more promo. Photo shoots, hair, make up and interviews - where they are all too often probed on two over-simplistic subjects, are the band’s biggest dislike but they happily co-operate nonetheless. Generally the subjects usually focused too much upon are their image, which contradicts the current conveyor belt of emaciated bodies and skinny jeans and also the Top of the Pops incident where they reacted to a snide weight jibe by Richard Bacon about this very image by walking off-stage live on air - the only time this has ever happened on the now defunct show. As we are walking to the exit Romeo offers the only comment on this, “You know we called that like we call everything; we looked at each other and all just knew that what he’d said felt wrong, so we reacted on our group instinct and left. It’s back to that thing about being true; you have to be true to yourselves as well as to the people who buy your music and come to your shows.”
The Magic Numbers album sold 600,000 records and secured the band a much-deserved Mercury Music Prize nomination by the end of the golden year of 2005. They also toured with U2, played with Brian Wilson and were the most talked about new band at Glastonbury, T in the Park, Isle of Wight and V Festival. Everyone loved them, even Noel Gallagher who described them as “the fucking real thing”, and electro-dance dons The Chemical Brothers who drafted them in for vocal duties on their track ‘Close Your Eyes’. It was a fantastic year for new music, which heralded the arrival of stadium indie-poppers The Killers and Kaiser Chiefs, student union favourites Bloc Party and Hard-Fi, and crossover kings Maximo Park and The Go! Team, as well as their fellow offspring of operatic talent, the magical Arcade Fire. Antony And The Johnsons may have walked away with the Mercury Prize for their album, but if there was one for live performance there was only one winner. The Magic Numbers at the very least sat at the top of that pile.
Our interview reconvenes with Romeo and Michelle in a Paris hotel, two days after another euphoric gig, this time at the Royal Albert Hall, for the resurrected Secret Policeman’s Ball in aid of Amnesty International. Their performance included a duet of ‘I Shall Be Released’ with Martha Wainwright and a climactic version of ‘Land Of Hope And Glory’ with the cream of the world’s comedians all on stage to end the show. “It felt like such an occasion, and just to be part of that was amazing,” Romeo gushed breathlessly, barely having had time to draw air after arriving in the city and checking in. “Chevy Chase, Richard E Grant, Graham Norton, Eddie Izzard, Jo Brand - they were all there… every comedian you could imagine.” I ask who his favourite was, to which he typically answers, “I hardly spoke to anyone. I was too shy!”
We discuss how 2006 seems to be ending on the same kind of high as the previous brilliant year. It started with a short break after relentless touring late in 2005, that lasted barely a month, before they started itching to get back in the studio. The Magic Numbers’ huge armoury of music was ripe for the picking again and the band all felt three or four songs were already good enough to go straight onto their second album, and set about honing the production while Romeo got started on more writing.
In late spring/early summer they blocked out four weeks to move into a secluded residential studio high in the hills of Woodstock, upstate New York, with trusted producer Rich Wilkinson to immerse themselves in album number two. The band were eager to make the most of this dedicated studio time. “The first album was like an introduction to The Magic Numbers,” explains Michelle. “We’d been touring those songs for a while and just wanted to do the best versions we could. The second album seems like a real studio album. We got to indulge ourselves and work on the sounds, the arrangements and the execution of things. I learned to fight for what I had in my head and to get those sounds out of the speakers.” Michelle makes her song-writing debut on this album with her soul-baring composition ‘Take Me Or Leave Me’, which Romeo describes as “unlike anything anyone writes nowadays. It’s up there with Joni Mitchell or Judee Sill.”
I ask Romeo where the lyrical theme of this album comes from, hoping that heartbreak isn’t at the core once again for this instantly likeable anti-rock star. Again he apprehensively opens up. “This one definitely contains a warped sense of indecision, in many ways similar to the songs written in the latter stages of the last album, when finally things started moving on for me. The mood of this record is still emotionally confused, it’s still about wanting to find out things which are hard to talk about… my head contains a lot of questions.” I ask if he is in a happier place and still in the relationship he found after his split with Eileen. “Yeah I am in a relationship, and I have been for a while, but the thing is man… God I’m really comin’ out with it with you… you are away all the time, and that can be difficult, especially if you’ve always seen yourself as a good person and really honest and moralistic… and still do of course.” You can see he can only open up so much before he nervously tails off from talking too personally, switching his focus back onto people and subjects in general. “It’s basically about asking a lot of questions of yourself from a perspective anyone can relate to. ‘Running Out’ is a song about giving up, where I’m thinking I’m running out of the whole idea of what love is and starting again. And ‘Let Somebody In’ is the opposite in many ways. ‘All I See’ is one of my favourite songs because it is so sparse. It’s just about going around for the last year and a half having little moments with new people… just the other day in Sweden I met a whole bunch of great people, we hung out all night and then they had to disappear. I guess I get kind of attached to all of those moments. They are representative of the bittersweet element to The Magic Numbers that I think people don’t sometimes get.”
Where ‘The Magic Numbers’ was written about love and loss, and the difficulty in moving on, second album ‘Those The Brokes’ contains similar themes, but at its core are questions. Questions of right and wrong, questions of temptation, questions about momentary meetings and what might have come of them and above all questions of why life works in these ways. The album is in their opinion a more assured and much more complete reflection of The Magic Numbers’ sound. “Sonically the second album is much better, much bigger and produced with more energy,” Romeo offers when asked to compare the two. “People are picking up on the real soul music qualities on ‘Most Of The Time’, ‘Undecided’ and ‘Boy’ but we also go for more aggressive lyrics and sounds on the singles ‘This Is A Song’ and ‘Take A Chance’. There’s no band out there doing what we’re doing, and no band about just now who’s gonna do an album like this one.”
When I speak of some negative reviews I’ve seen and ask Romeo what he’d say to people who feel the infectious magic of the first album isn’t as evident on their second offering, Romeo is defiant. “I completely disagree, I think the first album was a practise for this, now we feel much more comfortable and sonically more accomplished. There’s so much more going on in this record. The first one was just guitar, bass and drums and this has a more complete sound. Essentially a second album is a no win situation. There will always be people who either want to get on your back and say, ‘yeah you’re just doing what you did before’. Or if you go in another direction people think you’re being pompous and all over the shop, lacking in direction and that likeable similarity in style. You can’t win, so we chose to ignore it.”
‘Those The Brokes’ is released this month and is exactly the album The Magic Numbers wanted to make. The musical love story started back in Trinidad is in a place where our Shakespearean namesake is more than content and he sees no tragic ending. The rest he realises will just take care of itself. “It all now feels like it was meant to happen!” he beams as we part company. “We were meant to move from Trinidad to New York and then to Hanwell. We were meant to move next to the Gannons and they were destined to be my first real friends. I was meant to go out with Eileen and you know, maybe that just wasn’t meant to be… God, you know I do ask myself a hell of a lot of things all of the fucking time… it always goes back to the questions man! Who knows what will happen next?”