From its conception as a bedroom-studio hobby in Summer 1996, Piano Magic’s trajectory has never been textbook – random at best. Originally, a self-confessed revolving door operation – musicians arriving, contributing and leaving as they pleased – this convey-belt membership resulted in a plethora of sonic stylings, from the inspired, often nightmarish small-beat pop of debut album, ‘Popular Mechanics’ (1997) to the full band ethereal melancholy and visceral dynamic of 2017’s outro, ‘Closure.’
Initially based in a first floor flat at Brecknock Road, on the intersection of Kentish Town, Holloway and Camden, North London, Piano Magic, then nameless, centred around Glen Johnson’s Tascam 4 track portastudio, which he’d share with flatmate and fellow Nottingham exile, Dominic Chennell. The two rarely composed together, each recording their parts and experiments shyly, in separate rooms, only convening when vocals were to be added. In 1996, their sonic cache consisted of a battered Siel monophonic synthesiser, a Korg Poly 800-II synth with keys missing, a Jen Synthetone SX-1000 mono-synth, Polygon Systems synpads and “brain,” an Epiphone Casino semi-acoustic guitar and a variety of FX pedals. Chennell also brought a drum-machine to the party, albeit one powered by a huge, clunky external battery (you can hear this throughout ‘Popular Mechanics’).
On occasion, Johnson would take the portastudio and whatever else he could physically manage, on the bus up to Muswell Hill and record with another friend, Dick Rance. Unlike Johnson and Chennell, Rance possessed a modicum of musical ability and wove minimal, spidery, melodic guitar lines through their otherwise bleak, isolationist dronescapes. Johnson’s friends, Rachael Leigh and Hazel Burfitt, both self-professed “non-singers,” were later drafted in to bring life to Glen’s naïve, often surreal words which were often spoken as poems as opposed to lyrics.
The recording sessions came to a halt by the Autumn of 1996 though in isolation, Johnson began to remix the best of the recordings into something more palatable. His intention was to send a demo tape of 4 tracks to his current favourite label, i/Che, home to his favourite group of the time, Disco Inferno (even though at a concert around this time, when broaching the idea with DI’s frontman, Ian Crause, he’d empathetically told them not to do it). Needing a name for the project, Johnson plucked the throwaway ‘Piano Magic’ from a kitsch, junkshop piano medley 10″ lying on the floor.
Piano Magic’s demo tape did indeed hit the mark and much down to Robin Allport convincing his brother (and top dog at Che) Nick, that there was something of worth in their dark, surreal dronescapes, Johnson and Chennell signed on the dotted line in the legendary Bunjies folk cellar bar on Litchfield St, Soho.
Piano Magic’s first 12″ EP for i/Che, was picked up by John Peel and made joint Single Of The Week in Melody Maker that Winter, resulting in the label to commission another EP (‘Wintersport/Crosscountry’) and a debut album, ‘Popular Mechanics.’ Although severely reluctant to let the project loose outside of the bedroom, in the spirit of helping I/Che to promote ‘Wrong French,’ Johnson and Chennell agreed to play live and quickly reconnected with Rance and Johnson’s musical polymath friend, Paul Tornbohm to form a live unit that could rehearse and ultimately debut at the legendary Wag Club on Wardour St, that December.
Piano Magic’s earliest records are curious. perhaps a little disconcerting. Johnson and Chennell’s shared obsessions of the time – pre-Autobahn Kraftwerk albums and the animation of both the Brothers Quay and Jan Svankmajer – can clearly be heard across their releases from 1996 – 1999. The unsettling rattle of cupboard drawers mixes with doll-like spoken word, tales of sadomasochism and kisses like “e-minor.” Gated, clipped electronic beats hover above thick washes of analogue monosynth and white noise. It’s musically wilfully out of time, a dark, retro-futurism one might expect from the more obtuse experiments of Delia Derbyshire or perhaps even Tod Dockstader. Here and there, a nod to Ralf & Florian’s ‘Tanzmusik’ and the whirr and turning of factory lathes (Johnson’s father, an industrial engineer, inspires many PM titles).
Live, Piano Magic were a completely different matter. Entirely instrumental, Johnson, Chennell, Rance and Tornbohm became a quasi-industrial unit, a more primitive, more repetitive This Heat; Johnson on bass, Rance on guitar, Tornbohm on drums and the Polygon pads, Chennell on synth and shortwave radio fed through the portastudio. Further London concerts followed but always pulling further and further away from the records.
In the late 90’s, the independent music scene appeared to be thriving. A whole gamut of 7″ vinyl labels in particular had sprung up, many inspired by Keith Jenkins’ prolific and much-admired Wurlitzer Jukebox. Jenkins was quick to release records by a new wave of retro-futurist units – Stereolab, ISAN, Plone, Broadcast but also had an ear for the mushrooming UK post-rock fare of Mogwai, Ganger and Amp, amongst others. Piano Magic fell somewhere in the middle of all this.
By the time ‘Popular Mechanics’ was released in early 1997, Rance had already left the band. And by 1998, so had Chennell. That year, he and Johnson had advertised for new band members and quickly found themselves as the minority Brits in Piano Magic when they enlisted exiled American music students Sandy Rousmaniere, Ezra Feinberg and Jen Adam, all of which had proper musical credentials. The more experimental side of early Piano Magic was quickly jettisoned for, god forbid, actual songs. Chennell walked but Johnson embraced the change, recording The Fun Of The Century EP with the Americans in a shed in Morning Crescent in just one day. Released in May 1998 on the Piao! label, The Fun Of The Century signalled a new, more melodic and concert-friendly direction for Piano Magic from which they were never to turn back.
Ironically, later that year, Rousmaniere, Feinberg and Adam all returned to America, leaving Johnson as the only remaining flag waver for Piano Magic. Even so, 1998 turned out to be one of Piano Magic’s most prolific years, releasing a long-playing EP, ‘A Trick Of The Sea’ on US label, Darla, a 7″ collaboration with Low and Transient Waves on Rocketgirl. ‘The Fun Of The Century’ EP, ‘Music For Annahbird’ 7″ (ostensibly Johnson’s solo electronic vignettes) on Bad Jazz, a split 7″ with Icebreaker on the French indie label, Debut and another 7″ for Rocketgirl, ‘There’s No Need For Us To Be Alone.’ Tirelessly, somewhere between his native Nottingham and current home, London, Johnson was also piecing together a second Piano Magic album, ‘Low Birth Weight.’
Without doubt, 1998 – 1999 was a watershed period for Johnson. Not only did his original vision of what Piano Magic should sound like became somewhat blurred but his reluctance to form an actual live band began to waver. Late in the year, Maurice Woestenburg of VPRO Radio in the Netherlands, contacted Johnson with an offer of a concert at a festival in Haarlem. Johnson’s first reaction was to turn it down on the grounds that he didn’t have a band but never one to look a gift horse in the mouth, set about putting one together in record time. Again, he knocked on the door of friends. Could Tornbohm come back into the fold? Perhaps on bass this time? Could one of his other close friends, John Cheves, envisage himself plugging in his guitar and having a few all-expenses paid days in Holland? And what of a drummer? From an ad in a music shop, Johnson deftly enlisted Miguel Marin, formerly of Spanish indie legends Snr Chinarro. Though Marin’s English was rudimentary at this point, the two quickly bonded over a love of US slowcore band, Codeine. In fact, Codeine and the burgeoning US post-rock movement of the time were having a clear effect on many British bands and by the time Piano Magic played in Haarlem, their sound was light years removed from ‘Popular Mechanics’ or even the more recent ‘Low Birth Weight.’ Recorded by VPRO the morning after the concert (for Staalplaat’s ‘Mort Aux Vaches’ album series), the band’s radio session caught them mid-metamorphosis, only a few supplementary field recordings alluding to where they’d come from.
But where were Piano Magic heading?
Encouraged (and financed) by Rocketgirl’s Vinita Joshi, in Feb 2000, the band went into John Rivers’ Woodbine St studios in Leamington Spa to record their third proper album. Rivers was an obvious choice for the producer’s chair, having previously engineered albums by Johnson’s heroes, Dead Can Dance and Felt. If only Johnson had written some songs before they arrived. ‘Artists’ Rifles,’ as it came to be known, was written predominantly on the hop over 5 days at Woodbine by Marin (drums and percussion), Tornbohm (bass), Cheves (guitar) and Johnson (guitar and vocals). Johnson’s former Nottingham flatmate, Caroline Potter, also contributes vocals to several songs. Though not, as it’s commonly perceived, a concept album about WWI, the album’s title and final track does refer to the British army regiment of that name (and of which the poet Wilfred Owen was enlisted).
On its release, ‘Artists Rifles’ opened new doors for Piano Magic, particularly in Spain where it was warmly received and covered extensively by the media. Back in the UK, a solitary print review, in NME, lambasted Johnson’s singing and awarded the album a derogatory 6 out of 10. The review was indicative of the band’s relationship with the British music press over the coming years. They were either ridiculed or widely ignored.
Spain, however, was a different matter. The band were invited to showcase the new “post-modernist baroque sound” of ‘Artists’ Rifles’ at the Benicassim and BAM (Barcelona) music festivals that Summer and on the back of their success, tours of Germany, Holland, Italy, Belgium, France, Spain peppered the next few years.
On Johnson’s instigation, Piano Magic signed to 4AD Records in 2000 and delivered their most critically contentious work, ‘Writers Without Homes’ and the soundtrack to Spanish director, Bigas Lunas’ ‘Son De Mar’ movie. Though oft-maligned, ‘Writers Without Homes’ was a particularly monumental milestone for the band, as it featured the first vocal recording for 33 years of lost 60’s/70’s folk heroine, Vashti Bunyan. Cocteau Twins/This Mortal Coil’s Simon Raymonde contributed piano to ‘Writers’ and introduced the band to John Grant of The Czars, who contributed vocals to their song, ‘The Season Is Long.’
‘Writers Without Homes’ returned Johnson to the original blueprint of Piano Magic – a “revolving door operation,” much in the mould of This Mortal Coil who had, of course, been the brainchild of 4AD’s founder, Ivo-Watts Russell, through the 80’s and early 90’s. But as with any revolving door, as someone comes in, someone else gets spat out. Following tensions in the rehearsal room, John Cheves left the group and Jerome Tcherneyan, a friend of Marin’s and former tour driver of the band, joined as a permanent fixture. Paul Tornbohm also moved on to pastures new. It’d didn’t help that the initial recording sessions at Woodbine, didn’t go well, with Rivers complaining about the band’s new material and later sabotaging a playback session. He was consequently dismissed from the project and the band were forced split the recording sessions over cheaper studios, the great bulk of their recording advance lost to the Woodbine sessions.
‘Writers’ divided not only fans and journalist but also Piano Magic and 4AD. An album launch at the Spitz bar in Shoreditch was muted. Promotional videos (including one by Bigas Luna) failed to inspire. The band and 4AD went their separate ways. Like the title of Martin Aston’s later biography of 4AD, the two were plainly ‘facing the other way.’
Rather than the split with 4AD being a massive blow, it freed up Piano Magic creatively and allowed them to once again record with other labels of their own choosing. Perhaps in reaction to ‘Writers’ being fragmented, Johnson decided that the band should be closer to a more “conventional group format.”
It was at this time that Marin left the band and was replaced by his erstwhile friend, Tcherneyan. Tcherneyan’s old Marseille childhood friend, Franck Alba came in on guitar alongside English bassist, Alasdair Steer. James Topham, who’d played viola on both 4AD records also joined the band as a permanent fixture. It was quickly felt that the 4AD had been a blip in the trajectory. Although they’d come out of the experience with money to buy better equipment and the kudos of signing to a “cool” indie, ‘Writers’ had almost critically demolished the band. But it took only one more album to re-establish their reputation.
‘The Troubled Sleep Of Piano Magic’ reflects a new work ethic for Piano Magic. They rehearsed every week, they toured as much as possible (mainly in Spain) but they also wrote consistently, either in rehearsal or separately. Self-produced and unlike ‘Writers,’ recorded in only two places – The Fortress Studios in Old St and at Tcherneyan’s own home studio, Murder Mile in Lower Clapton, ‘The Troubled Sleep…’ sets the tone for the next few years of Piano Magic. As Glen Johnson tells us :
“We were actually really liberated by the death of the 4AD deal. I think we’d be trying to hard to be a 4AD band, however you’d define that. But by the time we started recording The Troubled Sleep, we started to sound like us again…like the band you’d hear when you came to see us in concert. And there was so much less tension in the room. I felt like we’d cleaned out the cupboard and now we were ready to fill it again.”
Undoubtedly (as borne out by its title), one of Piano Magic’s darkest records, ‘The Troubled Sleep…’ is perhaps the first time musicianship trumps intention. The addition of Franck Alba, a highly accomplished guitarist, to the fray is key to the band’s new, more melodic direction. Likewise, it’s the first time that the rhythm section holds great sections of songs on its own. Space is left open. Dynamic is used sparingly. And on top of all this, Johnson with all his optimist nihilism, shared most beautifully when sung by Angele David-Guillou on ‘Help Me Warm This Frozen Heart’ and ‘Comets.’
“I think ‘Comets’ is the magic moment for me. Up until then, it’d been ‘Bad Patient’ but ‘Comets’ is the embodiment of everything I’d always been aiming for – a sort of hyper-emotion, an absolute truth…the point of which everyone recognised themselves in one of our songs as if they were looking into a black mirror….” (Glen Johnson)
‘The Troubled Sleep,’ released on the Spanish label, Green Ufos, proved to be yet another hit in Spain and opened the doors to yet more regular touring, far, far way from the greasy pavements of East London.
A new record, Saint Marie EP followed in June 2004 and featured collaborations with, again, Vashti Bunyan as well as Alan Sparhawk from Low and Ben Ayres from Cornershop. There was a sense that the band could indeed record anything, collaborate with anyone and tour wherever they liked. The Fortress Studio became their new home from home with Gareth Parton now settled comfortably in the producer chair.
By 2005, though none of the group could afford to play music full-time, Piano Magic became the main focus of each of its members. Johnson and new recruit, Cedric Pin (another old friend of Tcherneyan), worked as a splinter group, embellishing Johnson’s guitar-written songs with programmed sequencer and drum-machines parts. Once again, John Grant, now a huge success in his own right, adds gravitas to ‘The Season Is Long.’
‘Disaffected’ is a pop record. The fat has been trimmed off. The experimentation kept to an absolute minimum. The songs are clearly defined, the sounds carefully chosen. Arguably, it’s the first great Piano Magic album. Dedicated to the band’s former press officer at Green Ufos, who’d sadly died during the making of the album, it also has a beautiful melancholic tension, not least on ‘You Can Never Get Lost (When You’ve Nowhere To Go).’
Johnson : “That’s another song where I thought, ‘We can give up now. We’ve done all we need to.’
In the two interim years between the release of ‘Disaffected’ and follow-up, the Guy Fixsen-produced, ‘Part Monster’ (2007), the band continued to be prolific and not only in concert (the band added Turkey, Poland, Italy, Greece and Portugal to their gig list). Johnson released a debut album of experimental electronic under the name, Textile Ranch and along with keyboardist, Cedric Pin, as Future Conditional, put out an album of electropop on LTM, ‘We Don’t Just Disappear.’
During this period, Piano Magic recorded a specially commissioned long player for the En/Of series (‘Never It Will Be The Same Again’), the Open Cast Heart EP for the US label, Important Records and in 2006, perhaps their most popular song, ‘Incurable.’
“It was written and recorded really quickly at Jerome’s home studio in Hackney. We actually thought we’d run out of ideas, it was the end of the day. But that just emerged really quickly out of all of us….an incredibly simple song. I was really excited to take it home to Angele and say, ‘You’ve got to sing this!'” (Glen Johnson)
‘Incurable’ is deceptive. On the surface, a catchy indie song perhaps, motored along by a simple 80’s drum machine rhythm and persistent bass line. But pay attention to the lyrics and there’s a much deeper chasm beneath it.
“Invisible and broken, the spirit has moved out…
Words that were unspoken, I cannot live without…”
After an uncharacteristically lengthy hiatus in which Johnson worked on his debut solo long-player (‘Details Not Recorded,’ 2009), Piano Magic released their 10th official album, ‘Ovations’ (2009) on the pioneering UK independent label, Make Mine Music. ‘Ovations,’ featuring special guest appearances from Brendan Perry and Peter Ulrich of Dead Can Dance, found Piano Magic at their most confident, melodic and unabashed, merging early 80’s coldwave electronics with Eastern European acoustic instrumentation. Recording Perry at his Quivvy Church studio in County Cavan, Johnson and Tcherneyan felt Piano Magic had reached its apex. “I thought, ‘If we can get Brendan Perry to sing on one of our records, there’s nowhere else to go.’ The minute Jerome pressed ‘record,’ we just melted into a heap on the floor. It was a dream moment for both of us.”
The electro-acoustic theme was further developed on the self-produced 2012 album, ‘Life Has Not Finished With Me Yet,’ released on Glen Johnson’s own burgeoning Second Language Music imprint (its name taken from a Disco Inferno track) except in the States where it found a home on the fledgling Saint Marie – named after a Piano Magic song. Ever contrary, the album wasn’t serviced to media and the band became more and more selective with their promotional activities, focusing on a more acoustic live sound and only playing a scattering of special one-off concerts, the most memorable of which (and of their career) n the caverns of Castellana, Italy (Grotte di Castellana).
It was to be another 4 years before Piano Magic went back into the studio, this time without mainstay, David-Guillou and with the definite intention to record their final album, the aptly named, ‘Closure.’ Johnson had noted that the 20th anniversary of the band’s first ever concert was just around the corner and perhaps this was the moment to neatly tidy up the proceedings and move on to pastures new.
Recorded at Soup Studio in East London and mixed by Johnson and Asa Bennett at the latter’s Finsbury Park hideaway, ‘Closure’ deftly, neatly tails a 20 year journey, a world away from the avant garde analogue experimentation of ‘Popular Mechanics.’ The presence of Peter Walsh of Australian baroque-pop group, The Apartments, on ‘Attention To Life,’ is perhaps the album’s highlight and symptomatic of everything Glen Johnson had hoped for at the start of his quest. It’s a song of great melancholy beauty and depth that will resonate long after Piano Magic have zipped up their guitar cases and filed away their lyric sheets.
Piano Magic formally brought down the curtain in December 2016 at The Lexington bar in Islington, North London, the exact 20th anniversary of their first ever concert at The Wag Club in Soho. Fans from all over the world were in attendance, some in tears, some elated but the vast majority singing along to every word. Johnson dedicated the final song of the night – and this great journey – to his father who’d recently passed away, ‘The Last Engineer.’
“I thought I’d follow the train lines
But it started to rain
And everything looked clearer then –
Everything was in its place”