When you talk to most bands about South by Southwest — the nine-day parade of music, art, and film that descends on Austin, Texas each March — they’ll tell you it’s kind of a blur. But for Phil McGill, singer and guitarist for the Athens, Ga. quartet New Madrid, his experience sounds more like a relaxing vacation, despite the six gigs they played over nine days.
“It was pretty nice in that we didn’t have to drive to every show,” McGill says. “We were just kind of staying in one place. The sets are pretty short, so that’s exciting because you’ve only got 20 to 30 minutes. I saw a lot of really good bands; I saw [hip-hop artist] Mick Jenkins and [African singer/guitarist] Bombino. And when you’re there, you get to see a bunch of different friends from different places, and that was cool. We got to walk around and check a lot of things out, which you don’t get to do a lot on tour, and we got good sleep at night.”
And what about the crowds? Were their audiences crawling with music-industry types? Well, it depended on the gig. “It was hard to tell,” he says. “It kind of changed based on the size of the room, and time of day was a factor in that, too.”
Theirs is a somewhat low-key attitude, especially given New Madrid’s ambitious, indie-prog-rock sound. The band — which also includes drummer Alex Woolley, guitarist Graham Powers, and bassist Ben Hackett — has released two albums, 2012’s Yardboat and 2014’s Sunswimmer. Both are sprawling collections of guitar-geek bliss, heavy on atmospheric production and layers of massive six-string tapestries that echo off into the horizon. They’re not quite as self-serious as the Smashing Pumpkins and not quite as distant as Ride, but there are reminders of both those bands’ bigger-than-life sound, especially when the songs stretch past the five-minute mark. On Sunswimmer alone, there are two 11-minute-plus epics that find the band taking simple, catchy melodies and pushing them as far as they can go.
But their soon-to-be-released MagnetKingMagnetQueen is decidedly different. For the most part, the songs are concise slices of guitar pop, with many of the same elements as the band’s prior work but little of the experimentation. Over the course of 15 tracks, produced by former Sugar bassist David Barbe, the band keeps things efficient. And McGill is just as low-key about the change in sound as he was about SXSW. “This time, there’s only one song that’s longer than 10 minutes,” he says. “I think we’re just writing different kinds of songs. Each song kind of has its own life. Sometimes it feels like it should be really long, sometimes it feels like we should narrow it down, or sometimes we’ll be playing it one way and find out that another way works better. It’s nothing conscious.”
What’s odder still is that, usually, the more time a band has to record an album, the more indulgent they can get. But in New Madrid’s case, they used different recording techniques than before, and it ended up making the songs tighter. “We did some recording at home, but you can only do so much tracking of instruments at your house,” McGill says. “So we decided to keep making the record with a mobile recording rig. It’s not really like a regular studio, and it gave us a little more time that way. We could work more on some of the songs.”
And even in terms of Barbe’s production — the album was completed at Chase Park Transduction Studio in Athens — they’ve stripped things down a great deal. “I’ve always been big on the idea of kind of blanketing the songs,” McGill says. “And that’s something that’s been a big part of our live show, too. But there’s a lot less soundscaping on this record. I think that’s because there are more songs and because of the length of the record.”
But even if people don’t respond to the new, streamlined New Madrid sound, they might not have to wait too long for the next chapter. Like many groups that spend a long time making a record, McGill says he’s already thinking about songs for the next one. “You’ll figure out one song and it creates all sorts of ideas for other ones, whether it’s while you’re recording or at sound check or something like that,” he says. “You’re always kind of picking things out to record later.”