A magic much deeper than what's on show
After the giddy success of last year, The Magic Numbers are feeling the pain of promoting album number two. They talked to Alexia Loundras
Huddled around a small table in the corner of a hotel bar overlooking Paris's Gare du Nord train station, four sets of shoulders, draped by curtains of hair, shake uncontrollably. The seismic bout of the collective giggles is such that it threatens to topple the drinks that clutter the table. No one's actually cracked a joke, but The Magic Numbers are the kind of people who don't need an excuse to laugh.
The band, famously comprising two sets of siblings - front man Romeo Stodart and his bass-playing sister Michele; and the Gannons, vocalist Angela and drummer Sean - share a telepathic sense of humour cultivated since the Trinidad-born Stodarts moved from New York to the Gannon's west London neighbourhood in their teens.
The band rose to prominence in 2005 with the sort of grassroots hype that propelled Arctic Monkeys. And since the release of their enchanting, Mercury-shortlisted eponymous album last year, their infectious laughter and sunny demeanour have become as much their trademark as their hirsute appearance and effortless knack for soul-soaring melodies.
But tonight there's an unusually manic edge to their jollity. "We've just seen our schedule," says Angela, catching her breath. "Next week is just mental." The observation elicits another chorus of nervous giggles from her ruddy-cheeked band mates.
Less than 18 months after the release of their multi-platinum debut, the band are back on the road touting album number two, the lush Those The Brokes. Caught in a whirlwind of promotional duties, The Magic Numbers hardly know where they are. Asked whether she enjoyed the previous night, Angela struggles to remember what she did. "It's all a blur really," she says. "It gets like that sometimes."
In fact, last night the four-piece played an intimate show to an enraptured Parisian crowd - "Oh yeah," says Angela, memory jogged, "they were really attentive during the quiet songs - even the new ones." But the buzz of the performance has been dulled by a day of interviews for French press, radio and television. "We got all our favourite questions," grimaces Michele. "Do you fight a lot? What's your favourite number?"
"The Mamas and the Papas, discuss," adds Romeo. Tomorrow, when their tour bus pulls up in Berlin, they're set to endure the same all over again. Only this time in German.
"This is pretty much what we do," says Romeo, his giggles subsiding with a hint of weary resignation. "We talk about our album and then we go somewhere else and we talk about it some more. Sometimes interviews can be a chance to reflect on things and you leave with your thoughts clear."
"But right now," interrupts Angela, "there's no time to reflect."
Apart from seven weeks spent recording the new album, The Magic Numbers have been on the road since early 2005. They've played more than 200 shows across the world and done at least that many interviews. Even now, with a few hours off in Paris, they've got me thrusting a tape recorder at them before they board their bus to Berlin.
With the promotional campaign for their debut done and dusted, most bands would have relished the opportunity for a bit of a breather. "But we had a bunch of new songs and we were feeling really tight," says Romeo. "So going straight in to do our second album seemed like a really exciting and positive thing to do."
But there was another reason for ploughing on. "Part of us thought that if we took a break we would have lost something," confesses Michele, mindful of how quickly bands can now appear and disappear.
The Magic Numbers admit they've been enjoying their whirlwind success. "It's been incredible," says Romeo. "We've had some amazing experiences and a lot of dreams were fulfilled." They've toured with their idol Brian Wilson and supported U2. Plus, after becoming the first band to walk off Top of the Pops following presenter Richard Bacon's "fat" joke last summer, the unassuming four-piece became one of the most recognisable bands around.
"When we started we felt very timid," adds Michele. "We've always enjoyed ourselves on stage but now we have a little more self-belief, we're maybe a little more cocky."
This new assurance bubbles through Those The Brokes, which they insisted on producing themselves. "We had a clear vision of how we wanted the record to sound," says Romeo. "We didn't want to fight for the record we wanted to make." With the addition of orchestral strings, courtesy of Nick Drake collaborator Robert Kirby, there's now an ethereal, psychedelic wash to their dreamy, harmony-drenched pop.
"We spent ages trying to get the arrangements right, because they were so complicated and when you record them, they have to sound effortless," says Romeo.
"Making music is all I've dreamed about since I was small," he continues, explaining his perfectionism. "It's everything to me - it's an obsession. You go through life and you have your goal, your passion for something - it's in you and you have to do it regardless of what you sacrifice along the way. But then..." He pauses to sip his beer.
"But then you realise when you get everything you wanted that there's still something missing." He tucks a loose lock behind his ear and offers a shy half-smile. "Music hasn't made me 100% happy like I thought it would."
Delve beneath The Magic Numbers' ebullient exterior and you'll find a soft, incomplete and aching core. And the same is true of their music. Dressed in comforting layers of delicate, interlaced melodies, the tunes on Those The Brokes sound uplifting. But they disguise lyrics of frustration, confusion and heartbreak.
"Our songs are a bit like first meeting someone," offers Michele. "At first you don't know what they're like, but you're all smiley and you chit-chat. With our music, the first thing you hear are the melodies that jump out of nowhere. But the better you get to know someone - the more you listen to the album - that's when you discover there's more to them than what's on the surface."
Romeo's raw, personal lyrics sting like paper cuts and reveal a man who wants to love but can't. When pushed, Romeo reveals that one source of happiness - the success of his band - is exclusive of another. "You want to share your life with someone," he says. "That's the biggest thing, I think. But travelling all the time makes it almost an impossibility."
It's clear Romeo finds it hard to talk about his songs, and that his lyrics have left him feeling exposed and vulnerable. "The album's all about love, relationships, the things life throws at you - situations, temptations. These are the things that come out when you're feeling reflective. And whenever I pick up a guitar to write a song it's never when things are great, it's late at night when I'm feeling crap." He shrugs.
"There's no other way I've seen of doing it really. You have to just express your feelings and not care what people are going to think."
The Magic Numbers play Mandela Hall at Queen's University on December 12. Tickets from Queen's Student Union or any Ticketmaster outlet. Those The Brokes is out now on Heavenly.