By Zach Schepis
Photo courtesy of Magpies.
There’s a fresh slate of new highway signs to greet visitors as they wind along country roads into the state of Montana: pictures of lonesome mountains glazed with ice, tremulous elk with gazes fixed upon the horizon, and tumbleweeds rolling back and forth across the plains.
It’s a state where the density is only six people per square mile. Some might quake at the thought of such desolation–even if it is beautiful.
For guitarist, vocalist, and songwriter Tolan Harbor, it’s the perfect place to make music with his band.
“It’s just so comfortable to live here,” Harbor tells BTR. “It makes writing and being in a band much easier than dealing with the hassle of a big city where you’re just working all the time. Here, things are pretty slow. We’re able to write lots of songs.”
He’s been writing songs with Magpies since early 2007 when Harbor formed the group with his soon-to-be-wife, Samantha Pollington. She plays bass in the group and together the two split most of the vocal responsibilities.
It all started in the far-busier City of Angels, when Harbor was trying to find an actress for his low-budget indie film. Pollington was the woman he hired and five years later the two were married.
It’s easy enough to work together when you live together. Harbor might account for 90 percent of the band’s material, but the ability to bounce ideas off his wife while she experiments with vocal parts and bass lines proves invaluable to a piece-by-piece process that is simultaneously passionate and organic.
They picked up the rest of the pieces shortly after an exodus from their home in Los Angeles into the quieter bustle of Missoula, Montana. Joined by drummer Dave Martens, the trio released a couple of EPs and a full length album, Pretty Big Time, in the span of a few years. The sound was soaked with sporadic bursts of distorted guitars and a buzzed out rawness a la Sonic Youth or ‘90s Yo La Tengo.
Solid foundations notwithstanding, Magpies were in store for a sonic jolt and lineup change that would help them perfect the sound they’re known for today.
To start, they found a new talent in drummer Jamie Rogers, who trims Magpies’ fuzz into form with razor-sharp rhythms. Harbor was also seeking a guitarist to help him focus more on his vocals when he discovered Troy “Hank” Donovan playing in a Cure cover band at a local venue.
“I remember thinking, ‘Oh my god, I want that guy to play guitar for me,’” laughs Harbor. “About two weeks later he asks if he can join Magpies, and I’m like, ‘Dude, I was going to ask you!’”
Donovan is something of a guitar aficionado. He manages an instrument effects blog called Effects Bay, whose accompanying Twitter account has 28,000 followers. He constructs his own pedals and started building his own brand of custom heavy-duty instrument cables. It has since grown into a full-fledged business called Rattlesnake Cable Company.
On top of this, Donovan has experience playing with several other Missoula groups, including Pollen, HyperLopro, and the aforementioned cover band. The guitarist’s own unique brand of distortion–which he aptly describes as “ear-knife”–is a technique that he’s perfected over the years. It’s become a hallmark of Magpies’ jackhammer sound.
With a new lineup ready to fire away and a winter’s worth of fresh Harbor/Pollington compositions, Magpies hit the road last year on a tour of the Midwest. In the past, the group would jump into the studio first chance to pen the songs they’d written. This time plans were different.
With a newfound dynamic and momentum, the four members decided to tour behind their songs, learning them intimately inside and out with the help of audiences before hitting the record button.
Questions soon arose as to what the band would name their new album worth of material. Harbor came up with an idea that could encapsulate the unrestrained nature of the songs. He made a deal with the band.
“If we saw a tornado, we agreed to name the record Tornado,” says Harbor.
Sure enough, a clean swiping hand of serendipity brought a storm that shut down the interstate. The aftermath left the band stranded overnight in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. The name stuck.
Much like the land-borne cyclone, Tornado hits hard and fast in its lean 44-minute runtime. Following a successful tour, Magpies recorded the entire 10-track album live in the same room at Black National Recording Studios. It was the first time ever for the band, and Harbor can’t stress enough how much more organic the entire process felt.
What’s more? They cranked the whole thing out in two days flat with zero overdubs.
“It’s fun to sit in the studio and [tinker] around and come up with ideas, but that costs money,” says Harbor. “With straight live takes, there was no screwing around. I think it’s the best record we’ve made.”
To hear the rest of the interview, tune into this week’s Discovery Corner.
Or find your own way to interpret Magpies by clicking here.