INTERVIEW: Magic City Hippies
Magic City Hippies recently released their second full length album, Water Your Garden in January of 2022 and were nearing the home stretch of tour in honor of its release when members Robby Hunter and John Coughlin (along with their touring drummer Johnathan Huelett) spoke with me via phone call from their freshly rented mustang convertible. Whether you’re just getting acquainted with the band or are a longtime fan, this interview offers some excellent insight through the band’s unique self-reflections.
Manor 208: Let’s talk about your new album [Water Your Garden]. I’d say it’s probably safe to call it your pandemic album…
Robby: It’s true.
John: You know, it’s funny when you’re making it… We definitely weren’t consciously like “This is the pandemic.” That would shift how we made it, but we weren’t consciously trying to do that. [But it is technically a pandemic album] since we did make it within the last two years.
208: Do you think that it helped with the creative process – being separated (by the pandemic)?
John: Yeah, I think it does. I would have said no in the beginning or at least it would have been new and unsure. But no, I think it definitely – Well number one we’re not on the road so I think it’s much bigger. It’s a lot – the process of writing the songs, producing and arranging then mixing and mastering. Those are different steps that if we pause any of them in the middle, it delays the whole process. So not being on the road for the past few years (besides a quick three weeks back in the fall), it definitely allowed us to just stay focused on this. It definitely shifted the process too because we both (me and Robby) had our own little production set ups on the phone with Pat [Howard] (the third member who’s our producer). Usually, we’d have to go into his studio, which is where we’d decide lyrics and melodies. Instead, we all got to sit there and make our own little songs, you know half creating some of it. It definitely allowed us to breathe a little bit, to come at songwriting through different angles. And Pat – who’s obviously not on tour with us right now – said it allowed him to know where to take each song because in the past it would be Robby singing and playing guitar [to give to Pat]. At that point, it’s up to him to decide the structure of the song. Now we send him the song and it’s closer to the creative source of its inspiration. He says, “I can hear where this song wants to go instead of arbitrarily having to decide where it’s going to be.” I think that is where we shifted the process of [writing] the songs. It’s my favorite record, I think it’s got the best songs. It definitely helped a lot, I agree.
208: It sounds like it was definitely more in the moment for you guys?
John: Well, I mean it’s funny. There’s a magic that happens when we’re together, but in the past we would all slave over a song and the whole album would take almost four years. We would be in the studio for five nights a week until like 3am and in some ways you can almost make a song overwrought. You can do too much to it, you know? Instead, we allowed ourselves to write the songs separately, show up to the studio in LA, sometimes in Miami, and then we could apply our collective touch to it. Basically, it was probably a healthier way to do everything, I would say.
John: It felt a little more like we weren’t going to hurt ourselves if we make this album. Although, you know, Pat isn’t on the road with us because it was pretty hard for him to do this trek. In the end he needed some time off, but it definitely created a different creative process.
208: Did you find that a little bit more effective than previous strategies and do you think that’s something that you’re going to repeat on your future albums or recordings?
John: [laughs] Well, you know in our effective strategies – as musicians it’s hard to consider what we’re doing as effective strategies as I’m not quite a music business major, or rather even a business major for that matter. But retrospectively? Yeah. Lets put it this way, it was exactly what it had to be. I don’t know. I can’t tell you that this would have worked for our last record [Modern Animals]. For example, this is the first record that I got to write songs, I submitted them. And like, I wasn’t ready to do them then. Where we were in our lives, writing music in a different place? We were ready to sit down and craft songs that were…
Robby: It just seemed like the natural evolution of the band’s writing process anyway. COVID pushed us into it way faster than we would’ve anticipated doing this. Because we all – at some point – wanted to be happy with where we were physically in our locations in the United States. Like I’m in Montana, Pat’s in LA, John’s in Miami right now. So, it kind of just forced our hand. I do see that, as the writing process goes forward, it’s going to be more like this. Touring we’ll always be together obviously. It’s going to be a mixed bag of both things.
208: I’ve seen a lot of bands moving more towards that as well. So out of curiosity, what is your favorite lyric off the album [Water Your Garden] and why?
Robby: Gotta think about that for a second.
John: Umm… still thinking.
208: Just putting you on the spot here.
John: What are the lyrics to the first verse of Ghost on the Mend? Can you say them?
Robby: Waste it–
John: See, I’m the worst with lyrics, but our song Ghost on the Mend…
Robby: Waste it all on a friend
John: Waste it all on a friend, and then?
Robby: Another one I fake
John: Another one I fake
Robby: Face it, you’re on the mend
John: Just the “Face it you’re on the mend,” and the way that Robby… Robby sent in that song relatively early, right? Almost the entire record was written in the last two years. So that was probably like the Summer of 2020, I was out there in the garden and I was listening to the music at that time. And that one would just make me tear up, knowing that I have some shit that I need to work on and here’s Robby’s disembodied ghostly voice in my ear giving up this minor key thing, telling me that message. It’s not only that, on stage I still feel it every night. At that point I’m not really thinking about my own emotional state, it just charges you up on stage. To be reminded of how strongly that is. So, I don’t know if it’s a good lyric but it’s really worked on me.
208: Hey, it’s all about personal preference here. That’s what the question is. It’s not what, I don’t know, Webster defines – I don’t even know why Webster’s defining lyrics here but you know…
John: [laughs] No, I agree a hundred percent.
208: What’s been your favorite song to play live off the Water Your Garden album?
Robby: I love the ending of Ghost on the Mend.
John: Why what part? Like the bridge into the awesome chorus?
Robby: Yeah. That or Queen is a big —
John: High Beams is a lot of fun.
Robby: Oh, High Beams!
John: It’s kind of different things. Pretty much what makes the songs have their own qualities is what makes playing them live so much fun. Ghost on the Mend has a lot of drama to it. I remember when Pat… So, Pat made that whole bridge section – he used Dilla and all these crazy synths. I remember he sent it to his girlfriend at the time, Anna.
Robby: He got all excited.
John: He’s excited and insists she listen to it with headphones on and she’s looking at him like he’s crazy, right? It is pretty half-wild and we tamed it a little bit. So that section is really fun to play just the intensity and the groove of it. There’s a nice solo that I play at the end. The thing that’s funny is it is a sing-song moment, like you’re up there you’re part of the experience of how nice that covey it is. But I think “High Beams” is how all our shows are – a dance party and that song is built for that!
Johnathan: And we’ve got this sick outro too!
John: Yeah, at the end of High Beams. How would you describe what’s going on in that outro?
Johnathan: It’s really just like an extended instrumental jam session where we’ve got this part [with] this riff that’s got this pause in the middle where we’re groove and then we stop and then we groove and then we stop. It just builds the anticipation. Jake, the keyboard player, takes this ridiculous solo.
John: [laughs] Yeah
Johnathan: Like this face melting solo.
John: So that experience. A lot of our favorite moments are always that you love the songs but some of the songs are what is it, two or two and a half minutes?
Robby: Yeah, it’s two.
John: The things that happen live, almost all of the songs on the new record have extended instrumental outros that really take that energy in the show to the next level. How do I… [When we record our music], we don’t sit down in a group and play all together. Once the song is written they get put in a computer. We’re all playing instruments one at a time. Maybe one day we’ll make a record where we have these badass outros actually make it on the record before we hit the tour. But I love playing those, you’ll have to come out…that shit only happens at the shows. I can’t explain it perfectly, it’s not on the record. But if you come see a show, you’ll get it. You’ll know.
208: I feel like you actually did, but how would you describe your live show to someone who’s never seen you guys play?
Robby: It’s a rock show
John: It’s a rock show. [Our music] is all pretty groove based. It has to feel good, number one. There isn’t too much music that asks a lot of you emotionally, like you have to cry along with this or you’re never going to make it. It’s agreeable music.
Robby: I agree with that.
John: I mean that in the most complimentary way to ourselves as possible. I think we try to make music that, to us, has the widest verse. Plus, we have the best lights. Not like this screaming weird guitar sound means so much to the experience.
Robby: Your vitamins and Vicodin.
John: But at the same time live, to really make those kinds of pop songs work there’s a lot more energy on stage. We’re pushing it a little more. It’s a rock show. We’re usually whipping ourselves around. On this tour we’ve got Johnathan [Huelett, on drums] who you just talked to and Jake Pinto on keys and there’s a whole new creative burst of energy on stage. Especially with the two guys standing behind you or in front pushing you to the next level. We’re kind of parallel to a lot of jam stuff. I wouldn’t call ourselves an all-jam band, but there’s a lot of guitar solos.
Robby: We’re a good times party band.
John: Yeah, we’re a good times party band. I don’t know, it’s a good time. We don’t play the longest thing in the world, but I think you get a bit of a rollercoaster ride over the course of the 90 minutes.
208: There you go! I’m going to put you on the spot again, what’s been your favorite tour stop so far?
John: Tour stop?
Robby: Like city we played?
John: Denver was pretty huge.
Robby: Yeah, Denver was insane.
John: I guess we sold 1,000 in Denver. We’d done a little under that in Boston right at the end of last tour. I mean ticket counts are whatever. We don’t do this for ticket counts, but it was just a great relevance – that many people in one room. That energy was incredible. I crowd surfed for the first time, that was sick. We had a lot of friends and family there. Our tour manager Mike lives there, our business manager and manager both live there. So, we played for the people with the most stakes in there. So, when it goes off like a fucking shot gun and it’s a great show and they’re all there to be a part of it? Because amazing shows happen all the time on tour and sometimes, they’re in Iowa. And all you can do is say to people who see a million shows and are so invested in the music you’ve made and you know personally, all you can say is “Listen you should’ve been there.” So, when that lines up with a packed show where those things happen and everyone’s there to fucking enjoy it? That is the top tier of experiences.
Robby: I’d say Denver it is.
John: Hey it’s not over, we’ve still got some big shows coming up. [Robby laughs] LA is coming up, that’s usually a big show towards the second half of the tour. New York, we fucking killed it. That’s always a big, you get to New York, you slay it? You know it’s going to be a good tour.
208: There you go. Do you guys have any rituals before a show?
John: Yeah, we all have our separate things we need to do an hour before the show. So, it’s usually individual, but we put on our in-ears, we go up there and start talking shit. We do 1-2-3-4 and we yell something stupid like ripping ass.
Robby: Slam a couple gin and tonics
John: I have two gin and tonics before the show and I give myself an hour in order to do that.
Robby: Sometimes we’ll shoot some tequila, you know…
John: Stretches. Definitely smoking weed. Stretches are super important.
Robby: All the normal stuff.
John: I hurt my back almost every night. I like overextend a limb every night and then I’ve got to stretch that out. Let’s see, what else?
Robby: Massage the knees from all the jumping.
John: I put on this same song for like the last two years. A Fela Kuti song off his first record, London Scene. The song is called, “Egbe Mi O.” It’s a beautiful song and for me at least it really puts me in the focus and mindset of playing the show. And that music is very, “You’re in the band!” I mean he’s up there just being a wizard. [But the music is very], “you’re in the band” and the considerable amount of focus and the sacrifices to be in that band. That really puts me in the right mindset to stop thinking about whatever bullshit is going on in life and be like, “I’ve got to go play this show right now.” So that really helps. And there’s this cool guitar part that comes in, and I play guitar so that’s the very first thing I notice.
Sorry, really quick, it’s so beautiful where we are right now. We’re between Sacramento and…?
Robby: San Francisco
John: And Robby rented this convertible [Robby and John laugh]. He made an executive decision right now. We had to put the top on so we could talk to you, but the gentleman in the back [Johnathan] said he needed a good break. It’s that guy here. We should write songs about this, California!
208: There you go! Then you can write it off as a business expense. Well, I mean it’s already a business expense…
John: Exactly. This is our media vehicle for the event.
Robby: Hell yeah!
John: We’re going to have to put your name down on it as a witness to the expense.
208: Then just take a photo in front of it and it’s a —
John: Oh no, we did. We did.
208: Don’t forget to post it because it’s your media proof.
Robby: Yeah, exactly.
John: You understand. That’s exactly what Robby said we’re going to say to our management, “This is going to sell tickets, these photos.”
208: There you go. I’ll be your social media marketing. Come on, let’s go!
John: [laughs] yeah, let’s do it.
208: So, speaking of nothing that relates to this quite but it kind of does because it’s talking about your tour…
John: Let’s do it.
208: What are your plans once tour wraps up?
John: Well… It depends on what part of the end of the tour.
Robby: Oh yeah.
John: So, the tour ends in Houston and Johnathan is from town. What’s always nice about the last show of the tour is it’s on a Sunday, we get a slightly smaller venue where it’s good. So, you really let loose on that last set. The day before is the last big show. That one is where it’s a lot of pump, but you’ve got to be on you’re A-game. And the last show is very good because Johnathan’s friends and family are going to be there. And, you know, sometimes the planets align. Bad things can happen I’m told and it’s happened for us. We happen to be driving through New Orleans for Mardi Gras, but we leave before Mardi Gras so we’re just going to camp out the two days and wake up in New Orleans on Mardi Gras and sleep. I’m sure we’ll sleep so much…A nice, nice little sober break. Watch a book, read a movie.
Robby: [laughs] Watch a book? Yep.
John: No. We’re going to get really lit in New Orleans for a couple of days. It happens that it worked out that we had no idea that we’d be ending the tour there. I book all the Airbnb’s and it just dawned on me three weeks ago that we were going to be in New Orleans on Mardi Gras. So, we spend a day there and it’s nice especially after the wait-hurry-stop-hurry-go of the road to take our time getting back. We’ve got a couple of days, and then get home to Miami. We’ll probably rent a boat. Got to get everybody in one more vehicle, this time on the water. Go pack a splotive. We usually rent a boat, have a lot of fun and then everyone flies home. It’s crazy, we’re halfway through the sixth week of the seven-week tour.
Robby: [Week] five
John: None of us had really realized we were that far until yesterday. It’s still pretty wild.
208: Is that a good thing or a bad thing?
John: Its bittersweet being on tour. I mean, I’ve had many moments on the tour where I’ve been like I wish I was still at home. Or in the van when you wake up and you’re [inaudible] like that, but never like around the show. But at the same time, you know this is going to be over someday. Now it’s actually real. Because two weeks in you’re like I’m on tour forever. How long is the tour happening? Oh, forever. At this point you can actually feel the end of the forever. I’m going to be happy to go home and see my partner, my dog but it’s sooo bittersweet. But we’ve got a lot of good shows to play before we’re done, right?
208: I’m like, “Oh God. Now you guys are making me tear up.” I’m such a sap. All right, so last question…I read that, [during the production of the album “Water Your Garden” also became the band’s mantra of sorts for self-care]. I was wondering what are some ways that you all are practicing self-care and what advice would you give to your fans that may be experiencing anxiety and/or [mental health struggles during these unprecedented times?]
John: Yeah. When you make an album that ends up being about [inaudible] of a certain purpose. That being one of the most alien ones. It’s also…self-care is a topic in the media, but it isn’t a cynical ploy. It ended up being exactly what we needed, taking care of ourselves.
Robby: Mental health is hot.
John: [laughs] Yeah, exactly. I don’t ever want to be like, “Oh we’re going to sell a bunch of records. Mental health is hot right now!” Like I said, Pat isn’t on the road with us. He needed a break to really take care of himself. That’s a real visceral, tangible example of how this all was happening in real time. We really kill ourselves to make our records and no one does that more than as a producer really. He shows what aligns and shit. I would say it’s a lot harder to do these things on the road because you are just throwing yourself from Airbnb to venue to van, Airbnb to venue to van. But I’ve definitely Iearn to listen to my body [on what I need]. I learned I’m the most at peace when I have a relatively slow morning, the rest of the day can be really intense. As long as I wake up and meditate, I put on a lot of music in the morning. I make my coffee in a stereotypical manner. Just giving myself a lot of that time. But it’s hard, everyone is going to be so different.
John: But I think a lot of what we say – a lot of what I think of saying is something that you already know in the back of your mind that you need to do for yourself to be happy. We for years all had that in the back of our minds. Whatever we needed to know. Score an Airbnb, a million different things. I got my teeth cleaned in Mexico a month ago for like $50. Any of those little things that’s like that. You know you could use these for yourself, but the capitalists have decided for you that you don’t really get to do those things because you’re told that you shouldn’t. The main idea of which is do those things that you know you need to do, that are waiting for you, that would actually make you happier. Give yourself a little more peace, whatever that may be. Airbnb…
Johnathan: Renting a convertible.
John: Renting a convertible. Driving down the length of California with your best bud John in the back seat. You’ve got options.