Living in a Mercurial World with Magdalena Bay
Magdalena Bay's incredible and immersive debut album is finally upon us, and to celebrate, we had our friend Jacob Alvarez of Marquee Marauders Club* take a deep dive into Mag Bay's universe with Matt + Mica at their home/studio in Los Angeles; stream the album while you get lost in Mag Bay's Mercurial World below. Photos by Paige Strickland.
LIVING IN A MERCURIAL WORLD WITH MAGDALENA BAY
--by Jacob Alvarez
Magdalena Bay are changing the way artists envelop listeners in their music. The band invites you into their cyberscape with an 8-bit, retro-styled game, "You Lose!", based on the same-titled track on their debut LP, Mercurial World. The player takes the form of a synth spacecraft shooting floating skeleton heads, UFOs, and one of the band’s unique characters, aptly named Fluffy, who looks more like a purple demon in a nightmare than a cute chihuahua mix. At random times during the game, flying skull versions of the band make their way to attack the player. “That’s the cut off, so the idea is to get as many points as possible before that,” says Matthew Lewin, one half of the Miami born, LA-based synth-pop duo. Mica Tenenbaum chimes in with a laugh, “It surpassed our expectations. People are hacking it to get the top scores!”
On their debut album, the band discuss the theme of time and its ever-shifting quality in upbeat, dance-groove patterns. Meeting in high school and then parting ways to pursue their college degrees, Tenenbaum and Lewin came back together in 2016 to form Magdalena Bay, after a disconnect from each other and their first band, Tabula Rosa. Ditching the prog-rock style for a pop effort, the band released a few singles and two “mini-mixes” in addition to a plethora of short music videos that demonstrated their DIY nature. These methods have allowed the duo to make fans get lost in their world in the best ways possible.
From a Y2K styled website that bears the question “Are you half empty or half full?”, to a range of TikToks that showcase truly how fun and amusing the band find themselves promoting their record, Magdalena Bay have seriously created a loophole to reside in. The album mirrors that sentiment with Tenenbaum and Lewin embracing the idea of letting listeners enjoy the extended universe of the band. It’s Magdalena Bay’s world, we just want to live in it.
The band discuss their formation, introduction to pop music, and their creative sensibilities that emit from their debut LP, Mercurial World, out today on Luminelle.
You both met in high school and began making music at the time. What brought you together to begin that creative endeavor?
MATTHEW LEWIN: I’ve been playing guitar you know since I was nine and then always was obsessed with it so I think when we first started making music, it was like we were put into a band together at an after school music program and we were just doing cover songs. Then we started writing our own music together, but it was rock music, a different vibe.
MICA TENENBAUM: I think we were both drawn to like writing songs. I was always trying to write stuff on the piano. I mean there wasn’t so much going on but I was definitely curious about it. It was always something I wanted to try and then yeah, we started that band. Started making our own music apart from like the Jimi Hendrix covers and took that band super seriously throughout high school. Then we went to college and the band broke up, so it was a year where we didn’t really make music.
LEWIN: I was still making music in Boston.
TENENBAUM: And then we reconnected and were like, ‘we want to keep writing together, we should start something new that’s more like pop-leaning for fun,’ and that was like the birth of Magdalena Bay in 2016.
What role did the college experience play in dissolving the first band and eventually forming Magdalena Bay?
LEWIN: I think with that first band, we weren’t in the position to not go to college. We definitely weren’t on that trajectory.
TENENBAUM: We were pretty niche like progressive rock and our only fans were middle aged men in Scandinavia. College was our best option and then we started doing Magdalena Bay and we didn’t really have a reason to stop.
LEWIN: We started back in 2016 and we graduated in 2018 so I think by the time we graduated, we were at the point where we were like, “Okay now we could maybe try to start taking music more seriously,” but it wasn’t like “Oh let’s drop out of college because this is going so well.”
TENENBAUM: I wish (laughs).
Was that time spent in college your introduction to becoming fans of pop music?
LEWIN: I think going to college, you meet people and you kind of get outside of your circle. People introduce you to new music and just expand your tastes and your view of music. I had this roommate, who made indie rock, but it was very poppy indie rock and I think just being around him kind of exposed me to that music.
TENENBAUM: I made a lot of friends who were into Grimes and Carly Rae Jepsen. I never even knew this stuff existed and they would just play them at parties and I was like, ‘This is pretty cool.’
Being from Miami, is the music scene there more of an influence on your art as opposed to any LA vibe?
TENENBAUM: It’s definitely there in some subconscious way. I don’t know. I think especially when we started out, we were really interested in the neon, sort of like synth-wave thing. Retro Miami.
LEWIN: Like Miami Vice.
TENENBAUM: I think when we were starting to figure out pop, it was a direction [we were] interested in but I don’t know what’s going on in Miami too much these days. We’ve been removed from it.
The band has DIY sensibilities, beginning with making your own music videos when you first started, to uploading livestreams and production walkthroughs of tracks. What significance is sharing your methods with fans and creators alike?
LEWIN: That’s pretty much how I learned how to produce pop music. Going on YouTube and looking up stuff like that and then people sharing their knowledge, so it just felt like, ‘Why not be open?’ I feel there’s no reason to keep things secret.
TENENBAUM: We just kind of started doing our own visuals on a necessity kind of thing because of budget and stuff. It’s cool that people got into a lot of stuff we’ve done for zero dollars. It’s fun to go into that and be like, ‘Hey man, you don’t need a ton of money right away you know.’ If you’re just getting started, it can be financially draining to finance music videos but we filmed our last one mostly on iPhone. Some of it (was shot) with a nice camera but there’s a lot you could get away with.
What’s the mindset for creating pop music, a genre that has become heavily saturated in the last decade with an ever-changing landscape as well?
TENENBAUM: I feel like in some vague way, we’ve always been like, ‘We need to be unique, right?’ I don’t know if we’ve ever been like, ‘Let’s look at what everyone is doing and do something different.’
LEWIN: I think there’s a difference between trying to chase a trend or something versus making music that you want to make or that you think sounds good or is fun. It might be easy to fall in the trap of ‘’I’m going to try to sound like whatever’s on the radio at this moment.’ That could be a successful strategy but it gets very competitive, especially when everyone’s trying to do the same thing at the same time. Maybe if you focus on what you like to do, people might like it too.
TENENBAUM: Hopefully! It’s a gamble.
Where did the title track and name of the album come from which relates directly to the theme of the record (time)?
TENENBAUM: I think we just had that song. The track “Mercurial World.” We always loved that title and wanted to name the album that. Sometimes when you’re writing a melody, you kind of say some gibberish and I kind of said that or something similar and it stuck out to us. It definitely fits with the influence and themes of the whole thing because the album is about this ever-changing and shifting world we live in, and how we try to stay sane or not inside of it.
It’s almost meta with those themes being directly influential in the pop music world.
LEWIN: We’re still figuring out what kind of music we want to make. We’re definitely still in the learning process.
TENENBAUM: Are you ever not though? (laughs)
LEWIN: No, I feel that’s just your whole life. But yeah, you’re always developing your sound.
With a planned 2020 tour canceled, did being home due to the pandemic affect you in any positive ways?
TENENBAUM: Yeah, it was a blessing in disguise for us in some ways, because our tour was canceled and we were just wondering, ‘What can we do now?’ We wrote the album, which was so cool. To have that uninterrupted time, completely isolated; I think for the next album, we’ll have to really work to make that time for ourselves. It’s hard to shut off the world when there’s so much happening, but when there’s nothing happening, it was really easy to lose ourselves in the process I guess. I think we had more time to like watch movies and spend time looking at things. Doing things that maybe we hadn’t before, like finding creative references. Watching David Lynch movies and things like that are fun pastimes, but it was really cool for us to find new art that we
really enjoyed or weird Internet holes from the 90s and 2000s.
LEWIN: Just stuff to get inspired by you know? Maybe if we were on tour, we wouldn’t have been able to sit and watch so many movies. (laughs)
TENENBAUM: I really think free time was important for ideas, and obviously making TikToks has been really fun and a lot of people are finding us that way.
Media plays an integral role in the music industry with social media apps making ordinary people go viral and gain attention. What was the idea behind reverting to a 90s Y2K-styled site in addition to daily used apps?
LEWIN: That was from finding the Internet Archive websites. They have all these websites that were live back in the 90s and you could kind of travel back in time. It was very inspiring for us, just the way they looked and how they felt.
TENENBAUM: There’s obviously a lot of nostalgia there, but also it’s crazy thinking this was the beginning of the internet in a way and how people saw it. Now it became this social media, corporatized thing but at the time, it was more personal. People had websites for their dogs, vacation, or their art project would be a site. People still do that now but it’s different and more developed.
What are you hoping for the listener to take away from Mercurial World?
LEWIN: Hopefully they just have fun listening to it. I mean, hopefully they enjoy the music, of course, but all the visuals and everything else. We want it to be an extended universe of the album and of us.
TENENBAUM: Yeah, most people will probably just listen to the music, which is amazing, you know, but if there’s one person out there who wants to play the game and watch the stream or whatever...We just like making it as immersive as possible for however many people want to get lost in the sauce. (laughs)
Check out Jacob's MMC* blog + his incredible bootleg action figures + toys here.