By Jim Schutze
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Home By Hovercraft aren't afraid of going for the big finish. Led by husband-and-wife combo Seth (lead vocals, tuba) and Shawn Magill (piano, vocals, xylophone), the band also comprises Abbey Magill (percussion), Max Hartman (drums) and Johnny Sequenzia (mandolin, banjolin, harmonica). They rightfully draw comparisons to The National and even Nick Cave for their impeccable ability to bring dramatic ambition into their work.
The group, whose members have played together in various incarnations since 2009, has now filled a chamber-rock void in Dallas with a stunning, robust new album, Are We Chameleons?. Area fans of this brand of band-camp-meets-indie-rock have been musically malnourished in the past couple of years, as like-minded every-instrument-including-the-kitchen-sink acts such as Telegraph Canyon, Seryn, Mount Righteous and the Polyphonic Spree have been more or less silent in terms of releasing new music. Shawn is quick to admit they've drawn inspiration from those who've shown this style of music can thrive in North Texas.
"Yes, definitely we've been inspired by Polyphonic Spree," she says as the band rehearses for a recent live performance of Paul Slavens' original score to the silent film The Hunchback of Notre Dame.
"Especially by how they've been able to imagine something different and unique and just do it and not really worry about the consequences," she says. "The first time we heard or saw Telegraph Canyon, we were living in Austin, and they just amazed us with their intricate layering of different instruments ... and exhilarating use of dynamics and vocal harmonies. Seeing them helped encourage us and made the things we were imagining seem possible. Also we were so proud when we discovered they were from the DFW area, a homegrown act of a quality better than most Austin bands we had seen there."
When you hear that a band has lots of drama, that usually means a seedy drug- and dispute-fueled episode of Behind the Music is practically in the can. Not with this crew. Dramatics in various forms are merely tools the group uses to convey their cinematic vision. Even the process of coming up with their unique band name had its share of orchestration.
"First, it's almost impossible to find a name that's not already taken," Shawn explains. "So we figured we'd have to go with multiple words to have success. We love band names that spark an active image or story and wanted to connect our name to imagination and adventure. We'd also been really getting into Scottish bands at the time and loved the band names Frightened Rabbit, We Were Promised Jetpacks and The Twilight Sad, so we wanted to create a name that might similarly be found in an old collection of children's stories.
"We ended up on the final name because we also like what it can mean. We love the thought of 'Home' and cultivating those things that can be grown from a healthy home, family or community, and 'Hovercraft' signifies the ultimate in imagination for us — hovering in the air and traveling somewhere at a fast speed, our version of a 'flying dream.' Then, we joined those words, so it was a deliberately random selection."
Any group with a husband and wife at the helm is set up for manic ebbs and flows of emotional turmoil, but that hasn't been the case with the Magills, who have fostered a partnership based on mutual respect and a thirst for new ideas as a couple.
"Our songwriting process is extremely collaborative between Seth and me," Shawn says. "Usually we start with a kernel of lyrics and melody from Seth, which I then layer chords and instrumentation around. This free flow of songwriting leaves us with numerous snippets of songs instead of complete songs that sometimes can take days and sometimes years to form on their own or combine together into full songs.
"Being husband and wife has enabled music to form the foundation of who we are, and we are always open to the new songs that pop up as we go about our daily lives. Seth regularly runs into the room with a new lyric or melody, or I pull a chord progression out of the air. We record these snippets and store these on our phones and bring them out later to form new complete songs. At times it can get hectic and seem like it's always work-work-work, as we are business partners in the band and in our theater/music/film production company, Spacegrove Productions, but then we don't really want it any other way."
It's impossible to not respond to the grandiose, swelling sense of theatrical climax on Are We Chameleons?. It's a mode the band not only seeks, but does expertly and naturally.
"The dramatic nature of our sound is due in large part to the backgrounds of the artists who make up the band," Shawn says. "Seth is trained in theater, and his love of storytelling and theatrics is apparent in his lyrics and in our live shows. Theater also provided the introduction to our current bandmates Max Hartman and Johnny Sequenzia, who work in the local theater scene as actors and teachers.
"I'm a classically trained pianist, and my classical training provides the theory foundation for many of our current compositions. Sometimes baroque, sometimes romantic, and the sometimes modern mixture of influences add to our dramatic flair."
The diverse artistic backgrounds of the band don't stop there. Seth's sister, Abbey, has long been Irish step-dancing competitively — that works as a percussive layer in the band. Home By Hovercraft also have some classical pedigree in the form of cellist Steven Ramirez and violinist Becki Howard, who has also played with Sarah Jaffe and These Machines Are Winning. Both played on the new album.
"The theatrical nature of these various art forms combining together into one band just naturally gives us that dramatic vibe," Shawn says. "Eight of the 11 songs on the album are featured in a rock musical."
Home By Hovercraft have a knack for finding odd little stories and creating larger-than-life art out of them.
"On The Eve [the aforementioned rock musical] germinated from an idea for a story that Seth and I had a few years back," Shawn says. "It's set around the first manned hot air balloon flight during the time of Marie Antoinette. The balloon flight was 'manned' by a rooster, a duck and a sheep named Monteciel. We figured if the sheep had a name, then something really amazing must have been going on."