There's an urgency to New Madrid. It's evident by the opening thrust of "Not In Me," the lead track on the Athens, Georgia, band's latest effort, magnetkingmagnetqueen. Sporting rapid, airy vocal overlays pushed by a frenetic drumbeat and prog-ish guitar licks, the song makes it clear New Madrid is not resting on its
growing acclaim, but is instead pushing into the exploratory ether.
"There's not as much ambient-interlude kind of stuff on this record. The drums are more steady. We're still in the clouds sometimes, but it's all us," says principal songwriter and vocalist Phil McGill during a recent phone call from his home.
McGill's reference to being "in the clouds" refers to the band's earlier preference for inhabiting a psychedelic space more along the lines of Pink Floyd with hints of Eno-esque ambient textures. There's still a bevy of atmosphere filling the new album, but now it's more focused and concise. Guitars soar and shimmer, vocals echo and reverberate, drums skitter and stutter, basslines rumble or hypnotically repeat, but never to the point of excess. It's the sign of a band growing up, growing into each other.
"With the four of us, we're able to expand on our ideas," McGill says. "I've been writing songs since high school, but [since] I found these other guys I've looked at things differently. When we're playing together, we just feel it, and it comes together. Sometimes I feel like we could be doing more. We're just constantly trying new things, constantly writing."
More often than not, New Madrid gets nailed with the term "psychedelic." Add a little reverb and any band can be psychedelic, and while McGill doesn't dismiss the term, or think it fully represents his band, he makes the claim that such a perception is relative.
"Even an Elizabeth Cotton song, with just her playing the guitar, it can take you somewhere special. It doesn't all have to be all phased out and crazy," he says. "I think music is inherently psychedelic. It creates an out-of-body experience. I think psychedelic and experimental become words that are interchangeable. We like to experiment. Whether it be with song structures or ways we write songs, we're just trying to push the bounds of what we do."
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Athens is known as a southern rock mecca, having sprouted such acclaimed acts as R.E.M., Pylon, Widespread Panic, and Vic Chesnutt. McGill, an Athens transplant, notes this "hotbed of creativity" is inspiring — perhaps explaining why New Madrid has produced four releases in as many years.
"There must be something in the water," he says with a laugh.
Magnetkingmagnetqueen is a true reflection of New Madrid. Instead of piecing songs together in the studio, the band perfects them first on stage before taking that energy and experience into the studio. What you hear on record is what you'll get when New Madrid hits the Valley Bar July 5 — more or less.
"There are other elements that happen live. It's rawer when it's live," McGill says. "The energy of the show changes things; if you're just listening to the song, you don't have any visual cues. You're just hearing that song in your head, but live there's something … more," McGill says. "I think we're equal parts recording project and live band. You really have to see us live to get that. You see us live once, and you get the elements on the record."
New Madrid is scheduled to perform at Valley Bar on Tuesday, July 5.