Reel around the practice space

Magic Bullets hears a new world, while paying the rent in this one

Magic Bullets have survived lineup changes and the high cost of local living to release an acclaimed album this year.

MUSIC It's easy enough for Corey Cunningham, guitar player for Magic Bullets, to tell that I'm there to interview the band. Although 2200 César Chávez St. is bustling for 8:14 on a Wednesday night, I'm the only one around without an instrument. Magic Bullets practices in Secret Studios, a warehouse full of closets for bands to rehearse. "Lots of bands practice here," Cunningham said. Through the walls I can hear the muffled sounds of different groups putting work in on something between a hobby and a dream.

We find the rest of the band crammed into its rented space, surrounded by broken amplifiers. Magic Bullets is rehearsing for a show at the Rickshaw Stop, as well as for a trip to the CMJ Music Marathon, a result of songs from its 2010 self-titled album on Mon Amie having received considerable college airplay. The trip is a new opportunity — despite making music for six years, the band had to start over after the recent departures of its drummer, keyboardist, and second guitarist.

According to Cunningham, who founded the band along with singer and lyricist Phil Benson, bringing in a new drummer was the hardest part. "There are no two drummers who sound the same," he says. "Even if they're playing the exact same drum beat, their drum sets sound different, the way they play sounds different. It changes your sound drastically." Once the group decided to leave out a second guitarist, Magic Bullets' sound, evocative of U.K. guitar pop, has become clearer. In tandem, the rhythm section is less prone to stuttering and has become more propulsive.

Some bands don't make that transition at all, observes drummer Alex Kaiser. "If everyone leaves except you — like what happened with my old band — and you're the only person living within 500 miles, [breaking up is] a pretty easy choice," he said. Kaiser's last band, Tempo No Tempo, dissolved earlier this year, with one member making the popular musician move to Brooklyn and the other deciding to pursue higher education.

"There was a month or two when we weren't really doing Magic Bullets," Cunningham says. The remaining members started a side project, called Terry Malts, "because we didn't have a drummer."

"We were like, 'Let's just have fun,'<0x2009>" said Benson. Nathan Sweatt, Magic Bullets' bassist and third surviving member, qualifies Benson's optimism: "We thought, we're paying for this practice space, we may as well get some use out of it." The group rents the rehearsal space monthly, out of pocket, for about the price of a room in West Oakland. And it's not necessarily cheap.

"We're day-jobbers," Cunningham says. Earlier I ask (in a clichéd fashion) Magic Bullets to describe its image, and the answers veer jokingly between "regular Joes" and "cage fighters." The former is suggested by keyboardist Sean "Shony Collins" McDonnell, the other recent addition, who splits his time away from the band studying animation and kung fu. With a tendency to quip in cartoon voices, it can be hard to take him seriously. But Benson does.

"I knew Sean from being in bands in the Peninsula," Benson says. "He actually was the lead singer of this punk band Nathan [Sweatt], and I used to go see when I was 15 years old, Jacob Ham — the local heroes. We all kind of looked up to him, and I've actually taken cues from his performances. I've told him that before, and he's always like 'Aww, you.' But it's true."

If the band has any claim to being working class, it comes from Benson and Cunningham (Sweatt is in education; Kaiser is an "engineer for a big-ass government lab.") Both work retail jobs for a company that will go unnamed. Cunningham: "We try not to give them too much advertising." Benson: "Let's just say you can buy stuff there."

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