Magic! have no intentions of going quietly. The reggae-pop band exploded out of the gate in 2014 with their Hot 100-topping single “Rude,” an omnipresent summer radio anthem that sold millions of copies, spawned viral parody videos and most notably for the four Canadian musicians behind it, carried with it the distinct possibility of being the biggest thing they’ll ever do. “The four of us are far more than ‘Rude,'” lead singer Nasri Atweh contends as he lounges on a couch one recent evening in a downtown-Chicago recording studio.
Atweh says that singing the song, particularly during the band’s seemingly neverending promo run and world tour behind the unexpected hit single and its subsequent debut album, 2014’s Don’t Kill the Magic, took a toll on him. “I started to feel like a dancing monkey,” he says, referencing “Dance Monkey Dance,” a jazzy new song on his band’s forthcoming new album, Primary Colors. “I’m definitely a good sport. I had fun singing ‘Rude’ every time. But when you do it so many times in a row every day you start to feel that way. Especially as creative beings.”
Now Magic! are hoping to turn the page with a new LP. Primary Colors, due on July 1st, doubles down on the band’s successful reggae-pop sound. While highlighted by the Sean Paul-featuring lead single “Lay You Down Easy,” the album also delves into more diverse musical territory, including the Abba-tinged “Gloria” and the acoustic ballad “No Regrets.” After playing select songs from the new LP for radio bigwigs in Chicago, Nasri sat down with Rolling Stone and explained how he believes Magic!’s new album will paints a more full picture of his band and prove that “Rude” was merely the first step in a long career arc.
How quickly did you grow tired of singing “Rude” in the wake of its success?
Instantly. The second it’s a hit every day you’re singing “Rude.” I always wanted to write a song called “Dance Monkey Dance” but I hadn’t experienced it. And then when “Rude” became a big hit it actually became something more. It was like, “Oh, I’m a fucking dancing money right now.” I always enjoy singing “Rude.” It’s not like I don’t. But when you’re doing promo it’s different than when you’re touring. When you’re doing promo you’re singing one or two songs over and over again. We would sing “Rude” three times a day, every day, often acoustically. It was like, “This is ridiculous!” It was a little much but still fun.
How did you react to criticism around “Rude”?
I think the people that didn’t like it don’t like anything. We’re talking about a certain crowd that judges everything.
And yet the true reggae artists embraced it.
Yeah. They’re all friends of ours now, which is so funny. We got to Jamaica or Barbados or Trinidad and we’re embraced. They’re like, “Wassup, bros!” I think it’s because we’re good songwriters. I don’t think it has anything to do with the reggae part of it. I think the reggae part of it makes it easy for them to understand, but I think they appreciate the songwriting. Cause in Jamaica we have like four Top 10 singles. It’s different. America is one of the only places in the world where we only had “Rude” and parts of Europe. But in, like, Jamaica four songs were played all day over there.
Did you get the sense in America people felt you were a one-hit wonder?
Nobody ever said that. I think a lot of people are like, “Are you gonna beat ‘Rude’?” No and yes and who cares? Nobody cares. Do you care if I beat it? I think if you look at Aerosmith they had one Number One record and everything else were songs we all knew and loved and they sold out arenas. Even if you look at Coldplay, how many actual Number Ones does Coldplay have? Maybe one or two. Who knows? But they’re just making music and putting it out. The one thing with us is we write our own music so whether it’s Number One or Number 20 it’s already successful for us. Because we’ve put out music that we’ve created. It’s not fabricated.
You seem to emphasize being a long-running band and not burning out after a huge hit.
We want to make music for the masses for a long time. We want people to trust us. That’s not easy. But the consistency is how you develop trust. If we say, “We’re going to deliver more great songs,” and fans listen and they don’t like it, they’ve lost interest. We have a plan and that plan is to take people on a musical adventure. We’re going to get old and weird and our songs have to be something that transcends everything. We can already see the next three albums. “Rude” was just the introduction.
If anything you now have captive ears.
Yeah. They either want to destroy it or applaud it [laughs]. I don’t think we got any real haters. We’re musicians – we sometimes hate every song we hear. But I think that just come from being competitive. My thing is you can hate something but don’t insult anybody because it’s not nice. You can just say “Not my favorite song” or don’t say anything and just tell us what your favorite song is. Save yourself the energy, man.
How does one respond after such a massive hit?
At one point you have to wait until the song dies and then decide as a band whether you want to go back to the studio or you want to go play live. So we said, “Let’s go play live.” So for a year and a half or two years we just played live. And we wrote the new album on the road. We wrote in Manila, in Brazil, in Germany. “Lay You Down Easy,” a piece of that was recorded in Germany. We accumulated about 80 or 90 songs because we write every day.
You said you guys are learning to embrace being a pop band.
Pop music has changed. In the late Seventies or early Eighties pop was pretty creative. And now it’s not. But we feel like we’re one of those acts that are a little more creative. We have embraced our sound. Myself as a songwriter, I can go in a lot of directions. I can make something creative for myself that you might not really get but may sound cool. Or I can do something that we’ll all love. I feel like I have been given a gift of that style of songwriting, which is more pop. It was just about retaining our sound and not losing our love for a certain level of musicianship. My bandmates are extraordinary musicians so I don’t want people to hear our music and not hear that. So it was careful. We had to write a lot of songs to get to songs that are catchy but also musical.
It’s walking a fine line.
That’s basically it. That fine line is the hardest song to make. It’s really easy to be expressive. But to now be expressive and expect people to like it and come see you play and all that, that’s a different ear and a different mindset. What we did is, we said, “Let’s not worry. Let’s just keep writing. And when we get that month in L.A. to finish it we’ll know what songs are there.” And that’s what happened. When we got to L.A. last fall I said, “Guys, I don’t think any of these songs are good enough. I think we need to push even harder.” And then this song called “Gloria” showed up and I was like, “There is our standard.” This whole Eighties thing started to show up on the album.
You seem to have a good understanding of what songs will work on radio.
It’s never me. I didn’t even pick “Rude.” I’m not very good at picking a hit record. Even when I was writing for other people [like Justin Bieber and Chris Brown] I was horrible at it. It’s when I play it for people. During the last holidays we were home for Christmas and I said to the band, “Let’s just play these new songs for people and see what they think.” And everyone outside of the band loved “Lay You Down Easy” and this new track “Red Dress.” People were just gravitating to those melodies. You could just feel it on somebody when you play the music. These certain songs grab a large amount of people. But without those songs they’ll never hear the other ones. So you need those songs. You need both. It’s just a part of the introduction to Magic! – you need to invite people in with something friendly and digestible.
Even your less commercial material isn’t exactly a hard listen.
Exactly. Our musicianship is a little more slick. We’re not trying to show off. There’s no tricks. There are only a few songs where we’d layer synthetic things. What you’re hearing is a band playing. It’s a fine balance but I think we’ve struck it. This album, though, is definitely a pop album.
Was there ever a time where the idea of making strictly pop music would have bothered the musician in you?
I’m more of a pop guy myself. I have a lot of different levels where my songwriting can go, but I always end up somewhere more digestible. I can’t help it. I can get very odd and very weird but I tend to not want to share that yet. My bandmates, who are jazz musicians by trade, yeah, there are times when they’re questioning things. I think musicians oftentimes have a level of internal credibility where they’re like, “Man, I didn’t go to school for 10 years to play that.” That’s why it has to be crafted a certain way. You listen to someone like Bruno Mars … I like what he did on Unorthodox Jukebox. He made pop music that was musical and digestible and almost opened up a whole new audience of people who like both more traditional music and pop music. We’re kind of in that zone too: weWwant people who like music but always like catchy songs.
Again, it’s that sweet spot. It’s the musical dream.
It’s the dream. It’s where Michael Jackson lives. It’s where Stevie Wonder lives. It’s where Paul Simon lives. It’s where the greatest pop acts have lived and that’s where we want to be too.
Did the success of “Rude” put pressure on you guys to live up to it this time?
I felt the pressure but then I just said to the label and everybody, “There’s no pressure if there’s no time limit. Don’t pressure me to deliver something.” And they said, “We’re not.” They said that “Rude” was potentially a classic so you have all the time in the world and whenever you’re ready. Luckily it happened sooner than later.
You talk about your new songs as if you have a real connection to them.
Definitely. There were songs that didn’t connect and that’s why they’re not on the album. It just wasn’t working. Whenever I’m just honest with myself it’s always better. We chopped a song off the album literally yesterday.
I’m sure if “Rude” taught you one thing it’s that you better like your own material.
Absolutely! There were a few songs I didn’t end up loving on the first album after a while. I didn’t want to sing them live anymore. I learned the lesson after one show when I didn’t sing this one song. I thought nobody would care but they freaked out. When you make the bed you better learn to lie on it. I’m very aware of that with the second album. It’s really that attention to detail. Everybody who has hung out with us knows we don’t take ourselves too seriously; we’re goofy Canadians. But what we do take seriously is the product. We don’t want to rip people off.