Mersey Makers

Magneto USA

by Mindy LaBernz Pretend, for a moment, you're riding the Tube in London, and the weekly tabloid you've just opened is Melody Maker. As you flip rabidly through pages upon pages of music opinion, scouring reviews for word on Supergrass' latest single or dish about Oasis, you know three things to be absolute fact: You're British, you're fabulous, and you live and die for your new favorite pop band.

Yet, the sad reality is that you're probably stranded in some bitchy Austin coffeehouse, where you just received a steaming cup of attitude from the overeducated counterboy, spilled cream down the front of your Chronicle (like you care - it was just some political yawner cover anyway), and begun to sink into a deep depression as you search the club listings for something - anything - that doesn't smack of hippie-dippie bullshit, groove-induced nausea, cliquish punk rock politics, or stultifying singer-songwriter tedium.

And then, like an angel whispering a sweet secret in your ear, a name leaps from the page with incandescent brilliance: Magneto USA. Something says you've stumbled upon the most stylish, swaggering, songtastic band you'll find this side of the Mersey. You no longer have to sigh heavily as you caress the pages of NME, reading the passionate prose that sings the praises of faraway bands that know how to get off live and do it with flair, all the while teetering on the brink of implosion. You have found Magneto.

When you finally meet the lads up close and personal, you discover to your delight that they're an honest-to-goodness bickering, giggling, dazzling band of three disparate but essential parts. And - for a brief, shining moment - everything is right with music and, hence, your world.

The Scalzo Manifesto

"I wonder what it's like not being in a band," muses Magneto bassist Tony Scalzo in his super SoCal drawl, sounding an awful lot like teenage rebel parody, D-oug, from MTV's The State. Like a startled New Wave goat, he looks befuddled as everyone at the pre-gig dinner table bursts out laughing. It's usually hard to tell if the other guys in Magneto - drummer Joey Sheffield and guitarist Miles Zuniga - are laughing at or with their herky jerky, punkish live wire. His pop-offs, not unlike his on-stage persona, are arrogant, grandiose, and silly all in the same breath. Ah, but that's why he's genius.

"I like preaching to the converted, because I don't like being disagreed with," Scalzo announces to his interviewer during the pre-dinner, pre-gig drive to Dallas. She's an easy audience for his tirades on why pop music isn't wimpy, how guitar solos are impotent, and why style is so important in rock & roll. And, of course, why Magneto USA is one of the fieriest, most focused bands in this town
or any other.

"I believe we're good enough to open for just about anybody," he says, agreeing with the contention that his band's live shows match the energy and competence of most touring bands. "As to the response we get, that's another story. Hell, I felt confident enough to open for the Cramps, when I knew damn well it was going to be like playing to a bunch of tombstones."

Which reminds Scalzo of how unresponsive crowds infuriate him. "Austin crowds can't tell the difference between a Butch Hancock show and a Hormones show," he fires, his infamous Italian ire flaring. A recent three-week tour of his native California, where he grew up attending punk shows, reinforced the validity of the assertion. "I felt like the Beatles on the Reeperbahn," he says gleefully about a gig at the Doll Hut in Anaheim. "They were threatening us with bodily injury if we wanted to leave the stage."

Not only does Scalzo expect more enthusiasm from Austin audiences (and deservedly so), he expects more élan from Austin bands. Unlike most of the great unwashed, he understands that a band is subconsciously more convincing if they're all on the same fashion page. Local alterno-stud and Magneto fan, Britt Daniel of Spoon, concurs: "My favorite thing about Magneto is that they have these skinny legs, and they wear really tight pants. They look so cool."

And the ever stylish Scalzo knows it. "If image isn't everything, it's at least 75 percent of what's going on. There has to be a visual element. I think Austin bands don't think it's as important as it is, especially the one's who've got their eyes on the prize."

In fact, he believes that a notoriously clueless local critic adored him but dissed Zuniga based on the Scalzo spectacle. "I know why [she liked me]," he bellows. "It was because I had white pants on, this new wave haircut, and was jumping around like someone in the Romantics or something. To me that's the typical reaction I'd get from someone who wasn't giving me their undivided attention, and it's obvious to me that she wasn't. If she had sat through the whole set, I think she would have noticed how badly I sang that night."

Had she actually been listening, she may also have heard how much Scalzo needs his other half.

I Can See For Miles

"All I ever talk about is the Beatles," says Magneto's impishly charming other songwriter Miles Zuniga after expounding on his formative years in Laredo where the late bloomer hid from the lurid sexuality of disco in the innocence of old Beatles records. 'Course now that he's a jaded lady killer, he adjoins this with, "Big deal. Everyone likes the Beatles."

Throwing back the band's favorite stimulant, caffeine, Zuniga is finally in the A/C, recovering from the interviewer's brilliant idea to have a relaxing afternoon at Barton Creek. "My day with Nature Girl," he snipes, grinning fiendishly. "She wants to do a good interview so she takes me on this whole granola experience. When are we gonna unpack the crystals?"

It's become a lost cause trying to restart the plodding, psyche-probing surgery that was being performed at the greenbelt; not only did it make for bad quotes, it made our wily, witty subject visibly uncomfortable. He doesn't enjoy talking about the many knocks he's taken from the music industry or the neurosis involved in songwriting or the intangible qualifications for musical credibility for which he may or may not qualify. After eight years of relatively high-profile band duty in our unforgiving town, he's finally found a band worth talking about, a band in which "the molecules vibrate in that way that makes the room seem like a nicer place after we've played." That certainly wasn't the case with his old band, Big Car, the infamously mediocre band that got lost in a major label haze replete with botched band firings and Svengali producer nonsense.

Dodging ants and questions creekside, Zuniga had been the picture of misery. And rightfully so - who likes reliving past mistakes over and over (and over again for the press)? Had the great Scalzo been there, he'd have stopped mid-sentence and hollered, "You're bummin' me out!" Zuniga, however, is a diplomat, though his mournful, droopy face forced the interviewer to change scenery and her line of questioning. Now that he's bolted shut the storage unit where his skeletons are stowed, he's suddenly Mr. Entertainment - a finger-popping Sammy Davis, Jr., babe, all quips and soundbites. And it's not the questions that truly tormented him. It was the dreaded outdoors. "I hate that shit," he says with mock contempt about our beloved creek. "Pave it all. I can hardly wait until I can just drive straight through - none of this MoPac, 360 shit - just straight highways." Then, without missing a beat getting back to the matter at hand, he adds with a smirk, "You see, we're a real Republican band."

Yes, back to the music. Though Zuniga has never pretended to be punk rock, nor does he consider this band to be, he does consider Magneto to be lean, sturdy music. "It's good music to just rock with your cock out," he says trying to explain their sound. Then, like a man who's been misrepresented too many times in print he scrambles for the tape recorder, and announces in a stern, principal-at-the-pep-rally voice: "I'm sorry we're going to have to rewind the tape. We don't want the word `cock' in there." That implies `blues rocker,' the hated enemy of Magneto."

Surprisingly, for being such resolutely different people, our John and Paul do have the same enemies: hookless songs (Scalzo: "It could be the most profound message for the age, but if it doesn't have the melody to back it up who gives a shit?"); guitar solos (Zuniga: "Someone banging on sheets of metal - I'd like that better probably."); and bad haircuts.

Hmmm, no comment - from either camp. Enter the drummer.

Lukewarm Water

Sheffield always arrives on time, and he's always wears a belt. Throw in a long blond ponytail, and you begin to wonder where he fits into the equation. But when you see him play, you're nearly sold, and when you talk to him, he closes the deal. He's the deciding vote in this democracy, the calm diplomat between two raging, songwriter egos, the adult who keeps bossy, temperamental Tony from beating up eager, little brother Miles.

Despite some criticism to the contrary, the superficial tension is genius: two Scalzos would connect like opposite ends of a jump cable, while two Zunigas would dissolve into mild-mannered, mid-tempo milquetoast. Sheffield, who worked with Scalzo in Beaver Nelson's band and Zuniga in Big Car, not only holds the shakily constructed craft together, he also keeps priorities in line with his single-minded obsession with getting it right live. Short on words, the missing link in this truly synergistic union cuts through the crap and sums things up without any of the colorful BS that the other two songwriters cloak their world in:

"Tony has really good showmanship, and when he's feeling good and he's on, he's fun to watch. Miles gets this total `feel' thing going - it's all about how he feels about how the audience is perceiving him. I'm just trying to play the best I possibly can and try to bring some level of excitement to what I'm doing to the show.

"Cause that's what it is, ultimately. A show. You want to be entertained."

And that's the joke, boys and girls, a joke Magneto USA gets that most of these daft American outfits just don't: It's a bloody show - from the moment you step into some gear trousers and shake out your fabulous haircut all the way through the bridge and the final chorus to the encore you grant only if they truly beg for it.

And around here - much to Tony's dismay - most of the time they don't. n

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