In conversation with Magma

French prog-rock outfit on their inspirations, motivations and the planet Kobaïa

French prog-rock outfit Magma created their own imaginary planet and language in the ’70s. Now they’re bringing it to China. Founder Christian Vander talks to Jake Newby about untranslatable words and a world without assholes.

Years from now, brave pioneers will bid farewell to the Earth as they set off for Kobaïa, a distant planet where they’ll establish a new civilisation free of the ills of modern society. At least, that’s the vision that classically trained French drummer Christian Vander came up with at the tail end of the 1960s. Partly as an attempt to fill the void left by the death of jazz legend John Coltrane, Vander formed rock band Magma and recorded a debut album that laid out the story of Kobaïa, singing it in the planet’s guttural (and entirely imagined) native tongue.

Forty-five years later, Magma have sustained that tale over the course of 11 concept albums, spawned an entire sub-genre of prog-rock with bands performing in Kobaïan, and this month bring their music to China for the first time.

‘Magma’s music was born on a spring day out of my love for John Coltrane and my profound sadness about humans’ inability to comprehend one another,’ says Vander of the band’s origins. In a similar vein to artists such as Acid Mothers Temple founder Kawabata Makoto, who describes himself as a ‘receiver’ for extraterrestrial sounds, Vander says that he ‘lets the music come’ to him once his ‘mind is ready’. The formation of Magma was therefore inevitable, says Vander who has anchored the group as other members have come and gone: ‘May it be through me or somebody else, Magma was bound to be born’.

Despite their somewhat out-there narrative, Vander insists that ‘the music was always the priority’. Pieced together from French rock and jazz musicians, Magma’s early music took its cues from Coltrane and other jazz greats, applying their frameworks to rock music for an avant-garde, progressive sound. ‘I was lucky enough to have John Coltrane as a model,’ says Vander. ‘Every one of his records surprised us and that’s what I understood when I created Magma – every record had to be an evolution of what we had done before.’

With its psychedelic overtones and stoner-friendly myths, Magma seems like a perfect product of the ’70s, but Vander and co’s world was created quite apart from the prevailing music of the time. ‘I never took into account musical trends,’ he says. ‘Magma always stayed true to itself through time. We never recorded just to make a record; making a record is something more important than that. [We had to] always be surprising, never repeating ourselves or plagiarising anyone, never listening to other people’s opinions, which tend to imprison the musician in the past.’

It’s this insistence on constant reinvention, along with the band’s defiantly divergent attitude and unique storytelling, that has helped the group achieve cult status. Fans have been known to give each other names in Kobaïan, while an entire sub-genre of music (dubbed ‘Zeuhl’ in Kobaïan) has sprung up under Vander’s influence. ‘Zeuhl music means “vibratory music”’, Vander explains. ‘Many self-called Zeuhl bands are playing very good stuff, but very few are exploring its different facets. Most of them play the “dark side” of this music, the heavy side.’ Perhaps understandably given the apocalyptic narrative, Vander says that ‘it’s very rare to find a band playing lighter and more optimistic stuff’ in the Zeuhl genre, but he argues that ‘you can find a lot of joy in this music as well’.

Nevertheless, Vander suggests that anyone looking to write a Kobaïan dictionary may have their work cut out for them. ‘Some of the words are, even now, still untranslatable. It’s, above everything else, a musical and spiritual language. The sounds just come to me spontaneously with the music; they are created primarily to emphasise the music. It’s an organic language, not imagined.’

Vander says that ‘Kobaïa’ was the first sound that he ever sang while composing, (‘that’s where the legend started’), adding that new words are created with every song. Further complicating translation, Vander states that the language is largely open to interpretation. ‘Kobaïan is an essentially musical language. However, according to the state of mind you’re in or the different levels you’re on, you can understand the concept in different ways. When I was listening to John Coltrane’s saxophone, for example, he didn’t use any words, but I understood what he was telling me anyway. It’s quite simple.’

While some may quibble with this claim of simplicity, Magma has retained an international following and, except for a hiatus during the 1980s and ’90s, continued to release new records in recent years. And as the planet continues to be blighted by war and destruction, Vander believes that the band has found new meaning for their message. ‘[The Kobaïa stories are built on] the hope that the Earth will, one day, correspond more to our vision of the world – as Laurent Thibault, the first producer of the band, used to put it: “Earth without its assholes”. It’s more relevant than ever today. The world seems to evolve in the opposite direction of our aspirations. In spite of that, we continue to work towards the realisation of our quest.’

Magma play Yugong Yishan on Saturday 30. See the full events details here.

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