Thus far, Magnapop has gotten by with a little help from its friends.
The power-pop band's first album, a self-titled release available in the States on the Caroline label, included three songs co-produced by Athens, Georgia's most famous export, Michael Stipe of R.E.M. And this year, for its debut on Priority, entitled Hot Boxing, the band recorded under the supervision of Bob Mould, the man behind both Husker Du and Sugar. Mould is such a supporter, in fact, that he arranged for Magnapop to serve as Sugar's opening act throughout the latter act's current tour. In addition, Mould plans to take Magnapop back into the studio this winter to record another disc.
Predictably, Magnapop lead singer Linda Hopper doesn't see this as a bad thing, even if these famous assistants tend to overshadow her own group. "There have definitely been more positives than negatives about working with those guys," she says. "They've been incredible situations. But it was just a matter of finding other musicians that you have respect for and who respect you. Then you can work well together."
That's certainly been the Magnapop story to date. The quartet (Hopper, guitarist Ruthie Morris, drummer David McNair and bassist Shannon Mulvaney) has used its connections well, but it's also proven able to stand on its own. The band's songwriting is a bouncy antidote to a marketplace trying to get over a bad case of grunge fever. Still, Hopper is wary of being characterized as a sunny alternative to Seattle-style existentialism.
"Even though our songs sound really positive, they're kind of not," she offers. "The negativity is cloaked--it's iced. But it's all hopeful, and I definitely do think people could use some hope right now."
Hopper first came to the attention of alternative aficionados thanks to stints in a pair of Athens bands, Oh-OK and Holiday; at one point the membership of the former included Matthew Sweet and Stipe's sister Lynda. After ditching both of these outfits, she met Morris, a south Floridian who'd relocated to Atlanta. Hopper and Morris woodshedded for a year, then brought McNair and Mulvaney aboard to record the single "Merry." The tune, produced by Stipe, garnered enough attention to land the Magnapoppers a slot at the 1991 New Music Seminar in New York City, where their set so impressed a pair of journalists for the Dutch publication Oor that they did far more than write glowing reviews.
"A month later they had us in Holland playing a weekend festival, and we got a lot of notoriety from it," Hopper notes. "And then they had us come back and do a tour four months later."
This sudden acceptance in a country none of them had visited before caught the band by surprise. According to Hopper, "I don't read Dutch, so I don't know what all was written about us. It must have been good, I guess, but it was hard to know what was going on. It was so foreign, you know? Like a dream state."
Things got weirder when the tour's promoter told Magnapop's players that they could be making a lot more money if they had an album to sell. "He said, `Do you have any DAT tapes of anything? Because it would be really good if we could slap something together with a little artwork and sell them out of your van,'" Hopper recalls. "So we made this deal, and they ended up selling thousands of them before we even got there. We have no idea why."
A myriad of licensing deals in Europe followed, with Caroline acquiring U.S. rights to the package, which was clad in an ultracheesy cover featuring two jack-o-lanterns. The music itself was just as unpolished; the eleven numbers are presented in near-demo form. Fortunately, the songs themselves (all originals with the exception of "13," a Big Star track written by Alex Chilton and the late Chris Bell) are a catchy and captivating lot, highlighted by Hopper's inviting vocals, Morris's big-riffing guitar and a rhythm section that keeps things moving at all costs.
In spite of its quality, however, the album didn't burn up the sales charts on this side of the Atlantic: Hopper says Caroline produced only 2,000 copies of Magnapop, and she believes there are still plenty of those available. But it served as a calling card to other labels. In the end, the group decided to sign with Priority, an independent with a large reputation in the rap community.
To Hopper, being the only pop group on a roster dominated by folks such as Ice-T and his heavy-metal alter ego, Body Count, does not present a problem. "Ruthie and I were talking the other day about the Black Crowes," she says. "When they signed to Def American, everybody was like, `Wow. Why did they sign to that label?' But it didn't hurt them at all. Besides, there's a completely different division of Priority working with us than works with the rap groups. Which means that the company generated tons of money through rap records and decided to go into development in other areas. They've hired a bunch of people just to work with us."
They also hired Mould, who brought the newly accessible sensibility that exemplifies the popular Sugar recording File Under Easy Listening to a band that already knew its way around a melody. The result is Hot Boxing, a seamless package filled with fourteen songs memorable enough to set the average Veruca Salt fan's mouth to watering. The first single, "Slowly, Slowly," is a case in point: Its hook, built around the words "Do it all the time," probably will linger whether you like it or not.
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The group's lyrics, mainly written by Hopper, won't tax your brain with multisyllabic terms or historical references, but they're intelligent enough to alleviate the guilt some may feel while listening to Magnapop's sweet musical confections. For her part, Hopper feels no embarrassment about focusing her tunes on interpersonal relationships and matters of the heart.
"I follow current events," she says. "I'm really glad that Oliver North didn't win, and I'm glad Georgia stuck with Zell Miller as governor. But as a band, we're not political at all. During the Reagan years I really was involved, but after a while I felt pretty battered down. Right now I wouldn't want to deal with politics in my music unless I was obsessing about it--because the songs are all about obsessing, anyway.
"But the songs are about other things, too. There's a lot of life in the music and in what Ruthie and David and Shannon do. It makes it easy to do my job--whatever that is."
Sugar, with Magnapop. 8 p.m. Monday, December 5, Ogden Theatre, 935 East Colfax Avenue, $15, 290-TIXS or 830-2525.