Magma's Christian Vander on a world without assholes

French prog-rock act's frontman speaks ahead of China debut

Christian Vander and Magma
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.

45 years later, Magma have sustained the tale over the course of 11 concept albums, spawned an entire sub-genre of prog-rock with bands performing in the Kobaïan 'language', and this month, bring their music to China for the first time. Ahead of his Shanghai debut, Vander tells Time Out about his band and his mythology

What inspired you to create the original Kobaïa stories?
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 it’s assholes'.

The stories began with your first album back in 1970. Do you think the tale of Kobaïa is even more relevant today than it was then?
More than ever! 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.

How has the tale progressed over the years and has this been reflected in musical changes?
The music was always the priority, it tells its own story. The story of Magma itself is the fruit of daily labour; I don’t analyse the way I compose music, I let the music come to me, but in order to do that my mind has to be ready.

Were you influenced by science fiction at all or do you see the Kobaïa narrative as something else?
No, I never thought about my music in terms of science fiction, I actually don’t even know that genre very well.

So can you explain a bit of the background to the Kobaïan language and how it initially came about?
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, not artificially constructed, because it appeared already in my childhood dreams, so it really wasn’t premeditated. Some of the words are, even now, still untranslatable. It’s, above everything else, a musical and spiritual language. Always evolving, every new composition brings forth new words. The first sound I ever sang whilst composing was 'Kobaia'. That’s where the legend started.

What are the key tenets of Kobaïan?
Kobaian 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 was he was telling me anyway. It’s quite simple…

What do you make of the way Magma has spawned a whole genre of Zeuhl music, i.e. bands who perform in Kobaian?
Zeuhl music means 'vibratory music'. 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. It’s very rare to find a band which is playing also lighter and more optimistic stuff. You can find a lot of joy in this music as well.

Musically, what were the origins of Magma?
Like I was saying at the time of Magma’s beginnings: 'Magma’s music was born on a spring day out of my love for John Coltrane and my profound sadness about human inability to comprehend one another'. May it be through me or somebody else, Magma was bound to be born.

Who were some of your musical influences growing up and how have they impacted upon your own style?
I was lucky enough to have John Coltrane as a model. Every one of his records surprised us. That’s what I understood when I created Magma. Every record had to be an evolution of what we had done before. 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. We never recorded just to record; making a record is something more important than that… Also, I never took into account musical trends. Magma always stayed true to itself through time.

Magma effectively stopped in the 1980s. What led to that hiatus?
I felt the need to go back to my roots: jazz music. So I went back to playing in a trio and also developed a side project called Offering, which gave me much more room for improvisation. In a sense, Magma never really stopped, because Offering participated in the evolution of Magma’s music. In my more recent compositions you can definitely hear some of Offering's influences.

What made you want to restart the project again?
In 1996, a friend convinced us to play the original music of the band again in order to make the music available to a new generation of younger fans, born at the same time as Magma in the early '70s, who never had the chance to see the band live.

How does it feel to be bringing your music to China?
I am very glad to come play in China. It’s something I’ve always dreamed about! I even wrote a poem called 'China is Wonderful' at the beginning of the '70s. I hope I will be able to meet and communicate with the people who are interested in Magma’s music.

What’s next for Magma?
Continue to play and give people a chance of discovering our music all around the world. And most of all, continue to surprise others... and myself.

Magma play MAO Livehouse on Sunday 31 May. See full details.