Interview: M.A.G.S.

This past week, I was able to connect with Elliot Douglas, better known as the artist M.A.G.S. for a Zoom interview. In this enlightening interview, he discussed where the title of his new album Say Things That Matter (out everywhere on August 13th) originated from, his unique upbringing with a variety of musical styles, his connection to the emo and pop-punk scene, as well as how his upcoming tour preparations are going. I also asked M.A.G.S. about this new “wave” of artists who are creating their own trend, and how he sees himself fitting with the music landscape today.

Good afternoon, I’m here with Elliot Douglas, better known as M.A.G.S. Thank you for your time today! You just announced your new record called Say Things That Matter that will be released this August. So where did the title originate from, and what does it mean to you today?

I came up with the title early last year, when I was visiting my home in Buffalo right before the pandemic started. I was there with my girlfriend, and we were at the airport. And I had been kind of working on certain songs from the album, that whole trip – I think I was working on “Smile,” “Beg,” and “Choked Out,” specifically. I had a lot of things to say in those songs, and so I was working on the lyrics and working on the melodies, and we got to the airport to come back to LA. And I went to the restroom. And honestly the album title just came to me…and it wasn’t anything crazy or special. Say Things That Matter just kind of fell in my lap. And I said to myself, “I think I’m going to name the album that…I think that’s the title,” you know what I mean. 

And that really came from what felt like a random moment of inspiration. I think at the end of the day, every song on the album is kind of a part of a catalogue of my personal growth. And I think the biggest thing that I’m trying to get across with this album: I’m talking about my personal experiences – my sort of…things that I experienced and things I go through. But it’s not really about me. We’re all kind of going through similar things. And I think a lot of times, we tend to feel alone in our experiences, because they’re happening to us, and we process them in our minds. It’s easy to just be like, “Man, I’m just going through it.” I mean, I’m having this experience, and I feel kind of isolated. And so the whole point of the project is sort of to be like…you’re not alone. We’re all kind of having these feelings, collectively, right? So why not just kind of open it up and share my own thoughts and feelings about these experiences so that they can be relatable. 

That’s great. And you mentioned the song “Beg,” which is your current single, right?

Yeah, yes.

And the music video associated with it has some cool aspects of, what I assume is you skateboarding, and not a stunt man or anything like that. (Laughter) And it has a nice vibe of going around the city skateboarding. Where did the music video take place? And how pleased were you with the final product?

Yeah, we shot that here in LA. A lot of it was downtown near the Arts District. Some of it was a little bit further up North…we were kind of all over the place, honestly. It was a really kind of “run and gun” type of video. We had the idea for the video, but we didn’t actually plan it, but we knew the locations and it wasn’t as involved as some of the other shoots that we’ve done for the other visuals. But I think personally, that’s how I like to do things. I like to kind of just make “jazz” and try things on the fly. The skateboarding around at night is very much like on-brand for me as far as just what I’d like to do in my spare time. So, it felt kind of like just another night for me. We just happened to be recording it. 

It seems pretty natural…your interactions throughout the video. You seem very comfortable, which is great. How did you learn to skateboard and when did you start to take that up?

Skateboarding was kind of my first real-life passion. Even before I started taking music more seriously…I’ve been doing music since I was a little kid. But I’ve been skateboarding just about the same amount of time. I think I stepped on a skateboard for the first time when I was about seven or eight. At some point, we were watching Tony Hawk at the X-Games, or whatever. I was like, “Okay, that’s what I want to do. I want to be a pro skater!” And I would read Thrasher magazine, and my parents didn’t really buy us brand new clothes or anything like that. So whenever we go to a thrift store, I would be looking for T-shirts that were from skate brands, or whatever. I mean it was all I thought about. So I sort of carry that into my adult life. I don’t skate as much as I used to, I don’t take it as seriously trying to learn tricks now or anything. But I still enjoy just the culture and getting around, just skating myself…I skate to the store sometimes. Or, just to kind of clear my head at this point.

Nice, It sounds very therapeutic…So I’m sure you’re stoked to get back on tour like everyone else. And I believe you’re going to be heading out with The Happy Fits and Snarls. Of all the songs on your new record, which one you most excited to play live for everyone?

Man…Probably “Choked Out,” actually. I think that one is the first song that I’ve written that – to me – felt like it has a lot of “mass appeal.” The way that it has got this really big kind of hook, and then the chorus is really singable. So, I’m really excited to mostly just dance, and sing that song. I’m going to be getting out from behind the guitar a little bit more. So I’m excited to kind of just interact with the audience a little more, and just be able to sing that song and have as much fun as I possibly can. 

That’s great. That’s the name of the game. 

I think after the year we’ve had, I kind of deserve it.

I think everybody does! So, what was your music upbringing like? Were there certain artists you were drawn to at an early age that maybe influenced your sound at all?

I was raised listening to mostly Christian music, actually, since my dad was a pastor. Most of what I was even allowed to listen to was kind of centered in what was acceptable for church. So there weren’t a lot of popular artists that I was even aware of, until I was a bit older. The first band that really made an impression on me was Underoath. Back in the early to mid-2000s, I remember hearing, They’re Only Chasing Safety for the first time and it just kind of…broke my brain, honestly. (Laughter) Mostly the drums, my first instrument…so when I heard that record I was mostly just listening to the drums. And I didn’t realize that the drummer was also one of the lead singers.

I chatted with Aaron (Gillespie) about a year ago, and that’s great that you made that connection with Underoath, because they’re one of my favorites!

That was a very influential group for me at that time, especially because it was music that I found on my own. It wasn’t anything that my friend showed me. Even at one point, my parents had to kind of “screen” everything that I listened to. I’d buy a CD, and they’d want to read all the lyrics and everything, to make sure it was good. So that was the first band that I liked. They were…<Two Thumbs Up> “Okay, this is fine.

And then as time kind of went on, I started getting into some other stuff. I stopped needing to run everything by my parents, and discovered Coheed & Cambria, and The Shins, and Radiohead…all these kinds of bands that I think eventually sort of formed my writing, as I kind of started wanting to do my own thing.  I wouldn’t say that I’m particularly trying to emulate any of those bands, but I think that what I do now is a direct result of having those groups as an influence going up.

it’s interesting that you say some of those <artists> names, because I kind of hear “breadcrumbs” of some of those artists sprinkled into some of your sounds. And especially on some of the singles that I’ve heard,  and also the new record that’s coming out in August. So, it’s interesting to hear those connections, because I was wondering if you were influenced by those same bands?

Yeah, it’s definitely a mixed bag and I think so much of the music I listened to was kind of in this post-rock vein, and I did have a very, very distinct punk rock and hardcore phase. Then some of the indie bands I got into as I got older…I didn’t start listening to The Strokes until I was in my 20’s. I was also very influenced by the people that I was in bands with. The Strokes were a band from New York, obviously. And in Buffalo specifically, they were very influential to a lot of the bands that came up, and during a certain time where at least in the world of playing guitar and writing guitar, a lot of my friends were very influenced by Albert Hammond Jr. So, I think I was sort of indirectly influenced by them, like pretty early on. And then when I heard it for the first time, I was like, “Oh, this is what everyone was trying to do the whole time! I get it now…”

I think there’s a lyric in one of the Arctic Monkeys’ new songs stating, “I just wanted to be one of the Strokes,” and everybody seemed to want to emulate that sound around that same time. So that’s kind of interesting that you mentioned that. On your new album, I came away extremely impressed with your song structures and particularly your vocal tone and range. What expectations do you set for yourself on this record, and not just from a commercial standpoint, but just in general? 

I mostly just didn’t want to do the same thing. And I didn’t want to make a “comfortable” record. I think leaving Buffalo a few years ago was a really big turning point for me as far as how I write music and the things that I draw from sonically. I think a lot of the time, when you’re in a specific scene, you’re kind of writing for that scene. And there were very heavy kinds of Strokes’ influences, who I think that the early album, I was influenced by. I was also very influenced by Arctic Monkeys and Cage The Elephant. And I think that really comes through this record. I have absorbed so much different music in the last few years and I’ve met new people, and they’ve shown me different music. My girlfriend has shown me different music, and I’ve just become more okay with liking different styles. I was one of those kids that grew up not listening to the radio, because it was uncool to like pop music, you know what I mean? So, I’ve allowed myself to appreciate pop music, and I borrowed a lot of production tips from pop music. And so I think that the new record is very much…it’s a pop record, honestly. I mean it’s very steeped in kind of the low-fi DIY sounds, and in the tonality. But I write pop songs, so I wanted to sort of merge the things I like about pop music, but then do things that I was doing before I kind of implemented those things. So, I think with this record, I just wanted to kind of push my own boundaries and see what I was really capable of. And I especially didn’t hold back with the vocals. I think in the past, vocals have always been kind of an afterthought, and I’m like, “Okay, I’ll just…I’ll sing the song and that’ll be it.” But with this <new album>, I really put a lot of thought into the vocal arrangements and the harmonies and even just making my voice more clear. I think I’ve always produced my stuff with really distorted vocals and I wanted to kind of hide my voice, ‘cuz I was kind of self-conscious about it for a long time. But yeah, pushing past my comfort zone…I’m saying, “Okay, but maybe for this song, I’m gonna have my voice be really clear and upfront and it’ll feel weird. But I’m gonna leave it, you know?” So that was a little bit more of my approach this time; just being uncomfortable and being okay with it. 

That’s great to hear. And it definitely comes through the speakers just from an outsider…not somebody that was in the studio obviously with you, just me listening. But now, hearing it back and now listening to our conversation too…it makes a lot of sense kind of what you’re going through. Especially when you say like a “pop-driven” record, where vocals are almost always at the forefront, and also the production elements. It makes perfect sense. So, going back to the topic of your live shows, how would you describe them? I understand you play with other musicians to get the same kind of sound that you put into the record. So how does the live show work for you?

Right now, I’m kind of reworking everything about my live show. In the past, I’ve always sang and played guitar. And then I had a bassist and a drummer. So, it’s been a three piece, just kind of a power trio kind of thing. I think it was just sort of, bare minimum, you know. Like, “This is all I’m really doing on the record. So, I’m gonna just try and get the bare essentials so that it sounds close to the record.”

But with this new one…there’s so much to cover, sonically, and then I’m telling myself, “I can’t really even pull that off. I couldn’t do the record justice with just three people.” So I’m in the process right now of building up a live band. And, it’s a lot different doing it on this scale, versus being in Buffalo, when you can kind of just ask my friends, “Are you interested? Would you want to fill in?” 

But here, everybody takes it very seriously, and I take it very seriously. And of course, everybody’s got to get paid. Everybody wants to feel invested. So I’m taking a little bit more of a methodical approach as to who’s involved and what role they play, and what role I play. But I think my goal for the live show is for it to be as powerful as the record. I want people to have the experience of the record, in a live setting. There’s going to be a lot more kind of moving parts on our end, but I think it’s really going to translate when people see it, because they’re gonna hear the record in August when it comes out, and then they’re going to see it in October, November, December at these various dates. And I want it to be just as potent as possible.

I think it’s going to come across great live! So I’m hoping to check out at least one of those shows. The last question I have for you is, what is your take on the current state of rock, R&B, and pop music in general? Are there some current artists, aside from what you’ve already mentioned, that you feel could be the “next wave” of bands as their careers unfold?

That’s a great question, actually. This is something I think about a lot. Because I think for the longest time, I have kind of asked myself, “Where am I going to fit in? How does my sound translate to the current market?” I think especially for this kind of all the buildup of this album, and even beforehand, when I first started working with my management, we’ve been kind of going back and forth on if this is gonna make sense? Is this gonna even hit? Are people even gonna care? 

Obviously last year, during the pandemic, we had all of the George Floyd stuff happen, and I think people really started to pay attention to black artists. Back in the day, I started getting tagged in a lot of stuff from different people and music outlets, cuz they needed to highlight black artists. It’s important that we put an emphasis on black creators who are doing stuff right now. And I got kind of grouped in with a lot of that. Because realistically, I’m one of the only indie black artists that people are even aware of at this point. So, I didn’t really think of it that way. I said, “Man, people are tagging me saying, ‘You should check out M.A.G.S. It’s really good indie, black music, black indie music.’” And so… I told myself, okay, this is a start. I was definitely appreciative of all of this. And I kind of felt like I’m on that “wave” at the very least. Obviously, Tyler, The Creator just dropped his new album, and I think he’s a genius. Strictly because he is kind of the king of “creating his own lane.” Obviously, with hip hop artists, that’s how people recognize him. But he’s doing so much more than hip hop at this point. He’s really pushing the boundaries of what people perceive as hip hop or indie music. I mean, in a way it is mainstream pop music, but it’s not what you’d expect. It’s not the pop music that you’d expect from maybe three to five years ago. He’s really kind of doing his own thing. I think a lot of people are gonna follow his lead. And I’ll talk a little about Bartees Strange, because he’s also kind of on that wave. He’s making kind of left of center rock music right now, and I think it’s very tied in with hip hop, but it’s not. He’s not really a hip hop artist, not really a rapper, per se. But there are elements of that. And it’s very clear in his music.  It’s palatable that he is a black artist but even if you don’t ever see him or anything, if you hear his music – it’s got this kind of soul to it, that is indicative of what I relate to, at the very least. I mean, it sounds like everything that I listened to growing up, but then with that kind of extra…he’s just got that extra something that only we can put into it. So I’m excited to see what he comes up with next, and I was actually just talking to him the other day and he’s tracking his next album right now. So I’m really looking forward to hearing that as well. And then you have this whole wave of artists, like with what Travis Barker is working with right now, and Willow and Kenny Hoopla. And I think what Travis Barker right now is kind of doing is…he’s doing his part. Starting the next wave of pop punk. Kind of really just being the true grandfather of pop punk right now and giving back to the scene – so to speak. Putting younger artists that are going to shape pop punk going forward. The way I see it, Travis Barker stops playing drums at some point because he probably won’t be able to play drums anymore. So he’s saying, “Let me just get these last few years that I have been really able to, to be at my peak. And let me pour into all these new artists and kind of just give them a trajectory.” So, it’s all kind of happening in front of us and we can see it all very clearly in…I think three to five years. Pop music as a whole is going to look totally different. I think that’s very normal for that to happen every few years. There’s a new kind of thing, a trend – or whatever if you want to say that. But I think the beautiful thing about the artists that are getting popular now is that they are creating the trend. It’s not like they’re following a trend. They’re creating it. And that’s exactly where I want to be. I’m not really one to hop onto things as they get popular. I do my thing, and then if it gets popular, I’m cool with that! 

It’s great that you mentioned Bartees Strange, because I was wondering if you guys ever thought of collaborating? Your sound is in that niche area of combining so many sounds together. And it sounds like you guys have already had some conversations, so I was just curious if a collaboration is ever in the works for you guys?

I think it’ll definitely happen. The way that I kind of like to live my life is it’s got to be natural. It’s got to be organic. I don’t like to necessarily force things or do things that people expect of me. So we’ve talked, but it hasn’t ever gotten to the point of saying, ”We should collaborate, ASAP.” But when the time is right, I know I will be ready.

Yeah, that sounds very exciting! I wish you nothing but the best as you go forward on this tour and your career. Hopefully you get a great turnout for all your shows.  I’m hoping to catch one of those tour stops like I mentioned, so best of luck to you guys, and stay healthy on the road. 

I appreciate that. I will definitely try!