Happy times now hairy is hip again

No one could accuse The Magic Numbers of being image-conscious, but their music is winning over legions of devoted fans. Alexia Loundras meets them
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The Independent Culture

It's a hard heart that's not seduced by The Magic Numbers. Noel Gallagher, Nick Hornby and The Chemical Brothers are just some of those who have fallen head over heels for their effortless charm. But it's not only the famous. Although their album has barely sat a week on record-shop shelves, the west-London quartet's fervent following already numbers well into the thousands.

It's a hard heart that's not seduced by The Magic Numbers. Noel Gallagher, Nick Hornby and The Chemical Brothers are just some of those who have fallen head over heels for their effortless charm. But it's not only the famous. Although their album has barely sat a week on record-shop shelves, the west-London quartet's fervent following already numbers well into the thousands.

In May, with only a limited-edition single, "Hymn for Her", released last November, under their belts, they played their biggest headline show to a capacity crowd of 2,000. Ten days later, they released their first single proper, the dreamy "Forever Lost", which promptly bounced into the Top 20.

Since their live debut in a London pub in February 2003, the band, which consists of two sets of siblings, the Trinidad-born, New York-reared Stodarts (Romeo and Michele) and the marginally less exotic, Hanwell-bred Gannons (Angela and Sean), have been amassing a hard-core fanbase.

Besotted word-of-mouth praise for their heart-warming shows quickly gave way to a roar of critical acclaim as hardened hacks and vying record companies were smitten by the band. The heads of the heavyweight independents Rough Trade and Heavenly records were once spotted elbowing each other out of the way in the front row.

But what started as a mini-phenomenon is now a fully fledged cult affair. The night before we meet, The Magic Numbers returned to play an intimate gig at the Barfly, the little London venue that last September kick-started their rise to prominence.

Before Coldplay trumped them and announced a last-minute, similarly low-key date at a venue down the road, The Magic Numbers' show was the hottest ticket in town, and deservedly so. In a pop climate where fun is to music what chips are to the Atkins diet, and style is often rated over substance, The Magic Numbers are a rich, indulgent treat.

And as the crowd sang along to the band's soul-soaring, shimmering West Coast pop, the gig verged on a quasi-religious experience of the happy-clappy, Father Ted sort. Everyone appeared transfixed by an all-consuming euphoria, and any notion of acting cool was replaced by an overwhelming desire to join in with the vocalist Angela's syncopated handclaps.

The place was awash with smiles, but none wider or brighter than those of the band; and The Magic Numbers' obvious joy was highly infectious. "We like to let funny gas out to the crowd," jokes the bass-player Michele, before collapsing into a heap of giggles. Her laughter instantly spreads to her band-mates. "We'll have the moody police after us," adds the drummer Sean - "they'll crucify us."

Hunched around a little table in the functional canteen at the BBC's Wood Lane studios, the brothers and sisters are buzzing with high spirits and nervous energy. In a few hours the band will record their first major television appearance, for Later... with Jools Holland and having earlier spotted Chris Martin - another guest - wandering the corridors, flanked by his bouncer, their excitement is now starting to show.

There is no pretence with this slightly tubby, hippie-ishly hairy and strikingly down to earth band; a rare thing in these cynical, image-conscious times. And what makes The Magic Numbers special is their unguarded normalness. People seem to loose their inhibitions around them; they can exhale and just be.

"People like us because we're not trying to put on any front or image," explains drummer Sean. "No one's trying to be anything other than themselves - being in a band with members of your family means you can't put on any airs. What we do is just very honest and people can relate to that." But for such genuinely happy folk, they sure do write some sad songs. Though strains of Neil Young and Gram Parsons, Lovin' Spoonful and The Beach Boys surge joyously through The Magic Numbers' playful bluesy riffs, their album is filled with immensely personal tracks that suggest songwriter Romeo, despite his name, is perhaps a little unlucky in love.

Brushed in melancholy, laced with dumb luck and bruised with broken hearts, the album is a sumptuous lover's sigh where sorrows are swept away in a gulp of Dutch courage and the warm embrace of another. Romeo's rich, tender voice is ravaged with want and shivers with every ache and pain, before being comforted by Angela's heart-rendering crystalline backing vocals. Ask him about the subject matter and Romeo's happy face fades for a moment: "To be honest, sometimes I find it quite hard to listen to the album," he admits, nervously fiddling with a bottle top. "I really try to capture all my emotions in the vocals. So then, when I hear myself singing those songs...." He trials off looking vulnerable before his deep brown doe-eyes eyes regain their glint.

"The songs... draw on failed relationships or sadness, there's something positive there too. I don't know if I'm actually nailing the idea of hope but I do believe you can get through things and that's the feeling I want to get across." And he does. Though Romeo's lover's tales are for the most part doomed, his wry humour and at times devilish perspective means they're also gloriously uplifting.

Despite the convenience of being related to each other, the band's genesis was anything but pre-determined. After consecutive line-up changes threatened to kill off Sean and Romeo's musical project they got Michele to step in on the bass.

With Michele came Angela, and the band clicked. "We played our first gig and people were blown away," remembers Sean. "There were only 15 people there, but they loved it. It just felt right." In fact, playing live was such fun, says Romeo, they'd forgotten about sending demos out to labels. "What we were doing was so much more instant," he says. In fact, the band were so enjoying converting new fans at every gig, that when Heavenly boss Jeff Barrett offered to sign them after seeing them play in January 2004, the band insisted they would rather continue touring instead and didn't actually sign with the label until September. "We could have gone straight into the studio but it would have knocked us right back," says Michele. "We were getting on so well by word of mouth - even Jeff [Barrett] discovered us through the grapevine - we wanted to keep on going the same way."

The Magic Numbers are understandably thrilled about the way things are going for them. "I'm living out a dream," says Romeo. He's not referring to the Brian Wilson tour, nor to the TV show, or playing the festivals or becoming a hirsute style icon - though all are, he concedes, pretty cool. No, like so many others who hear them, Romeo is smitten by The Magic Numbers. "I was dreaming about finding this band," he says, "and it was here, right in front of me".

The Magic Numbers is out now on Heavenly

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