Los Angeles-based indie folk trio Magic Giant is more than their colorful bandanas, tribal-print capes and furry shawls. They’re all about love and community. With uplifting anthems that often drive communal singing, dancing and positivity, they’re a band that has taken over shows and festivals all around the country — from SXSW, Wanderlust, Lightning in a Bottle and RiSE for over 14,000 people in the middle of the Mojave Desert.
Their music has quickly become the soundtrack to summer music festivals and yoga classes around the country, all because of their infectious sound and willingness to engage with the crowd.
The band formed in 2014 and is made up of lead singer, cellist and percussionist Austin “Bis” Bisnow (who comes from a background of pop writing for artists such as David Guetta, John Legend and Big Time Rush), violinist, banjoist and harmonica-player Zambricki “Z” Li (who grew up on Nashville roots music and spent his early career producing for other artists) and guitarist, bassist and cellist Brian “Zang” Zaghi (who is a Los Angeles native and salsa dancer familiar to playing with bands).
The trio has quickly blown up and with only an EP released in 2015, their first full-length LP is set to drop this Friday, May 19th.
“We’ve wanted to share these songs for so long,” Zambricki said to me.
After many shows on the road and numerous recordings done in their solar-powered mobile studio/tour bus, the trio is more than ready to show off their new material. I sat down with them to talk about their new record and kicking things off in San Francisco.
Rachel Ann Cauilan: I actually saw you guys back in 2014 when you performed at the House of Blues in Anaheim for the Blues & Brews Festival.
Zambricki “Z” Li: Wow! That was like one of our first shows.
RAC: And you guys just started around then. What can you say has changed since then?
Z: Nothing really. We’ve gotten worse. We started off really strong. My strings have gotten rusty.
Austin “Bis” Bisnow: I’ve gone through a couple pairs of boots. Z has a new bandana.
Z: Haha. The biggest thing is we’ve written an album. Whereas before we were playing basically sketches of songs — we were just playing songs that were unfinished or thought they were finished at the time, and when it came time to write the record we had to rewrite them. That’s the biggest thing. We’ve also become closer as friends and bandmates.
Brian “Zang” Zaghi: We’ve got history now.
Austin: And inside jokes.
RAC: How did you guys first meet each other?
Z: Austin was writing and pitching songs for other artists to record. I was doing indie production for people in Los Angeles, and I was still writing songs but I was focused on producing songs for other artists. So I wasn’t really doing the band thing.
Brian: And I was the one doing the full-on band thing. I had a high school band and we were all best friends and it was an awesome thing, getting YouTube popular. Everyone hit pause for some reason and then we [Magic Giant] all found each other. [Z and Austin] were introduced to each other through mutual friends and Austin saw me playing with my friends at another show. I was playing charts for another friend, so I looked like a guy that just plays with other bands. We hung out and jammed and it kicked off from there.
RAC: So you guys have your album In The Wind coming out a week from today. How do you feel? Are you excited, nervous?
Austin: So good.
Z: There’s a couple songs on the record that we’ve wanted to share for so long and now that they’re gonna be out, it’s like they’re our secrets. Sometimes you’re tempted to throw them out on Soundcloud but we’re trying to be thoughtful about it.
Brian: We’ve noticed at shows that when we release a song everyone’s singing the lyrics. I can’t wait for everyone to be able to know and connect with all of the songs and not just hear it for the first time live.
Austin: We have people now we recognize at the shows and have only gotten to hear the show version. They’ve never heard the recorded music. And it’s really going to bring everyone together. I’m excited to share it with the people that we’ve gotten to know through us playing around the States and Canada. There was even a dude who just came in during soundcheck and could tell he was so excited to hear us.
Brian: He thought his VIP was just to walk in and it’s just him and us — he didn’t even know it was a soundcheck and he was [shocked] and looking around.
Austin: I don’t even know him and I’m so stoked for him to be able to hear it and then we’ll have that connection.
RAC: What’s your favorite thing about playing music and being on the road? What are some of the things you’ve taken from playing all of your shows?
Brian: It’s cool because you get all these stories and things from people and that kind of shapes the songs. We were writing on the road last tour and we talked to people and learned about people and it takes songs in their own direction. It’s all inspired by people we meet, experiences that we see along the way. There’s so many things you can take away.
RAC: Yeah I’ve noticed your guys’ music is very universal. Even in your performances, you like to get the audience involved and you’re very communal about what you guys do. How did you guys come up with that kind of approach to what you guys are doing?
Austin: It just feels good. I think we share this but I know for me personally I thrive off of seeing other people. I don’t so much want to perform for someone and put on a show and they watch and I play. I just want to sing with people and dance with people. I want to be part of it as much as possible.
RAC: I know you all have different musical backgrounds. How did you come up and collaborate to create the sound you guys have today?
Brian: We have this very unique thing because it’s the three of us. For one, it’s never a tie, we always break the tie. And we also come from such different backgrounds. Z comes from this Nashville background. He knows old folk and has his acoustic roots. Austin has this singer-songwriter pop writing classical roots. I feel like I have these indie rock kind of roots. We all come together with such different unique ideas that it unknowingly creates something that’s foreign to all of us, yet we really connect with. It’s kind of cool.
RAC: That’s so interesting. It’s like you create your own sound when you’re not even trying to make that sound individually. I know you touched on this earlier, but when it comes to writing your songs, what do you typically like to write about?
Brian: Triumph of the human will. It’s a sort of theme that’s been running through all of our songs — a triumph of the human will, triumph of other people’s characters and how they overcome everything in life.
Z: We kind of write small stories that have a larger meaning to latch onto.
Brian: Even though we might talk about something sad or a shitty situation where it has this dark feeling, it always just ends up having this positive attitude. Like it’s gonna be alright.
RAC: I think we need to hear that in these kind of times too, so it’s refreshing.
Austin: Yeah and a lot of our songs have that positivity [in it]. “Set On Fire” starts with the word sour. “Let It Burn” starts with ‘well I heard you say we all die alone.’ It’s like this juxtaposition.
Z: Blinding positivity is not believable sometimes, as well. There are some people who are positive all the time, but you have to know a little bit about the sadness.
RAC: What do you hope new listeners gain when they first listen to your music?
Brian: We were talking about this the other day. If we can just make a ripple of joy or any sort of overcoming an emotion or a feeling, or even touching into themselves and being able to share that with other people. It’s like when you smile at someone and they smile for the rest of the day and everyone who touches their smile, there’s this ripple of smiling and joy. Just to share an uplifting energy and feeling.
RAC: Any songs on the new album that you can’t wait to show off?
Z: It’s kind of just a fun love song.
Austin: Lust, kind of.
Brian: Which we don’t ever write those songs. It’s totally surface and we recognize that.
Z: Exactly, it’s just a fun little song. A lot of people who know our music now know it because of how upbeat and festival-like it is, and songs like “Great Divide” is a complete departure. There’s a couple departures on the record and I feel like it might even take a little longer for that stuff to hit, but when it does it’s gonna bring a whole bunch of people who haven’t even listened to Magic Giant and bring them in.
Austin: We just shot a video for “Shake Me Up” which we’re excited for people to see as well.
As the band went on for their headlining Popscene show with DJ Aaron Axelsen and opener Armors, their energy was not amiss.
Often seen interchanging between drums, percussion, guitars and cellos, the trio commanded the stage with high energy. Z played massive fiddle and violin solos to thundering drumbeats offered by a backing drummer and added percussions by the band. Austin constantly smiled out into the crowd, grabbing hands, waving to friends and joining the “expressive” crowd on the dance floor. He and Brian even performed a dance-worthy percussive breakdown during their opener “Let It Burn.” When the clock struck midnight, Austin asked the crowd to get silent for a moment and entered the floor as the trio performed a stripped-down, unplugged version of “Window” off their new record as the crowd circled around them.
Magic Giant definitely knows how to throw on a party. Labeled as a “folk revival” band, their live shows are energetic, lively and uplifting. Folky banjos are played like rock instruments; Austin’s clear pop vocals and Brian’s rhythmic guitar are able to carry the crowd; and with a new album, the band is set to take over the summer with a full lineup of shows, sustainably-sourced merch and a ripple of positivity.
Find Magic Giant at a show near you.
May 12 — San Francisco, CA — Popscene @ The Rickshaw Stop
May 13 — Santa Cruz, CA — The Crepe Place
May 19 — Santa Ana, CA — Constellation Room
May 20 — San Diego, CA — The Casbah
May 22 — Los Angeles, CA — Bardot (FREE)
May 27 — St Petersburg, FL — 97x BBQ
June 3 — Denver, CO — Sun Drenched Music Fest
June 4 — Wichita, KS — Wichita Riverfest
June 6 — Kansas City, MO — The Riot Room
June 7 — St Louis, MO — The Duck Room at Blueberry Hill
June 11 — Novelty, OH — LaureLive Festival
June 13 — Columbus, OH — The Basement
June 17 — Dover, DE — Firefly Music Festival
June 20 — New York, NY — Bowery Ballroom
June 21 — Philadelphia, PA — Johnny Brenda’s
June 22 — Washington, DC — Rock & Roll Hotel
June 25 — Pasadena, CA — Arroyo Seco
June 27 — Asbury Park, NJ — Wonder Bar
June 28 — Boston, MA — The Red Room at Cafe 939
June 30-July 1 — Pembroke, Canada — Emerge Festival
July 15-16 — Grass Valley, CA — Worldfest
July 21 — Vancouver, Canada —The Fox Cabaret
July 22 — Seattle, WA — The Capitol Hill Block Party
July 23 — Portland, OR — Lola’s Room
July 25 — Napa, CA — Silo’s
July 29 — Oro-Medonte, Canada — WayHome Music & Arts
Aug. 18 — Pullman, WA — National Lentil Festival
Aug. 19 — Long Beach, CA — ALT 98.7 Summer Camp
Aug. 26 — Littleton, CO — Breckenridge Brewery
Oct. 6-7 — Moapa, NV — RiSE Festival
Magic Giant's record In The Wind (2017) drops this Friday, May 19th and is available for preorder now. Keep up with the band at magicgiant.com.
This article was featured on SFCritic.com.