March 2009: Fledgling Memphis band Magic Kids is on stage at the annual South by Southwest music festival in Austin, Texas. The group's appearance as a last-minute opener for the Goner Records label showcase is only its second show -- the first having come just a couple days before their long drive to Texas.
As they deliver a stellar set of songs -- an oddly endearingly brand of sun-dappled surf pop from the banks of the Mississippi River -- the group is greeted with ... silence. The awkward quiet is finally broken by a smattering of claps and hoots from the sparse early evening crowd.
A year and a half later, much has changed: The Magic Kids aren't playing to empty rooms and passive listeners. Rather, they've become the hottest band in Memphis, and one of the most-buzzed-about acts in the indie world.
On Tuesday, the group releases its much-anticipated full-length debut, Memphis, on Matador's True Panther imprint. To celebrate, Magic Kids will perform a special show with the Memphis Youth Symphony at the Levitt Shell at Overton Park.
For the band -- singer/guitarist Bennett Foster, keyboardist Will McElroy, guitarist Alex Gates, drummer Ben Bauermeister and bassist Michael Peery -- the show marks both the culmination of a whirlwind 18 months, and the start of what promises to be an even-bigger year.
Magic Kids actually began as an outgrowth of another local outfit, garage-pop combo The Barbaras. That group -- which included Foster, McElroy and Gates -- had developed a cult following in town for its outlandish stage garb and antics.
But in 2008, Barbaras Stephen Pope and Billy Hayes hit the road as part of the late Jay Reatard's backing band. The move effectively put The Barbaras on the shelf.
Roommates Foster and McElroy began tinkering with a new idea, conceiving Magic Kids as a more serious recording project, a pop music experiment of sorts.
"We wanted to do something more ambitious," says McElroy. "We were talking really big; we had big plans for what we wanted to try and do with Magic Kids."
Toiling for months on a batch of home recordings, the band found its breakthrough with a track called "Hey Boy" -- a slice of pop bliss powered by Bennett's honeyed whine and a choirboy falsetto backing.
"On one level we realized 'Hey Boy' was really special while we were recording it, or at least we felt like it was," says McElroy. "So it was almost scary to be done with it, just because I didn't know what was gonna happen once people heard it."
What happened, of course, was that people went crazy. On the strength of "Hey Boy," released by Memphis label Goner as a 2,000-copy vinyl single, Magic Kids rather improbably became a minor international sensation -- setting the blogosphere on fire, and earning particular attention and praise in the U.K., including spins on the BBC and plaudits in The Guardian newspaper.
"We were really in shock about how much people liked the single," says Foster.
Before long, the band had been tapped to open a tour for Ariel Pink, and signed a worldwide deal with New York City-based mega-indie Matador. "They were the most interested and the least evil," jokes Foster of the label. "The most interested and the most charming."
By the time the band returned to South by Southwest this past March, they were being touted as one of the festival's buzz bands -- a stark contrast to the muted reception they received the previous year.
Shortly after their Austin excursion, the band began work on its full-length debut with fast-rising engineer/producer Shane Stoneback, whose recent credits include Vampire Weekend and Sleigh Bells. Recorded at Doug Easley's Memphis studio, the sessions proved a learning experience.
"I had never set foot in a real studio until then," says McElroy, who adds that Stoneback's sonic savvy was a crucial factor for the band. "It was great having someone there who could get the sounds we wanted. It took some of the stress off and just gave us more time to focus on worrying about whether or not the songs were perfect."
Although critics have been quick to make Beach Boys comparisons, the Magic Kids' musical milieu extends well beyond Brian Wilson's sandbox. On Memphis, they delight a mix of vintage sounds: from the sweet teen melodies of Herman's Hermits to the British bubblegum of Tony Burrows (Edison Lighthouse, First Class), and even the childlike wonder of the work of "Sesame Street" songsmith Joe Raposo.
The band will try to bring some of that sonic scope to its Levitt Shell appearance on Tuesday. The CD-release show will serve as a benefit for the Memphis Youth Symphony program, with symphony members joining the Magic Kids for what promises to be a rather grand stage production.
"We'll have kids from the symphony playing strings, some of their teachers playing French horn, and some friends of ours up to do sax and backup vocals," says Foster. "We've never done anything like this before."
Next up, Magic Kids (which now includes multi-instrumentalist Alice Buchanan as a touring member) will undertake a promotional tour of record stores. In September, the group will head to Europe for several weeks.
Foster says the band is eager to play the continent and hopefully show off another musical side of the Bluff City.
"I have no idea how people perceive Memphis from the outside," says Foster. "I know there's 'Memphis' the musical, and TV shows about Memphis, but I think that stuff is pretty wrongheaded.
"People have maybe one idea of this city -- blues or R&B or even garage rock. But there are lots of people doing different things in Memphis, and that's exciting. Hopefully (Magic Kids) will be another thing that comes to mind when people think about this place."
The Magic Kids: "Memphis" CD release show
Tuesday at the Levitt Shell at Overton Park. Doors open at 6:30 p.m.; show starts at 7:30 p.m. Admission to the concert is $5, benefiting the Memphis Youth Symphony program.