Due to a wide range of influences, restless/relentless creative energies, and a supporting cast that's too numerous to list in full, random peeks into the catalog of the Glen Johnson-helmed Piano Magic -- from super limited-edition singles on Spanish independents to full-length soundtracks -- rarely result in the same thing twice. Started in the mid-'90s by Johnson, Dominic Chennell, and Dick Rance with the intention to base their recordings around a small nucleus and whomever would like to contribute -- using 4AD founder Ivo Watts-Russell's This Mortal Coil as something of a template -- the material released by Piano Magic has ranged from arty baroque pop to childlike electronic knob-twiddling and whatever points you can and can't think of in between. The lone thread running through Piano Magic's records, aside from Johnson's presence, is a sense of wistfulness. Johnson has explained his desire to soundtrack memories, and with that, Piano Magic has found their niche.
One early hope of Piano Magic was to avoid the live element. However, when their first single, 1996's Wrong French, was awarded Single of the Week in Melody Maker, the initial trio felt obligated to play out in support of it. Along with Paul Tornbohm, the group played their first gig and opted not to play any of the material found on their records. They also made no attempt whatsoever to sound anything like their records, so odds were pretty good that a few curious concert-goers were perplexed after returning from the shops and hearing the studio incarnation of the outfit.
"Signed" to Che, the label that released Wrong French, the group kicked out two more singles (with one issued on Wurlitzer Jukebox) prior to releasing their first full record, Popular Mechanics, in November 1997. Including some of the additional personnel featured on the preceding singles, such as vocalists Raechel Leigh and Hazel Burfitt and instrumentalist Martin Cooper, the record threw together some previously released material along with a clutch of new songs. As uneven as the record is, its mysteriousness provokes replay after replay. The band left Che, having been frustrated with their lack of effort. Not surprisingly, the constant financial flux soon got the best of the label.
In 1999, a crazy slew of singles and EPs for labels like Staalplaat, Darla, and Bad Jazz -- including a split single with Matmos for Lissy's -- surrounded the release of the second album, Low Birth Weight (Rocket Girl). Thanks to just a little more focus and a higher level of quality from beginning to end, the record is often regarded by fans as their best work. In addition to most of the prior suspects, Caroline Potter, Alexander Perls, Matt Simpson, Jen Adam, Simon Rivers (Bitter Springs), David Sheppard (State River Widening), and Peter Astor (the Weather Prophets, the Wisdom of Harry) figured into the process of making it.
The following year was one of Piano Magic's least prolific, but it still spawned a remix EP for Germany's Morr Music and the rather conceptual full-length Artists' Rifles, which bases its subject matter in the first World War. It's the group's most consistent work in terms of sound. It features none of the electronics heard on prior releases, instead focusing on delicate interplay between drums, guitars, and the cello work of Adrienne Quartly. At some point prior to its recording, Miguel Marin was added to the group's lineup apparently as a permanent member.
In 2001, Piano Magic was commissioned to score Spanish director Bigas Luna's Son de Mar. The director had heard Low Birth Weight in a record shop and was impressed enough to ask them to provide music for the film. Peaceful, lulling, breezy, and completely instrumental, the score demonstrates Piano Magic's astonishing range. Released by 4AD, Son de Mar spawned a deal between the two, and the group began working on the proper follow-up to Low Birth Weight later in the year. To satiate fans and irritate hardcore vinyl collectors, Rocket Girl released Seasonally Affective, an exhaustive double-disc compilation of singles. Writers Without Homes was eventually completed and released in mid-2002. Piano Magic left 4AD soon after, releasing The Troubled Sleep of Piano Magic in 2003 on Spain's Green UFOs label and Disaffected in 2005 on Darla.
With the exception of a few brief stops in Russia, Portugal, and Belgium, the band spent the majority of the following year touring Italy. Another 12" vinyl record, Never It Will Be the Same Again (featuring contributions from conceptual artist Bojan Sarcevic), was released during this time. Piano Magic returned to the studio in late 2006, and their ninth full-length, Part Monster, hit stores the following summer. ~ Andy Kellman