Magik Markers is one of America’s finest contemporary noise rock bands and its greatest asset is frontwoman Elisa Ambrogio. Her commanding and hypnotic vocals recall Sonic Youth’s primary songwriters combined, which can range from sweetly mysterious Patti Smith-esque poetic declarations to cathartic, frightening moments of unhinged aggression. Ambrogio’s raw, wild playing suggests a constant push-pull struggle between herself, her guitar, and the audience, as if she’s re-thinking the possibilities of the instrument at all times.
Since 2001, Ambrogio and drummer Pete Nolan have remained the bands two consistent members, playing as a duo or occasionally adding a third. As performers, they think outside the box, drawing from a musical history that encourages traditions in free thinking rather than traditions in technique. Between the two of them, there are enough chops, instinct, and trust to transform their songs into captivating improvisations, pushing each others’ playing into different territories with each concert, where the sometimes sleepy, semi-ambient sprawl of their recorded material comes alive in an energetic and captivating performance.
The surprising aspect of Magik Markers’ live show is the alarming dexterity. The band can switch in an instant between groovy, energetic noise rock jams, confrontational feedback-fueled freak-outs, charmingly straightforward retro garage rock numbers, and subtle, quiet moments where the beauty of the music comes to the surface.
Though Magik Markers has released several widely promoted albums on labels such as Ecstatic Peace! and Drag City, the 2007 masterpiece Boss, produced by Lee Ranaldo, is the recommended starting point. The band has also issued a steady stream of smaller CD-Rs, tapes, and LPs on smaller DIY labels (including Nolan’s own Arbitrary Signs).
Ambrogio and Nolan are often busy with other projects. Nolan performs solo as Spectre Folk; he is in drone supergroup GHQ; and he has collaborated with Woods. Ambrogio has played in Six Organs of Admittance and performs as a duo with Six Organs’ Ben Chasny under the name 200 Years, a combination of projects that have brought her to Charlottesville several times on tour.
Magik Markers has been somewhat quieter in recent years, but still tours regularly with the aid of full-time bassist John Shaw (from the drone group Son of Earth). The trio has recorded a new album, Surrender to Fantasy, due out in November on Drag City. Magik Markers concert ranked as one of 2012’s finest performances, and the band is back at Twisted Branch Tea Bazaar on Thursday, September 5 along with New Yorkers The Beets and newcomers Free Time. Tickets are $8 and the show begins at 9pm.
Listeners think of radio stations as ethereal, existing in the air like a gas, ready to be captured each time you turn on the dial. But as anyone who has ever visited WTJU —whether to host a radio show, perform on the air, or just stop by to pay a marathon pledge and pick up a premium—can attest, it’s a real physical space—a small one, with a lot of stuff in it.
The music library is something of a local legend, with over five decades of LPs and CDs, including generations of rare, long lost, and now classic albums, each covered with organizational stickers and scrawled over in sharpie with initial assessments from long-since departed DJs, innumerable sarcastic and witty remarks, and details about then upcoming shows at long-defunct venues. It’s an invaluable part of Charlottesville’s cultural history, but it’s also overcrowded, as new music gets added every week, sharing space with piles of the station’s promotional items, and occasionally new technical equipment.
This weekend, September 6-8, WTJU will host a public sale of its surplus items at The Bridge PAI, as a fundraiser for the station. The sale includes thousands of CDs and LPs that have been purged from WTJU’s library for space reasons, as well as dozens of promotional T-shirts from the station’s annual marathons.
“If you’re on the air for 55 or 56 years, you collect a lot of stuff,” said manager Nathan Moore. “A lot of the CDs are ones that we used to play in the past that we just don’t anymore. There’s a ton of jazz, folk, and rock stuff. No classical in the mix, because they’re not running out of room in the library the way the other departments are.”
The T-shirts alone would be a major draw for WTJU’s dedicated listeners. “They’re collectors items,” Moore said. This writer’s own collection of WTJU shirts dates back to 1996, though I’ve recently acquired one bearing a Daniel Johnston illustration from some time in late ’80s.
“I found a few great shirts from the ’80s,” said WTJU DJ Anne Dunckel, who has spent the summer cleaning out the station’s archives and storage closets. “But most of them are more recent shirts from the 2000s that we have a lot of extra copies of. We have some cool Steve Keene posters with Jefferson on them. We’re selling almost everything that was in our storage unit.” Dunckel also unearthed several treasures that are not being sold, like a collection of reel-to-reel tapes of the long-running Sister Talk program, which will be donated to UVA Library’s archive.
The sale will be capped off by an afternoon of live music on Saturday, September 7 with performances by local indie-folk act The Hill and Wood, blues guitarist Ralph Rush, a solo performance by the Invisible Hand’s Adam Smith, and a set from newly-minted rockers Big Air.
By cleaning house, Moore hopes to make room for the station’s future. In the newly-
emptied space, he’s constructing a second pre-production recording studio as a permanent home for the Sound Board news program, as well as a separate on-air studio for a forthcoming student run station, which will broadcast online and on a low-power AM signal that will cover UVA Grounds.