Olly Riva (The Magnetics): Ska, jazz, soul, dirty reggae and Tom Waits

Two years ago, Italians from The Magnetics played their first concert in Poland, at the second edition of the Gdańsk Ska Jamboree festival. They liked it so much that they decided to come back. Tomorrow, we'll have a chance to check how their sound has changed over the last 3 years. And as an appetizer before the gig, we recommend the transcript of a conversation we had in 2018 with the vocalist and founder of the group, Olly Riva.

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Olly Riva, lead singer of The Magnetics

The Magnetics formed in 2017, driven by the inexhaustible energy of Olivier Riva, who has been fronting the Italian ska punk band Shandon for over a quarter of a century. How did it happen that a (not so) old punk rocker took up old school Jamaican music? You can find out by listening to the chat with Olly, which I managed to have outside the club after the (otherwise very pleasant) concert of The Magnetics in Gdańsk.


Magdalena Miszewska: Okay, so let’s talk about The Magnetics. The band is still fresh, you only started in 2017. I know you’ve been on the punk scene, the ska punk scene for a lot of years.

Olly Riva: Oh yeah, 25.

MM: What had to happen that you suddenly wanted to change the genre you play, and you’ve started a band in a more Jamaican style.

OR: Well, Jamaican stuff is one of my favourite genres of music ever. Usually, I’m in circles throughout my entire life. My first circle was swing music at the end of the 90s. Not to play, it was just a passion. Then there was 50s stuff, then rhythm and blues and soul stuff. Sometimes, I start some side projects to put myself in another point of view and try another way to sing, another way to be a musician. The Magnetics is my last side project.

MM: Last for now?

OR: Last for now, yeah. One day I started to talk about this project in the van with my main band, Shandon. I said that I have this idea, that I want to play some soul music with Jamaican ska on it, and that I also want to add some Tom Waits’ stuff because he’s my favourite artist ever. First, they said, “Are you crazy?” And then they said, “Why not? We have to try.” So we tried it during soundchecks on Shandon’s tour. Between one soundcheck and another, we decided that it became a real project and that we have to write some songs and find a name and stuff like that.

MM: Yeah, you did it all very fast when you started The Magnetics.

OR: Oh, yeah. I’m superfast, I work like a devil (laugh). I made the first record in one month. It’s unbelievable. I wrote every song, put together the line-up, arranged the rehearsals and everything in one month. Now, after a year and a half, I have a new record and a new line-up. Everything is new. And here we are.

MM: Yeah, about the line-up change. The band is pretty fresh, and the musicians are new, so it makes the band’s history a little chaotic. Maybe you could explain who’s in the band now. You have a guy on sax on the new album, right?

OR: Yes.

MM: He wasn’t here today. Is he still in the band? What’s the story with the guys you play with?

OR: The problem is everybody in the band has a second and third life: wife, kids, other bands and stuff like that. The first line-up of The Magnetics was chaotic, as you said. After one year of touring and playing more than 100 shows, they said, “Man, it’s too much. I have to take care of my family and I have to take care of my real job and stuff like that.” But for me, this is my real job. I said to the others, “It’s up to you. You have to decide what’s first.” As for now, people from Shandon are still in the new line-up, even the saxophone player. But in this period, he has a lot of concerts with other bands. He’s super busy and I have to wait until he’s ready to start this new adventure with us. And maybe we’ll have to find another trumpet player or trombone player, I don’t know. Everything is growing, week after week after week. Anyway, I like to think that The Magnetics’ sound and songs and everything are me with somebody else. It’s not a real band. It’s me with somebody (laughs).

MM: And when you think about the music you want to play with The Magnetics, is it also going to change? On the first record, we can hear some Jamaican music. Well, it’s kind of obvious, because the title is Jamaican Ska. So I believe it’s a kind of introduction to this music style, but you also incorporate some things from the USA scene.

OR: Exactly.

MM: Sometimes I can hear a bit of The Slackers in your songs, and sometimes I can hear The Aggrolites.

OR: Absolutely, yeah. You pay attention.

MM: Are the United States the other place you seek for music?

OR: Well, actually, Victor from The Slackers is a friend of mine. We made a song together. It’s called Skate Ska, we played it today. When he was in Italy to play in Milan I told him, “Come to my apartment, I have a song for you.” This was three years ago. Now we are still in touch, and sometimes he suggests something I could do with The Magnetics. I want to put there some jazz vibe and soul vibe and also some reggae with some dirtiness like The Aggrolites, as you said. I’m never satisfied. I want to record music that will be fresh and old school at the same time. That’s my thing.

MM: And talking about famous people from the scene, who you collaborate with, we also have Mr. T-Bone. He was the guy you invited to the second album.

OR: Yes. We’ve been friends, whoa, since 1992 (laugh). We are old. Anyway, we are the same age, almost. He used to live near Milan, and now he lives in Torino. But we always have a chat when he’s in Milan on tour. One time I said, “You have to do something on my new record.” He said, “Oh, yeah, absolutely.” And here we are. I can’t explain it very well, but his voice sounds like from another era. It’s like in your medium range of the nose like black people. And his pronunciation in English sometimes isn’t very good and sounds Jamaican. I love it. And sometimes he looks like an Italian from the 50s, mafioso style.

MM: Yeah, I love his style and the things he does with The Uppertones. They’re great.

OR: Yeah, absolutely. It’s magic.

MM: So it’s obvious that you wanted a guy like him on your record. Coffee and Sugar, that’s the title of your second LP. Regarding the title, did you want the new music to be more energetic, or maybe more sweet like reggae, or do you combine both?

OR: Every song is kind of a small movie. Because when I started to play music with The Magnetics, I said to myself, “You have to find another way to make music and not do it like before.” In Shandon, when I play punk rock, I start a new song with guitars or bass or drums or whatever. When I do it in The Magnetics’ world, I say to myself, “Find the story first and then take your guitar.” That’s the spirit of our records, even the first one. But you can feel it more on the second one because I have worked out some kind of rules in my head. They help me decide which song is good and which song is not. And I know it’s weird, but I’m weird (laugh).

MM: Were you in such a hurry with the second record as you were the first time? Or maybe you gave yourself a bit more time?

OR: I don’t know. When I wake up, and I have a song, I have a song. When I have a record, hey, I have a record. I don’t have any deals or any problems like a contract or a deadline for a new record. This time I found a German label called Grover. I just sent them the record, and they said, “Oh, we like it. We are ready for that.” It was that simple. It’s unbelievable for something like this to happen in 2018. After 25 years on the scene, we found a German label, and we are Italian. Sometimes Germans and Italians don’t get along that well. They don’t fight, but usually, Germans work with Germans, and Italians with Italians. That’s why I really appreciate this kind of relationship. I’m so happy.

MM: Recently I talked to Vic from The Slackers because they played a gig in Warsaw last week. He told me that he feels that now is a good time for early reggae and old school reggae music in the United States. I wanted to ask you if you feel this wave coming to Europe.

OR: Well, a bit. Not like in America, but a bit. Even in South America, something grew up.

MM: Those guys are crazy about this kind of music.

OR: Yeah, they are also crazy for that kind of fast ska, very against the system or something like that. They’re really political. That kind of ska sometimes sounds South American and Russian at the same time. I don’t know why, but the horns always remind me of some Russian themes like Tetris (Korobeiniki), for example (laugh). People in Mexico, Chile, Venezuela and other countries are crazy for that kind of weird ska. It’s not exactly American or European. So I’m really glad that in this Mexican and South American style also these vintage new sounds grow as you said.

MM: Have you heard of Travelers All Stars? Those guys don’t have a record yet. They’re from Mexico. You have to check them out on YouTube. These guys do crazy things with this old school vibe and old school sound. I’m waiting for the record. I hope there’s one coming soon. Check them out.

OR: Oh, maybe I saw it on Skazofreniko Mundo. It’s a ska page from Mexico and they put some crazy things like that. There’s also a band called The Steady 47 or…

MM: The Steady 45s. Those guys are from California.

OR: Yeah? They look Mexican.

MM: Yes, because their roots are South American, I believe. But they live in Los Angeles.

OR: Beautiful voice, beautiful melodies. They’re great.

MM: I’m hoping for a band of this kind to rise in Europe. Maybe it could be The Magnetics?

OR: Yeah, why not? We’re here.

MM: And there’s another thing I wanted to ask you about. Earlier you were talking about swing music and your love for this kind of vibe. You had a chance to sing to swing music with The Goodfellas.

OR: Yeah, you know everything. Cool.

MM: Can you tell me something more about this collaboration?

OR: I was really in a bad mood because my band Shandon split after 11 years. And I was depressed and angry. It was a chaotic moment in my life. The Goodfellas were in the same company and same booking agency and sometimes they played with Shandon. I was a huge fan of The Goodfellas because they are really into the roots of Italian swing from the 40s and 50s. They also have that kind of American-Italian style like Dean Martin, that kind of thing. And when they asked me if I wanted to record with them, I said, “What? Wow, yeah, absolutely! But I’m just a fucking punk rocker, I don’t know how to sing that kind of stuff.” And they said, “Oh, don’t worry. You have to be dirty, not just kind and gentle and groovy. Just be yourself.” But I’m not satisfied with that record because we did it in the beginning and after one year on tour with those people, I learned how to sing in that way. And it was too late (laugh).

MM: But it’s still an experience you’re using with The Magnetics because you play different styles of sounds. So it was useful.

OR: Absolutely. And they are so weird. You rather expect people playing swing music to be kind and gentle and those guys are a disaster. They are crazy madmen. In the van, they talk about jazz, like it was heavy metal. They talk about the 40s like hardcore musicians. They’re full of passion for that period, for the clothes, for the music. I was touched by that kind of feeling and I started to put that feeling in my other projects, like The Magnetics or the new stuff with Shandon. I also founded another band five years ago called Olly Riva & The SoulRockets. It’s one of my side projects. It’s more vintage soul and r&b. It was the beginning of my attempts to play and be a musician in another way, not in a punk way. But at the same time, I wanted to be a punk rocker in that kind of style. Do you know what I mean? Like The Aggrolites for example. They are punk rockers in reggae music. I love it.

MM: And did you find the style that suits you most? Or are you still looking for one?

OR: Always (laugh). Always, I’m never satisfied. Never. If you are satisfied, you stop playing. You don’t have any impulse, you don’t have any light. When you have a new idea or a new sound in your head, you have to wake up and search for a way to do it. Sometimes, I look like a madman. I call the rest of the band to tell them I have an idea, like a junkie (laugh). That’s my way to do it.

MM: Okay, I think we have to search for some light inside because I’m freezing here (laugh). Thank you very much for the show and the talk. Hopefully, see you again in Poland.

OR: Absolutely.


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