I was in Magazines
Musician and co-author of ‘Two Beats Ahead’ explores the ephemeral nature of digital celebrity through a literary lens
Interview with R. Michael Hendrix by Michael Marrotta
In the streaming era pop music can be measured in seconds instead of minutes, directed at short-attention spans, Spotify playlists, and TikTok videos. But R.M. Hendrix is having none of this. If today’s new norm is writing haikus, he’s writing a novel.
The Massachusetts songwriter and multi-instrumentalist returned January 14 with the new alt-pop single “Magazines,” clocking in at nearly 9 minutes and deftly weaving mediaeval chorale arrangements with indie rock, electronica and ambient washes of sound.
The single is a proper follow-up to his 2020 experimental pop album War Is on Its Way, a companion piece in its fidgety, paranoid nature, but also arrives after a busy 2021 that saw Hendrix release shoegaze compendium album Shamblegloss in March, and co-author the critically acclaimed book, Two Beats Ahead: What Musical Minds Teach Us About Innovation, with Recording Academy (GRAMMYs) Co-President Panos A. Panay.
Published in the United States, United Kingdom, Europe, and Japan, Two Beats Ahead boasted interviews with heavyweights including Justin Timberlake, Pharrell Williams, T Bone Burnett, Gloria Estefan, Imogen Heap, Hank Shocklee, and others, diving deep into their creative mindsets. It struck a chord and was featured on BBC and Bloomberg radio; podcast by Harvard Business School and Google; and named Financial Times’ business book of the month.
In turn Hendrix’s new track, “Magazines,” is a full embrace of the innovative mindsets in his book, resulting in an experimental pop epic with spontaneity and emotion, much of it recorded with first takes then later rearranged. Lyrically, it explores the ephemeral nature of digital celebrity through a literary lens, warping time by contrasting the biblical story of the Annunciation with a jealous, unnamed Hollywood character shoved to the side. The persona moves through stages of anger (“You can’t take this away from me!“), despair (“Nothing breaks except me”) and ultimately finds resolution through a declaration of revenge (“I’m coming for ya!”).
It’s another herculean effort of pop music distortion made with Hendrix’s uncanny knack for capturing the walls of the zeitgeist forever closing in. “Magazines” looks back and claps back without sounding retro, rejecting rejection and the fickle nature of social media’s 15 seconds of fame. Here, there are 505 seconds at play.
“I wrote an unfolding story with different voices, from distant choruses to a rambling unhinged diatribe of mixed metaphors,” says Hendrix. “Each section sings over a mixtape of ’90s inspired arrangements that nod to alt-music celebs of that era who have also had their day.” Hendrix won’t name names, but any indie rock aficionado worth their salt should be able to find these musical Easter eggs.
“Magazines” also extends some of the themes prevalent in Two Beats Ahead. Most notably, its second chapter, titled “Experimenting,” which covers concepts like happy accidents, free exploration, risk taking, and discipline.
“‘Magazines’ embraces these ideas we put forward in the book,” Hendrix says. “It was created similarly to the process I used for the songs on War Is on Its Way. It’s the same kind of cut/paste/assemble process of other epic songs like Queen’s ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ or Radiohead’s ‘Paranoid Android’. I’m not claiming this song sits alongside those songs, but I am claiming the process is the same. Musical ideas come at different times and then are collaged into something whole. Recognizing that an idea may not be relevant in the moment, but will gain relevance in a different context is a skill.”
He continued: “‘Magazines’ began with what is now the middle of the song. I had an idea for the chord progression on piano last February. I later asked my son, Solomon (The Antarctic Sun), to jam on it for a while and recorded that session. In September I began chopping up those takes. At the same time I started taking a music theory class. I wrote a melody in natural minor, or the Aeolian mode, that was used mostly by monks for choral music in the 16th century. That became the intro to the song. The ambient noise section came later as I searched for a dramatic transition that could represent a spiritual enlightenment gone awry.”
The lyrics to “Magazines” materialized in a similar fashion, with Hendrix starting with an initial vision of a long rambling rant that began with him singing lyrical ideas from his phone notes. He wrote the Magnifcat section realizing that the middle was a complaint and it needed a foil. The ending was written spontaneously as he worked out the final rock outro, understanding that the character needed some kind of resolve.
“If I had to try and compose this song from the beginning it would not have ended up like this,” Hendrix admits. “Embracing the process created the result. That’s a theme throughout the chapter of my book too. It’s about being open and present to what is happening in front of you, recognizing its relevance is contextual, and then using that to create at the right time. It’s about discovery and sense-making more than it is about planning.”
And will a song that is 8 minutes and 25 seconds get its 15 seconds of fame? “Well, that would be ironic, wouldn’t it?” says Hendrix.