Interview: Magnolia Summer, Of Great and Mortal Men: 43 Songs for 43 Presidencies

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(Chris Grabau of Magnolia Summer)

Magnolia Summer's Chris Grabau has been hard at work recording new music as of late, but the first new music to emerge from his project in a while is a track on the Of Great and Mortal Men: 43 Songs for 43 Presidencies project.

Grabau recently took time to answer some questions about the track on which Magnolia Summer appears, "William McKinley: Czolgosz's Dream." (For reference: McKinley, our 25th president, was born in Ohio and assassinated by Leon Czolgosz in 1901.)

Take a listen to the stream below -- and don't forget: The band will be playing a rare St. Louis gig this Saturday night at Off Broadway, with the Treeweasels and Half Knots.

(interview by Annie Zaleski)

How did Magnolia Summer get involved in the project? And who is playing with you on the song? Chris Grabau: I met Christian Kiefer through my work with Undertow while we were working on releasing the Dogs & Donkeys record. Christian brought up the President's project and mentioned he wanted to find a way for Magnolia Summer to participate. After awhile, he sent me a rough version of the McKinley track and I immediately loved the song. I love how it's a blend of two voices -- the first (which sounds like an old Victrola) is the voice of McKinley, [and] the full band portion is the voice of his assassin, Leon Czolgosz.

John Horton [also of the Bottle Rockets] and I contributed to the track. Christian already had rhythm tracks for the song that were great. So, John played lap steel and along with vocals, I worked out a keyboard sample...I've been into working with Reason lately, so it was a good excuse to try to get a few different tones. It was a very fun thing to work on and I feel incredibly honored to be a part of the record.

The song came to you guys pre-written, correct? This is something which I imagine is different from how you usually work with music. What was the biggest challenge associated with working this way? Correct. I've done recordings covering other people's work (for example, "Around and Around" for the Chuck Berry tribute, Brown Eyed Handsome Man) but this was the first time someone gave me a song they wrote to work on. It was a different challenge than recording your own version of an already recorded song. However, I found it a fun challenge to keep Christian's vision intact while adding my own contributions to the track. It felt like I had to use a few different mental muscles.

How much freedom did you have to add/change the song? What did you decide to do with the song, musically? Christian basically said, "Do what you want," but I really loved the initial instrumentation he already made for the track. So instead of starting over, John Horton and I sat down for a few evenings and worked out a new vocal melody and added some instruments.

Were you familiar with William McKinley before doing the song? Why were you guys the ideal people to tackle this song? To be honest, I had to do a little research about William McKinley and Leon Czolgosz. I knew McKinley was assassinated, but I didn't know many details about the event. Czolgosz felt his actions would free America of tyranny, but I think in the end, he was acting for his own best interest as much for the cause he believed in. Although Czolgosz stated his actions were altruistic, in reality, its seemed more like a ploy to gain respect and notoriety than about changing society. Or maybe he was just trying to gain the admiration of Emma Goldman....

I think the disparity between thought and action within the lyrics of the song mirror a lot of the themes I've found myself working through in my own songwriting. Maybe that is why the track resonated with me.

The Czolgosz in the title refers to Leonard Czolgosz, the man who assassinated McKinley. (Full disclosure: I had to look that up.) Lyrically, what is "the dream" refer to, in your opinion? To me, "The Dream" was Czolgosz's thought that killing McKinley would free our nation against the disparities of wealth and power and help the "good of the people." Czolgosz felt removing the figurehead would somehow return power to all men. However, in there was a huge disconnect with his line of thinking. I think "The Dream" for Czolgosz was far removed from the reality of his actions. It's ironic to find the public was so outraged by his actions that mobs of people gathered at prison wanting to tear him apart. After Czolgosz's execution, his clothes and belongings were burned and sulfuric acid was placed in his casket in order to make his body decompose faster.

Who is your favorite president overall, and why? I'm partial to reading about the founding presidents. Despite their inherent flaws, they were struck with great vision and enormous opportunities to do good. The last decade has been such an utter disaster that I have all but wrote off the idea that we live in a democracy. However, with the upcoming presidential election, I feel like I'm living in a time where my favorite president may be living among us. I think Barack Obama is am amazing candidate and I am hopeful for his election.

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