Isabella Ambrosio sits down with Elliott Douglas, the brain behind M.A.G.S., a solo project exploring indie prog, hardcore, and more.
Elliott Douglas didn’t exactly have a traditional upbringing.
He was homeschooled by his mother, a member of the church, who Douglas is adamant gave him the strong moral compass he has to this day, and his father, who was a pastor. His parents monitored television, movies, games, and music so he didn’t grow up with exposure to metal music or the hardcore scene. But his relationship with music was nurtured by both his parents and the environment he grew up in. “What got me into music was growing up in the church and watching my dad lead worship every Sunday, and generally the environment of music that my parents provided to us: me and my siblings. We learned a lot through songs and often did memorising through songs. My mom was our homeschool teacher, and she always told us she didn’t do well in school, but she’s always been able to get her point across through music. So a lot of how I learned during those early years, like maths, was through music. We grew up watching the School House Rock videos, we watched a lot of those,” he recalls with a sentimental smile, “My mom wrote songs on the acoustic guitar, or on the piano, about cleaning up or helping each other. To this day, I can’t count by threes unless I’m singing the song in my head,” he laughs, “All of my siblings and I have this engrained foundation of music in our way of learning and absorbing.” Even if his taste in music didn’t match his parents, their enthusiasm towards pianos and guitars urged Douglas towards his calling.
Music was everywhere when Douglas was a child, even though some of it was restricted for him. “Because I grew up a bit sheltered, and my parents were very mindful and cautious of what we were listening to or watching on television, my musical library was limited for a long time, up until my early teens. I feel like I was growing up in an enclosed bubble, in some cases, I do have an appreciation for the music that I was raised on. We listened to a lot of ‘60s and ‘70s singer-songwriter music, my dad was very much into James Taylor. But, I think it influenced me in the sense that even though I didn’t have a large spectrum of music to actually listen to for the first part of my life, it made me really excited when I first started to discover my own stuff. And when people would show me stuff that resonated with me, I was hearing it for the first time, most of the time. And what some people might have been like, ‘Oh, this is normal, I grew up around this,’ for me, was actually blowing my mind.”
Music was everywhere when Douglas was a child, even though some of it was restricted for him.
Even though Douglas grew up surrounded by the church choir, and had a brief venture of a band with his siblings, his interests lay elsewhere, in other genres. “I think I was attracted to hardcore music because it was the polar opposite of what I was exposed to. I wasn’t an extremely rebellious kid, but out of the four of us, I was the one who tended to push the limit on things and see what I could get away with. I always had to be counter-culture, in a sense…” But, he wasn’t the only one. “I was the one who was outwardly breaking the rules, and getting in trouble. But, [my little sister] was a little smarter about how she got access to things and wasn’t as loud about it.” And she was his Rolodex of music – ask her about a song, and she knew it. Quote a lyric, hum a melody, she was who Douglas went to with questions, “She seemed to know the words to every song, she knew the name of every song. She put me onto a lot of music that at the time, I wasn’t really into, and she holds this over my head a lot... but she was the first person to introduce me to Childish Gambino which would influence me much, much later in life. And she showed me his music when it came out in 2012, or 2011, or whenever it came out. I was like, ‘There’s no screaming in this, so I don’t really care about this. This isn’t hardcore, so I don’t care.’ At the time, I wasn’t ready to hear it.” Through shared hidden radios and CDs, Douglas found his calling within metal and screaming. There was something about the technicality and sound of screaming vocals that stood out to Douglas. For years, if it didn’t have screaming, he just wasn’t interested.
‘I think I was attracted to hardcore music because it was the polar opposite of what I was exposed to. I wasn’t an extremely rebellious kid, but out of the four of us, I was the one who tended to push the limit on things and see what I could get away with. I always had to be counter-culture, in a sense…’
Douglas hails from Buffalo, New York. He currently resides in Los Angeles, California but confided in his desire to move back to the East Coast. Indie prog was never something Douglas sought out specifically, a given considering his formative music taste, but the prog aspect of his music was bound to appear in some way. His musicality was something that was moulded and meshed together by influences, ideas, chords, and experiences. There was no real importance of genre to Douglas. Instead, it was about instrumentals. He started off as a drummer at a young age, 12 to be exact, “It was an interesting time as a kid. I was interested in a bunch of other stuff, too. And… you know who Gumby is? It was a cartoon, and I would watch it a lot, even though I thought it was boring. There was a Gumby movie, and he was shredding guitar in most of it. And he has a band in this barn and is like Eddie Van Halen-shredding in the movie. I remember seeing that at like 7 years old, and being like, ‘Yeah! Yeah! That’s it!.’ And I don’t know why that hit me so hard, before drums or anything. Drums ended up being the instrument I picked up first, but seeing that movie and hearing that music at a young age for some reason, I haven’t forgotten it.” Beyond his impactful guitar experience with Gumby, he first found solace within the rhythm of drums. Then, naturally, he expanded to guitars and basses when he got to his teens, needing something to help convey the melodies and ideas that swirled in his head on a daily basis. His head is always full, chords and notes meshing together into riffs and solos, never considering what genre it would fit in, but rather how it would fit in with that song.
It was a matter of time before every piece of musical influence in his life lit a fire within him. And honestly, it started because he was “playing at church”. He continues: “[...] And when I started listening to those bands, I would memorise the drum parts. I begged my parents for a drum kit when I was 13, and got one when I was 15. It was the jumping-off point for me. I would play these albums. I had a camcorder, and I would record myself and then watch it back. I was very much in this realm of ‘I need to observe myself doing something so I can get better.’ And also, just playing along to other people’s music for such a long time. It put me into a certain style of drumming for a while where it’s like where I’m playing at church, but I’m also trying to play breakdowns and really fast. And when I got into other music, my drumming style changed a lot as well, and I would say I started to mature into my early 20s. By my early 20s, I wasn’t playing drums as much. I was playing a little more guitar and bass. 18 was when I started playing guitar. I went from ‘I barely know how to play guitar’ to ‘I’m going to be playing in church.’ So, there was a bit of a learning curve, me learning how to play chords, and picking up a new instrument felt natural, but took time to understand everything about the guitar. I think that’s one of the best things about guitar – as much as you know about it, there’s always more to know. I got myself to a point where I could follow chords on a sheet when I was playing in church. I used to be on the drums in my first band, and I would watch my friend play guitar, and try and figure it out. And when they would all leave after practice, I would pick it up and try and learn our songs. It got to a point where I was a bit more hands-on with the writing because I could play the drums, the guitar, and the bass. So, we were collaborating, but I was starting to take up everyone else’s things,” he lets out a noise that can only be described as a giggle, “I wasn’t trying to infringe on it – I just had a lot of ideas.”
M.A.G.S’s journey is nothing if not unique. Born and raised in a devout family from the state of New York, homeschooled and introduced to music by the hits of a decade he was not born in; it would be hard to expect him to become the poster-child of “emo kids”. He remains self-aware that his exploration is out of the ordinary: “I was in a place where a lot of the music that I was finding was still being censored. So, up until I was 17 or 18, my mom wanted to know what was going on. I remember there were bands that I was interested in that I couldn’t have gotten their CDs – blink-182 was a band that I was aware of, but wasn’t allowed to listen to. I remember I had to convince my mom to let me get this Good Charlotte t-shirt from the thrift store, and I told her it was a clothing company. And all of the bands that were at the height of their new popularity, I was aware of it, but I didn’t know that blink-182 and Sum 41 weren’t the same band. I thought that blink-182 sang ‘Fat Lip’ – I thought it was the same band. I digress though… Underoath was one that I got the ‘okay’ from my mom about. The Devil Wears Prada, too. Bands that were from the Christian hardcore realm.” But when asked about his major hardcore influences that got him into the scene, he immediately thought back to the Vans Warped Tour compilation CD, especially “the 2005 and 2006 editions. I can’t name every single band at this point. But, that was where I started to find bands. From those CDs and started to go into other avenues. Getting into Poison the Well, or hearing about Sleeping with Sirens, for the first time.” Douglas was introduced to Coheed and Cambria, Rush, and Radiohead by friends, but has always cited Underoath as one of his biggest inspirations. Their drummer, Aaron Gillespie, was his primary source of inspiration when tracking his own drums.
M.A.G.S’s journey is nothing if not unique. Born and raised in a devout family from the state of New York, homeschooled and introduced to music by the hits of a decade he was not born in; it would be hard to expect him to become the poster-child of ‘emo kids.’
Destroyer is the kind of record that you honour by physically taking the time to sit and listen to it from start to finish. It’s not necessarily something you can play in the background as you do menial tasks. The record is filled with different chords, riffs, notes, techniques, time signatures, and levels of technicalities that are both difficult to describe and understand. It’s a brilliant and diligent record that manages to remain raw and unfiltered – you can tell that Douglas poured himself into this project. Guitars and basses have been set aside for this track, tuned to let out the most beautiful tones, embracing the fluidity that occurs within Douglas’ mind. Songs like ‘Sins,’ ‘Wednesday,’ and ‘Supermoon’ highlight the melodic side of Douglas’ repertoire, while ‘Elephant,’ ‘Swimming,’ and ‘Floyd’ tap into the more exploratory, adventurous side of Douglas. No matter one’s personal taste – Douglas is bound to employ those genres and techniques at one point or another. His eclectic taste is well refined, as he constructs a beautifully cohesive release, regardless of the explorative nature.
Destroyer is the kind of record that you honour by physically taking the time to sit and listen to it from start to finish. It’s not necessarily something you can play in the background as you do menial tasks.
While instrumentation has always come naturally to Douglas, so has songwriting. From a young age, he started keeping a journal and has always needed some way to get his thoughts outside of his head. Enter songwriting. His relationship with this praxis has constantly evolved, “I used to write out of catharsis, really. Since I was eight, I’ve kept a journal. So, having a way to get thoughts out of my head is something I’ve always needed to do. Songwriting and making music was something that bridged that gap, so that I could continue to exist as a real person, and not have all of these loud voices going on, you know? I think it’s another way that I’ve been able to express myself more accurately than I can by trying to explain a feeling or trying to change my way of thinking. I think a lot of the time though, when I’m writing a song, I don’t always know what it’s even about until after - most times, actually. A lot of my songs are kind of written in a blackout state, so I’m thinking about what I’m saying, and I’m trying to be clever and put things together that are heartfelt but also things you want to sing. And sometimes it’ll be right after I finish the lyrics, months and months later, I’ll listen to the song and really be able to hear what I’m trying to talk about.” To Douglas, his songwriting in ‘blackout’ states is a flow of his subconscious, unlocking a part of his mind that he can’t normally access, “And sometimes there are songs that I think have a certain energy when I write them, they feel a certain way, and when I come back to it, it’s actually something totally different, or there’s a different dimension of what I’m trying to say. And it’s like, ‘Wow, I must have been on one when I wrote this! I can’t believe I was able to say that…’. There are a couple of songs on [Destroyer] that, after spending a few months making them, and a lot of time, mixing them and working on them, [I realise] I’m still going through some of the things I was talking about in those songs, and am able to compare where I am in the song, and where I am now.” And the one thing about Douglas – he doesn’t care what people think the song is about, as long as they think.
There are a couple of songs on [Destroyer] that, after spending a few months making them, and a lot of time, mixing them and working on them, [I realise] I’m still going through some of the things I was talking about in those songs, and am able to compare where I am in the song, and where I am now.
But, ‘Sins’ in particular, Douglas had an awareness that couldn’t quite be classified as a ‘blackout’ state, “With ‘Sins,’ I remember feeling a little guilty writing that song. Because in my mind, I was blatantly questioning the system I was supposed to be super invested in. Everyone around me seems to be invested in this and is choosing this lifestyle to exist in, and to me, it didn’t seem like enough. It didn’t seem real – none of it seemed real. So, I was writing a song that was basically questioning everything I knew. And that was scary. Because of the social ramifications of pushing away from your support system, or what you think is your community – and I think that every young person in the church has to make a decision at some point to either continue and assimilate into the culture or deny it. I think for a long time I was trying to hold on to it.”
Ultimately, the exploration of Douglas’ musical influences and tastes in the instrumentals leads to a very honest, and open, songwriter. Douglas is able to articulate himself in a language that very few can speak and truly understand – music. It’s only natural for his songwriting to follow suit. And that’s truly what makes his work unique. It’s specific to him, his experience, his life story. He understands that instrumentals can only do so much, and Western music only has so much variation. But his lyrics and the meaning behind them add a new dimension to the preexisting chords. He knows he’s not the first person to explore or create music the way he has. But truly, what is most important to him, is creating music in an inspiring way, acknowledging that there is no true originality, but using what has already been done in a different, novel way. And he does that – making it the soundscape of his own thoughts and mind.
His eclectic approach and mentality towards music serve him well. Destroyer proves that, but Douglas isn’t done thinking of new and interesting ways to write and produce music: “I want to do an album or an EP on a tape deck – it’s a weird piece of gear, that makes a weird sound, and involves a lot of patience and concentration to operate. To me, that’s inspiring. Because you’re pushing out of your comfort zone, your norm.”
Ultimately, as a project, M.A.G.S. is truly representative of Elliott Douglas’ vast taste and explorations of genres, while maintaining an artistry that has long been missing from alternative music.
Ultimately, as a project, M.A.G.S. is truly representative of Elliott Douglas’ vast taste and explorations of genres, while maintaining an artistry that has long been missing from alternative music. From varying and abnormal time signatures to switches in tempos and keys – Douglas crafts and explores aspects of genres and instrumentation that breathe fresh life into an art form that has existed for thousands of years. M.A.G.S. is calling your name, and he has a damn good reason why.