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Rock Magicians 

Former members of the Pixies and Possum Dixon have a little punk up their sleeves

Thursday, Jul 17 2003
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Photos by Jack Gould

Last year, when the drummer for the much-beloved but defunct Pixies performed a solo act at the ultrahip music festival All Tomorrow’s Parties, in the south of England, few expected that his performance would involve not a single note of music, let alone feature a glowing kosher pickle and a strangely powerful meteorite from Malibu. Yet there was David Lovering, in front of a thousand-plus music fans, wearing a blinking headset with an antenna and a white lab coat, performing a strange brand of science-based magic he’d dubbed “scientific phenomenalism.” The audience of the packed ballroom was, as might be expected, initially perplexed, but soon was roaring with laughter and cheering on the eccentric Lovering. The notoriously fickle English music press gave the show rave reviews, Mojo magazine calling Lovering a “born entertainer.” Reflecting back on the event, the former drummer says, “It was perhaps my greatest achievement.”

Lovering had been introduced to magic in his adopted hometown of Los Angeles by local musician Grant-Lee Phillips. Phillips, who has recently embarked on a solo career after the demise of his critically acclaimed band Grant Lee Buffalo, had become fascinated by magic as a child growing up in Northern California. At the age of 12, Phillips donned a pint-size tuxedo and was performing as a child magician at a local vaudeville revival house. “I tend to trace it all back to a book on Houdini,” he says, “the ability to perform miracles, walk through walls, all of that simply obsessed me. My introduction to stage life came through being a kid magician. I spent much of that time dragging myself and a couple of filthy doves around to various venues.” Phillips gave up performing magic professionally in his early teens, but he continues to be fascinated by it.

Lovering never meant to be a magician or a musician. In fact, he graduated from college with a degree in engineering, but a job building lasers was soon interrupted by the Pixies’ unforeseen pop success. Six years later, the Boston band split up and Lovering moved to Los Angeles, where he continued to play drums in various musical projects, including Cracker, Nitzer Ebb and Tanya Donelly’s band. Though uninitiated in the magical arts, Lovering had always been a practical joker with a love of electronics. Before the Pixies, he worked at a Radio Shack and once wired the store’s toilet to a deafening car alarm. “It would scare the shit out of people,” he jokes. Phillips sparked his friend’s interest in magic by hauling Lovering along to a convention so they could check out some of the tricks. “We went to see what they were selling at the dealer booths,” Lovering says, “and I saw stuff that just completely blew me away. I saw one particular card trick that I couldn’t get over. I had to learn how to do it.”

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Around that time, a friend of Lovering and Phillips’, filmmaker Carlos Grasso, who had directed videos for Grant Lee Buffalo, Cracker, L7 and Bad Religion, among others, answered his office door to find an elderly man in a rumpled tuxedo and waxen mustache asking, “What can you do for an old magician?” A surprised Grasso offered the gent a cup of coffee and was rewarded with the man’s life story and a standing invitation to visit him up at the Magic Castle. Grasso took him up on the offer, inviting his friends Phillips and Lovering along. “I had never actually been to the Magic Castle,” Phillips recalls. “I had seen shadowy pictures of it on television shows hosted by people like Bill Bixby, and I would think, that’s the place I want to live. It’s probably the closest thing to Disneyland’s Haunted Mansion, sort of like Dean Martin’s take on the Victorian era.” The now magic-obsessed Lovering also fell in love with the club, saying, “To me it was like a holy place.”

Most people think of magicians and envision some tanned über-nerd in a Miami Vice suit doing flashy illusions to a melodramatic song like “Dream Weaver.” They are the show-biz equivalent of the smug car salesman — you know they’re getting over on you, yet you continue to watch as if hypnotized, and then slink out feeling like a world-class rube. And while most of the magicians out there do resemble this tawdry image, perhaps this began to change ever so slightly when Phillips introduced Lovering to another alternative rocker turned magician, Rob Zabrecky.

In 1997, Los Angeles native Zabrecky had been in New York to record his third and final major-label album as singer and front man for his band, Possum Dixon. Despite critical raves and a loyal international following, the quirky pop group had never managed to score major radio play and sell the massive units needed to maintain label backing. Far from being distraught over the band’s impending demise, Zabrecky knew exactly what direction his new career would take. In fact, during those last recording sessions, producer Ric Ocasek had to remind Zabrecky that they were there to finish an album and not perfect Zabrecky’s growing arsenal of magic tricks.

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