When he calls me from his Brisbane hotel Romeo Stodart identifies himself as Romeo Magic Numbers. Is this how he checks into hotels?
“Oh no, no,” he says. “I use my full name, Romeo Sir Magic Numbers.”
And fair enough too. If he’s not yet a knight of the realm, can it only be a matter of time? After all Stodart and his sister Michele, who along with the Gannon siblings Sean and Angela, have been pop-harmony-folk-rock hybrids The Magic Numbers for 17 years, have done their bit for Britain’s colonial connections, up to and including their most recent album, Outsiders.
The Stodarts grew up in Trinidad and then the USA before moving to west London in their teens (and have clocked up several visits to the Antipodean colonies, before this month’s tour). Not sure if they’ve flown the flag everywhere but that’s a good multi-national, journey through the empire effort don’t you think? Definitely worth an MBE at the very least for the band whose self-titled debut was a top 10 success, with singles like Love Me Like You, and whose second, Those The Brokes, peaked just outside the 10.
The flipside to this, as might be suggested by the name of that last album, is that Romeo and Michele were the white kids in Trinidad, the West Indian kids in New York and then the music-obsessed weirdos with the accents in London. Being an outsider is a lifelong condition for them.
What does being an outsider mean though? Is it isolation and exclusion, or inward focus and intensity? Is it even a bad thing?
“I don’t find it is a bad thing at all really,” says Stodart. “That’s the thing I’ve learnt as I’ve gotten older, that I remove myself from situations. I think as a songwriter you have to be always on the outside of things, looking in, observing people. You are 100% in the moment but then your other head [he chuckles] is looking in and going ‘what are you doing?’.”
The two-headed Romeo is an image to conjure with and maybe disturb. Not for him though; he’s been dealing with this a while, and it may even come in handy as a post-colonial, post-European Brit these days.
“This is my life,” he says. “All of my life I’ve had to try to fit in and restart. Now, in the UK, there is a weird thing happening with Brexit that’s a displacement and it kind of hit home about myself. But there’s a power in the outsider, in the individual not wanting to conform. There are strengths in that, for sure.”
Getting out of his own head though has been part of the process for the band’s fifth album, with Stodart, who has often written very personal material, turning to characters this time around. Well at least we have to assume they are characters, unless the four are actually an all-female bike gang on their dream machines, as described in Ride Against The Wind.
But then who are The Magic Numbers? If you were new to the band with Outsiders you might wonder are they the group who do a solid rock song in Sweet Divide, or the glammed up ones in Shotgun Wedding? Do they come from a world where Prefab Sprout play a Ronnettes song, as seems to be happening with Dreamers, or is Power Lines, a gorgeous Dusty Springfield-style soul ballad, what we should expect?
“I like all of those things you describe, and I like that we are often misunderstood,” says Stodart. “That’s always been a part of what we do: soul music, country music, folk music, pop music, harmony groups. For me they are just songs and they take on an arrangement that they want.”
So, uniformity is not the go, and being an outsider is nowhere near as bad as might be suggested. What then might we make of the final song of the record, Sing Me A Rebel Song, which in its gentleness is the most unlikely sounding song of rebellion? You won’t storm the barricades with that ringing in your ears.
But then it’s not really clear that rebellion is what it’s about so much as finding a purpose, having a reason to believe.
“I grew up like a real loner, in my room, not many friends, and just threw myself into playing the guitar,” Stodart says. “That was something I clung to, that was my purpose from the age of seven. Then there I was [as an adult] pursuing this thing that was going to make everything right. So having to deal with things that were not going as well had me questioning then why are you chasing this, what is this?
“Sorry, I’m going on a bit of a mad one with this question, but with Sing Me A Rebel Song, it was going back and finding that moment, that thing that makes you feel something and believe in something and close your eyes and lose yourself in something. Music was that for me but it’s not the main thing anymore. I had never been a relationship where I could be myself 100%, though I thought I had, but the person who taught me that was my son, who is seven years old. He has taught me this other love.”
Actually, that’s way better than an MBE isn’t it? Better even than a knighthood.
The Magic Numbers play The Corner Hotel, Melbourne, March 22; Factory Theatre, Sydney, March 23; The Gov, Adelaide, March 26; Capitol, Perth, March 27.