Attractive prospects

They may not be household names just yet, but you’ve probably seen this lot on a well-known TV ad. With vocal harmony groups back in vogue thanks to shows like Glee, it’s been a successful year for a cappella six-piece The Magnets, who are touring the UK right now. Music News finds out what gives them the edge

The Magnets can look back and laugh at their boyband past now, but it wasn’t so funny years ago. The London-based group, founded by Nic Doodson and Michael Welton, were briefly signed to EMI and released an album. As young, good-looking guys who intentionally didn’t play musical instruments – despite their collective ability – they were marketed as such. With all the ubiquitous boyband moves and literally all the wrong reasons, they got off to a shaky start.

Assuming the record company knew best, in spite of their better judgment, The Magnets let them take over. “I suppose because we didn’t fight and scream against it, you could say we were complicit in it,” admits Doodson. So the group lived by boyband rules – performing their stereotypical routines on school and mall tours – but they didn’t die by those rules. Even back then they had a USP. “The idea was that we were a ‘boyband’ that could actually sing,” says Welton, “and we weren’t using any instruments, so it wasn’t like we were singing to a backing track or miming.”

Things really got going for The Magnets with the first of their many Edinburgh Festival appearances, according to Welton. “That's when we started to develop a more theatrical show, and a show that appeals to a wider audience,” he says. “Before that, we were doing a lot more original material, and we discovered, or we made a conscious decision, that in Edinburgh we were going to do a lot more cover versions, and we broadened our audience much more quickly.”

Bringing in their own directors and choreographers took the shows up a notch, but for Doodson, introducing vocal percussionist Andy Frost was their key turning point. “Andy came along and that was really when it made a big difference from the harmony ‘barbershoppery’ type. Andy took us to the next level and made us something different and new,” he says. Frost is an actual drummer, which makes all the difference to the music, says Doodson. “To be honest there are other groups like us in the world – there are none in the UK – but to my knowledge, although some of them have beatboxers, none of them has a drummer who does that role.”

Frost stands out for this reason – and some. As timekeeper of the live shows, he summons the energy to perform solo spots as well, something falsetto Steve Trowell says sets him – and The Magnets – apart even more. “There are lots of beatboxers out there who are brilliant for 10 minutes, but they haven’t got the stamina to go for two hours," he says. "No one else in the world is as good at doing vocal percussion as Andy is.” But modest Frost, who confesses to dropping a beat in last night’s show because he’s caught his first cold in four years (!), is quick to share the compliments with his partner in rhythm. “I think the level came up when we got Fraser [Collins, vocal bass],” he says. “It’s really nice after gigs when people say they enjoy what you do, but what I’m really loving is them saying ‘me and Fraser’ because I like it to be a teamwork thing.”

And The Magnets is a collaborative effort. With two main arrangers, everyone makes their contribution and there’s no lead singer; Collins also doubles up as official dance captain. Together the group put their distinct mark on various cover versions and medleys, from Elvis to Adele, determined to uphold a unique sound. But after honing their craft for over a decade, they’ve come full circle and are returning to new tracks. Doodson says: “We’re at an interesting place right now because we’re recording an [original] album at the end of this year. We’ve built an audience based on our cover versions who are probably now ready to hear some more original material – whether that comes from us or from outside songwriters, we now have an audience that is going to listen to our stuff.”

Although, it seems not everyone is open to an a cappella song, especially after a long-haul flight. Trowell discovered this while filming this year's T-Mobile Heathrow airport ads, which featured him, Frost, Collins and new boy Callum McIntosh (the replacement for regular Magnet James Fortune, who is missing the tour on doctor’s orders). As part of a ‘flash mob’ pack the lads sang to passengers at the arrivals gate and didn't always get the reception they're used to. “We nearly got beaten up by this enormous Australian,” he says. “I was trying to put my hand on his shoulder and this guy goes, ‘Look, mate, I don’t know who the f*** you are, but get out of the way’, so we let him go.”

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Photo credit: Richard Dawson