Numbers by Color: The Maggi, Pierce & E.J. Story

“‘Eclectric’ is very eclectic music and also electric,” Maggi commented in a recent interview. “It incorporates more ideas. Eventually, it will be a category in the music bins.”


Frederick’s Music Lounge has seen plenty of memorable concerts over the past year, by both local and rising national acts. But in December and again in March, some things happened on stage that I’d never seen before—things that were truly fresh, surprising, and offbeat. They were the musical offerings of Maggi, Pierce and E.J., dedicated creators of a brand of carefree, whimsical, folk-pop-country-funk-jugband-swing-rock that is nearly impossible to pin down in terms of a description. The trio has jokingly coined the term “rolk” (rock and folk), or “eclectric.” It’s an entertainingly unique blend.

“‘Eclectric’ is very eclectic music and also electric,” Maggi commented in a recent interview. “It incorporates more ideas. Eventually, it will be a category in the music bins.”

Well, it oughta be—otherwise, no record store divider card could accurately characterize this band’s original style. In almost every way possible, Maggi, Pierce and E.J. defy the rules. They disregard all genre limitations. Their CDs are marketed by colors, not titles, which they shun (save for the latest work, For, which is a poignant tribute to Jeff Buckley). They have a white one, a black one, and a red one—the Buckley tribute is a deep blue color, for symbolism. It’s not a precious conceit; it’s an endearingly simple creative approach that can’t help but tickle one’s fancy. Sorta The Beatles’ White Album taken a few steps further. The band’s logo is a cartoonish line drawing of the trio which looks the same on each disc, giving the works an immediately distinctive identity.

Take those concerts at Fred’s. Ever seen the members of a band trade off on every instrument? Some call it a “Chinese fire drill.” We’re not just talking the guitarist occasionally moving to keyboards or something, which is commonplace. No, we’re talking Maggi, Pierce, and E.J. playing drums, guitar, and bass. Continuously, throughout the show. It was a delight to witness this, and the band saw no need for explanation; they just did it. In fact, on a great song called “Burnin’ the Sun,” E.J. played bass and drums at the same time. When was the last time you saw that at a show?

MPE are overflowing with talent. Their three-part harmonies are clear and tight, with a bit of extra tang that sets them apart. Maggi possesses one of the most vibrant, endearingly sweet voices of any modern female singer; it’s a tribute to her style that points of comparison are few. Their cover of Van Halen’s “Could This Be Magic” is an old-fashioned, wryly entertaining burst of musical joie de vivre which can’t help but charm any attentive audience. Originals like “Linda’s Red Button” (a feel-guilty ode to cable TV overload), “Caliphornia,” “Space” (a sweetly melodic acoustic number from their latest), “One More Time” (a humorous anti-heroin ditty, if you can imagine), and “Stuff” (a remarkably knowing and hypnotic meditation on physical and emotional clutter in one’s life) are uniquely constructed, ear-pleasing compositions that can superficially resemble acts like Dan Hicks, NRBQ, the Roches, and even Abba at times. But all comparisons are approximate; the unpredictable arrangements and rich harmonies are unquestionably MPE’s.

Asked about the stark trademark colors of their discs, E.J. grins. “It came about on the second album, the black one,” he said. “It was a reversal of our first, the white one. We just thought it would be fun. Sometimes we’ll notice we have songs that mention a certain color. So we’ll say, ‘Gotta save it for that one!’”

Discussing his influences, E.J. reveals that his parents had written music, with his father favoring doo wop music such as the Ink Spots, and his mother preferring singer-songwriters like Leonard Cohen and Judy Collins. E.J. himself was into artists as diverse as The Beatles, Frank Zappa (an influence evident in the some of the group’s compositions) and Soundgarden. But as unlikely as it seems, E.J. and Pierce found themselves in a hip-hop group before forming MPE. The two had been childhood friends in their native Philadelphia, and eventually became part of the Ruffhouse/Columbia live hip-hop unit The Goats. Although E.J. recalls it as a fun time, he and Pierce kept fatefully encountering Maggi, in separate circumstances.

“I was in a band called Trickle,” said Maggi. “And they just started sitting in with me from time to time. We had a much better time together than in our other bands. More ideas started to open up. And before long, we’d written a ton of songs.”

Knowing they had something special, the trio began driving a Dodge Ram around the country, playing in small clubs, and building regional followings with their style (or, more accurately, styles), coalescing as they went. Their distinctive live shows and early CDs (White in ’96, Black in ’97, Red in ’98, all self-released) saw both critics and fans becoming enthusiasts—and searching for descriptions.

“Maniacally eccentric, retro and fresh…trippy, twisted and tuneful,” said the Philadelphia Daily News. The Maine Morning Sentinel characterized their sound as “genre-bending blending, jumping from funk to country to rock to folk and back again effortlessly, with an acoustic bend and gorgeous harmonies.” Relix simply called them “zany, psychedelic, and eccentric…”

Their career path took an unexpected turn with the drowning death of Jeff Buckley.

“Jeff’s music was incredibly inspiring to the three of us,” Maggi said. “It’s very deep and emotional…We were all great fans of his, and we wanted to do a tribute.”

“We were starting our red CD, we’d done this song called ‘Bare’,” said E.J. “We were just getting our home studio together. And after Jeff died, we said, let’s put some of these songs together for him. “Burning the Sun” was one of the first. It was really a heartfelt effort.
“We played the disc (For) for his mom. And she loved it. She said it’s one of her travel CDs.”

For, although containing a few whimsical tunes, was a more contemplative effort by MPE, and it revealed the depth and sensitivity they were capable of. “Ferdinand,” “Space,” “Jbird,” and “All Things” were all exquisitely arranged and performed, with Maggi’s voice dominating (nodding a bit to Joni Mitchell and Lambert, Hendricks, and Ross) and acoustic instrumentation such as mandolin, harp, and banjo coming more to the fore. MPE promoted the album heavily, hiring a publicist and touring nonstop. Although crowds ranged from sparse to fanatical, the buzz continued to build. And no group as talented and hard-working as Maggi, Pierce and E.J. will linger on the sidelines for too long.

“We want to get to Europe sometime. People are more open-minded and receptive there. I think we’d catch on.”

For a small contingent at Frederick’s Lounge, and later, Club Three-One-Three in Belleville, they have already. The applause and cheers grow stronger through MPE’s set.

“Here’s a song about a bus!” Maggi shouts as the band launches into a rockabilly tune called “21 Days.” Pierce plays some stinging lead guitar…or was it E.J.? It’s amusing the way this group keeps a listener guessing. In their second show at Fred’s they add Tuba Dan to their lineup, and the fat horn sound definitely increases the NRBQ-ish vibes, as well as adding more silly fun. Dan even “conducts” the band sometimes, climbing on the small counter to do so. Pierce gets to take lead vocals on the Red album’s “Stuff,” which is smooth, rousing, and melancholy all at the same time. E.J. looks a tad like Sgt. Pepper-era George Harrison injected with a bit of Zappa DNA. He jumps around, takes to the counter himself, and plays everything very, very well. Maggi seems quiet and shy until she’s behind the drum kit, tossing out wry asides to the crowd. When she launches into her next vocal, whether it’s the finger-picked, harmony-laced “Space” or the ribtickling “Linda’s Red Button,” the audience is both comforted and entertained. It’s the norm for these Philly folks.

Meanwhile, fans are already beginning to suggest colors for the next collection of MPE tunes. I helpfully suggest green to E.J.
“Some people think green,” he acknowledges. “You could call it green, you could call it purple. It’s a big decision. We get into aqua, so maybe it’ll be aqua. Wouldn’t that be cool?”

Whatever color their fifth album becomes, Maggi, Pierce, and E.J. will always be one color as entertainers: solid gold. And the answer to the question their favorite cover tune asks, “Could This Be Magic?” is a declarative yes, regarding these musical tricksters. Catch ’em soon; the experience will stick with you. More info:

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