Elliott Douglas was “partway through writing the songs for the record when I realized there was an overarching theme,” says the musical chameleon, known professionally as M.A.G.S. His forthcoming debut album, titled Say Things That Matter, catalogues every inch of his personal growth over the last few years, from new found independence, both from moving away from his family and divorce, to learning to love himself again.
“I realized it wasn’t very productive to be down on myself all the time and undersell my abilities. One of the things that I strive for as an artist is to stay humble, and I tend to keep myself in check, maybe even a little too much. I don’t ever want to seem like I’m being too flashy or trying to give off this perception or image,” Douglas tells American Songwriter over a phone call earlier this summer. “I think I write good songs, but I wasn’t necessarily in the braggadocious mentality about it. Sometimes, it would take me into this bit of a darker place where I would think, ‘Well, maybe your songs really aren’t that good,’ or ‘You know, maybe your singing voice isn’t all that great.’ It all compounds on itself.”
While a personal transformation and his songwriting developed separately, they are forever bound and tied. 14 tracks, including a meditative oceanic interlude, invite the listener to disengage with the modern world, even if only for 40 minutes, perhaps alighting upon their own deeply-affecting self discoveries. Where “Choked Out” wiggles with sweaty bass, as Douglas unleashes a cry for richer self-love, “Metaphors,” a 37-second supernova, slips from the speakers with a vintage, lo-if radiance.
The album’s middle chunk一running from “Golden” to “Interlude” to “Beach Love,” Douglas’ favorite sequence一is immersive and wholly rejuvenating, gifting the listener a chance to breathe before nose-diving into such hard-biting entries as “Beg.”
“I’m obsessed with the ocean. That kind of energy is really special to me,” says Douglas about lifting actual ocean sounds for the album centerpiece. With “Golden,” emanating a sort of twinkling warmth amidst jangling drums, he imagined “being on the beach around sunset. I have a lot of connections with music to color and patterns. For that one, I see a lot of deep oranges, reds, yellows, and blues. It’s a very visual song for me. I wanted to have this little moment right in the middle of the record where you can take a deep breath.
“We come from nature. If you let yourself, you can be one with everything around you and tap into the energy of the living things in nature. It’s really easy to forget that, especially living in LA because there’s so much concrete,” he continues, detailing his love of nature. “So, I really appreciate being able to just go to the beach whenever I want, sit, and look at the water and hear the sounds.”
“Beg,” unraveling with only Douglas howling over barbed chords, eventually erupting into a messy garage-rock moment, is “actually a little bit of a sleeper,” he observes. Written around the time of “Choked Out” and another cut called “Wait,” the song sprouted out of a deep reverie. “I woke up one day, and I had the riff for the chorus in my head,” he says. He immediately made a demo of the chorus and then shelved it for six months. “It’s actually kind of an amalgamation of a bunch of different songs.”
When scrounging around a shoebox of odds and ends, Douglas stumbled upon an old iPhone 4, on which he discovered a series of voice memos. One of those audio bites became the melody for the second verse, and soon he was off to the races again. “That song flourished in the mixing stage. I had all the parts, and I knew it was gonna be heavy. And I knew it was gonna be dynamic. But when I recorded it, I had the guitars and the bass and the drums and everything.” Then, he contextualized it further, beefing it up with synthesizers and various other elements, to give the song a sort of propulsive emission.
In writing and recording “Wait,” which, he says, “started the whole process” of the album, he couldn’t seem to get it right for the longest time. With a chorus originally written back in 2015, the bright, sparkling indie-rock jam returned to the forefront of his creative mind in 2019. “All of the other songs are very loosely based on this one,” he says. Once he cut a rough demo, he sent it to his manager, who listened to it over and over and over again before calling him back. They passed the demo, which only existed as half a song at this point, to some industry insiders and the reaction was something fierce.
By March 2020, he finished the second half of the song and quickly hit a studio in Long Beach. When he returned to a separate studio a few months later, to lay down the remaining album tracks, he toyed with re-recording “Wait” altogether right then and there. “I played all the other songs on the album with a different energy than what I played [this song] with. Later that year, when I was going to mix all the songs, I got to this and it wasn’t quite hitting me the same way,” he says. “I thought, ‘Okay, I’ll just record the guitars.’ I re-recorded the guitars, and then I thought, ‘Oh, well, maybe I’ll just re-record the bass, too, because I think I can get a better bass tone now than I did even at the studio.’”
It was late December when Douglas was expected to hand in a completed album一and “Wait” still wasn’t done. “I thought, ‘I have to re-record these drums, too.’ And so I ended up re-recording the drums. It took me a really long time to get the mix. I knew what I wanted it to sound like,” he says. Once he got the green light for an album extension, he continued hammering away the dents, final tweaks to get the song exactly where it needed to be.
“I thought, ‘If it’s not right, I’m gonna hate myself forever.’ That’s just the reality of it. That’s one of the things about being a self-produced artist. It’s really hard to just call it when it’s done,” he says. “I remember first hearing the mastered version, and I got emotional. The thing that I loved about the demo was that it almost gave us an off-the-rails kind of feeling一or it was about to fall apart or break at any second. I wanted to recapture that in the album version. I wanted to do it in a little bit more of a controlled way. I wanted to be able to control how much it sounded like it was breaking, versus just doing a demo in my apartment and it sounds like it’s broken because I’m using bad gear.”
Say Things That Matter is a long time coming一and certainly well worth the wait. “I’m finally stepping into the sound that I’ve been developing since I’ve been making music. I feel like it’s all been building to this,” says the singer-songwriter, originally from Buffalo.
Having grown up in the church (his father was a pastor, while his mother led the children’s choir), Douglas could only ever listen to religious or contemporary Christian music. Ironically, it was the first album he ever bought, one from Christian rock group P.O.D., that became a gateway into a vast musical wonderland of real guitars and drums thrashing around in the mix. “I just wanted to hear music with guitars that had distortion and heavy drums. It was a doorway that I wanted to step through. It had been waved in front of me for a long time and to buy that album… I could finally experience this. It opened me up to a bunch of other stuff.”
Later, he discovered “some heavier stuff” like Circa Survive, another turning point that propelled him to learn guitar. He became heavily into the punk and hardcore scene, some of which leaned to the Christian side, but it was evident there was no turning back. He’d already learned drums, so it was only a matter of time. “A lot of my friends were from church, and I had one friend in my neighborhood. He showed me a bunch of Warped Tour compilations, so that’s where I started developing a taste for other kinds of music.”
And the rest is history.
Say Things That Matter not only matters as a personal artistic statement for M.A.G.S., but arrives as one of the year’s brightest hotspots. From the sexual charge of “Smile” to the soothing lift-off in closer “Sunrise,” the record rips you into its gravitational orbit, whether you’re ready for it or not.
In support of the record, due August 13, Douglas heads out on his first proper tour as M.A.G.S. this fall. “I’m excited to finally get to go out and play for people in this capacity. It’s one thing to do it in your hometown to your family and friends, and they’re going to give you positive feedback. But to be able to go to different places and have different experiences with different people, that’s what I’m most excited about.
“Performing takes a lot of muscles that if you don’t use them, they go away. I’ve got some time to prepare, but it’s about getting strong physically and mentally 一 getting back into the mindset of being a performer,” he says. “I never used to get nervous about playing shows, but after the year or so that we’ve had, pushing forward really quickly all of a sudden does add some pressure. My mom always says that even if you’re scared or nervous, just do it anyway. And you’ll find out how strong you really are. I’m not too worried, but I am a little nervous.”