DATE May 9, 2006 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
PROGRAM Fresh Air
Interview: Charlie Savage of the Boston Globe discusses
President Bush's use of signing statements
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
President Bush has never vetoed a bill. But as it turns out, the president
has constitutionally challenged more than 750 laws enacted since he took
office. And he's claimed the authority to bypass those laws. He's done this
by writing addendums to new laws called "presidential signing statements."
This story was first reported at the end of April by my guest Charlie Savage,
legal affairs correspondent for the Boston Globe. Since then, several
newspapers, including The New York Times, have written editorials criticizing
the president for his extensive use of these signing statements. And Senator
Arlen Specter, the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, decided to
schedule an oversight hearing in June.
President Bush has written more signing statements than any other presidents
in history. While he has written 750, his father, George H. W. Bush, wrote
232 in his four years in office. And President Bill Clinton wrote 140 in his
eight years as president. I asked Charlie Savage to explain what a signing
Mr. CHARLIE SAVAGE: A signing statement is not a proclamation in which he
says, `This is a great bill. This is going to help America. Thank you,
Congress, for your hard work.' He also issues those with great fanfare. A
signing statement, in contrast, is a technical, legal document which he files
in the federal record on the day that he signed the bill. It contains his
interpretation of what the law means and what it doesn't mean and instructions
to the federal bureaucracy or the military how they are to implement the law
now that it's taking force. Often in these signing statements, he is making
constitutional objections to statutes and provisions that he thinks intrude on
his own powers as a commander in chief, or the head of executive branch, to
run the government as he sees fit. He has challenged more than 750 laws in
the last five years, saying that the executive branch can ignore all of them
because, in his view, they conflict with the Constitution.
GROSS: He hasn't usually challenged the whole laws but rather sections of the
Mr. SAVAGE: Well, this is a problem of nomenclature. You know, if you have
a giant bill that is thousands of pages long, contains many different laws
within it, many different statues within it, sometimes you refer to the whole
thing as a law, but in fact each section is a law in and of itself. The
Supreme Court might, for example, strike down one law as unconstitutional but
the rest remains.
GROSS: Is there any pattern to the laws that the president has written
signing statements for?
Mr. SAVAGE: Many of the laws that he has challenged involve rules and
regulations for the military and national security. Most famously he has
challenged the constitutionality of the law that forbids US interrogators from
using torture or other forms of cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment
against detainees anywhere in the world. He said that as commander in chief,
only he has the power to set aside that torture ban if he thinks it would
assist in preventing terrorist attacks.
He has also, however, challenged a range of laws which have nothing to do with
national security. He has challenged numerous statues requiring congressional
oversight committees to be given information about how the government is
conducting a certain area of its business. He's challenged affirmative action
provisions that require the government to try to make sure that minorities
receive a share of contracts and grants and jobs. He's challenged
whistle-blower statues, which allow members of the executive branch to speak
out about government wrongdoing without fear of losing their jobs if they tell
Congress about it. He said that only he, as the head of the executive branch,
can decide what information Congress receives. He's challenged safeguards
against political interference in federally funded research. All these things
have nothing to do with national security but are also the kinds of laws that
President Bush has said over the last five years he's not bound to obey.
GROSS: One of laws that he issued a signing statement for included the
creation of an inspector general for Iraq, and this is somebody who has
oversight on how money is being spent in Iraq and how projects are developing.
The President wrote that the inspector shall refrain from investigating any
intelligence or national security matter or any crime the Pentagon says it
prefers to investigate for itself. But isn't part of what the inspector
general is investigating the Pentagon itself and how it's using money?
Mr. SAVAGE: That's correct. The Congress set up a broad ranging inspector
general. In fact, they did this twice: once for the initial phase of the
occupation, and again after the formal transfer of power. Congress set up an
inspector general position that would have the power to go around and uncover
any kind of wrongdoing by US forces and US officials in Iraq. And they
specifically said that no official could get in the way of any inquiry,
investigation, or subpoena that this inspector general wanted to issue. And
in one case also, that if anyone over there tried to interfere in any way or
did not cooperate with this person's inquiries, he was immediately to tell
Congress about it. When President Bush signed the bills containing these
inspector general statutes, he--first of all, as you read--he severely
curtailed what kinds of investigations this inspector general could look at.
And secondly, he said that the inspector general could not, of his own will,
tell Congress anything without the permission of the president and his
GROSS: So isn't that kind of like saying the president doesn't want the
inspector general to investigate the Pentagon, it can ask the Pentagon to
investigate itself instead?
Mr. SAVAGE: That's right. It's a way to keep the inspector general from
being a free agent who might conduct some kind of investigation that would get
out of control from what the president and his appointees wanted to have
investigated. In the context of the second law with the inspector general, in
fact, was five months after the Abu Ghraib prison abuse scandal. It was part
of a large set of new rules and regulations that Congress passed the next time
they made a major military bill in response to that scandal. One of them was
this inspector general law. Another was saying that prison guards around the
world in the military had to be retrained in the Geneva conventions and the
limits on the treatment of prisoners, the humane treatment of prisoners. A
third was that the Pentagon had to create stronger rule for the use of private
contractors, including conducting background checks on private contractors and
barring them from any sort of criminal justice role. And of course, part of
the Abu Ghraib scandal was the use of private contractors as interrogators.
All of those rules and regulations that Congress passed in that bill were
flagged by President Bush, who said that despite what the Constitution said
Congress could do as far as passing rules and regulations for the military,
only he as commander in chief could make such restrictions, and so he could
ignore those laws.
GROSS: President Bush is the first president in modern history who has never
vetoed a bill. He's also set a record for the number of these presidential
signings, over 750 of them, more than any other--I mean, hundreds more than
any other president. Do you think that there's any relationship between the
fact that he's never vetoed a bill and that he has a record number of these
presidential signings that basically say, `I don't have to follow certain
provisions within the law.'
Mr. SAVAGE: It is certainly a very interesting pattern to put alongside each
other. You know, one of the mysteries of this administration for the past
five years has been: Why has President Bush never vetoed a bill? Why is he
the first president since Thomas Jefferson to go this far without using that
power when, in every other respect, he seems to be unusually aggressive about
protecting his executive powers and expanding them. When you read these
signings statements going back for five years and you deconstructed what it is
that they are talking about, it starts to become clear that, in a way, these
are better than vetoes, because, first of all, one can use them to take out
selected bits and pieces of the bill that one does not like while keeping the
rest. Whereas, in a real veto you have to take it all or get rid of it all.
Secondly, Congress has the power to override a real veto, which is one of the
checks and balances that the founders put into the Constitution. A signing
statement is a unilateral final word on what's going to count and what might
as well not have been in the law in the first place.
And the third way in which a signing statement is more powerful, or more
attractive to a president than the veto power that the Constitution gives him,
is that, in practice, signing statements generally pass without notice in the
public, the media, and the Congress. Nobody reads these things, such that you
could see that if President Bush vetoed the torture ban, he would have faced
some political flack for that, a great deal of political flack for that, but
by doing it in the signing statement, he was able to do it almost without
GROSS: And with these signing statements, does the president basically
reserve the right to be the final arbiter of what is constitutional as opposed
to letting that question be settled by the courts?
Mr. SAVAGE: Yes. And this is one of the ways in which President Bush's use
of the signing statements is different than what has come before. In addition
to the fact that he's crushed all previous records in terms of the frequency
with which he's challenging laws, he's also doing so largely in areas that
will never get into court, areas such as national security in which there's
not going to be a plaintiff who has standing to sue and therefore to get a
question before the Supreme Court.
GROSS: So do you have any idea who the president informs after he issues a
signing statement? Does he tell the agencies that are involved with the
statement? Does he tell Congress? Does Congress know when Bush has a signing
statement that he appends to legislation?
Mr. SAVAGE: Congress could know if they chose to look. The signing
statements are public documents. They are filed in the federal record. If
one wanted to, one could go download them all and laboriously read through
them, as I did. But by and large, Congress has not chosen to do that, or even
thought to do that, because these have not been a normal part of our
government system until now to these degree. That does not mean that inside
the executive branch people are not paying very close attention to them,
because if you're ordered to carry out a law in a certain way, you can look to
the signing statements for instruction. Outside of the executive branch,
though, until recently, very few people even knew these existed.
GROSS: How does President Bush's use of these signings compare to a line-item
Mr. SAVAGE: Well, some would argue that he has, in fact, used these as a
line-item veto, an override-proof line-item veto. Technically, the line-item
veto that Congress tried to create in the '90s and which the Supreme Court
ruled was unconstitutional was a more public document, and it was aimed more
at financial matters, budget lines and substantive law, like these are aimed
at. The way that worked was President Clinton would say, `I don't think we
should spend, you know, whatever, a quarter billion on a bridge to nowhere.'
He would strike it out and send it back to Congress, and then Congress would
have notice that he had done that and have a chance to override it. Even
despite that check and balance built into it, the Supreme Court said, `No,
it's unconstitutional.' The way the Constitution works is Congress writes an
entire bill, and the president either takes it or he leaves it. He has to
veto the whole thing or accept it all.
So this seems to be something like a line-item veto on substantive grounds.
He's not knocking out money for things, he's knocking out restrictions on what
he can do, or regulations for the military and the executive branch that he
thinks are his prerogative only to foster. But he, again, he's saying, you
know, `This section, which would be turned into this statute. No, the rest is
OK.' In that sense it is like a line-item veto, except Congress doesn't
generally have notice that he's done it and they have no chance to override
GROSS: My guest is Charlie Savage, legal affairs correspondent for the Boston
Globe. We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
GROSS: My guest is Charlie Savage, legal affairs correspondent for the Boston
Globe. We're talking about a story that he recently broke. President Bush
has issued 750 signing statements, addendums to new laws in which he claims
the right to bypass those laws by challenging their constitutionality.
Do you know what the process is that the president goes through before issuing
a signing statement? Who does he consult with? Who actually writes it?
Mr. SAVAGE: Yes. Obviously President Bush himself is not reading long bills
and singling out provisions that conflict with his interpretation of the
Constitution. Within the White House there is an office called the Office of
Management and Budget, which oversees the crafting of these things, and they
farm out bills to all the various agencies which will be affected by the bill.
And they also have lawyers within the White House Counsels Office, and in the
Justice Department the Office of Legal Counsel, who are also charged with
reviewing these laws and finding these provisions. And then sometimes they
argue amongst themselves about what should in, what should go out, and
eventually there is a final signing statement that is drafted up for the
president to sign. So, in a sense, this is President Bush doing these. It is
certainly in first person and it's his signature on it, and it's his approval
that makes it work. But behind the scenes, it is the product of his legal
team. This is the same legal team which has had a very aggressive view of
presidential power in other aspects that we've seen over the last five years,
including the famous torture memo in which the team came up with the theory
that President Bush, or any president as the commander in chief, could set
aside a pre-existing torture ban, an older torture ban, in the interest of
national security, or could authorize interrogators to use whatever techniques
he felt necessary despite the ban. That memo was a secret, and then after the
Abu Ghraib prison scandal it was leaked, and it caused such an uproar that the
administration had to set it aside. It's the same lawyers that are drafting
things like that that are also drafting these signing statements.
GROSS: Well, speaking of Abu Ghraib, you write that five months after the Abu
Ghraib story broke, Congress passed a series of new rules and regulations for
military prisons. The president signed that and then said he could ignore
Mr. SAVAGE: That's right. Congress passed a series of new laws in reaction
to the Abu Ghraib prison abuse scandal, about five months later. The laws did
such things as require the retraining of military prison guards around the
world in the humane treatment requirements of the Geneva conventions. It
required the military to perform background checks on the contractors that
they had to assist them, because, of course, contractors were some of the
interrogators at Abu Ghraib, as opposed to people who were actually in
uniform. It also required contractors to be banned from those criminal
justice functions. It would keep them out of places like Abu Ghraib. And it
set up an inspector general who was to be charged to look wherever he wanted
to in Iraq and no one would be allowed to interfere with whatever
investigations that he wanted to launch. Bush challenged all of these laws.
He said that only he as commander in chief could set rules and regulations for
military contractors or decide what kind of training prisoner guards needed to
have. And he declared that the inspector general shall not investigate
anything to do with intelligence, national security or anything that the
Pentagon had decided that it would investigate itself.
GROSS: What's the writing like in these statements?
Mr. SAVAGE: It's extremely difficult to deconstruct. President Bush does
not say, `I'm the commander in chief. I have to protect national security so
regardless of what Congress says, I can waive the torture ban.' It's full of
terms like the "unitary executive theory," "the executive branch shall
construe this clause consistent with my constitutional authority to," you
know, "run the unitary executive and as commander in chief to the armed
services." You say, what does that mean? Eventually you recognize the code
words for `I'm the commander in chief' or `I have absolute control over
executive branch officials and Congress cannot fracture that control despite
numerous Supreme Court Rulings from the '30s to the '80s saying that Congress
can't, in fact, give executive branch officials independence.'
So it's not something that can be done easily. And in addition, it does not
say, you know, `This provision says I can't torture but I can.' It says, you
know, `Section 506 pertains to the treatment of detainees or purports to
acquire information.' And you have to go and look at those sections. And
you're like, `Oh, this is the torture ban.' Or. `This is a whistle-blower
statute.' And so even though they are public documents, they're written in
very vague ways and very dense ways which interferes with the ability, I
think, of people to easily grasp what they're talking about, which may explain
in part why Congress paid so little attention to them over the last five
GROSS: Well, your article has had, I think, quite a ripple effect. There
have been editorials, including one in The New York Times. Senator Arlen
Specter, who's the head of the Judiciary Committee, said he's going to hold an
oversight hearing in June. Do you think that Senator Specter didn't know
about the signings until you wrote about them?
Mr. SAVAGE: I think that no one in Congress knew about the signings and paid
any attention to them until, first, the torture ban. That was the one that
really sort of caught everyone by surprise, and one had to explain what the
signing statements were, in fact. And then, there were a few senators who
spoke out about that, saying, `Well, wait a minute, this isn't right.' John
McCain, John Warner and Lindsey Graham, all Republicans, who had been
principal sponsors of the torture ban. And then the issue receded again until
I wrote about the Patriot Act signing statement and that caused another
But, again, until that last Sunday piece, which had the much greater details
about dozens and dozens and dozens in the aggregate numbers, I think no one in
Congress or otherwise had grasped the extent to which this has been a
pervasive strategy by this White House to impinge on the power of Congress to
write the laws of the country. And several lawmakers have even said to the
extent, you know, after the domestic wiretapping program, that we had some
indication that this particular president had a very aggressive view of his
powers, especially wartime powers, to set aside laws, but the extent of it is
only now starting to sink in on the Hill, I think.
GROSS: It seems almost paradoxical that President Bush has used hundreds more
of these signings than any other president in history, but at the same time,
he has, you know, a Republican majority in the House and the Senate. He's
just put two appointees on the Supreme Court. So he has two of his own
appointees in the Supreme Court. You'd think, in some ways, he'd be the
president least likely to need these signings.
Mr. SAVAGE: It is remarkable, given the political climate of this town and
the control of both chambers in Congress by his fellow Republicans that he has
nonetheless adopted this very aggressive strategy. It shows the degree to
which he, and with him Vice President Cheney, are interested in pushing a very
powerful presidency and expanding the power of the president to run the
government as he sees fit. And Vice President Cheney, who came out of the
Ford administration following Watergate, has said in public repeatedly that he
thinks that the powers of the president were eroded after Watergate, that it
went too far and that part of his agenda is to restore the power of the
president, leave it stronger than it was when he took office. In the fight
over his Energy Task Force papers, we saw one aspect of that, which is
expanding the degree of the White House to control information and to shield
information from the public, in order to free itself to do what it wishes in a
more unrestrained manner. These signing statements are another major prong of
that strategy, that's clear.
GROSS: Charlie Savage is legal affairs correspondent for the Boston Globe.
He'll be back in the second half of the show. I'm Terry Gross and this is
GROSS: Coming up, catchy harmonies and hooks from the band The Magic Numbers.
We talk with singer, guitarist and songwriter Romeo Stodart, and we continue
our conversation about President Bush's signing statements with Charlie Savage
of the Boston Globe.
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with Charlie Savage, legal
affairs correspondent for the Boston Globe. We're talking about the story he
recently broke. President Bush has issued over 750 signing statements,
addendums to new laws in which he claims the right to bypass those laws by
challenging their constitutionality. After Savage's story was published,
Senator Arlen Specter said he would hold an oversight hearing in June.
I'm wondering if you know if any Republican members of Congress see the
president's signings as a threat against Congressional power and if
Republicans in Congress now think that the president is expanding presidential
power at the expense of Congress.
Mr. SAVAGE: Well, certainly Senator Specter has said exactly that. When I
talked to him a week ago and he announced that he was going to have this
hearing next month, he said that this is a fairly blatant violation of the
separation of powers and a slap in the face to Congress, essentially to
Congress's power to write the laws. And that Senator Lindsey Graham earlier,
during the torture debate, also said he did not think any elected official,
including the president, had the power to set aside a law that had been duly
enacted. So this is a theme which is starting to be picked up even among
Republicans on the Hill.
GROSS: Has the White House had any response to your articles about the
Mr. SAVAGE: When I was preparing, as I said, the torture act story back in
January--sorry, the torture ban story, I was able to get on the phone with an
attorney in the White House, have a genuine conversation about what was being
said here and why. After that, they've been very uninterested in explaining
themselves any further.
They have a talking point that each time I call them and I say, `All right.
I'm doing another story on this. What would your response be? You know,
would you like to talk about it?' The talking point is, `Previous
administrations have done this, as well, and the president intends to
faithfully follow these laws in a manner that is consistent with the
Constitution.' Both of those talking points, of course, are misleading because
the president intends to follow a law in a manner consistent with the
Constitution means he intends not to follow the law if he thinks it's
inconsistent with the Constitution and he's affording himself the right to
interpret the Constitution as he sees fit. And previous presidents have done
this, that's true, but no previous president has done this anywhere near as
frequently or as aggressively as this president. And no previous president
has done this while also abandoning their veto power.
GROSS: One of the stories you're covering now is the president's nomination
of Michael Hayden to head the CIA. Now, Hayden headed the National Security
Agency when the president authorized the NSA to eavesdrop on the phone calls
of Americans speaking to suspected terrorists abroad, and the president says
that his wartime powers gave him the right to ignore the 1978 Surveillance Act
that requires warrants. Do you think that in the confirmation hearings for
Michael Hayden that questions about the president's signings will come up or,
you know, larger issues about the president's interpretation of his own right
to judge what is constitutional?
Mr. SAVAGE: Certainly a number of lawmakers have already said that the
nomination of General Hayden to be the director of the CIA presents a new
opportunity for Congress to find out more about how the domestic wiretapping
program works and whether, in fact, it is illegal. Senator Specter, the
Republican who heads the Senate Judiciary Committee, has had four hearings
attempting to answer these questions, and the administration has essentially
stonewalled him, and he's complaining he just does not know how to do his job.
It is his job to ascertain whether the president has gone too far here. He
has not been given the information to do that.
With the nomination of General Hayden, who devised the program, implemented it
for President Bush and became one of its chief defenders in its public phase
after the program's existence was disclosed in December, Congress has a new
opportunity to return to the question of the spying program. Now, several
months ago when this was a hot issue initially, the question of whether or not
a president has the power to set aside a law because we're at war and he has
wartime powers was obscured because the rhetoric shifted to, `Is this program
a good idea or not?' And anyone who was critical of the program was positioned
as being soft on terrorism. `You don't want to listen to Osama bin Laden's
phone calls?' That was not the point. It is not the point. The point is, is
it a good idea for a president to have the power to set aside a law in secret
whenever he thinks doing so would help national security?
But that's a complex question, and it's harder to convey that than it is, `Is
it a good idea to listen to Osama bin Laden's phone calls?' So we will see in
the Hayden confirmation hearing whether the skeptics about the program, the
skeptics about the legality of the program separate from the merits of the
program, are able to do a better job of conveying to the public what it is
we're talking about or whether they get sidetracked again by defenders of the
administration who will simply use it as tool to beat them up for being
allegedly soft on terrorists.
GROSS: Are you going to continue to follow this story?
Mr. SAVAGE: Well, I'm fascinated by this story. I think it's a good one.
And with Senator Specter calling hearings next month, it certainly has one
more month of legs in it. Beyond that we'll see.
GROSS: Well, thank you very much for talking with us.
Mr. SAVAGE: Well, thanks for having me on.
GROSS: Charlie Savage is the legal affairs correspondent for the Boston
Globe. You can find a link to his article about the president's signings
statements on our Web site freshair.npr.org. You'll also find there a link to
a government Web site where you can search for the president's signing
Coming up, catchy hooks and harmonies from The Magic Numbers. We talk with
songwriter and singer Romeo Stodart. This is Fresh Air.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Interview: Romeo Stodart of The Magic Numbers discusses his life,
career and new CD
TERRY GROSS, host:
The Magic Numbers had several top 20s hits in the UK. When their debut album
was released in the states last year, rock critic Jim Fusilli wrote in The
Wall Street Journal, "To call it the debut album of the year might not be
The Magic Numbers is made up of two sets of siblings. My guest Romeo Stodart
sings, plays guitar and writes songs. He and his sister are originally from
Trinidad, then moved to New York, then London. Their song "Love Me Like You"
went to number 12 in England. It's got catchy hand claps and backup vocals.
Let's hear what Romeo Stodart has to say about writing it, then we'll hear it.
Mr. ROMEO STODART: Actually when I was writing the song, I had this sort of
background in mind for this one, and in the bridge there's this, like it's a
real kind of intense building thing, and Michele started--we had like "Don't
fail me now" is like the lyric. And it's kind of like, you know, I'm sort of
at the point where it's like breaking point. Where it's just like, it just
really kind of getting to me kind of thing, and she's just building this line,
"Don't bother me now, don't bother me now." Round and round, it just adds to
the kind of intensity. And I think lyrically the song was probably the most
kind of difficult to bring to the band mainly because it was like really
personal, yeah, and I think they kind of felt like--they didn't really talk to
me about what the lyrics meant. They just, `Kind of like, OK.' But, yeah,
it's a great one to play though. I'm really proud of it.
GROSS: Too personal for you to tell us about?
Mr. STODART: Well, it's just kind of--I used to be in a relationship with,
for like eight years, with Sean and Angela's sister.
Mr. STODART: So, yeah. And so the song was kind of about, like, the end of
that and--but also like I was sort of now starting like a new relationship
with someone, so it was kind of--and the line was "She don't love me like
you." So it was kind of--and I've never--you know, it's kind of like, I don't
know, strange to talk about. But certain songs, you know, are kind of harder
to bring to the band, especially like at that point when our relationship had
finished and stuff.
GROSS: Wow! What a set of interconnections and complications.
Mr. STODART: Yeah.
GROSS: Yeah. Well, I think it's time to hear the song.
Mr. STODART: OK.
GROSS: This is "Love Me Like You" and this is The Magic Numbers. My guest
Romeo Stodart wrote the song and sings it.
(Soundbite of "Love Me Like You")
Mr. STODART: (Singing) All those years gone by, I only want to find a way to
make it hard for you.
She'll never forget if the way that she wished she don't feel the same. I
only want to find a way to make it hard for you. She'll never forget if the
way that she wished she don't feel the same. I only want to find a way to
make it hard for you.
MICHELE: (Singing) Don't fail me now. Don't fail me now. Don't fail me now.
Mr. STODART: She'll never forget if the way that she wished she don't feel
no pain. I only want to find a way to make it up to you. She'll never forget
if the way that she wished she don't feel the same. No, I only want to find a
MICHELE: (Singing) Don't fail me. Don't fail me.
Mr. STODART: (Singing) I only want to fi-nd, I only want to fi-nd
She don't love me like you. She don't love me like you. She don't love me
like you. She don't love me like you. She don't love, no she don't.
(End of soundbite)
GROSS: That's The Magic Numbers "Love Me Like You" from their CD "The Magic
Numbers." And my guest Romeo Stodart is their lead singer and the lead
songwriter of the group. And he wrote the song that we just heard.
Great, great song. Great record. How did you name the band The Magic
Mr. STODART: We had, like, a list of different names and some were really,
really awful and...
GROSS: For example? For example?
Mr. STODART: ...the band--well, myself and Sean were in a band till about
six years before called Guess, and everyone we'd tell like, `So what's the
name of your band?' And we're like, `Guess.' And they're like, `Oh, all right.
I don't know.' It was just like this--it was a silly joke at the start but,
like, you know, for that long a time using the name, it wasn't funny anymore.
But, yeah, and I don't know, I just kind of thought The Magic Numbers sounded
like a real kind of classic name that no one had used before. And I was
surprised because, I don't know, it just sort of just had a sort of kind of
like a gang mentality, like, I don't know, like The Rolling Stones or, I don't
know, like the Lovin' Spoonful. The Magic Numbers, I just really loved the
name. And I thought it really worked in with our characters, like the four of
us, just kind of...(unintelligible)...something that I liked.
GROSS: You and your sister grew up in Trinidad. How did your family first
Mr. STODART: Well, my mum and dad were actually born in Trinidad.
Mr. STODART: And so they had us there and my granny's kind of Venezuelan
pioneers. And my dad's dad is Scottish and, yeah, I mean, I lived there till
I was 11, and then I moved to New York. And I guess Michele was about five or
Mr. STODART: But, yeah, I guess it made us who we are, like, living there
and just kind of growing up as well because there was this real sort of
togetherness, like, I mean, everyone kind of knew each other, like where we
lived, and it was just real kind of laid back, as you can imagine living in
the Caribbean, beaches and everyone just sort of chilling out, as they would
say, "liming," liming was like hanging out. And, yeah, and I just had a lot
of fun there, and then leaving to New York was, I guess, this huge eye opener
that I kind of needed at that point, which was I just kind of felt like I
could do anything then, when I moved. Like I'd see Manhattan and I'd just see
this like mad life that I kind of just only seen on TV. I kind of never
thought I would experience it, so.
GROSS: I think when you moved from Trinidad, it was right after a failed
coup. Is that right?
Mr. STODART: Yeah.
GROSS: Was that a frightening time to be living in a country when there's a
Mr. STODART: Yeah. It was really scary. Because I remember just, well, we
had the TV on and this news presenter that I'd sort of grown up with, seeing
him over the years, like he had like a gun to his head and stuff. It's a
little bit like crazy. And then there was like the curfew, like, I think it
was like 7:00 and you couldn't leave the house unless you'd get shot. And
they'd have like these huge kind of almost, yeah, just these huge trucks with
like 20 sort of people in them, 20 guys with guns like driving around your
house. It was totally scary.
And then our uncle had seen it on the news in New York. He worked there.
Maybe I should come over and sort of stay. You know, `My business is doing
really well and, you know.' He was kind of doing huge parties for like the
Grammys and Madonna. And, you know, he was kind of like a celebrity kind of
florist designer kind of thing. And he was like, `Come and work with us, like
mom and dad, and come and work with us and get away from Trinidad for a
while.' And we were like, `Yeah, OK, cool.' And it's kind of--my parents were
always very sort of like impulsive. And even now it's like, `OK, let's do
that.' And the next thing you know we're living in New York.
GROSS: So were you already writing songs at this point and interested in
being in a band?
Mr. STODART: Yeah. I kind of--when I was even in Trinidad like around eight
or nine, my granny had a piano and she didn't play it anymore, and she would
always say, `Go over to the piano, and just kind of hit, you know, a couple of
white notes and black notes and make up a little song.' You know? So she kind
of was the person that kind of got me into writing. So I would just make
little songs up for her, write little tunes. And she'd be like, you
know--she's obviously love it because I was here grandchild. And then I found
myself going to the piano even when she wouldn't ask me, and I would make
little things up. And then when I moved to New York, I bought a guitar when I
was like 15, just before moving to London. And that's when, I guess, I
started writing the words, and really kind of thinking, 'OK, all my friends
are in bands.' And this bug that I've had for years, like, you know from like
seven or something, of wanting to play music and just being obsessed with
music. I just knew that it wasn't going to go, so I was like, `I'm going to
buy a guitar and learn, learn and master it.'
GROSS: So it sounds like you had a real musical family. Your grandmother
encouraged you to write songs. Your mother used to get everybody singing when
they came to the house. Your mother used like host a TV show in Trinidad? It
sounded like a local version of "Star Search," or something.
Mr. STODART: It was kind of like that, but she didn't actually host it.
That's kind of been...
GROSS: Oh, that's a mistake then.
Mr. STODART: Yeah, she sort of appeared on the program for five weeks
running, which was kind of unheard of at that time, because usually people
just go on every week, but they loved her a lot and people would invite her
back and stuff. And in the end, she--I guess it was unheard of because it was
predominantly kind of reggae or calypso that appeared on the show and she sang
like opera, so she would sing, like, now and again she'd sing like a Burt
Bacharach song or a Jimmy Webb song, but mostly it would be like Italian opera
or something, which she still sings like around the house. I'm like, `I don't
even know what the hell she's singing but it sounds great.' You know? I'm
like, OK. I don't even know if she knows anymore. She just knows the song.
But, yeah, so kind of--music was just always around. And then my other uncle
who I grew up as well in Trinidad, he was really into country music, and that
had a huge effect on me because, you know, I remember Patsy Cline "I Fall to
Pieces." He would stick this record on all the time. He had like like a
little seven inch, and would just sit round and they would cry their eyes out
listening to this song. And I thought it was beautiful and I, you know, I
understood it a little, but I just--it kind of just blew me away that they
would just put this on and all of a sudden the mood would change and everybody
would be, you know, sad and crying. So I use to go and stick it on and listen
to it. And I just kind of just felt, `Wow, the music's really powerful.' And
you know, it just kind of stayed with me. And to be honest, whenever I hear
that song now, because I knew my granny--one of my granny's and my uncle's
favorite song, and they've both passed away, and whenever I hear it I always
think back at that time. And it does kind of make me sad. So it's kind of
gone full circle like.
GROSS: My guest is Romeo Stodart of The Magic Numbers. Here's another track
from their debut album "The Magic Numbers."
(Soundbite of "The Magic Numbers" CD)
Mr. STODART: (Singing) You're in denial, you're in denial. And I know.
Well what's my name? Well what's my name? I don't know.
Baby if you telephone, maybe I can meet you in the morning. Call me if you're
on your own, and maybe I can meet you in the morning.
You're in denial, you're in denial, and I know. Well, what's my name. Well,
what's my name?
(End of soundbite)
GROSS: We'll talk more with Romeo Stodart of The Magic Numbers after a break.
This is Fresh Air.
GROSS: My guest is Romeo Stodart of The Magic Numbers. He sings, plays
guitar and writes songs. His sister is also in the band. Their mother sang
on TV in Trinidad when they were growing up.
I guess you grew up in an atmosphere that made singing seem like just a really
natural thing that everybody does.
Mr. STODART: Yeah, I think so, yeah. Definitely. But funny enough, I
didn't--although I would do it at home, like my whole intention was kind of,
you know, I was writing songs, but I was playing the guitar. And my whole
thing was like, `I just want to play guitar in a band.' I wanted to be like,
you know--growing up I was into like Guns N' Roses. And I was like, `Yeah,
you know, I'll be like Slash.' You know, the cool guitar player in the back
and whatever. And I didn't really want to ever sort of like front a band or
be the singer or whatever.
GROSS: You said you didn't really want to front a band. I just want to read
you something--I don't know if you've seen this--that was written about the
band in GQ. And this was like at the end of 2005 when your CD was released in
"Chubby and hairy are not the words that usually come to mind when describing
the latest it rock act, but The Magic Numbers, this year's most exciting
British band, certainly fit the description." What's your reaction when you
Mr. STODART: You know, I kind of read that a lot. Like, I try not to read a
lot of the sort of press, but whenever I come home or like friends always say,
`Ah, yeah, check this out. This was in the Guardian or whatever.' And, you
know, you read it. So, but, and that, you know, that comes up a lot, like, of
course, "chubby and hairy," or, you know, `the unlikely looking band' or
whatever. And, I don't know, I kind of--I somehow probably thought it would
affect me more. But, you know, it's--I am chubby and I am hairy, so. But,
you know, so it's not like, I guess, I actually personally get a little bit
kind of bored of just seeing bands and they all kind of look the same. And
especially like we go places, we do like festivals and you've got like 50
other bands and they all look exactly the same, like models from, `This is
indy band number one.' Like this kind of haircut with like, you know, page
one, like, you know, this tiny skinny tie and this kind of shirt, and they
walk a certain way. And it's like--it just gets a little kind of tedious,
really. Whereas, you know, I think, probably, as well as our music being just
the driving force of everything that's happened for us and especially with the
live shows, I think, on the other side, I think, it's probably been
refreshing, that, you know, we've kind of come out from nowhere and not, you
know, had to adapt to anything. You know, it's kind of like, `This is us.
Accept us. And that's it.'
GROSS: Well, I want to close with another track from your debut CD. And this
track is called "Long Legs," another one of the songs that you wrote. Do you
want to say anything about it before we hear it?
Mr. STODART: Yeah. "Long Legs" is probably one of the first of the kind of
faster songs that we were writing, because before that, we would do a lot of
shows and it was kind of more stripped down, acoustic guitar and we had this
girl playing violin, and Sean would be on brushes and stuff. And then I kind
of--I play the banjo and I love playing banjo, like brush and banjo. And I
remember I was just hanging out one night, myself, Sean, and our friend Steve
in this nearby graveyard. It sounds kind of dark, but we, you know, we
couldn't make noise at home so we were like, `Oh, let's just like take some
instruments, take like a mandolin, and a bouzouki and banjo, and let's just
like go find a quiet spot.' So we found--and this song came out of like a late
night drinking session, about 4 in the morning. And this song just came out
and I thought, 'Wow, this is great.' And then I kind of remembered it the next
day and then we started working on. And it's a fun one to play live, as well.
GROSS: Did you teach yourself how to play banjo?
Mr. STODART: Yeah, like myself and my friend Steve. He plays banjo, so he
showed me a few little things. But it's great for coming up with like little
hooks and I like the guitar and...(makes guitar sounds), that's like a little
banjo fill that I did. And then when I had to do it on the guitar, I was
like, `Oh, like cool.' So it's nice. I love writing on different instruments.
Like when I write on the piano, it's always nice, too, because with the guitar
I kind of know it so well, so I know what chords to go to, almost, before I go
to them. Like I can think, `Oh, yeah, I'll do like a minor here or
something.' And my hand just kind of immediately does it. Whereas I find more
little accidents and, you know, sort of, it's a lot freer basically like on
GROSS: Harder to slip into the more predictable thing...
Mr. STODART: Yeah.
GROSS:...on an instrument you don't know as well. Yeah.
Mr. STODART: Yeah, yeah, yeah, totally.
GROSS: Well, thank you so much for talking with us.
Mr. STODART: Thank you very much, Terry. Thanks.
GROSS: Romeo Stodart is the guitarist and lead singer and songwriter of The
Magic Numbers. And here is "Long Legs" from their debut CD.
(Soundbite of "Long Legs")
Mr. STODART: (Singing) Long legs, don't give me no headrush in the morning.
Oh baby, too bad, too bad I don't think I'll ever see your face again.
And I don't wanna lose your love.
ANGELA and MICHELLE: (Singing in unison) Lose your love.
Mr. STODART: (Singing) And I don't wanna choose just once. I've been having
too much fun. Oh.
Oh, it's bad, too bad. I don't think I'll ever feel the same again. Oh baby,
baby, I'll beg, I'll beg, cause I found it but I don't know what it is.
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