The Story Behind an Unlikely Pop Musical, and the Musician Couple Who Made It Happen

During this year’s Dallas Observer Music Awards Showcase, Home by Hovercraft owned the stage at Club Dada with their effusive, anthemic pop. They appeared too experienced for a band that had just landed on the scene — and for good reason. Home by Hovercraft’s long and peculiar genesis is reminiscent of what famously buoyant PBS artist Bob Ross would call “a happy accident.” To put it another way: when life hands you a marriage, a vintage xylophone, an Irish step-dancing sister, and a tuba you do not know how to play, start a band.

Husband and Wife Seth and Shawn Magill go way back, back to Shawn’s East Dallas backyard, where Seth and his family rented a converted garage-apartment when he was three years old. Both families moved around, but remained close friends. When Seth and Shawn finally got married in 2000, their families, who had been lobbying for a wedding since both were teenagers, couldn’t be happier.

Seth and Shawn’s musical collaboration was incidental to their matrimonial collaboration. Shawn is a classically trained pianist and Seth is classically trained in theater. When Shawn played piano in their living room, Seth asked her if she ever thought of “playing stuff just out of her head.” The songwriting started there, with Shawn growing more adventurous on the piano and Seth contributing vocals and the storytelling instincts of his theater background.

Since then, Home by Hovercraft’s route maps out like a band trying to gain a foothold in independent music, moving first to Austin in 2008, then to Brooklyn about a year later. As it happens, the moves were entirely related to Shawn’s job as a business consultant, but the couple made the most of the geographic opportunities. “It was just hipster boot camp,” remarks Seth about residing in the two notably musical cities. “We just needed to get updated quickly, because we were in our thirties.”

The couple returned to Dalla sat the beginning of 2011, armed with a chest-full of songs and live instincts honed by their performances in Austin and New York. At that point, the couple comprised the whole band, which had always played as a trio: Seth, Shawn and whoever responded to their Craigslist ads for a drummer. Reestablished in Dallas, they enlisted Seth’s sister, Abbey, for her percussive dancing. “I threw down a plywood board and she danced on it,” says Seth. “And I played the kick drum.” Home by Hovercraft would later add a drummer, Max Hartman, and mandolin player, Johnny Sequenzia to complete the band.

Home by Hovercraft’s other instrumental quirks are the product of happenstance and an open mind. During their frequent browsing trips to the vintage shop Millennium, the couple found a rare Japanese Xylophone and a tuba. The xylophone was straightforward enough for Shawn and Abbey, but Seth had little clue how to play the tuba. Rather than looking up the fingerings, Seth elected to find the right notes on the brass instrument through trial-and-error. “He’s basically just playing the sound that matches the song,” says Shawn.

Home by Hovercraft does have one nearly five-year-old EP, titled Seams, to their credit, which Seth refers to as “smooth listening.” “It’s definitely not what we do now,” says Shawn. The band has always intended to record something more indicative of their evolved sound. Yet it was an idea for a musical that grabbed the Magill’s attention and energy first, despite the fact that neither of them particularly enjoys musicals in general. “I just don’t typically like musical theater music,” says Shawn. “I like rock music.”

Billed as an “almost entirely true story of Marie Antoinette and the first time machine,” On the Eve is a musical play by Dallas theater veteran Michael Federico and the Magills, running on the engine of Home by Hovercraft’s songs. An actor with Dallas Children’s Theater, Seth initially got the idea through his work on the production James and the Giant Peach as he started thinking about hot air balloons.

The three playwrights held a staged reading of the musical in November 2011 to an enthusiastic, sold-out reception. With the help of director Jeffrey Schmidt and choreographer Sara Romersberger, On the Eve is now a fully-fleshed production scheduled to open November 30 at the Margot Jones Theater in the Magnolia Lounge: a storied, modest art-deco building in Fair Park directly across from the Chinese Lantern Festival. The musical will feature Seth as a member of the cast, dancing by Abbey Magill and others and, of course, live accompaniment from Home by Hovercraft.

For now, preparations for On the Eve, which will run through December 15, demand all of Home by Hovercraft’s time. But a full-length album, Are We Chameleons, is still on their minds. Shawn is quick to insist that, though the album overlaps with the musical (nine of the 12 songs are featured in the production), the two are not intended to be linked. Most of the songs, even those used in On the Eve, predate the musical. Set to be released in the spring of 2013, the album will be the fruition of over a decade of songwriting, dating all the way back to the musical curiosity of two newlyweds in their first living room.