Interview With Russ Josephs – Creator of Magical Animal and Xie Xie

by TaiwanMe Blog Topics: TAIWAN CULTURE

Once in a while the world is bestowed a creative genius that cannot be ignored. In 1512, Michelangelo unveiled the Sistine Chapel. In 2007, Steve Jobs announced the iPhone. And in 2019, Magic Animal uploaded XIE XIE to YouTube.

XIE XIE is a seamless blend of Brooklyn rap, Taiwanese culture, and comedic genius that perfectly encapsulates the classic “foreigner-in-Taiwan”. It is said that Magic Animal mastered Chinese in just 3 days. Some have also referred to his interpretive dance as “the second coming of Christ” (citation needed).

Beyond any doubt though is that XIE XIE one hell of a catchy tune. The frontman and mastermind behind Magic Animal is Russ Josephs. Naturally TaiwanMe had a few questions for Russ.

What inspired you to create Magic Animal and XIE XIE?

I am from New York and used to do a lot of performance art. Everyone was super serious though, pushing themselves to the limit, doing things like what Marina Ambramovic did at MOMA (basically sitting in a chair and staring at strangers for 8+ hours).

I wanted to do something more fun, so created this character who was an artist but a really, really shitty one. I was mainly doing public interpretive dances, which were purposely terrible but with an attitude like “I am AMAZING.” I was also in a punk band called Pretty Flowers with my ex-girlfriend, and we would look really cute and innocent but sing about really nasty and offensive things (another dichotomy).

I wanted to combine all of these things into one person, but also actually produce really good music, so finally Magic Animal was born. I think I was able to finally nail all the right elements, plus throw in a bit of my favourite artists/inspirations like Andy Kaufman, Beck, Sacha Baron Cohen and Wes Anderson.

I think you really hit all the right notes (sorry) with XIE XIE. It’s catchy, hilarious, and shows Taiwan in a good light. Do you see it as a comedic anthem for foreigners living in Taiwan?

I think it first came to me because I use the phrase on a daily basis and yet hardly use any other Chinese – despite the fact I’ve lived here for two years. I realised that was both funny and sad. So the song is very autobiographical in that regard. But I feel it’s also a reflection of many other foreigners.

I’m also attracted to the idea of self-deception; someone convincing themselves of something that isn’t exactly true. So for the song and video it was both about claiming I could speak Chinese (which I can’t), as well as claiming I could rap – or at least that I was a great rapper (also not true). So the lyrics are half about living in Taiwan and half about acting like a stereotypical rapper (e.g. calling out someone, bragging), but in a comical way.

That’s genius! And was executed perfectly, in my opinion. What kind of response have you received?

It’s been 99% positive. A few people were concerned the kids were drinking alcohol (it was juice). Some people were personally concerned for me because I said Taiwan is not China.

The only overtly negative comments came from one guy who is an English teacher in Taiwan. I posted the video to a bunch of foreigner groups, where again the response was overwhelmingly positive. I guess it angered him somehow so he started spamming the groups and then my YouTube channel with negative comments.

I responded to some of these, and was planning on keeping his comments public because they were just ridiculous, but then he started spamming the comments other people left, so I had to block him.

Russ Josephs, Magic Animal, kid stars

It would be funny if you responded to him in your Magic Animal character. Similar to how Andy Kaufman angered his audience by playing the perfecting archetypal wrestling villain.

Yes! That’s one of my favourite things he did. On a side note, my college had an annual Battle of the Bands that I would join but only put the band together a week before. All the songs were written a few days before, and the names of the bands were like Naked Nipple, Spontaneous Diaphragms. Every year we always came in dead last (which was the point). I was trying to kind of antagonise people purposely by creating something kind of off-putting – but again in a funny way.

With the troll I kind of did stay in character. I kept teasing him about his youtube follower count (0) and his total video views (15) as indicators that his opinion wasn’t really valid. Honestly, I wanted to keep the messages public, but I decided eventually that blocking him was the best route. I think he might have minor mental issues.

What do you think about the foreigner community in Taiwan?

I think the foreigner community here is very vibrant and creative. You have places like Red Room and Triangle that are always doing interesting things, and overall the people are very friendly, social and welcoming.

Personally I am not a big part of it because I feel it can be a bit too seductive – in that you get enmeshed in it and it’s perhaps not too different from being in New York or London. All of your friends and activities revolve around other foreigners.

On one hand it’s out of necessity, because while Taiwanese people are SUPER nice, there are still a lot of barriers making to break into their social circles. But on the other hand, I think you have to try. So for me personally, I try to strike a balance between the foreigner community and the local community. I think both are important.

Do you think that being in Taiwan/a foreign country has opened up a side of your creativity that you otherwise would’t have?

That’s a good question. I think there are a lot of advantages to being here for sure – especially if you are an entrepreneur.

Creatively I think it’s definitely inspiring but perhaps in a less obvious way. For example, I can’t tell you how many people have expressed mild shock at me choosing to live in Taipei over New York. But for me Taipei is actually more exciting due to the newness and uniqueness of it all. Even small things, like wandering through a night market, I find incredibly interesting and stimulating.

In my company of 100+ people, I am the only foreigner. For some reason that is also kind of exciting. However, I still make time to do the kind of things that I did in New York, such as Taipei Fashion Week, art openings, etc.

Early stage of the Magic Animal phenomenon

A highlight of XIE XIE are the two kids starring along side you in the video clip. Who are they, how did you find them, and have you returned them yet?

Haha! They’re children of a family friend – twins, Oscar and Olivia. Even before I conceptualised XIE XIE I knew I wanted to use them.

What was their reaction when they saw Xie Xie for the first time?

I actually showed them the final cut at a wedding before putting it on YouTube. They were laughing hysterically. Their aunt is also in the video (one of the people turning their heads), and she was there too.

I finally got around to showing it to the other people in that scene. They’re mostly vendors at the Rahoe Night Market.

I don’t think I want to know, but is that real poop in the toilet scene?

Haha no, it’s fake. I ordered it online. But the toilet was really gross and had pee in it, so I just left it there after we finished filming!

I’m actually surprised to hear that! I thought it was real.

You probably thought it was real because we pixelated it. That was because we weren’t sure if YouTube would ban it (even though it was fake), so just a precaution.

You walked around Taipei dressed as a blind bat. Did you get any funny reactions from people that weren’t captured on film?

When I would do similar things in New York people would either totally ignore me or laugh. But here it was mainly confusion. Rewatching the footage I noticed that most people definitely stared, but in a pretty low-key way. Almost like they didn’t want me to feel extra embarrassed. If you watch the longer version you can see most of their reactions.

I think a lot of people are interested to know what’s next for Magic Animal. Do you have anything in the pipeline such as shows coming up or new work that we can look forward to?

I finished writing a new song and will record it and do the video soon. This one will be even more ambitious!

In terms of performing, I have a friend who is kind of a well known influencer and have a tentative invite to perform at her birthday party in July. I would love to do more performing but it’s something I need to really work towards: figuring out a way to recreate what happened in the studio in a live setting.

Do you have any parting wisdom for anyone reading this interview?

Yes! I saw an ad recently for a luxury hotel chain. It was a really inspirational video about traveling around the world and having all of these unique and exotic experiences. While I was watching it I realised, most of them, I get to experience right here on a daily basis.

On top of that it’s affordable in Taiwan, no winter, nice people, national healthcare, etc. This place is a hidden gem, with so much potential. While Taiwan can’t compete with China’s size, they have something China will never have: ideas, culture, etc.. The kinds of things that have made Korea and Japan so successful.

Taiwan just needs to be more self-confident and take more risks – and they’re not going to learn that from the current education system. It’s already starting to change because of the internet and access to information, but nothing beats on-the-ground learning and inspiration. So I’m hoping more people like myself will come here to live, study, work and make contributions to the overall culture. And if I can play a small part in that, that’s awesome.

That actually reminds me, I have one more question. Probably the most important question of the entire interview! If you had to choose between only eating stinky tofu for the rest of your life, or only drinking bubble tea for the rest of your life, which would you choose and why?

Haha, that is a pretty important decision. I would probably have to go with the tofu. I’m assuming I’d get used to the smell, and the taste is pretty good actually. Bubble tea is obviously much more delicious, but I would become a total lardass!

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