Most people, when they think of magic (if they think of magic at all) dwell on the usual suspects. Criss Angel. David Blaine. That guy who turned a wand into a bunch of flowers at their fifth birthday party. What they don’t think of is someone like Rob Zabrecky.
As wraith thin as an Edward Gorey drawing with a piercing stare and an unnervingly wide selection of bow-ties, Zabrecky’s creepy, witty Odd Man character might best be described as “a mix of Vincent Price and David Byrne.” Unlike most modern magicians, who either portray an amped up version of themselves or just let the magic itself take center stage, Zabrecky’s creation is a fully-fleshed out character who tap dances, sings, tells jokes — and oh yeah, makes things disappear, too.
I’ve been an Odd Man fan for a few years, but before you roll your eyes, note that I’m not alone. Ryan Gosling (yes, that Ryan Gosling, Time magazine’s Coolest Person of 2011, thank you) was so taken with Odd Man that he recruited Zabrecky to pair up with his band, Dead Man’s Bones, for a series of performances. Fittingly, Odd Man joined an event that featured a children’s choir painted like skeletons, a chocolate fountain and attendees dressed in 1950s attire to capture the band’s dark sense of childlike wonderment.
Gosling could have asked Zabrecky to pick up a microphone, too. Nineties indie rock enthusiasts probably know Zabrecky better as the lead singer of Possum Dixon (watch their video for “Watch the Girl Destroy Me” here). A fixture on the L.A. music scene in the ’90s, the band recorded three albums on Interscope Records, the last of which was produced by “Cars” lead singer Ric Ocasek. Early on, a then-unknown Beck would try out material at their shows before the band took the stage. Though critically lauded, the group met the same fate as so many others — a combination of label politics and drug use led to Possum Dixon’s dissolution in 1999.
But if Gosling wasn’t aware of Zabrecky’s music career, Zabrecky didn’t know who Gosling was, either, so fair’s fair. “I did a show at Brookledge [the site of invitation-only performances for magic aficionados] and he came up to me afterwards and paid me a nice compliment,” recalls Zabrecky. “And I thought he was a magician, because he said ‘I really like what you do and it’s really inspiring.’ And all I’m thinking is stay away from my act, buddy. No, you can’t do my diminishing cards act and dance.”
Zabrecky eventually realized his fan was the star of “Lars and the Real Girl” and “Drive,” and that meeting started his collaboration with the actor and Dead Man’s Bones. Zabrecky provided magic and tap dancing between, and sometimes during, songs (watch this performance with Gosling at the piano of “Lose Your Soul”), and a friendship between Gosling and Zabrecky emerged. Later, Gosling and his band partner Zach Shields signed on to direct an act Zabrecky performed for French television. In preparing for the gig, Gosling gave Zabrecky some advice.
“Ryan really looked at my character through an actor’s eyes, which was something that hadn’t really been done before,” says Zabrecky. “I’ve gotten a lot of great input from magicians who know some things about theater, with my friend John Lovick (Handsome Jack) being the only guy who could look at my act and tell me theatrically what was wrong with it or what was good about it. But Ryan has no magic background, so for him it was all character. What is this guy doing? Why is he coming out here? Does he just reach for that? What if he reached for it here? The beats were so weird and off and different from the feedback I’d been getting all these years from magicians that I didn’t know how it was gonna go, but we taped the show and it was phenomenal. It was the best direction I had gotten, and it really pushed me in a new way. Without knowing it, Ryan pulled me back into looking at it more artfully. I started taking more emotional risks.”
Not that Zabrecky is averse to risk. Chucking a music career for magic, which most pros pick up as kids and not in their late 20s, was hardly an obvious direction. It likely wouldn’t have been for him, either, if not for John Waters. “I was on tour with Possum Dixon in the late ’90s and we were in Baltimore. We had a few hours until show time, so I go, I’ll go walk around downtown because that’s where he shot all those movies, ‘Pink Flamingos,’ ‘Female Trouble,’ all his early hits. I’m walking around, thinking it’s so hot I really need to find some air conditioning. I could have walked into a shoe store. But there was a sign, Kenzo’s Yogi Magic Mart. The air conditioner was shaking from the outside, so I said, that’s where I’m going to cool off.”
Zabrecky figured he’d pick up a trick he could perform that evening during the show. When his guitarist broke a string, Zabrecky decided to use the newly purchased prop (instead of making a red handkerchief disappear, he borrowed a condom from an audience member). “In that moment, I had a revelation. It was a real moment of truth, because I realized I didn’t need all these guys in my band to do something entertaining.” Soon Zabrecky was pawing through the Yellow Pages in every city the band visited to find magic shops.
What started as a cool trick soon became more, a possible light at the end of a very dark tunnel. “The music career ended sadly,” he admits. “There were drug addictions and some tragic events that were tied up in the chaos of this world that I was partially responsible for, so I was really so willing to wipe the slate clean and start fresh. I just wanted to let go of that music world and forget all about it.”
Soon, Zabrecky, inspired by the aesthetics of twentieth century magic posters and ready to renew himself, was on a path to creating Odd Man. While Zabrecky was eager to start fresh, it was by no means an effortless transition. “It was failure, failure, failure, oh, that little thing works. My wife had a huge part in shaping that and helping me not be the magician who sits on the stage and goes, ‘When I was a little boy, I dreamed I could do magic.’… it was a slow crawl.” For four years that crawl included weekly performances with a magic trio called the Unholy Three with David Lovering of the Pixies and the magician Fitzgerald as well as solo performances in the basement of Hollywood’s Magic Castle, whether an audience was there to see him or not.
It was while performing at the Magic Castle that Lovick first suggested he get into acting. “I love magic, and music led me to magic, and magic led me to acting,” he says. “I slowly started building up an interest in television and film acting.” Having had small roles on “C.S.I.,” “The Mentalist” and other shows, he’s open to more. “My goal in life is to, one more time, make that reinvention. I’d like to be a working actor and continue what I’ve created with Odd Man and take that to TV and film. That’s a huge goal for me.” It’s also a new goal. “I don’t want to sound like somebody who’s too caught up in theater,” he shrugs. “I’ve never been a theater guy, and now I’m becoming one, slowly, which is really weird. In high school, it wasn’t really my thing, let’s say. I was listening to Echo and the Bunnymen and the Smiths and couldn’t be bothered with ‘The Pirates of Penzance.'”
Fifteen years after he performed his first trick, Zabrecky is coming full circle. In the one man stage show he’ll be performing in January 28 (with other shows in February and March) at the Steve Allen Theater (a 2011 performance sold out quickly), he’s incorporating his newfound interest in acting, his Odd Man magic and, yes, music. “I’m going back to the things I loved to do before, but finding new ways to do them.” After once turning his back on music, he’s rediscovering what he liked about it in the first place. “I’ve had a bunch of creative lives, and now I’m trying to put them all together. Houdini struggled for a long time to bank on what he was good at, so I’m trying to, as he once said, coin my thrill.”