The Magnets. Picture: Supplied

The Magnets might be the new faces of a cappella singing but their origins can be traced way back to the barbershop quartets of more than a century ago.

This close-harmony style of singing - just the voice without musical instruments - originated in the barbershops of the US which were more like community centres.

Men, usually Afro-Americans, would sing spiritual and popular songs in close harmony while waiting for their haircuts. It must have been better than reading months-old magazines.

It's a fair bet that this British six-piece has not spent much time hanging around hairdressers but they've taken this traditional art form and given it a good shake.

Their close harmonies create chords with their voices that underpin the melody line in self-penned songs and pop classics.

They've also added "beat-box" sounds to their mix - percussive and bass lines that sound like a set of drums and an acoustic bass instrument instead of the human voice close to a microphone.

The Magnets began their career in England in 2001 when they won a talent contest that led to a recording contract with EMI.

"Before that we were a group of guys who used to sing together at university," co-founder Nic Doodson says from his home in London. "We only did it at the time because it was fun, and we thought it was a way to attract the girls.

"We also thought that if we could get some gigs at university balls it would be a way to get in for free."

The breakthrough talent contest was what Doodson calls an old-fashioned television show before the arrival of blockbuster searches such as The X-Factor and Idol.

"When we won that contest we had to make a decision about our future," Doodson says.

That decision was complicated by the fact that since their student days at the University of London the young men had gone on to jobs as graduates.

For Doodson his "real" job was in management consultancy for international accounting firm Price Waterhouse.

Only one of the sextet had studied music - Steve Trowell - who continues to write most of the original songs performed by the Magnets.

Asked why the group had decided to incorporate the beat-box into their performance style, Doodson says it was simply to create a point of difference. "No other a cappella group was using a beat-box so we thought it would be a good idea," he says.

Their performances at the Fringe Festival will be their second visit to Perth in the past three years, this time on the back of the release of their new album All This Time, the title track a fresh look at Sting's old number.

The Magnets' repertoire also includes re-interpretations of familiar songs from artists such as Adele, Dire Straits, Bon Jovi, Blur, Led Zeppelin, Lady Gaga and 10CC.

"We'll also be doing a couple of numbers by AC/DC," Doodson says. On the list is the Aussie boys' classic It's a Long Way to the Top.

And speaking of the top, the Magnets are hoping to crack the US market this month, just before they come to Perth.

"Our management has organised a showcase at a theatre on Broadway where agents will get to see us," Doodson says.

If the Americans still need to be convinced of their talents, fans of the former a cappella boy band - now men in their 30s with families - already know their talents.

The West Australian

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