Dynamo interview: meet the man who reinvented magic for the 21st century
Dynamo has become one of the most famous magicians in the world, bringing his unique style of magic to sold-out arenas and star-studded parties. But how did a boy from Bradford end up walking on water?
- By Max Williams -
Dynamo [noun] – a device that changes energy of movement into electrical energy; an energetic force.
The Society of American Magicians describes itself as the oldest and most prestigious magical society in the world, and it’s probably right on both counts. Known as the SAM, this remarkable organisation was founded on 10 May, 1902 – three years before The Magic Circle – at Martinka, the famous magic shop of New York City, which in 1875 had moved from Germany to what is now Sixth Avenue. There were 24 initial members, although this number grew the following year with the February election of Ehrich Weiss, aka Harry Houdini; magic’s most storied name later served as President of the SAM from 1917 to his death in 1926.View on Instagram
One hundred years after Houdini’s induction, the SAM – membership now swollen to nearly 50,000 – gathered in New York City to celebrate the life of the great escapologist. As you might imagine, the Houdini Centennial proved quite the bash, a veritable who’s who of early 21st century magic: David Copperfield, Siegfried & Roy (pre-tiger mishap), and a host of other luminaries whose skills had dazzled the world.
Among these giants moved a slight teenage boy from Bradford. He had secured his attendance at the magic event of the year by winning a competition back in the UK. Impressive, sure, except Copperfield had recently sawn Jennifer Lopez into six pieces – at the White House. You’re a long way from Bradford, kid. Nobody paid him much attention, until he took to the stage.
Performing the same routine that brought him to the Centennial, young Steven Frayne proceeded to marvel and mesmerise the most discerning audience on the planet. Halfway through the act, Aaron Fisher – a card magician par excellence – rose from his seat and shouted to the room:
“This kid’s a fucking dynamo!”
“Why dynamo?” Frayne later asked Fisher.
“Look up the explanation of it in the dictionary and you’ll understand.”
The term stuck. “For the rest of the week, all of the magicians there, all of my peers, would refer to me as the Dynamo Kid.”
On his return to England, the young Frayne had a new stage name. “Obviously I lost the ‘effing’ part,” Dynamo smiles. “It kind of works. And it sounds a bit cooler than Steven.”
Fifteen years after wowing New York, Dynamo is a global phenomenon, a 34-year-old maestro who graduated from uploading his street performances on YouTube to hosting his own TV show – Dynamo: Magician Impossible – to selling more than 100 dates of his Seeing Is Believing tour. An online video of his ten best illusions is now closing in on 21m views. These illusions include: causing dozens of mobile phones to ring simultaneously in Times Square (number ten); walking down the side of a Los Angeles building (number seven), and levitating in front of Rio’s Christ the Redeemer (which sits firm in first place). Recently, he published Dynamo: The Book of Secrets, a detailed how-to guide helping young magicians follow in his footsteps – unless, of course, he’s mid-levitation.
He wrote the book to “pass on my knowledge, and give people an introduction to magic in the right way.” The idea came a couple of Christmases ago: to distract his eight-year-old niece Ruby from the iPad, he taught her how to use a stripped deck of cards. Half an hour later, “she was walking around the party just blowing the minds of all the adults…They kept coming up to me going, ‘tell us how she’s doing it. Come on, you’ve got to tell us!’”
Dynamo hopes the book will not only spark a love of magic but also encourage its readers away from their screens and into some old-fashioned human interaction – just as the cards did for Ruby. “The more she did it, the more confident she got; that afternoon was probably the longest I’ve seen her not on the iPad.”
I don’t want to be very controversial because that’s just playing to the stereotype of where I’m from, and I really wanted to break that stereotype.
Magic runs in the family: Dynamo’s grandfather once astounded a 12-year-old Steven by making matches vanish from their box. Dynamo still certain how he did it. “I have my own theories, but I’m not 100% sure.”
He’s an unassuming figure, far removed from the strapping showmen of pop culture (think Hugh Jackman in The Prestige). His small, wiry frame is a legacy of the Crohn’s disease which has afflicted him since adolescence. Clad in dark denim, you probably wouldn’t notice him in a busy room – at least not until he bent his thumb back into his wrist, as he does to demonstrate one of his earliest illusions. (Dynamo hates the term ‘trick’: “trick implies you’re getting one over on someone.”)
His grandfather taught him the thumb technique to ward off the bullies: a diminutive, mixed-race, single-parent child in Bradford made an easy target. (He didn’t meet his father until adulthood.) Another helpful lesson was the ability to seemingly increase his body weight from just a few stone to suddenly unliftable; Dynamo later demonstrated the effect to heavyweight boxer David Haye.
The bullies stayed clear, but magic had done little for Steven’s social standing. “It got people off my back, but at the same time I was already a loner, so scaring people away would make me even more of a loner.” By then, however, those little illusions had sparked an interest that soon turned into an obsession.
Aaron Fisher might have coined the name but grandpa Ken Walsh is responsible for the magician. A naval veteran of the second world war – and another remarkable man – Walsh didn’t practice magic seriously but he knew enough. “He’d use it at the pub to get a free drink, or to impress the ladies before my grandma came around.”
“He was always the life of the party,” recalls Dynamo. “He wasn’t shy at all – he had this magnetism that would make you come towards him.” Young Steven lacked his grandpa’s natural charisma but the more he practiced magic, the more confident he grew.
At college, magic became a way to attract people rather than a repellent. As soon as Steven revealed his unusual passion, everyone wanted to see what the kid could do. “That was the first time I really performed for people. It wasn’t to scare people off.”
Ken Walsh died in 2012. His grandson was one of the most famous magicians on Earth. He never revealed the secret of the matchbox.View on Instagram
Ironically for a man who updated magic for the 21st century, the first illusion Dynamo mastered is perhaps the oldest of the lot: the classic cups and balls, a variant of which appears to be drawn on the walls of an Egyptian burial chamber dating from 2500 BC, and was cited by the Roman philosopher Seneca almost exactly 2000 years ago. (“Such quibbles are just as harmlessly deceptive as the juggler’s cup and dice, in which it is the very trickery that pleases me. But show me how the trick is done, and I have lost my interest.”).
His magic progressed, along with his ambitions. He wanted to make videos, “visual mixtapes” to showcase his talent – many of his friends were DJs – but the equipment was too expensive so he applied to The Prince’s Trust for a grant. The charity didn’t understand the business plan but liked his enthusiasm – and shazam! our young magician was away.
He had the content; now he needed an audience. YouTube was still in its infancy, but successful videos tended to follow a certain trend: kittens and puppies, babies, celebrities, controversy. The more things seem to change...
“I thought, alright, I don’t want to be very controversial because that’s just playing to the stereotype of where I’m from, and I really wanted to break that stereotype. There’s only so much magic you can do to a puppy. It just wasn’t really happening… My auntie had a kid but the baby didn’t understand the magic, so there was no reaction.”
Celebrities it was. Armed with a new camcorder – ta, your highness – and plenty of gumption, Dynamo and his friends travelled the country, going “to any event that we could get tickets for or we could blag our way into”, talking their way backstage and performing for the star acts. The gamble worked. Soon promoters were inviting Dynamo to entertain their headliners, and American artists started asking for ‘the magic guy’.
His first DVD, Underground Magic, starred the likes of Coldplay, Snoop Dogg, Ian Brown, The Streets, and The Game. It cost less than £1,000 to produce and sold 8,000 copies in the first month – all of which were burnt, packaged, and posted in Dynamo’s bedroom.
“I did love that,” he says, recalling those early years on the make. “I loved it so much! I’m very fortunate that I’m able to do so many more amazing things nowadays, but I do miss those kind of hustling days. I still try and treat every project like it’s my first.”
As well as a classic example of modern entrepreneurship, Dynamo’s rise reflects how the magic industry learnt to adapt to a digital age. The ubiquity of television not only harmed the audience of the live magic show – why leave the house when you could watch from the sofa – but also reshaped the requirements for a successful act: if it didn’t work through a screen, it didn’t work.
A young generation of tech-savvy magicians emerged with a new outlook: “People aren’t coming to watch magic shows – so we need to bring the magic to them. We have to bring the magic to the streets they’re hanging out on, we have to take it to the venues that they go to – I was performing in nightclubs with music blaring, I had to do a silent act… These weren’t venues that were built for performing magic, but as magicians we had to make that transition in order to remind people that magic was still there.”
While Dynamo initially bypassed TV, the mentalist Derren Brown achieved fame through stunts specifically designed for televised consumption, most notoriously playing Russian roulette in 2003. Eight years Brown’s junior – the two are good friends – Dynamo hit the mainstream with 2011’s Magician Impossible and the bravura illusions (Times Square, etc) mentioned above.
When I walked across the Thames there were theories going around that I’d trained some turtles to be underneath my feet
Unusually, he did not publicise any of these illusions before their performance. Take the 2011 walk over the River Thames, his first stunt on such a scale, and still his best known. No advance warning was given: he just turned up and set off across the water. Well, on the first attempt he turned up and then went home because it was raining, but the following day offered kinder conditions and better visibility to attract the desired attention.
A crowd of spectators duly formed. “By the time I had got to the middle of the river, I looked around and there were thousands of people gathered around watching it. The next day it was in all of the newspapers.”
The lack of publicity became its own publicity, generating an intrigue that would have been impossible if the feat had been promoted in advance. “It created that mystery and that wonder,” Dynamo recalls. “It was my way of maintaining that sense of mystery but also doing these big cultural events.” [Article continues below video.]
Of course, mystery begets scepticism: for every awestruck YouTuber, there’s another accusing Dynamo of fakery, of not being a real magician (as opposed to Dumbledore). “I do read those comments,” he grins. “They are hilarious. Some of the ideas that people come out with as well…”
Any particular standouts?
“When I walked across the Thames there were theories going around that I’d trained some turtles to be underneath my feet, so I was actually standing on turtles!”
The continuous technological evolution hasn’t helped. “We know what Hollywood studios are capable of doing in a movie now, so when you watch a magic show, how do you prove to people that it isn’t just a big Hollywood special effect? It’s taken a long time for magicians to actually study and learn how to even film their magic.”
A desire to prove the integrity of his magic led Dynamo to ditch Magician Impossible and launch the Seeing Is Believing live tour in 2015. He played a total of 118 dates in the UK and Australia, dazzling packed arenas that had hosted the likes of One Direction or U2 the day before. The underground DJ was now a fully fledged rock star.
Yet even rock stars risk bad reverb. At the O2 Arena, Dynamo successfully teleported a volunteer’s mobile phone into a water bottle. The only issue? When somebody called the phone to reveal its new location, nothing happened. “Either his battery died or there was no reception in the O2, which is ironic.”
Reports of the incident were widespread. “I’m like, you’re all going on about the phone not ringing, but has everyone forgotten – his phone is still inside the bottle!”
The media reaction frustrated him more than the silent mobile. Above all else, Dynamo views magic as inclusive. “Magic’s an emotion that someone feels when they witness something amazing. It could be a shared experience, which is what I try to make my magic about. I want it be an experience that we share together.”
He cites cinema as a comparable medium, relying on, and rewarding, suspension of disbelief. “You know Superman is not a real person… but for the time that you’re watching that film, you believe in that world.”
This faith runs both ways. The Book of Secrets instructs the budding magician “to believe in what you’re doing, as if it’s for real, for it to feel real to your audience.” In our interview, Dynamo cites the words of 19th century magician Jean Eugène Robert-Houdin, the father of modern conjuring’ “A magician is an actor playing the part of a magician.” He doesn’t entirely agree with this idea – “there are different types of magic” – but it neatly illustrates the blurring of sorcery and performance, illusion and reality.
Approaching magic with scepticism not only diminishes the experience; it betrays the communal ideal which Dynamo believes that magic is founded upon. When he performs, “if people come wanting to be amazed and entertained, then that’s what they’re going to get. But if they come on the back foot, trying to be sceptical and work things out, then they’re going to miss the entire point of the show.”
The tour is his proudest achievement, an enterprise on a previously unimaginable scale which obliterated any conceptions of Dynamo the ‘TV magician’. What makes the tour even more impressive – although I mention this, not him – is that he performed night after night despite living with Crohn’s, an inflammatory bowel disease that can be managed but not cured. Dynamo was diagnosed at 15.
In the back of our heads, we always slightly want to do something that impresses our fellow magicians
This article has been deliberately light on Crohn’s: because there is so much else to discuss, because he has spoken eloquently in other outlets, because he won’t allow the disease to define him in life so it shouldn’t define him in print. The man can literally walk on water – why focus on his digestive system?
However it would be disingenuous to omit Crohn’s entirely, so: Dynamo – then Steven – underwent surgery to remove half of his stomach aged 19. A careful diet helps relieve the pain – during the interview he sips decaf tea with lactose-free milk – but he’s still spent an estimated two years in hospital, including a three-week stint the month before we meet. Despite the intensity of live magic, he won’t eat at least three hours before a show. “Usually when I get off stage I have a big feast.”
Unsurprisingly, his resilience – “I try not to let it stop me or hold me back” – inspires thousands of people living with similar conditions. Some fans even ask him to sign their colostomy bags. “Not the used ones, because that would be a bit weird.”
Eccentric the requests may be, but Dynamo can see the broader context. “There are people out there who, back in the day, wouldn’t even have admitted that they’ve got a colostomy bag. People talk about it now, and people talk about Crohn’s a lot more.” He welcomes the increased public discourse: “It shows it’s not something you need to be ashamed of.”
He helped contribute to that.
Now he wants his book to inspire another generation of magicians, just as Grandpa Ken inspired him. Although anyone can learn from The Book Of Secrets, Dynamo believes children will benefit the most. “If you introduce magic to them now, they’re going to pick it up a lot faster. They also don’t have the scepticism that you get as you get older. They still believe anything is possible as children.”
There’s this cultural myth that magicians engage in fierce, often murderous rivalries with their peers: see Christopher Nolan’s The Prestige, or Glen David Gold’s brilliant novel Carter Beats the Devil. In truth, magic is a tight community with far more that unites than divides – although Dynamo concedes the value of “a little healthy competition”.
“In the back of our heads, we always slightly want to do something that impresses our fellow magicians, because as a magician to impress another magician – that’s another level. It’s higher than impressing a Muggle.”
This Muggle doesn’t disagree. Especially when he describes the various magical gatherings that occur throughout the year. “In the back of your head you’re always thinking, ‘alright, I’ve got to work on something new that I know will blow these guys away.’ Create the piece of magic that is the talk of the conference.”
To be a fly on that particular wall! Even at the risk of being transformed into a rabbit.
If Dynamo helps mentor the next great sorcerer of the age then he’ll be the first to applaud. But if people simply read his book and learn a couple of the techniques, well, that works too. At the very least magic might offer a means of social engagement that doesn’t involve a screen. But it could do so much more. Perhaps magic will awaken in its young practitioners what it once awoke in a philosopher of Ancient Rome; or those 24 pioneers in New York, masters of their craft, who started a movement that would outlast them all; or the old trickster who bewitched his grandson with a matchbox; or the young girl who stole Christmas with a deck of cards. Magic is the desire, the need, to fashion a moment of pure wonder and fleetingly subvert reality, whether through sleight-of-hand or spectacle or the greatest show on Earth.