Thursday, November 12, 2009

The post where Ben regurgitates a long interview with a magazine.

This is a re-post.

A few months back I was approached by a pretty major local magazine to do a "quick" interview about the our music scene, what's happening at the moment and what might happen in the future.

Of course I rambled a whole bunch, which probably really annoyed the journalist, but now it means I can share these rather long-winded replies with you!


"There are some really interesting collaborations taking place, and it's more and more common to see DJs performing alongside instrumentalists and/or bands onstage and at parties. Do you think this is a response to audiences becoming more open to hearing new things, or a small industry that has to diversify?"

I think at first it confused quite a lot of people. When we started up Sovereign Academy in 2005 there really wasn't any kind of culture of people going out to dance to both DJs and bands at the same party. But it worked incredibly well, and now every month, around the country there are parties with bands and DJs sharing lineups.

I don't think this happened because the industry needed to diversify as such, or because people had become more open to hearing new things. People's horizons broadening definitely helped this kind of thing become popular (ten years ago it was pretty uncommon to find a rocker kid that enjoyed dance music, or vice versa) but it's not like people were demanding bands at their dance parties or DJs at their rock shows that changed things. It just kinda happened, and after it did people loved it.

Globally there was obviously a major swing towards the integration of the dance and rock worlds over 2003/2004. Bands like !!!, The Rapture and The Faint were total pioneers for this. These were the bands that got me interested in DJing in the first place. When I started DJing at a series of Joburg parties called The Secret, it was an incredibly cool feeling been able to mix these bands together and rock out with a dancefloor full of kids. The Secret was really an incredibly special family that assembled once a month, and I don't think I'll ever experience anything like it again, but I still felt like something was missing.

When we started Sovereign Academy in 2005, from the get go, we fully intended to make it more than just a DJ party. Our only problem was that there weren't any local acts playing music that fitted in with the kind of stuff we were DJing. It was only in March 2006, when I saw Kidofdoom properly for the first time, that I knew we'd found our band. I freaked out through their set and after they were done, stormed the stage, grabbed the closet band member and was like "you have to play at our party!!!".

By April we had a flyer floating around with an illustration of Kidofdoom sandwiched between the three DJs, and when the night came kids just went nuts. By September the Sovereign family was on tour, with all of as performing outside Gauteng for the first time. By October we were home throwing the first Sovereign Halloween party featuring 5 bands and 9 DJs.

I think this is where people's enthusiasm for something new became really clear because over 800 kids showed up that night to dance to this mixed bill of 14 acts. It's obviously encouraging when so many people are excited about something, and I don't think things would have been the same at all if people hadn't embraced things the way they did. But still at it's core, I think our artistic community, was drawn together by our own enthusiasm for just having fun and rocking out.

If I think about the bands that performed at the Sovereign parties (Kidofdoom, Desmond and the Tutus, Greenisforturbo, Martian martian, Us Kids Know, Johnny Neon) none of these bands were trying to mimic dance music. I think this is something really special and, from what I can see, globally quite unique. If you look at intentional bands that filled a similar space (for example Australia's Cut Copy or The UK's New Young Pony Club) these bands always seemed focused on emulating dance music. The extended intro and outros, the solid tempos, everything about their songs were created as though they were intended to be mixed by DJs and danced to.

With our community that was never the intention but when these bands got on stage, the way people started dancing, you'd swear Daft Punk were playing. I think why these bands worked so well in a dance context is really just because they were all channeling the same kind of celebratory zeitgeist that seemed to blowing through Gauteng at that period. Sadly the momentum of this wave of positive energy seemed to die out in late 2007, with only Kidofdoom and the Tutus properly documenting what they were doing and taking their music to a wider audience. Great acts like Isochronous and Yesterday's Pupil have come into their own since, but it definitely felt like things slowed down a lot after that initial burst of energy between 2005 and 2007.

While that period came and went with pretty no media attention or proper documentation, I'm incredibly honored to have witnessed it. What makes me really happy is over the past few months it's felt like there's a new burst of creative energy descending on us. With new acts like Sticky Antlers, Hello Beautiful and Organized Distortion rearing their heads I'm incredibly excited for what'll go down in 2010 and beyond.

"Are artists still driven by the find-a-label-release-an-album-tour-it-go-back-to-the-studio model? Or is it becoming more feasible to release music in different ways, play more localised parties, get into merchandising and other different avenues?"

To be brief; no.

There's just such a small potential target market for people making music like this, that no one is pre-occupied with trying to "make it". Realistically, if you're doing something new and different, your not going to have other people throwing money at you to make records and tour, you're going to need to fight to make it happen yourself. A lot of the time playing music will land up costing you, not making you money. This is obviously pretty sad, but in a way it's great because people across country the are pouring their hearts and souls into creating new music just for the love of it.

We don't have any legendary independent record labels like you find in the US and Europe. We don't have a Sub Pop, or a Rough Trade or a Dischord, putting out ground-breaking music and working their asses of on making sure people hear it. Here, if you aren't going to make things happen yourself you really can't expect that anyone else will.

The downside is that great bands (Greenisforturbo) come and go without ever documenting what they're doing or great acts (Martian Martian) record incredible music in home studios but never release these songs. The upside is that, creatively what's coming out of the country at the moment is completely un-influenced by what people think there's a demand for, or what will be financially viable. Some awesome examples of this are Yesterday's Pupil, The KRNGY Label and Desmond and The Tutus.

Yesterday's Pupil spent over a year writing and recording his debut album in his bedroom (Sleeproom Studios). By the end, he had an album's worth of music that was unlike anything anyone was waiting for. But in spite of having a product that didn't fall in with any kind of popular trend (and to almost anyone at any record label would have been a completely unsellable product) invested his own time and money in releasing "Errors of Enthusiasm". Once he'd put it out there he received a massively positive response from people. Over the course of a year he's become one of the most sought after producers in South African independent music and is widely recognized as one of the most engaging solo performers around.

The Sticky Antlers and their KRNGY Label, for me, are the most exciting example of how South Africa's lack of an established independent industry has created something awesome. With very few people even realising it's been happening, the Antlers have diligently been running KRNGY from their bedrooms for the past three years. In this time they've release more than 20 different CD singles, EPs and albums, every one of them them individually numbered in limited editions, and lovingly presented in hand-made packaging. On top of this they've also produced and sold hundreds of T-shirts, badges and their own range of plush toys, "The Slimeasaurs". This prolific little label is largely unknown outside Pretoria, but regardless, what they're doing is incredible. And international audiences are paying attention too; with KRNGY mailing out orders of CDs, merch and toys to new fans springing up across Europe.

The last example I'll give is Desmond and the Tutus. The Tutus started playing shows in 2005 and by mid 2006 they were the favorite band of hundreds of party people across the country. Had they been in a first world country, I have no doubt The Tutus would have had dozens of labels at war, trying to sign them and put out their debut record as quickly as possible. Instead the band would have a long hard battle ahead of them, working for over two years on independently completing their first album. But when the album was finally done, the band were able to release it on their own label "Awesomeland Records". Seeing over 1000 kids show up at the Alexander theater for the Joburg launch of the album in July 2008, was something incredible. Total proof that although there weren't men in suits with briefcases full of money paying attention to what the Tutus had been doing, their endeavors had really meant something to hundreds of people.

So to get back to your question: If in the past the typical model for musicians to work to was find-a-label-release-an-album-tour-it-go-back-to-the-studio, now it would be more like screw-finding-a-lable-record-yourself-gig-whenever-and-wherever-you-can-and-have-fun.

Okay, question 3:

"How do you see the evolution of the electronic music scene in South Africa? Are you seeing interesting developments, or are we kind of saturated at the moment?"

Well I hope I've kind of answered this in my first two responses. Personally I'm massively enthusiastic about the potential this country has to create something incredibly special. I think the first world has become so bombarded by so much media that people have become incredible self conscious and apathetic. Here we don't have that. Kids aren't concerned with if it's fashionable to like this band or to hate that band. Instead South African audiences are just responding possessively to things that resonate with them. And similarly the people making the music aren't worried about if the blogs are going to love what they're doing, or if they've got the right look to be on magazine covers, instead they're just making music. I spent a few weeks in London earlier this year, and all I could see around me was how sincerity and enthusiasm in the music scene has become a real rarity. Here we're lucky enough to have truckloads of both.

Beyond South Africa's fortunate underexposure to outside media there are a dozen other factors that make this country a potential birthplace for a whole bunch of incredible music. As something that's run almost entirely on the energy of artists and fans, it's possible things will just fizzle out and not ever amount to anything really. This is entirely possible, but personally I'm really optimistic that 100 years from now people will look back on the music that's going come out of South African over the next few years, and see it as some of the most exciting, unique and sincere music of the century.


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