|Felix Laband: Bats in his hair
RA checks in with one of South Africa's most gifted electronic artists as he finishes his long-awaited fourth album.
You may not remember the name Felix Laband. You may not have heard of it in the first place. Electronic music moves rather fast, and for a while there Laband had, as he puts it, "a big fall from grace" where he could barely take care of himself, let alone write music. Before all that, though, Laband was one of South Africa's bright young things, a gifted and troubled musician that got his start in a thrash punk band as a guitarist and screamer.
Soon, though, Laband fell in love with electronic music generally and Kid Loco specifically. Acid trips with A Grand Love Story led to his own sample-laden soundscapes that made him a star in his home country and, eventually, a deal with Compost Records in Europe to release his third album, Dark Days Exit in 2005. Laband has an uncommon touch with mellow sounds—a way of creating downtempo that never treads near cliché.
Things went quiet release-wise after Dark Days, but recently Laband has re-emerged with a new DJ name (Snakehips) and the promise of a new album with Compost. He also has plenty of opinions about music and his beloved—and fragile—homeland. Indeed, as RA's Richard Marshall found out earlier this year, even as he makes noise about leaving South Africa, Laband can't help but speak to how much he still has to learn from it.
In your early teens you headed up some relatively successful local punk bands. Can you talk a bit about that?
Sure. I grew up in a little town called Pietermaritzburg. It was the last town held by the English back in the day. It's a kind of colonial little place, beautiful buildings and stuff. There was quite an active band scene, when at that point in time a lot of bands in South Africa were mainly just cover bands. I started playing the electric guitar when I was about 11, and I was pretty good by the time I met a guy a few years later by the name of Dean who was really good on the drums, many years ahead of his age. So we started a band called Incurable, a punk band, with some other musicians. That's where my music career really started I suppose.
Following that came a band called Fingerhead. By that time I was quite heavily into industrial music—Skinny Puppy and Ministry and all that kind of stuff. We had two drummers, two bassists, two guitarists. We did really well and this enabled all of us to travel down to Durban—the closest big city—when we were still very young, 14 or 15. It was quite exciting, the beginning of the end.
Did you always imagine a career/life in music?
I probably more saw myself as a designer or something like that because my skills in art were pretty natural. When I finished school I went to study fine art, but I found it just like being back in school, back in grade nine having to start again doing bushman art and stuff. And also I don't think I was prepared for the criticism that I got. I found it hard, so hard in fact that I didn't pick up a paint brush ever again. Which is fucking terrible considering I used to paint all the time. I loved it actually.
Who have been your biggest musical influences in your life?
I suppose the first band that I ever fell completely and absolutely in love with was Alien Sex Fiend, I still love them to this day. I think they are so ahead of their time. It's this weird electro kind of thing, but they are kind of seen as this gothic band but they're not really. They are way cooler than that.
I was very influenced obviously by Aphex Twin, but I suppose my biggest influence that kind of came through my music was Kid Loco. (I would have been nervous to say it back when I released my first album as it would have been so apparent who influenced it.) I must have listened to his first album, A Grand Love Story, a million times. I remember listening to it on acid in my room and dissecting it. What really inspired me was the kind of emotion that he was obtaining with electronic music. [At that time] electronic music in my mind was sort of too electronic, and he was sampling warm, natural sounds and bringing into this hip-hop kind of style that was so beautiful.
Your first two albums were released under the local collective African Dope. How did they find you or did you seek them out?
Basically there wasn't very much happening in the country in terms of independent electronic labels. There were some guys in Durban called Get Up Records who wanted to do something, and I worked with Tick Tick Bang on trying to put out an album. But both went under before anything got released, which was very lucky because that would have been me boarding a sinking ship.
I moved to Cape Town and met the right people who gave my album to Dope who wanted to release it, and that was really great at that point in time because we were kind of like a new thing and I suddenly had the guys to look after me, teach me how to do things, teach me how to do the adverts properly and make real money and all that sort of stuff. It also meant that we got to travel overseas a lot, especially as we didn't have any competition.
4/4 Down the Stairs, your second album, was regarded by many in the South African music scene as a seminal electronica album. You are also considered to be one of the founding and fundamental artists on the African Dope label, and quite possibly in the whole country. How do statements like that affect you? Surely being recognised as a success at relatively young age had to have had some kind of effect on you as an artist, and as a human being? How did you deal with all that?
The young age thing is quite interesting because I think it was a little bit... I mean I grew up in bands so I knew what it was like to go to the club and everyone was your friend, but suddenly with its release it was quite a big adjustment for me. I mean it's not like I had become a pop star like these people overseas...but suddenly it was very different after I released my first album. Suddenly I could screw cheerleaders, and do all these things that I couldn't in the past, you know? And I'll let all these kids know that there are no good cheerleaders. They can't even do it. They just look good, but they don't feel good. I think back then I was quite young and full of crap and I just sort of… I think a blew it a little bit with my madness.
With your third album, Dark Days Exit, you got signed to the Munich-based label Compost Records. How did this come about?
I'm not too sure exactly. I was busy in the process of releasing my album through a label here (in South Africa) called Open Record. It's an incredible record label: They did Derrick Gripper and Sagte Vlei which had Alex van Hierden and all these guys. Anyway, I think someone had come over and taken a copy back to Germany and I got a call from Compost. Initially I was a little bit sceptical, I didn't know much about the label and, at first, I thought I was this acid jazz kind of thing, but it's actually been great. I've messed them around quite extensively, it's been so many years since my last album.
What kind of relationship do you have with them now?
They have been very patient and very understanding which I appreciate, I hope to maintain a good relationship with them. Although I did push my relationship with Michael [Reinboth, label manager] to some extremes when I did some bad things when I was over there, but anyway. That's for another day.
You've uploaded a number of images you've made on your Facebook page. Talk about this process of creation in contrast to music making and explain the motivation for the type of imagery you use in your work.
I think of the last six years, the one thing I'm really proud of is the work I've put back into my visual art. It's been really, really inspiring for me, and it just kind of pours out of me. I use it when I'm a little bit stuck with trying to make music. It almost frees my mind up to be creative without having to think too much.
Because I'm not an established artist or anything like that, I don't have any expectations so I can do whatever I pretty much like which is generally just fucking around with pictures of porn, naked girls. Which I like a lot. But on a more serious note, it's more like a diary I keep of the world we live in. I like to document what's going on around me. I like using newspapers, it's a sampling sort of aesthetic.
Collage and sample-based music making are the same sort of thing—it's about your skill and how you reinterpret it. I keep the visual stuff outside of my computer, so it's about the skill of using scissors or whatever. You can't change the size, so you have to find a way to put it together. I didn't really know too much about electronic music production when I created my first album, so I created a lot it from samples because that was the only way I could.
For "Donkey Rattle" you created a rather simple yet beautiful music video by filming two puppets who seem to be on some kind of journey. What was the concept behind this video? Why haven't we seen any more of your videos?
With that video, the only real concept I had was that I had these puppets that I had brought back from Prague and and I wanted to film them. It was just a really cool, fun little thing to do. Unfortunately I didn't have any say in the editing, so it's not really edited in a way that I enjoy. I appreciate the person who edited it for me, but unfortunately there was no budget, and if it had been as simple as I wanted it, it wouldn't have had all these effects and stuff on it.
It kind of depressses me quite a bit, when you go on the internet and put my name in you get all these weird videos that people have made for me. Up until this point I haven't had any real control of how I am represented. I haven't really understood the internet or wanted to, so I've kind of let everything roam free and it's quite frightening the things that have come out.
I want to start making videos now because I realise I can make them myself and that's the most freeing thing because I've never really wanted to work with other people—[because of] bad experiences. If there's money involved, they have say over what can happen and what they say is generally never what I want. Like the first proper video I ever made for "Run Alive, Run" was all done by this other director because he had a big budget and I regretted it so much afterwards. Not that it's terrible. It's just not what I would want, you know? At the moment my wife and I have been learning ourselves. I used to animate years ago before I did music, and now we're learning [Adobe] After Effects and Premiere, so it's been very exciting, and the way it can all link up to Ableton is mind blowing.
In terms of equipment and gear, what do you use? Has it changed a lot over the years?
You have been performing under the name DJ Snakehips lately. Who is Snakehips, and what were your reasons for creating him?
Well basically, everybody knows I suppose that I had a big fall from grace and my world kind of turned upside down to a point where I couldn't look after myself. It was just a disaster. I hadn't played for a long time and my ego was shattered and it was quite a frightening thing to go up and perform when you're not comfortable in what you're doing.
Recently everything has kind of been coming back to me in terms of my path and my career and what I want to do, and I've really been enjoying playing again as I have more control over my performance and now I can actually perform a little bit. I'm looking forward to moving forward.
DJ Snakehips is an opportunity for me to basically DJ what I want to DJ and not have to perform my own tracks because sometimes it's a little bit tiring having to perform your own music the whole time, I also have a whole world of music that I love to play. I'm also hoping under Snakehips I can do what I want to do, which is not play dance music all night. I can't stand people who just listen to one style of music, I just think it's so stupid. I never understood my father. He's a really intelligent man, I love him, he writes books, he's an historian but he only listens to classical music, and that's it. Nothing else. Imagine just eating steak all night, every night, for the rest of your life.
Well, in the beginning, I had nothing. For my first album I didn't even have monitors, I just had a video game sound card and a really old computer. I didn't have MIDI. But somehow I managed to pull it together. For the second album I was able to purchase monitors which changed the whole music making experience for me, and I started getting some synths and stuff. I've always been into old analogue synths and that kind of thing. I know it's all fashionable now, but I actually use them. I love the sort of oddness of it and just the fact that it's never really exactly the same. These days everybody is using the same software and the same plug-ins. Everyone just sounds the same.
How do you keep your work from sounding like everybody else?
I don't know, I wish I had a whip that would just whip me on the back every time I started doing that, because I tend to be doing that so much these days, just kind of subconciously being affected by everything else that is happening and somehow thinking that I've got to try and compete and whatever. I don't know what's up with my fucking mind. I know that until I break through that and do my own thing again I'll never be happy. I'm working on it, as my poor wife knows. Maybe one day she'll hear me singing and know that it's all coming together.
So we can expect vocals?
Yes. I mean I used to sing in my bands, but that was more of a shouting thing. Vocals have always been something I'm quite scared of because that's really, you know, pulling your pants down in front of the school. And also there is nothing worse than these producers who decide they're going to sing and they sing these terrible... I don't want to be one of those you know? But at the same time I do know I can actually sing and I want to sing. I just feel that I have a valid point now, I feel like I have the right to have an opinion that actually means something. I didn't when I was younger, I didn't feel like I had much to say and now I do. All we have to do now is see if I actually say it or not!
When you were recording your first album in 2001, it was during an incredibly optimistic time in South Africa—a few years after apartheid had ended. Reflecting back, can you describe this time and your experience of it to us?
I think it was a very exciting time in the sense that South Africa was opening up. There was a great energy for all these things to happen and all these things that everybody had wanted to do but couldn't do during apartheid, even down to getting your hands on the music you wanted. And then when the album came out and that started happening it was just the most incredible time because if anyone from overseas came to play here we would play with them. And suddenly we were doing these huge adverts and making huge amounts of money which was both good and bad for me.
In terms of music though I feel like it's a way more exciting time now, South Africa at the moment has a very big identity in terms of the world stage musically. I mean we are pretty much the deep house capital of the world now as far as I'm concerned, and I know that a lot of important DJs feel the same way. Our music on the radio, our everyday music for the average person is deep house music, that's like our pop music in South Africa. We don't listen to crap pop music like they do in America, we listen to good stuff, you know? I've been into kwaito artists for some time as well.
Basically, in South Africa, the black artists have been making electronic music for a very long time, a lot longer than they've been acknowledged for. When I was at school and I was listening to kwaito it was being made by black producers. Nowadays, they have been empowered by the lack of expense in making music. Back in the day it was very expensive to have a studio and make music, but now it's far more accessible, and it's become a huge industry here. I just can't wait for it to break overseas, and that's what I'm looking forward to doing.
"We've come so far and we
still don't understand each other."
I've always wanted to work with kwaito musicians, and I did when I was younger, but it's daunting to me because I really respect them a lot. I'm the same as anybody else: I don't like rejection and I'm nervous to work with them and be rejected because I'm not as funky as they are. I know that's crap, I know I can do it and I'm looking forward to the day when I can possibly introduce them to a whole other world.
If you don't come from Africa, you don't understand how culture works here. It's very difficult for Africans to be individuals. It's like you're not allowed to be almost. If you're like cleverer than everybody else, you're supposed to almost keep it under wraps—people don't like you to succeed. So I feel like a lot of these producers could possibly want to go way further than are going, but haven't found the space to do it in. I mean, imagine one of these guys making an ambient album, you know what I mean? But maybe they would want to. I would like to work with some of these artists and as they introduce me to their world I can introduce them to mine and it would hopefully be a good union.
Who do you listen to?
I love L'vovo Derrango and Professor. They are based in Durban on a record label called Kalawa Jazmee Records, and they do really good stuff. There are various characters, I watch their music videos sometimes late at night and try to figure out who looks cool and who I'd want to do something with because I'm going to have to work with somebody who understands my sense of humour and my sense of justice and my sense of what's right and what's wrong.
Apartheid may have officially been abolished in 1990, but tensions still run high in South Africa on matters pertaining to race.
Seen here on a roll of toilet paper, Julius Malema was expelled from the African National Congress Youth League after being convicted of hate speech in 2010 and 2011.
So it would have to be a political agreement as much as a musical one?
You have to realise it's different to the rest of the world here in Africa in terms of our idea of democracy. At the moment we're having a huge drama because an artist has done a painting of the president with his penis hanging out, to the point where he is getting death threats and stuff like that. I want my work to be very critical of all the systems I feel are wrong like our government and all the things I feel are wrong in Africa, and all over the world, like the bullshit of America and that sort of thing.
So I would want to work with somebody who understands that and feels the same way. Otherwise I don't think it would work. I sometimes feel that until I can actually fucking speak Zulu, or whatever, why would they want to take me seriously? Because I've never made any mission to learn it, I just expect them to speak English to me. And their singing and everything is in their language, you know? It's a very hard thing learning a language but still, it can be done. It's not like we're imbeciles! It's just work.
I think there is an inherent racism that we don't even know about. We've come so far and we still don't understand each other. People are feeling frustrated because nothing has changed. It feels like that's in the air. It kind of scares me a lot, in terms of I love living here, and I love this country a lot. It's my heart and soul. But I'm scared that it might turn into a place that could be like Zimbabwe. I mean this FHM model recently announced her disdain for a black man on Twitter using what in South Africa is regarded as the worst racial slur imaginable, and it ignited the white guilt debate fiercely.
It's like it's all there under the surface, and it's just waiting to come out. It's the scary thing about living in this country and that's what I find so interesting in my work—the seriousness of our situation, the realness of it. There really are people who don't have anything, and there really are people who have it all, and the crime is very real. It's like this whole thing is waiting to tip, you know?
You have to understand if you're living here that—as much as you don't want to—you have to deal with issues like race. You have to, because you're confronted with it all the time. At this point in time…I mean, having grown up in apartheid and going to somebody's house and hearing the family talk in a racist manner about other people, to it being turned around so that now it's acceptable to talk about whites like that or make a music video where you're laughing at a whitey who has been tied up and beaten. It's quite hectic. The way [Julius] Malema has ripped off white MP's during elections and gotten away with it. It's scary what people can do. You'd never get away with that overseas.
So politics heavily influence your work?
Felix's South African picks
In terms of reading about South Africa—which I have been doing a lot of lately—one of the best authors I've found has been Max du Preez. He was a journalist and had a crew that was basically the fucking rebels of rebels during apartheid. They had a thing called Vrye Weekblad
which was a newspaper that used to openly challenge the apartheid government and exposed all the death squads. Jacques Pouw, who was also a journalist from that time, has done a lot of interesting stuff from all around the continent.
Musically, there is so much amazing stuff, especially Zulu music like miskanda and stuff like that. I recently discovered an artist who was one of the biggest miskanda stars. He died recently from AIDS or something like that, but he must have about twenty albums and he is fucking unbelievable.
Politics didn't influence my work so much before because when I was young all I really cared about was being cool and fucking trying to score girls. I mean I have grown up in a house where my parents are intellectuals and are very liberal. There was a very cool angle—not left or right but more in the center—and the conversations I could trust to be facts almost.
It was only really after Dark Days Exit and things kind of blew up and I decided to disappear that I really started getting interested in the world and stopped being so interested in myself and it's been really exciting for me, although at the same time quite sad learning the truth about humans and where we really are in the world today.
In terms of the West I almost feel like we've driven over the edge already, and we all know it and no one knows what to say. Like what's the solution? Do we blow up all our computers? Because something needs to be done. It's just turned into this thing where we are not humans anymore. We're just these ideal, fake beings. That's what I want to bring back in my album, the rawness and the roughness of the world because you're watching this shit on TV and it looks like another world, you know? There's people running around in Africa with machete's chopping other people to pieces for fun. It's just like, "God, do these people ever even think of this?" These people who are worried about little more than the next Xbox game.
Is it not the nature of artists to do that, though? Looking over history, would you not say it's an artist's job to commentate on the state of things, the lay of the land?
Exactly what you're saying is true. But never before in history have we had to deal with what we are dealing with now. The information overload. The biggest thing that has changed now is that you can go from zero to hero in five minutes without having actually worked to achieve it.
Besides the state of the nation, what is the state of the South African music scene as you see it?
The South African music scene is at a very, very exciting point and it will eventually come right when the white electronic musicians actually acknowledge that the black guys exist, and that they're fucking good and that they could learn a thing or two from them. For us all to learn that we could actually live in the same country together, that would be exciting.
You haven't put out a new album in a long time, but it already has a name, Deaf Safari. Has an official date been set for release?
Why tomorrow darling! The date was set three years ago for tomorrow morning! I promise! No, it'll be done in the next couple of hours or something like that.
"I have never considered leaving South Africa
because I've felt that there is still so
much more for me to learn from this place.
But I feel like I've gotten myself into a hole
which I'm finding very difficult to get out of."
South Africa often falls victim to the brain drain where our most capable and talented minds pack up and seek out greener pastures, bigger paycheques and less fortified fencing around their homes. Your parents, in fact, immigrated to Canada some ten years back. Have you ever had the desire to leave SA? Where have you considered going and why?
Up to this point I have never considered leaving here because I've felt that there is still so much more for me to learn from this place. But I kind of feel like I've gotten myself into a hole in South Africa which I'm finding very difficult to get out of. That's kind of due to my own issues and also I've just reached the end point of where I can go creatively here. It's very frustrating.
I think I may move to Germany. I'm very keen to be in an environment that's inspiring again. South Africa has become so political and there's not much love floating in the air anymore. I honestly feel that my work will be inspired by the energy around me and no doubt as in the past when I've been over there I'll wake up every morning and put on a music video by fucking Trumpies or something like that. But I'l never leave out the feeling of home in my music. It's in my blood. It's in my blood.
Published / Wednesday, 04 July 2012
Photo credits / Black & white studio close-ups - Rowan Pybus
Julius Malema - Jozi Journo