Dirty Dancingby Zoe Henry / 05.06.2009
The indie rock scene is a strange one. For something that labels itself as independent, there are a lot of rules. You have to be cool, but not so cool that your image is unattainable. You have to be underground, but not so underground that no-one knows about you. You have to have a following, but not so much of a following that you can be considered popular. And you have to be beautiful, but not so much that you could make a living out of it. Hell, these are some hectic working conditions, and The Dirty Skirts have fared pretty damn well under such constraints. Frontman Jeremy De Tolly and I shot the south-easterly breeze over a couple of preservative-free ginger beers, and had a little rah-rah about the local music industry.
The Dirty Skirts’ break from Sony BMG last year raised some eyebrows. With all the unsigned bands being forced to buy one-ply toilet paper, you’d think The Skirts would be grateful for the security of a big label deal. “The record industry is very complex around the issues of ownership of the music that one writes, and who’s investing the money and the time and the energy, and we’re very, very independent and entrepreneurial. So it was a helluva decision to try out the Sony route and, perhaps in retrospect, it’s unsurprising that, like oil and water, we parted”, explains De Tolly.
“I’m not sure who’s greasy”, he adds with a giggle. Understandably, if the chemistry isn’t right the relationship must be severed. “Like Britney and Kevin”, he laughs. Although, this is a split that’s been successfully kept out of the tabloids. “It’s not in the interest of either party to speak about [the break] loudly in public. It was a relationship that broke down. If there was dirt, I wouldn’t share it in public. The person we dealt with at Sony has his version and would give a vastly different opinion than we would. They’re good at what they do; we’re good at what we do. The relationship just didn’t work.”
Where one frosted glass door slams shut, another rustic stable door opens. The band wasted no time in getting signed to another label, this time with the smaller, more independently minded Sheer Records. “The relationship with Sheer is great so far. It’s early days, but we’re enjoying the enthusiasm. The deal we’ve struck with them really suits us. We customised it and they’re keen to work with us in the way we’re keen to be worked with. The structure is right.”
“We’re on a grand adventure and we have absolutely no idea what we’re doing. We don’t know how to make great music. We are simply trying our best. What we’re really good at as a band is pitching up and trying, and putting it out there. That’s how this band has always been. When we had been The Dirty Skirts for two months we put out a student recording of ‘Little Tsunami’, and that went out in a press release that we sent all across the country. It was a terrible recording, but it was just like if not, why not?”
The Skirts aren’t afraid of overexposure. “I think there are unbelievable musicians across this country, and I really don’t think that we’re better than other people at all. In fact, I’m clearly aware that we’re not. We are just in the lucky position to be able to make our mistakes with quite a large public. And our successes as well. I hope that doesn’t sound un-genuine. It’s an amazing thing to be able to put out an album, and so special to get up and play at festivals.” He stops and stares off into space for a minute, before clarifying his cloudy look. “I’m not really sure where I’m going with this. It’s humble time! I’m sure that was on the list. Humility? Check! What’s next?” he laughs.
What’s next, indeed? “Well, we’re formulating a strategy, because we don’t think the local music industry really works.” What? Criticising the holy cow that is the South African music industry? “We’ve got some fairly different ideas, but the long and short of it is we’ve been overseas two years running. We’ve played things like South By Southwest; we’ve had people from MTV and Radio 1 at some of our London gigs, raving, and absolutely nothing is happening on the international front,” he states matter of factly. “And that’s not really frustrating. It’s just real,” he adds with a wry laugh. “So we want to try out some new angles, and one of the things we’re doing at the moment is we’re writing what we like to call internet singles…
“It’s a helluva thing writing a whole album. We released an album in 2007, then another one in 2008, and we’re busy writing again, but I’m not sure if we want to go the full distance of writing an album right now. We just want to write brilliant tunes and produce a couple of unbelievable songs. Songs that we think are so turbo that we back them. Just spend quite a lot of money on a video ‘cos we want to try crack international through one song via the internet. It’s the combination of the perfect video and the perfect song. Selling albums is pretty old school. The industry is shifting, so let’s just get on with the shift. But you have to do albums. They’re really expensive marketing exercises.”
The Dirty Skirts’ second album, Daddy Don’t Disco sparked a variety of opinions. Some fans cried “They just don’t sound like The Dirty Skirts anymore”, while others were more open to the idea of a band’s sound maturing and changing along with their personalities. “It’s a funny album, because it’s smoother, possibly more mainstream”, De Tolly explains. “That wasn’t a conscious decision. What we were choosing was to, one – do a produced album and get better production values. And two – we decided to leave as fashion as we possibly could behind. We wanted to make a non-indie album, which is quite a dangerous thing to do. The album isn’t dangerous, but it was dangerous for us”.
The term ‘indie’ is pretty elusive. It’s saturated with connotation and almost entirely devoid of any denotation, leaving it quite open to all sorts of interpretations. And interpret people do, abundantly. “The indie thing is funny. And I think the anti-indie thing is hilarious as well. The indie thing is funny because what was really exciting for me in 2005 was that the roots of my music came into fashion simultaneously with me getting involved in it again. Stuff that I’d been listening to forever, from The Cure to Joy Division. I’d listen to new bands and think ‘Wow, they also sound like they’ve listened to a lot of Robert Smith.’ I think that maybe the fashion was just too much for people.”
Their sound may be becoming more sophisticated, but there’s a constant battle for good production values. “We’re not a country famous for innovative production and incredible production values. It’s not an easy part of what we do: producing world- class albums. Because that’s what we’re trying to do and we haven’t succeeded yet. Bummer.”
And what of all the people who hate the Dirty Skirts? And there are quite a few of them who work in the media? “One of my favourite techniques, when I’m really bummed about a bad review, I always like to say ‘okay, what’s true about it?’ I hate doing it, but it’s really good. All artists are insecure. Ask Coldplay. Ask Morrissey how much self-questioning goes on? A shit lot! Often success helps people deal with it. The more successful people are, you can kind of say, ‘Well, I’m selling albums, so who cares?’ In South African we don’t even really have that luxury. You’ve got be prepared to take a beating for doing what you love.”