Nocturnal Ramblingsby Katie de Klee / 15.01.2014
Simon and the Bande à Part are an introspective folk band from Cape Town. They have recently finished recording their fourth album Blinking and Breathing. We had a chance to ask the indie trio about their music, their dreams, their reality and their future.
MAHALA: Who are Simon and the Bande à Part?
SIMON: Simon van Gend (songwriter, guitar, vocals), Eric Michot (bass, backing vocals), Ross Campbell (drums, sit-down comedian)
How did you three meet?
I met Eric back in the late 90s when then-bandmate Ben Amato orgainsed a jam with him. We’ve been jamming ever since. In 2003 when we were preparing to record my second album, the drummer we’d been working with pulled out of the project and we needed a drummer, so Eric suggested we give Ross a call. Ross came along for a rehearsal, a bit skeptically I think, but he heard the songs and was won over and has been with us ever since.
Folk music seems to be having quite a revival. There are huge international bands like Mumford and Sons and the Lumineers doing very well in global charts. How do you keep yourselves unique?
I’ve always made a point of staying true to what I feel and think in what I express – and to steer clear as much as I can from using someone else’s style or voice – that to me is the real challenge in any kind of art – to be yourself as far as possible and not to try to mould yourself to fit in with whatever is current or cool, or to mimic what’s gone before. For example, as soon as I hear a local musician singing in an American accent, and styling their persona on a cliché, for example the American bluesman, to me that’s a sign that that person hasn’t taken the first step in that kind of self-awareness, of asking “who am I really?” So, to answer your question, I say we keep ourselves unique by being ourselves, and I suppose by being aware of how easy it is to be something you’re not and to avoid it as far as possible.
Has it always been folk and indie rock for you or have you flirted with other genres too?
I always feel a bit uncomfortable talking about genres – that’s more about marketing than anything else. When people ask me what kind of music I play, I usually say, “well, I play the acoustic guitar, and I write songs that I sing with my band – and the songs are melancholic, but playful, and some of it’s dreamy and some of it’s bouncy and some of it’s more driving. Great music to play in the car when you’re on a road trip.” The minute you say “folk” or “indie” you put it in a box and all that subtlety gets lost. I used to really love reggae back in the 90s, and I have a few songs from back then that are basically reggae, but now I guess I’ve settled into my own style, which happens to involve singing with an acoustic guitar, so let’s call it folk/indie/rock for marketing purposes.
What are nocturnal ramblings?
The things your mind does when it’s 3 in the morning and you can’t sleep – thoughts like “oh my goodness life is going too fast and one day we’ll all be dead” and “if only I hadn’t said that at dinner with my mom” or “what are we going to do if Julias Malema become president?”. Hard to think of them now in the daytime, it’s like I’m a different person at 3am.
Do you remember your dreams?
All the time. I feel it’s a good sign, like my subconscious is bleeding into my conscious world, and that’s where all the best ideas come from. The more dreamy I am the more songs I write. I sometimes dream incredibly beautiful songs, but can never remember them in the morning – it’s very frustrating, but it’s good to know that my mind is capable of effortlessly creating song like that. I sometimes think that creating is intrinsically effortless, but it’s the drill sergeant of the ego that gets in the way, and this is what leads to all the frustration and perspiration involved in writing songs. Once I dreamed I was watching a Paul Simon concert, and he invited me up onto the stage and we sang a song together – a complete Paul Simon song, but one that I’d never heard before. It was there in the dream, beautiful and complete, but I couldn’t remember it when I woke up.
Do you keep a dream diary?
No, but I’ll often relive my dreams over tea in the morning, and savour the strong images.
Why do you call yourselves ‘introspective’?
Because the songs are all about what goes on inside. Some people are fascinated by events out in the world, and I am too, but I’m much more drawn to what people feel. So for example, say a dog gets run over and killed in the street, it’s a shocking event, but what ends up occupying my mind is the way everyone around reacts, what their faces reveal about how they feel, and how I react inside and what it makes me think about life, love, etc.
Would you call your music self-conscious?
Depends on the meaning of ‘self-conscious’. It can mean awkward, like a teenager still learning to be comfortable in his or her body, and I suppose in that sense the music is a bit self-conscious, at first, because the songs are honest and sometimes revealing, and I’m always a bit worried about how they will be taken. But ‘self-conscious’ can also mean ‘self-aware’, and the songs are definitely all about self-awareness – the process of writing is often about uncovering new parts of myself, or expressing previously repressed feelings, and so the songs are all about becoming more self-aware, and maybe even helping others to know themselves a bit better.
Do you think self-consciousness and introspection makes your songs more honest?
To me an honest song is one that reflects what I happen to be feeling at the time I write it. It’s like breaking news from the frontline of the war in my mind, or maybe just a peacetime report on how my latest love affair is going. But it has to be written from my experience. I don’t feel anything good can come from me misrepresenting myself to the world, trying to write a happy song when I’m sad, or vice versa. I feel strongly about this, because I think that by being as authentic as I can be in my songs, I might be able to help other people to be authentic too. We are subject to so much pressure in the world to be something we’re not. And I think it requires introspection and self-awareness to be able to resist that. And I think that’s one of the functions of artists in the world, to show what it is to be human, to help us all be more human, in a world that seems to want us to be machines, that always smile and feel powerful and successful.
Are you a poet? Whats the difference between writing a song and writing a poem?
I’ve read a definition of poetry that says it’s verse that has the power to awaken ‘higher’ or ‘noble’ feelings in people, so I guess it comes down to what you consider ‘higher’ or ‘noble’ feelings. I’ve had people thank me for the feelings my songs have enabled them to feel, so for them I might be some kind of poet. But, of course with songs you have the power of music to help awaken those feelings, so it can be doubly effective. I’m not sure how my lyrics would stand on their own if published as poetry. But anyway, they’re not designed to be poems, they’re there to serve the song. In a song the sound of the words is almost as important as their literal meaning. Some of my favourite lyrics are pure nonsense, but they somehow set your feelings free, partly because they sound great. The great thing for me about writing a song, is the music stirs up feelings and from those feelings words appear. I guess with poetry it can work like that too, because you have a rhythm, but in music you’ve got rhythm plus melody, and it’s just that much more evocative.
In ‘I am the worm’ the lyrics say ‘I am a little bit scared of something.’ What?
Good question, probably lots of things – can’t remember what it was the night I picked up my guitar and wrote that song. Though it’s not that important what it was, what was maybe more important was just admitting to myself at that moment that I was scared. That’s a good place to start – a lot of people don’t have the time to stop and realise that they’re scared a lot of the time. About their loved ones dying, about losing their jobs, about getting old, about spending Friday night alone again, etc. For me it was probably all of those to some extent.
Do you find yourself more creative in the sunlight or the night time?
Generally at night, I’d say. Though I’ve learned not to become too attached to this idea of only being creative when the mood is right. I’ve discovered that it’s more about facing the fear of failure, the fear of writing a shit song, and just feeling that fear and writing the song anyway. A few years ago I set myself the challenge of writing a song a week for 10 weeks, and I’d procrastinate until there was only half an hour to go and then I’d just write a goddamn song, and amazingly some of my best songs came out of that process. It really comes down to feeling the fear and doing it anyway. Often, once the ball is rolling, and there’s a chord progression happening, the feelings get sparked and melodies and words start to flow. As Woody Allen supposedly said, ninety percent of success is just showing up.
Has living in Cape Town influenced your music?
A journalist from Joburg recently asked me what kind of music I play and when I said ‘sort of folky, acoustic, introspective’ she said “oh, Cape Town music”. I also grew up surfing, listening to Bob Marley, Neil Young, Bob Dylan, etc, and I imagine if I’d grown up in Joburg it might’ve been a bit different, maybe I’d have ended up being into harder stuff. Then there’s the stuff I would’ve heard as a baby strapped to the back of the woman who cleaned our house, Xhosa radio, and I guess that’s crept in somewhere too.
How did you connect with Jump Media to produce Blinking and Breathing?
Steve Hallam, who owns Jump Media heard our album “Guest of my Feelings” via his friend Mike Smith (who runs the Live Music Guide). Steve got hold of us and flew us to Dubai to support Finlay Quaye on his tour there. We then kept the conversation going and he offered to finance a new album.
Pocketsongs was a completely home recorded and self-financed album, now that you are being corporately backed has this effected your creative freedom? And generally how has it impacted on the band?
Jump Media didn’t interfere with our recording in any way at all – they really just gave us free reign and I’d say there was no negative impact at all. It’s rare to find financial backers who are willing to give musicians absolute creative freedom and Steve was really amazing in this way, and I feel I can’t thank him enough for this. Amazing to have someone believe in you like that.
What’s next for you guys?
We’re planning to do as many shows as we can in the coming year. We’ve recently got much more business-like and goal-oriented, and with the help of our new manager, we’re planning to get out there us much as we can and get our music into the hearts and minds of as many people as we can. In September I’m going to the States for a month to do a house concert tour, based in Philadelphia, but travelling all around the East Coast. Other than that, we need to start planning our next album, as we have enough new songs now to record. But I’m writing all the time, and the more songs we have when we go into the studio, the better the selection that will end up on the final album, so there’s no rush really.
What more are you hoping to achieve in your musical career?
Most of my ambitions are in terms of songwriting, to get better at writing songs, to find that magical combination of feelings and words and melodies and chords that gives people goosebumps. And also to find more ways of getting those songs to people. In a way I feel like I’ve succeeded in what I set out to do, to write songs that would really mean something to people, now we just have to figure out how to get those songs further into the world. I’d love to get to the stage where I can make a living travelling with my band and singing my songs to new audiences.
Where would your dream gig take place?
How about one of those enormous gigs on the beach in Rio where millions of people come? I’m sure I read about one of those with Neil Young and the Rolling Stones. Or maybe just a little acoustic unplugged gig in a beach shack in Mozambique.
And your dream collaboration? Who’d be the perfect fourth corner? Or no one?
The perfect fourth would be a great producer, like Daniel Llanois, or Tucker Martine. Would be great to make a record with the help of Sufjan Stevens.