A Great Place to Pick Up Chicksby Mahala High Five Brigade / Images by Hanro Havenga / 06.09.2013
Here at Mahala, music is war. Luckily Shortstraw aren’t too cool to just ignore us. Hell they even produced their own infographic and called us out for being ‘cunty’ to Matthew Mole. The Jozi five-piece burst onto the scene back in 2009 with their kwela inspired indie rock vibes and humorous, irreverent lyrics. Since then they’ve dropped two albums, honed their sound a bit and are bringing it to the Puma Social Club tonight. We caught up with frontman Alastair Thomas.
MAHALA: Why do you guys think Mahala is the most cunty blog in South Africa?
Alastair Thomas:Isn’t that what you okes are going for? You write such cunty things, you cunts!
What’s wrong with pointing out that Matthew Mole pulls a Christian niche and that helps sell records? Are you denying it?
No, you’re right. But you did it in such a cunty way! Have you ever met Matthew Mole? He is literally the nicest guy ever. And I genuinely don’t think he would ever exploit the Christian niche factor, he sings what he believes and it results in honest music.
To which Shortstraw responded:
When are you guys going to drop a Christian / Afrikaans album? Surely you’re tired of starving.
We’re waiting for the next rapture scare…
How do you define yourselves musically.
Indie pop with a bit of afro kwela vibes and immature lyrics.
How important is the comedy thing to your music? And does trying to be funny sometimes fuck up your more seriously musical stuff?
We try not to take ourselves too seriously, and because of that I think the comedy element comes through. I don’t think it’s as important in the music as much as it is in our personal lives. We don’t want to be the twats who think our music is poetry, but we also don’t want to be a spoof band. And it’s definitely made it difficult for us to transition into a band people take seriously. We were known as the ‘Keanu Reeves’ band for fucking years, and we’ve come to resent writing it. It was a stoner jam we used to end practices with cos we got to just fuck around for three and a half minutes. But the truth is, we have ballads too, that we love. But they flop hard when we try play them live. Now we’re the ‘bitch in the morning’ band. What can you do, ey?
Who or what influences your musical tastes?
Initially I assume our parents all influenced our tastes in music, because that’s all we had access to. These days, it would have to be the internet and social media.
Top song(s) right now.
I’m late to the party, but have just discovered Local Natives and can’t get enough of Cubism Dream. Palma Violets – Best of Friends.
I often think you guys are like Desmond and the Tutus with more accessible jokes. Respond.
We just sing about shit that can happen to anyone, so people can relate to it a lot of the time. Desmond do a similar thing, but we might just do it in a simpler way.
How relevant is the music you make to a South African audience? Or are you aiming for the world? What influences your songwriting and musical direction? Who’s your audience?
We’ll always want to have a South African sound. Embrace where we’re from and stuff. I think that can appeal to a local audience and hopefully an international one as well. It’s a South African style, so people here know it, so they can embrace it, but it also has a (sort of) different sound to what most people expect from music from the rest of the world. I think our personal opinions influence the sound more than anything else, so if we like the sound of a song we’re writing, we’ll go with that. If you don’t like the music you’re playing, what’s the point? Which is quite self indulgent. We’ve been lucky. Our audience was girls between the ages of 17 and 23, for a while, (having a heartthrob like Tom on guitar helped that), but it’s been growing over the last year and it’s now relatively vast. Younger girls and slightly older guys mostly still, though. I once overheard a jocky-type guy saying to his friend “Yus, a Shortstraw show is a great place to pick up chicks, huh.” So there’s that.
What’s the goal with Shortstraw?
It’d be rad to get to a point where it’s financially viable for it to be a full time job.
Tell us about this jangly skanky indie kwela inspired sound – what’s the logical musical progression for you guys?
People like to party when they go out. They want to dance to the music that’s playing, and jangly guitars and kwela beats allow them to do that. We’ve discussed our next album amongst ourselves though, and it’d be rad to try out a heavier sound, but all within reason. I guess we want to try and combine a few different genres together.
You seem to have a lot of fun on stage and in the songs you write, but there’s a definite political edge to some of your tunes (or maybe I’m wrong). Are you guys specifically political, if so it’s quite a nuanced take. It’s not protest music, but songs like ‘you’re underfed I’m wonderful’ have definitely got something else going on beyond the standard pop music frame… want to expand on that a little?
I think politics and (bad) relationships are pretty similar. I see where you’re coming from with ‘Underfed’, but it was never intended to be political.
How hard was it to produce your sophomore album, Good Morning, Sunshine? Is there a new direction? Where’s it going
We definitely tried to incorporate the kwela vibe a bit more than with the first album. We wrote the songs over a year (as opposed to 3 years, like the first) so the songs fitted together a lot better. We kept the whole album upbeat, with just one semi-ballad, which helped tie it all together a bit more easily too. But apart from that, it was pretty much the exact same process as the first album, just with different people – 3 new members and different producers. We worked with Jacques du Plessis and Marc de la Querra at High Seas Records, and they helped make it super easy. A lank chilled out environment and we were all on the same page the whole time. We already had the songs, they just helped us refine them. They also co-wrote a couple of the songs’ lyrics.
How do you feel about being the irreverent voice for Joburg’s resident northern suburbs (who like hanging out in Maboneng and Braamfontein) hipsters?
Haha! I don’t think we’re obscure enough for the real hipsters. But we sing about typical northern suburbs situations, so it makes sense that they would make up our audience. And, like I said, our audience is growing, so hopefully we’ll break out in the other suburbs soon too. We’re fine with it though, they’re mostly very handsome people.
Please send us pics of your fixies and moustaches.
We’ll show you ours if you show us yours…
I’d say that your tunes capture the ennui and fleeting coolness (inside jokes et al) of the rich white south african bubble existence, but at the same time, your music seems self aware enough to accept, confront and challenge that, without going so far as to actually attempt to pop the bubble. Like it’s still user friendly pop have fun music. Discuss.
Look, we sing about frivolous shit that happens to upper middle class northern suburbers, but at least we’re aware of it. Maybe we’re “suggesting” that people take themselves less seriously. A lot of what we sing about is hooking up and partying, which is a reality, but not necessarily the most satisfying way of living. It challenges it, maybe, but you need to figure out the solution yourself.
Who would win in a fight between you and Holiday Murray?
They would. Have you seen Gad without a shirt on?
I can imagine Shane Durrant secretly hates you guys. But you probably force him to up his game. Are you guys trying to knock the Tutus off their perch? Or is it more of a slipstream kind of thing?
Haha! Shane has done so much for us as a band, I hope he doesn’t hate us! He published our first album and is the reason why Good Morning, Sunshine got a Japanese release. We’re definitely not trying to knock them anywhere, but the idea is get onto the same level as them. We’ve played quite a few shows together and I think we really complement each others’ sound. It’s obvious to everyone that’s heard both bands that they’re a big influence on us musically, so having them help us out when and where they can is a blessing. So, it’s a slipstream kind of thing then.
How come you don’t get love from We-Are-Awesome… i think that displays downright favouritism from Andrew Berry. What a cunt.
We’ve gotten a fair deal of love from We-Are-Awesome actually. Andrew Berry is a lovely cunt!
What can we expect from the set at the PSC tonight?
Disappointment. Bring rotten vegetables.
How about a new infographic based on this interview?
Here you go.
*Images © Hanro Havenga.