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by Sean O'Toole / 09.02.2015

Let’s get the pyrotechnics and platitudes out the way first, also the exhibition of adjectives doing the high jump. Felix Laband, the ingénue Maritzburg metalhead turned dark magus of local leftfield electronics, is due to release his long-awaited new album. Titled Deaf Safari and scheduled for release in May, the album confirms Laband’s status as a maverick original. A collage of politically focussed and sometimes off-colour samples – which he recorded off SABC news, stretched in a software programme and recomposed as vocals – overlays tracks marked by their lilting but upbeat tempo. Deaf Safari confirms what is already well known: this porn-loving son of a history professor makes achingly beautiful electronic music.

But it has been a decade since the release of Dark Days Exit, Laband’s last album, during which time zef rap from Parrow, kak rock from Belville and fluorescent-coloured eish electronica from Doornfontein has set a new agenda. Youth, that prized currency of pop, has bypassed the gap-toothed teen from Saint Charles College in Pietermaritzburg. The boy who loved Tolkien and an older girl named Janine Tilley is now a man aged 37. Music, that thing Laband has relentlessly scrutinised and routinely performed throughout his adult life, has become a career.

It’s less a rule than a ritual of pop music, that anyone in it for the long haul has to perform a magic trick, the biggest one of them all being the Lazarus act. News of Laband’s comeback album, as American news pundits would bill it, has certainly been marked by a sense of him having arisen from the dead. But biblical metaphors are bunk in these polarised times. Let’s just quietly agree that Laband, aka DJ Snakehips, who performed a live set on Sunday at the Cape Town Electronic Music Festival, has had a wilderness moment. An extended one.

“For me the wilderness period was about coming to terms with …” The sentence runs dead. Laband, his flatcap pulled sideways, is seated outside Beleza, a café and emporium in Tamboerskloof. His freckled arms are dappled with tattoos, one a study of a man with glasses wearing a hat; it is fringed by a radiance of spikes. He inhales from a Marlboro. “It is often the result of things happening when you’re a little bit too young, and you’re not quite ready for acclaim, being a known person. I was just deeply confused about who I was and what I wanted to do.”

Growing up. It’s a bitch. Your vibes become other people’s irony. “It sounds pretentious, losing grip of being young, getting older, and seeing a new youth running the show.”  But it was real for Laband, on a very human level. “There was no longer Rosemary DJing but some kid.” Ag shame. Not really. Sure growing up and losing his face, as Dave Hickey has described the male ageing process, played its part, but there were other things that chased Laband into that black hole. Gossip will fill you in on some, but I’m more interested in his perplexed engagement with the way digital culture reshaped musical appreciation.

In some senses, Laband is a minimalist composer, not in the strict sense of emulating heroes like Steve Reich. But his swooning collages of sound are never overcrowded. His 2002 album, 4/4 Down the Stairs, released during the heyday of African Dope and launched at a strip club along Loop Street, was also produced with a minimum of external references. But then Laband started to fall, like we all did at some point, for the offer of gigabyte-sized troves of music stored on someone else’s external drive. Deaf Safari, he says, is the product of a “long five-million song journey” through other people’s music to his own. It was also a journey back into the world.

Similar to 4/4 Down the Stairs, the new album extensively uses found samples. “I woke up with a pain in my body, and the devil threatens me,” moans a male voice at the start of one track from Deaf Safari. Rather than functioning as a gimmicky fragment to kick things off, which is how many of his early influences – Alien Sex Fiend, Godflesh, Ministry, Skinny Puppy did it – the sample operates like a mantra, one that establishes the mood of this very danceable album forged on the dancefloors of Braamfontein.

In 2009, exhausted by the “fucking kak of everyone in Cape Town bitching about one another,” Laband moved to Jo’burg. It was a crucial move for him. “Suddenly, I was plugged into a society where you have a sense of being in South Africa.” He started playing Kitchener’s with his Unsound System. His “offbeat dexterity” found a new mixed-race audience. Instead of the solemnity of Cape Town’s Marvel and Evol, where everyone was the embodiment of the obscure cool parodied by James Murphy, Laband encountered an up-for-it scene. One that appreciated his particular brand of quirk.

FELIX-1“In Jo’burg, when I started playing, my audience became mostly black. It was really exciting. I started using samples that could be construed as racist: ‘The bleks, they’re lazy.’ The way audiences responded was really positive. I sampled Idi Amin: ‘The woman must be in the kitchen.’ People clapped when I was playing. People responded. They started whistling and putting their hands in the air.”

The enthusiastic response helped Laband rethink the role of vocal samples in his music. He realised they were a way to furnish, rather than simply decorate, the angular and sometime arid interior space of electronic music.

“One of the biggest influences of the last five years has been Burial. The way he created those weird garage vocals was really beautiful to me,” muses Laband. “Suddenly I started rethinking how I could use vocal samples by manipulating pitch and tone. You start to make people sing. Suddenly preachers and politicians offered wholesale vocals.”

Aside from his archive of Jacob Zuma speeches, Laband has also sampled members of the AWB. He has also tried to go beyond the obvious, recording “shit that rings true to my own experience,” like an entitled whitey talking to their domestic help.

Warrick Sony of the Kalahari Surfers did the same thing, albeit with two misogynist surfers, on his 1984 album Own Affairs. Sony is the granddaddy of South African electronics. “Without a doubt,” agrees Laband. “His humour is incredible. I truly love that guy.” Sony is important to Laband for the way he paired electronic sounds with political comment. “My biggest problem, and this has been what my wilderness has been about, is that social comment has been lost in music. Music has become very frivolous with the advent of Pop Idols where it is just so blatant that it means nothing. It has been very depressing.”

If Burial offered him the method to reconceptualise his new work, the deeper tones and textures of his evolving sound has been inspired, almost exclusively, by local musicians and artists. Never a house fan, Laband however embraced kwaito early on. He singles out BOP as pioneers. Coming from KwaZulu-Natal, he also understood that kwaito wasn’t simply slowed-down house, as the lazy version of the narrative goes, but deeply infected by maskandi rhythms. Music aside, art and porn are integral to understanding Laband’s eccentric sensibility.

After finishing school, Laband went to study fine art at Durban Technikon (now Durban University of Technology) with fellow Incurables and Fingerhead band member James Beckett.  “I wasn’t conceptually ready for that thing at the time. I know first year is crap, it’s back to Bushman art and stuff like that, but I was into Jeff Koons.” Not the kitsch oversized balloons and puppy dogs Koons that now typify this New York artist, but his Made in Heaven series of photos in which Koons is graphically pictured having sex with his wife Ilona Staller. “I was really frustrated. I dropped out after first year.”

Alongside Koons, Laband was also turned on by the work of two graphically talented and deeply frustrated Afrikaners from Cape Town.

“Probably my biggest influence ever was Bitterkomix,” says Laband, who is also due to bring out a book documenting his collage work on paper later this year. “When I was in standard eight I went to the Grahamstown Arts Festival.” He saw satirical print describing in mock-instructional terms various Afrikaans blowjobs. “I wanted so badly to buy this print. My mother wouldn’t give me the money to buy it. I begged her. I started buying their comics and they just blew my fucking mind. The way those guys tackled issues. There was less menacing violence and more of a subconscious sexual insecurity. They are absolutely unapologetic about sexuality.”

FELIX-3Although restrained, that sexuality formed an integral part of Laband’s Sunday-night set at the Cape Town Electronic Music Festival (CTEMF), flashing intermittently on screen like a welcome message during his winding and wandering set. Kicked off with a long series of vocal incantations, the set scaled peaks and dropped into quiet valleys, a bit like Laband’s career to date.

“Playing live has been a real disaster for me,” says Laband. “I didn’t know how to do it from the beginning. All I could do was DJ, and that always felt cheap having been in a band.” As a compromise he has developed a live set that is an amalgam of djing, with original music and impromptu samples mixed in. It works. Unlike Kieran Hebden of Four Tet, who played a more purposefully upbeat live set, interrupted by a heartbeat-like lull near the end, Laband roamed and drifted, mooched and ambled as he searched for a horizon. Beautiful.

Laband was right to call his high school band Incurable. After everything, the junk and the disappointments, he remains a romantic behind the knobs and sliders, a maker of a dark magic. Listen out for a sample from his new album. “I know the devil will never put me down,” wails a preacher. It is Laband telling the story of his journey back to the light.

Listen to Felix Laband on Soundcloud and follow him on Twirra @felixlaband

*B&W Image © Kent Andreasen

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