Should We Just Swallow Our Pride?by Andy Davis / 09.06.2011
Over the years, we’ve taken great sport in bashing the Parlotones. It has become something of a Mahala pastime. Once, when feeling generous, I called them a “good, original covers band”. Other times I said “they will do anything for money. Without hint of irony, fair play or good taste”. I’ve called their music, “abject, less than ordinary, yawn-inducing pop-rock with the most pedestrian lyrics and hackneyed melodies” and conjured fantasies in which “stacks of Parlotones CDs smoulder in piles on the streets”. We’ve called for them to be deep fried like their celebrity endorsed KFC meals. And I also once said, “the Parlotones are without doubt the most overrated, undertalented wannabe globo-pop-rockers this country has ever produced. Their music is saccharine. Nooit, scratch that. Their music is phenylalanine, that stuff in diet drinks that makes you thirsty and gives you cancer.”
But never have we given the Parlotones the chance to answer back to this cacophony of outrage. They’ve been our punching bag. Perhaps it’s the radical success of what we perceive as a mediocre product that just rubs us the wrong way. But for some reason, the Parlotones just bring out the worst in us. Still, it’s hard not to appreciate Kahn’s professionalism and willingness to indulge a segment of audience that are generally cruel, dismissive and mean-spirited towards his earnest creative output. We thought it might be time for an irony-free group hug.
Mahala: You guys get a lot of hate, particularly from Mahala readers. Why do you think that’s so?
Kahn: To be honest I’ve never really understood the notion of hate directed towards an entity that has no intention to harm, an entity that advocates the notion of love (not hate), a very vocally patriotic entity that through various successes globally should be bringing pride to the very nation it represents. In fact our intentions are to uplift and inspire. We’re just musicians doing our thing, trying to make a living, and make some sort of success in the path we choose. And yes I understand that some guy is going to comment in the comments section with “What about the chickens you KFC fuckers?” As if we personally slaughtered them and then put them onto the burger.
I also don’t understand why so much energy is spent berating us, why not use that energy to comment on stuff you like, with only so few hours in a day why waste those hours on us, if you don’t like us. To the most part you don’t even know us, but so vehemently detest us.
I guess cynical people are generally not happy, they look for the clouds on a sunny day. I guess because we’re popular we come under fire. Perhaps some people are jealous of the successes we have achieved. Like John Mcnroe said, “everyone likes success but hates successful people”. Perhaps some of it is directed from failed musicians or the friends of failed musicians. I tried to understand it when it first started being directed at us because it seemed quite personal, but now I’ve decided to ignore it, the people that support us far outweigh those that don’t. It’s hard to ignore because hate shouts and praise whispers. To quote Confucius “It is easy to hate and it is difficult to love. This is how the whole scheme of things works. All good things are difficult to achieve; and bad things are very easy to get”.
What’s would you like your critics to know?
Perhaps take a more rounded approach. Be objective, have you heard our entire catalogue of music or even seen us live? I used to care but now the hate falls on deaf ears, insults won’t stop us trying to achieve something great. The only people who are going to get pissed off are the critics because we’ll continue to be in their faces regardless of whatever insults may be dreamt up.
What do you say to critics who say that the Parlotones are not original South African music, but rather making original music in a contemporary pop rock mould. Like an original cover band?
They’re entitled to an opinion. No man is an island, we’re a product of influences so yes we’re going to sound similar to X,Y and Z. Rock is rock and it is universal because it operates within a certain framework and panders to universal tastes, if people want a chocolate cake, we’ll maybe sprinkle some cocoa on top add a cherry, some Jelly Tots and call it Choco Decadence (or whatever) and voila we have a new chocolate cake, we’re certainly not going to give them beef stroganoff, that was never the request. What is truly original in rock? It’s like fashion, its a rehash and mixture of styles across generations but rarely moves away from a t-shirt and jeans. When we started playing music every original SA band was either breaking up or really only doing it as a hobby. The only successes were actual cover bands. We decided to do original music, despite the many warnings of failure. We started in 1998, largely influenced by British rock and indie. We juggled studies, then jobs, then quit jobs, then went back to jobs and then made the plunge to just focus on music. We played and played and toured and toured South Africa, trailing a PA which we would set up, soundcheck ourselves, break down ourselves, and do all over again the next night (to very few people) often having to go back to a mundane day job after very little sleep and strenuous journeys and trust me that PA weighed a ton. Our first album Episoda had every single rejected, our second album RadioControlledRobot saw our first two singles get token airplay on one station and then we had great success with a cover (here’s another opportunity to unleash your thesaurus of defamation) and then a lot more success. We’ve made history in this country, we were the first SA band to headline our own show at the Coca-Cola Dome in Joburg and pack it out, we were also the first act ever (including internationals) to completely sell out Grandwest Arena. We’re about to make history again by becoming the first band in the world to broadcast a theatrical rock opera in 3D around the world live! That will be broadcast to 20 million houdseholds in the USA alone and the deal will extend to South America, it will then be looped another 8 times across the network. This is being done by four normal South African guys who for some reason attract a mountain of criticism. The truth is we worked flippen hard and we still do, both in SA and now around the world. You may question our talent but our attitude towards this adventure is unparalleled. Oh yes, POP stands for popular and what is truly wrong with that? We want a career in music and in order to achieve longevity, popularity just may be a necessary ingredient.
What’s with the eye make up? Do you ever wish you had never done it because now it’s kind of become your “thing”. Are you compelled to wear guyliner?
The make-up thing happened after we played at a dress up party with the theme being vintage glam, we wore make-up and decided to stick with it. I later watched Clockwork Orange and nicked the style from there (classic cover band mentality), it was simple but memorable, kind of iconic, much like Robert Smith of The Cure’s lipstick or Morrisseys quaff, both big influences. We were always part of big line ups and we would do things that we thought people would leave the show remembering. We used to play in scarves (which we got flack for as well), we did the megaphone thing (which we got flack for too and yes we did it coz we were inspired by bands like R.E.M, James and Stone Temple Pilots). The megaphone has become our logo and synonymous with us, we then did the matching outfits.
A lot of people think the above is cheesy but we needed a way to rise above the “clutter”, sure none of them are original but the combination is unique to us. We have fans around the world who dress up like us and we’ll certainly stick with it, it worked for KISS and I’m sure it will work for us. Identity is as important as the music. If people think they can work in isolation they’re being naive. Sure the romantics will go, “its all about the music man”, but that’s ten percent of it, there’s so much more to achieving actual results, every band has their own recipe and this has been ours.
How did you deal with the negative publicity from the German Team song Come Back as Heroes. Did that damage the Parlotones brand in any way?
I wrote a whole essay on it [as did we]. I’m not sure it damaged our brand, we’re more popular than we were before that happened which means our fans aren’t as fickle as the hipsters would like to believe. The people who count (our fans) read my retort and I think they know where I stand on that situation. We’ve also become very popular in Germany.
Talking about the Parlotones brand you guys have endorsed and promoted everything from KFC to computers and wine. Is that what you have to do to make it as a band in South Africa – or do you just take those opportunities when they come along?
The endorsements have brought us in to the public consciousness of a huge proportion of South Africa. Before this started we were barely a brand, if anything it cemented a brand, that understandably comes with various levels of connotations and criticism but it is now a brand. Yes we lost some fans but we gained thousands more. And we certainly gave more fuel to the sideline critics who now had a real story to attack. Endorsements have been necessary for our career. Artists of yesterday didn’t have to do it because majors spent millions on them, the music industry is in state of chaotic flux and the rules of engagement have changed. We enter in to short term commitments with corporates whereby we still retain full ownership of our music and careers, this is contrary to how the music industry used to work whereby artists were owned by the record companies for years and years. Let’s not forget Bob Dylan recently did a Victoria’s Secret endorsement. The Beatles did endorsements, and why not? Why should endorsements be the exclusive domain of sport stars and actors? I hate to upset the critics but there’s a lot more coming…wait I lie I love to upset the critics.
Do you think endorsing products erodes or builds on the Parlotones brand?
Depends who you’re asking, our fans have grown and don’t seem to care. I believe it builds it. We’re constantly front of mind. We are constantly being advertised at someone else’s expense. Bands cannot afford advertising at corporate levels but they can build a brand that becomes attractive and then get “paid for” advertising through association. We’re kinda cheating because these become our campaigns to keep us ever present. Some raise the question of “over-exposure”, but I never saw over-exposure hurt Coca-Cola. We could forever debate the artistic integrity card, bottom line is it actually affords us the opportunity to continue a career in music. Is it selling out or buying in?
How much are those deals generally worth?
Millions in value, there’s cash, there are campaigns, there’s brand building, there’s a ripple effect. We get to continue to just focus on music, touring and building fans around the world, of course when you build a fanbase you enter the realm of public attention, you enter the sphere of opinions and yes you’ll have critics, it’s a part of the process. It’s not unique to us, there’s a stigma attached to success. To achieve success you’ll often be forced to make decisions that go against the grain of certain spheres of opinion but the decisions are strategically important.
Are there any products you wouldn’t endorse?
Do you guys really earn R300k for a half hour set. How much would it cost us at Mahala to book you guys for a gig?
Another very skewered article, we were approached to do a show that would attract 20 000 people at 200 a ticket. Understandably if we play that show it takes us out of the market for a significant period due to the volumes of people we’ve just performed to. It stunts our ability to earn money and if 4 million is being made from a concert who’s that money going to? Should the lion’s share not be going to the artists? International artists get paid as much as $1 million but yet our own artists should play for car guard change. Evidently we told them that regardless of whether we played for 30 minutes or two hours the fee was the same. The entire article was a set-up, classic sensationalist journalism; there was no show, just the article. Shouldn’t we rather be debating journalistic ethics here?
I could only see Mahala wanting to hire us to throw stuff at us, we’d be too afraid to play!
All your songs seem to be rather down tempo. They’re anthemic, sure, but there’s not a lot of rocking out on a Parlotones album. They all tend to have a ballady feel with a swelling rock chorus. Anthems. Are you guys ever going to do a hard rock album or break away from the melodic?
Have you listened to our entire body of work, across all albums, sat with a metronome to determine BPM’s, analysed syncopations, back beats, rhythms etc. or is the judgment based on a few of our radio singles? However we are a melodic band, I’m a melody junkie and grew up listening to artists who pandered towards the melodic. I love System of a Down as much as I love David Gray. Asking us to do a hard rock album would be like asking AC/DC to do David Gray. If we did that we’d just piss off our fans and then we’d have to start looking for jobs and I would be forced to start a blog to rant about how angry I am about… everything!
If you were to produce something different from the bankable Parlotones sound – which direction would you break into?
The funny thing with the “bankable” adjective is it only became bankable after many years and many albums, we never faltered from what we set out to create, only when we became popular were we labeled commercial sell-outs. I think with each album we try to do something sonically a little different, the art is sometimes in the subtleties not in bombastic changes, evolution is a gradual formation, a growth over periods of time whereby on reflection you can see a significant change. That’s what we want to be. Sure Radiohead totally metamorphasised over night and I love them but that’s not what we’re going to be. We’ll save the interesting, avante garde albums for later.
Any chance of a Kahn Morbee solo album?
I’m busy working on a sort of electronica side project called Blind Watchmen, I will most probably do some sort of a chilled solo album at some stage and yes it will probably put all our critics into a coma.
Now that you guys are famous, do you get a lot of dick riders? Other musicians who just want to jump on your steez to get at your audience?
Not sure what steez means?
Steez means “style”.
We had the fortune of opening for many bands, so we don’t mind. It does piss me off when bands aren’t appreciative of a free set-up, a packed audience… they still feel short changed. To get on overseas tours you need to pay huge amounts of money for tour support slots, ours is free. It’s also a little saddening when you hear that those very bands you’ve extended that generosity to are dissing you, because it’s cool to not like us. We’ve started extending dual favours whereby we bring bands out to SA and then we have the privilege of touring with them on their home turf. Two bands we’ve done this with so far are Starsailor and ASH, we’re busy working on bringing Airbourne Toxic Event out in December and we’ll tour the States with them in 2012. And we’ve supported Blue October in the states so we owe them a support slot back home and we’ve supported Wombats in Germany so we owe them one here too. We’re creating a ripple effect, which is positive for South Africa. They ride our coattails and we ride theirs. I’d like more SA bands to ride our coattails because it’s good for the industry to have more successful artists. I do, however, find that SA artists are often too proud to stoop to supporting “those KFC cocks” so it’s unlikely to happen. Artists need to realise that it’s not a contest.
Who’s the worst?
Name and shame is your game… not mine 😉
You guys still scooped 3 SAMAs but were they the ones you wanted. Apart from best video… Best selling DVD and best global DVD those are kind of lame categories… in comparison to previous SAMA hauls.
Well we technically qualified for best rock album based on a live recording (it fits the rules) so we never expected to even get nominated, let alone win. Therefore we weren’t let down by the fact that we never won. I guess in the opinion of spheres they’re lame categories but we’ll gladly take them. We pay attention to all spheres of our product and to be acknowledged for that is awesome, there isn’t just one facet that results in a success, it’s a sum of the parts and videos and DVD’s go a long way in presenting a certain professional visual representation of the band. This acknowledgement means we’re doing it right. We’ve now won “best music video” for the third year in a row.
Do you guys still get free KFC?
Well we now each own 7 franchises and do guest celebrity appearances in chicken suits every second day.