Richard Wouters on growing up with African jazz and the new album's dubstep influence.
It’s not often the you interview the drummer of a band on their own. They often hang back and seem to deliberately skirt the spotlight. So, in the case of our interview with Richard Wouters, who keeps the best for South African band Civil Twilight, we were particularly lucky to get him on the phone. You see, the rock quartet, now based in Nashville has recently released a sophomore album called Holy Weather that is all about the beat.
From their rehearsal studio in Nashville, Wouters told us all about how the many layered, many rhythmed album came to be from a drum riser’s eye view. We also got into the band’s back story. They started in Cape Town, but things really started to take of when they moved to Los Angeles and discovered that their music is especially telegenic. It’s been featured on House, The Vampire Diaries, One Tree Hill and a pile of others that beamed them straight into home across America. Just like that, the boys who grew up surfing in Hout Bay were making waves on US rock charts. Read on for the whole story.
Is there a theme stretching through Holy Weather?
Musically we tried kind of looking at the last record and tried doing a few things differently. We tried making the songs a little more focused. And we wanted the album to be groove and melody driven. That was kind of the objective and we wrote a lot of the songs around beats, with beats first. We tried some new stuff like layering vocals that we hadn’t done before. And we tried writing in some ways that we hadn’t done before using, for example Garage Band. Steve wrote quite a few on the songs singing into his laptop and kind of laying stuff.
Did you work with a producer?
Initially, it was ourselves. We wrote everything ourselves a kind of demoed all the songs and then we worked with two different producers on the record, a guy named Dan Carey a British producer and we actually went over to London and recorded with him over there and we did about half the record. He has a studio in south London and he was really excited about the demos that he heard so it was really a fun process.
We picked him because he is really great sonically and really quite experimental and he also comes from a background that’s a little more programmed beat driven. He’s done remix stuff and some pop stuff and an electronic background, but also a very, soul/live band background. And we really tried to blend those two worlds. We’re very much a live band, but we became more interested in layered beats and textures.
That must have been very interesting for you as the drummer.
Yes, it was. The beats were more collaborative on this record whereas on the first record I just played everything and came up with all the drum parts myself. So, this was a whole band effort coming up with beats. And actually when we went into the studio with Dan we were playing around with a lot of old analog drum machines and that sort of thing, so we got a mixture of programmed and analog drums.
Were there any particular influences you guys were drawing on for your beats?
Sort of. Some of the British dubstep influenced stuff but more the stuff like Burial and James Blake, the kind of sparse stuff. The kind of beat stuff that has a lot of space in it.
How has growing up in Cape Town shaped your musical sensibilities?
Growing up, we didn’t get to watch a lot of live rock music or alternative music like the kind that we play. A lot of the live music we heard around Cape Town was jazz and ethnic music. And Steve and I, we actually go into playing some of that stuff for a while and we learned from some of the local jazz musicians and that was a really great experience. Because the African jazz has a different feel from American jazz. There’s a vibrancy to African music too, there’s a lot of rich sort of vocal music, like choirs. I don’t know if you know Ladysmith Black Mambazo.
Is there any of that, that influences you to this day?
Definitely, like on a subconscious level. We’ll start to play and that kind of music will start to come up; some of the songs will start to sound a little like that. In the past we would steer away from that a little bit because it didn’t necessarily fit with where we saw ourselves in terms of being a rock band. But we’re starting to embrace it a little more and we’re a little more excited about that influence now. There’s a weird thing when you are growing up where what your familiar with is what you try to avoid.
Are there South African artists who have influenced you?
There’s a pianist Abdullah Ibrahim. He had a different name in the States [Dollar Brand] because his real name was so hard to pronounce. He’s one of the artists who, when we were quite young, we would go to see him play. He had just the most beautiful sound. Seeing him play in Cape Town, the vibe in the venue that we saw him at, and just the really, really beautiful heartfelt piano music. He’s old and he’s been playing for a long time, and when people like that play there’s a spirit and a heart behind it that you can feel, that’s a lot more than just the notes that he’s playing.
It was one of those musical moments. It’s amazing because it’s kind of in one way a simple man with a piano but there’s this sound and this soul that comes with the music that’s just completely engrossing. It’s difficult to describe.
Has life in the US inspired your music as well?
Being exposed to a lot more music here. We were exposed to some unique music growing up but there wasn’t a huge variety of it. When we were younger it was harder to get music because we were so far removed from what was going on in the UK or America, so music would kind of trickle down to us, but it wasn’t like we were immersed in it. Whereas, here there’s so many bands and so much great music that you have access to. When we got here we just went to see every show that we could, because when we were growing up none of the bands that we were really into came to Africa. We would just listen to CDs and watch concert DVDs.
That was a really inspiring thing about coming here, just being able to see these artists live, for the first time really and see how good they were and sort of learn about what it takes to put on a really great show and learn about how great performers in our genre do things.
What do you miss about South Africa?
Sometimes I miss the simplicity of things and the kind of slower pace of life. Cape Town is definitely slower than Johannesburg. It’s kind of a mix of both worlds in some ways, because African culture and Africa in general, especially in the big cities is busy and that frenetic element is there when you are in the city, but where we grew up it was a little bit out of the city, in, I suppose one of the suburbs, we were right on the beach, in an area called Hout Bay, it had sort of a sleepy beach town kind of feel, with just beautiful nature and scenery and the ocean just there every day.
We grew up surfing and spent a lot of time in the water and on the beach. And I think that’s also influence who we are and how our music is. The atmospheric thing as well, there’s a feeling you get looking at the ocean and the mountains there that’s expansive.
Some of your songs have been picked up for TV show soundtracks. What’s it like hearing your music in a different context like that?
It was quite strange at first. I remember the first time we ever watched a song of ours on a TV show it was that show House. They used the song “Human” from our first record, which is a piano ballad and kind of like an emotional sort of song. We all watched the show together and the song came on and it was really strange to see being used with completely different visuals because when we wrote the song or played the song, you know, you kind of have certain images in your mind. It was kind of surreal.
What’s it like now when you go back to South Africa and perform?
It’s really great. We’ve been back a few times and we always have so much fun performing there. I think people get really excited because we’re a band from South Africa that’s had some success in America, which is kind of a big deal in South Africa. That’s kind of everyone’s aspiration. America’s sort of the place to make it in the world. When we were kids that was our dream, to play music in America.
When we first started to have some success here there was a lot of media interest from South African media. And we went back there and everyone was really excited about the band and we had a bunch of new fans that came out to see us play. And it’s kind of like a homecoming. People are very proud of the country and we’re embraced as some sort of hero or ambassador, which is kind of cool.
Find out more about Civil Twilight and Holy Weather with this short documentary: