Jeez, there are some shit bands.
Don’t get me wrong, any band is a worthwhile exercise. You get to have more fun than adults should be allowed to have, you get to express yourself and ideally entertain some other people. But most of them are actually a bit crap.
This became clear after an evening spent with Lunatic Wolf in their lair at High Seas Studios.
Lunatic Wolf are not a shit band. They are the exact opposite. They are a band at the apotheosis of contemporary music. Their style of music – contemporary folk – sounds so simple, effortless. Delicate, but carefree, like a summer breeze through your hair as you steer one of those long skateboards down Kloof Street to drinks with some mates.
It sounds like that. It seems effortless, but its creation involves the kind of zero-tolerance engineered perfectionism you need to build bridges and shit. High-rises. Gautrains. The Lunatic Wolf album, To The Adventure, is like the Moses Mabhida stadium of sound engineering.
It only requires a wander into their rehearsal space at High Seas Studios in greater Rosebank, Johannesburg, to realise that these are unquestionably gents who Know What They Are Doing.
The contrast, for instance with the methodology of my humble, garage-rock project becomes clear. Where The Near Misses (The Worst Band In JoburgTM) jam in a disused Telkom office, Lunatic Wolf rehearse in a sound studio that probably charges thousands per day on the open market.
My sitting in on their “jam” felt like attending the dry run for the opening of a new Porsche factory in Leipzig. This was sound engineering writ large.
The super-relaxed Lunatic Wolves perched inside a dark, rope-lit, ultraviolet cave of an air-conditioned studio, all wearing headphones, playing along to a click track. The inventory of instruments and gear barely admitted the seven of us. An upright bass peered from behind a stack of amps, there were keyboards, guitars bristled in their racks. There were even headphone stands… The lighting, while low, was atmospheric – perfect for viewing the visuals. Because LW were going to be rehearsing to the AV clips for their stage show tonight.
At this level of contemporary music, being in a band is a multimedia project. “You’ve got to have visuals,” notes vocalist and band inseminator Gavin Van Den Berg. He describes the band’s take on performance, how they refuse to conform to the standards of Jozi’s bare-bones live rock scene. They will play festivals with double-storey video screens. “The SA festival scene is booming, even if the rock club scene is shrinking”, observes multi-instrumentalist Jacques du Plessis, owner of High Seas Studios, and co-producer of the album. If necessary, they will travel with screens and projectors and make the AV part of their stage show.
This is all still theoretical, because the band have never actually played live. Despite having an album out, being on iTunes and all the streaming services; despite having a slot booked on the James Phillips stage at this year’s Oppikoppi Festival, Lunatic Wolf have never played a show. That said, their individual members have dozens, maybe hundreds of shows under their belts as members of Wrestlerish, Dance You’re On Fire and Your Name In Neon.
“So we’re sort of doing it the other way round,” notes Richard Oldfield, who with Gavin Van Den Berg is the creative hub of the band. There are not that many bands who release an album before they’ve played live, but the ones who do, are probably supergroups with an established fan base and a bunch of goodwill in the industry.
That’s Lunatic Wolf. This project has stoked serious interest. How else would they get a top-end slot at the Koppi! So there is a fair bit of pressure to deliver a quality show. Jacques is concerned about the festival’s tight 15-minute soundcheck time and how that will allow them to do justice to a project 18 months in gestation.
It all began when Van Den Berg and Oldfield dug themselves from the ashes of Your Name In Neon and started writing fresh songs. The songs helped them heal the wounds of the band break-up and also to strike out in a new direction.
Where YNIN had a “quite hard” sound, this would be contemporary folk in the style of Death Cab for Cutie, Noah Gundersen, Mumford & Sons and Sufjan Stevens. And songwriting and production would be their trump card.
“We produced it as we wrote the songs,” says Van Den Berg. “So by the time we brought the album to Jacques, we had a pretty clear idea of where we were heading sound-wise.”
It’s a sign of how sophisticated modern listeners are, that bands now have to produce their songs while they are writing them if they want any chance of competing on the contemporary music scene.
If one had to make a criticism, it’s that there’s something a bit OCD about how precise this album is. It’s almost scary how much perfectionism is at play here. The “rehearsal” saw the band do three almost indistinguishably flawless versions of the same song, but moaning the whole way through about, “I’m phasing in the cans.” and “Is there latency?” and then “We’re double monitoring and sending it to the PC click track…”
But this kind of focus is clearly what it takes to do the job properly.
A raw, garage sound can be charming, but it stands no change against the likes of Rihanna, Kanye and Beyonce’s million-dollar production. Or indeed that of Mumford & Sons. That is where Jacques du Plessis comes in. And come in he did, it’s also instructive that with Lunatic Wolf, the producer became so involved in the project that he joined the band.
Likewise a supremely talented crew of musicians bought into the Lunatic Wolf vision – to wit Gavin Flaks (drums), Adrian Erasmus (guitar) and David Grevler (bass). All seem committed to achieving the utmost level of sonic excellence on this project. The music is magnificent, don’t get me wrong, but there’s is an understanding that this is not enough. It needs to be rendered at its very best. The musos all seem to be multi-instrumentalists, and during the rehearsal, it’s not unusual to see one guy playing four instruments during one song. “We needed to work out the logistics of how to play the studio tracks live,” says Richard. “That’s why there has to be six of us. It’s not possible any other way.”
But sound needs songs, and here LW are well served by Gavin and Richard’s body of work. Songs like The Tallest Tree, I Used To and Growing up, Growing have a strong theme of advancing age. “They’re about looking back on your childhood,” says Gavin. “Realising you’re growing older and you can’t take it all back.”
Gavin’s vocals also communicate a kind of deep melancholy that synchs with this idea of childhood’s end. But there’s an optimism about the next phase, an enthusiasm for the personal evolution. Being ready to grow up. “I will start to read the papers,” sings Van Den Bergh on Growing Up, Growing Old. “…and buy her flowers.”
It’s fitting that such a theme comes expressed in such a mature, sophisticated album of music. This is what Gavin and Richard did after their spell in the metal-esque Your Name In Neon.
It’s an apt next phase. And a compelling addition to the South African music landscape.