2009 ‘Best Newcomers’ Ashtray Electric are about to release their second studio album, play a national tour and headline the upcoming RAMfest melee of rock, metal and more.
This column originally appeared in the Cape Argus ‘Tonight; section on 12 – 13 February 2011.
Ashtray Electric were hailed as the MK music channel’s “Best Newcomer” Band in 2009 and received wide-spread critical and audience appreciation of their full length debut, “Bonjour” (remember “Quite Overstared” and “Slow Down The Night”?). Now, they find themselves in that most delicious dilemma of anticipation unique to successful bands – their recording work on the new album has been done, but it’s yet to be mastered and completed. Only then will they have the completed product in their hands – and to give to the ears of fans both new and long-standing.
“Imagine the first album, but a little bit more grown up,” says the band’s guitarist, Rudi Cronjé, by way of an introduction to the pending tunes. “The music is a bit more calculated – we’re not just writing stuff because we found a cool riff. There’s a bit more piano, and the guitaring is a bit more ambient; we’re using that to colour in the songs and create a mood. So, rather than just being about riffs, this time we actually wrote songs from scratch and, especially with the angles that André covers and the direction he takes with his lyrics, I think he can hear the band has grown up. That’s such an overused statement, but it’s the usual story of everything being maanskyn en rose (moonshine and roses) and then, when you get older, things are more complex. We haven’t forced a new direction, but it’s a progression that still has the Ashtray Electric sound.”
Speaking of “sounds”, Ashtray Electric were one of the bands featured on the “Bellville Rock City” compilation alongside Fokofpolisiekar, Springbok Nude Girls, Foto na Dans, aKING, KOBUS and more. How do they feel about being this – both in terms of its musical implications and in terms of the Bellville “scene” of musical friends. “I think it started off as a scene and a sound,” says Cronjé, “But we realised quickly after ‘Bonjour’ came out and ‘Bellville Rock City’ came out that it was very cool to be part of, but we had to move forward. We could only ride the coat-tails of the Bellville thing for so long, especially because only three of us are from Bellville. But we’re still all good friends.” Indeed, Francois van Coke and Jaco “Snakehead” Venter of Fokofpolisiekar are amongst the cameo appearances in the band’s video for “When Sex Becomes A Sport”. “I ran into Francois last night, in fact, and we had a good couple of drinks and spoke for a good long time. But the Bellville thing was a time and a place and, even although it’s in our roots, I wouldn’t really say that’s part of our sound now.”
Alongside Cronjé in Ashtray Electric are André Pienaar doing vocals, Regardt Nel playing bass and Rupert Nel on drums. They’ve played RAMfest before, but under different circumstances to their co-headlining slot for the 2011 festival. “It”s actually quite weird,” says Cronjé. “The first time we played RAMfest, three years ago, we played at 12 in the afternoon and it was 30 degree heat. By the time we were halfway through the set, even though it’s more of a metal festival, there were a few faces crawling out of the woodwork to hear what we were doing. This year, we’re playing right after the Blk Jks. Firstly, that’s intimidating because they’re fantastic, but secondly it’s great because they’re not that kind of hardcore music, then we play, and then it’s Desmond And The Tutus, which is another great band that’s not in the hardcore style. Overall, RAMfest has a much harder feel than, say, Rocking The Daisies, but we all need that.” He pauses and laughs, then add, “We all need to rock to some hard stuff from time to time.”
In terms of the overall South African rock music nation, Cronjé has a healthy attitude of realistic positivity about Ashtray Electric. “The scene is still moving forward at a rate of knots. More and more people want to get involved, and so do more bands. It’s harder for us to get shows now than it was a year and a half ago when we didn’t have the track record and the full-length album. We have more now, but there’s more competition and people are getting better; they’re lifting their game and putting in more effort. Being a band is not just something you do in a garage anymore. You have to get out there and play the shows; get better; buy better equipment,” he says. “I think the World Cup helped a lot, with a focus on South Africa, and the fact that the Blk Jks and Die Antwoord have done so well internationally, means that it gives local bands hope. Maybe ‘hope’ is the wrong word, but it conveys the general idea. There are other examples too, from Esjay Jones to Civil Twilight – people that are working hard and making it happen for themselves. I was at the Met and there was some guy from an international record company giving his card to Jack Mantis and saying, ‘Give me call’.”
As for Ashtray Electric, they’ve just played as part of the national “Campus Invasion” tour, and are putting the final touches to a mid-year national tour. And, of course, they’re waiting to hear the new album when master producer Darryl Torr, one third of Dear Reader and one half of Harris Tweed, and the producer behind acts like Zebra And Giraffe, as well as being a Grammy-winning mixer for the Soweto Gospel Choir.
“We’re really looking forward to hearing it ourselves!” confesses Cronjé. “I think people will be pleasantly surprised at what it sounds like. We’re definitely very happy and very stoked. Then, we can’t wait to launch the thing and get it out there – and this time we’re taking a whole production team, as much as we can afford with lighting and props. That’s an important thing Zebra and Giraffe taught South African music – you can say what you like about the music, but when it’s a production like that, you can’t really argue with things. We’ve had good feedback from the track we did with Gazelle (“Release”), and it’s been doing nice things on radio. But with our tour in April, and the new album, it’s time to give the fans our new sound – and they’ll hear some of the new songs on our set for RAMfest.”
RAMfest V sees Ashtray Electric playing with Funeral for a Friend (UK), Alkaline Trio (USA), Die Antwoord, Blk Jks, Gazelle, Zebra and Giraffe, Van Coke Kartel, Not my Dog, Wrestlerish, Tumi, Mix ‘n Blend, Mind Assault, Counterstrike, Niskerone, Hyphen, SFR, Fletcher, Toby2Shoes, Haezer, FunaFuji, Mr. Sakitumi and more (4 to 6 March, Nekkies, Worcester). Additional features include the Snow Cafe Multimedia City, beer tent, food stalls, camping, swimming (pool and river) and the Kreef Hotel “point five start” tented accommodation. Access is by car, or by train to Worcester and then taxi to the festival. Durban event on 9 March (Wavehouse), Johannesburg event on 12 March (Riversands Farm, Fourways). Tickets range from R100 (Sunday pass only) to R450 (3-day presale) or R500 (3-day gate) – see Ticketbreak.co.za. Full band line-up and details on RAMfest.co.za, and on Facebook and @ramfest on Twitter.com. Also see AshtrayElectric.co.za and BellvilleRockCity.com.
This column originally appeared in the Cape Argus ‘Tonight; section on 12 – 13 February 2011. Find out more on Tonight.co.za
*Photo by Adriaan Louw