Archive’11: Wonderboom’s Cito on ‘Automatic Shuffle’ and ‘JC Superstar’

Fronted by theatre headliner Cito Otto, Gauteng rockers Wonderboom have reinvented themselves countless times, played every festival in South Africa and even contested the Global Battle of the Bands. With their new drummer – Sugardrive’s Garth McLeod –  they’re bringing their new album to Cape Town.

Wonderboom: Cito talks 'Automatic Shuffle' and 'JC Superstar'

This interview by Evan Milton originally appeared in the Cape Argus ‘Good Weekend’ on 2011/04/09-10.

 

Cito Otto is a performing arts contradiction: one set of audiences hail him for the vigour and skill he brings to musicals like “Jesus Christ Superstar” and  “Chess”, while others swoon to his leather-clad swagger when he stalks another stage to front Wonderboom. He was born in Los Angeles and still speaks with a Yankee accent, but he’s deftly delivered a number of Afrikaans songs, and you couldn’t get more South African than his penny-whistle jive delivery on the early Wonderboom hit, “Smile Pantsula”.  He worked as a music teacher, much loved by his pupils, but harangued from the profession by close-minded conservatives who objected to his rock ‘n roll persona  – before, of course, he became the household name that he now is. He’s also a kind of a contradiction in the interview: a warm and relaxed presence with a hearty and welcoming laugh that belies the panther-like coiled sexuality he harnesses for every Wonderboom performance.

The band’s new album, “Automatic Shuffle”, has been some years in the making but, now that it’s out, is already garnering both critical and fan acclaim. “With the last album, we took almost a year to promote it,” says Otto from his Johannesburg home as he shuttles between preparations for Wonderboom’s Cape tour and a new run of “Jesus Christ Superstar”. “We started touring it, and then I went off to do ‘JC’ in Greece; then we got back on the road with the album, and then I went to do ‘JC’ in Korea; then it was rock ‘n roll promo style again, and then I did another theatre piece, ‘Chess’, and then we got a new drummer in mid-2009. After a few shows and gigs under the belt, we decided to get into the studio and do the new album. We started recording ‘Automatic Shuffle’ at the beginning of last year and here it is now, launched in Joburg, and ready for Cape Town.”

  • Garth McLoed joins Wonderboom

Most rock bands of any duration have had to deal with a line-up change at some point in their careers. For Wonderboom, after more than a decade together, this came about when spiky-haired firebrand drummer Danny de Wet left the band. “Your drummer is something that you take for granted. It affects the way you play, the way you perform and the way you write songs, even. Danny was by no means a quiet member of Wonderboom, and was quite a character in the way he approached the band and any stage performance. Trying to replace him was not something we could just accept mildly. We took on Garth (McLeod, of Sugardrive and Heroes Wear Red fame), on a trial basis, but we have just grown so in love with him on all sorts of levels: friendship, the wavelength with the band, the way he plays. It’s been amazing and, actually, was what we really needed. It’s really centred the song-writing on the groove, and reminded us, as Wonderboom, of what is really necessary in music.”

“Every time we’ve been in the Cape for the last however long, we’ve played a Gordon’s Bay show, and the Cape Town fans say, ‘When  are you playing here?’ Or we’ll do Cape Town, and people say, ‘When are you playing Stellenbosch?’ This time, we decided to make a nice weekend of it so that the Cape fans can get a glimpse of Wonderboom and the new album before I do ‘Jesus Christ Superstar’ again and then, when I’ve finished that, we’ll do a proper national tour. For now, we’re just out there to celebrate the new album, spread the word and play our new songs.”

Wonderboom have often been praised – and rightly so – for their ability to reinvent themselves and generate catchy new songs with new influences, but still retaining an identifiable essence. Although very firmly rooted in riff-driven rock, they were amongst the first South African rock bands to dabble with kwaito influences, and also re-jigged a quiver of Afrikaans rock classics like (David Kramer’s “Royal Hotel” and Koos Kombuis’s “Johnny Is Nie Dood Nie” amongst them) as well as their revitalisation of Rabbitt’s hit “Charlie” and eVoid’s “Shadows”. More recently, they’ve employed electronica and dance influences – small wonder since Wonderboom guitarist Martin Schofield is the rock demon who adds six-string sass to the live show by electronic dance trio Flash Republic, and given drummer Garth McLeod’s work melding live and programmed drums on Sugardrive’s seminal “Sand.Man.Sky”.

  • 15 years on: ‘Automatic Shuffle

“We can’t deny the fact that we’ve been going at it for fifteen years,” says Otto. “‘Automatic Shuffle’ was a big pleasure for us to record, from when we started laying down demos through the whole production. There were no rushed deadlines, which I’ve felt we always had before. We took an old school way of making an album, and with the unconventional approach of laying down the guitar tracks first. This is definitely a guitar-driven album and we built everything around that. We had fun with the songs we’ve chosen, and sometimes taking things with a dancier see or initiation, and approaching them with a rock ‘n roll feel. There’s a lot of energy, and a lot of colour. There are some really alternative moments, and some really ass-moving ones.”

With a decade and a half in the business, Otto is perfectly placed to comment on the changes in the South African music environment. “The other night I was a judge at a high school ‘Battle of the Bands’ and I was really quite amazed at the level of musicianship, but also the level of rock ‘n roll attitude,” he says. “I wonder, if I look back at my childhood and my youth, if we had that sort of standard going down? Also, I look back at what I’ve lived through with Wonderboom and the bands before Wonderboom and it’s such a mad thing, and a crazy ride to get to where we are now. There’s something about the band that keeps me very young – the elements of fantasy and the rock ‘n roll element that will never be lost.”

“So, maybe I’m delusional, or maybe I’m getting senile, but there is something in the youth and the fire of it that will never leave,” he adds. “We thought we’d be really affected by Danny leaving after thirteen years with the band, but Garth has been like a breath of fresh air for the band; like a new start. You add that to how we’ve seen so many bands come and go, but there are bands now that are making waves locally and internationally and there’s a renewed energy in South African music. There seems to be such huge passion in the musicians, and such admiration about live music from fans around the country that you can’t help but feel part of something that’s really big, and is going to take off even more in the next couple of years.”

This interview by Evan Milton originally appeared in the Cape Argus ‘Good Weekend’ on 2011/04/09-10.

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