Black Hotels: Life beyond ‘Natalie’

Joburg alternative indie rockers The Black Hotels played as one of three South African acts chosen to support ‘Sex On Fire’ start, The Kings of Leon – and giving them an instant live audience of more than 70 000 rock fans in two cities.

*First appeared in the Cape Argus “Good Weekend” of 2011/ 10/30.

Black Hotels: Life beyond 'Natalie'

Three South African frontmen sit on a couch facing a barrage of good-natured questions from the country’s music press. From left to right, it’s Jacques Moolman from Shadowclub, Pierre Greeff for Die Heuwels Fantasties, and John Boyd of The Black Hotels. Somehow, the seating sequence seems apt: the three-part answers first have the untrammelled enthusiasm of relative newcomers Shadowclub, then the angle provided by an Afrikaans act that’s billed to support the American stars – and then Black Hotels round of the answers with a sense of worldly-wise perspective. It’s not that Black Hotels are jaded or depressed – far from it – but they are one of the few South African artists who probe darker edges of the contemporary human condition.
Asked how the support slots will affect them as individuals, and with regard to their bands’ careers, the others respond mentioning their excitement, the chance at exposure in front of such a large crowd and, for Heuwels, an opportunity to expose a mainly English audience to Afrikaans songs. Boyd offers a fine answer: “The career aspect is that we’ve been selected to play with a large international act that is perceived as being of a certain standard which is an honour and, frankly, its great for the ego. We started this band out of our love for music and so this, for the most part, is just another fantastic experience that we’ll have as The Black Hotels.”
The band was formed in 2006, comprising vocalist and guitarist Boyd, bassist and vocalist Lisa Campbell, keyboard and synthesiser player Matthew Fink, guitarist Neil White and drummer Warrick Poultney. Their debut album, “Films For The Next Century”, earned a South African Music Awards nomination in 2010, with their early singles “Beautiful Mornings” and “Natalie”, which shot up local charts, propelling widespread national interest. Their new album, “Honey Badger”, released in April this year, has been reviewed as described as “exceptional”, described as “a sombre beauty” and chosen as “Album of the Month” by, amongst others, “GQ” magazine.
Playing a thirty minute opening set for a crowd that may not know a band’s music well is challenging. “You never know what people will like, and what radio will like,” agrees Boyd. “We started this band and wrote a couple of songs and recorded them and then, within a year, two songs were being played on radio. That was never the intention, the master plan, it just kind of happened. People loved ‘Natalie’ and ‘Beautiful Mornings’ but now, when we submitted ‘Goodbye Josh’, which we think is in a similar vein, radio stations haven’t been that interested.” Matthew Fink takes up the topic, “If we were a different kind of band, we might take the album to the stations and ask them what song they want, but we discussed it, and we want the song to be the second single, so there it is, and we’ll use other channels for it, like digital or television.” To that end, the video for the song is about to be released, following on the heels of the superb visual experience created for “No Sign of Science”, the first single from “Honey Badger”.
Some songs have strange lives of their own, as Kings Of Leon surely know with the global smash success of “Sex On Fire”. The Black Hotels reflect on the fact that, initially, “Natalie” wasn’t going to make it onto the album. “Now, five years on, it’s still the song that everyone wants to hear,” says Boyd. “People ask how we feel about it, about whether we are tired of playing it. We always ask whether we should put it into the set and, I guess, we’re waiting for a time when people say, ‘Please don’t play it’.” Fink adds in: “John put up on Facebook a question asking what our fans would like to hear in our half hour. As the artist, of course you want to hear that everyone wants to listen to the song you wrote yesterday. But people spend time and money on buying our records and coming to our shows – who are we to be all up our own arses about what we’ve written? Of course, we’ll play it.”
The band made a conscious decision to take a break from writing new material during 2011, and then to revisit the writing process and, perhaps, even their sound in 2012. “We need to take the time to let it find itself”, says Fink. “It’s important to be aware of not making the same record twice. We want to try new things, to push ourselves and to push the boundaries, to keep the music edgy. I think any Black Hotels music will have a sensibility that means you know it comes from this band; it projects through John’s lyrics in what he’s saying, but even more in the way he says it, the rhythm. Even though ‘Honey Badger’ and ‘Beautiful Mornings’ sound completely different, you can hear it’s the Black Hotels. Within that, we want to experiment. I’ve being wondering about how things would sound if the keys on the keyboard were totally different – could I play the instrument differently, or use that to approach it differently?”
“We’ve been discussing the sound with the whole band,” continues Boyd, “Our band is five quite different individuals, with similar tastes in music in terms of styles, but you have these five different personalities that combine into the personality of the band. People say a band should go out there and entertain the crowd and, yes, we do. But I think you’ve got to do what comes naturally. I don’t always think that the world is a pretty place. There’s a lot of suffering. People reading this article, for the most part, are doing OK. But seventy percent of the world is starving and living in poverty. When you document life in your songs, you can’t just ignore things, and I’ll always write about that. But Black Hotels isn’t all doom and gloom, we’ve got that quirky side too, and that’s what makes this band.”
Following their appearance on “Idols”, national support slots for Kings Of Leon and a stint as figureheads for the SPCA’s “adoptadog” campaign (see http://www.SPCA-CT.co.za/adopt), The Black Hotels will be embarking on a national tour in December.  More on Facebook and at BlackHotels.co.za.
*First appeared in the Cape Argus “Good Weekend” of 2011/ 10/30.
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