Iconic South African rocker Arno Carstens kicks off the New Year with a big stage, full band show at Kirstenbosch before a year collaborations, videos, acoustic gigs and new projects.
(This article by Evan Milton first appeared in the Cape Argus “Good Weekend” on 2012/12/23).
This article is about a Kirstenbosch concert, but starts in Worcester and Tulbagh. Worcester, where Arno Carstens was born four decades ago, and Tulbagh where his most recent show is at a venue beset by technical difficulties, not least of which is that there’s only one speaker. Carstens quips that, when he met Mick Jagger after he’d opened for The Rolling Stones, he told him he was sorry, but he thought he might’ve blown one of their speakers. It was a joke, he tells us, given the multi-storey surfeit of sound on stage. Now, though, there is just one speaker, and three musicians on stage with a handful of songs, and the show must go on. And go on it does, with the necessarily stripped-down format actually serving to showcase how good many of Carstens’ songs are and – especially with the talents of a trumpeter / keyboardist like young David Watkyns and drummer Gus Warden – transforming the blisteringly hot room into an oasis of music far better than the battered single channel warrants.
“Sometimes you do an album, and you find out you can only do some of the songs live,” says Carstens by ‘phone after driving his wife, Melanie Carstens, and their young son, Hayden, to a friend’s. He’s talking partly about the Tulbagh show, but more generally about his new album, “Atari Gala“, which he recorded independently, and has released for distribution through Gallo Records. “The last album I did (“Wonderful Wild“) was much more studio-based, but this one I can do all the songs live. Some work better on a big stage with the full band – something like ‘One Law’ – and some are maybe better in the close, intimate space – something like ‘Invaders’, which some people say is a depressing song but, hey, you sometimes need depressing songs, just like you need a song that make you scream.”
I like simple studio vibes.
Arno Carstens’ mind has always raced at a mile a minute – listen to his between-song patter at the next show you attend – and it’s in his songs that finds true, clear expression. Following the success of his first solo painting exhibition earlier in 2012, though, he’s taking more of an interest in the visual aspect of his music. “‘Atari Gala‘ will have loads of videos,” he says. “So far, we’ve done three: ‘Two Dogs‘ is on YouTube, ‘Battlescars Galactica‘ will be out in January, after all the fuss of the New Year calms down, and then we’re doing one for ‘Invaders‘. Next year, I want to do something like Magnetic Man did, with a long video of songs being played in the studio. The last part of the album, the last three songs we can do like that. At the moment, I like the simple studio vibes.”
Carstens plays songs off the new album, as well as previous solo hits and songs by Springbok Nude Girls at the first 2013 show of the Old Mutual Summer Sunset Concert at the Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens. It stands to be an impressive show, featuring his full Johannesburg-based band, as well as Watkyns on trumpet.
“The live shows with the full band are big, and that’s what we want for Kirstenbosch,” says Carstens. “Bringing in David Watkyns on trumpet means we can do more Nude Girls stuff, and make the live shows even more upbeat – and that goes down very well. Other than the big shows, I’m enjoying the new thing with David (who’s done stints with State of Swing, Nomadic Orchestra, Mike Campbell Big Band and PJ Powers) and Gus Warden (who’s performed as part of ‘African Sanctus‘, Blind Tiger Sessions and the SACS Marching Band, and founded Drums From Space). It’s not so guitar driven, so there are different subtleties we can explore. We only started playing together six months ago, but the stripped-down format really works.”
It is the acoustic angle that Carstens intends to pursue next – although not exclusively. There’s the in-studio video project, and also plans for an acoustic DVD and album, slated to be out in mid-2013. The early new year also sees a theatre tour featuring Carstens, Ard Matthews (Just Jinjer) and Laudo Liebenberg (aKing), and more acoustic gigs with his trio. Are these quieter project, and the new songs, a product of being older and a father?
One trick pony?
“I embrace being 40, but when it comes to song-writing, that makes no difference,” he says. “I like to come into a situation with a different angle, and writing a song is about finding that. You’ve got to do that. It’s difficult, but it’s worth it, to dig a bit deeper than writing only about relationships. I was thinking last night about Nick Cave, and how he was worried about becoming a one-trick pony, although he is a brilliant writer and I’m his biggest fan. I’m aware of the situation I could get myself into, and I’ll be aware of this going into writing the new songs… my topics and a different way of looking at writing. You have to keep it fresh.”
So, does the 21st century see the end of Arno Carstens, hard rocker?
“I think the audience in South Africa is growing up as a whole,” he starts. “I’ve been checking out the really cool stuff coming out of Joburg, like Toya Delazy and Spoek Mathambo – young black bands that are super into electronica, but also heavy into rock. It’s becoming a bit more like Europe, where you don’t have to be in a gang to appreciate certain styles of music. I was listening to the new Smashing Pumpkins, and that first track, the really rocking one, I was thinking: ‘This is awesome’. I’ve been thinking of getting hold of Theo (Crous, guitarist and co-founder of Springbok Nude Girls), not to start Nude Girls again or anything, but that music was often written around his riffs and not my lyrics. I think I maybe need to do some tracks with lots of riffs again too. It’s all about reinventing yourself, always.”
Arno Carstens plays the Old Mutual Summer Sunset concert at Kirstenbosch on Sunday 6 January (5.30 to 7pm (concert gates open at 4pm), details SANBI.org andOldMutual.co.za/Music; tickets R80 to R110 from WebTickets.co.za and 021-799 8783/8620).
* Win one of four prizes of a double-ticket to the concert and a signed copy of “Atari Gala”, or a grand prize of one double-ticket and a hamper of signed Arno Carstens albums (“Atari Gala”, “Wonderful Wild”, “Hello Goodbye Boys” and “Another Universe”). Name one track from “Atari Gala” and send, with your name and cellphone number to email@example.com.
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