A Conversation With Civil Twilight: From South African Clubs to Global Stardom
    • WEDNESDAY, AUGUST 12, 2015

    • Posted by: Don Saas

    South Africa's Civil Twilight have been Baeble favorites ever since they played a killer session for us in 2013. With their mix of anthemic arena rock and the best of alternative guitar rock, Civil Twilight have been a band generating more and more fans in the five years since they released their self-titled studio LP. And with their new record, Story of an Immigrant, released earlier this year, it was no wonder when the buzz about these young and talented rockers started taking the indie world by storm. We had the chance to chat with Civil Twilight frontman Steven McKellar and drummer Richard Wouters in advance of the new record coming out about a decade in America, the exploration of world music on this new record, and what it was like meeting fellow South African star Dave Matthews.

    It's been five years since your self titled debut studio LP was released, and your third album, Story of an Immigrant will be coming out early next month. What's the journey like going from playing small, South African clubs to playing main stage sets at music festivals all around the world?

    Steven McKellar: It's been a crazy trip. It's hard to believe, really. We just played VH1 on the same stage as...TRL?

    Yes, Carson Daly used to host it.

    SM: Carson Daly, yes. We used to watch shows on that stage in South Africa and we would be like, "Oh man" We just played that stage. And we thought about it afterwards and we were thinking just about the fact that only a handful of years ago we were playing in our garage, and here we are and have an actual career. You just have to take it in and be thankful that you're blessed. Because that's all it is...But, we've come a long way and we feel very proud.

    You moved to LA in 2005. After having spent a decade in the states, do you have a verdict on living and working here in the United States?

    SM: Verdict? That's like a harsh word. [laughs] We just talked to someone about moving to the south after moving to LA. We didn't know about either of these places or what we were getting ourselves into. I think all of us have grown immensely in love with America, like the depth of it; the parts we didn't know anything about. Overseas, you get sold the Disneyland version of America. The movie, sitcom version. But getting down to the nitty gritty of what America is about made us fall in love with it, and we've become more appreciative.

    Richard Wouters: It is a remarkable place, when you think about it. I mean, the reason we moved here was for opportunity, really, because we didn't have the opportunity to do music as a career in South Africa because it's just a small country. I think that's the reason why people have been moving to America for generations, for opportunity. Which is quite amazing. I don't know any other place in the world that's quite like that. And if you think about the contributions that America has made to the world in the arts and science and inventions, it's pretty amazing and it's a pretty special country. Every country has challenges and nothing's perfect, but I think we feel very privileged to live here and work here, and I don't want to take that for granted. We're grateful for what America's provided for us.

    Have these last ten years in America given you any sort of perspective on what growing up in Cape Town had on you as a musician?

    SM: Well I think it's different for all of us. For me, I longed for the musical community, which I didn't really have in Cape Town. I longed to be in a culture where I could be around artists I could talk to and grow with and I think I found that within the band, first, because we had our own little community in Cape Town. It was tiny, just a few friends and the band. Then moving here we found a bigger community and that's something I was always looking for. We all had different things we were looking for when we moved here.

    RW: I think it's given all of us a perspective, especially me, on the richness of the music we grew up with that we took for granted when we were kids. The African culture that was around us there, the vibrancy, the life which has found its way into our music, especially on this record. But, it's taken us a while to fully embrace that and recognize the value of that. I think it's natural to, in some ways, rebel against the environment you were raised in or take it for granted and not fully appreciate it and think there's something better somewhere else. So this record for us is kind of an embracing of what we found in America and also our roots in South Africa and the story of our journey. There's always an appreciation, as well, for our family and our friends and the beauty of the place where we grew up.

    Well that sort of leads into my next question. So the new album is called Story of an Immigrant, and as a band of immigrants, what does that story mean to you?

    RW: There are so many stories that could be told, but every song on the record is it's own story. I think we called it that because we realized there were all this journey had facilitated all of those stories. The overarching story of us moving is what formed the band, formed us as people in a lot of ways, and formed what this record now is. It's been formed by that whole journey and all the stories along the way. I said story, like 25 times[laughs].

    Our site just premiered a couple of weeks back a gorgeous acoustic take of "Holy Dove." What made you guys decide to strip down what was originally a very bluesy, propulsive number like that?

    SM: My friend was filming that. I think he did a good job. Shout out to JC. We got asked to do that. We never actually stripped that song down. We got asked to do an acoustic version of it and we thought it'd be cool to do in the country in Nashville. So we worked on it a little bit beforehand and then we just went for it. Actually, we didn't know how it was going to turn out, but it turned out pretty good I think. It was the first time we stripped down all the songs from the record into acoustic form. For me, getting down to the soul of the song, which is answering the question of "Can you just break this song down acoustically, and is it actually a song? Without all the effects and rhythms, what is a song really like?" That was really encouraging for us. It was like, "We got a song, here." And it wasn't just a bunch of grooves.

    The two singles that have been released so far from the record, "Holy Dove" and the title track, "Story of an Immigrant", sound a lot different. "Story of an Immigrant" in particular has this world music feel to it, like you were talking about earlier. Can listeners expect that variety of new sounds on the record?

    SM: Definitely, yes. There's a lot of that going on. There's a lot of finding the sound of the music that we grew up with. Some of the elements of the music we grew up with combined with our lyrical growth combined with our lyrical insight into our adulthood in America and the stories we've experienced here. But there's a lot of world/African rhythms that we didn't expect to find on the record, and they just sort of appeared there. We weren't planning to write a record like that at all, but it turned out that way. We were really happy about that, anyway. We think it's perfect timing for us.

    RW: I think that those two songs provide a better framework for what's on the record. There's definitely the African rhythmic stuff in there, and there's also the more American or British rock elements that sounds a lot like what we've done in the past. That epicness of our first record is in there, as well as, hopefully, the tighter arrangements and more interesting sonics of the second record. We're really proud of it and we hope people like it and that it speaks to them.

    Are there any trends in music or upcoming acts that have you guys excited as music lovers?

    SM: I'm not really into trends, but My Morning Jacket is one of my favorite American bands. I got tons of their music, and I didn't even know they had a record out recently. A friend of mine played it to me in the car a few weeks ago, and it was amazing. I was like "This sounds like My Morning Jacket. What is this, this is amazing!" and he said "This is the new My Morning Jacket." And I was like, "When did this come out?? Like a month a go?" [laughs]

    [laughs] Two or three weeks ago, I think.

    SM: I've been in my camper just not knowing what the world's doing out there. I listened to that [My Morning Jacket] four times through the other day. It's phenomenal. I'd like to get into trends, and stuff. [laughs]

    RW: Actually it's kind of funny for us because on this album we try to avoid trends. We try as much as possible to be true to what we love and what we feel we do well and what we can contribute to the world of music, not what we think is cool or what someone is telling us is cool. That way, we're not a trend band, at all. [laughs]

    SM: It took us a while to realize that. That's a lesson to learn. The world's rushing past you at a rapid pace, and you just can't keep up anymore. We never had the tools or start to catch up.

    RW: Trends are funny though. If you're trying to keep up with trends you'll always be a step behind. So you have to just do whatever is what you want to do. Maybe you'll sell a trend, maybe you wont. Maybe people will love you, maybe they'll hate you. You don't really have much control over that. One thing I'm excited about is guitars coming back a little bit more. I feel like there's been a lot of synths [laughs]. But I love synths, too.

    You've spoken about your influences and bands that you love growing up in the past with bands like Wilco, Oasis, and the National. In your ten years, have you ever had the chance to interact with those artists who influenced you as songwriters?

    SM: One of my lyrical heroes is Father John Misty. I love his stuff. We played a festival with him probably two and a half years ago. We opened for him at this festival and he was standing backstage. I drank a shot and mustered up the strength to go talk to him and I was like a nervous schoolgirl. I couldn't get the words out properly and lingered too long and he was eventually like, "I'm gonna go find my girl, I'll see you later." [laughs] That's the first time I've encountered somebody I really respect lyrically and musically.

    RW: Dave Matthews actually. We played a festival with them once. I was pretty stoked. I haven't kept up with their music recently but there was a period of time when Carter Beauford, because I'm a drummer, was my hero for a while.

    SM: Dave Matthews, I mean, we were freaks about that band. We didn't know what the trend and culture was around that band here. We just got these records down in South Africa and we thought, "This is the coolest, jammiest shit we've ever heard." [laughs] We had no idea what it is, so we ate it up. We were hugely influenced by that growing up. We moved here and realized it's this weird culture, so we kind of stepped away from it a little bit. But now, I don't give a crap.

    I love Dave Matthews.

    SM: They're one of the best live bands in the nation.

    RW: Amazing live band.

    SM: But he was super cool. I think that's probably the reason why it was way easier meeting him than Father John Misty, just because Father John Misty is awkward as shit. [laughs] He'll make you feel awkward. Dave Matthews is like, "Hey guys!" He just walked up to us and was like, "What are you guys up to?" And we talked to him for like, 20 minutes and he was like, "Well, gotta go play a show. See you there!" Walked right on stage, and there are 60,000 people like, [crowd noises].

    That's an amazing story. And it's perfect that you brought Dave up because it leads into my next question. Whenever I think of South Africa and music, I think of two things. I think of Dave Matthews who's from Johannesburg, and I think weirdly of an American artist who was only famous in South Africa named Rodriguez. Did you know about Rodriguez before Searching for Sugar Man made him famous?

    RW: I knew about that song, "Sugar Man." [Sings "Sugar Man."]

    SM: Yea. You hear in bars a lot.

    RW: I knew of him. I wasn't a huge fan or into a lot of his stuff, but definitely was familiar with his music.

    I just have to ask that to every South African I meet because that documentary was so fascinating to me.

    RW: Yea it's an amazing story.

    SM: Yea he was a bit ahead of our time. But yea, it's incredible.

    You guys are on the tail end of a nationwide tour in the States. You guys are going to actually be playing my old stomping ground in a couple of weeks in Pittsburgh. Do you have any tour stories from this recent slate of dates?

    SM: We haven't been touring a lot recently, just on and off a bit.

    RW: A lot of our stories are not that exciting [laughs] We're not one of those wild, crazy bands that jumps off roofs into swimming pools and stuff. But we like to go cliff jumping and swimming in rivers [laughs].

    SM: Yea, that's just about as exciting as it gets.

    RW: Back in the day there were a few wild stories.

    SM: You know, all nighters and stuff, but that's, you know, long done. [laughs]

    Do you have any last message you want to impart to your fans about your record before it comes out next month?

    SM: Well I guess all we can say is that we can't wait for you guys to hear it. We can't for it to be out there and for you guys to make it your own, because that's when it really comes alive and we're really proud of it. We're going to be touring and having a lot of fun on the road. We're having a lot of fun right now playing these songs. Can't wait.

    RW: It's going to be a lot of fun to play more of the new songs live. Getting some response to the music from people is always nice too. It's weird when you create something and it's sort of in hibernation. Right now the record is pretty much done, but not many people have heard it. It'll be nice to see what kind of a life it takes on.

    SM: Yes very curious. We're very curious cats right now.

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