After exploding onto the Johannesburg music scene in 2013 with the release of their album Good Morning Sunshine, Shortstraw have been making waves not only in southern Africa, but on shores as far flung as Japan as well as Europe. Not your average happy-clappy indie band, Shortstraw have refined their sound with three studio albums, gaining a large following and an MTV Africa Award nomination under their belt. This April will see them returning back to Berlin as part of their European tour ahead of the launch of their new album.
They gave me a few minutes to talk about their upcoming tour and album, the nature of songwriting and the challenges facing South African bands.
Your new album, Those Meddling Kids, is coming out soon. How will it be different from your previous stuff?
The biggest difference has been the way in which we have released the album. We chose to not release the whole album upfront, and rather release one track a month, with its own novel artwork and a music video, until the album is finished. We had a few in the bag at the start, but the project has become one where we are sometimes writing, recording, publishing, and shooting the video all in the space of a month, which has kept us on our toes. But we’ve been stoked with what we have created thus far. There’s no time to dwell on any song for too long, so it’s largely based on gut instincts.
With regards to songwriting, there’s light-heartedness and humour to it; do you draw from real life experience when deciding what a song’s about?
We’ve always gone by the mentality of not taking life, or ourselves, too seriously. What’s the point? So we’ve always tried to maintain some semblance of light-heartedness in all our songs, be it in the lyrics or in the music. Al brings a lot of himself into the lyrics, and the songs are always clear in their theme or context. The sense of humour has certainly matured across the albums, but is still a big part of Shortstraw.
You’re embarking on a European tour in the next couple of weeks. What are you expecting from it?
This is our second time back, so for the most part we’re still trying to make a name for ourselves out there. This time around we have a nice team together of people that believe in us, and have given us the chance to play in some amazing venues. We’re aiming high with this tour, but we’re staying positive. Positive outlook, positive outcome, right? Either that, or we’re dangerously naive.
Having been nominated an MTV Africa Award for best alternative act, do you find it tough to gain recognition in Europe and abroad? What are the toughest challenges facing African bands in this regard?
We believe every act is on their own when it comes to this… So many SA acts are out there really making waves internationally, but are almost unknown here in SA, and obviously vice versa. I think it all comes down to the market. The world is always dying for something different… something they haven’t seen. And a band from Africa could give them something like that. South Africa’s struggling economy is also always going to be a challenge. The biggest part of getting your name out there is playing enough shows to ensure as many people as possible have to opportunity to hear your music. But getting to Europe isn’t exactly around the corner for us. So tours are unfortunately few and far between, which will impact how quickly your name can get out there.
The live music scene in South Africa is pretty small but it’s definitely growing. What do you think is holding it back?
The live indie rock scene is rather small, based purely on the sheer numbers of audiences. But whenever there is something exciting going on the people come out! So we’re firm believers that there is nothing holding you back if you’re a good band. Although, up until a few years ago, getting a good quality recording or a decent producer on a track cost a fortune, so not a lot of bands were able to afford it. These days, bands are able to pay for a great quality EP with a few gigs worth of cash, so we’re starting to see more and more bands with radio-quality songs coming out of the woodwork, which is really exciting.
You guys have been around for a while. Do you feel the songs you put out have matured over time? Is there a distinct difference between the music you made on your first album and the material you’re producing now?
It certainly has matured, and that’s ultimately been a good thing, as we hope there are fans out there maturing and growing up themselves alongside us. Good Morning, Sunshine was so carefree and reckless in so many ways. Youthless certainly centered around themes of growing up and what it all meant for us. Things were certainly different. But i think we kind of have that out of our system now, and Those Meddling Kids has been more free to explore all other aspects of life, love, and things around us.
What’s your favourite song to play live? And your least favourite?
We love playing new stuff while it’s still fresh and exciting. Our new release, Rich Richards, is fun to play live, so we’re gonna enjoy playing that for a while. Then least, it’s probably Keanu Reeves. We recognise it’s a song that people want, so if they take the effort to shout out for it, we’ll always make the effort to play it, but if we could get away with not playing it, we wouldn’t include it.
This is the second time you guys will be playing in Berlin. Having played in countries as far flung as Japan and Africa, how is your music received by vastly different cultures?
As different as the places have been, we would like to believe that the mood and excitement has always been the same. Japanese people are incredible in how respectful they are of your performing. They cheer and dance, but then wait in silence for the next song. Amsterdam stormed the stage like they would in a sweaty Pretoria club, and everyone is usually able to sing along at most shows, so they are similar in some ways sometimes as well.
You just opened for Pixies in Johannesburg. Tell us about opening for a band of their stature.
It was a great honour. They were a band that changed the game and played a major role in us choosing to pursue music.
What’s your favourite thing about Berlin?
We love the roughness of it all. It’s very similar to Joburg in that regard. Graffiti is all over the place, but it never feels trashy.
What do you hope you check out this time round?
We once again might find ourselves with little time to explore, but if it’s anything like last year, if we end up at a great bar or restaurant and hang out with some good people, that would be swell.
What’s on the cards for Shortstraw in the future?
We still need to finish this album. Once that is done, we’ll just continue to have fun and see where this whole thing take us. Everyday is a new day. Keep on trucking.
Shortstraw. BERLIN LOVES YOU.
22/04/2017, Szimpla Badehaus
Revaler Str. 99