The Death Of Riku Lätti And The Birth Of Victor S. Wolf

POSTED: By Willim Welsyn

How is it possible that one of Afrikaans music's most prolific recording artists needs to kill himself in order to survive?

Victor S. Wolf at his home studio in Strand
Victor S. Wolf at his home studio in Strand
Willim Welsyn

It takes a lot of effort to sit Victor S. Wolf down on his arse and get him to talk about the fruitful legacy of Riku Lätti's career. Wolf 's brain is like a demented steamengine. He's multi-tasking – talking, singing and organising drinks for his friend, collaborator and Cape Flats rapper, Churchill Naude, girlfriend Jacqui M. and a chef friend from Pretoria, Egbert Haremse, while he hammers on about his latest recording project, Kingston and The Rasta.

"We can play with everybody that's a good musician and they can just slot in. They don't have to guess where the song is going – they know, because they've been playing music for a while – because the song is not being clever. It is being music. And if I play it for you, you'll understand."

This is a whole new, fired-up, multi-tasking musician. Victor S. Wolf is no longer the sensitive, soft-spoken singer-songwriter Riku Lätti I met at Back 2 Basix in Randburg eight years ago. But as he posted on various social media platforms in December 2012: "Riku Lätti is dead."

Wolf runs to the bedroom to fetch his new MacBook Pro. "Rian Malan is 'n fokken yster," he says. Turns out that the laptop on which Wolf had finished a whole album of material for Malan was stolen. "Let's go get a new laptop," was Malan's response the next day. "I owe him poes-baie money. He doesn't let anything stand in the way of you doing your work," Wolf grins gratefully. He plugs his external recording sound card into the Mac and connects the studio monitors.

"Can I start the interview with a tune?" Sure. If it means calming this animated, kilt-wearing eccentric and grounding him to the chair, so be it.

He hits play and provides a prologue to the track: "This is the vibe – uplifting, positive shit." The track kicks off with a beautiful, acoustic Violent- Femmes-like riff with the lyrics: "Hey little lady, let's go outside, there's a whole lot of world and no reason to hide." Very positive, indeed.

The song finishes with the lyric: "Hey little lady, let's have some fun and grace this place with a beautiful face" and Wolf kicks off one of his many intricate, social-political rants: "You check this vibe? Uplifting, positive vibes. We live in a country full of kak. A lot of unnecessary ... kak! Entitlement! Bullshit! Political fokken people! We don't need the police, we don't need the fucking politicians, we don't fucking need it – we're good human beings. Most of us can run ourselves. Because of those people who cannot be trusted, we're in a situation of people taking chances."

He takes an awkward pause to process what he has just said. "You know what? A good government is actually a weak government – with no power," he says. "A powerful government is a kak idea. So what is Kingston and The Rasta's vibe? Our vibe is – fokkit – we are people first. Everyone is a person first before they're a politician ... or before they're a pilot, or a carpenter, or an accountant. You're a person first – and this music speaks to everybody who is a person first!" He pauses again. "There's more to live for than to die for. That's why we are trying to make uplifting music." So, did Wolf kill Lätti for artistic rebirth?

In his last days, Riku stood at the edge and he looked back and he hated Afrikaans and all its dumb shit.

He hated that the media and its comrades watched while they supported the destruction.

The media, the same bastards who could lie to everyone for so long – and that no one realised that the Natte [National Party] were shitty people.

The same media which still exists to this day and which places new shitty people on its pedestal.

Riku Lätti hated the fact that when a publication's name is showcased on a stage, nothing listenable will come from the speakers.

Riku hated the "artists" who would rape art, take the recognition of the 20 musicians on a backtrack – silencing them, leaving them without work while Jan Kakkie and his stylist takes all the recognition and cheques of a hundred thousand plus perks and front pages making the language tos.

Riku despised Afrikaans, which he previously loved so dearly.

Riku Lätti is dead.

Our thoughts are with him. – Victor S. Wolf 's translated obituary of Riku Lätti.

In a recent interview Wolf told Henry Cloete that his family often still receives messages of condolence like: "He was a very nice guy, it's a pity we didn't spend more time with him."

Richard Lätti (his parents called him Riku, his grandfather's name) started his first band in high school. It was called Black Bricks. "Yeah, we made a couple of recordings, but I'm not going to give them to you," he says, embarrassed. His official and very eclectic recording career started in 1996 with a project called Me and Mr. Sane that was recorded in Bez Valley, East of Jo'burg by Willem Moller (Gereformeerde Blues Band guitarist and Rodriguez's S.A. guitarist). While talking about the album, he runs to one of his kitchen cupboards to fetch a copy. The cupboard is stacked with Lätti's entire archive – albums covering about two dozen genres spanning 15 years.

Me and Mr. Sane is a collection of off-beat pop-reggae-ska and soft rock that testifies to the fact that Lätti was still finding his feet as a songwriter. He hands me his first printed album. "I designed the front cover one day while waiting for my girlfriend in the car – I drew the cover art with a pen," he says proudly. The cover shows about 55 pensketched faces, a foretelling of Wolf becoming yet another face in Lätti's collection.

In 1998, he started working in Florida Glenn in the garage studio of a friend, Peter Auret, a jazz cat quite famous (in Japan) these days. "This is how the deal worked – I helped Auret with anything he wanted in studio and in exchange I could spend as much time as I want in front of his computer to record," explains Wolf.

At that time, Lätti recorded three more Mr. Sane albums: Live At Home, Meeting The Mugu and Sundays Like This. But, Mr. Sane eventually grew tired of his own sanity and started tapping into a different manifestation of madness, recording a debut under his own name: Riku Lätti.

He runs back to the kitchen cupboard to fetch a copy. "This is WOKNAKWYF! and Pleister Vir My Nerwe. It originally came out as a double album with two different titles. It was nominated for a SAMA actually ... can you believe it? For Best Instrumental album. I guess people really didn't know what the fuck they had to think about this shit."

The name "WOKNAKWYF!" is gibberish. It's a meaningless Afrikaans word, from a poem called "Man Wat Mal Word" ["Man Going Mad"] written by Afrikaans poet Peter Blum.

"The poem is about a man who gradually goes insane. The more insane he becomes, the more his language becomes fuzzy," Wolf explains. "If you read between the lines of the poem you realise that this man is on a quest to find that one word which holds the meaning to everything. Towards the end he awakes and shouts: "I found the fucking word! And the word is WOKNAKWYF! It has all meaning and no meaning. And [by] then he's totally insane."

Shine on you crazy diamond, right?

In an eerie kind of way, Wolf starts to resemble the character in the Blum poem who is searching for meaning, goes insane and finds all meaning and no meaning in the identity of Riku Lätti. Existentialism 101 for someone with an Honours degree in Philosophy from the University of Wits.

WOKNAKWYF! only has five tracks, each with its own simplistic, off-beat title. "Sleep", "In the Beginning", "Rain", "Never Underestimate The Importance of Good Mouth Hygiene" and "Go Back To Sleep" are their English translations. The opening track, "Slaap", is a 27-minute audio collage of ominous synth tones and angsty space-like soundscapes. The other instrumental tracks feature obscure sound collages of mundane samples – like running bath water, monk-like choir harmonies, bubbles popping, wind and the crackling sound of dry leaves softly getting crushed.

The second disc, Pleister Vir My Nerwe, had a snotty nom de plume reviewer from Blunt magazine writing this short review in 2001: "This I don't understand. Lucky Dube meets Johannes Kerkorrel on drugs? Madness. Next, please. 1/10 – Milo Marsden."

Pleister Vir My Nerwe is kind of out there, and it does fuck with any lazy wannabe-skaterboy writer's mind. But open your ears and it becomes an eclectic collection of easy-listening, upbeat Afrikaans pop, love and soft-rock songs with twists of reggae, a good dose of ironic humour and social commentary. It also features Lätti's first commercial hit – the beautiful and catchy Afrikaans singalong love song, "Pakpoort".

Well, not his own hit, but someone else's.

One of Afrikaans' multi-platinum selling artists, Theuns Jordaan covered "Pakpoort" on his 2007 album, Grootste Treffers (Biggest Hits). Jordaan is famous for covering songs from "Die Alternatiewe Afrikaners", a term coined during the Voëlvry-era. He packages their alternatiewe compositions in a deep, clean-cut baritone voice, with very digestible production and styles them with a familiar koöperasie/army-boerseun-like haircut. Jordaan also made songs famous for Gert Vlok Nel ("Beautiful in Beaufort Wes" – one of Jordaan's biggest hits to date), Koos Kombuis ("Lalie", "Travel In Staail"), Valiant Swart ("Die Skoene Moet Jy Dra", "Sonvanger", "Sien Jou Weer") and Gian Groen ("Vierseisoene Kind").

Why can't Riku Lätti, Koos Kombuis, Valiant Swart, Gert Vlok Nel and Gian Groen not sell a hundred thousand copies?

But in the meantime, Lätti's search for meaning continues. "I still believe the whole world is this paradoxical thing," he says. "People who throw these crusades and campaigns toward this good vs. evil vibes are missing the point. They're always drawn to this force, which bites its own tail. Because good and evil stick together. They're part of the same bosluis [tick]. You can choose which one you want to react to, but you've got them both inside you. It boils down to a fucking choice. It's as simple as that."

For Lätti, this choice manifested in his decision to branch out with what he calls his "most commercial" album yet: 2004's Aan't Sterre Tel. Not that he went "commercial" on himself. Instead, he invited Afrikaans favourites Steve Hofmeyr and Laurika Rauch to join him on some of his alternatiewe songs. On the chorus of "Medisynemens" Hofmeyr's familiar, rich vocal appears out of nowhere. It hits you by surprise because Hofmeyr is not credited anywhere on the album, apart from a "thanks" on the inner sleeve. The same happens on "Op Die Maan" when Laurika "My Oom Se Motor Is 'n Ou Masjien" Rauch's nostalgic voice emotionally punches you in the stomach. It's one of the most beautifully-written Afrikaans songs.

Yet, none of these tracks were picked up by the mainstream media – initially not even the powerful alternative ballad "Smoorverlief".

"That song is a homage to Radiohead's 'Creep'," Wolf explains. "When that song came out, I couldn't stop listening to it. That chord progression from the G to the B ... that's basically what makes the song." Years later, the song got a little more airplay when it was included on the soundtrack of the Afrikaans crime drama series, Orion – a Deon Meyer adaptation.

Lätti printed 2 000 copies of the album. "It might take longer to sell than Britney Spears, but it will still go at some point," he says. "Aan't Sterre Tel happened during my good days when I had a lot of fucking money. I worked as an IT developer and editor of" Before blogs, Twitter and Facebook, the only offbeat website forums for web Afrikaners were, and "It became too heavy for me writing all this shit, and eventually it started feeling like work," he says. "So I decided to cut all my ties. I stopped doing IT work for other people. I experienced an IT-burnout, I didn't want to touch a computer. Put my hands in soil or something else, but not a fucking computer!"

So he left work and became a full-time musician. He aligned himself with Jahn Beukes and Arnaud van Vliet and formed the band project, Radio Lawa in 2007. "All three of us came together and we let ego aside for the sake of the project. That's the long and short of it," says Wolf. "Arnaud is an intense classical guitarist, although he's also an avid rock'n'roller with the Diesel Whores. But he was actually born to play the classical guitar. Jahn Beukes is a highly-fucking-skilled and classically-trained composer. He studied in Cincinnati. He's got some profound knowledge of what people all over the world are doing with music. We recorded in the same house in which At Nel from Somerfaan recorded. We had some healthy rivalry going with At."

A reviewer on noted that Radio Lawa could easily serve as the soundtrack of the end of the world. The reviewer had a point.

Lyrically and sonically, the album is filled with spiritual and religious awakening ("Hekkie"), existential liberation ("Afgrond", "Eenling is Die Mens Gebore"), the infinite size of the universe ("Om En Om") and then there's an eerie robot voice singing about being trapped underground and reminiscing mundanely before a futuristic war fucked up everything on the surface on "Onthou Jy Nog". On the hauntingly beautiful piano and orchestradriven "Blom", Lätti performs an autopsy on a deceased relationship – the song progresses until he finds solace in the memory of it all. It climaxes with what sounds like a theremin solo. The last love in the world?

The final track on the album is a phenomenological snapshot from the life of a little Afrikaans girl with a cute Pretoria accent. On "Jeané se Partytjie" she lists all the stuff her family owns. Translated from Afrikaans, it goes: "We have a netball. We have cups. We have... bowls. We have balls. We have newspapers. We have chairs. We have tables. We have serving trays. We have a porch. We have bottles, some of them are old. And we have a bunch of other stuff. We have ropes on which we climb up on. And ladders. And that kids climb up into the tree from the other yard on to my grandmother's roof. They use the tree, and I use the ladder." You hear the sounds of cars, birds and the breeze in the background while a guitar gently weeps.

So, is this the soundtrack to the end of the world? What does the deceased Lätti think?

"It can be!" Wolf gets excited. "Radio Lawa is a soundtrack to a film yet to be made. The whole point of that album is this relationship between the tiny and the huge. The end is the beginning. We are poesklein [very small] on the map of the universe, but we can have a thought that covers the entire universe! We were all three souls really in depth of despair trying to find some fucking sense from the universe. Radio Lawa was a big album for me musically... "

Lätti's flatline hits a spike before Wolf corrects himself: "I mean, it was a big album for Riku Lätti."

Big enough for a record company – or more like one guy, Johan Drotske from Next Music - to back him and get his albums since Aan't Sterre Tel into independent retailers around the country. "Johan Drotske's heart was in the right place. He new when something was cool," says Wolf. "But then he recently left the company. And now that company is in the hands of money-makers."

Radio Lawa may be one of the main pillars in Lätti's discography and timeline, but he got disgruntled because of its piss-poor sales. "I don't think it sold more than 300 copies," Wolf sighs. "That album should've made some music videos. But like you said, people don't listen to music anymore, they watch it. Why do I make something and not sell it? I've been making these balloon fucking things – you know like these funny balloons? Like a worshondjie [sausage dog] – and then I walk away. And then I start making the next balloon-thing. I'm like a clown giving it away to kids. I never sell this shit, it's a fucking klaaglied [lamentation] vir myself, my bra. I'm clever enough to go sell shit... ." Wolf is worked-up. "But I fucking don't feel like it!"

Even if it didn't sell well, did the album at least receive some good reviews?

"I think at that stage people were too afraid to say something honest about it," he replies. "I got a few nice words about the album... I could never sense if they were honest enough or if they just felt that this album was too big for them to really do an in-depth review about it."

This was 2007. The times they were a-changing. Fokofpolisiekar was on sabbatical. Van Coke Kartel was repackaging garage rock for AC/DC heads. Straatligkinders were serenading students into emo-sedation and aKING were singing in bloody English. Where the hell was Afrikaans rock? Perhaps Radio Lawa was ahead of its time?

"No, everything that is, is more perfect as it happens than any other way than we can fathom," cautions Wolf cryptically. "There's also still some criticism missing on that album."

What kind of criticism?

"Man, I am a much better singer now than I was then. It's a mental thing," he replies self-critically. "At that stage I was too busy learning all the technical stuff . But I neglected the big part ... how to polish and afrond [trim] your music. And that is awareness. Awareness: Listen to what you are doing. Just listen. The bird is music. The train is also music. The swing of the "hekkie" [gate] is music. That's when I realised I'll be fine forever."

Cosmic ramblings from a philosopher-artist trying to make sense of his obscurity? Maybe.

"I read a quote once along the lines of: life can't be all that bad if you can buy Beethoven's whole oeuvre for five pounds. The lesson of Radio Lawa I only learned afterwards – work hard. All three of us were very much aware of the fact that we are artists. We're always chiselling away – making sure that the piece you're working on is fucking beautiful. If you stand back – that thing you chiselled should be a statue. And we were lucky – our statue eventually prevailed. And I believe that's how the spiritual world works. We all have a spirit and we want it to say something. And we are all communicating while we're working, all the time. I get to know you as a person more from working with you than from talking kak with you over a beer. Plato said, you learn more from a man during one hour of play than from one year of talk. And that's what happens if you're good musicians working together, playing together – you learn something and you give something. With the action of giving, your whole being and body gets cleansed, which opens itself up to receive a whole wave of new stuff. Thus, you become rich by giving away."

Wolf pauses. His stream-of-consciousness talk about careers has made him itchy. "I tell you what, let's go to the beach and then when we come back, I'll record you for the Wasgoedlyn [Washing Line] project. I'll jam some accordion and Churchill can busk a rap."

He runs to his bedroom to fetch a pair of swimming trunks for me. Wolf, the girlfriend, the Cape Flats rapper, the chef from Pretoria and myself walk to the beach for a swim. We return with salty damp hair and sandy feet. The chef bakes a bread, we eat and start fi lling the holes we missed in Lätti's career.

We forget to talk about the original motion soundtrack Lätti wrote for the 2011 Afrikaans feature film Die Ongelooflike Avonture van Hanna Hoekom, adapted from the Marita van der Vyfer novel of the same name. The album earned Lätti a South African Film and Television Awards nomination.

"I'll dropbox you the Hanna Hoekom album," he says. "Dropbox it to everyone you know. I'm making all of these albums available to everyone. These are Riku's albums – Victor Wolf is not supposed to make money out of Riku Lätti. Victor Wolf will care for himself."

Right behind me is a poster of the film covered with corporate brand logos: Nu Metro, Kyknet, Huisgenoot, Red Flag, NB Publishers, OMS available on Gallo.

When I mention Gallo, Wolf fires up. "Give Gallo a call and demand a whole box full of those albums for free. Because I paid for the recording, mixing and mastering for that album. They never marketed that album. Not Kyknet, not Nu Metro ... it was their responsibility. They didn't do it. Who made a loss on that album? Me."

Really, did he try calling the powers that be to find out what the hell was going on?

"I left messages to a lot of secretaries," he says. "I've got three different record companies distributing me at the moment: Select, Gallo and Next Music. But try find one Riku album in a shop – you wont! Print their names, they're all fucking useless. I challenge the readers of your story. Go and test me on this – if anyone sees one of my albums in a shop... anyone who can prove me wrong, I'll personally send them a CD."

At least one of his record companies understands his artistic frustration. With the help of Drotske from Next music, Lätti dropped a triple album, Tussen Kontinente after Radio Lawa. On the first disc, Lätti provides the soundtrack for Chris van Niekerk to read the Hertzog Prize winning Die Burg van Hertog Bloubaard, by poet Henning Pieterse. The second disc features an acoustic solo album, and the last disc was recorded live on tour in Belgium.

"I sold a lot of those copies out of the boot," he says. "People like it, but you won't get it in any shop. You have to know me to buy the album and I'm a recluse ... so how the fuck is the album gonna sell?" He laughs.

During this time, the birth of his daughter, Lia-Luna-Li, inspired Lätti to make a children's album for adults. Janneman en die Diereryk is arguably the most intricately written and produced children's album in the world. He collaborates and assigns character roles to his musician friends: guitarist Albert Frost plays the baboon; the blind troubadour Bacchus Nel plays the mole; actor Neil Sandilands plays the tortoise; ex-girlfriend and mother of his child Dorrette Potgieter is the narrator; composer Arnaud van Vliet plays Janneman; and Lätti himself plays the owl. The album got nominated for a SAMA in 2012.

Triple-disc concept albums, film soundtracks, a SAMA-nominated children's album... why would an artist at the peak of his powers decide to commit creative suicide? Recognition is never enough when you can't make a buck; when "Jan Kakkie and his stylist takes all the recognition and cheques of a hundred-thousand-plus-perks and front pages making the language tos."

After killing off Lätti, Wolf dedicates himself to his new project, Kingston and The Rasta and his ongoing studio–only project, Die Wasgoedlyn, for which he records every musician friend who visits him at all kinds of odd locations and precarious states of sobriety. He gives all this music away for free on Soundcloud.

"Now most of these artists have pristine studio albums, which I kind of think of as 'the front of the house'," Wolf explains. "Nice and fancy, polished spotless. Die Wasgoedlyn are those other recordings of all of these artists as they really are at home. Unpolished, stubbled, raw, with their underwear on 'die wasgoedlyn', blowing in the wind now for all to hear."

This is a full feature article from the June 2013 issue of Rolling Stone South Africa, you can subscribe to the magazine here.

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