Prime Circle's Ross Learmonth: The Rolling Stone Interview

POSTED: By Diane Coetzer

Prime Circle's lead singer talks bluntly about the battles a rock band has to fight to stay on top for over a decade

     
Ross Learmonth on the cover
Ross Learmonth on the cover
Chris Saunders

Ross Learmonth and I are barrelling down the N4 towards Middelburg, Mpumalanga. We're in an SUV he tells me he bought from Leon Schuster. Not directly, he quickly clarifies, but the dealer told him the filmmaker and comedian was the previous owner. Learmonth has just lit up the next in a stream of cigarettes he will smoke during the day we spend together. Racing by, on both sides of the car, are the grasslands of the Highveld, on the cusp of turning into the muted browns of autumn. We soon pass by the Nan Hua Buddhist Temple, the upturned corners of its roof incongruously visible beyond a sign that says "Bronkhorstspruit".

He once visited the temple with a girlfriend, the singer tells me. What struck him most was the artwork. "The discipline of the work these guys do on tusks and stuff is incredible," he recalls, shaking his head in wonder.

It's not hard to see why the meticulous craftsmanship that still exists in places like Nan Hua strikes a chord with Learmonth.

The Prime Circle frontman has an old-fashioned quality about him, even as the band embraces the opportunities afforded by the digital age. It's evident in what Learmonth holds dear after a decade of Number One hits ("Hello", "Same Goes For You", "Consider Me", "Breathing" and more), landmark live performances, gold and platinum sales, and several awards, including a Best Rock Album SAMA in 2011 for Jekyll & Hyde: hard work; brotherhood, with band members Marco Gomes, Dirk Bisschoff, Dale Schnettler and Neil Breytenbach; inspiring young kids to pick up a guitar and form a band; writing the best songs he can; family; honesty; the comradeship that following your dreams can – should – bring between bands; getting up on stage; playing his heart out for fans; never losing sight of what it means to be a real rock band; decency.

These are the things that propel Learmonth forward, even when the slings and arrows of the country's music critics keep coming for him and his bandmates. Schlock-rock. MOR. Old-school. Unoriginal. The five-piece has been called all of these – and worse – over the course of a five-album career that started in 2002 with the release of Hello Crazy World.

Those close to Prime Circle know that this stuff is inconsequential to a career that has proved itself time and time again to a loyal fanbase in South Africa and, more recently, in places like Germany, Dubai and India. In the end, it's also of little importance to a songwriter responsible for a once-in-a-career moment that came when Learmonth wrote "She Always Gets What She Wants", a ballad about putting all sensible thoughts aside and staying in the intoxicating moment. ("She comes around like a wild flower/ And like a moth drawn to a flame/I'm on my way to being burned up once again.") The song, off 2008's All Or Nothing, is as good as anything from Counting Crows and remains a South African classic. And it's not the only moment of bliss in Learmonth's songwriting canon. From the bitter regret of "Inside Out" to the affecting "Room of Ghosts" off 2012's Evidence, his is an almost unrivalled catalogue in homegrown modern rock.

No. What hurts more than the words of those who had a band from Witbank pegged as uncool from the beginning are the actions of individuals whom Learmonth naively believed had his interests, and those of his band, at heart in the early days.

Here, for the first time, Learmonth is ready to talk about the scenes behind the battlements of a rock band that has fought for its position at the top of its game for a decade. "Fuck it. There are things that need to be said, at least to make sure no-one gets fucked in the same way we did," the singer says of his decision to share his feelings with Rolling Stone about Prime Circle's first label, David Gresham Records, former band member Gerhard Venter and Powerzone Management.

But before we get there, we need to make it through the grimy byways of Emalahleni, a short drive from Middelburg.

Back in 2000, the coal-mining town was called Witbank and it's where Learmonth formed Prime Circle, with Marco Gomes, Dirk Bisschoff and Venter. "It's a town of excess. Kids get bored here," he remarks as we drive through. As often as he can manage, Learmonth gets in his car, puts on some music (on this trip, he's favoured taking it back S.A.-style with the "still fucking awesome" Knave and Zen Arcade) and heads out to the place where he grew up.

But don't think the 32-year-old makes the drive because he loves it. "I hated Middelburg when I was younger. I still do," he says when we arrive in the small town, so called for its position halfway between Lydenburg and Pretoria. But it's where his folks, Jim and Eileen ("Everyone calls her Ricky," Learmonth tells me), moved to from Bellshill, Scotland, when the singer was just two months old.

The couple had met when they were in the Royal Air Force, but times were tough in Maggie Thatcher's Britain and after leaving the service, they found themselves living in a tower block with daughter Nicola and baby Ross on the way. "One day I was reading the Sunday paper and I saw an advert for Middelburg Steel and Alloys. I said to Jim, this looks exciting," Eileen says over lunch at the couple's modest home. "Maggie Thatcher had said if you can't find work where you are, move. I am an army brat, so I was used to going to new places and we moved here just after Ross was born."

"I hated that Maggie; she made all the wrong decisions," chimes in Jim, in a Scottish accent as broad now as when he arrived in Middelburg, gazing in delight at the open spaces of the bush that surround the town. Eileen pulls out the photo albums that she has lovingly assembled of her children. There's a photograph of Learmonth at his 21st birthday party. "I got a deal one week before that party," he says with a wry grin. That was with Gresham? "Yes." He pauses. "That bastard."

Jim and Eileen's belief that you need to make your own place in the world has rubbed off on their son. "We've only survived because we made our own history," he later says of his band's decade- long career in the local music industry.

But for a long time, it took a great deal of forbearance on the part of Jim and Eileen to see their son through to where he is now.

As we tool through Middelburg in the car after lunch, Learmonth points out the sights where he grew up. "That's the house where I lost my virginity, at a house party ... That's the park we would sneak off to and stay up all night, getting up to no good ... There's the river where we'd skateboard to after the movies, and the bridge we'd jump off, stoned ... That's where we'd smash bottles on the railway track, just for the hell of it." Later, he points to a field. "There used to be a lapa there and it got burned down." By who? "I'm not going to say anything more except that it got burned down twice," he replies with the impish grin that reveals itself a few times on the trip.

It's obvious that Prime Circle's reputation as South Africa's most reliable rock band is at odds with Learmonth's natural instinct as a rebel. He might not be getting bust in Middelburg or worrying his folks silly about what his future holds anymore, but he's still unwilling to simply toe the line. Like religion ("I got very angry with religion in India when it came home to me about how the religious leaders just don't count the poorest of the poor.") And identity.

"I always wanted to be Scottish," he confides. "I was angry with my parents because I was born there and I felt a kinship with it that made me want to go back. I have a romance about the place 'though I know I didn't get to see it in its dark days. But now I class myself as a Scaffer – a Scottish African. At school, I got given a black name, Mduduzi. The comforter. With weed and everything, some of the white kids weren't allowed to play with me and the black kids became my mates. They gave me the name after I stopped a fight one day. I love South Africa."

Finally, we round a corner and Steelcrest High School lies ahead. "Should we go in? Just act like we own the place?" Learmonth asks, before twisting the wheel and turning into the driveway.

In the way of small-town disappointments for a teenager wanting more, Learmonth remembers excitedly turning up to register for music and art classes in the Steelcrest Hall in Grade 8. There he found just three other kids and, with the small turnout, the danger of the only classes that really appealed to him being cancelled. "I ended up hating all the kids around me."

It was at Steelcrest that he got caught smoking "wacky baccy", as Jim calls it. It's also where he twice failed Grade 9 – the first time because "I was just doing bad things – bunking, doing silly things with stupid people". The second time because the teenager had discovered music.

In the end, it was music that saved him, getting him first to Witbank, then to Jo'burg and finally to stages around the world. "But I put my parents through hell to get there," he says as we leave Middelburg and head back to Jo'burg. "I hope I can repay them still." Surely you've done that, many times over, I ask. "I guess I have. By turning out not to be a fuck-up."

You've always come off as the good guy in South African rock, but your teenage years were not easy ones, were they?

I messed up quite a bit at high school. A few of us were smoking weed at school and we got bust, so we ran to the oldest bridge in Middelburg where we thought we wouldn't be seen. But my mate had taken his jacket off and they could see the white reflection of his shirt. They took us back to school in a bakkie. In the back of the van we were taking Lip Ice and smearing it on ourselves. In our stupid teenage brains we thought this would hide the smell, but all it did was have us arrive in the headmaster's office all sticky and shiny. When they let everyone else out of the school, we knew it was serious. We were so stoned sitting in the headmaster's office. I remember them saying to my friend "Do you need help, Paul?" He said he could handle it. They asked if I needed help. Then they phoned the local narcotics unit who said they didn't have time for this shit and told the school to phone our parents. My dad didn't speak to me for a year. My folks were so disappointed. I will never get over the heartache. Steelcrest is a good school. But I was all over the place at that time. I just didn't fit school. My dad will tell you he was very worried about me. I was failing high school and had no direction. But eventually you find your way."

How many of you were on the run? Did you hang out in a pack?

There were three. Actually four. One guy turned back and I think he turned us in. But there was a group of us and we were generally up to no good. There was a park near my house where we got into a lot of shit. I would jump the wall and go to my friend's house and we would end up in this park doing all kinds of things until sunrise. We never got caught, although a guy pulled a gun on us once. I could go to jail if I told you everything that we did!

Did you have lots of girlfriends back then?

No! I had a side-path in my hair! I only got braces when I was 19. I was a mess. I was a dork. I was picked on in school. I think people thought I was a bit odd.

What did you think your future held when you were growing up in Middelburg?

All I was focused on was skating and playing music. I was a very good skateboarder. I had already thought about my "signature" as a skater if I made it big. I would always skate with a comic book in my back pocket. I had these ridiculous dreams of going pro. We lived on the best skateboarding street in Middelburg. My folks still live there. But really, working in a café, selling Chappies – I thought that was my future. I didn't have high school. Everyone else was in jobs. I've always been a worried person and for a while I really believed that all I was going to be able to do was work in a shop. I know this sounds clichéd but finding Kurt Cobain and those bands saved my life. It opened up those possibilities to me.

Was anyone in your family musical before you?

My aunt Morag was in a punk band in the U.K. At least I think it was a punk band. And my dad got a scholarship to go to art school for visual art, but his dad turned it down because he had to go out to work. My dad came from a family of seven kids and there was no debate to be had between studying the arts and getting out to work and contributing to the household.

How did you come across music in Middelburg?

My sister Nicola. I remember she had asked me to record Zero Hour Zone because she wanted to see Nirvana's "In Utero". We weren't friends then – that only came when she left home – so I didn't bother and I remember how cross she was about it. But she started this courtship with music for me. She helped me out. She was into The Cure. Her room was always vibrating with cool stuff. The walls of her room were covered with posters. I used to look at Robert Smith and think "who is this weird-looking dude with make-up who looks like a woman but whom my sister would have made love to in an instant if he walked through the door in Middelburg?". Obviously, I found my own thing after that, but she opened the door.

Looking back now, how did growing up in a small South African town affect you?

The people in small towns are quite boring. You start to see how these cool people, people outside of this defined space, are living so amazingly and you start to emulate that. Everyone in my whole group started to change once we started looking outwards. We got into metal. We were metal kids. My first love will always be metal.

Really? That's a surprise ...

It's always been a dream of mine to be in a hardcore band.

What attracted you to metal back then?

It was the rage factor. The complete non-conformity and disregard for what was normal. Also because everyone else hated it. Then there were a few people in my class who started listening to Machine Head and I got so angry because they were mine! I was pissed off that others had discovered them.

Didn't music as a career seem out of reach for you back then?

I was told that music would be the hardest thing that I could ever do. That it would be impossible to make a living from it. But that made me want to do it more. My parents were both ex-military. My grandfather would always phone me from Scotland, and tell me to join the RAF. I was going to. When I joined the band, I told the guys that I was only there for a year. I was adamant. I even wrote the song "Inside Out" a year-and-a-half later because I felt that I was trapped in the band. I was amazed that I was able to write songs, actually. It's hard to believe now, but I couldn't play the guitar when I wrote "Hello". My dad took me to the pawnshop to get a guitar and I just messed around and came up with the song. I still have the receipt, not the guitar.

Your folks sound like they were supportive of the music thing?

They were very supportive, but my dad didn't want me to go to Jo'burg and play music. He was very, very concerned about that. He thought it was a fad and I can see why. I had given up everything else that I started over the years – except skateboarding. I was going to draw and they bought me a drawing set but I gave that up. They got me a cricket bat when I thought I would be a cricketer, but I soon stopped playing. I remember saying to my dad when I was 17 that I didn't know what I wanted to be. He said he didn't know what he wanted to do when he grew up too. As long as you're happy with what you do, in the end you will be successful – that's what my dad told me. My parents helped me practically too. My dad gave us R20 000 for our first demo. My mom gave up her office so that it could become our jam room.

Were you in bands before Prime Circle?

I was in a band with two girls called The Fallen Angels. One of the best days of my life still was driving back from Jo'burg in the back of a bakkie with our band manager who was a girl in my class. We had bunked school and gone to play at the Battle of the Bands at the Randburg Waterfront. We came stone last, but the cool thing was that we had emailed Shaun Morgan (Seether front man) – or Welgemoed as he was back then – because we wanted to cover "69 Tea". He said he would come and watch us because we were the only guys who asked permission. I remember he stood in front, dead still, with his hair in his face. We were rubbish. Our guitarist, who was older than us, had frozen because of stage fright and I had to play the guitar. It was the first time I had to play the guitar and sing. Afterwards we spoke to Shaun and asked him if he would come and play at our guitarist's 21st. Shaun said "cool" and he came down to Middelburg and played in the prison to about 50 kids. He was a legend in Middelburg. I was in so many different bands. We would have band practice at night. We'd skate to a friend who had a wine cellar in the house – we would smuggle in wine and drink. None of us had any real equipment, but we were making bands with names like The Undergrowth and Plain Speaking. The worst names. When I joined Prime Circle, I wanted to call it Princess Juju. I liked that random shit. I still think it's a fucking cool name.

The song that got you noticed with Prime Circle was "Hello". Can you remember writing that?

I wrote it at high school. I had some cool songs but this girl kept asking me to play "Hello" again and again. It was about getting caught with drugs and also about letting go. It's very cheesy, but I was young and I didn't know how else to write it. It was also very different to the other type of songs we were writing at that time. Songs like "Drop the Bomb" and "Love is for the Dying" – really miff, typical teenage shit.

Why do you think people caught onto "Hello"?

People always thought it was a catchy tune – and it has more substance than other songs maybe. They picked up the innocence in the band with that song, I think. Everyone loves the story of this guy from a small town doing well. This country is full of small towns. A lot of people just said it was about time a small-town band actually did something – not just the bands from a big city where they have been groomed. A lot of people understood that. I still wonder how it made it so big though. Sometimes you just don't really ever know.

Why do you think Prime Circle has been so successful? Did the stars suddenly align for you?

We toured very hard. I don't think anyone has done as many gigs as us, building a fanbase one person at a time. The touring has become even more important now because radio isn't supporting a certain style of rock anymore.

They've told you that?

Yes. That they are only supporting a very indiebased style of rock. It's very tricky. We've been told we're old school. It's wrong and it's right. We're not indie, that's right. But I'm a '90s kid and I respect Nirvana and Pearl Jam because they stuck to a style. Obviously, you can be affected and try different things, but in the end you have to stick to who you are. What's the point if I am going to do something that's a shell of me? I've got a good family. I could do something that means I can be around them more because you sacrifice that, for the road.

You often talk about being lucky though?

That's the thing if you look back at South African rock – it's littered with bands that didn't go anywhere. Sugardrive. Knave. Zen Arcade. Classic bands. We've been lucky. I think we've been very fortunate because we were able to be around when the trend of covers died out and it was about being original. The Live tour helped us a lot too. That was back in 2003.

Do you ever feel satisfied that you've kept going when others haven't?

I was full of passion in the beginning. Sometimes it's misguided but you have to figure it out or you don't have anything to talk about it. The only time that I have moments of arrogance is when I've written a song and I'm alone in my room and I know it's good. Then I can high-five myself. If I look at the bands that started out with us and fell by the wayside I realise how lucky we are. The Finkelstiens, Tweak and Cutting Jade. We've seen hundreds come and go and we've outlasted most. When we opened up for Live they said "who is this kid on stage", because I looked so young. But we've stayed the long course.

Prime Circle feels like a rock-solid band. But it's not always been easy within the band. Gerhard Venter left some six years after the band formed ... Gerhard was a recce in the army and he did shit. I don't think he ever came back from it, to be honest. His views on music were also at odds with us. He would have been perfect in a Kurt Darren band, no disrespect to Kurt Darren. A few years ago, Gerhard [was quoted] in an article saying we drink a lot; that we didn't really practice what we preach. I'm not sure what he meant. I'm not a religious guy. I'm a spiritual guy. I believe good things will come to those who do good. But let's call a spade a spade. Gerhard left his family on Christmas. There were two kids there. He hooked up with an ex-girlfriend of mine and married her. If we were drinking, well, we were just being in a band. That was a cheap blow, trying to make us look bad. At the end of that article he thanked his two daughters and he has four. He didn't even talk about his Witbank family. He was a bullshitter. That is my opinion. Don't say one thing and do another.

People have made a lot of your rivalry with The Parlotones over the years. What's the real story there?

It's a misconception that we have a rivalry with The Parlotones. We had a big fallout with their management (Powerzone). They were our management in the early days and we began letting The Parlotones open for us all the time. Then more and more shows started going their way. We weren't against the band being successful but we found out later that people were phoning to book us and were being told we were not available but The Parlotones were. But that's how the business goes, I suppose. You know, we left them (Powerzone) around 2004 or 2005 without a single fan's details? Powerzone kept the database that we had built up and The Parlotones absorbed it all. It put us back about two years. There were a lot of things going against us all the time and we kept going. It feels strange talking about it now because we've always kept this kind of stuff inside the band. We've always said: "Fuck it, we can move on, let's just do it." But we are now in the best place we've ever been and I feel that I can talk about it. I look at the career of someone like Cherilyn (MacNeil) from Dear Reader. She went overseas and didn't make a fuss about it. She's quietly getting on with making a career outside South Africa. I saw an article on her, when we were last in Germany. I felt so proud. She's amazing. Awesome, really. It's very different to the way that other people have tackled their international careers.

Let's talk about David Gresham. You signed your deal with him when you were just 20 and released two studio albums through him. But your publishing deal went up to the songs on 'Jekyll & Hyde' in 2010?

It's weird that when you and I were meeting in the foyer of the SABC last year, he walked past. I hadn't seen him for years and I wondered if it was a sign. Did you see how he was? Trying to be nice. He always seemed like a good guy, like a fatherly figure who had our interests at heart. But the deal saw me sign over my publishing rights for the world, for life, for all the albums recorded in our album deal with him and also right up to Jekyll & Hyde. Actually for 50 years after I die. The publishing is split 50-50 with him and so the fact is that our legacy is now owned by someone else. We've been told by some people that it's a human rights issue. Gresham is under the belief that he's done nothing wrong. But I don't believe I signed that paper stating that he would own my publishing for life. If telling people about this helps other young musicians realise they must always keep their own publishing, then it's worth it. Also, how do you negotiate on deals if you're the publisher and the record label? These 360-degree deals that people are doing these days, I don't know... It doesn't feel right.

That sounds very hard. What does this mean, practically?

The problem is that while he holds the rights to our early records and my publishing, Gresham brings out albums as he pleases. I've noticed that he tends to do this when we release something – so he's riding the wave of our advertising and just killing our sales. To me that is wrong. The Ultimate Prime Circle. The Best of Prime Circle. We've never endorsed those albums. I remember people asking us how we could bring out a Best Of after our second album. It wasn't our call. Why would we bring out a Best Of after our second album? We have no control over the photos and the artwork. It's like the Foster & Allan albums that he brings out each year. It's the same songs, just repositioned and the fans buy it. I remember Gresham saying he did that with Cutting Jade, after they left him. It killed that band. I think that was his goal with us. You leave me, you die. We overcame that in the end. But it has an effect on any deals that we try and do overseas. Our back catalogue is under someone else's control from a publishing point of view. Even the recordings he owns for another two years. He still has us by the balls.

This surely must also have had an effect on the band?

It has put a strain on things at times. Evidence is the first album that we own outright. I decided to split the songwriting with the band, so we all share equally. I didn't want the band to break up. In the end I just wanted to keep the band together so we shared it.

What has made you keep going though all of this?

Playing live. We play about 250 shows a year on average. Times that by nine years and you have about 2 000 shows. It sounds like nothing, hey? But you know, I still remember when I used to play in a coffee shop down the road. It wasn't a big thing. I worked at the Lemon Tree coffee shop in Middelburg and there was another place around the corner where I would go and people would throw around ideas and ask me to write and play songs on the spot. I must have been 16 at the time. I love touring. The [Red Hot Chili] Peppers were a live band 11 years on the scene before they made a single. All of us love touring. We are prepared to hit the road and play and play and play to keep this going.

You're achieving growing success in Germany. How does that fit into the next decade of Prime Circle?

I'd love to say to the band, "Let's pay off what we can and move there for six months at a time." The only way to get into a market is to be involved in it. Germany has been good to us. We've played to five people there and we have played to thousands. The big question is how hungry we are and what we are prepared to go through in a different country. In a new place we've also needed to let the songs do more of the work because we are not there physically, and I think we've proved that they can do it for us. That's how we got the Three Doors Down and Alter Bridge tours in Germany. [At one show], the Three Doors guys came to us afterwards and said they had got nervous when they saw how the fans were reacting to us. They're a band that shows that good guys can make it. We've been called the good guys of rock. I know I've been called the humble guy of rock. One thing we've learned by playing in Europe is that artists there don't keep each other down and want to work together and help each other. South African artists should extend their arms more and stop guarding their tiny turf. Let people in. Work with other artists because you will write better songs.

How do you think your German fans view you?

It's funny, because in Germany we are seen as a different band. We're seen as more of a rock band. Over the three years, we have gradually pushed heavier and heavier. The contrast is there. The rock songs are played with less caution. Maybe that's why bands like Knave didn't do as well as they should have here – people don't understand that kind of rock here, on a larger scale. We want South African bands to go out there and take on the world. It's not easy, I know. We went from being these little shits in Witbank to being a household name in South Africa. In Germany, it's a slow build but I think it makes for longevity. We had to fight for the longevity at home.

You've brought up the absence of real camaraderie between bands a few times. Why do you think South Africa's band scene is so closed off?

I don't know. Let those people backstab. I am constantly defending the Seether guys as well. Look at The Parlotones. We toured that band as our opening act for four or five years. We exposed them to a huge fanbase. Who cares if we don't get anything back but ... you are meant to stick together. If the other guy is better than you on the day, so be it. Why are you so afraid to be shown up? Music is about showing your fears and emotion and you shouldn't be afraid you are going to be beaten. There are young bands that have kicked our arse on some nights and I've been so impressed. I'm not saying The Parlotones turned against us but there is no brotherhood anymore. But that is not going to stop us from helping other bands. We've always been a band about the music business – not the business music. Everything's backwards. The Parlotones are a great marketing band. They are a business band. We've always tried to be a band first and foremost – and a real one. I can go back and cringe at some of the music we have recorded, but if I go back to that time I know that it was the best we could do at that moment. We were not trying to conform, even though people accused us of that. We've constantly been evolving and our fans know that. They've stuck by us. The proof is in our career.

How do you deal with criticism? You've had your fair share ...

We've had it since Day One. We come from small towns so we know how to fight. But it does kick you in the nuts. It really does. Blunt magazine and I think GQ went on about us being middlebrow. Everyone is allowed their opinion of the band but we are a real fucking band. If they don't see it, they don't have to see it. It's cool. I feel like we have been a thorn in the side of the industry for a long time. It's almost like they are trying to keep us out of the history books. If we didn't make it ourselves no one would talk about us because we are not anti-establishment and we don't live up to a bullshit theory of music. We've made our own history. Music is not supposed to have any of the fucking rules they are applying.

Does the rest of the band feel this?

I'm not sure. What I do know is that every time we make an album it is make or break. "Is the band going to be a band after this?" is the question that hangs over everything. The process of making an album is such a personal thing and it brings forth so many emotions. Then there is everything we are experiencing in the industry on top of that and our own personal lives. But we've made it through. I guarantee we will be a band for the next eight to 10 years easily.

What do you think will enable a band like Prime Circle to still have a career in the future?

These are difficult times in the industry ... I think it's going back to a place where it's settled on the stage. You have to come up with something that people will go and see live again and again – that's important to me. The reason I'd love to break other markets is to bring back some of that money and do better productions here. We were the first band to bring in fireworks and confetti cannons to things like Jo'burg Day. Everyone else was doing the bare minimum. I've always believed in that. I think that if we have a bit of money to play with ... I don't think I'll ever be driving around in a Lambo; I'm not that kind of person. But I've always wanted to put on something like the Vans Warped Tour, one that you don't just get on – where you have to work your arse off to be part of it, but if you do get on the bill you know it will be amazing. It's like the Powerzone Roadshow. I talk negatively about Powerzone because they did fuck us in the end, but while we worked with them, Raphael (Domalik) put on the roadshows and when you came off that tour, you were known. It was a big deal and I miss that. I don't think there's that big deal anymore. I feel responsible, being one of the big bands. We have to be careful of weighing money versus culture. We have to push the culture, which, in turn, will bring money.

You told me earlier that you're writing a book. What is it about?

It's about a family curse. The Scottish are very superstitious and have lots of stories. There's a story about the Green Lady, which is a big one in my family. She threw herself off the battlement in Motherwell, where my family is from, because her lover died at war. As a kid, I always imagined her skin to be green but as I got older I realised she was called the Green Lady because she always wore beautiful satin green dresses. My cousin has seen her. We're a very close-knit family. My granddad went soon after my grandmother. He phoned just before he died. He said, "You making money with that band?" I told him that we were doing OK. "Then I've got nothing else to say to you." Those were the last words I heard him say.

It sounds like he was happy that you were OK. Are you happy where you are now?

It's weird looking at a career in the way we've done today. Talking about it and driving around Middelburg. I was 22 when I left home and moved to Witbank. Then I was kicked out of a house there because I was partying too much. We want to be a band for 20 to 25 years. I don't think we will be at the top-end level for all that time. But we just love playing. A lot of people use the word "brotherhood", but I do feel that they [the rest of the band] are my family. We've been breaking records together. It's truly a dream that not many people get to have for real. It's a blessing to us. I look at people like Dave Grohl. He is flying the rock'n'roll flag and that is not going to change. We hope to do the same thing – we hope to make a young kid pick up a guitar and start a band. A world without music would suck. What I am striving to do is write the best song that I possibly can at that time. We never chased fame. I never expected to come out of Witbank and become the biggest band in the country. My dad said as long as you are happy, the rest follows fine. If it doesn't, at least you have written some great songs along the way. It feels like yesterday that my dad was saying "what the hell is this kid going to do with his life?". Now look at us.

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

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