In the early nineties, the so-called alternative movement was experiencing a lull. Not for lack of talent, but for lack of record labels prepared to market them on their own terms. Into this gap stepped a gaunt, self-confident businessman named Eckard Potgieter.
I remember that Eckard came to visit me in my tiny little rented house in Woodstock, Cape Town, and offered me the astonishing advance sum of twenty grand if I signed with his Wildebeest label. Our first deal was secured with a handshake and two signatures on an empty pack of Camel cigarettes – the only piece of paper we managed to get hold of.
Thus we started on a roller-coaster ride that lasted a few years. Wildebeest signed a number of Afrikaans rock acts, including Piet Botha (who started writing his first songs in Afrikaans after performing as Jack Hammer for decades) Valiant Swart, and, later, legendary singer-guitarist Jan Blohm. The spate of brilliant albums from the Wildebeest stable was punctuated by wild partying, lengthy alcohol-soaked 'pre-production meetings' and turbulent launches. Eckard Potgieter was certainly the most hands-on record mogul I had ever heard of.
Whenever Eckard and I met up to do business, disaster and mayhem seemed to follow. All in all, though it was a learning curve - or rather, a learning swerve. Being part of the Wildebeest set-up was like something out of a Kerouac novel.
Two of my favourite memories are (i) seeing Eckard fall off stage during a performance of Randy Rambo and the Rough Riders at Oppikoppi and thinking: "My God, that guy is my boss!" and (ii) a late-night train trip with Eckard into Amsterdam, after which I got mugged and badly beaten up by a crazed drug addict who mistook me for his dealer.
And then, suddenly, Eckard Potgieter disappeared from the scene, only to re-surface last year, having recorded a CD of his own.
According to the blurb in the sleeve notes of Spoorloos (released by Blomhuis Records), Eckard had spent a number of years "in a hut in the Arabian desert, working on secret projects for the Arabian defence force."
And he certainly looked like a man back from the desert. Disheveled, haunted, more gaunt than ever, sporting a mysterious long overcoat and dark glasses, and sounding, as one journalist called him, "like Leonard Cohen on Witblits", Eckard Potgieter surprised friend and foe by launching his own singing career. "I wanted to start singing years ago," he explained in one of his first interviews, "but back then my voice didn't sound right. I didn't smoke enough."
Spoorloos was voted one of the ten best albums of 2011 by Beeld newspaper and the literary site LitNet, and reviewer Anna-Retha Bouwer described it thus: "Potgieter's voice is like a Harley Davidson on a long road trip, he knows exactly where he's going."
I simply had to talk to the guy again! And I did:
How do you feel when you think back to those turbulent years and would you ever consider returning to the marketing and distribution side of the industry?
Somebody (Hunter S. Thompson, if fact) once said "The music business is a cruel and shallow money trench, a long plastic hallway where thieves and pimps run free, and good men die like dogs. There's also a negative side". I can vouch for that. I was 33 years old and naive when I started Wildebeest Records, today I'm 50 years old and still naive. The only reason I will get involved in the M & D side again is to release and promote my own music. I'm not a businessman.
How do you feel it when everyone describes you as "the Leonard Cohen" of Afrikaans music? Personally, I must admit you remind me more of Tom Waits!
Obviously I feel flattered being compared to Leonard Cohen, one of my few heroes. I once owned all the Tom Waits vinyls and listened to it constantly.
How do you feel about modern musicians, like Die Antwoord? Would you like to compete with them?
I would not like to compete with Die Antwoord, but I respect what they are doing. I have just watched their appearance on the David Letterman Show, and I think they know where they are going. I'm not buying their Zef facade - I think they're very shrewd and driven. I try to stay away from fake lyrics and feelings, I'll leave that to Kurt Darren's team of songwriters.
I heard that you are working on a new album. Will this album have similar themes to Spoorloos - alienation tinged with alcohol usage - or are you exploring new topics?
I can only write what I feel and what I know about - in the same breath I don't want my new album to sound like Spoorloos, that will be senseless. It is generally known that a second album can make or break an artist and I am planning to be around for quite a few years. I'm in a much a happier place at the moment than where I have been for a while, so it will be a bit of a different angle.
What do you think of Afrikaans music at the moment? Is it a legit part of South African music in general, or are they still in a cultural bubble of their own making?
Afrikaans is not a genre. Music is universal, and there is bad Hungarian music and bad Afrikaans music. We have come a long way since the censorship and brainwashing of the old times and artificial boundaries have fallen away. In the end the audience and buying public vote with their credit cards. I like Heuwels Fantasties and a lot of the stuff out there. I think good Afrikaans music is progressing in leaps and bounds and that it is relevant - I know a lot of English-speaking South Africans who love quite a bit of the Afrikaans music out there.