Interview: The Brother Moves On Featured
The Brother Moves On released their phenomenal debut album A New Myth last year and are one of the most promising and exciting acts in the country. Full of equal parts pathos and humour, their music, which is an eclectic and utterly unique fusion of rock, Zulu spirituals, blues and free-form jazz, is also imbued by lyrics and themes that deal with death, greed and masculinity.
Formed in 2009, they are comprised of lead singer, Siyabonga Mthembu, guitarist Zelizwe Mthembu (Zwash), guitarist Raytheon Moorvan, bassist Ayanda Zalekile and drummer Simphiwe Tshabalala. After a difficult year that included the passing of band founder, Nkululeko Mthembu but also a debut European tour, I got to chat to guitarists Ray and Zwash in a dark car park outside a bar in Westdene in Johannesburg a few minutes before lead singer Siya’s 30th birthday. They talked about the recording process behind their album, their views on the South African music scene and their take on being a ‘serious’ band.
K: First up, how did you guys start?
R: I met Kush (Nkululeko) at the old Bohemian and he told me to come for a rehearsal for this crazy band the next week. I called him and he tells me to rock up at the Shell in Kempton Park. Zwash came to meet me and he comes up to me and says, “Hey bra, my cousin told me to come and meet you”. So we sat in the driveway of Siya’s house for an hour feeling really awkward and then Siya came back from work that day and we then sat in Siya’s mum’s bedroom playing guitar until like 10 at night. We thought that it wasn’t half bad and we then had one more rehearsal and played four more songs and then we’re playing Bassline the next week!
Z: It was a Busi Mhlongo tribute.
R: We then found a drummer and a bassist and we taught them the songs for like half an hour before the gig. We got on stage all confident, you know like, big match temperament and we were pleasantly surprised that we didn’t suck. Then after that we went to Grahamstown with a R1000 between like eight niggas. Siya had called like months beforehand to organize a house for him to stay at during Arts Fest and next thing you know, two cars full of people and instruments and amps rocked up. We trashed the house…
Z: Ray adopted a dog! The dog ate and shat in the house like a king too!
R: And that’s how we started to answer your question.
K: How is it being an indie band in South Africa?
R: It sucks balls.
Z: I don’t think you’re ever really independent. You are always dependent on something: whether it is your audience or your label itself.
R: Zwash is a fucking hippie (laughs)! The reality of it is that there is no industry really. And I agree that you are kind of always dependent on something but ultimately when it comes to it there are no real rules here. People can tell you they know how it’s done and that there are rules but you have no way of tracking that. I can’t be like ‘Okay cool, I agree with you because I can see the myriad of other artists that you’ve made successful in the last few years’.
K: Do you think that having no rules allows you to be more creative on an album and do what you want?
Z: No, we haven’t been able to do anything that we really want on the album. Even though all of us were sitting there saying, ”This is dope, there are a lot things that I can cherish from this first album”. But we do think there were things we could have done differently.
R: We sat at the beginning of last year and had a Pros/Cons list on like A2 paper and explored every possibility of recording, whether that was in Joburg or Cape Town. After that we made the decision to go to Cape Town and we did a shitload of work in those five days and we thought that we had recorded about 80% of the album. And as the months went by we thought we could do better and the Cape Town work became less and less of the album.
K: Getting to the album itself, I want to know what is the writing process like? What does each band member do?
R: It is a fucking jam session.
Z: Not always, dude!
R: Zwash, don’t front like you’re Quincy Jones brah!
Z: I am! I’m the master of this shit (laughs).
K: I saw one of your gigs at the Woodstock Exchange last year and the songs melded into other songs, you’re not sure like when one ends and one begins. So I’m interested in how you guys went about actually making a cohesive and ordered album.
Z: Well we fight a lot, as in we beef dawg and I will be like, “No, guys I really want us to play it like this” and the rest will be like “No, Zwash you need to explain why though”.
R: Looking back at Zwash’s comment about how there’s lots of stuff we wanted to do on the album - I think that should always be the case. It should never really end. It’s kind of like your mom worrying about you, that bitch should worry about me till I die (laughs)! I mean you’re always going to worry about what it sounds like, and you’re always going to be recreating things and critiquing your work till the point you’re like ‘nah, I failed here’.
So in light of that, we know we’re fundamentally a live band and recording is a difficult thing and we are aware of that. So for the Golden Wake we felt we had to record it live but for ETA we got an engineer and a producer and did the whole thing like by the book and we were like “Wow, this sounds fucking polished!” So it was interesting when A New Myth was released I had to respond to a lot of mail and some of it was like, “Love your album, thanks, peace”. And there is some that have a lot of paragraphs criticizing the inner workings of what is fundamentally a group of five humans being humans and I can’t help but think that people should really take what they want from it and move on.
K: I kind of think you’re being unfair. Because when you listen to some of your songs it is clear that you guys aren’t aiming to just put a song out there that gets a couple of plays on the radio and that’s it. You’re writing about heavy stuff here.
R: Yeah, I get it but I think that for me personally, I’m fighting for myself here: I’m not a thing. You can’t treat me like a thing. In any industry, of course, people are not beyond reproach. But in what we do, I’m not a thing and people can’t come up to me and be like “Fuck, you know what you should do?” or criticise some aspect of the band. If you’re doing accounting there is some process and if you make a mistake there is some protocol that says you rectify your error, or you get reprimanded or you get fired. There is no industry here. There is no protocol; there are no rules. And becausewe’re trying to make some rules we should not be chastised for making mistakes.
K: With regards to local bands: at PLATFORM we have been talking about how we are in such an interesting space as a country but no one is really talking about that and bands are content to be apolitical. Was it a conscious decision to talk about subjects like wealth and greed in society on a song like ‘Party@Parktown Mansions’?
R: We live in such a conservative fucking country. I think you’re talking about awareness, the lack thereof and passivity. I don’t think that we’ve had the luxury of being passive. On a daily - outside of making music – we know people and know what they have to deal with. And it makes you think about your responsibility in society and as a voter. I think that people want a quick-fix and want answers now. As people making music, I don’t think that we have the answers. I mean there are politicians building swimming pools right now and you’re fucking complaining to me about making a song! I’m just here to say that no one is having that conversation and even amongst my peers I don’t think we’re having that conversation, really. I mean, I’m 27 and I still don’t know who to fucking vote for. It’s crazy.
K: But that’s how a lot of people our age feel, don’t you think?
R: I mean we don’t have any forum for that. And for people below the bread line they don’t have that voice, I don’t even think there’s a voice for the middle class but there definitely is a voice for the fucking elite. I know that much. We’re just observing, we’re not preaching. I think going back to your question of whether it was a conscious decision, if you’re making unconscious decisions you’re going to get outcomes you didn’t want. So basically that’s it. All of our decisions are conscious – that’s awareness.
K: A friend pointed me to a couple of influences that you guys had and I thought that for a lot of middle-class white kids listening to your album it probably sounds completely new. What are your influences?
Z: Your Philip Tebane’s, Busi Mhlongo – who’s my absolute favourite vocalist. Shit, man. I cry to her stuff.
K: Interesting that you said that because if you look at a song like ‘Hossana’, Siya’s pushing his voice to some serious heights. Do you think that’s where that influence comes in or is that just how he sings?
Z: I don’t know what that is but I just know he is doing amazing things. Our Mom wrote that song and we used to sing that at funerals. We used go with his mom and his sister to ‘uku-kutaza’. How do you say that in English, ‘to console’? So I think that’s how that song came about. The way he sings it is an expression of the emotions that are present on that song.
R: When you ask us which influences we have, I don’t think that it is about which genius has converted you and made you a genius too. It’s not about that. But rather that it is our birthright. We are present in that moment. So if you hear someone else’s music in our music it is probably because they are also present. When I joined the band I did not know half of the fucking bands that Zwash listens to…
Z: He still doesn’t!
R: (Chuckles) I probably still don’t, but I still appreciate it for what it is.
K: In terms of the timing of the album, it came at a hard time, personally for the band, and it also coincides with the day of Nelson Mandela’s passing. You talk about the ‘New Myth’ and you’ve already said you don’t know the answers so you’re not telling us what the ‘New Myth’ is. Care to share your thoughts behind the title?
R: We wouldn’t have got this far if we weren’t loudmouth fucking assholes, and primarily our strength was putting together an awesome live show. In light of that, we had all these bombastic, egocentric titles for the album like: Duffel Bags Full of Dough and Game-Changing E-Minor and Fuck What You Heard Said or Die. And because our live show was so heavy we wanted to put that on to the album and convey that with the title. We got so ahead of ourselves. But as the year went on and Siya and I were in and out of hospital and worried about financials and making sure everyone could eat and then Nkush passing it all put it in context and we thought we needed some humility up in this bitch. There wasn’t that initial bombastic feeling anymore.
Z: I think we had actually lost it, in our performances and stuff. We asked ourselves do you guys still feel that spiritual-ness we had when we first started to perform?
R: We knew. We had a rating system where we would play ching-chong-chang and throw out a number from 0-10 to see how we each felt about a show. Most of us would be like 2 or 3 and if someone was like “Ah, guys 9!”, we knew that guy was playing like shit! We knew we had lost some of our presence from all of the shit in the year. We were speaking with Nicky B from Khaya FM and she actually turned us onto the idea of the ‘New Myth’. She noted that in the past there were all these people and they became legends and she turned it back to us and reversed the process and said that we had become legendary before people even knew us. It was mythological in a way and it broke our brains.
Zwash and I sat down with the band for a bit and thought about that because our previous title was going to be The Greatest Hits. And we thought that it wasn’t all about us, the country wasn’t in that space and the world wasn’t in that space either and the ‘New Myth’ was a way more present version of The Greatest Hits. The Greatest Hits was not meant to be like ‘fuck you, guys’ but rather the idea that we had put our best tracks on the first album and we still feel that way.
K: You guys describe yourselves as a performance art project; do you feel you are a band?
R: That’s hard to say.
Z: We’re a bunch of niggas who happen to hang out and have a few instruments!
R: We still have high hopes about what we want to do. There’s talk about getting into theatre seriously and reviving some old plays and there’s talk about playing at schools, and work-shopping and taking it out of the advertising space and the bar-hopping and big-festival arena space. Like, what you mentioned about middle-class white kids - we’ve connected on that level but I would really love to connect with places where I haven’t been in this country and play for people who don’t speak my language.
One of the most eye-opening gigs I remember was when we played at Bree Taxi Rank and I thought that people wouldn’t give a shit. And I never thought that I would connect there because if I spoke to them we wouldn’t relate but with music that shit doesn’t matter. They’re like we want to buy five albums and here’s the money and we don’t get that with a bunch of sweaty white kids in the North - we’re lucky if we sell two a show. And I don’t know what to think about it because in the beginning I was just Ray and I had a few friends and now I feel kind of strange with some of my friends. Like the first bunch of people that witnessed The Brother Moves On were like ‘this is the best thing ever’ and now they’ve kind of distanced themselves. And the next bunch of people came in and they also drifted away and next time you see them they’re at the bar and they give you that nod like ‘I know you’re over there, why don’t you greet me?’
K: I guess that comes with the territory of being more popular. When you mentioned some of your influences, most people don’t know them anymore. Do you think that’s a symptom of the SA scene? That you guys could be the talk of the town until the end of next year and you could be forgotten very quickly. Does that thought play in your head a bit?
Z: It does man…
R: What brings me some peace is that it is possible that a thousand years from now no one will speak Zulu. You know? A couple of years ago there was talk about how the Chinese were infiltrating Burma and killing monks and shit. We don’t know there could be a whole race of people that disappeared in our lifetime. Things die man. And all we can do is do our best while we are here. We’re just trying to start conversations.
K: Going back to the point you about becoming legendary before people knew you guys, do you think that that a lot of people in our society are raised before they should be raised up and we take pleasure in seeing them fall? This is as opposed to doing a lot beforehand to become legendary.
R: Definitely, I think that society is sick. We just drown ourselves in liquor and TV and expect to have positive outcomes. There are way too many people with way too many fucking opinions and they all think that those opinions matter. And we are all just trying to survive. And some people are lucky that they don’t have the same struggles as other people. With that dichotomy existing we’re going to take advantage of that gap and prop people up on pedestals and laud them and praise them and rebuke them in the same breath. People aren’t concerned with the health of a person and the health of society. And I feel outside of that and I’m interacting with people all the time. But I don’t think I can relate these ideas to everyone and I’m just lucky I have a few people that I can talk about these things to.
I guess the music helps because it humbles you and makes you realise that I’m just a human and I’m not that great. But if you’re inducted into any other industry it is different. Industries are created to make people feel worth something. That’s how people find their worth. If you’re in finance you find your worth from a degree, a promotion, a company car. But for us, we only find our worth from how well we can play the music and convey that emotion. I’ve been in corporate before and I felt dead inside. I’m lucky that I’ve had music since I was a child.
K: So don’t you think that you’re no different to the guy in finance because that’s what gives him his worth and music is what gives you your worth?
R: The difference is that the financial world is what creates that divide that puts people in different positions of education and wealth. They don’t have the same luxuries to be part of the conversation of: that is your worth and this is mine. Their worth is very literally less than mine. That’s part of what we do, trying to be destructive about that division. We even had a dude smash his face on a fence.
Z: Saying “I bleed for your guys!” That was the first gig we played with Aya!
K: Crazy. So what are your plans for the year?
R: We plan to start a new album and we know the process we want to implement. I’m having a kid, so I’m taking a sabbatical. But we hope the band gets back into that jam space, but we have mad suggestions for who is going to replace me and other people who are just going to join and we can get back to that space. July/August we want to hit Europe again and September/October Europe again and maybe the States. And maybe even South America but that may only be the next year. All of our successes from last year happened because we had one year’s worth of planning but now I think we need two years of planning. So we’re planning to stay quieter for longer and do more later on.
Read Sean Magner's review of A New Myth here.