(photo credit: Sean Metelerkamp)
Spoek Mathambo’s Father Creeper, his first album with the SubPop label drops tomorrow (March 13 2012). Lynsey Chutel tracked Nthato Mokgatha aka the Township Tech champion via Skype and got into his head about winning over South African audiences and the meaning of Afro-futurism amongst other things.
AfriPOP!: What does signing to Sub-Pop – which means you now share a label with Nirvana – mean for your career?
Spoek Mathambo: It’s cool. I’m just happy to have supportive people behind my vision. That’s what I really dig. I haven’t had many record deal offers in the past so it’s cool that they saw something they wanted to get behind and they’ve been behind me 100%. I’m excited about that. And they’ve been super chilled. They haven’t gotten into my business about what I do creatively and in that I’ve developed immensely in the last year. I’ve just been riding the intuition they have, riding the trust they have in me to go to places that I wouldn’t even necessarily trust myself.
Anytime when you stop and think, ‘Wow, this is huge. This is bigger than I thought.’ Or did you always expect something this big.
Nah man, I mean, I keep everything in perspective. I haven’t bought my mum a new house and my grandmum a set of new teeth. You know, like there are tons of people who have signed to SubPop who have their albums not do anything.
What about local recognition? Your tours have been predominantly abroad and your based in Sweden. Yet, the momentum is steadily growing in South Africa and your song Let Them Talk has just been playlisted on national station 5FM?
It’s the beginning. I’m a South African artist and yet my music’s never been released in South Africa. Sony has just licensed my new album and so I’m hoping that will take my music from a kind of 0.5% of South Africans to a big proportion of them. I’m not just hoping that’s going to happen with the music, I’m going to work my fucking ass off to make sure it does.
I don’t expect South Africans to be into the weird stuff but I know what South Africans like and I know how to make what I do bang in such a way. I’m excited by the opportunity to get into people’s ears and to get into people’s lives. And the big thing is in all my little success around the world there’s still this sadness that I see in my brother – who is my good friend, my mentor, who’s ten years older than me – he can’t see my videos on TV, or he can’t hear my music on the radio or buy my album in store. With all of that changing, I’m hyped.
‘Weird’? Would you call Father Creeper weird?
I don’t even call it weird. But it’s a fact that certain kinds of music don’t do as well as other kinds of music. This is a really experimental album. I’m excited for it to be out, I’m excited for people to hear it. But I’m also going to put out a lot of other music that I know people are going to get down with and I hope that will lead them into appreciating my more difficult music – not difficult, just stuff that needs more engagement.
You made a literary cameo in Lauren Beukes’ cult novel, Zoo City. What was that like?
I didn’t know about that for a long time. I didn’t even know about that until the person who wrote my press release told me. And I met her and she didn’t tell me. And I didn’t finish the book so I didn’t get to that part. But yeah man, she’s dope. She’s doing her thing in an exciting way. It’s phenomenal.
Yours is as much a visual as musical experience, especially visible when it comes your music videos (so much so that we think Santigold’s latest video might be inspired by what you did with Control). Visually, what are your creative influences?
I guess it all starts with being a fan of music and knowing that. I like some bands that have really interesting cover designs. I guess I work off the graphic design of the covers. There’s nothing much beyond that.
But on the flipside my biggest influences are like the jazz pianist Sun Ra in that he’d create a whole universe. He’s from Saturn. From the 1950s up until his death in the 1970s, he always had this hugely visual world. His record label is called Saturn records. He made a movie in the 70s and it’s about a king coming from outer space but he’s in the hood in America and yet at the same time he’s a dude from Mars. I enjoy and appreciate that.
I appreciate Africans coming from all over the diaspora creating alternate worlds and alternate narratives. And someone like George Clinton on the other side, I like that People’s World.
I like Drexia, techno dudes from Chicago. Young black ghetto dudes into other things than just showing where they’re from but describing where they’re from through alternate narratives, I like that. I guess that kinda stuff has been a big influence.
You’ve got so much power in how you represent yourself. It’s fun. I studied graphic design for a while and so the pure aesthetic interest is also there – where stuff doesn’t have context and it’s pretty much content. I like the lines, the shapes, the shadows.
Growing up in Johannesburg and spending your formative years in Soweto, how did you develop your taste in music, especially the electronic and techno taste?
I wouldn’t say I am a techno person at all. I mean growing up in South Africa I thought Eurodance was techno and I think a lot of South Africans do. They don’t realise its part of the continuum of black music. It’s the sons of Prince and The Parliament and the Funkadelic and creating the next generation of funk.
And as for my musical taste, one strong thing was my brother. He’s ten years older than me and he put me onto a lot of hip-hop so by the time I was five years old I was into all of that. That was the 90s so it was that school of Hip-hop and that developed. I liked it all until I got a bit older. And then my dad, who was a big jazz head, moved to Australia and the UK and he left me with all his records. I got into jazz like that on my own, studying with the turntable just going through hundreds and hundreds of records and defining and discerning what I like and what excites me.
And growing up in Johannesburg, there’s the South African Hip-hop side of things. Growing up as a Hip-hop head, I wasn’t into Kwaito but then there was a point where I got tired of American Hip-hop and started getting into Hip-hop from all over the world. Got into some UK stuff and through UK stuff got into stuff like Major Tunes and that’s spun my interest in electronic music which is now electronic music from all over the world be it Brazil, Colombia, America, Australia, wherever. Most importantly, in the last couple of years, South Africa as well. So it’s come full circle through not being into Kwaito and house and that to now a hundred per cent being influenced by the amazing Kwaito and House and techno that comes there, more so than any other kinds of music.
I know phrases like boundary breaking and genre-smashing have been used to describe your sound, image, everything about you. What do you make of the term ‘Afro-futurist’?
Afro-futurism is a culture lineage. It’s what I was talking about earlier. Writers on one side, but for me most strongly, musicians. People like George Clinton, people like Drexia. As Africans, because of our education systems, we’re not fed a history of ourselves and of our culture. And people are not necessarily digging through that history and that culture. Afro-futurists serve the purpose of trading an alternate history. If the white man is going to say we came from trees and the jungle and we were nothing before we’re going to create our own incredibly proud alternate lineage based on our history but also based on whatever we see fit to do. A lot of it has to do with pride and building ourselves as a people.
The world is embracing you and soon the collabo calls will be coming. Who would you like to work with?
Artistically: Who’s a good drummer? Pharrel plays drums. So it would be Phuzekhemisi on guitar, Stevie Wonder on synths and Pharrel on drums.
Any chance of that happening?
I don’t know. I’m just starting in this. Phuzekhemesi is a legend. Stevie Wonder is a legend. Pharrel in his right is a total legend. So that’s what I’m working towards.
And your Contemporaries?
As far as South Africa goes, I’m excited to have met the dude from BFG. I’m excited to start working with him, he’s the dopest Zulu MC I’ve heard in a long long time. My favourites are still Dirty Paraffin. There’s a group from Johannesburg, The Brother Moves On. I really really think they have something special. They have something quite unique and special and fully formed, really smart ideas. I really admire what they do. I’m a fan and I’ve been lucky to get into studio with them.
Someone else I’d like to work with is DJ Sdunkero. I really like his production, his synth-work is dope and I’d love to work with him. He’s a house producer from Nelspruit (in South Africa) and I’ve been playing a lot of his music. At some point we had contact and then things just kinda got wobbly. I hope things work out. And then there’s a group of producers from Chicago, The Experimental Ghetto Technicians – DJ Earl, DJ Nani, Manny and Spin and I really, really love their work. I think they have hyper unique futuristic visions and I hear some more possibilities. There’s a group from Mali, Tinariwen. I saw them perform and they were fuuuuucking dope. When I get an album with like a decent enough budget, I’m definitely excited to work with them.
Catch Spoek Mathambo on tour here
March 16 SXSW Sub Pop Showcase
Mar 22 SOB’S New York, NY
Mar 23 The Great Hall Toronto, ON
Mar 24 La Tulipe Montreal QC
Mar 25 TT the Bears Cambridge, MA