Black Hotels in rare city gig
Something of a curiosity, their unique style honed by musical democracy should be a treat for more cerebral fans this weekend
THE THINKING person’s rockers – The Black Hotels – play a rare Cape Town show in the wake of Films For The Next Century, their first full-length album – and after impressing at the recent Oppikoppi festival.
The Black Hotels comprise vocalist, songwriter and guitarist John Boyd, bassist and vocalist Lisa Campbell, lead guitarist Neil White, producer, keyboard-player and glockenspiel maestro Matthew Fink and drummer Warwick Poultney.
They are something of a curiosity – they leapt to prominence within a few short months of their formation in mid-2006 and garnered fans as much as they impressed critics.
What’s more, they did so with a sound rooted in alt-country and introspective rock (think R.E.M., Interpol and Velvet Underground), rather than the currently fashionable indie-rock sound. Many readers will have heard Natalie and Beautiful Mornings off the band’s five-song début EP ( Beautiful Mornings, October 2007) which received relatively widespread airplay.
Songs off the new, full-length album are less well-known. Over and above the clear indictment of South African radio stations and their cynical approach towards the local content quotas – bulking up allotted airtime with gig-guides and interviews rather than proactively embracing local talent – this is something the band were braced for.
“We recorded the EP quite quickly as the band got together,” explains Boyd. “It was very spontaneous – there wasn’t a lot of time to think. Those were the ideas we had and the songs we had written, and we put them down. It got quite a bit of radio play, and then suddenly there was the pressure to do the full album, and get radio play, but it wasn’t as though there was a formula to how we got that radio play.
“We looked at that, asking how we did that. A year and a half on, I wouldn’t say we had gone through an identity thing, but we had been figuring out who we were as a band, and once we got comfortable with that, we could answer the questions. Of course, we would love to be on radio, but we realised that we can’t write specifically for radio.
“We recorded 18 songs and we mixed 14, but only 10 made it onto the final mix.”
The decision to leave off certain material was one taken fairly easily – and democratically. “We’ve always kind of felt that we like the short and punchy approach,” says Boyd. “The EP was short and punchy; we like our shows to be short and punchy and when we listened to the songs, those 10 fitted nicely together. There is no need to put other songs onto the record if they are not as strong. It’s quite a personal thing, putting out a record, and different people do it for different reasons, but we are a band of a certain nature and we wanted to put out our best work.
“The first thing with us as a band,” he continues, “is that we get on really well socially. We are musicians and music lovers and friends, first and foremost. If we weren’t in the band, we would probably still hang out together and, with that, we are able to voice things when we need to; when we are not seeing eye to eye.
“We all bring our specialities to the table. I have an ability to put songs together in a basic form, lyrically with some melody or some chords. But then Warwick will bring in his drumming style, or Matthew will add some keyboards. Or Lisa will write some of the song and we put our ideas together and build on them, build around them.
“We definitely are a unit and we are a democracy – decisions are all made as group decisions. If one of us really doesn’t think something is a good song, then we can say that without it hurting anyone’s feelings. You get to that over a period of years; being able to speak bluntly for the good of the music.”
The Black Hotels recently impressed the crowds at the Oppikoppi music festival, where they stood out with a more mature sound, perhaps, than some of the other bands on the largely indie and hardrock inclined stage. “We loved it,” smiles Boyd.
“We played to a great audience and they seemed to enjoy it, and then we were able to stay for the weekend and get to see other bands, like the Cape Town bands that we don’t get to see often, or haven’t seen at all.
“The great thing about our South African artists is that, for the most part, there are no egos. Everybody gets on well. There’s no kind of line between the artists and the people because everyone is there for the same reason: to celebrate community and to celebrate the music.”
What, then, can Mother City audiences expect from The Black Hotels?
“Well, we bring ourselves – we’re bringing our music to the stage, live, and our live shows are sometimes quite different from the CD – we work the arrangements out differently,” says Boyd.
He adds with almost a shrug: “Maybe it’s because we’re a bit older – all in our 30s or almost out of them, but none of us is really comfortable ‘rocking out’.
“We’re all a bit self-conscious about what people expect from the band: Sometimes, we wish we could offer more of a spectacle. Also, we are always writing new stuff. So, we have at least four new songs – and a taste of the direction of the new record.”
The Black Hotels play with Ashtray Electric and garage rockers Revelators, also featuring Bo’janglers and DJ Sideshow (tonight, Assembly, 61 Harrington St, District Six, 021 426 4552, R40).
CHECKING IN: The Black Hotels will offer glimpses of their new material when they perform in the city tonight.