Interview: The Shabeen

Acoustic folk-punk duo The Shabeen recently released their superb debut album Folk Is DeadIt is a beautifully and brilliantly cynical album that superbly blends together acoustic instruments and a punk ethos. We decided to catch up with the band and talk to them about combining punk with folk, the folk revival, South Africa’s punk scene and we get their stance of “electronic bullshit”.

A lot of interviews with new bands tend to be focused around rather clichéd and tedious questions like what is your origin story and your influences and so forth. Do you want to give a stock answer to that question to which you can refer all future interviews?

Jon and Ryan started playing music together in Captain Stu in about 2003 and have been writing and performing together ever since. When Captain Stu started to become less active in around 2011 Jon started focusing more on his solo folk career and Ryan enrolled at UCT to study jazz on Double Bass. After building up a solo folk repertoire and following Jon joined up with Ryan again to adapt some of his solo songs into full band arrangements. The duo were joined by Thomas Glendinning (who Ryan had met at music college) on drums. From then onwards the band built up a set of music together, independent of Jon’s solo set.

The most intriguing thing about your origin is that you’re a folk-punk duo (we can use that term right?) that has originated from Cape Town – a city not well-known for having an entrenched folk or punk scene. Did this make starting out rather difficult, or is a difficult start just the generic narrative for all South African artists?

We would have to disagree with that statement. Although there isn’t as much of a punk scene now as there used to be there is definitely a legacy of punk rock with bands like Hog Hoggidy Hog, Fokofpolisiekar, Half Price and many others. When we were teenagers we’d spend every weekend at punk shows. Cape Town also has a great folk legacy kept alive by things like The Barleycorn Club, The Alma Cafe, and the countless quirky Cape Town bars that host singer-songwriter folk sets regularly.

Your music is a rather lively blend of folk music and the no-bullshit ethos of punk. How did you guys come around to fusing these two elements that in traditional musical realms would usually be kept very far apart?

The fusion of folk and punk was a very instinctive sound that just made sense to us and it was a sound that we arrived at without really planning on it. We both grew up in the heart of the Cape Town/SA punk/ska and in our teens we spent every weekend watching (and later playing with) bands like Hog Hoggidy Hog, Fuzigish and Half Price. So we both have this ingrained long-standing love of punk rock but we both also felt very strongly that we could express our songs more emotively and even sincerely using acoustic instruments (nylon string guitar and double bass) instead of electric instruments.

Your music puts me in mind of a trend that can be seen with a few international artists like Frank Turner Rob Lynch and The Homeless Gospel Choir where they are fusing the raw, hard-hitting lyricism of punk rock with the personal and relatable feel that comes with folk music. It is actually becoming quite popular overseas, especially in the UK, but has hardly made much of an impact in South Africa. Why do you think this is the case?

I think South Africa is just naturally behind the rest of the world when it comes to setting trends. I don’t mean that in a bad way. There are obviously exceptions to the rules. But I think there have been a few bands trying similar things in this country, they just haven’t had the resources to get it out there as much because there’s not a lot of support for alternative music. In the UK, Frank Turner can pack out Wembley Arena and the O2 Arena. That’s incredible. But over there, he has radio play and he’s also just been playing for over 10 years. If we work hard enough we can also achieve more. It’s just really difficult in this country because of our media support and infrastructure.

 You’ve managed to secure yourself a tour of Europe later this year – how did this come about and where are you going to be playing?

It basically came about through us just building a data base by following what other musicians were doing in a similar scene to us. Then we either contacted them directly or the venues they had listed and started booking dates. The full itinerary will hopefully be launched by the end of March. We’re excited to go play in new territories and see how well our music gets received. As it stands we have gigs confirmed in England and Germany. More to follow

I recently had a discussion with an Australian band about how geographic locations can play an enormous role in influencing one’s sound. Do you think that your position in Cape Town played a role in influencing your album? It seems the case when you consider the laidback aspects of your album – a quality that is attributed to Cape Town.

As mentioned above, we were definitely influenced by the punk scene we grew up in. Our love for that kind of music will never fade. To answer the question concisely I think we would have to say yes, where we’re from did play a part in the style of music we found as a band.

You mentioned in your initial press release regarding Folk Is Dead that the title is a play on the concept of “punk is dead”, which is rather ironic considering how the culture of punk is so deeply ingrained in your music. I find it to be a rather interesting choice seeing as how both folk and punk are in the midst of a revival on the global circuit, yet in South Africa it seems that many folk and punk artists, that do not adhere to what mainstream audiences want, are still stuck in the underground. What are your thought on this?

We came up with the name as a tongue in cheek approach to what we’re doing. It’s not a literal thought of ours that folk is dying. We thought it was quite apt because the concept of ‘Punk is Dead’ came around through the face that certain bands were selling out and the style was becoming quite popular and commercial at one stage. We feel that folk is going through that trend at the moment. Bands like Mumford and Song, Avicii and more are exploiting folk and almost turning it electronic. We have nothing against that at all, we just thought the tie in was clever and the name was appropriate for now.

On the note of Folk Is Dead – you guys engineered and produced the album all on your own. Why did you choose this process and was it rather difficult?

We chose the process because we had the opportunity to use Vanguard Studios ourselves and spend as much time there as we needed. Jon and Tom are both qualified sound engineers so the plan was to save money on employing and engineer to track the album when we were capable of doing that ourselves. Production wise, we really had fun adding new things to the songs and playing around with certain sounds and ideas. We can put that down to having the time to do so. It was difficult at certain stages but at the same time, we are so proud of our product now because we did it all ourselves.

There is a raw and authentic sense of catharsis to your music. Do you find it difficult to present these personal and emotional songs to complete strangers?

At first, it was quite difficult. I kind of had to view the lyrics just as part of the music and not think about what I was actually saying when I was performing. But lately, the new stuff we’ve been writing as a band is less personal and easier to relate to on a general scale. If people are actually listening, we’re happy

Your music goes against the indie-pop/indie rock narrative that has become so firmly entrenched in South Africa – to the point where nearly every other young band is an indie band. What is your opinion on how fixated people have become on the genre?

We’ve been very active in the SA live music scene for a long time now and we’ve seen it go through so many phases. That’s how we view it now. It’s a phase. If it gets kids to get off the couch to start bands because they like it, then we are all for it. We’re not an indie-pop band but we understand that each genre has it’s own pro’s and con’s. At least, this phase is sellable and bands are getting a bit of attention amongst all the electronic bullshit that’s out there

You have mentioned in a few interviews that you could go on for hours about the local industry. I would love for you to go on for hours, but perhaps I should ask what you think are the biggest issues facing the industry and where can the industry go from here?

We are firm believers that there is not enough infrastructure for new bands to launch themselves. When we first started playing music there were so many venues that were the right size and vibe to book gigs and get experience on stage. Now, all those small venues are gone and the bigger venues are just too big and the costs are too high for new bands to put on shows. You can start a band and play in your garage for as long as you like, but the only way you’re going to get better is by playing in front of people on a stage. And you have to make mistakes and roll with the punches. Unfortunately, those stages just don’t exist anymore and hence, there are way less live bands than there were 8 years ago. Hopefully, this is also just a phase and it will come back round full circle soon

Finally, if you could cover one song which would it be?

“Try this at Home” by Frank Turner

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