Home to rich diversity, a troubled yet storied past and the arguable center of African art and design, South Africa is a hotbed for creativity—from experimental electronic production duos to thriving design conferences with a global reach. Though bands in the country are geographically isolated for international touring, a thriving indie rock scene pervades and is mixed with a variety of traditional music styles for a truly unique sound. Hailing from the predominantly Afrikaans suburbs of the country’s capital of Pretoria, Desmond & the Tutus embody this “rainbow nation” style of sound. In anticipation of part one of their three-part album release, Enjoy Yourself, we caught up with lead singer Shane Durrant to learn more about the scene in South Africa, the origins of the band and of course, the compulsory question about the its name.
I know you guys picked the name when you were pretty young and it stuck. Is this the most common question you get asked?
Just about every interview we do starts with some variation on: “Haha I have to know where the name came from?” and over the years our response has gradually gone from the enthusiastic, “Haha, yeah we’re just four crazy guys with a crazy band name, don’t mind us we’re just crazy!” To a less enthusiastic, “Well, we needed a band name and that’s the one we came up. The end.” The joke has mostly worn off for us, but it does still warm my heart when we get that occasional tweet from @crunchybeatz69 saying: “lololz band name of the decade waahahah slow clap!!!!!”
Has Archbishop Tutu himself hit you up?
A while ago a journalist from a serious newspaper was scheduled to meet up with Archbishop Tutu for a serious interview and she thought it would be fun if we sent him a letter and a little package. A couple weeks later we got a letter back from his office saying that he was “proud to be associated with” us. We do hope to meet him someday and snap a photo of him wearing one of these bad boys!
You’re from Pretoria. What was the music scene like there when you were coming up?
Pretoria is a really nice little place for music and has produced tons of quality local bands over the years. Not being an anti-establishment Afrikaans punk rock band, we did battle a bit in the beginning to find our place in the rock scene and had more immediate success in predominantly English cities like Joburg and Cape Town. It’s a pretty small scene, word eventually got around, and Pretoria is now one of our favorite cities to play. We formed Desmond in Pretoria, but the band is now based across three cities: Pretoria, Johannesburg and Cape Town.
South Africa exists outside the mainstream both geographically and culturally. How has your experience been in this context?
South Africa is a pretty weird place for music. In the gigantic ocean of crazy African traditional music, all the local pop music styles and the incoming international pop music, there is a tiny little island for rock bands. And somewhere on that island is a jacuzzi and all the indie rock bands are squeezed into that jacuzzi, and we’re all just sweating it out, having the best time ever.
Has your music changed over time?
I think it has changed in some ways, but at the end of the day we’re the same four guys having a laugh trying to write ridiculous songs. Our first album Tuckshop was a home-recording style collection of songs that we had played live for about two years prior to recording, it is a mix of fun stories and angsty relationship stuff recorded super naively. Our next album Mnusic is made up of about the same ratio of silly stories and adolescent love songs, but recorded and produced under the guidance of Eric Broucek (ex-DFA Records). Enjoy Yourself is our current album and it’s shaping up to be the most interesting stuff we’ve done to date. We’re playing around with some new sounds and styles, and we’re really excited about the stuff.
What kind of inspiration do you gather from your surroundings that are unique to South Africa?
South Africa is a beautiful country full of diverse and beautiful people, but none of our songs are about any of them. I like to write about my little world, my tiny day-to-day experiences and weird stories I hear or come up with. I love satire and there is a rich political landscape here to draw from, but I’m not a newspaper cartoonist, I’m just writing indie rock.
How do you describe the Desmond & The Tutus sound?
When we started out we described ourselves as “kwela punk” as a way to show how proud of being South African we were, but then Vampire Weekend came out and had all the African sounding guitar riffs so we ditched that. I think my favorite description of our music came from the guys at Tigersushi Records in Paris when they released one of ours songs a while back: “Super friendly guys from Pretoria making African-tinged post-punk, like the Rapture in Tanzania.” I’m not sure how it sounds to other people, but we’re trying our hardest to make dancey, fun, heartbreaking indie rock, but iTunes calls it “Alternative” so let’s just go with that.
You just released Part 1 of Enjoy Yourself. Why break it into three parts?
A couple reasons. Firstly, if something is only released online why does it have to still be the same length/format as a CD? We can literally do whatever we want now, it doesn’t have to fit on or fill up an old-timey plastic thing. And we didn’t plan this going in, but it has been a really interesting creative process. Rather than bogging ourselves down with the task of having to write a whole album all at once we are concentrating on four songs at a time. We set a deadline and we just write the best songs we can. Once Part 1 is mixed and mastered, we move on to Part 2 and start the whole thing again.
Part 1 seems to focus a lot on adolescence. Is that a theme throughout the entire album?
I think my most common source of inspiration is my youth as an insecure English speaking kid in an all-Afrikaans suburb in Pretoria. I like the idea that a songwriter can write something so odd and specific to his own life and yet have it resonate in a really personal, nostalgic way with so many people.
There are strong gospel vibes in “Teenagers.” It’s certainly one of your “larger” songs so to speak.
While we were recording Enjoy Yourself, Pt. 1, I saw these two gospel back-up singers performing and I thought that would be cool to try on some of our new songs. So we had them come in and record a whole bunch of stuff for “Teenagers” and “Pretoria Girls.” Musically we tried something totally new on “Teenagers,” and we’re really excited about the song.
How did the Yo Grapes side project come up?
Craig (my brother) is Yo Grapes!
Craig Durrant: I was recovering from an ankle operation and I had a Toshiba laptop and an old version of Fruity Loops. I had finished all the episodes of the Sopranos and needed something else to do, so I tried making a few songs that were kind of electronic but had lots of pop elements.
Shane and I have a rap project called Special Guests that we’ve been working on. We’ve performed more shows than we have songs. Other than that I am about to start writing/recording a new Yo Grapes EP which I’ll put out middle of 2015 sometime.
Humor plays a big role in the band from the name to the lyrics to the series of promo videos you dropped, yet not all the songs are humorous. How do you strike this balance?
We never wanted Desmond to be a full-on comedy band, doing spoof versions of Christina Aguilera songs and so on, but I do love a tune that is equal parts cool song and funny lyrics. , I also love a good old-fashioned angsty rock song, so why not throw a couple of those in?
The idea for our promo clips came from our working title for the new album. Before we settled on Enjoy Yourself, we were going to call the album Oh Schucks It’s Desmond & The Tutus. It’s an homage to a famous series of South African prank/skit comedy movies from the ’80s called “Oh Schucks…. It’s Schuster!” We tried to shoot some pranks but as it turns out, pranks are really hard to do, so we wrote these skit videos. We ditched the name but we couldn’t just ditch seven “hilarious” skits. At least we know that if indie rock doesn’t work out, we also shouldn’t bother with comedy skits.
The new art direction for the record is so distinct. How did it come about?
Our friend Johan de Lange did all the artwork. My brief to him was to do a weird African take on Michael Jackson’s Dangerous album cover and this is what he came up with. It’s got everything: a monkey holding a boombox, a condom ghost, stacks of paper money and a pineapple. How could we say no?!
Images courtesy of Desmond & the Tutus