Annie Klopper - 2010-01-07
Twenty years ago, South African schoolmates Wayne Pauli and Adam Shapiro (Atom Shape) started conceptualising a band; it gradually took shape and eventually resulted in the birth of The Stremes in 2006. After spending a substantial amount of time building up a following playing and touring in the UK, an expired visa resulted in the band recently returning to South African soil, where this rock three-piece now consists of Pauli, Benjamin Peacefull and Jay Kruger.
Being the result of the members’ involvement with various other bands over the years, of which The Soundfields is perhaps most prolific, The Stremes now bring us a very well-rounded sound. Their latest offering, Maze of Light, explores the fast-moving modern world while being rooted in a classic repertoire of rock influences, like that of Jimi Hendrix, Cream, Oasis, U2 and INXS. With a strong sense of Brit pop and blues undertones, the album has a refined and mature sound.
With the band’s name gradually popping up more and more on the local music scene, the time has come to find out more about this Cape Town-based rock outfit.
With a firm following in the UK, it must be strange and challenging to come back to South Africa and build up a fan base all over again. Or is it actually easier to gain fans in a country with a music scene so much smaller than that of the UK?
In many ways it's actually harder in South Africa. In London a band can build its own corner and do pretty well on a level below the big breakthrough. Some of the reasons for this would be that people tend to support live music much more readily, as it's easier to get around to venues, and generally people have a bit more money to go out more often. In South Africa there really are so few venues and it's much harder to get people to support you often enough. The difficulty of getting airplay and general exposure to a wide enough audience also makes things difficult. The industry will tend to get behind only a handful of bands, and even the bands that are making waves are not guaranteed sell-out shows if they tour away from their hometowns. The bottom line difference is that the much bigger industry in a place like London can absorb and sustain a lot more bands than in South Africa.
Where does the band’s focus currently lie? Are you at this stage zooming in on the South African audience only, or is being on the world stage still very important?
We've always wanted to be South Africa's answer to U2. Right from the start we've had the age-old rock 'n roll ambition of being the biggest band in the world. In many ways that ambition keeps us going through the hard times. We believe that we have what it takes to make it worldwide. It's already been a long road with so many obstacles and for much of the time it seemed impossible even to get the band in the same place at the same time. Our focus is always to make the best music we possibly can, recorded and live, and take it as far and wide as it can go both in South Africa and the world.
After spending some time back in the country, what do you think currently seems to play the biggest role in a band being successful in South Africa?
It's hard to say what the biggest factor would be. Certainly radio support, particularly from 5FM, is very important. If ever the general public nationally has heard about a band it's almost always via 5FM, which of course makes things very difficult for most bands, as it's extremely hard to get play-listed. The student radio stations are also very important and hopefully will keep getting stronger. Most of the people that have heard about us nation-wide have heard us via the varsity stations. Also the bands that tend to have big social networks are more likely to be successful. People don't tend to follow a band independently but will go where their friends go who might be fans of a particular band, and who then might become fans themselves. It's a slow process, so the bands which start off with wide social networks are at a big advantage. They can more easily generate the necessary excitement and buzz which in turn will get the industry interested if their gigs are well supported.
Tell me more about the album title. Does it reveal something about the themes explored?
The album title is a reference to the great communications networks which connect us all, the billions of connections which interlink and map the world via satellites and fibre optic cables and signals of all kinds. The album is set against this chaotic and bewildering backdrop. There is an underlying theme of menace throughout the album, the dehumanising effect of vast and impersonal technology and the world seemingly on the edge of chaos. The songs are reflections of life in the digital age.
A three-piece band is quite the rarity nowadays. Why only three members?
We struggled initially to try and get a four-piece going with an additional guitarist while we were in London, but battled to find the right person. The band has quite naturally settled into the classic three-piece format, though, and it definitely seems to be our most logical arrangement. The strengths of the band are best conveyed as a three-piece. The great historical three-piece bands such as Cream and The Jimi Hendrix Experience are also very big influences of ours, as well as bands like Muse, who are a three-piece. One of our main musical elements is the big central guitar sound, so it makes sense to keep it at one guitar, bass and drums.
You’ve spent quite some time in the music industry and must have faced numerous challenges, yet never gave up musical endeavours. Why? What is the single most rewarding thing about the industry that you are in?
At the end of the day all the band members are musicians born and bred. Two of us have parents who were (and in Benjamin's case still are) working musicians, so it really is simply in our blood. It's really more a question of the fact that this is who we are, so the option to stop is never a consideration. I have been in the industry ever since leaving school and have never done anything else. The most rewarding thing is and always will be just to be musicians, to be who we are. It is also extremely rewarding to be a part of other people's lives via music and to know that many people genuinely love what we do.
What feeds the creation of The Stremes’s music?
At the heart of it is really just the love of music and the desire to emulate the greats that we grew up with and the great bands of today. We are driven to make the best music we can and this certainly is the starting point in the creation of our music. We are always aware of the great bands and songs that came before, so I think a strong sense of that history pervades our music. The idea is to create something classic as opposed to merely fashionable. The themes that filter through our songs are pretty varied, but tend always to be set against some sort of epic background as a unifying concept. There are so many things and people and experiences which feed into the music that it is difficult to pin it down, but always I think it's that sense of the epic and the classic which we hope will define us. What is happening with regard to the band in the near future?
Basically we want to take the band far and wide, so it's really a question of getting it all together and taking it on the road, hopefully for many years ahead of us. For the immediate future we'll be in South Africa playing as much as we can all over the country, and then of course we'll try and take it all over the world. It's a simple case of playing music and getting it out to the people.