Monday, 18 March 2013

Ashtray Electric: an exercise in WTF

This interview was originally published in Perdeby on 11 March 2013.  

                                                                                                                                           PHOTO: Christelle Duvenage

“Somebody tweeted the other day that they’re glad to see we’re out of our hiatus. It’s like, what f**king hiatus are you talking about? I don’t know where you’ve been, but we’ve been playing,” vents Ashtray Electric guitarist Rudi Cronje, clearly irked.

Not only have they been playing, but Ashtray Electric have recently released new material too and, true to their moniker as indie rock mavericks, they opted for an unorthodox approach to the whole process.

Truth is, Ashtray Electric have since their inception spat in the face of the mainstream music industry and given commercialism an abrasive middle finger before walking out the door to do their own thing.

The band decided to produce, record, engineer and mix their fourth offering themselves. The result? WTF, a tantalising five-track EP that still totters between being angsty and alluring, while making way for a far more gritty, experimental sound.

“This time around, we didn’t allow ourselves to dig so deep into the actual process. It was always an exercise in spontaneity. There wasn’t too much time to think about stuff and we sort of sat back and saw what would come out of it,” says bassist Reggie Nel.

                                                                                                                                         PHOTO: Christelle Duvenage

Rudi agrees: “Maybe there’s a lot to be said for not thinking about it too much and four guys getting together to make music. Literally, that’s what it is – four guys getting together and making tunes.”

“I think we were just keen to throw something out there with a bit of attitude and just say, ‘Well, we’re still around. We’re still writing the songs that we want to write,’” adds frontman and guitarist Andre Pienaar.

Unusually, WTF was given away for free. Fans could sign up for the EP, which meant that once it was released, they got it in their inbox as a digital gift.

“Because it’s digital, your response is a lot quicker, instead of waiting for it to be distributed, stocked in the shops and then for people to buy it and put it in their car and listen,” says Rudi of the benefits of giving WTF away online.

Andre says that doing things the way they did meant that there was no pressure on the release because the band didn’t have to be concerned about selling enough albums to cover things like studio costs. “It’s out there. If people like it, cool. If people hate it then … ”

“ … who gives a f**k?” says Rudi, finishing Andre’s sentence.

One thing that hasn’t changed though, is the way Andre pours out sexy yet afflicted lyrics over a microphone. “I’ve always said that writing is a lot cheaper than going to a psychologist,” he says.
“Unless there’s a piece of me inside of it, I don’t want to create it. There’s zero point.”

                                                                                                                                                PHOTO: Christelle Duvenage

If there was ever a song which reflected this, it’s “Looper”, which is almost like a piece of performance poetry, with Andre reciting the lyrics, allowing his natural stutter to take centre stage against a musical backdrop. It starts off with staccato-like drums that echo his erratic flow of speech.

“The rad thing about what we do is that you get to do scary stuff. Writing and recording it wasn’t too stressful because I recorded it in my room, but playing it – I mean, we’ve played it like, what, 12, 15 times and performing it is still f**king frightening. I won’t lie,” admits Andre.

“I remember after the first time we finished playing it, Andre said to the crowd, and he doesn’t really talk a lot on stage, he said, ‘Thank you. That was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done.’ That was quite rad,” says Rudi, sympathising with his band mate. “I mean, it’s hard for the rest of us. We don’t understand how these things influence the people who write it and especially, like he said, that is a piece of someone else put into a piece of music. Even though it’s not you, you’re still a part of it.”

The conversation turns to the weight of creating an album. Is it perhaps a bit outdated and are EPs the way forward? “I think if you’re going to do a full-length album, you’re going to need a full body of work that you want to release,” muses Andre. “There should at least be some kind of line drawn through it that you, as the band, try and bring something, whether it’s a message or a sound or a theme. There has to be something about that album that makes it have a beginning and an end. EPs are nice when you don’t really know what you’re doing but you are just keen to f**k around a bit.
 When you’re really passionate about doing something f**king rad, you can do an album.”

                                                                                                                                                PHOTO: Christelle Duvenage

Reggie adds that, “People are sort of going through singles really fast. It’s so easy to quickly buy a single online and enjoy it for like two, three weeks and move on to the next thing. I think there is a subculture that is forming and people like to just sift through music really fast, but there is still a lot of weight in an album.”

“It gives you a backbone, you know? I think all of us love putting an album on and listening to it and going on the whole journey that an album takes you on, because that’s why bands write it. That’s the reason that they put it together and it’s put together in a certain way and it portrays a certain time of your life,” says Rudi.

What journey does WTF take you on then? Well, that’s probably best described by Rudi’s parting words at the end of the interview: “See you later for some chaos.” And chaos it is, but of the most delightful, head-spinning, shoulder-grooving, foot-tapping kind.

Read my review of Ashtray Electric's EP, WTF, here.

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