I’m with The Deathrettes at the Wimpy in St George’s mall on a Sunday morning. We had met at Thibault Square but necessity drove us here, because you’d be hard-pressed to find coffee in downtown Cape Town this too-early time of morning. Charl walks in and rushes straight to the bathroom. “Jassis, what happened to his eye?” asks Warren. “That’s rock ‘n roll,” adds Mike. In the background, a David Guetta track blasts out, a notch too loud for this empty place.
“I partied fuck-hard on Friday night. I think it was the first time in like a year and half when I wasn’t playing a show. I didn’t have responsibilities. Gear wise, I didn’t have stuff to pack away. It was just me and some hardcore music. I was headbanging. I think I hit eight people. I’d just run into the crowd,” Charl tells everyone once we’re sitting outside. “So you didn’t actually get into a fight?” asks Mike. “No, I was the one bumping into people and this happened. It was fun”, retorts Charl. Dylan smiles, “Deathrettes are nothing like that, right?”
Nope, not exactly. They’re a garage groove band consisting of Dylan Rooibokkie (lead vocals and guitar), Charl Stemmet (drums), Michael Clarke (bass) and Warren Fisher (rhythm guitar). Style-wise the guys are decked out in denim, ranging from black to faded blue, bordering on white. Besides Charl’s black eye, there’s nothing brash or wildly ostentatious to indicate any marked exhibitionism or hardcore rock behavior.
Dylan is also an actor, so I can’t help asking what it’s like being the front man of the band. “We all joke about it, like ‘you have to make decisions’ but we’re all equal. I don’t like the idea of a front man. It’s not really me at all. I joke about it ironically, but I don’t try to be a front man. I find it shit when you’re at a gig and they’re like, ‘everyone, can you hear me?’, it’s like ‘you’re on mic, and obviously we bought R900 tickets, so yeah, we’re with you, just play the songs’. And, they’re still like, ‘I can’t hear you!’ but there’s 20 000 people,” he says laughing.
Individually, they’ve been on the music scene for a while, playing in bands like The Future Primitives and Black Lung and only began making music as The Deathrettes in 2015. Warren and Mike have known each other since grade three and have been jamming since they were 16. They mention something about being teenagers and playing covers in the garage but ask to keep that off record. Mike met Dylan through Warren while he was recording the Black Fins and the B side for Black Lung. Charl met Warren through mutual friends.
Their debut single, Animal, was released in May, produced by Theo Crous, mastered by Rogan Kelsey and deals with the primal aspect of human nature. When it comes to the band’s musical influences, each member has their own preference. Warren digs the English rock band fat White Family, Micheal is a big fan of Beck, and Dylan and Charl prefer louder bands. “I definitely listen to the most heavy bands. A lot of bands that make our type of sounds don’t have loud drums. They have very simplistic stuff, whereas I like playing loud and aggressively. They always tell me to chill the fuck out. Like, ‘lighter on the cymbals, bro’. I try to, but when you’re in the moment and you’re having a jol, you just wanna slam that shit,” explains Charl.
The Deathrettes first gig was with the Jozi based psychedelic rock ‘n roll band, The Tazers, at Manilla Bar in Cape Town. Charl pipes in that they weren’t even going to play that night because Mike didn’t think they were ready to play a live show. “I don’t think you ever feel ready until you push yourself and you play the show and you’re like, ‘okay, that wasn’t so bad’. There’s a different experience you earn while playing live that just makes you better as a band,” he says.
Dylan, Warren and Charl all agree that Mike is the most vocal when it comes to being honest about the way things sound. “I am also quite stuck up in certain aspects. No, stubborn, not stuck up,” explains Charl. Mike interjects mentioning that sometimes it’s difficult to find common ground and Warren admits to also getting heated but that Dylan keeps it cool.
“I keep it cool because I get to write the lyrics and no one really shouts at me about that. Obviously, I think it’s good that people argue about how a song should go because if you’re not passionate about it, then you’re gonna write shit music. it shouldn’t be easy, I don’t think. Otherwise you’re not going to get pushed to do something cool. Yeah, we argue sometimes but it always ends up being productive,” explains Dylan.
“It’s difficult when you have 9-5 jobs, but we make sure everyone is happy and we make it work,” says Mike. Luckily, The Deathrettes are never short of shows. If they want to book a gig they make sure it happens. Both Mike and Warren are qualified sound engineers so on the technical front they’re sorted, and because the guys have been in the business for a while, they know how to go about things efficiently and still make money.
Like any creative profession, there’s a lot to consider on the business side of things. Warren points out that it can be a risky pursuit. If you’re doing a gig then you have to book sound and you need to know you’ve got that expense covered. Then, you’ll still want to pay the band and the support band – bearing in mind that it’s usually a three band line-up. To sum it up, you need about 200 people just to pay the band, and that doesn’t even cover expenses like posters, photographers, front of house and the cost of rehearsals.
When it comes to distribution and reaching audiences, they rely heavily on their online presence and network. While it’s pleasing to be approached by labels and PR companies they’re skeptical about the real value it’ll bring the band. Is it worth paying someone a couple of K a month to send emails? Yeah, they might have connections but at this stage it’s difficult with limited funding.
Instead, they’ve taken a different approach and for now, are bypassing a label altogether. They’re the first band in South Africa to use Qrates, an online service based in the US where musicians can get vinyls printed at a reasonable rate. It’s similar to Kickstarter or GoFun but works with pre-orders. If you manage to amass enough pre-orders to cover the cost of pressing, then your vinyl is made and fans can purchase the record.
The dream is for their music to be released worldwide and to tour internationally. “It’s not so much the end goal but rather the goal is to keep doing it every year and make touring not a once off thing. We want to make the band a business so we have people taking care of the admin for us. It should run like a well-oiled machine so that someone else is booking shows, we don’t have to fight about fees and we can focus on the music,” says Warren.
“I guess that’s as good as it gets,” adds Dylan as he finishes his coffee and we head back to Thibault Square.
The Deathrettes upcoming EP, Kill all the Kings, is due for release October 2016. Check out their teaser below.
Hear them live at Pysch Night and Van’s Endless Daze Festival taking place from the 11-13th of November.
Photographs by Gabriella Pinto.