In 2008, the South African rock band known as BLK JKS met snow for the first time. Stepping off the plane at John F. Kennedy International Airport, the band hadn’t yet released a full album, they hadn’t yet signed a record deal, and they hadn’t experienced the bitter cold of New York City, but all would change very quickly. Today, you’ll read that BLK JKS is one of the most innovative bands in South Africa, and this is very true, but their influence doesn’t limit to their native country’s borders and their impact on the music cuts deep internationally. BLK JKS are a band pioneering what it means to be black rock artists in the modern age, and they do it on the world’s stage. A talented group whose songwriting core today is composed of drummer-vocalist Tshepang Ramoba, guitarist-vocalist Mpumi Mcata, and a cast of instrumentalists who round out the often quartet.
Last year, BLK JKS released its second full-length album titled Abantu / Before Humans, a decade-plus removed from the band’s full-length debut After Robots (2009). The critically acclaimed new album reunites the listener with the essence of BLK JKS – boundary-pushing rock music that will make you think about your place in the universe. Last month, the band was scheduled to return to the United States for its first North American tour in over a decade but unfortunately had to postpone due to unexpected challenges with visa approvals.
Recently, BLK JKS guitarist-vocalist Mpumi Mcata spoke with Glide to discuss the band’s new album, its pursuits in festival organizing, and its role in South Africa’s musical community.
Back in 2009, BLK JKS released its first album After Robots. Can you talk about what it was like for the band at that time, and where it’s at now over a decade later?
Those were the heavy days. From the year 2000 to the year 2010, it was an incredible period. Thank you for having me here to chat about it, always a cathartic thing. When we arrived in the U.S. it was our first trip as a band outside of the country. Basically, our life as a band in South Africa had nothing to do with music videos, radio, and nothing to do with the “industry” – it was just playing shows, get paid, play the next show, and mostly organizing our own shows in clubs and dive bars. So, we really had to work hard to find spaces to play; it was quite an exciting time in our life.
Eventually, some people started to get wind of what we were doing, people who wanted to share with their friends and let people know about what we were doing, so we were kind of convinced to record music. Eventually, we did record because we were offered some beers and some burgers and a studio somewhere, and some friends were putting out a magazine and they wanted a CD in the magazine, which was a thing in those days, so we recorded.
Once we did that, it meant that we now had recorded music, and this was about six years into playing live. So, we met somebody who was like, “You should put the music online,” and we were like “What do you mean?”, and they helped us put the music on Myspace.
Around the time the music was on Myspace, Diplo – Wes – was in Cape Town and he was asking people what was hot and what was happening, and he wasn’t finding anything that tickled his ear. Then a friend of ours named Simon put him on to BLK JKS, and he heard the stuff from Myspace and asked to meet in Johannesburg because he had a connecting flight back to New York at the Johannesburg Airport.
We went and met Diplo at the airport, quite an eventful meeting though it was short. Long story short he said he was going to send somebody down to South Africa to chat with BLK JKS about signing to this label he was starting at the time, which was Mad Decent. Within a week from that moment, he sent somebody down named Knox Robinson, a friend of ours still to this day. Knox stayed with us for about a year – working through the contract, taking us around to gigs, and getting to know us.
Within all of that, one night we were at a dance party, a house music party, after rehearsal. We left the rehearsal at around 11 pm and drove to this township called Alexandria where they had house music parties on Mondays at a place called Fifteen. So we went there just to blow off some steam after the rehearsal, relax, get some drinks, and hang out.
While at the bar, I heard an American accent and started chatting to this person, a man named Eddie, and was like, “We’re also here with an American person, you guys should meet,” jokingly. I bring Eddie to meet Knox, and when they see each other it’s like “Eddie? Knox?”, and each of them are like, “What are you doing here?”
Eddie was working for The Fader at the time and he was there doing a story on kwaito, street culture music in South Africa. Sort of like all the electronic urban music genres, ghetto-based stuff. Eddie was like, “What are you doing here?” And Knox was like “I’m here with the BLK JKS,” and Eddie was like “what’s the BLK JKS?” Knox was like, “Kwaito has been covered, this is the future, these guys are out there.”
Eddie gets interested, and he trusted Knox’s tastes. It turns out that Knox had given Eddie his first writing piece at The Fader, because Knox was an editor at the magazine years before he went off to work with Diplo.
So, we’re going into the car, we’re listening to cassette tapes of BLK JKS, rehearsals because we didn’t really have anything seriously that was recorded. Eddie said that he really liked the music and said that we should meet in Johannesburg while he was there, and try and do a piece for The Fader.
Eddie starts writing the piece and emails The Fader saying that BLK JKS should be the cover story, and to forget about whatever he was sent to South Africa to write about. “We need to talk about BLK JKS because it’s really interesting,” he says. The guys at The Fader had said, “No, let’s just stick to the brief.” So, eventually, they read what Eddie had and agreed that it really did sound amazing. Now they’ve decided to put BLK JKS on the cover, and they’re sending a photographer to South Africa. So, it became this whole big thing.
Andrew Dosunmu, a Nigerian filmmaker living in New York, came down with a stylist, Mobolaji Dawodu, who does a lot of styling for GQ. And they sent a guy from Magnum, Mikhael Subotzky, to shoot the inside. So, the cover was shot by somebody else, and the inside was shot by somebody else. It became a big deal. All of that happened, and everybody left. And we were like, “What just happened to our band that’s not signed, who hasn’t really recorded music?”
It became this crazy situation, waiting for something after that. And then the message came that BLK JKS were to be on the cover of The Fader, and we’re looking at the history of all the other artists who had been on the cover of The Fader and realized that it’s everybody’s first cover: The White Stripes, Outkast, MIA, Diplo, and now us. We were like, we’re just here in South Africa on the streets of Soweto, this is really trippy. We’re in our early twenties, and we’re just happy to play these little bars, and now we’re faced with this thing.
While this is happening, we get an email from a DJ in Japan, because we had our email address up on our Myspace page, and it says that he really liked our music. He said that he ran a song competition on his website and had chosen a spiritual jazz track from Carlos Garnett from Panama, a song called “Mystery of the Ages,” and asked people who he should ask to cover a song. Since we were one of the bands he was talking about on his site amongst other bands, the people chose BLK JKS. He said that he would pay us, and we’d do the track and send it to him. We were looking at the email wondering, “Is this for real?”
In the meantime, The Fader was launching the magazine issue, and we learned that every time they put out a new magazine, they have a party and the acts that are on front and back cover, do a double bill and it’s a whole thing in New York. But we learned that The Fader wasn’t going to pay for our flights to New York, because it was too expensive.
So, we’re thinking, “Wow, this is a missed opportunity, we should be there when this magazine launches, we should play that party.” It was going to be at Knitting Factory. The other act, on the other cover, was Esau Mwamwaya of The Very Best, and The Fader was thinking about bringing them over because that flight was cheaper. We’re sitting there, racking our brains thinking, how are we ever going to get to the U.S., with visa costs and flights being so expensive, and the fact that we’d never done this before. So, we go back to the DJ in Japan, and he tells us what he’s going to pay us, and we realize that the amount could buy us all tickets to the U.S. So, we ask, “How quickly can we do this?” And immediately, he sent us the money, we take that and buy flights and apply for visas, and we go to the U.S.
The way I’m telling that is long story short, because it wasn’t that simple, buying flights and doing the visa process. I’m telling you that because two guys in the band went to the airport, while two of us had to chase down the shipping van that had our passports in it. We had to have the van pull over, movie style, like, “Stop the van, please, my man, open the van, we’ve got one hundred bucks for you, we need to find our passports, just let us rummage through these packages because our flight is right now.” So, we got our passports, held the line at the airport, arrived, got on the plane, and flew to the U.S. That’s how it happened. And since then, we believe in miracles when it comes to visas and band travel. We’ve been around the world, and that set the tone.
So, we arrive in the U.S. and we’re at The Knitting Factory, at The Fader launch party, it’s a big night. We get picked up at the airport at JFK, and it’s snowing, the first time we’ve ever been in snow. Our minds were blown. We weren’t dressed for it, just carrying our instruments.
The Fader people picked us up in an Escalade, they sent a driver in a tuxedo. He takes us to the clothing store, and it was closed, so The Fader gave us clothes to look good on stage. We go for lunch, we go for soundcheck, and we played the show.
After that show, I didn’t see anybody else from the band for about four nights. We walked off the stage, and it was like, meet so and so, and everybody was gone doing their own thing – we all split in four ways. We didn’t know where we were being accommodated. That’s where backstage we met Ben [Bronfman], a Co-founder of Green Owl Records, and one of the guys involved in the veggie bus situation. They tell us that they’re going to South By Southwest (SXSW), and that they’re going to travel there in this bio-diesel, double engine, school bus. And they’re like, okay, if you guys want to get a lift down there, you should come with us. And we’re like, “What’s SXSW?” They were like, “No, no, no, you want to go there,” and they tell us that The Fader was part of the center of SXSW with the Fader Fort, at that time especially. And we were like, “Well, we’re on the cover, so I’m sure they would let us in at least, right?”
After four nights of not seeing each other, we meet in the morning at the location where we were told the bus was going to pick us up. We were joined by bands like The London Souls. It took us about 56 hours to get to Austin, with breakdowns along the way, but we made it.
Wow, that’s really an amazing story.
That’s a long-winded way to tell the story about BLK JKS coming to the U.S. for the first time. It was just a beautiful time, and that time between the 2000s and 2010, the music that was coming out, bands-wise, was incredible. Today, music has changed in a way. I see bands are coming back, but obviously, after 2010, the band thing was not what people were trying to do. We had bedroom producers, people who grew up with SoundCloud, YouTube, and the whole social media thing, and in a way, it’s nice because how it democratized the music and put it in the hands of everybody. I think the bands that stuck around, and the young people who are starting to be in bands, they are sort of engaging with that world more and more, and it’s a beautiful way in which these things are speaking to each other now. I feel that the return of the band is imminent. Some of my favorite music is coming from bands again and I’m happy about that.
Now, I feel like we’re getting back to being band forward, hence the feeling with my band, who released its first album in 2009, because of this crazy story, and never released another album after that, until now. And our second album only came out last year in 2021.
After that SXSW experience in 2008, we got signed and our album came out the year after. We were signed to Secretly Canadian. Now, more than a decade later, we’re trying to re-enter the frame. It’s been a wild ride.
I’d like to talk about social media, technology, and digital distribution today and how it’s impacted the band over the years. What’s been BLK JKS relationship with these forms of technology coming into the second album?
When we released our first album with Secretly Canadian, there weren’t really any big conversations about digital streaming services. There wasn’t really any talk of Spotify, there was mostly just talk of iTunes. The contract wasn’t really talking about what we were going to do about that digital space, it seemed just like a throwaway thing. Like, put the music up there, sure. I think even questions like, how is it managed in different territories, and splitting territories on digital service providers, wasn’t part of the conversation. How we use Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, it wasn’t part of the conversation back then; it was a completely different game.
Back then, we were going around making a lot of friends in New York, meeting all our heroes, from Lou Reed to Questlove, but there’s no Instagram or way to show like, “Hey look at us, we’re here with Pharrell.” There’s none of that digital infrastructure. When we look back at that time and see how people handle things now, we’re like, “Man, imagine us in that time, with everything that happened, if our heads were operating the way things are now, there would be that extension beyond the music.”
You mean, like how the public sees the band outside of the music, right?
Yeah, it’s really trippy for us because to a lot of people we’re this band from South Africa with weird songs, [and they’re probably thinking] why would I put myself in this dark room with these guys when there’s all of this other great stuff happening. But at the same time, we’re like, “But wait, Questlove cares, if you like him you’d probably enjoy the drumming of BLK JKS.” It was always hard to draw those absolute lines and connections.
Having gone through all of that, we learned so much about the industry, and I think in many ways it was a kind of burnout that we didn’t know we had as a band. We suffered from burnout, we didn’t have the word for that at the time, but now a decade later I can look back and see that we needed a little bit more guidance than we did have. At that time, I felt that we could take over the world. You find yourself on the streets of New York, and you’re like, “Okay, this is the doorstep, right?” Whereas now, it’s really back to the music and it’s more like, we just want to play music. We want to play shows, we want to be involved, we believe that we have something to give. Back then we were just doing it, but now I can look at our music and say, this is what we do. I ask, is this important? Is it necessary? Is it of any use to the story of music, African music especially? Now I can say, yes, that’s what we fight for, I think it is. Once we got to that point we were ready to work again.
Last month BLK JKS, hosted BLK RCK festival. The band, and its members, are leaders in South Africa and abroad. How does BLK JKS fit within the music infrastructure in South Africa?
Regarding the festival, we had Msaki, and she’s doing very well in South Africa right now. She’s won a South African Music Award or two recently, and in terms of commercial and popular success her music, or at least her voice, is making it through to the Amapiano scene, an offshoot of Kwaito, that The Fader come to do a story about way back when. Which is basically hip-hop to us. So, amapiano is the thing right now, and it’s always evolving. But it’s all an extension of kwaito – street music, electronic dance. You have offshoots like that. In America you’ll have crunk, trap, drill, so the same thing happens with Amapiano. Which is also happening in Jamaica with dub, dancehall, roots reggae, and ska. And within ska you’re breaking off into genres of rock. So, kwaito has its own genres, and right now the biggest one right now is Amapiano.
Msaki is really killing it right now, and her voice is a big part of it. Most people in that scene, they wouldn’t be looking at alternative rock at all. But Msaki, in her own solo work, more of African folk music, is. One of her first gigs in Johannesburg was with BLK JKS. We spoke on Facebook one day by chance and we invited her to play a show with BLK JKS who was playing a show with Thandiswa Mazwai, who is also a very good friend, and massive in South Africa. Thandiswa loves BLK JKS, so she does the dirty small little clubs with BLK JKS.
What we’re doing in South Africa now is putting together this festival, to say actually, this is all of the people who care about alternative music, and that it deserves oxygen because the artists who make this music are really brave because it may or may not work out. They’re basically giving you their soul and risking it all. That’s what the BLK RCK festival is all about. We wanted to put on people who are not going to get page one on Apple Music or whatever, but at the same time, we want to mix them in with people who are getting page one to kind of make the point that this is all just press and politics. Good music is good music, and that’s what the BLK RCK festival is about.
Was this the first festival that BLK JKS had organized?
It’s definitely our first [as organizers]. Previously in 2017, Afropunk was launched here in South Africa and we played the inaugural one where Solange was supposed to headline, but she didn’t make it for various reasons, so we slipped into that slot. We played that show with Thandiswa Mazwai. We played the New Year slot, and as soon as our set ended, the countdown into New Year was on, and the next act was Anderson .Paak [& the Free Nationals]. It was great.
That’s where BLK JKS fit into the musical infrastructure, shaping South African music right now. I’d say as a band we’re still underground, or niche, or out there, but we have more profile these days having done it for a while, and our job is to join the dots, especially for other artists who are coming up.
In doing research for this interview, I came across footage from a show BLK JKS played early last year, called Saturns Return, and there was a moment where a fan in the audience sort of addressed he band, talking about how much of an influence BLK JKS have had on the younger music generation in South Africa, and on him personally. At this point in your career, how does that make you feel?
It’s a deep question. You have to understand, South Africa is very small, and our musical godmothers and godfathers, the ancestors, like Hugh Masekela, who had a number one song in America – people like him left the country because of Apartheid, they were in exile. Hugh was a really good friend of the band and was a mentor. Their passports were taken when they left and they couldn’t come back, they didn’t know if they ever would come back. They had this oppression, this thing propelling them that was life or death.
Coming up in South Africa, a very small country, I think about BLK JKS, and without that context, without guys like Hugh Masekela, there’s no real reason [to play abroad], we didn’t have to go there. So, I think for young artists, the newer generation, they can say we can do this, here’s something to strive for. Maybe we should be heard on the same stage as every other band.
One of the reasons why we didn’t record an album in South Africa was that when you record an album in New York, it’s an international release. If an artist releases an album in the U.K., that’s it, everybody hears it, and we have it show up here in South Africa. But if BLK JKS releases an album in Johannesburg, the chances of that being heard outside of South Africa are very slim. That might be different now with digital services, but that’s the world we were living in. I think for a lot of kids now, they’re entering the global community, through the internet generation. I think it’s beautiful thing because I remember my own questioning and curiosities. I could see that there was a gap somewhere in how alternative music was being understood, because, let’s be honest, there’s still this idea that rock is white and hip-hop is black. So, I think by virtue of us doing this music, if it’s inspiring a new generation to break that idea, it’s exciting.
Do you feel like these streets are for you? Do you feel like the industry is for you? Do you feel seen? Are you secure within yourself? We do what we do because we always felt very secure in what we do. We have this double consciousness all the time, coming from outside America, outside the U.K., outside the bigger global music industry. People who come from outside actually title it with two brains, because we have our whole history and story of music here, which we then enter America with. I may be talking with you about the Smashing Pumpkins, but I’m also thinking about Springbok Nude Girls, yeah Theo Crous also shreds. But that’s my reference point and I hope that it comes through the BLK JKS music.
It feels really good when I hear things like that. I was there that night when he was talking to the rest of the guys, and it really did shake up the room. Like, wow, he’s right it was at a time when we were starting to come back. It was one of the first shows during lockdown time.
I’d like to reposition around the latest album. At what point in the last decade does the band start conceptualizing the second full album? Writing and recording for Abantu / Before Humans.
In December 2012, the band’s lead singer, shredder of guitar extraordinaire, and my talented friend who I’ve known since we were six or seven years old, [Lindani Buthelezi,] he kind of disappeared from the band. December 2012 was the last gig that we played with him. It was the end of the world on the Mayan calendar, 12-12-12. So, we played an event called “The End Is the Beginning Is the End,” named after the Smashing Pumpkins song of the same name. Lo and behold, unbeknownst to us, that was the end of a type of BLK JKS, because he stopped showing up to rehearsal, which meant not showing up to gigs. We were in this limbo wondering what we were going to do.
The record label was like, we don’t know what’s happening, so we parted ways with Secretly Canadian, amicably. We were trying to figure ourselves out and went through different phases. Should we get another vocalist? Should we get another guitarist? We brought in horns and keys in rehearsal, and every now and again during a test run gig.
In 2017, at the inaugural South Africa music festival, they said let’s do a reunion. Hugh Masekela was going to be part of the festival, and we were really inspired. That show brought us back energetically, to the point of believing, because we had done one before that when the Foo Fighters came to South Africa, and Dave [Grohl] asked us to open the shows. We were not ready, we were in this weird space, and the shows felt kind of strange. I feel like we owe him new shows to kind of makeup for it in a way. They went well, but it would have been different if it was tomorrow. So, at this time, we felt good, and we were like, “let’s get into the studio.” And then Hugh Masekela passed away, and we did a tribute single with his son and nephew. That was really an emotional time, because we had played shows with him and new him well.
So, then we went in and built a studio space in the Soweto Theatre and wanted to record in the orchestra pit under the stage. We spoke to the city of Johannesburg to arrange it. It was great, but towards the end of the process, the studio got broken into, and the only things that were stolen were the hard drives. The album was gone, and we had basically already finished it. We spent two months on it, working in the orchestra pit under the stage, and had basically finished the record.
It took us about a year of silence to recover from that, and about a year later, almost exactly, our friend Thandiswa Mazwai invited us to play this event called the Fetish Party; it was something she was putting on. We played it, and it was a really great night. A lot of great young musicians played that night – Sho Madjozi, she had a big track called “John Cena,” and it was on the Kelly Clarkson Show not long ago. Moonchild Sanelly, who is doing songs with Gorillaz, and who did her first album with our drummer Tshepang Ramoba. They were all backstage. And we were looking at BLK JKS, and saying this is what we do, and ideas about having a festival started to germinate.
So, we booked a few days in the studio and knocked out the new album in three days. At the end of the day, we were like, we play two hours a night with no problem, and an album is much shorter than that. Let’s just get in there, plug everybody in, and press go. The weight of the first album was on our shoulders, not having the label, not having The Fader, not having all the support we had before. All of these things caused us to battle ourselves, the competition was a different version of ourselves. It took a while to work through that, after having the completed album stolen. But it all came down to three days, eventually, and we got it done. Three six-hour sessions. We didn’t want to overproduce it, or make it sound like After Robots. At this point, the song is the song, and the less time we spend on it, the less time we will have to not put it out. Once we got to that point, we were back, and now here we are.
How were the two albums different? The one that got stolen, and the one that was released as Abantu / Before Humans?
Very much. I think this one, as it is now, it’s more vital and there are a lot of vulnerabilities that we left in because of how it moves us. We changed the track listing and left out songs to go with a specific track listing based on the new mood. For example, the way that the album opens up, it’s more meditated and contemplated. I think initially, what we were doing at Soweto Theatre, we had all of our best game ready, and we were going big, for a punch. Similar to how After Robots starts. But this new record took on a different feeling, and songs that weren’t going to make it, made it on. I still feel strange because I do a lot of singing on the record, and I’m not a singer. But we got to the point where we felt more comfortable. We got to a point where it felt better to suffer our own thing, rather than bring in a new voice. Because I am me, saying the things I’m saying, and never mind what I’m saying. The fact that I’m singing, is a story in and of itself for ourselves, in terms of the journey. How it sounds really didn’t matter, what mattered was that we were making music and putting out an album. If you can think of it as some type of performance art, we were blown away by the fact that it happened. So, I think the album is different in that way. We allowed a lot more room for those feelings and messages, which are more nuanced. It’s more ghostly.
How does songwriting work for BLK JKS?
It’s just jamming. Tshepang is a really strong drummer, and we work with great musicians. The last standing members in the band are me and Tshepang. So, it’s kind of an opportunity to bring in really great musicians, and that helps the writing process because when we play it changes the way we think. It changes the way the musicians who enter think, and they discover things about themselves, and vice versa. It’s a way to keep the initial energy.
When we started the band, that’s what it was. We didn’t really know much, and we were just jamming, and at some point you get stale, and you’re following the formula for what BLK JKS is. But when you bring in new musicians, you kind of have that feeling of the first rehearsal day, on and on. So, for now, that’s really exciting for us. The writing process has always been, you jam, if there’s something you like, you highlight it and pull it out, and whatever that makes you feel, we then write lyrics to it. It’s the only way that feels natural.
Has the evolution of BLK JKS been out of necessity?
Yes, definitely. And we realized that’s fine, and normal. And maybe, better. You look to the genesis story of the band at the beginning, we had absolutely no control over those events, we could only react and move with it. There’s something magical about that for us. Deep down, we don’t want to lose it. We feel like we are called to something, and as long as that thing keeps pushing us, we follow it. As long as it feels good, we follow it. It’s been a beautiful journey following the life story of this band in the most natural way, as opposed to a music industry-determined, capitalistic, trajectory.
Last month, BLK JKS inevitably had to postpone its tour of the U.S. because of visa issues, something we’ve seen with other bands in the last few years. How did that news impact the band?
Yeah, it was a tough decision, but in the weeks where we were having to make that decision, we were seeing people making the same decision. We don’t travel easily as African musicians. I wish we had that golden passport, because there’s that passport game, and it determines how you move in this world. And it’s why we made the song “Harare.” We’re just trying to live, work, and survive.
I was reading a music magazine, and artists were talking about running of thousands of dollars under break even, so the math is not mapping. We can’t really afford to do that. So, for us, we needed to at the very least break even on the tour, and if we’re even one hundred dollars underneath for us it’s too much. Which happens, but we can’t go into it knowing that. Already, it was difficult, but we were willing to work it out and get it somewhere.
We were starting to talk with brands about alignment, but then the visa thing hit and there was nothing that we could do about it. Not getting visa approved was the final nail in the coffin. And it came all from Covid backlogs, and the way the economy in general is going, there are entrenchments at the local embassy, so some of the people we were talking to are no longer working there.
It was getting more and more complicated every day, and the sooner we let this go, the better. And this is coming from a band who has made tours happen worldwide. The people in the U.S. tour the U.S. and the tours are incredible, and the people in Europe tour Europe and the tours are incredible, and then then they tour each other’s territories, and the tours are incredible, but there’s something coming from the global south and making that big journey into those worlds that is a challenge. We’re dealing with currency that is not as strong, a passport that is second or fifth rate, or whatever, so it is super difficult.
BLK JKS tour stories have the added spice, where they have the geopolitical stuff, that give it an extra twist. The regular tour trouble gets hit with real visa challenges. Like, “Oh, this is a single-entry visa, you should have gotten a multiple-entry visa, you can’t come back here.” And it’s like, “But, we have a gig tomorrow, how can we apply for another visa, it took us three months to get this one considered?” “Well, I don’t know, good luck we’re going to have to send you back where you came from.” We end up having to do that, and through all of that still haven’t missed a gig, to contextualize it further.
When we toured Europe in June/July this past summer, we did the E.U., U.K., and Scandinavia, and you have to get a U.K. visa to go to the U.K., and then you have to get a Schengen visa to enter the European countries, and it has to be multiple entry. So, in South Africa, we have to get multiple passports, two passports for four band members. Then send one passport to the U.K. visa process, and one passport to the Schengen visa process. And the reason this is happening, is because timing wise, we’re trying to confirm gigs for say June/July.
For example, Copenhagen Jazz Festival were the first to show interest in booking BLK JKS and the last to confirm. And they were the biggest date on the tour and were paying the most. So, we had to wait until they had their things together to confirm plans for the remainder of the tour dates. This is the type of thing that we have had to deal with, and it has sort of become normal. When I look at some of my colleagues in the music industry, I look at it and sometimes think, we’re dealing with so much, and for what? We’re just here to play music, share vibes, and head home.
I’ve been thinking about the whole visa situation, and how it’s been a problem the whole time. I’ve been wondering if there’s a way where they have an artist visa type of thing going, that would follow different channels. Which I think is fair because we’re independent workers in the gig economy. We’re not there via the endorsement of a major global company, we can’t really afford to be running the same gamete. And year after year, it’s the same questions we’re being asked. When I head to the visa office to get approved again, it’s the same person who is reviewing my application, and I’m paying them again. I know that with the U.S., sometimes they do longer term visa approvals, which is something we’ll probably be looking at for next time.
When we first came to the U.S., I think the plan was to spend three weeks, which became three years. It was just us moving around, and we’d go to the U.K. to play shows, and reapply in the U.S. within that time. We were mostly based in New York.
Now, that we’re a bit older, hopefully wiser, we think it would be best to get one visa that holds us down for a while if we intend to keep playing shows abroad. It’s a pity because this year was really good for us, the album came out last year, and the timing was great. I’ve been enjoying seeing bands like Rage Against the Machine, The Mars Volta, and the Smashing Pumpkins get back on the road. People are trying to get back into it, because it’s not easy for the public as well. We’ve sort of lost the practice of going to a gig. And some people are thinking, can I even really afford this? These are interesting times.
BLK JKS has always had great support from bands that emerged in the 2000s to 2010 timeframe, like TV On the Radio, The Strokes, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, and many others.
When we played the show with Foo Fighters in South Africa, their booking agent came to our dressing room to come to chat. And he said that he had a message for us, from Julian Casablancas. He says he passes good wishes, wished us good luck with the show, and that he is starting this record label and if ever BLK JKS was wanting to do something, a new album or something, that he’d be keen to chat. With the new album, that’s not how we went in the end, but that conversation was there. And so that’s The Strokes. And I know that Interpol, they were with Brandon Curtis a lot on their live shows, and he plays offstage synth and keyboards and helps them on the road. And of course, he produced After Robots, our first album. hen Nick Zinner, of Yeah Yeah Yeahs, we met him in South Africa.
Now, it’s more like whatever happens, it’s an interesting story, and we want to keep turning pages. Coming back to play in the U.S. was more about whatever transpires. If we come back and play shows to two people, it’s just as interesting as playing a sold-out venue in New York. When you think about a book, you touch it not just because it’s happy, but because the story is good. I think we’ve reached that part of how we look at things and do things right now. And it’s really exciting because it influences how we write music now. Since we’re not going to be in the U.S., we’re pouring ourselves into new music. Because we have this time where we were supposed to be somewhere else, but now we’re in a parallel universe. It’s our second parallel universe trip, the first being with Covid when we were locked down internationally. Everybody was in places where they weren’t meant to be, even if that was home.
Was the band scattered across SA?
I was in France with my wife and family, and we were having our firstborn together. My first-born child was here in South Africa with her mother, and she’s nine years old now. During that time we were also negotiating and figuring out record deals, final mixing, and mastering all through lockdown. Then we released the album in May 2021 last year and went on the road this summer for the first time. We were looking forward to going to the U.S. to return. What we’ve decided to do with the second parallel universe experience is work on new music which has been interesting. We’re going back to offcuts, things that were left on the edit room floor from the previous album. Production-wise, we’re taking more time with it and seeing how we want to do things and how we want to go. It’s been a really beautiful first couple of days doing that. It’s almost like there’s no pressure. We weren’t supposed to be doing this so there is no pressure like, “Where’s the album?” I think it’s a bit of a blessing in disguise and we’re able to look at the music and start with music we’ve already recorded. We’re doing a lot of listening back and shifting things around which is really cool. It’s kind of allowing for ideas to flow in a very different way than they previously had with the first two albums.
How was the BLK RCK festival last month?
The festival was really an interesting thing. I’m not a big fan of organizing gigs, I have a bit of a phobia. Even dive bar gigs I’m usually the one, whether we’re putting it together, I could say where we should be doing it, but I don’t want to get too deep into the details. Tshepang is more that guy. I’m more like the conceptual and visual type. I’m more of the art direction around the band, and Tshepang is more of the one to plan and look at the deals, so we complement each other in that way. So, the festival wasn’t that much different in that regard.
We met the brand that we worked with, Devil’s Peak Beer Company, because they were doing a TV ad and they wanted to feature different people in different fields who were interested in beer. They’re coming from the craft beer side of things, and they wanted people who were really into the product. I was given a call by the guy who started it, and I was like, yes, I’m interested, but I said I’m not really interested in whether the money is enough or not enough. I’m more interested in seeing how this partnership would work and how could we do more together in the future.
He saw the craft beer market growing in Silicon Valley and when he could he came back to South Africa to start the company in Cape Town. We could relate in a lot of ways. We had cool conversations and then decided to do some things together. We decided to do a beer together, BLK RCK LAGER, and decided to launch it with an event. That turned into thinking about the festival, we always wanted to have a festival. And that snowballed into booking artists and became a whole thing. We put it together and launched it last October.
The festival was great. People came out and lots of great artists performed. Going back to Msaki, she was there and stopped the music to just talk about the moment, saying “Hey guys we’re here, but you need to understand that this band the BLK JKS, when I met them I was just this girl with an acoustic guitar on the coast, and they brought me up, and I played my first gig in Johannesburg, and now we’re here.” I thought that was really cool and inspiring. We hope to have another festival next year.
What can you tell me about the new music?
What we’ve done is we’ve taken all of the tracks that didn’t make it on to Abantu / Before Humans and are looking back. We’re seeing what tracks could actually work and are being less pressured about approaching it. We’re moving it all around and it’s an exciting production process. I don’t know if it’s pre-production yet, but it’s really exciting where we are. It’s starting to sound already quite different. I think because we’re listening to it and not playing it, it’s becoming, even more, a listener’s record as opposed to a player’s album.
With the first album, it was all about playing, and we didn’t really care about how you received the message, we were just shredding. Like, Gods be damned. Back then it was like this was everything for us, we’re in the U.S., we’re in the snow, never seen snow before, and we’re going to shred our way out of it. That’s what After Robots was about. This last album, because of the timing, was also kind of speedy. It was more mature and more vulnerable, and we didn’t overproduce it. In a way, it’s just the way the band sounds without finessing it too much. It’s more of an album that I can listen to over and over again. After Robots is more active listening, I really stare at the stereo when listening, whereas Abantu / Before Humans is one that I can listen to the house while doing other things, but it has that player’s drive in it.
Now, we’re completely sitting down, so I wonder if this will be the record that you drive to, wash the dishes to, or have friends over and let come on. Some of my favorite records I can’t listen to when my friends are around. I have records I like when I can listen to when people are around, then I have records that I listen to where I just want my own opinion on, and those were always my favorite albums to listen to. In a way, as we stare at the computer screen and play around with the production, we’ve come to the point with the new album where we’re sort of sampling ourselves. For me, it’s a really beautiful thing.
All of this sounds like the making of a great documentary on the story of BLK JKS. I know you’ve directed before and are a very visual person, is that something you’ve thought about?
I think there is some kind of story there and telling the story in a way almost to my younger self. Imagine if I was looking at the world and trying to find my way. As soon as I start to come to mind and be my own person in the world, what would I have liked to discover? Maybe a film about a band like ours? It is something that we’re looking at. When it comes to making music, I always thought I want to be the guy that gets cut up. I don’t want to be Drake, I want to be the sample. Guys like Lou Reed. I love A Tribe Called Quest, but that bass line, that’s fantastic. The mind starts to spin and pick up instruments. I want to be that story, in a way. I dream of that story for South African artists. Just that idea of pioneering, and it doesn’t always have to be about how popular you are. But for now, new music.