New Academics is a high-energy four-piece band from Johannesburg, South Africa with an eclectic sound that fuses elements of hip-hop, dance music and rock released new album Growler Front at the beginning of April. While staying true to the New Academics sound, Growler Front pushes the sonic fringe with gritty hooks and even grittier themes that represent a natural progression for the band.
Founded in Cape Town in 2004 by vocalist Joe Penn and guitarist David Baudains, the original line-up relocated to Johannesburg shortly thereafter and rapidly became renowned for energetic and passionate live performances at club venues and major festival stages nationwide.
The band has released two critically acclaimed albums, 2007’s City of Strange and 2008’s The Apple, both of which garnered South African Music Award nominations (2008 Best Alternative Album for City of Strange and 2009 Best English Alternative Album for The Apple).
After five years playing across South Africa and two European tours, New Academics took an indefinite hiatus in early 2010, returning to the stage in late 2014 with the current line-up of Joe Penn (vocals), David Baudains (guitar), Rob Storm (drums) and Jacques du Plessis (bass). We interviewed Dave to chat about their third studio album Growler Front.
When you started writing for the album, did you already have an idea of how you wanted it to sound and at the end did it turn out that way?
No, we have never started the writing process with preconceived ideas about how it will turn out. Obviously there is melodic definition and a logic that emerges as the parts come together. As the song takes shape you start to form an idea about what you would like to pursue stylistically. You think ‘it would be great if this bit had those lo-fi John Bonham drums’ or ‘this build up needs to sound like a car accelerating into a wall’. Then you go about trying to create what you hear in your minds ear. But it never ends up quite as you’d imagined. Which is always surprising and often a good thing.
What music were you all listening to while writing for the album? Like what inspired you?
That varies widly between each band member. We have very different tastes. New Academics doesn’t sound like any one of its constituent influences and is really the bastard child of whatever each of us is listening to, or has been listening to. For me, that wasn’t much bass, drums, guitar and vocal music at the time of writing and recording. It was mainly things like Jon Hopkins, Floating Points and Tim Hecker. Joe was listening to Doctor John and Joshua Redman and a bunch of other things.
Who came up with the title Growler Front and to you, what does it mean?
Growler Front was actually the temporary song title for the track “Air Czar” while we were writing the album. When we write we always put the music together first and then Joe holes himself up in a cave (an actual cave, I kid you not) and writes lyrics. While the songs are still lyricless, they get placeholder titles. Stupid stuff for the most part, for our own amusement. But sometimes the first ideas stick and grow on us, or the good ones get reappropriated. Growler Front has varied interpretations depending on which band member you speak to but the one that resonates most with me is the idea of a shared unease or discontent. The South African public is presenting a Growler Front at the moment. Having a moan, basically. New Academics are having a moan about the global and local status quo too.
Where did you record and who was the producer? Also did he bring something new to the recording process and the sound?
Absolutely. Drums were recorded at Sumo Sound over the course of two days with Peter Auret, who is himself a very accomplished jazz drummer. The rest was done over ten or so days at High Seas Studios in Parktown North with Jacques du Plessis and Adrian Erasmus, both of whom were intimately involved in helping us craft the album and both of whom have an awesome ear for contemporary tones and production. We can now officially say the album was produced by New Academics because during the recording, Jacques joined the band. So our co-producer and engineer is now our bass player, which is most excellent. Rob, our drummer, co-mixed the album as well.
It’s very rare these days for bands to record albums, never mind three! Is it because of the money it takes to record a decent album or is the concept of an album a dying art? And do you enjoy the whole process of making an album?
I think the commodification of music has killed the concept of an LP to a large extent. We just don’t consume music like back in the day when full length releases were commonplace. The members of New Academics are very much of the album generation. I agree with the statement that writing material that sits nicely together for an album is a bit of a dying art. But certain release formats will always have their champions and we are big into albums. We toyed with the idea of releasing EP’s or singles but at the end of the day, this is a collection of songs from a particular time period which belong together. Theres no commercial value in doing staggered releases for us. The value for us, and the people that like the band is in the songs and the good times they soundtrack. We really enjoy the album making process and at this stage in the game there is no point in doing anything we don’t really want to do.
Do you think the hiatus gave you guy’s some time to grow? Like, do you think that if it wasn’t for the hiatus, you wouldn’t be the musicians you are now and making the music you are now?
I think that’s true. If it weren’t for the hiatus I don’t think we would want to be making music as a unit anymore. It was essential to take a break and focus on other things exclusively for a while, not only other musical projects but also life stuff. Getting back together again has been quite casual and unforced, we’ve shed a lot of the ambition and angst we had before about being a band. Now we are more interested in messing about with sounds and songs and making a cool album for our fans.
What is in your opinion the ultimate New Academics song that captures what you guys are all about perfectly?
Jesus, that’s a big ask. I have no idea. The past stuff is very relevant to ‘past us’, the current stuff has more broad themes and is not necessarily as anecdotal. I really have no idea…
Is there a song that you wish you could re-record and do over and is there a song from another artist that makes you sit and think, ‘Shit, I wish I wrote that’?
The short answer – everything! I would re-do everything. That’s the nature of making music or any other kind of art I think. The old cliché holds true, its never ever finished. Just abandoned at the point when obsession with tracks and takes starts eating into your sleep and you are digging a bigger hole with each futile attempt to ‘fix’ or ‘polish’. The beauty with just putting it out there is that with time, you inevitably get more comfortable with what you made. In the same way you get comfortable with a mole or grey hair. You tell yourself its actually not so bad, it adds character. Then you ultimately start believing it and every now and then you look at it and go ‘I quite like that’. But it may still be kak, you just loose all ability to evaluate your own creation objectively.
As far as stuff I wish I wrote, there is lot. Generally things that are far outside my limited abilities, either creatively or technically. Some stuff you just go ‘This is so annoyingly perfect and I would never in a million years have come up with it.’
Why are your live shows always a little darker and heavier than the songs on your albums?
I think being able to capture live energy in the studio is a rare thing. Its often linked directly to budget and time, both of which are in short supply for a little mid-tier SA band. We may try things a little differently next time, like live takes in a fantastic room. But that costs money, to capture tones accurately and define sounds and not rely on multi-track techniques which are often the best use of limited resources. We pride ourselves on bringing it live, we get a real kick out of crowd interaction and there is nothing quite like amplification, distortion, lights and smoke to get all fired up on. Live performance is a drug.
Are there any local bands that have emerged while you were on hiatus that you guys really enjoy and think have great potential?
There is some fantastic stuff out there. Amazingly written and produced. Some artists that spring to mind are Givan Lotz, Made for Broadway, Card on Spokes, Dan Shout, Below the Floodline, Julian Redpath, Lunatic Wolf. Theres a ton actually!