Civil Twilight are one of South Africa’s success stories, and it is with great pleasure that we can announce that our editor-in-chief, Craig Roxburgh, got the opportunity to send some questions over to the band. They discuss what the shift from South Africa to the US was like, how it was a desperate shot in the dark, how incredibly humbling their journey has been, and how great it is to see more South African artists receive international attention. They even hint at the possibility of returning to South Africa for a tour.
Civil Twilight is part of the small group of bands that have actually managed to make it in the US market, following in the footsteps of Seether – a band considered to be one of South Africa’s best musical exports. What was that experience like? What was it like shifting from the very niche and closed circled South African music scene to one that operates on a much larger scale, and one in which it is often very difficult to become popular?
It feels like it’s been such a long road and so much has happened along the way that it’s hard to think of it as one experience. It’s been a total education and we’ve had so many experiences along the way. I think when we first moved to the US we were very young and naive and had big dreams and thought that things might happen a lot quicker than they did. It was intimidating in the beginning, being in a foreign land and really having very little idea of how the music industry worked. But as we went along people responded well to our music and that was always encouraging, and the adventure of it all was exciting and that fueled us. It was exciting be in LA and be running into people who had worked with all these famous artists we grew up listening to. To be invited to parties at clubs you hear about on TV and in the movies, and to rub shoulders with celebrities in Hollywood. That sort of thing just didn’t happen at home. LA feels like it influences the world because it does, and you feel that when you’re there. You feel like you’re on top of the world. I enjoyed the feeling of possibility. In a lot of ways we grew up watching and admiring America, so just being there was a dream in itself. As far as the “making it” part goes, again, it was a long process and a series of relationships, events, breaks, challenges, disappointments and triumphs over a number of years. It was one thing that led to the next, that got us a song on TV, that got us a record deal, that got us a tour and so on. But even then, when you have the record deal and the tour there are no guarantees you “make it” in the end. In our minds I think making it is continuing to make music and enjoy ourselves doing it, and stay friends and love each other in the process.
This particular experience ties in pretty well with the title of your recently released third studio album. Is Story Of An Immigrant based on a lot of what you, as a band, experienced when you decided to practically relocate your entire lives?
Yes, the album title is definitely referencing our journey. It’s biographical, but it’s also referencing the journey that we are all on in life. The things we go through and the fact that we’re all immigrants in one way or another. I think it’s something everyone can relate on some level.
There is a sense of risk but also relief to your new album. Did you have any idea if you would ever succeed in the US market, and was there a back-up plan if everything didn’t work out the way you had initially planned it, or was it just a desperate shot in the dark?
It was a risk for sure. There are never any guarantees. I think we had a lot of belief in ourselves in the early days and we believed that we would be successful. This was enhanced when people responded well to us when we played live and that helped to keep us going. But you kind of just have to go for it and if you believe that it’s what you’re made to do and it’s what you want to do, you just have to jump and take a chance. There are never any guarantees in life. Our only backup plan was going back home with our tail between our legs. Thankfully, that never happened and we were able to keep going, but there were moments when we were definitely tempted to give up. It’s not been an easy road. But it has been a rewarding one and an amazing adventure.
Whether it was a shot in the dark is irrelevant now that you’ve moved onto your third studio album, but it was already irrelevant upon the release of your debut album which featured “Human” – a song that truly made your career. Do you think things would have gone differently if you never wrote that particular song, or did something differently with your debut album?
I think things would have gone differently if we never wrote “Letters From The Sky”. “Human” definitely opened the door to film and TV, but “Letters From The Sky” kept it wide open for us. “Letters From The Sky” also put us on the radio in the US which was a huge deal. I’m not sure if we would have got to make a second album if not for “Letters From The Sky. That song was definitely a turning point in our careers.
5) It must be quite humbling to look at where you are now – having toured alongside the likes of Florence and the Machines, Jimmy Eat World, Of Monsters and Men, and Anberlin, and then to reflect on where you had come from – playing in local clubs and being in, at the time, one of the most isolated music scenes in the world. Was there ever that expectation that these three Hout Bay teenagers would ever go on to break into the US marker and become a band know all around the world?
Honestly, it is amazing when you think about it. I think we surpassed even our own greatest expectations. When we were kids we just wanted to open for Just Jinger in Cape Town! That would have been a dream! I don’t think we ever imagined we’d get as far as we have. It’s a pretty good feeling actually, because I don’t often think about how far we’ve come. You sort of get caught up in the day to day life and the challenges of living and forget about the accomplishments sometimes. It’s interesting because you don’t become a different person when you have success. Who you are remains and is completely separate from what you do as a career, so sometimes it feels like not much changes over time. So it’s important to look back and reflect and be thankful.
A lot of international media outlets refer to Civil Twilight as being a South African band, despite the band being based in the US and drawing influence from UK alternative rock. Do you find it interesting that people often cling to that label and are surprised that such beautiful and delicate sounding music is capable of emerging from South Africa?
I think people just in general want to know where you come from because it helps them categorize you. With us when we first started in America people were so confused when they heard we were from South Africa. But now South Africa has more international profile so people are a little more familiar with the fact that there are white people who live there too. We like being from South Africa and are proud of it, so we like it when people know where we’re from and talk about it. We think South Africa is the most beautiful country in the world and we tell everyone that! Regarding influences, I think people are often surprised that we don’t sound more “African”, but when we explain what we predominantly listened to when we were growing up it seems to makes more sense. You can hear a little more South Africa creeping in on this new record though, and we’re excited about that.
In recent years, it has become a trend for successful local artists to start transcending to the international market with the most notable act being Jeremy Loops whom just recently was announced as a support at for Twenty One Pilots’s tour of the UK and Europe. Do you still pay attention to the local music scene, and if so what are your thoughts on a lot of the acts currently emerging from it?
We don’t follow it closely actually, beyond our friends who are in bands there, but we are certainly interested in what’s coming out of SA. Whenever we hear about other SA artists doing well overseas its always a good feeling. I think we actually share a US booking agent with Jeremy Loops and have had some interaction with him through them, and we also hear about folks like Kongos, St Lucia and, of course, Die Antwoord when we travel. One day we’ll run into them at a festival or something and all have a braai and hang out! Actually, come to think of it, we randomly ran into a fellow Hout Bayer the other day at a festival in Philadelphia. One of the girls who is playing guitar for Nate Ruess (former lead singer of FUN) is from Hout Bay, and we got to hang out and chat to her about home a bit. I think South Africa is fast becoming a legit and recognized community on the international scene.
A lot of people back here in South Africa seem to have an issue with local bands deciding to draw influence from international acts, as opposed to attempting to create a unique South African musical identity. What are your thoughts on this, and did you ever experience such sentiments when you still performing in South Africa?
Yeah, I get that. But I think people are always gonna draw influence from what they like to listen to, and if that’s an international act, there’s not much you can do about it. You can’t tell people what they have to listen to and be influenced by. I do think that people are starting to value local music more though, and that’s a good thing. Especially uniquely South African sounds and rhythms that you don’t find in other places. You realize when you play in America that it’s your uniqueness that sets you apart. No one wants to listen to another version of an American band. They may as well just listen to the original. In the States the playing field is totally level and all those big ‘international’ acts are now your direct competition. So the more unique influences you have the better. Obviously I’m speaking philosophically and in reality you just make music that excites you. But if I could do it all again, one thing I would do is place more value on local South African music and search out and listen to more of it.
On the note of performing in South Africa, is there the possibility of returning to South Africa in the near future in support of your new album – seeing as 5FM has had “Holy Doves” playing on a daily basis?
Yes, definitely! We’ve hired a new local booking agent and we are hoping to get back there in December or January. We love coming back to SA and we love playing shows there. As long as people come watch us, we’ll come play. And we’ll eat as much boerewors as possible in the process!