By BRUCE DENNILL
Wonderboom’s Martin “Cito” Otto sends a message, received as I’m en route to an early breakfast and a chat with the singer and songwriter, which suggests he’s already had too much coffee. “Hey bro! Got here early. Can’t miss me. Near the entrance. In your face!”
It’s the sort of accessibility and unforced camaraderie that has helped Otto and the band he fronts to stay in the South African rock spotlight for the past two decades. Recently, though, experience and maturity have given the promotion of new Wonderboom album Rising Sun an air of almost gritty honesty – less sprouting of press release-style bumf and, refreshingly, more emotive exhalations.
Otto has mentioned in other communications recently that the recording of Rising Sun saw the band being more meticulous than ever before, a statement that speaks of a growing sagacity when it comes to releasing their original music, but hints that what came before may not have always been exactly what was hoped for.
“My own attention to detail started developing with my solo project, where I was recording, engineering and mixing everything, and I didn’t want to let anything slip,” explains Otto.
“As a band, we had always – before this album – handed the process over to a producer or record company. We’d then have limited time in the recording studio, which meant we’d only get nit-picky at mixing time, when we’d realise that we might have been able to do things better. This time, there was no deadline, which was very freeing. We were aiming for October 2016 originally, but by then we only had three songs that were really ready, so we aimed for March 2017. Which we then missed as well …”
Did the atmosphere around the experience change with this new approach?
“Martin [Schofield, Wonderboom guitarist] and I sat in the studio four days a week for between three and five hours a day, coming up with new stuff on the spot and dropping some of the first choices we’d made for the album,” says Otto.
“We also wanted to experiment more on the production side; to try some electric sounds and avoid doing just the 2D rock band thing. We had help – Thomas Hughes mixed most of it; Adam Howard played on and mixed Hell; and I mixed Northern Lights and Digital Dan. The biggest difference was that this was the first album we’ve done that we’ve been involved with from start to finish.”
That must be incredibly gratifying creatively, but it does mean that, once the album is out, there is nobody to pass the buck to.
“We’re totally embracing that responsibility,” nods Otto. “We’re ready to take criticism on the chin. For us, we can only compare this to our other work.”
Rising Sun is the first album featuring Jonathan Bell on drums. He’s no longer the “new boy”, but he will no doubt have brought a different feel to the studio?
“We workshop our songs a lot and perform them live to test them. Our demos have synthetic drums, and then we make the songs cohesive by playing them live,” says Otto.
“Jono has a real sensitivity to the needs of each song. He’s not flashy, but he cares about the way his drums sound and he plays what fits the song best. Martin and I were adamant about including some ‘hybrid moments’ with electronic beats rather than just acoustic drums, but all the best bits are Jono’s playing.”
Combining sounds like that requires different sessions; different technologies – a lot of work.
“Most of the guitars were recorded at my home studio via pre-amp and processed with various plug-ins. We recorded drums with a friend of ours, Fourie Smit. The internet is your friend these days – you can send tracks all over the place. We would have liked to have a live studio, playing through amps and all the rest, but this way worked fine this time.”
On the songwriting side, are Otto and Schofield remain the focus.
“Yes – we write everything,” confirms Otto. “Wade [Williams, bass] is our quality controller, though sometimes he comes in at the last moment. It’d be good to get those comments earlier and avoid some stress!”
Wonderboom has been on something of a creative hiatus. The loss of their previous drummer and close friend Garth McLeod to a road accident was devastating, but there had been a few years without new material before that sad event.
“Jono coming into the band started a bit of a resurgence in terms of our love of performance,” muses Otto, “and we found that our creative juices started to flow again. After [previous album] The Automatic Shuffle, we had some demos going around, but we weren’t agreeing creatively. That album wasn’t very successful – it didn’t get released digitally by the label – and we were in a bit of a lull. But as Jono began finding his way into the band sound, we – for the first time in a long time – rediscovered some great musical chemistry, not just the showman stuff on stage.”
With each new release come new marketing challenges, particularly as listeners’ consumption habits change and different platforms become more or less important. The first singles off Rising Sun have already enjoyed reasonable radio success, but does that have the same impact as it used to with earlier releases?
“In South Africa, terrestrial radio is still very influential; a mark of success and reach,” notes Otto. “But we haven’t focused on that for years, as it affects the way you write. Also, radio play is no guarantee in terms of your live pull, and we’re primarily a live band. But getting playlisted again, and on some stations where we didn’t expect support, is an affirmation for us. And it suggests that we’re not too alternative; that we still have some pop sensibilities.”
Otto is not overly starry-eyed about the mechanisms involved, though.
“The voting systems that make playlists a popularity contest and give everything a reality TV feel are very frustrating,” he scowls. “Festivals book you based on how many followers you have on social media rather than on your stage act. It’s a factory process – look at how many times we end up with the same line-up at every event. We’re a band in transition – new ways meeting an old-school approach. We’re competing against international bands and local bands who sound like international bands.”
The first two singles from the new album arrived with accompanying videos. How important are those in terms of delivering the songs to listeners?
“We’re investing more in the band and the music than we’re actually getting out of it in the hope of getting picked up internationally,” says Otto. “The ticket is music videos – they’re more or less a prerequisite for being taken seriously in that market. It’s an expensive necessity, and we’ll do it for all the singles, as close to release dates as possible. Putting those on YouTube, Facebook and elsewhere means immediate international exposure. We are careful to make sure that the source – the song – is still nurtured. That’s what keeps live performance as the best marketing tool.”
Battle of the Bands-style competitions are often viewed with suspicion by established bands, but Wonderboom have taken the opposite view and done well in international showcases.
“When we took part in the international Battle of the Bands in which we came second in 2004 – ironically, the band that beat us was called Second – we’d already been going for eight years,” recalls Otto. “We were well set up, and I remember needing to convince the band at the time. The question I asked was: ‘Do you or do you not believe that we are the best band in the world?’ That cleared things up, I think.”
At the end of 2017, Wonderboom participated in a similar event in China – the Silk Road Indie Music Festival – and took top spot, a particularly exciting achievement in a market as massive and hungry for new music as the host country.
“That event wasn’t initially a competition,” says Otto. “The format changed as we went along. At first, it was just an opportunity to play a new place, and we’re always up for that. As it turned out, there were judges, but one of the main criteria for them was the crowd response. It was amazing for us to see the reaction to us and our music from people who didn’t know us. Chinese listeners are relatively new to pop culture. We saw police walking through the crowd and tapping people if they were getting too boisterous. During the final, though, their inhibitions went out of the windo – I think that’s what won it for us.”
There had been some challenges earlier, however.
“Each band had to do a 35 to 40-minute set,” explains Otto. “We played on the second day, but when we came out on stage, having done a soundcheck earlier, everything was out of whack. There was no vocal monitor and a few other things were off as well. We walked off the stage swearing, thinking we were out. But we were announced as part of the top six, for which we had to do two songs we hadn’t played in the first set. I had left my guitar at the hotel to minimise the feedback problems we had had the first time we played, so we had to tweak arrangements, and we had to submit our song choices to be checked for inappropriate references – they didn’t want violence, sex or drugs mentioned in the lyrics.”
A single impressive visit is one thing; a sustained impact in China is another …
“There’s huge potential for a serious following there,” nods Otto. “They’re definitely getting into their music culture – not just the songs, but also how you present yourself. I’m looking forward to getting our music distributed there. And we’ll be returning for a tour. The festival is backed by the Chinese department of arts and culture, with the competition designed to help create an arts exchange – theirs going out, others coming in. Being a part of that is exciting: the Far East has a sort of self-contained industry that’s integrated between all the countries there.”
Wonderboom returned from that success for a festive season tour of small South African towns including Hermanus and Gordon’s Bay, playing tiny venues that are the antithesis of the gargantuan scale of China and its possibilities. How did that affect the band’s headspace?
“We’ve always been grounded because of the journey we’ve taken to get to where we are,” says Otto. “We’ve been right up and we’ve been right down. The rug will never be pulled out from under us. And gigs like that are great. Magic happens in intimate spaces. We’re very adaptable – we’re comfortable on a big studio stage, but we can also rock out a small room.
“The China thing elevated our spirits. It was a great thing to happen before we hit the road again – it’d been a long time since we’d done that.”
Wonderboom’s new album Rising Sun is out now.