By BRUCE DENNILL
The Shabs, a four-piece folk-punk band from Cape Town (Jon Shaban – guitar and vocals; Ryan McArthur – upright bass and backing vocals; Jon Case – drums; and Sophie Doherty – melodica and vocals), are currently creating a considerable buzz in South Africa, and making inroads into Europe as well. Shaban and McArthur gives some insight into the outfit’s progress.
Folk-punk: one detailed storytelling genre mixed with one stripped-down, simplistic genre. What inspires you about both, and what is, for you, interesting about combining them?
Jon Shaban: Generally speaking, a big thing that folk and punk have in common is that it is music written with a message to deliver and that often helps people relate to each other. Both genres, although they are both so broadly defined, are lyrically driven and that obviously helps articulate the message in a way that might be quite literal or quite metaphorical, and people can get out of it what they want to. I think an interesting thing about combining them is that even though the genres compliment each other so well, the incompatibility is sometimes where the beauty lies. The punk influence can help add a higher, more intense energy to a song that could still have a delicate core, and the folk influence can add a more musical sound to something quite raw. At the end of the day, both folk and punk as genres are really what you want them to be.
The sound you’ve developed to show off that formula – pedal steel, double bass, classical guitar – is not the expectation many listeners have. Why those choices and what other ideas do you like that you haven’t yet added?
Jon Shaban: There’s no specific reason for those choices. It just kind of ended up like that. The classical guitar, upright bass and drums are the core of the band. The classical guitar is a bit unexpected but it’s my favourite acoustic guitar and it blends really nicely and warmly with the upright bass. We are starting to introduce a fair amount of electric guitar now as well. The band started after I put together a band to play a full band set of my solo material and we enjoyed it so much, we decided to keep it going and start writing a whole new repertoire and perform and release it as The Shabs. So the acoustic instruments were the obvious choice. The pedal steel was an amazing, lucky addition. Richard, who plays lead guitar and pedal steel on the album, actually lives in Germany. He’s toured with us there a few times before and we knew we wanted him to add lead guitar on the record. He decided to send us some ideas on the pedal steel as well and we really loved it.
European tours: how do you manage that, given the funding and other challenges?
Jon Shaban: We had to start somewhere and in 2016, when we went for the first time, we had no idea what we were doing and it was a very badly arranged tour in the fact that we were driving zigzags around mainland Europe for six weeks. But in there somewhere, we saw potential to go back and met some amazing people who have become such solid friends and are really influential in helping us put together tours out there. We’ve been four times now and even though it’s nowhere near glamorous, it is slowly moulding into something that we think might be sustainable. We’re basically going to keep going back to Europe as regularly as we can until we can’t anymore
How is the fanbase building there? What are you learning when touring there?
Jon Shaban: So far, we’ve seen good growth in the fanbase. Every year we’ve seen more familiar faces at the shows and when we go to new places and play good shows where people know the songs and are singing them back at you louder than you can hear yourself, I don’t think there’s a better feeling out there, really. We learn a lot on the road for sure. Everything from taking tips from other bands to finding that last bit of energy you need to socialise after the show to figuring what your physical limits are.
The shared album you did with Rambling Bones – it’s a different kind of collaboration, relative to solo songwriters working together. The music industry can be pretty insular – “selfish” is probably a better word. How can or should that be improved?
Jon Shaban: We’re serious advocates for working as a community. One thing we’ve realised on our travels is that South Africa has an amazing community. I think that has a lot to do with how small it is, but it really is something special. At the end of the day, the industry is competitive and it’s easy to understand why people tend to be ‘selfish’, but we really believe that a lot of the opportunities that we have come from doors that were opened by other bands and we were lucky enough to get invited in. We hope that we can do the same for other bands too.
Your album and marketing artwork and other image-related ideas – what do you want to say with that image, and what could you potentially do with it? Branding and income is one part of it; could be more?
Ryan McArthur: The album artwork is intended to provoke the feeling of falling in love with music for the first time, which for most of us was during our teenage years. It’s an expression of the joy, excitement, sense of belonging and awe that accompanies that time in our youth when we discovered the music that we felt like we could own. Not the music on the radio, not the music your parents like, but music that spoke to you and made you feel a part of a community. The design is also crammed full of references to things that influenced us and were important to us at that time in our lives and we are really hoping that this will give our fans further insight into who we are, and what we stand for. We have carried this aesthetic and theme through into the two music videos we’ve released off the album so far and plan on continuing to explore and develop this as we release more videos. We have also been aware of sticking to a specific style as we’ve built The Shabs “brand” over the years. It’s dramatic and in-your-face but also simplistic in colour, using only black and white, which helps it achieve a DIY feel even though it is meticulously crafted.