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WONDERboom discusses their latest album, being one of South Africa’s longest running bands and taking top prize at China’s Silk Road Indie Music Festival

Photo Credit: Rob Scholtz

By Emily May

South African rock band WONDERboom, having formed 22 years ago, are one of the country’s longest-running and most beloved bands.  The band consists of Martin Cito Otto (Lead vocals/Penny Whistle/Guitar/Harmonica/Multi-instrumentalist), Martin Schofield (Guitar/Backing Vocals/Multi-instrumentalist), Wade Wiliams (Bass) and Jonathan Bell (Drums).  Although they started out as more of a ska band, they evolved their sound over the years to include punk, funk and kwaito, a variant of house music native to Johannesburg that features the use of African sounds and samples.

WONDERboom is, above all else, a live band, having played stages large and small around South Africa, as well as internationally.  The band, having adopted a more modern rock sound in recent years, released their 9th studio album, Rising Sun, last year.  This was the band’s first album in 7 years, following the death of their former drummer Garth McLeod in 2013.  This also marks the first album with their new drummer Jonathan Bell, who joined the band following McLeod’s death.  With a more hands-on approach to the making of Rising Sun than with previous albums and the exploring of new ways to play their instruments and write songs, they wanted this album to truly represent who they are as a band.

The band traveled to China last year to compete in the Silk Road Indie Music Festival, walking away with the golden trophy.  With a renewed sense of momentum and anticipation for what’s to come, the band has no intention of slowing down!  Staff member, Emily May, spoke recently to lead singer Cito via email about the making of their latest album, their ever-evolving sound, the band’s Santana Sessions project and their involvement with charitable events.

You can stay up-to-date with the band and all album and tour information on their website http://www.wonderboom.co.za/, Facebook https://www.facebook.com/WONDERboomBand/, Instagram https://www.instagram.com/wonderboomband/ and Twitter https://twitter.com/wonderboomband?lang=en.  You can stream their music on Spotify https://open.spotify.com/artist/45Ahb3Z1t6yHM2F2gFrAtx and SoundCloud https://soundcloud.com/wonderboom.  Check out the video below for the song Great Escape from the new album!

The band recently released its 9th album, Rising Sun. It is the first album you guys have released in 7 years, since the death of your drummer Garth McLeod. You have since brought on drummer Jonathan Bell. What was the process like in reworking the future of the band? Do you feel that the making of this album was cathartic for you?

When Jon stepped in to take up drums, we had to basically start a new relationship all over again. Especially because WONDERboom is essentially a performance band. From there we just gigged and gigged and took up any opportunity to play live together. It was great when the new songs started coming in and we had the chance to workshop them in rehearsals and play them live. Also, plenty of pre-production before we actually recorded. By the time we laid down our parts, we knew what we were doing. Jon has been great and seems to have fit into our groove perfectly. The making of this album was definitely a cathartic experience. Right up until its release.

Rising Sun is the first album that the band was involved with from start to finish. You guys took your time and were very meticulous with the entire production process for the album. What led you to be more hands-on with this album? Would you say you preferred this approach to previous album recordings?

In the past, we would write the songs, rehearse them, go into studio and record our parts, then let the producer and engineer work them until the producer was happy. This time, we took our time with it. We initially were aiming for October 2016 and when the time came around, we weren’t satisfied with the collection of songs. We figured that since we waited so long already, what difference was another year going to make? So, Martin (guitarist) and I sat in my studio 3-4 days a week, writing, recording and experimenting until we had a nice body of songs to choose from. At the same time, we were trying these songs out live, wherever the show conditions allowed. For us, it’s really been good to do it this way. None of this ‘fix it in the mix’ crap. We knew that the song essence had to be key. Being hands-on is definitely the way to go for us – for now?

You started out making music with ska beats accompanied by a flute and have delved into many genres including punk, funk and Kwaito. You have since evolved and developed a more modern rock sound. What do you think has inspired your ever-changing sound?

I think a huge noticeable habit that WONDERboom has is variety. I think that if we stuck to one particular genre, we’d get bored quickly. Because we, as individuals, are quite different to each other, the diversity is inevitable. It might seem schizophrenic from the outside, but it’s true to who we are. It has served us in the bigger picture because the songs have never dated for us. Growing up from careless post-teens to matured adults, has led us through quite a path of musical creation and consumption.

I read an interview in which you stated that with the previous album, Automatic Shuffle, the band wasn’t agreeing creatively and the album wasn’t successful. Why was the band at creative odds and what led to the rediscovery of your creative musical chemistry?

When we wrote and recorded The Automatic Shuffle, the process was very rushed. Because we were still writing songs, had a producer and limited time in studio. I still love so many moments on that album but we could have spent more time on it. I was frustrated with the result because I could feel that some of the songs weren’t developed to their full potential. Our fault completely, because we should’ve workshopped and done some pre-production with the songs long before we approached the producer. The lack of success, though, had something more to do with marketing and the fact that the previous label never released it digitally; when everyone else had.

You, Martin and Wade are the founding members of the band and have been writing and performing songs together for 23 years. How do you feel you have grown as musicians over the years and how has your approach to writing and performing evolved?

We’ve had chemistry from day one, but there’s something to be said about a long, nurtured musical relationship. It’s undeniable. When Martin and I create together, we go through all kinds of motions. Patience, brutal honesty, rejection, epiphanies, frustration. It’s actually been about 25 years that we’ve been writing and performing together. It’s crazy but after all these years we still have moments where we say, “I want to make music that I want to listen to”. So, I think that although the formats of writing – such as pen-to-paper-with-guitar-in-hand to audio-software-with-midi-controller-at-hand – has changed, our approach and outcome is the same. It’s about the song and how we perform it live, to a dance floor of fans. We have, however, become more adventurous in production and experimented with production lately. But not so much that the song has taken less priority.

WONDERboom’s biggest strength is said to be the live performance! Did you guys naturally ease in to being a live band from the beginning or was your live show something you developed over the years?

In the beginning, we were outrageous and over-the-top with our dress-sense and stage antics. THAT was our focus. To stand out. Don’t think it was always (or ever) pretty, but it definitely worked to a point. As we became more comfortable with who we were, individually, and trusted our collective performance, it definitely got better. Also, as our original repertoire became more defined, the music would just make us move. I don’t think any of us know how to shoe-gaze. It’s always been about movement – no matter how dorky or sexy it came across. So now, it’s just second nature to us. Nothing rehearsed or choreographed.

WONDERboom has been a band for 22 years and is one of South Africa’s longest-running and most legendary rock bands! As a witness to a changing music industry over the years, what are some of the more significant changes you’ve had to endure as a band over the years and have you faced any particular challenges in adapting? Are there any modern tools, apps or platforms that you’ve come to embrace that weren’t around when you started out? How have you blended the old way of doing things with the new?

When we kicked off as WONDERboom, the rave scene had just erupted and captured our very limited South African audience. Luckily, we’ve had a core following that has grown and endured the trends. Obviously radio has played a big role in all of this and when Rock isn’t the flavour, then we feel it. But that’s where performing live keeps you relevant and connected. And that’s something DJs and Dance producers cannot pull off better than live bands. Social media has been a Godsend but, if you’re not careful, it can also be a curse. Keeping that connection with fans and keeping productive with visual content helps. On the recording side, it’s been great not having to rely on outsourced recording studios or analogue tape. Being able to create and capture inspiration as it happens has been a real blessing.

A few years back you guys did a project called The Santana Sessions in which you re-recorded several of your classic tracks and filmed videos for your 20th Anniversary as a band. How did the idea for the project come about and how was the reception by your fans?

We felt that there was a big gap between our original recordings and where we were at now – especially live. A lot of our big songs had no visual representation online. So, for us, it was about taking a snapshot of us live, now, in a controlled environment, doing what we do best. The Santana Sessions was probably the best return for investment we’ve ever done because we didn’t have to spend a ridiculous amount of money, creating individual music videos, with different concepts, locations, crew, actors, etc. Just us performing our songs, live, quite a few times, in a cool location. There a second series coming out soon. Look out for them.

Whereas some bands have shunned “Battle Of The Bands” events, you guys have embraced them as a band. What is the appeal for you of those competitions? You won first place at the Silk Road Indie Music Festival in China last year! What was that experience like, gaining a whole new fan base and tapping into an emerging artistic/cultural market, and what led you to take part in the competition?

Back in 2004, when we took part in the Global Battle of the Bands, we were in a different space. Something about winning the South African leg and coming second worldwide that gave us a shot in the arm – that we have something to contribute to this rock n roll industry. This competition in Chengdu, China last year was something else. At first, we were put forward to take part in this multi-national music festival to represent South African Rock. Then, the next thing we knew, it had become a competition. Having said that, we know that we’ve got live performance on our side, and that we have nothing to lose – in a country that we have always wanted to experience as a band. It was a surreal experience and winning Gold was one of our most treasured moments ever. It’s awesome that we can still have such wonderful experiences at this stage of our lives.

How did the band come to be involved with Youth Day, which will occur in June and raise money for Deaf Children, and what can you tell me about the event? Do you guys involve yourselves with charitable events often?

Youth Day (June 16th) is an historical South African public holiday and day of commemoration of the youth that were ambushed by the apartheid regime during a protest back in 1976. That spurred the “Soweto Riots”. We honour the day by getting involved in events that focus on youth welfare. Hear Yee is a fundraising and awareness building event for an NGO that treats and supplies deaf children with hearing aids. Cannot imagine living without hearing music, so this cause is quite important for us. There is plenty need in South Africa for so many causes. Poverty, disease, education, orphancy, unemployment, animal welfare, to name a few. We get involved in quite a few fundraisers throughout the year. On the 18th of July, Nelson Mandela’s birthday, individuals throughout SA are encouraged to volunteer 67 minutes of their time towards a cause of their choice. We’ll be performing at a fundraiser for Great Dane Rescue South Africa. It’s also my birthday!

What’s next for the band?

We’re about to release a new single called Praying Mantis with a video. Releasing the next set of Santana Sessions in about a month’s time. Also doing a nationwide, story-telling, unplugged tour, celebrating our history, called The Best Side Story Tour, from the end of August through to October. Performing at a few festivals in South Africa in between. We have a new album to promote, so gigging all the way.

 

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