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South Africa’s Civil Twilight frontman on touring the States, how rock ‘n’ roll changed his life, and trawling aviation terms

Who were your musical influences?

My brother and I grew up with opera, jazz and blues around the house. Rich grew up with a lot of folk, Simon and Garfunkel. And then we got into British rock, Oasis, Blur, and we went through a punk phase, too – but it didn’t last long.

Did your family’s musicianship help?

If it wasn’t for their encouragement, we’d be miserable drunks, for sure.

What are the pros and cons of being in a band with your brother?

The pluses: I have family on the road all the time, and I share a lot of experiences with him and play music with someone who knows me really well and who I can’t bullshit or fake it with. And the minuses of being in a band with your brother? They’re exactly the same!

Where did the band name come from?

From looking up aviation terms – we needed a name quickly and just ran with Civil Twilight. We’ve had names before, one being Superfine. But that was a long time ago, alright?

You guys moved to LA briefly in 2005 – what were your impressions?

We were utterly overwhelmed. We’d never been to a city of that size. The first thing we did was go to a drive-thru Burger King. I don’t know why! America affected us in ways we are still trying to understand.

Did you ever have second thoughts?

Many times. When we were carless, phoneless, moneyless, living in a garage … But, we always had fun and made good friends with good people. It’s a place of many broken dreams, and a land of scavengers and fakes, kings and visionaries. It blows the mind, really. I still don’t understand how that place works.

After your 2009 self-titled debut, you relocated to Nashville …

Moving from Cape Town to Los Angeles was one kind of shock. But, moving from LA to the south was even greater. We’d never been to that area of the country and it affected our songwriting because we started travelling more and felt more in touch with America.

How did you feel when your songs started getting used in major US TV shows such as One Tree Hill?

The first time was a thrill – we all gathered around the TV and it was surreal when the song came on. But we had bloated expectations about how much exposure one show would get us. The truth is that it’s just another brick in the wall.

Did you approach your follow-up, 2012’s Holy Weather, differently?

It was challenging because of time constraints. We’d been touring for two years straight and had to write in little breaks, so the road had a big influence on it as becoming a touring band for the first time played a big role in the lyrical and musical subjects.

How did touring change your outlook?

We’ve only really toured America, which is huge. It’s spread out, with big towns, little towns, deserts, cornfields and swamps. Touring it is an adventure few people get to see.

It’s as if each town or destination is one frame in a long movie, and when you’re on the road for months, the frames move faster and faster as you experience the sensation of watching a movie being spun out before your eyes.

On top of that, you’re living in a moving bubble – your real life and occupation helps people escape theirs, and it’s addictive and lonely and exhilarating and exhausting.

I never understood why musicians get so heavily into drugs and alcohol and keep going round in circles until they wear themselves so thin that they blow away in the breeze. But I do now. 

How did you find writing from other people’s perspectives on the record?

It’s just a shifting of the mindset to allow yourself freedom to play with ideas and stories in your head. I’m not a serial killer, but I can write a song about being one. Just like acting, you put yourself in a role and find your own voice within it.

Where was your first gig and how did it go?

It was in the Hout Bay Christian School hall, opening for a band called Torn Veil. I was 13, it was two weeks after we’d formed the band and I was so nervous, I wanted to puke before we went on stage.

Which singer influenced you the most?

The first time I heard Jeff Buckley, I was about 17 and a friend put headphones over my ears and played me Grace. We had just recorded our first full-length album by ourselves, and I wanted to start all over again after hearing that record.

Single Fire Escape is out August 20, through Wind-Up Records.

Photos: Leann Mueller

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