With its incredibly diverse cultural and musical history, it isn’t surprising that 21st century South Africa is able to produce such cross-over talents as John Wizards. Their shangaan electro-inspired music is hard to pin down in a few words, but it’s definitely a sound you’ve never quite experienced before. The band’s frontman, John, answers our questions about the unique genre of his compositions, how Cape Town helps craft his music, and the infinite, abstract world between music and animation.
Hi, John. First of all, could you please introduce yourself along with the band, and tell me a bit about what's going on for you musically at the moment?
Hi, my name's John Withers, I'm 27 years old, I live in Cape Town, and I'm a musician. The other members of the band are Alex, Tom, Rafi, and Geoff. At the moment, I'm piecing together what should become the second John Wizards album.
What can you tell me about the John Wizards project? Where and how did it all start? Is it your full-time job?
It was a gradual thing, starting with music that I was making as a teenager and culminating in the first album. The process has been pretty much the same through all this time –a pretty solitary one in my bedroom–, but it's been really great to be able to involve other people in it, and have the songs performed. It takes up most of my attention, but I've found good distractions in things like making music for theatre and doing remixes for other musicians. I enjoy having my focus a little dispersed.
One of the main characteristics that immediately drew me to your music is the blend of genres it seems to play around with: r&b, house, reggae, afropop, electro... i've even seen it described as “South African house”. Was there always an idea to create an almost unique genre out of all the above mentioned?
I wasn't very subtle about the influence that these styles had on what I was making, and I referenced them a lot. There was never an impulse to create something unique though, and I'm not sure if that’s something that I did.
Now that your band has had the time to mature a bit, is there a particular DNA to your music that you could describe to us?
I still feel as though this is in its infant stages, and I'm hoping that it develops all the time. If it doesn't, I'll lose interest. Perhaps one element that's not changing is my impatience, and my stubborn refusal to fully develop songs. My preference is still to let them wander, change, and hopefully become unrecognizable by the end.
How far is the spirit of Cape Town present in your music? Do you see a narrative between John Wizards and your hometown?
Sure, I feel as though there's a strong connection between personality and the music that's created, and that there's a similarly strong connection between the place where one grows up and the forming of personality.
I guess that, around the time that I began making the music that would end up on the first album, I also began to become fascinated and inspired by Cape Town and my broader environment. Even though I've lived here my whole life, the sense of there being a spirit to Cape Town changes for me all the time. It's inspiring, and love that it doesn't feel fixed.
What about your live performances? How important are they to you in regard to your work and to music in general?
I always imagine how the music that I'm making at home will translate live. I'm a reluctant performer, but can appreciate that many special musical moments of my life have happened while playing live. So, there's a great motivation to perform the music.
I'd like to discuss your visual work as well. A lot of the videos for your songs are pure animation. Is there a reason you find this technique more fitting than others?
For me, there's a special relationship between animation and music. They both exist (or at least have the ability to exist) in the abstract, and there's so much musical movement that animation can quite easily highlight and reflect. It's wonderful to not have to be too literal, or create too much visual content that surrounds and shapes the understanding of music. Also, working with Sebastian (Borckenhagen) is a perk. He's a good friend, and a great artist.
Finally, do you consider the music of John Wizards to be representative of the contemporary South African music scene? Is there a real separation between folk tradition and more recent musical genres, or is everything intertwined?
I'm not sure what space we occupy in the contemporary South African music scene. People have always been really supportive, but we're probably not a good reflection of what's popular or relevant here. I'd say that there's cross-over between folk traditions and more recent genres. For instance, you can hear echoes of what's come to be known as shangaan electro in the music of people like Samson Mthombeni and the Gazankulu Girls, and other Tsonga musicians from the 1970s.