In the days before the COVID19 crisis hit South Africa, pre social distancing even, I met up with The World of Birds who were at the legendary Milestone Studios putting in the work on their upcoming EP. The World of Birds have been on a pretty fast ascent up the South African charts and have started dipping their toes into international waters, and with the recent addition of Ash (Red Robyn) which seems to be the final puzzle piece I wanted to catch up with my long-time friends and see where The World of Birds are flying to next.
The band were in high spirits as the tracking of a new song was going well and sounding good, and we spoke at length about the band, the industry at present, and the usual off the record nonsense like recycling and The Black Eyed Peas. Ash, Ben, Conor and Nic always provide great insight to any conversation though the high spirits of the day definitely added some extra energy to our chat and we covered some very thought-provoking topics as well as the standard band interview questions – hopefully you find it as interesting and insightful as I did.
** Naturally since this interview was conducted some things may have changed since the beginning of social distancing and then the nationwide lockdown in South Africa.
Zach: The World of Birds has been through many line-up changes in the past, so maybe to start with when did the band as it exists now ‘begin?’
Ben: We initially worked with Ash on “2020” and so she joined us on our tour to promote that single, and in the downtime from rehearsals Ash and I wrote “First Love” and we all just got on really well. She balanced things out in the group so it made sense that she should join the project. When she came down again (to Cape Town) and wrote new music and showed the guys they lost their shit, so Nic proposed to her to join the band and we haven’t looked back since.
Conor: So, the simplified timeline is “we’re on tour with Beatenberg, Ben writes this beat, Ben and Ash meet properly for the first time…”
How did you guys meet?
Nic: We actually met at Raptor Room
Ash: It was actually the year before, we have a mutual friend and you guys had a show at Raptor Room that I ended up opening up for. They didn’t really care about me then, they probably didn’t even see my set!
C: But so then Ben sends Ash this beat he was working on
A: and the rest is history
Where is the band going now?
N: The band started with our first two releases which were our first two singles (Open Up and Having You) which we grouped as “Double Happiness” which we released on vinyl as well [through Dirty Disco Records] and that was a two sided release, then we carried on writing singles because that’s the way the world is going. So we release several more singles in 2019 and early 2020 and we’ve grouped them into one “mixtape album” or whatever you want to call it with the same name “Double Happiness.” Now it’s done and you can listen to it on our Spotify or whatever streaming and it basically explains what The World of Birds is, it highlights our exploration into sound and who we are and it taught us a big lesson in terms of our different tastes, not being genre specific. I think it has helped us find our sound which still isn’t genre specific but it’s more coherent, and so we’re building that sound into an EP which we plan to release in May. The EP will give us our first collection of songs which gives an understanding of who we are as a band. We’ve actually written too many songs, so there’s basically two EPs, but the first will be the breakthrough into our new sound that we’ve created.
…and with regards to shows, you’ve played a lot of the bigger festivals here and toured Europe once, so are there more international ambitions?
N: We’ve recently signed with ‘Platoon’ which is a label based here and in the UK, and globally actually. So the plan is to head to the UK this year, we’re going to go over and hopefully play a few shows and check out the studio
C: it’s actually Mark Ronson’s old studio which is pretty cool
N: Exactly. We also have some EU dates, there’s a nice fan base to tap into there but we also want to one day do Japan and Australia. Some of our records made it to Australia so there’s definitely a fan base to look into there.
Touching back on being ‘not genre specific’ how have your diverse backgrounds in music helped shaped the genre spanning sound?
N: Conor and I are the older half of the band, so we come with a more nostalgic outlook, whereas Ash and Ben bring a futurist idea and sound, so you can hear the influences across the board. Conor and myself both like older indie music, but for instance Conor listens to The Smiths whereas I like stuff from across the pond in America so I’d rather listen to The Pixies. The same thing sort of happens with Ash and Ben on the modern artist spectrum like Kali Uchis and Tame Impala. Ash comes from an RnB/Soul side and Ben brings the hip-hop through house. At the end of the day the band is well represented by ‘Now 32’ all the way to ‘Now 2020.’
C: I think I used to listen to only a specific style of music, but Ben has brought me a bit more up to date, and I’ve probably taken him back a bit, just because now he doesn’t only listen to electronic stuff, he listens to more band stuff and thinks more about production value in a song.
A: I think from my end I’ve added all the soul, and RnB, and like femininity. You know like softness and warmth. I listen to Tamiya, Aretha Franklin and the older Beyonce stuff. Those are my flavours which aren’t always as prominent in the finished products but they influence how I listen to and add to music.
N: And also everyone’s general appreciation for pop music.
A lot of bands in South Africa try to avoid being pop, do you think being pro-pop has allowed a faster growth than what other bands maybe have had?
C: It’s obviously a dangerous field to play in because you want to take pop seriously so that you can be successful. Obviously we all love music so we don’t want to be seen as having a perceived lack of artistic integrity.
N: We’re also realistic about where we’re from, it’s not rocket science to tell you that a band who chooses a niche market to play in is going to eventually become stagnant in that niche market. Already not enough people in the greater market even come to shows, so why would you want to limit yourself and play away from that? Unfortunately there isn’t enough support to be niche. We understand that you can do something that doesn’t define you for the rest of your life, so we get to test a whole bunch of sounds and now we know who we are and what we want to do and that will all come together in the EP.
C: It’s an interesting thought, being ‘too pop’ but realistically you can’t be that indie bad from nowhere.
…there’s maybe a taboo on being pop?
N: think about all of your biggest favourite bands…
B: They were pop of their time
N: Exactly, you wouldn’t say The Killers weren’t pop. The Smiths were pop
B: People get confused with pop music and commercial music. Tame Impala is pop but no one thinks its pop, you can disguise pop in a lot of ways
C: I think the era of pop music has shifted
N: Pop has come to mean catchy melodies and things
Are you pop?
N: We don’t want to take pop too seriously, we aren’t really genre specific anymore. I think we refer to ourselves as pop because it’s kind of all encompassing. Post Malone could be anything you know? At the end of the day it’s the playlists that people tune into, they tap into a genre because that’s what they like and listen to. It’s very damaging to the whole way people listen to music and grow minds.
C: Even pitching to our distributor, they’ll say be indie because people that listen to pop music won’t like it because it’s too indie, but then if we do that people who listen to indie music won’t like it because it’s ‘too pop.’
N: I think we’re more track specific than a genre band. We make genre tracks.
B: You don’t want to box yourself into a genre because if someone drops music that inspires you, you want to be able to use those influences. You don’t want to base your project off a single genre and then a year down the line the fans you have don’t think “what the fuck are they doing?” because your influences and style has changed. That’s why we focus on singles, instead of being ‘pop’ or ‘indie.’
Do you think the aesthetic image you put out has helped people see you as The World of Birds, and not ‘The World of Birds who are a pop band’?
C: That’s weird because I think of The World of Birds as Ben, Ash, Nic and I, and not like I think of the Arctic Monkey’s who have the slicked back hair and it’s a weird thing because you don’t really see it from the outside. It’s not exactly curated, we all just have what we have.
N: Does it look coherent?
Z: Ya it sort of does
C: It’s not something we’ve ever discussed.
A: You know what they say… birds of a feather flock together.
Is there a more heavily weighted focus to either live shows or on radio/streaming? Not to say there isn’t a focus on both.
N: There definitely is a focus on both, but the one is for passion with live performing because we all want to see a good live performance, but the most important thing for any artist today is to get the streaming numbers up. The live shows stem from that. No matter what show we play we’re going to put the same into it, but the bigger it is will only be because of the bigger streaming numbers.
C: Basically the music is the advertising to get people to buy into the band, and the essence of the band is what sells.
N: Music is in your name forever and we are all growing grapes on a very beautiful sounding vine.
And on the live music scene, how does it compare playing in a band that has a bit of a name vs maybe playing in a project that is relatively unknown?
N: It’s funny these days, even people with a name can’t really get attendance.
B: I mean we are really grateful that we get pretty good attendance most of the time, I don’t know why? Maybe it’s our stage energy
N: We also don’t over-exhaust ourselves, we play festivals where there is already an audience and when we play a show it’s usually been a while since someone saw us, coupled with good content dropping. Our content is very good, which is a bit of a shameless self-plug, but it’s also the tip of the iceberg in terms of content we want to do. In general shows are under attended because you really have to create a crazy experience to really draw people in.
How difficult is it in the context of the South African music industry to make a financially viable band?
N: Ya it’s terrible, the industry is really not good, it’s just about living in JHB and Cape Town is another issue. We have been more fortunate than other bands because we didn’t go down that niche route, but it’s incredibly difficult. We are looking to migrate one day just so there’s a future, there just isn’t enough support currently. It comes down to audience, you can blame the lack of venues and festivals and stuff, but honestly the DJ killed live music. It costs less to host a DJ than a band, so bookers and festivals book them, and there’s no, like, talent differentiation. A good DJ is a good DJ. But not enough people support live music, that’s why all the venues close down. It’s different in Europe and other parts of the world. Here the local audiences aren’t interested in each other’s music
C: Also the way the first world looks at art and music compared to here, governments can afford to put money into it, and the people are into it
N: South Africa has a lot of problems to deal with so we aren’t one of the countries that can afford to do that kind of thing, so that’s an issue. But if there’s one that you can do is just to go and support a live show. It’s not impossible for live shows to sell out, look at Tom Misch
C: Or even Alice (Phoebe Lou) who can pack out big venues because of her skill.
Z: is there a lack of support among local musicians not going to each other’s’ shows?
B: Cape Town is cliquey and niche, we’re pretty split and segregated in the scene. It’s not really a music scene, it’s more like there are a lot of little scenes that make a broken industry.
With regards to the Birds and the solo abilities of everyone, has there ever been consideration of a tour or show and having everyone play also in their own capacities/projects?
N: We want to do our own music festival of sorts soon to raise money for touring and maybe we will play everyone but we won’t do that on tour. One show a night is exhausting enough. Also the solo projects help fuel the Birds.
A: I think it contributes to the success of the band, it shows we are all strong individuals and we are sure who we are musically, and that helps avoid unnecessary artistic debates.
What is the creative process, roughly?
B: Generally it starts with a beat and finding something we all dig, then Conor and I will sit on it for a bit and when Nic and Ash bite the magic happens.
A: Nic writes a bible.
B: Yeah, so tey’ll write lyrics and then go record, we’re usually at Milestone these days.
C: Then it’s all about ironing out the kinks.
B: We usually sit on a track for months before we release it.
Considering you all basically live together, does the band ever stop and ‘hanging out’ take over?
N: Not really because the band never stops in our heads, and we’re on Whatsapp 24/7 anyway.
C: I think I talk to them more than my girlfriend. I guess whenever we get together it mixes personal and music, even Ben and I. We’re brothers but we’ll still get together over dinner and be like “oh yeah that new track is cool.”
N: On tour we don’t really talk about Birds stuff
C: We’re better friends on tour than when we aren’t
A: It’s because we’re doing what we love and we feel connected to each other.
N: The dream is that everything we do is to be on tour, tour is amazing.
What is it like being brothers in a band?
C: I really like it
B: It’s like being in a band with your best friend, we get to talk about ideas, it makes the dream feel more real.
C: It’s hard to translate excitement about the band to someone who isn’t in it, but with Ben in the band and having a family member it lets you get excited.
Coming down from Durban, Ash, how has it been?
A: It’s been easier than I thought it would be, they’ve helped me a lot. I came for Birds, so they’ve given me a home… a nest. A nest that I love, but it has been challenging, it’s my first time living away from home, but I have Nic to hold my hand. We live together so we can freak out together.
Nic having come from a successful band before, has that helped you guide or understand how the Birds should grow?
N: Yes. The first band was like being in music school and I got straight A’s, and now I’m doing my masters, and masters is hard.