Originally from Cape Town, Civil Twilight are making it big in the USA with their strident rock anthems. We catch them on the road somewhere between New York and Michigan to talk endless touring, living in a garage, and their hit Letters From The Sky.
How are you doing?
We're doing very well. We're actually driving from New York to Michigan — we're playing a show tonight so we're doing a lot of driving.
America is so huge — if you think about is South Africa's probably the size of Texas, and you've got all these major cities that are very very far apart so there's a lot of ground to cover here and we're doing a lot of radio interviews in the morning trying to get the songs on the radio, then drive seven hours to a town to do a show. I think we worked out the other day that we'd done like 26 000 miles of driving in the last four months.
Did you dream of rock stardom as a child?
Not at all, man. I still can't believe I'm doing this. I was always a bit of a shy kid, always liked to be behind the scenes rather than in front of the camera. So it's odd that this is my professional career. But I'm getting used to it.
Why did you go to the US?
It was a little naive and a bit adventurous — we came to America knowing a couple of people and ended up staying, which is amazing. I look back on it and I don't really know how we survived. It was really hard in the beginning — we arrived in a big city like LA — my mom's actually American so we'd been a couple of times, but we'd never been to LA before. When we arrived, we stayed with a friend who was living there for a few weeks; we didn't have a cellphone, we didn't have a car, we didn't have a laptop, we didn't have anything. We basically lived in a garage for six months with nothing, we had people helping us out but it's ridiculous actually if you think about it.
Why did you keep going?
That's a very very good question. I think we all asked ourselves that. I think South Africans in general are quite stubborn people, don't like to give up. We also had little glimpses of hope along the way that really helped us to push through, and every time that we played — in LA at the time — we got a really good response, they were really blown away by what we were doing so that kept us going. We also had a lot of key people really involved making things happen which was good for morale.
Did it help being with your brother?
I think it did help eventually. I kind of see him more as a good friend than a brother. We've had our ups and downs. I'm older than him but when you live with someone for your entire life and then you move to another country and you continue to live with them your relationship gets pretty solid.
Are there any preconceptions Americans have of you?
That does happen now and again. Sometimes a venue will advertise us as a South African band and a lot of people would expect three or four black guys playing traditional African music — that was one of the preconceived ideas people had but as far as musically or where we're from, people don't really have much of an idea what it's like down there — they ask a lot of questions. But I think with the World Cup happening people have been getting a better idea of what the place is like.
Did you follow it?
We tried to — on radio and watching it on TV. I'd have definitely liked to be there though. All our friends and family raved about it, going to games, I missed quite a party down there.
How have things changed for you?
We live in Nashville Tennessee now which is actually a really nice little town even though most people only know it for the country music scene. It's quite central for touring. We have a record deal with WindUp records, we have a management company, a booking agent, a licensing company who do stuff for us — TV placements, a radio department.
What's the most rock 'n roll thing you've done?
We're actually about to tour with The Offspring... we're pretty mellow guys, we like to drink, we like to have a good time, we don't really get up to much mischief.
There's clearly a lot of hard work involved — getting a record deal doesn't mean you're rich.
Oh my gosh, ja, ja. I think that was our idea too — we've toured with bands like The Bravery who've had a big hit here in America, they've got a record label, but they're still in a bus driving around America, playing clubs to 500 people, and they're still working their asses off doing 300 dates a year. So it's a lot bigger than you think it is. everyone thinks you're going to get this big cheque from the record label, everything will be provided for you, you don't have to worry about; but that's when the work starts, once you've signed a record deal, you've got to go out there and actually make a name for yourself.
You're definitely making a name for yourself with the song Letters From The Sky. How did the song come about?
We went in to make our record by ourselves actually, someone helped us financially to record it. So we started recording it and in the studio we actually started writing that song. It started off as a riff that Steven put together, musically the band put it together and we formed the song, it came together very naturally and very quickly. And the lyrics are kind of a traditional love song — someone longing for their lover or someone far away, so people can see themselves in there.
Are you planning to come back to South Africa?
We were talking about that right now. We were just saying that one thing we have to do is go back for sure. I would love to play there again, so we're trying to make a plan, perhaps December, early January.