Search The Line of Best Fit
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John Wizards: “I have no clue why it works”

John Wizards: “I have no clue why it works”

13 September 2013, 15:45

You can listen to a lot of bands when you sit at a computer these days, can’t you? I don’t know why – when I’ve never actually listened to Cabaret Voltaire and still couldn’t tell you what Bastille sound like – but I decided to listen to John Wizards a few months back. Turns out it was one of the best decisions I’ve made all year; I’ve barely shut up about them since, and nor do I intend to.

With only a chance meeting with a Rwandan vocalist – and a slight twisting of his name – the solo studio dabblings of Cape Town resident John Withers were transformed in to John Wizards, something far more than the sum of its parts, an alter-ego of sorts that displays one of the most wide eyed, catch all approaches to disparate musical genres you’ll witness on any record this year. They’re yet to play a show in the UK, and their excellent self-titled record has been out a matter of days, so when I call John in his studio near the Cape Town mountains, I’m pleased he understands my initial desire to kick things off at a rather larval level.

Coming across as relaxed as his music is eventful, he details his early musical start. “My parents took me to piano lessons. I really wanted to play guitar, by they convinced me not to. I did that till I was about ten or eleven, but I really wasn’t enjoying it. I just wanted to play guitar, and ever since I started, I’ve just been studying, playing and writing”. His bandmate Alex Montgomery, who John tells me is beside him sat in some sort of throne (“he has aspirations”), met John at school. Alex “jumped around a bit more from piano, started playing drums for some reason, taught myself guitar and then bass”, and counts himself as “of quite a mediocre proficiency at a lot of things”.

Be it down to his future bandmate’s lack of musical chops at the time of school or something else entirely (judging by the skill evident in live videos like the one below, it seems like unnecessary humbleness on Alex’s part), John Wizards was not put together as a band in the traditional sense.

“This album was written in conjunction with having been in other bands, but I had this idea that I wanted to make a band for these songs. I was in two bands with Alex before this, but when I started writing the material that became John Wizards, he carried on with his other band. Over the period I was writing, I just gathered some friends together and formed a group. The people in John Wizards are a loose connection of friends. I don’t know if there was any moment where we all thought we were on the same page. It was really gradual.”

Things came together a little more upon meeting singer Emmanuel Nzaramba, though again, the process was far from straightforward –as seems to be the general order of things with John Wizards.

“I was working at a studio and Emmanuel was working at the copy shop opposite. He saw me with my guitar one day, we started talking about music, and he told me how he’d come from Rwanda to South Africa to become a musician. He came over to the studio and recorded some of his own songs, and then disappeared for a bit, which he does once in a while. I ran in to him about two years later, when it turned out we were living on the same street. I literally ran in to him as I was making my way back home. I just took him back up to my place, played him some music that I’d been making, he said he was interested and put down some vocals. As far as now, it’s just myself and Emmanuel collaborating on the writing. Alex and the rest of the guys (Geoff Brink, Tom Parker and Raphael Segerman) form the live part of John Wizards.”

Though Montgomery didn’t play on the record, he says he was indirectly involved in the band’s curious choice of title. “A girl I was with would always describe someone who was highly proficient as a wizard, a sportsman or writer or anything. One day, she just called John a wizard, and it stuck. John is claiming no responsibility for it.” As for what one of these John Wizards live shows is like, we in the UK will have to wait till an October tour opening for Jagwar Ma to find out, but from Montgomery’s description, they sound… complicated.

“The few live performances we’ve had – we’ve maybe played eight shows in Cape Town – we’ve wanted to present music in a way where we don’t worry too much about mechanical things. We have a lot of gear! We do want to get to the stage where we’re ‘performing’ the songs a bit more, but up till now most of our gigs have involved a lot of concentration. We get in to it when we can, but we’re concentrating very hard.”

When asked to describe the kind of music he drew on for inspiration in the two years he took writing their debut record, Wizards – Withers, sorry – names a whole pile, ranging from “jazz, traditional South African music, house and bhangra”. Though the records is a remarkably coherent, front-to-back listen (“I have no clue why it works”, says John), on paper it certainly reads as if it’s all over the place – perhaps a result of his being able to find something to muse on sonically in seemingly any place he visits. Geographical surroundings, he says, “definitely form a part of it. I draw a lot of inspiration from having been to places, or having heard music in different places, even if it’s not necessarily music that’s come from that place. Sometimes it’s just music that I heard when I was there.” However, he doesn’t often find himself writing about specific locations, or events that took place therein. “It’s more general. It’s only after the song has been written that it might show something that reminds me about a place, or a feeling I had when I was there. There are no lyrical themes.”

Theirs is not however a sound that’s particularly indicative of Cape Town (“there are a lot of blues bands – I don’t get it”, says Montgomery). According to Withers, “In Cape Town – and we’re talking very specifically about white Cape Town here – music can be a very insular thing. Most bands work very closely in one genre. There’s a tradition amongst English-speaking South Africans of having their culture imported rather than assimilating in to it, or to get involved in other cultures and traditions.”

With this prevalent tendency not to branch out in to other styles of music – something at the core of what makes John Wizards great – I ask whether having an ethnic mix in the band is also unusual in their hometown. Whilst acknowledging the issue, Montgomery is understandably reluctant to make too much of it. “It is, but we’re not exactly spokespeople for racial segregation in South Africa. It’s not that mixed – one of us is black. We were lucky to find Emmanuel; it was such as coincidence, but a lot of people have talked about how he sets us apart, and seems to make people treat it a bit more seriously.”

Though Withers’ day job is writing music for commercials (he says he “can’t imagine trying to make an ad that sounds like John Wizards, though – that seems quite far fetched”), there’s nothing at all frivolous about his work with his band. Regardless of who’s in the group or where they’re talking their inspiration from, there’s no doubting there’s some serious effort gone in to making something this seriously fun. Finding out precisely what form it takes in a live setting is perhaps the only reason I’m wishing for summer to finally fizzle out and allow October to get its groove on – I’ve a feeling John Wizards will supply a faultless soundtrack.

John Wizards’ self titled debut album is out now on Planet Mu. Photo by Nico Krinjo.

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