The Pranks

Get to know the mischief-makers featured in our latest campaign

Words: Roger Young | Photography: Russell Kleyn

Purity is that most deceptive of style icons – perhaps too deceptive. She doesn't pop up much on the style watcher’s radar, even though she’s a true original in all her vintage psychedelic-slash-punk slash-early-No-Doubt-era-Stefani-slash-the-car-boot-markets-of-Durban-slash-Purity, Purity, yes her real name; Purity Mkhize. She of the green or golden or blue or braided or shaven or peroxided, she of the dungarees and the shape throwing, stage diving, ululating, not giving an eff (this is a family magazine), as her lyrics scatter across the stage in a flurry of howls and scats and deep growling existential, but also let’s just get down and rock, while James Cross, rips and leaps through the country tinted ska punk bouncing off his bass and holding it all together through whatever genres or styles they’ve mixed together today. So long as it rips and snorts and breaks, as long as it can be spat out by the four-piece that is The Pranks: that is Purity on vocals, Cross on bass, Mitch Davies on drums and Garren Munro on guitar – a good, solid band, a no-frills kinda deal.

Purity’s wayward and way forward approach to her clothing, the mix and tussle of any given outfit, may not get her onto best-dressed lists, but it’s important to note her particular sense of style. Perhaps compare and contrast it with that of two other strong, forward-thinking, boundary-pushing women on the scene right now – Toya Delazy and Moonchild – relevant because circa 2009 Delazy was occasionally, and very briefly, a part of Purity’s former band, Fruits & Veggies. Moonchild was often found supporting them in the punk clubs across Durban. The three powerful forces pushing through now, musically, ideologically and all with a strong sense of fashion forwardness, emerge from a little moment in Durban’s scene, just pre the World Cup.

And now we must get the uncomfortable out of the way. The Pranks have risen from the ashes of another band, Fruit & Veg, or Fruits and Veggies. No matter the appellation, Fruit & Veg are no more. The hard-rocking, perpetually touring and trashing of backstage areas, had some pretty decent ska punk songs that cut a swath across the festival scene for shy of a decade, but alas are no more, and two of the former members, Purity and James, have metamorphosed into The Pranks. And for all the reasons that they may give in our interview, the principal reason is simply that Purity and James have finally made a commitment to this music thing as more than a weekends jol, and have crossed over into the world where this is what they now do for a living. And they take this shit damn seriously. You get that? Some of the members of Fruits and Veggies were not prepared to make that commitment, and so The Pranks emerge from the shell of the hard-rocking catastrophe, and try their hardest to keep it together.

James is reedy tall, and has a disarming dork’s smile that belies a man obsessed with mastering the art of song writing; this is not just someone who wants to write nice songs but a kid who wants to MASTER AN ART. His floppy tall chillness is the polar opposite of Purity's tightly wound, barely contained rage, or joy, or rage, or joy, or, Jesus, she’s a spinning top, except she’s not. When Pure is wound she’s set to go, but when she’s not, she just a typical Durban stoner.

So, I ask James, while he lounges around in a casting queue trying to pick up some extra work, fresh from a mini-tour of Reunion Island, now that you’re taking this make-music-for-a-living thing seriously, what do you think of this whole SABC 90% quota situation?

“Look,” says Cross, “There are a lot of good SA bands out there that are writing and producing much better stuff than what we actually hear on the radio. Now that there's this new rule, it's going to give this same opportunity to a lot more bands, and there are a lot of bands in this country that deserve the airtime more than the ones we’re used to hearing.”

Apart from all the other worthy bands, he’s mostly referring to The Pranks of course – a band whose sound, Purity says, is a result of the members' influences being a cocktail of wide-ranging genres and musicians and styles, the old and the new, “driven by the need to create something truly powerful and unique.” When I try to draw them on their biggest influences, the words, “The Smiths,” escape Garren, but only barely. Mitch considers his options and goes for, “Alcohol and xxxxx yeah? Alcohol and xxxxx. Those are mine.”

Right now the white boy rock scene in Cape Town is dominated by a lot of black-felt-hat-wearing long hairs, riffing off prog rock and Zeppelin, being cosmic and complex. The Pranks bust through all of that – their riffs being more direct and likely to knock you over than to inspire yoga. Says Cross, “Ja, we find ourselves playing with psych rock bands quite often because there's so many of them in Cape Town. And you know, as much as I love me a bit of psych rock every now and then…” And that’s all James will say: remember, Fruits & Veg are dead, no reason to get the psych rockers cutting you from the bill.

While songwriting duties seem to be split evenly between Cross and Mhkize, Garren and Mitch both lean towards taking their cues from Cross, with Garren explaining that “James is the catalyst, he comes with the bass lines and we go from there.” Cross continues, “Pure will write the lyrics and the entire band will then put the song together and tweak the song until we are all 100% happy with it.” Purity agrees, “Core writers are myself and James. But everyone has a part to play and that freedom is important.”

When it comes to picking favourites, Mitch and Garren side with Pure, Dark, or as Mitch expands, “'Dark Rof Stof', as it has somehow evolved, is our most powerful song definitely.” “It's got a weird post-punk vibe,” picks up Garren “It kinda started with James' badass bass riff, and it's got loads of energy and it’s super fun to play.” Purity agrees for a whole set of different reasons, “It's a bit nostalgic for me because it has some in-your-face punk elements that remind me of the Fruits & Veggies days.” She pauses here and it’s hard to tell if she’s mocking herself with a bit of faux sentimentality, or if she’s being real, when she says, “They were the best years of my musical career.” She snaps out of it. “The song came about when I was in a physical dispute with my boyfriend at the time and was losing myself completely. The song describes in subtexts the emotions that were boiled up in my head and the exit strategy that finally gave me the courage to get the f*** outta there.”

Cross’s pick of their current setlist is 'Dirty Little Heart', a song that he explains came from him and Purity, “getting fed up with feeling guilty for wanting to hook up with people who are already in relationships. So we decided to write a song about it. Something I'm sure quite a lot of Cape Town folk can relate to.”

For Purity, though, playing live is what it's all about. “The stage,” she says, “is for me a fierce outlet for everything that needs to be confronted.” And what’s Cross’s feeling about touring and gigging? “The worst part of it is that Purity gets all the groupies.” When I mention to him that it might be because of her remarkable personal style, he says, “yeah, it’s good to be fashion conscious, and if you've chosen a good outfit, stick with it. There's nothing wrong wearing the same clothes two days in a row.”

Now that they’re getting more serious, with The Pranks leaving the flop lifestyle of Fruits & Veggies behind, is it possible to become serious musicians, to make a living from this, without losing that edge that comes with not caring whether you make a living or not? “As long as I’m playing good music and making a living off it then I’m keen. And should I die tomorrow I just want people to remember that I wrote some pretty fun songs.”