Bag of Bones

After a successful European tour and upcoming EP, Felix Laband is back

Words: Dylan Muhlenberg | Photographs and Video: Andrew Aitchison

“Yeah, it's my real name,” Felix Laband says, taking his driver's license out of his wallet and sliding it across the table. “My father’s father was from Berlin and came out here in 1933, before the war.”

Felix is still blissed out from his three-week Bag of Bones tour, which included stops all over Europe playing the Ortigia Sound System Festival, Mukanda Cultural Festival, Nachtdigital Festival and Garbicz Festival. Having always been a vociferous reader of non-fiction – an inheritance from his history professor father – made this a cultural treat for the ever-curious cat named Felix.

“The trip was also inspiring in the sense that it gave me an idea of just how much my music has spread. It’s quite exciting to know that there’s a much bigger horizon than the one I’ve set my sights on here, and that things can work out really well if I want them to. I really want to start pushing beyond the ceiling I’ve set for myself here.”

Dressed in a vest that shows off his motley collection of tattoos, brown pants with a split crotch, a mix of silver and beaded jewellery and a leather trainmasters hat worn to the side, Felix Laband has a weathered look and comes across as older than his actual 38 years.

“Haha, yeah I dig it, kind of a beauty and the beast type thing,” says Felix, commenting on his relationship with ex-model, Kerry Chaloner, who he took on tour with him and plays a bigger role than simply being a +1. An accomplished artist in her own right, Kerry’s now driving much of the new visual aesthetic that accompanies Felix’s music, although not always to everyone’s taste.

“These are exciting times here in South Africa, and I hope the idea of doing interesting things doesn’t stop, because it sometimes seems like everyone here is this test tube baby, good looking and perfect and tanned. It’s weird. I feel sorry for kids these days. These festivals really freaked me out, the amount of flesh and how everyone was so perfect and good looking. When I was younger there were maybe a couple of good looking people and you could still get girls even if you looked like me. It’s just kind of sad that looks are what people aspire to now.”

But then Felix will never have to rely on his looks to get the girl, and by making the type of electronic music that’s not just for dancing to, when you’re able to evoke so much emotion with your music, then there’s no need to have a six pack or to throw a cake at a crowd in order to illicit a response.

Felix Laband’s music hits you in the soul, it makes you think, and it also has a way of making you remember. It’s powerful and is the type of sound that only someone who has truly lived could ever hope to make. And now Felix wants to do even more with his music, and as he grows more confident in himself and his abilities, he's using his sound to push new ideas, many of which are political. But before we get to where he’s going we need to know where he’s from…

This Pietermaritzburg punk grew up so obsessed with the band KISS that he’d paint his face and lipsync to their tracks while holding a homemade cardboard guitar. By age 11 he was playing the electric guitar and shouting from the garage with his punk band, Incurable. Later, influenced by all the industrial music he was listening to, Felix started a band called Fingerhead, which had him hopping into the back of a bakkie with the rest of his teenaged bandmates and making the drive to Durban’s Point Road where they’d play clubs like Rift and The Station.

“Maritzburg was a beautiful place, a little sleepy hollow nestled in the mountains. I was always into music, and there was this really amazing band scene with about fifteen active bands and this mod rocker, Jan Walters, who put out a zine once a month and brought in a lot of the music. So from a young age we were exposed to a lot of things. Because we were pretty good, our band, we had a lot of older friends in the music scene, and it was wild, hanging out in bars and stuff, being left to our own devices, getting up to all sorts of things.  Hence all my shit...”

Having always been a proficient artist, it coming much more naturally to him than music, Felix studied for an art degree after school and then dropped out to work at an animation studio, which is where he first learned how to make music on a PC.

“It was liberating being able to do stuff on a computer because coming from bands, if you’re strong headed, then you’re always telling people what to play and that’s quite shitty. Inevitably someone takes the lead role and that was often me because I have quite strong ideas. The PC gave me the ability to do my own thing without having to rely on anyone else.”

Felix then left Durban for Joburg where he rented a house and made sounds for TV ads, but after realizing that Cape Town had the most exciting music scene, moved again and became pivotal in pushing a fresh new sound with the African Dope crew and his genre-defining album Thin Shoes In June.

“Suddenly I’d gone from getting ten or fifteen grand per ad to working on ads for a hundred grand, and because I was a kid with all this money and not much to do, it was the beginning of all my shit... I never actually wanted to be a DJ. I found that quite difficult, having to perform my own music, and it just felt kind of shitty, and I dealt with that by getting slammed all the time.”

Despite his insecurities, 2002’s 4/4 Down The Stairs became an instant indie-darling and perhaps to make up for what he described as, “standing on stage pushing play and dancing to my music,” Felix compensated elsewhere. He took great care in controlling every aspect of its production, from the fold-out album art to the strip club launch, neither of which can distract from the fact that musically this was an exquisitely crafted album that not only cemented his status locally but got his name overseas.

Album number three, Dark Days Exit, and the first of a five album deal with Compost Records, had strings attached in the form of the puppet company he used to launch the album and the classical instrumentation he used on it. This hauntingly beautiful album would serve as a soundtrack to a decade filled with rumours and nothing other than a ‘Whistling in Tongues’ 12” and some DJ sets in Braamfontein where Felix performed as his alter-ego, Snakehips.

Last year the prodigal son returned with Deaf Safari, an album Felix considers the most difficult he’s ever made, and from the samples used to the album art to the visuals served up at the album – easy listening it isn’t. There’s an undeniable narrative here that, while still a Felix Laband album, speaks much more of his experience in the country he calls home, and is the direction the artist sees himself going: less Kid Loco, more Anton Kannemeyer.

“It was very much a conscious decision for Deaf Safari to be a lot more political. That’s why the album took so long. Just making chilled out beats started to feel a bit irrelevant to me. I got tired of it. I read a lot and I’m into a lot of stuff and I was sampling lots of different stuff, not just music things, things from TV and wherever, and I realized the power of using that, and that’s when the album started coming together.”

Sometimes a track is instantaneous where Felix will hear something on TV, record it and have a finished track the next day. Most of the time these sound bites get filed away in folders on his computer. During that doldrum decade, Felix says that he made in the region of just under a hundred tracks, nine of which were used on Deaf Safari, and the plan is to work the remainder and publish them as The Tikno Sessions, a four-part series in which Felix says a heartfelt goodbye to the beat.

“I’m not trying to make like a big statement or anything; I just want people to know that I’m moving on to some other stuff now. Most of my career has been about the beat, and now I want to go much more ambient, where I’m working in almost classical spaces. I also want to do some band stuff that’s more punky than, you know, funky, and I’m looking forward to singing again. That’s another place where I’m starting to feel a little bit more confident.”

But first there’s the 12” EP Bag of Bones, featuring four new tracks and a remix of ‘Righteous Red Berets’ by Wagon Christ’s Luke Vibert, which is the same track used in this feature's accompanying video.

“The cover is a new collage I’ve done with these giraffes and then on the record there’s Zuma with his hands up, spinning around like that… It’s going to be great.”

Like with Deaf Safari, Felix wants to show us where it’s all coming from, to divulge his source material, and what some people are finding is that this makes them feel uncomfortable, because this is electronic music, after all, and we want to dance, not think...

“Just because I grew up in the suburbs, or whatever, doesn’t mean I don’t have a place in this country,” says Felix, who goes on to say that he wants to offer alternative narratives to the overly-PC and sanitized safe-speak that we’re being forced to abide. “I have a voice.”

An artist shouldn’t kowtow to the status quo. Part of the job description is to challenge us, otherwise it’s simply wallpaper, and if that sometimes makes us feel uncomfortable then it’s still much better than the alternative, which isn’t feeling good, but rather indifference. The most exciting takeaway from our interview is how Felix has tapped into a rich creative vein, and with his confidence up, his partner at his side and his skin thicker than it’s ever been, he may be entering his most prolific period yet.

“Whereas before I was still emotionally fresh from years of heavy vibes, I’m ready for any criticism that comes my way now, because I’m one hundred percent confident with what I’m doing. I’ve always been sensitive, but I’ve also always known what’s good and what’s bad, so when I put something out it’s because I’m happy with it.”

Speaking to Felix post-European tour and pre 12” release, at the time of being interviewed he’s clearly an artist at the peak of his powers. The guy deserves a break, as well as a little bit of the magic and happiness that his music has always managed to evoke in the rest of us.