If one more person compares BLK JKS to Vampire Weekend, we might explode. This South African band writes pop songs, rock songs, slow tunes and fast tracks; they get proggy and they jam. There’s a great amount of variety on BLK JKS’ latest album After Robots, but the only thing the band imitates is the sound that reality transmits through their nimble fingers. Guitarist Mpumelelo Mcata breaks it down for Daiana Feuer.
Mpumelelo Mcata (guitar): I forgot my sunglasses on top of the guitar amp there in Los Angeles. It was sucky—they were a gift.
Do you lose many possessions in your travels?
Mpumelelo Mcata: Yes, it happens all the time! Sometimes your mind, sometimes your heart, sometimes your sunglasses.
When was the last time you lost your mind?
Mpumelelo Mcata: I think it was Philly. I am not sure how long ago that was. Maybe I haven’t found my mind yet. The concept of time has been warped. Meeting people, various people, and life on the road, always on the road—you lose your heart and your head. It feels pretty schizophrenic. The days go by like day after day with hardly any rest.
Is that a dream come true? Would you rather be in a studio or a stage?
Mpumelelo Mcata: I like being around sounds and making music and just around art in general outside of music. It’s cool to have these kinds of problems. I don’t have a particular preference—as long as I’m doing it, it’s alright. But in the van for so long, driving for so many hours is what it is. Being in the studio, pressed for time, is what it is. We always have these things to keep us grounded. A little bit of cramped, a little of this and that. Broken amps need fixing. We never really step back to look at what’s going on from outside and say, ‘Well, this is all well!’ The situation, though—how can I say it? I am happy to be in it.
As a musician, do you find sounds or create sounds?
Mpumelelo Mcata: Finding or creating? Receiving. Which is different from those two in some ways. It’s all out there and finding requires one to be looking and looking may be a bit difficult to do in a sincere way. Not saying it’s impossible. But it’s hard to be looking and still do honorable work. I think receiving is key and hopefully one can communicate what comes to them truthfully and be an honest voice. There’s a lot of information trapped or stored in phonics, you know? Besides what musicians put in the lyrics and also what is said in interviews. A lot of stuff is just said in between the sounds—as in between the waves. I am sure music is a form of communication.
How do four different minds or receivers create one sound together?
Mpumelelo Mcata: I think one of the first points that we’d have to—I don’t want to say understand because that’s also a conscious in the mind thing—something that we have to feel is that all is one already. Once the American comedian Bill Hicks said all matter is energy condensed to slow vibrations. There is no such thing as death. We are all one consciousness experiencing itself subjectively. So! That is the basic idea. We are one already. So the individual is allowed to exist completely. We find that conflict to be interesting—experiencing ourselves subjectively. That is the point. If everybody felt this way in the world maybe the world would stop breaking up. Maybe not. Maybe this is just part of the human condition. But we need to accept all parts of ourselves. I think that’s what we do in the music, as schizophrenic as it may seem.
There sure are a lot of sounds going on in your album. A lot of directions. I was intrigued by the emotion and the musical shifts in your song ‘Lakeside.’ What’s the story behind it?
Mpumelelo Mcata: ‘Lakeside’ is basically—OK, all the songs have a bit of a backstory, but ‘Lakeside’ is basically about the taxi industry. ‘Lakeside’ and ‘Taxidermy’ follow each other on the album but ‘Lakeside’ is about this young boy-man-kid who is caught up in a taxi accident. The taxi rolls off the freeway and lands up next to a lake. In his head, he has been trying to escape the city—Johannesburg and the mundane situation that he lives in. And he is very imaginative and kind of in some ways it’s autobiographical on our part. Living in the confusion of Johannesburg. And so he imagines his taxi as a UFO and he imagines himself as having been caught up in a crash-landing situation. It’s a terrible thing that has happened. People are bleeding. He is lying outside on the grass. People are suffering. But at the same time it is a beautiful thing that his mind is doing in the song. That’s basically ‘Lakeside.’
That’s a heck of a story. Does a song that comes out of a story lyrically influence the music as well or is that worked upon separately?
Mpumelelo Mcata: With ‘Lakeside’ it was definitely the music first. We didn’t know what that song was trying to do. We were jamming and somehow it kept coming up in those different directions. So what you hear on the record in the beginning—in the rehearsal room, ‘Lakeside’ was really that Molefi, Lindani, Tshepang, and myself fighting against each other and pulling the song in different directions. Like, ‘We can’t stay here—Molefi’s gone over there so we have to follow him.’ Or, ‘We’re going to follow Tshepang and see what happens.’ That was the nature of most of our rehearsal room sessions. Coming to the center, running to and from all four corners and meeting at the end. So—sound first. Then we listen back to the take and everybody thinks about what it means to them and then we discuss it and feel it out and it comes out lyrically if it’s going to be really elaborate—if that happens. Sometimes it’s just we’ll breathe over it and that’ll be it. Like ‘Molalatladi.’ For that song, the lyrics happened immediately as the music. It’s a different purpose.
What would you like to get out of this experience that will nourish you as artists? Aside from getting to play and seeing the world?
Mpumelelo Mcata: I mean, we’re getting in touch with our faith, more in touch with our faith, which is this miracle. Us being alive, you being alive as Daiana and floating in outer space. To us it is really a miracle. People like to intellectualize or coffee table talk about bands but for us, it’s like—we’re here, we’re together. You can either like a band—you can walk into the room or walk out. People like to say this band sucks, that band sucks. I wouldn’t even say that even when I wasn’t in a band because at the end of the day, who knows what? We’re all just here. To get into different cultures and to see how people react to the sound which is created out of a South African context, us receiving signals and those signals going through our filters. Out of Johannesburg, we’re presenting them to the world, we’re going to Japan—it’s going to be super interesting. And it’s always excellent to see people’s reactions, whatever that is. To us, the fact that the conversation is even occurring in the first place is the point. I think we’ll get a lot from that. Who knows, maybe one day we’ll be like the Brazilian Girls—writing songs in many languages about different places. Our context right now is what it is. This is our introduction to the world.
What’s the last thing that made you smile?
Mpumelelo Mcata: The last thing that made me smile? I know the answer to that but let me mine my thoughts for a second. Let’s see! You know what always makes me smile? At every show the people coming up saying, ‘We like what you do.’ That’s always a pleasurable thing. That makes me smile that it touches them. It makes me smile when the media makes negative comments about our songs. It’s funny because we have the same conversation before we make the song but we go for it anyway. Or when we see something someone says and this guy has no clue whatsoever. That makes me laugh. The whole journey, enjoying the journey makes me smile. Not pining for the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow but enjoying the rainbow—that’s what makes a brotha smile.
AQUARIUM DRUNKARD PRESENTS BLK JKS WITH THE GROWLERS AND MACK WINSTON AND THE REFLECTIONS ON THUR., OCT. 15, AT SPACELAND, 1717 SILVERLAKE BLVD., SILVERLAKE. 8:30 PM / $10-$12 / 21+/ CLUBSPACELAND.COM. BLK JKS’ AFTER ROBOTS IS OUT NOW ON SECRETLY CANADIAN. VISIT BLK JKS AT BLKJKS.COM OR MYSPACE.COM/BLKJKS.