The Nineties in South Africa witnessed a musical explosion that saw alternative, indie and goth bands cut through bubble gum pop to forever redefine local music. Cape Town group Fetish was at the forefront of that musical revolution, but faltered in a market that was too small to support them. Ten years later they’re back to chase the dream. By MANDY DE WAAL.
As the world turned its gaze on a noisy new democracy, an alternative soundtrack emerged from white South Africa in the guise of bands like Springbok Nude Girls, Wonderboom, Boo!, Henry Ate, Just Jinger and Sugardrive. Right in the middle of that alternative explosion was a Cape Town-based band called Fetish.
Formed in 1996, Fetish was an alternative frontrunner, and helped cut through the sticky goo that was South African pop. Fetish earned a cult following. They scraped together a few grand to make their first album. They got a five-year, three record deal. They went to the Top 10. They opened for acts like Lenny Kravitz, Goo Goo Dolls, The Cult, Skunk Anansie and Smashing Pumpkins. But in 2002 the dream died.
“You don’t realise at the time what a good thing you’ve got,” says Jeremy Daniel, who is a founding member of the band. “There was an amazing side to being in this band, but there was a dark side too.”
The down side was trying to make it as a musician in what is a tiny market, continually living from hand to mouth, and waiting – just waiting for that big breakthrough. Ten years after Fetish played their last gig, the original band members are back together and in the recording studios. They will be playing gigs in Cape Town and Jo’burg. They’re a little older now, and wiser for the experience they went through.
There’s a real sense of excitement building because music insiders believed Fetish had major promise at the time they folded. “Arguably, Fetish was never able to reach its full songwriting and musical potential,” writes Johann Smith of Muse Magazine. “Glimmers of this promise can be heard on the album Remains.”
“As a rock-mad teenager growing up in 1990s South Africa, Fetish was at the forefront of my musical awakening,” writes Natasha Joseph in City Press. “I haven’t loved a band as much since Fetish disbanded in 2004. At the time, I felt somewhat betrayed by their break-up, like a clingy girlfriend,” confesses Nadia Neophytou, a local arts journalist now living in New York City.
Fetish was founded by Daniel and Dominic Forrest, who discovered they lived close to each other when they were kids in Swaziland. “My parents were kicked out of South Africa because my dad was active in Nusas [National Union of South African Students] in the Sixties and got banned. Dominic’s mother was running ANC cells, so we both lived on this international school campus called Waterford, because our parents were teachers there.” Daniel was eight, Forrest was five.
Fast forward to the Nineties and Daniel and Forrest met up in Cape Town and started rehearsing. “I just knew. This kid Dominic was a brilliant guitarist. He had gone off to a music school in London, and every time I saw him after that he was just getting better and better. We wanted to do it. You know the dream. Everyone has the dream at some stage or another.”
In Cape Town, Daniel and Forrest met Michelle Breeze, she of the gorgeous, angst-saturated voice and Fetish would have a frontwoman who’d define their sound. David Fiene and Ross Campbell would become part of the final line-up.
“By 1997 we had the line-up which became the Fetish everybody knows. We borrowed about R10,000 from our parents and friends, and got two weeks in a studio. We bashed out our first CD out in two weeks because we were so well rehearsed, but then we had no money to print album covers, so we made our own CD covers out of cloth, matchsticks and cardboard,” says Daniel, laughing broadly.
Photo: Fetish in the studio, recording their next album. Photo by Jonx Pillemer.
The album cover might have been home-made but it caught Barney Simon’s attention and Fetish was being played on 5fm. Soon afterwards the band had their first Top 10 hit, Never Enough.
“It was absolutely thrilling to hear our music on the radio. I only had a car radio in those days, so I used to sit in the car for hours at night just to try and hear it being played. It takes you to another level, nothing else like radio does that,” Daniel says.
In one of the band’s first gigs after their CD got airtime, they were signed to Virgin. “This guy called Carl Anderson flew down to a show in Cape Town and approached us straight after the gig. He asked if we were keen and before we knew it we had a three-album deal. Within a month after that it was all systems go. That was the good side of it… but there was a darker side too.”
Daniel says trying to make it big in alternative music was a hard game, and that the music industry was a completely different game then. Those were pre-internet times when music wasn’t as democratised as it is now.
“You just waited and you hoped. We had one cellphone between us and we were playing the same venues over and over again, trying to get bigger but not succeeding because the market was so limited,” says Daniel, adding: “You pour your heart and soul into an album, and it sells three or four thousand copies. You do a huge gig with Lenny Kravitz and a week later you’re back at a 200-seater in Obs. It was hard to keep that upward momentum.”
No one in the band had a day job, and they were paid a stipend by Virgin. “We played every day. We were on a little salary. We were fully into it, which maybe was a mistake in retrospect. We should have had other revenue streams because it just got so intense and hectic. We got into debt, it was difficult to sustain, and we just got too fraught with anxiety. We were quite a stressed band, we weren’t exactly rock ‘n roll in that sense,” says Daniel.
Ross Campbell aside, all the band members were in their early twenties and fairly inexperienced. “You don’t realise at the time what a good thing you’ve got. I look back now and there was such an amazing level of musicianship in the band. There was so much commitment, and we had such a great following. It was a really good time, even though it was difficult,” he says.
“Things started to fall apart in 2001. It was hectic to work together all the time, and to travel all the time and be poor. The market here was so small, and the decision was made to go to London. But some people didn’t want to go, so that was very much the beginning of the end.”
Time passed and in 2010 the band members decided to meet and spend time together in London. “It was great because we had time in this rehearsal room where Coldplay and all these big bands get together and jam, so it was a total luxury. It was amazing how quickly we managed to get it together, so that kindled talk of another tour,” says Daniel.
The band had an offer to record at a great local studio called Digital Forest, and Fetish decided to get together and do four or five singles which quickly became a whole album of 10.
“I thought we were finished and forgotten, and then people come out and say how much they loved the music and how excited they are. It is humbling and weird in a sense because we never had that kind of direct feedback in the Nineties. With the internet there’s this closeness of connection with people who are mailing and tweeting you… which is beautiful. You realise that it is actually not about you. It is about the people who’ve connected to the music in their own way, and how it has influenced a time in their lives,” says Daniel.
It is one thing having a dream and living it out, but having a second shot at that dream with hard-earned battle scars is something completely different. It is humbling, and the time spent in between will hopefully resonate in music that fully realises Fetish’s potential.
Photo: Fetish circa the 1990s and their show in Johannesburg.
Fetish will play at Cape Town’s Mercury Live on Friday 13 April and at Jo’burg’s Tanz Cafe on Saturday 14 April. Their album is due out later this year. DM
Photo: Fetish reformed, older and wiser. Photo by Jonx Pillemer.