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26 May 2017 15:10 (South Africa)
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'Honey Badger', a seriously good alternative album by the Black Hotels

  • Sipho Hlongwane
    sipho hlongwane BW
    Sipho Hlongwane

    Sipho Hlongwane is a writer and columnist for Daily Maverick. His other work interests also include motoring, music and technology, for which he has some awards. In a previous life, he drove forklift trucks, hosted radio shows, waited tables, and was once bitten by a large monitor lizard on his ankle. It hurt a lot. Arsenal Football Club is his only permanent obsession.

    He appears in these pages as a political correspondent.

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Black Hotels West 2

“Honey Badger”, the latest offering from Johannesburg indie rockers the Black Hotels is a welcome break-away from their previous inoffensive folk-rock “Films For The Next Century”. Thankfully, the band gave itself permission to widen its repertoire this time. John Boyd and Matthew Fink talked to us about their sound and big ambitions for the band. By SIPHO HLONGWANE.

The label “indie” is stupid and lazy, I submit, especially when applied to pinched skinny jeans and warbling falsettos emanating from beards. The Black Hotels are supposedly indie too, but really, even this umbrella term doesn’t belong.

For one thing, their sound has definitely changed, and the Black Hotels have cast aside a lot of chaff to produce what is undoubtedly their crispest and most considered album yet. Alt, folk, rock, indie, soft rock – who really cares? Narrowly defined bands are so 1970s anyway. I for one am glad for their newer, expanded sound incorporating a lot more synthesised electro (there’s a whiff of Moby’s “Spider” in the first couple of tracks). The previous album, “Films For The Next Century”, was disappointingly middle-of-the-road soft rock, especially considering the delightful rawness of the first EP “Beautiful Mornings”.

“Honey Badger” is spared all of that. What we have is easy, considered, “tilt your chair back and stare at the roof” lyrics that are rather hurried along by upbeat guitars, a warm orchestral synth and a commanding bass. There’s a taste of The Decemberists, the “Hotel” LP by Moby and just a touch of Interpol in this album. The band never really allows you to adopt one frame of mind throughout. You think you know where this is going (hand-clapping tunes, something even your apron-wearing mum might enjoy) – you settle in comfortably as singers John Boyd and Lisa Campbell (Boyd takes lead on most of the tracks, but refuses the title of “lead singer”) weave a contemplative tale with their well-matched voices on tracks like “Neon” and “Goodbye Josh”.

Lyrically, there isn’t much departure from “Films For The Next Century”. They’re still very accessible and not obtuse (there’s not much hidden meaning in “Now I know you don’t want to leave. Goodbye Josh”), but never annoyingly so.

The album takes a familiar track as the sound ebbs and flows and you’re tempted to think that it’s going to end with the bared track (as a soundtrack to a touching rom-com, you think) and lonely voice, when the throbbing electro-anthem “In My House” hits you at the end. Besides the overall fine production, the faster tempo and greater urgency (the band doesn’t dawdle along as was their wont), tracks like “No Sign of Science” and “In My House” make “Honey Badger” the best album to come from the Black Hotels.

The five-piece band is comprised of John Boyd, music producer and synthesiser Matthew Fink, lead guitarist Neil White, bass guitarist Lisa Campbell and drummer Warrick Poultney. Fink and Poultney joined the band in 2008 from country outfit Jim Neversink, and they recorded as The Black Hotels, even though the band had previously played a few gigs as Films For Next Century.

Their genre-defying sound is planned in the sense that it is unplanned, according to Boyd and Fink, band synthesiser and producer. “We didn’t think about it much, you know,” Boyd said. “It starts with the root of writing a song. You sit down with a guitar and write a song. We’ve never been ones to stick in one specific genre and we like to try different things. And I think what happened with FFNC is that it was just the next level. We knew we didn’t want to play jazz, blues, techno or pop. We wanted guitars, synth, bass. Alternative music.”

Fink described the sound of “Films For The Next Century” as influenced by what they were listening to in 2008. Likewise, “Honey Badger” is a smorgasbord of influences from the various bands they’d been listening to in 2010. And boy, do the Black Hotels aim high. Fink said, “Look at the bands that have just won Grammys. Arcade Fire and the Black Keys. Their latest albums are absolute masterpieces. They’ve raised the bar. We have to live up to that in my view. We ask ourselves how do we make a record that is on par with Arcade Fire or Black Keys.”

Boyd said, “I always measure myself up against my peers, the bands we love. That is why I have such a strange relationship with Matthew in post-production because I often feel stuff isn’t good enough. But if that’s how the band sounds, then that’s how the band sounds. The music we listen to is superior to the crap you hear on radio.

“Our music and the music we listen to has depth and character and feeling and substance and it is about recording the past and has history and heritage. That’s the space we want to be in and that’s a difficult place to write music for,” said Boyd.
“Matthew and Warrick played in a band called Jim Neversink. For me those were the only two local albums that measured up to the quality of music that we aspire to. The “Safe as Houses” song by aKING is also quite a brilliant song. It’s a tricky thing because some of your friends play in these bands as well, but at the end of the day you have to be honest,” Boyd said.

Fink agreed, saying, “We were the sort of people who grew up listening to The Cure, The Smiths, that sort of thing. Locally, I really enjoyed the last Perez album. How that thing didn’t crack it is beyond me. The Wild Eyes also. BLK JKS are fantastic, even though they ‘stole’ our SAMA award. There’s nothing really otherwise.”

The Black Hotels don’t expect much help from local radio stations in getting their stuff out. “The only way that people can hear our music is if friends share it or they come to a show,” Boyd said. “We don’t have an alternative radio station in South Africa that we can maybe get on to. All we can do is put it out there and hope people share it. If people want to burn our music, then let them.”

“Honey Badger” is really a fulfilment of all the promise “Beautiful Mornings” showed, and then some. But a big part of me wishes the entire LP explored the electro-synth sound of “In My House”. There is almost more intrigue contained in that one track (“It’s one of the few songs we wrote collectively,” Boyd says) than all the other songs combined. Still, it is a really good album. They are an oasis of sensibility in a market that is doggedly in love with either the Valentine’s Day dinner sentimentality of the Parlotones or the fist-shaking, mall-rat defiance of the Belville rock scene. DM


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  • Sipho Hlongwane
    sipho hlongwane BW
    Sipho Hlongwane

    Sipho Hlongwane is a writer and columnist for Daily Maverick. His other work interests also include motoring, music and technology, for which he has some awards. In a previous life, he drove forklift trucks, hosted radio shows, waited tables, and was once bitten by a large monitor lizard on his ankle. It hurt a lot. Arsenal Football Club is his only permanent obsession.

    He appears in these pages as a political correspondent.

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