Quick: name some rock bands from South Africa who have been successful in the U.S. market. Stumped? Well, if Johannesburg’s The Parlotones have anything to say about it, that will change, and soon. The band released their debut album, Radiocontrolledrobot in 2005, went on to release 2007’s A World Next Door to Yours and 2009’s Stardust Galaxies, while developing a fanatical following in their home country through extensive gigging and self-promotion. Eventually, they became South African superstars, to the point where they became the first South African band to headline at the 19,000-seat Johannesburg Dome. Even more impressive, the Parlotones were one of four acts who played to a global audience at the 2010 FIFA World Cup Kickoff Concert, along with Alicia Keys, the Black-Eyed Peas, and Shakira. They have also toured Europe extensively, packing 1,000+ venues throughout the continent, by word of mouth alone. Now, they have their sights set on America, and are currently in the midst of a headlining tour thoughout the U.S. This U.S. tour, to some extent, puts the band almost back at square one. Back in South Africa, the Parlotones are a very hot ticket, and have become used to packing them in to large venues, as headliners. Here in the States, they are playing venues not unlike the ones in which they got their start. I spoke with the Parlotones lead guitarist Paul Hodgson about what it’s like to be back playing the small clubs again. Hodgson also touched on what it’s like to have a sibling as a bandmate, the importance of social networking to the professional musician, and how the Parlotones got into the…winemaking business?!?
KP: How does it feel, after becoming superstars in your home country of South Africa, to be back to playing small clubs during your current U.S. tour?
PH: We love it. The thing is, now we go back and have the advantage of all the years of playing. You know, we started in South Africa, got big there, went to the U.K., had some success there, went to Germany, did pretty well there…so by the time we started playing in America, we had all that experience behind us, so we weren’t a naive, inexperienced band. Plus, it puts that fire back into us – all the audiences are completely new. I mean, they might know a couple of songs, but, really, you have that one chance to win them over, which is like the early days – you’d open for other bands, and you had to play your heart out to win over that audience. So it’s exciting, and it keeps you humble. And it’s exciting just to be in America, so we’re enjoying it.
KP: Speaking of bands opening for other bands, is it true that Metallica once opened for you guys at a show back home?
PH: If you want to get technical about it, yes, they did open for us. There was quite a big festival back home, and Metallica were the headliners. We were given the option of playing at around one o’clock in the afternoon, or wait until the end, and play after Metallica, so we said, ‘Let’s play after Metallica’. We figured, 40,000 people in a stadium, they won’t all be able to get out! To our surprise, when we went on, there were about 5,000 people still there, but all those 5,000 people stayed for us. And we got great press out it – ‘What’s this crazy band doing playing after Metallica?’ So I think we got a better deal out of it than some of the other bands who played at, like, four or five o’clock in the afternoon.
KP: Let’s go back to the beginning. How many years have you been together, and how did the band get its start?
PH: Well, the band first got together around 11 years ago. But, for the first five years or so, we were just sort of flailing around – battle of the bands, that sort of thing. Eventually we were able to find a management company, and with their help, for the last five or six years, we became the Parlotones, as a full-time band.
KP: Your brother, Glen, is in the band as well. Is that an advantage, or a disadvantage?
PH: It’s neither, really. We actually all get along really well. It’s not like the Kings of Leon, or the Gallaghers, beating each other up all the time. All of us are pretty chill, pretty laid-back, no huge issues.
KP: How would you describe the sound of the band to someone who had never heard your music?
PH: Interesting question. We’re actually sort of a rock band with some pop elements. We don’t generally do the seven minute-plus songs with lot of solos. We’re a pop/rock band with an indie work ethic. We’re truly independent, we do everything ourselves, so we can do whatever we want.
KP: You’re currently touring the U.S. as headliners, but you been here before, right?
PH: Yes. Last year, in September/October we were on tour in the U.S. supporting Blue October. That was about five weeks or so, and we did a couple of our own shows in there as well. But this is our first proper U.S. tour, with us headlining.
KP: The Parlotones seem to take advantage of the social media, and the internet in general, better than most bands who are trying to break into the U.S. market. How helpful do you feel those tools have been in getting the word out about the band?
PH: Facebook and Twitter have been very helpful as far as getting attention, getting people to the shows. All the people who saw us at the Blue October shows and liked us, they put up a lot of Facebook and Twitter posts, and became sort of an unofficial U.S. fan club. So, with lack of millions from the record labels, which used to be the norm back in the 80’s and 90’s, the social networks are vital to our success. It’s not too difficult to, once or twice a day, put up a message, post a video, or promote upcoming shows. It’s not a lot of work, and the rewards for doing so make it well worth the time it takes to do it.
KP: The band actually got my attention from advertisements posted on a website called blip.fm. There has been quite an adversiting blitz on that site for your band.
PH: Very cool! Social media working for us that we don’t even know about!
KP: The Parlotones are becoming well-known for producing some clever music videos. One of your recent videos that really got my attention was the ‘Life Design’. How did that one come together?
PH: Bascially, they put us in this huge warehouse, with a revolving crane. It spun around, and on one side, there was a spotlight, and the camera was mounted on the other side. There were 30 or 40 dancers, all wearing the same outfit – white shirt, white jeans, and a ginger wig. As it spun around, the camera was shooting at, I think, two frames per second, all these dancers doing the same dance, in an almost ‘stop-motion’-type effect. The cool thing about it was, we really didn’t have to do anything. I mean, for two days, these poor dancers had to rehearse, and it was winter, so it was freezing inside this warehouse. We just strolled in, did our bit, and in about half an hour, we were done.
KP: Right, you guys are only briefly in the video, it’s mostly the dancers.
PH: Yeah, I think the whole ‘show the band playing the song the entire time’ concept gets a bit boring. A lot of my favorite videos, a lot of the Radiohead videos, ‘Feel the Pain’ by Dinosaur Jr., you hardly ever see the band. I mean, you can intercut a bit of the band playing, but I think other elements are more interesting. We’re not actors, after all! Although we act a bit in ‘Push Me to the Floor’.
KP: I love that video! Very funny!
PH: That one took three full days. And the girl in that one was an actress, and she was very didactic about facial expressions, body language, etc. We said, ‘Hey, we’re musicians, we’re not professional actors!’
KP: Well, it turned out great!
PH: Yeah, it turned out brilliantly, probably our best so far. Now if we do more of them, we’ll have to see if we can match up to the standards of all the previous ones we’ve done.
KP: In addition to music, it seems that the Parlotones are in the wine business. How did that come about?
PH: Actually, our singer, Kahn, did an interview with a property magazine. They asked him, ‘what would be your ideal property?’, and he had said he’d like to own a small vineyard. Subsequently a winemaker in South Africa approached us with the idea of making a wine with him. The wine we did make, we did the actualy blending, the tasting, etcetera – we actually went through the whole process. It’s not just some generic wine with our name on it. Anyway, we’ve done a red, a white, and a rose’ so far.
KP: Are those wines availabe in the States at all?
PH: I don’t think so (asks Kahn). No, not yet. They’re available in South Africa and Germany at the moment, but we’re looking at making them available in the U.S.A.
KP: You should bring some with you and sell them at shows!
PH: We tried once, but it’s very expensive shipping them over, and you can’t carry it with you, obviously – it’ll get confiscated. We’ll have to try to make some plans for the next time we’re in America.
KP: I’d love to try some!
PH: They are excellent. The red wine is my favorite. A couple of bottles, and you’ll have a good night.
KP: Have you begun work on a followup album to Stardust Galaxies?
PH: We have started, but not extensively. We have been very busy the last couple of months, so there hasn’t been a great deal of time. All of us have our different pieces that we’ve been working on, we just need the time to sit down and put it all together. Hopefully, this year, we should have something ready. The cool thing about technology these days, though is, you can actually work on songs on the road. Just plug in to the Mac, and off you go. Instead of going into the studio to do the beginning work, you can just do it on the road.
KP: Some things are easier for bands these days, and some things are definitely harder.
PH: In the old days, bands didn’t have the advantage of the editing, auto-tuning, and dropping in that we have now – it was a lot tougher.
KP: Speaking of technological advances, I understand that the Parlotones have a 3-D film coming out in July.
PH: I think it’s going to be pretty cool. Do you know the whole concept behind it?
KP: I don’t know a lot about it, other than the title, Dragonflies and Astronauts, which is the title of one of your songs, right?
PH: Yes, on one of the previous albums. It’s going to be a sort of rock opera, in the vein of The Wall, and that sort of thing. It’ll be the band playing our songs, but the songs are telling a story. It’s set in a post-apocalyptic earth, quite a grim future. There’ll be five nights of shows, and on the second and last night, it’s going to be filmed, and broadcast live in South Africa, Europe, and in the States.
KP: So, we’re going to be able to see it here?
PH: Obviously, we’re going to have to work on the time zone difference. I think we’re going to end up doing two performances, with one at three o’clock in the morning, so it will be a decent time for the States. It’s going to be the first 3-D live broadcast, ever. It would be hard to keep an audience entertained with just a 3-D broadcast of a band, but there’s going to be a whole story, and the props, the actors – I think it’s going to be awesome!
KP: In the immediate future, you’re playing South By Southwest. Are there any bands that you’re looking forward to seeing there?
PH: Yeah, we’re definitely all very keen to try to catch Bright Eyes. The Strokes are going to be there, so it will be cool to see them back in action. We’ll definitely be trying to work those into our schedule. I think we do four shows while we’re there, plus the interviews, and so forth.
KP: I’m told the Parlotones rock a little harder in a live setting than you do in the recordings.
PH: Yeah, that’s the thing about the studio. Everything has to be quite neat and precise. Playing live, as long as you have the energy level, you can get away with more ‘energetic’ performances.
The Parlotones will be at Neurolux in Boise on 3/23. You can purchase tickets for the show here.
Check the rest of the Parlotones tour schedule here.
The Parlotones official website.
The Parlotones on Facebook
The Parlotones on Twitter
The Parlotones on YouTube