South African indie rock band The Parlotones have become one of their home country’s most beloved bands and biggest selling rock band of all time, with a career that has spanned two decades. Comprised of Kahn Morbee (vocals/guitar), Neil Pauw (drums) and brothers Glen (bass/keys/backing vocals) and Paul (lead guitar) Hodgson, the band formed in 1998 in Johannesburg and has, through hard work, dedication and a humble attitude, achieved multi-platinum selling albums and numerous awards. Although their early sound was influenced heavily by Brit-rock, with their self-released debut album Episoda drawing comparisons to The Smiths and The Cure, the band has since absorbed various other genres into their sound. They have toured internationally since 2007, having shared the stage with bands such as Coldplay, Starsailor, Snow Patrol, Live and Blue October and have released 8 studio albums, including their 2018 release of China, an album that coincided with their 20th anniversary as a band. The band signed with Sovereign Entertainment in 2005, but the two parted ways in 2014, at which time the four artists took back control of the band. Morbee also recently became a judge on the South African version of The Voice, imparting his wisdom and experience on a new generation of musicians. When not busy focusing on the band, Glen and Kahn have solo side projects that they focus on called The Burning Cities and Kahn, respectively, which gives them an outlet for overflow music they have written and music that doesn’t quite fit with the band.
Although the band has fun making their music, they also enjoy giving back to their community. They have raised funds and awareness over the years for many different social and environmental organizations and are ambassadors for the anti-poaching organization Rhino Force, United Against Malaria and many other problems that are prevalent in South Africa. “People in the public eye have the ability to spread a message very quickly and effectively,” Morbee says. “So we try to do so when it concerns issues we feel strongly about. South Africa is our home and home to our families and our friends. We certainly want to make sure they have a bright future. If we can get involved and encourage people to get involved, it can only have positive effects.” In September of 2018, 50 artists came together, including Morbee, to pay tribute to beloved South African musician/anthropologist Johnny Clegg by forming ‘The Friends Of Johnny Clegg’. The group has partnered with the Click Foundation to benefit literacy and childhood education in the country. The band is currently in the midst of their ‘Unplugged-ish’ tour of South Africa and will then be headed to Europe and The UK. Staff writer Emily May recently spoke with the band via email, discussing the new album, becoming an independent band and what’s next for them. You can follow The Parlotones and stay up-to-date with all upcoming music, band news and tour dates, as well as stream and purchase their music, via the following links. Check out their new video for “Antidote”, as well as a stream of the new album, below. Photo credit: Andre Badenhorst.
You recently released your latest album China, a double disc album celebrating 20 years as a band! What has it been like to celebrate that kind of longevity as a band and how have you weathered such an ever-changing industry?
Glen: It has been one amazing journey. The night we all met to have our first rehearsal in Neil’s Dad’s garage back in 1998 I’m pretty sure none of us had any idea of the journey that lay ahead of us. Since then we’ve been blessed to travel to so many countries and have had so many amazing and crazy experiences, while still calling this our JOB…and we’re still going! I’m not quite sure how we got it right, but I think that our unflinching attitude, super loyal fanbase, good management team(s), commitment to what we do, and just a pure love for music and the sound that has become ‘The Parlotones, we’ve managed to stand strong and continue year after year. Oh, and definitely a little bit of luck (serendipity, if you like) along the way hasn’t hurt!
Kahn- I read that for the album you spent a period of time in England with various songwriters to establish the path the album would take. What led you to decide to collaborate with these other songwriters in England and how do you feel that they helped to decide the path of the album?
Kahn: 6 of the songs were co-writes with the peeps in the UK. The album locally eventually included 24 songs, so it didn’t really determine the path, as we always write a bunch of songs, capture them and serve the song as best as possible. It was really cool to experience, writing with other people and something I’ll pursue going forward.
You guys are on tour most of any given year, but while on the road you are always working on bits and pieces of songs. You have said that in recent years singles have been replacing albums, so do you feel that this change in the industry has affected the way you approach songwriting or have you always taken this approach? Do you find it more challenging to write on the road, with all of the distractions of tour, or do you find that being out on the road inspires you?
Glen: The road is definitely a major inspiration when it comes to songwriting, because you meet so many people and see so many different and wonderful things. You’re also thrown into this mad world of ‘life on the road’ where you’re kind of forced to deal with certain things and circumstances that you would never experience had you been stuck in a 9-5 environment. You’re almost just given a ticket to any kind of excess you desire. So you make a lot of mistakes, and learn many lessons from them as you go. You also become very strong at the same time, and are constantly forced to re-evaluate your life and who you are. So there is this great balance. As far as singles vs EPs vs albums vs double-albums go, I think that we just read the industry temperature and go with what we feel will work best for us and the people who will be buying our tunes.
You were a young band when Apartheid ended in South Africa, bringing about a necessary but unsettling period of uncertainty about the future of your country. You were culturally isolated but were introduced to “The English Scene” (The Smiths, Radiohead, The Cure and James) by cousins who had traveled to England, which greatly influenced your sound as a band. What do you feel it was about that style of music that was so influential for you?
Glen: I was only a kid when Apartheid was going on, so then it was really the older generation of musicians, as well as our parents etc – who were mostly affected. As a kid musically I was restricted to things I’d hear at church and via my parents. However, there was a DJ on this one radio station at the time who was one of the only guys playing rock music on his show, and we were all definitely influenced musically by him (much to our parents horror!). Most people I know from my age up were sitting up every weeknight listening to and taping the music that Barney Simon was spinning. He also gave us our first play on radio on his show. Very exciting for a young band! I was also introduced to all these great overseas bands by my brother Paul who would bring home mix tapes of all these amazing bands I’d never heard of. I mainly gravitated towards the US rock/punk scene through bands like Rancid, Nirvana, Green Day, Collective Soul, Bon Jovi, Metallica and so on. It was only when I managed to find myself at that first band practice where I was introduced to the UK Indie scene, and from there on my tastes started branching out. But initially punk won my heart right away, and I will always be a punk rocker!
Kahn- You have said that there wasn’t any support in Johannesburg for local bands when you guys started out. What was it like for you in the beginning to have to carve out your own niche and develop your own touring circuit in South Africa? How do you feel the environment/music scene in South Africa has evolved throughout the years, and do you feel that bands starting out today have an easier time starting out than you did?
Kahn: I think the music landscape has and will always be difficult where it’s crossroads of hardwork, skill and luck. Most start the journey but seldom get to continue and very few lucky ones do… But it’s still a hustle. Technology has made things a little easier for the newbies but also complicated it by creating a very cluttered environment that associates music as being free and fleeting
In 2014, you parted ways with your record/management label Sovereign Entertainment and took over your own reins. What has it been like to operate independently as a band after 12 years on a label? What have been some of the biggest challenges?
Glen: I think initially the best thing about it was the artistic freedom we were suddenly allowed. There was suddenly no label pressure when we were in studio and we were free to write, record, and release what we wanted to, with no “You need a radio single!” pressure coming from the top. By that time we were lucky to have built up a really strong fanbase here in South Africa, with little pockets of international support scattered around Uk, Europe and America, so it’s not like our shows were suffering – our fans stuck by us. Despite everything, I do think that our old label and manager DID do amazing work for us and definitely played a major role in ‘getting us on the map’, so I guess one of the major challenges was now figuring out how to recover from that loss and move forward. There were one or two bridges that needed to be rebuilt and we had to find ourselves again because the mood in the band camp was obviously near breaking point at that stage, as well as find ourselves a new team to help rebuild and restructure going forward.
Kahn- I read that you decided to go back to school to officially learn about the business side of the music industry. Did becoming an independent band influence your decision to gain that knowledge? You have said that you have always approached your journey in music from a business point of view. How do you feel that your academic journey will help you to develop a better model?
Kahn: I’ve always been pretty curious and have and still read books across a myriad of disciplines. Now I have an opportunity to do my learning/reading in a more focused manner and perhaps get a certificate and knowledge I can apply. I’ve learnt long ago that there’s no magical wand. Everything and all experiences contribute to the journey and organically stack value into your life as a sum of the parts.
You released an album a few years back called The Lost Singles, made up of 22 singles that you never used on any of your other CDs prior because they didn’t fit in. Do you think you will release a similar album in the future? Do you have more singles that you’ve written since then that didn’t really fit with your following albums?
Glen: Yeah there are always plenty songs that are written by don’t make it onto any albums that should go somewhere, so I think it’s always a cool idea to get creative and release them somehow.
In 2017, you released ‘The Parlotones | The Stories Behind The Songs” coffee table book on which the four of you worked to impart detailed insights into each album you’ve created over the years. What inspired the decision to create and release the book and what was it like to relive those memories?
Glen: It was quite the mission to locate photos for all the years. We haven’t been the most dedicated when it comes to scrapbooking unfortunately, but yes it was quite a laughable trip down memory lane going through them while the book was being put together.
Paul- What can you tell me about the book you wrote about the history of the band-your tours and albums, the good times and the struggles the band went through from 1998 to 2012? What led you to stop at the year 2012, with plans to write another book that covers 2013 and onwards? You have said you will release the book digitally, one chapter a month with each chapter roughly relating to each year. What prompted that decision and do you think you will release a physical copy in the future?
Paul: The book is called I’m Dancing Inside, which I what I used to tell people when they asked why I didn’t dance around on stage much. I released it via Patreon to just a small amount of people and am recording an audiobook version as well, but I hate the sound of my voice! I stopped at 2012 because that’s when we came home from living and touring in America, and also when we left our previous management and starting managing ourselves. It’s almost like that’s when Parlotones 2.0 started. The book is still not quite finished but when it’s done I might look into printing a physical copy. It’s an expensive process to do without a book deal, though, so it might just be an ebook release on Amazon or something.
You guys have always done a lot of work as a band with different charities to give back to your communities. Do you have any particular charities for which you like to advocate? Kahn- What can you tell me about ‘The Friends Of Johnny Clegg’, the charitable project you have undertaken with 50 other South African musicians to benefit childhood education in your country?
Kahn: We’ve worked with many in the past, mainly animals and environment, which is still something we try assist with. Personally my focus is now on ‘The Friends of Johnny Clegg’ and the association with the Click Foundation which assists underprivileged kids with literacy and numeracy skills from a young age as this underpins the foundation for learning which they can hopefully carry on throughout their lives and impact themselves and society at large in a positive way.
Kahn and Glen- what led to your decisions to start solo/side projects outside of The Parlotones with Kahn and The Burning Cities, respectively? What can you tell me about the projects? How do you juggle everything?
Glen: A few years back Kahn had decided to start up his solo project and begin recording his ‘Salt’ album, so I decided that then would be a good time for me to do the same, because I had 5 or 6 songs that I was wanting to record. Like you mention, though, time is always the enemy with juggling these sort of things. So I recorded my first EP which was called ‘Glen Hodgson’s Lost and Found’ and started performing live as a solo act. A year or 2 later a friend of mine, drummer Jason Oosthuizen, showed an interest in taking that project to the next level by making it a 2 piece. We set about heading into studio and were done with our first album of the newly-named Lost&Found and hit the road touring/juggling for the next 3 years. By the time the much louder and faster second album ‘Snakes & Ladders’ was released we were both a bit burnt out and jaded due to lack of interest in the band (and way too much rocking and rolling on the road) so we called it quits and Jason went on to form a much heavier group called OOOTH. I went in the opposite direction and started The Burning Cities which I wanted to be more chilled. I don’t really tour it much, it’s more of a personal release and will be over soon probably!
Kahn: My project is just my name, and was really motivated by the fact that I wrote too many songs to fit onto a Parlotones album but still wanted an outlet. I have released two albums and start recording my 3rd next week.
Kahn- You have recently become a coach of South Africa’s version of The Voice and have coached two winners! How did that opportunity come about and what has the experience been like for you? What do you feel you have learned from being a part of the show and coaching aspiring musicians?
Kahn: They approached me, and it sounded like a fun project, so I said yes. I enjoyed it immensely and kinda felt like an imposter giving advise to people who could sing better than me but realised the value I brought was industry knowledge and experience, and spotting and moulding the winners ? . I realized how much stuff has become almost instinctive as a result of years and years of doing this.
What’s next for the band?
Glen: We head off on our ‘Unplugged-ish’ tour in 2 weeks time which blazes across South Africa for a couple of months, and then we head off to Europe and the UK for our annual stint over there.