The story of the Springbok Nude Girls is a sad one. A tale of an extraordinary band, with an original South African rock sound and massive local support. The Nudies should have broken SA rock to the world, should have been bigger than Radiohead – but remained trapped under the South African glass ceiling and self-destructed instead. It’s a classic South African tale of our greatest talents suffering for the recognition that is rightfully theirs. Perhaps the world was not ready for the avant-garde rock brilliance of albums like Surpass the Powers and Afterlife Satisfaction. Sony Records threw their full weight behind them, the band played to packed gigs across the land, they got loads of radio support. But it was not accessible enough to the pop/fashion gods of the MTV international scene. And so our brightest rock stars suffered the ignominy of unrecognised genius, and returned to South Africa to implode in the small pond of the local music scene. South African rock music, since the decline of the Nude Girls, has tended towards the middle ground of international accessibility and mediocrity, taking it’s cues from a plethora of American and British talents. Instead of persevering with our own sound à la Nude Girls, it would seem that South African rock took the lesson to heart, that local is lacking, and henceforth conformed to mimic the global standard. The result has been a rash of South African rock mediocrity. It’s a paradigm that has afflicted South African music, art and culture for a long time. It would seem that our greatest talents are destined to die in obscurity, like James Phillips and Mahlatini.
Now, 4 years later, after nearly making it, then teetering on the edge of the abyss of obscurity, modelling for a living, occupying the fading space of local celebrity, gossip columns and getting over the tattered dream of rock stardom, Arno Carstens releases his first solo album, Another Universe. It is a sophisticated, ballad-infused rock album with a sound that is more accessible than the Nude Girls; less heavy, more melodic – but still retains that spark of unconventional originality that was so crystallized in the Nude Girls. In many ways if Another Universe had come out before the Nude Girls’ rise to fame, it would have provided a more accessible springboard to a larger audience. But that’s not what happened.

‘I just checked this thing on TV last night on James Phillips.’ Says Arno, sitting around beers and peanuts at a plush Waterfront cigar bar. ‘All his friends are talking about where he came from, his whole struggle with music and then Roger Lucey says that its still the same struggle, nothing has fuckin’ changed. You reach a certain level and you can’t go above it.
‘It’s just weird, our country is constantly going through this growing pains bullshit. We should be grown up by now.
‘The SA music industry is like a kid who should have outgrown his nappy years ago. I mean look at South African radio… ‘
‘Ja,’ I say, ‘they get around playing local music by playing their SA music quotas between midnight and 6 in the morning.’
‘And the big thing is – we are not Europe, we are not America, we are South African, and a lot of these radio stations, who are just so fucking hip, are playing for South Africa but they think they live in America and they’re not playing South African music – unless it sounds like something that came from America or Europe. But our stuff isn’t American or British, its different. It’s not mainstream music. You’ve got to make that shit work. In our country if you don’t sound like a fucking pop idol, you don’t make it.
‘I had this interesting experience during South African music week where we gave KFM Another Universe and this one girl on their playlist committee goes: “Oh yes the music is nice but I don’t like Arno’s voice.” So she made a decision for the whole of KFM’s listenership that she doesn’t like my voice, so they are not going to hear the new album. So what if you don’t like Michael Stipe or Elvis’ voice? Are you not going to play it? Who the fuck are you anyway? You so fucking clever. It’s just typical, ridiculous shit.
‘I’d hate to sound negative because I am actually quite positive, but there’s this constant bullshit you have to deal with as an artist in this country. As a South African you have to be positive. I’m just so gatvol. But for the amount of support I get, I am very thankful and I’m just lucky that I am able to bring out another album. But in such a small, stunted market it brings out a lot of frustration.
‘Is that what happened with the Nude Girls?’ I swig my beer and ask.
‘Its interesting then that we had all the support, we had the name Springbok Nude Girls that was very South African. 5FM fucken supported us. But the thing is now, what they do is they test songs. They phone a couple of people and say what do you think of it? What is that? It’s ridiculous, you’ve got to have faith in your own judgement. If you’re not going to get played on the radio you’re not going to make it. There are a lot of songs on the radio that are crap, but they’re big because they get air play.
‘So if you had radio support, why did the Nudies break up?’ I shoot from the hip.
‘Ag, I think it was the 7 year itch.’ He answers with a smile. ‘Same thing what James Phillips was talking about. You reach a ceiling and you can’t go any higher. You can go overseas. We actually had to move there to make it, and we never did. We just went for little excursions, but it doesn’t work like that. We disbanded. Another Universe is what happened when the Nude Girls broke up.’
‘Did you ever stop playing your guitar?’
‘I went there for a while, and then I thought, ah fuck. I was phoning people like Valiant Swart and asking how do you do an album on your own? It wasn’t easy getting money for this album, and I was just feeling that I wasn’t getting any back feed from people. So there was a while there when I thought, oh god is it all over now? And at the same time, as I said that in my mind, I’d pick up the guitar and start writing songs. It was pretty obvious, I’m a musician no matter what.’
‘Periods of doubt?’
‘Ja. We did it, we took it to the top and it didn’t happen. It was kind of like sitting there with a hand grenade that didn’t explode.’
‘But the Nude Girls are still playing gigs?’
‘Me, Theo and Francois have got the band back together. We just felt, fuck man, we miss playing the songs.’

Arno downs his brew and burps outrageously. We order more beers and cigars to accompany the peanuts and olives.

‘How’s the new album going?’ I ask.
‘I’m getting big support from RSG, Highveld and East Coast Radio and the student radio stations – and that is incredible, because they never used to play us. I’ve scaled it down it’s not as heavy as the Nude Girls, and that’s cool. It’s a new sound – I’m not following fashion. I got a fashion in my head.’
‘And you’ve had a lot of support from Magnum and the private sector, could that be construed as selling out?‘
‘Ja, ag, we’re living in such a commercial world that whole thing of selling out is absolute bullshit. Especially in South Africa where it is very difficult being an artist and a musician. You should really do it and don’t be too precious with your art. ‘
‘A few years back there was a big conspiracy. What happened with you and James Small?’
‘Oh, um, ummm… uh, really, aahh, I don’t want to really talk about. Nothing really. He’s probably a great guy. We had mutual friends… look I’m sure… I don’t think its worth it. No comment.’
‘What do you think of the idea of writing an Afrikaans album, and breaking into the same circuit as Valiant Swart and Steve Hofmeyr? You’d make a killing.’
‘I’ve got support for it.’ Says Arno sagely.
‘You would moer Steve Hofmeyr.’
‘Ooh jong, I don’t know about that. I am planning to do a song with At Nel from Battery 9, he recorded something and I’m going to do vocals over it. I’m really looking forward to it. I’ve got a new vision in my head about Afrikaans music which I’d like to do. I think that will happen… But if I do an Afrikaans album it’ll probably be a once off kind of thing. I’m writing, stadig maar seker.’
‘The nice thing about Afrikaans music is that people actually go out and buy it.’
‘English is the sound of rock music. It’s the medium you use in rock music and I like rock music, so that’s why I’m doing it. You get a band like Kobus that does this, and they’re brilliant, and they sound almost German, like Rasmmstein. So I dig that part of it, but I’m not a really big fan of what’s popular in Afrikaans music at the moment. I think it’s a bit boring.’

‘Another beer for you?’ the waiter asks.
‘As it goes down you can just bring me another one.’ Nods Arno.

‘You did a beat project with Warrick Sony, from the Kalahari Surfers, a while back. What happened to that?’
‘Ja, I’ve still got the songs. That was very interesting, very lekker, sort of like the way I thought I wanted to go after the Nude Girls, mixing it up with more electronic sounds, and then me and Albert Frost got the band New Porn together and there wasn’t very much electronics in it. And we also listened to the White Stripes and The Strokes and I thought lets just do this. I think it was a good idea. We’ve got the album Another Universe, for the new stuff I am definitely looking at using more electronic sounds. But still keeping it very simple with good songwriting.’
‘You’ve always been a songwriter, when did you write your first song?’
‘Std 5. I did guitar lessons and I had to learn the song Country Roads and it was too difficult, so I wrote my first song instead.’
‘If you wanted to communicate a message what would it be?’
‘I never used to. I write surrealistic lyrics which are more subconscious, or a vibe I convey. But with Another Universe the songs are slower, you can hear all the lyrics so it must be more direct and to the point. I just touched on relationships, growing older, stuff happening in our country like Aids, Aids awareness. Not preaching to people to use a condom but more to make them aware of the consequences. The song ‘Tonight’s Dragons’ is a bit of mixture between heroin addiction and Aids, like: ‘even with your sick body we’ll go the extra mile’. It’s about compassion, and I’m not even that good at it, but I see it all around me with people sticking by one another and I find it inspiring. You know the way we bitch about everything but we’re also the creators of those problems. ‘Something We Started’ is about that. In ‘Another Universe’ I am singing directly towards South Africans when I say ‘we’re not living in the west, we’re not coming from the east’ it’s like pinpointing where we are. You know we’ve got everything in this country.’
‘Do you dig kwaito?’
‘For me the most liberating song in the New South Africa was Arthur’s ‘Don’t Call Me Kaffir’. I thought that was really cool, it was just so damn honest. TKZee were fucking brilliant, Bongo Maffin are world class.’

An easy silence settles between us, the sun is setting, the harbour bustles quietly. We sip our beers and smoke puff on cigars as a nubile Capetonian blonde sashays past us.
‘You’ve lived the rock ‘n roll lifestyle. Tell us about the groupies.’
‘Groupies are something you shouldn’t really sleep with. Of course it did happen but at the end of the day the thing about a groupie is that they are fascinated with something that you probably are not. They just think: “fuck you’re so great”. But a groupie is more than a fan because they stalk you a bit. We had this one who we used to call “The Shadow”, she used to send me presents and stuff. She was at every show, she was everywhere, she even followed us to England. It was quite crazy, and she’d just sit and stare at you. So that was quite funny. And you’d just think what’s going on in their minds?
There’s nothing more irritating than a drunken groupie because they’re just fuckin annoying. Fans are just people who like your music a lot, and I am a fan to many other musicians, and I don’t consider myself a psycho. So there’s a line.’

‘A lot of people reckon you’re arrogant? Is that something that just goes along with the rock star persona?’
‘That’s interesting I’ve had people saying Arno’s an arrogant bastard and I have people saying I’m a lekker oke. The truth is I am only human, I can’t be nice all the time. Sometimes I have a bad day…
‘You also get those fans, or groupies who come and say: ”ja, fuck hey, you think you’re so cool” and give you this heavy attitude. What I call the danger zone groupie. And if you’re just sweet, they get all pissed off that you’re not an arsehole. It’s quite hilarious.’
‘For years I thought Steve Hofmeyr is the biggest arsehole in the world because his music was just so fucking terrible, and then I’ve heard he’s actually a nice guy. And that made me think maybe he’s just very intelligent. Maybe he knows he’s making shit music and just taking it from the masses.’

‘What drives you to be a musician in this country?’ I ask.
‘It certainly isn’t the fame, and it’s not the money – because there is none of that – it’s totally the love for music.
What’s the difference between a musician and a pizza?’ I ask.
‘Dunno.’ Says Arno.
‘A Pizza can feed a family.’
‘What does a whore do with her arsehole in the morning?’ Arno asks.
‘Dunno’ I reply.
‘She drops him off at band practice.’

We both laugh and sip our beers.
‘Where were you born?’ I inquire.
‘Worcester. In the mountains. I have four brothers, we all went to the same primary school and same high school. The high school was just 290 people in the whole high school. And I just basically did art. My other brother’s weren’t into that. I was the laat-lammetjie. I come from a rugby family. My dad was a rugby player, played Boland, and all my brothers were very sporty. I did drama and art.’
‘Did you get kak from your brothers?’
‘Not form my brothers, they didn’t give a kak. My dad thought I was gay. So I’ve been openly gay for many years without me knowing about it.’
We laugh. ‘And then what?’ I ask.
‘I did graphic art at Cape Tech but it didn’t go that well. After the army I just wanted to party.’
‘What did you do in the army?’
‘I was stationed in Bethlehem, Jesus wasn’t born there, it was all a lie. Then I went to the Mozambique border, patrolling the electric fence. That was fucking cool. It was just beautiful, the Eastern Transvaal – basically the Kruger National Park – and you just walked 10km a day with your gun, feeling like a real cowboy. There was like a skeleton lying a couple of meters from our bungalow. Just five guys. We made our own booze, smoked a lot of zol.’

‘So we’ve spoken about sex and rock ‘n roll, what about drugs?’
‘Drugs was there. And, of course we did it. Fuck why not? It was like a huge experiment, you want to see what it’s like, you’re 20, go for it. And so you do that shit and you do the groupies and eventually you just… ag it gets boring. And you get out of it.’
‘Whenever you abuse anything it changes you. Booze turns me into an arsehole sometimes. I used to smoke marijuana quite a lot, but on my 30th birthday I said no more. I had my last joint on the beach on my 30th birthday. I actually got anxiety attacks from partying too much and not sleeping enough. Because you think it’s fun but it’s actually work as well.’

‘Any final shout outs?’
‘Basically all I want to say is that I’ve had great help from Sony Records, especially Paul Thackwray. I owe him a lot. Alistair King and Mike Joubert – the guys who made this album possible. I like the fact that they are just ordinary okes who put their money where their mouth is to support South African music. Our country is a pot of gold of talent. But that talent is just being ignored. I don’t want to sound negative. I’m supposed to be really happy, but checking that thing on James Phillips just made me sad. I thought to myself it’s exactly the same fucking battle we’re fighting. I’m just really lucky we got another CD out. After all the fucking highs and hopes of the Nude Girls, all I want to do is keep making music. I’ve changed, it’s no longer the rush to be a rock star, but rather the rush to be heard. It’s terrible that we have to fight so much to be heard in our own country.’

Another Universe is available at good record stores across the country.


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