Dead Alphabet on music, touring in a horrible van and a fist fight
Six cities in six days, six gigs and a crap load of awesome. That was just the first leg of Johannesburg alternative rock band Dead Alphabet’s manic US tour this year.
Lead singer and guitarist Adam Edward says ‘yikes’ just thinking about the tour. “We played our way up the coast starting in San Diego, before hitting stages in Anaheim, North Hollywood, Santa Monica, Ventura and Santa Barbara. From San Francisco we flew across the big gap in the middle to the East Coast, playing Cleveland and Brooklyn.
“We made the tour van our home, covering over 3 200 kilometres and complained about it most of the way. It was a window tinted den of beer cans, mix tapes and parking tickets…
“We were glad to get rid of it in New York. And considered burning it more than once.”
But they did it – not burn the van, but the tour – almost a month across the States and back to South Africa, they seem to be unstoppable.
Edwards and guitarist Phil Klawansky say the band runs on independent thought, and that’s why they’re open to slogging to get where they want.
Both agree that they’re not your average band that can be tied down to any specific idea but instead, is always evolving.
Edwards says their initial thought was to flood the market and make it big as soon as possible, but they realised that they were just not ready.
“We were young, hopeful, somewhat stupid, and we had big ideas, but now we’ve realised that we needed to grow up a bit.
“Now we’re in a space where we can decide what we want on our album cover, what we want to sound like and what we are rather than a record label telling us what to do, and that’s good.”
When I first heard them, I was blown away, but I must admit, I felt something was lacking. The missing link was indeed that mature approach to music that now gives them class.
Class enough to play in the biggest cities, even though it was a tough journey.
“The shows paid for petrol and the bar tabs kept us oiled,” says Edwards.
Fresh from the tour and sporting an elegant three-track EP, the four-piece Dead Alphabet intends on taking over the world.
“Even though our day jobs kind of fund this first love of ours, we are willing to and do work hard towards getting to where we want to be,” says Klawansky.
Looking like he just stepped out of a Bon Jovi music video, guitarist Klawansky is laid back and a little smug. He knows he’s smart. He knows his craft, and he knows the industry. He’s full of random knowledge and his thought patterns jump so fast, it’s sometimes hard to keep up.
“There are so many limitations though,” he says. “Venues let South African bands down, and there is always that game of playing favourites, which runs through the entire industry.”
“Yeah,” says Edwards. “It’s about who you know most of the time, and whether you’re willing to conform and we’re not willing to do that. We are who we are and that’s that.
“We won’t give in just to get radio play… We make the music we want to make.”
Guitarist and singer Edwards, on the other hand is all over the place. Tall, lanky and somewhat awkward, you can see from the get go that he’s the band’s mad scientist.
When he speaks, however, both his razor-sharp wit and sardonic sense of humour make you realise this kid is a force to be reckoned with. His lyrics are acidic and his confidence on and off stage is one of the factors that hold Dead Alphabet together.
Insanity on tour
Both Edwards and Klawansky are dedicated, and by the sounds of it, their dedication stuck though the madness of their tour.
“In Reno we left the venue long after the sun had risen. It’s not only the casinos that stay open all night and keep the drinks coming. In Cleveland we visited the Rock ‘n Roll Hall of Fame and hated it,” Edwards says.
“In Ventura we were warned about the girls in Santa Barbara. In Santa Barbara we were warned by the cops to stay out of trouble. In New York things got ugly in a coyote bar. In LA, I rode a mechanical bull.
“We couldn’t get a bed in Williamsburg, we couldn’t get any sleep in Chinatown. People cheered, danced up storms, we angered boyfriends, played to empty bar stools, drank too much and promised we would come back soon.”
Edwards says it was tough; tougher than their European tour.
The band played more shows in a shorter timeframe, travelled further and didn’t ever seem to sleep.
“I gave up drinking and smoking at one point to keep myself alive. Two of the band members got into a brawl in the Upper West side streets of New York. They were knocked out cold and lay in the trash before walking the length of the island to get back to our hotel in the early morning sun.”
The madness bubbled over into Klawansky’s birthday in LA “with a backpacker called Hawaii and two litres of vodka orange.
“We came back broken and confused, desperate for a decent night’s sleep and counting down the days ‘til we can go back.
And they definitely intend on going back.
Even though their appeal may not be as wide as bands with a big label behind them, they’re not fussed.
Klawansky says he knows they’re niche, but there must be a market out there for their music. “Someone somewhere out there must be appreciating our stuff, else we would never have stuck it out this long.
“Yeah we may be friends and have these crazy ideas and unhealthy obsessions with our instruments, but it’s about the music at the end of the day.”
Edwards says they’d like to be rock stars, but they’re not trying to be.
“We’re our own worst critics, and I think that’s important. We are our own quality control and if we don’t think it’s good enough, it’s not damn good enough!
“We’re not trying to be a one hit band… We want longevity, we want to take risks and we want to be rock stars because we’ve earned it – not because we wrote one song that everyone liked for a few minutes.”
The music is good. I mean, really good. It’s alternative rock which draws from classic rock, blues and magic – the likes of Led Zeppelin (as all good rock bands should), Rage Against the Machine and The Black Keys to name a few. Each of the band members’ specific tastes are brought out in their styles, but the music is largely original and kick-ass.
I have had Lick Yourself Clean on repeat in my car for days. Just three tracks, but three tracks of awesome, with all of them doodling different pictures of the genre in my mind.
Both agree that the South African music industry has a long way to go but the support is good.
“We don’t quite have the numbers here to compare to what’s happening in the UK or US,” Edwards says, “but if you look at our well-publicised bigger acts, they get great support. I mean Shadowclub did something special opening for Kings of Leon and the crowd was mad!”
Klawansky says it’s been a slow process but they want to get to that point, where people recognise them as one of the top South African bands. “People recognise our name and for now, that’s cool. Next, we just need to take over the world.”
Before Dead Alphabet left for the US, they said it was going to be exciting and they expect to be humbled.
“The US is big,” says Edwards. “Very big. And we are small. I assume this is going to shrink our egos and make us feel like ants, but it will also be an opportunity to get out there, be part of a huge musical journey and hopefully come back with more experience.”
Klawansky adds that it’s also about “more expertise and a better understanding of what we need to do.”
Coming back, Edwards says it has definitely pointed them in the right direction, even through the madness.