You're my ticket out of here: Arno Carstens on living the dream
South African rock legend Arno Carstens has been on the music scene for years and he’s showing no signs of slowing down.
His latest solo album Atari Gala is very different not just from his manic rock stuff with landmark band the Springbok Nude Girls, but even to his previous solo albums.
“It’s interesting,” he says. “The album is different in the sense that I’ve had the privilege to have had a long career in which to learn a lot.”
Carstens says he knows the landscape of the music industry and knows that appeal does not last forever, and that’s why he’s had to evolve, and has done just that with Atari Gala.
He looks back at the years he’s been at the forefront of the industry and says Springbok Nude Girls was an amazing experience.
“I loved it and always will. We had our ups and downs and I love the energetic shows and experimental style with five people’s opinion guiding a somewhat cult but being solo is vastly different.”
He says his solo career allows him to steer the ship his own way.
“Though it’s not objective enough and it helps to have a backing band to give you input. It’s what I know and what I love about making music. It’s just that I get the final say.”
Carstens talks about the ‘90s as if it were a few days ago, saying that the South African rock explosion have him a good platform, and created a band of brothers.
“Now, it’s my name on the product and it has to be me rather than an extension of the Nudies.
“We were heavy, energetic and crazy… throwing up on stage, drinking until we didn’t know what to do with ourselves, performing in front of mad, mad crowds… it was a different sort of beast.”
He says of late, it’s more tame and mellow.
“It’s exciting for me, what with everything I’ve done in my career… It’s not manufactured and it’s kind of taken to a different level. If you don’t do something different, there’s no point in going solo. And I want this sound to last. This is my brain and my soul on this album.”
Carstens, a very, very, very tall man with a twinkle of mischievousness in his eyes, reckons Atari Gala is more introspective, while still keeping to his love of music speaking to others.
“Another Universe was raw and very under-produced in a way. The second album was a bit too overproduced. Writing this one was difficult, because I wanted the best of both worlds.”
He said the songwriting was all him, but took input from everyone to make it balanced.
“Some of it is orchestral, some songs band-orientated, some soft, some loud… it has everything without being too disjointed.
“Also, I wanted to make it listener-friendly – the human brain can only process 45 minutes of sound so the album is 45 minutes. The pattern is also one that allows listeners to engage, relax, then re-engage.”
New single Switch Off the Machine was written in the UK while Carstens was on tour earlier this year, an he says it is by far the most emotional song he has ever written. "The song was understood by the videographer who harnessed the emotional content with great accuracy - it is a simple but beautiful video."
Carstens cannot get away without telling of some of his experiences that shaped him as an artist.
Being a long-time fan, I had to ask him about everything I possibly could. Especially being the first time interviewing the man I considered a hero in my musical upbringing.
“Shenanigans aside, we had one hell of a time in our career. Touring was wonderful and humbling. We were not rock icons. We were outcasts in a world where Afrikaans meant conservative, white meant privileged and we found success and crap gigs all over the country. We were progressive. Barney Simon saved our asses by promoting us on radio. We were met with all sorts of shit.
“We walked into a pub in an Afrikaans dorpie and were snubbed for being progressive. Our own kind gave us fucking shit. It was no picnic, let me tell you. And we didn’t care, but it affected the way we toured and the way we absorbed music.
“We were listening to international bands like Pantera, Black Sabbath, Marley and shit. We paid attention to all genres. We got drunk on Nick Cave and Johnny Cash. Tom Waits was a fucking idol.
“Now, we look back to all of that and see there is so much more music to be made and more stories to tell. Jack White is brilliant. We play with sounds that haven’t been done before but still look upon the greats. Achtung Baby is still one of the greatest. Queen, oh my fucking god. The Doors, The Pixies, you name it. We were listening and paying attention.
“Even here, Johannes Kerkorel, Koos, the entire anti-apartheid Afrikaans movement… lefties with a different language. Now Fokof has taken that to another level. The perception of Afrikaans had to change. And it has and still is.
“Opening for U2 – Oh my word! Having the crowd sing back to us! Blue Eyes – a song very close to home – being sung by 100 000 people. Meeting The Edge. Hell, I almost died at Soccer City that night.
“We have a graveyard of memories, and I’ve learnt so much. This shaped my albums like nothing else ever could. That dark and light of music and society… It’s a special thing.
Now you’re going to fucking make me cry. It was beautiful.”