MARCH 2020: It’s a cold winter Sunday morning in Nashville, Tennessee. We stopped next to the big black idling tour bus parked outside the studio. Joe Bonamassa climbed down grinning, wearing his trademark baseball cap and hoodie, carrying his Les Paul and a small vintage Fender Deluxe amp.
He had just driven in from Florida. He was on his way to do a show in Chicago, when Kevin (Shirley, his producer) called him in the night to tell him that he’d left off the solo on the title track of his new album Royal Tea, which they had just finished recording in London, at Abbey Road Studios. Laidback and laconic, he sipped his coffee, plugged in, and played a blistering solo to the track. The studio we were in was in a converted church, filled with vintage analogue gear, and we were set up recording my new album with the band Joe used on his own projects. As he laid down his vintage 59 Teaburst Les Paul and reached for his coffee, Kevin hit play and the song we were working on “Wind in Your Hair” came through the speakers. ”Play along to this track of Steve’s,“ said Kevin grinning. Joe’s lovely, lyrical guitar licks and a blazing solo filled the room. Everyone was stoked, Joe smiled, stretched back, swigged down his coffee, and headed for Chicago.
The full moon shone in through the split windscreen of my old VW bus, lighting up the narrow road through the mountains better than the six-volt headlights. I was heading to a small theatre venue in the middle of a town square in Stellenbosch, to play a set of new songs and a few blues covers. I had decided to do what I thought was a Led Zeppelin cover, Gallows Pole.
It was 1976, and I had recently met two phenomenal musicians Rob Nagel who played bass and blues harp, and an electrifying guitarist, Willem Moller. We were doing separate sets on the same bill at the Stellenbosch Folk Club. Also on the bill were David Kramer and Lesley Rae Dowling.
Steve Louw is a South African singer-songwriter and rock musician. Winner of Best South African Rock Act, and a member of the SA Rock Hall of Fame, Steve is one of SA rock’s most talented and unassuming singer-songwriters.He and his band Big Sky appeared on stage with Rodriguez on the sold-out South African tour in 1998.
Willem Moller became known as the guitarist in Johannes Kerkorrel’s Gereformeerde Blues Band but over the years he’s worked with many other musicians. Time to find out who . . .
Hi Willem, good to see you again. Where and how did it all start for you?
A: Hi Ernesto. When I was a little kid, sixties pop was all over my elder siblings’ radios and record players. Certain records had such an exciting beat that I just had to start banging things along! By the age of eight I’d gotten a pair of drum sticks and was hitting anything I could find. Many years later I learnt that those records with the drumming that made me so excited (Beach Boys, Byrds, Monkees, Mamas & Papas, Fifth Dimension etc) all featured studio legend Hal Blaine, so you can blame him for all the noise I’ve made since! My eldest sister was studying music and teaching piano at home so I was also hearing classical music a lot and she taught me the basics of music theory, so I had that understanding of music since I was young. It definitely gave me an advantage. When I was 12 and in Standard 6 (Jan van Riebeeck Hoer, Cape Town) I started my first band, the magnificently named Septic Daisy, with the very talented Conrad Kuhne, who could sing and play piano and guitar, and me on drums. We tried our hand at anything we could – Creedence, Stones, Beatles tunes. The next year we were joined by Izak van Zyl on bass, and a few years later by the late great Nico Burger on lead guitar, by which time we were covering more challenging Led Zep, Deep Purple and prog material. During all this time I was also learning to play guitar.
Q. What inspired you to pick up the guitar?
A. My musical memory goes back to before the Beatles when instrumental guitar pop was big (the Shadows, the Ventures, Duane Eddy), so twangy electric guitar is in my genes! By the late sixties I was listening to Hendrix and the Who and then I saw the Woodstock movie . . . Jimi, Pete, Carlos! When I turned 12, I started getting R5 pocket money (for the month!) New albums cost R4.99 at the time (for a crappy local pressing) so the first time I got R5 I set off for the old Musica in Adderley Street, which then was a really hip record store that stocked everything and had staff who knew about the various genres and new release, and you could listen to an album on headphones before buying. I chose Live Cream simply because I like the cover, I actually didn’t know who the people in the band were. I was really into this heavy blues music but the minor pentatonic scale confused me; it didn’t fit into my understanding of music theory. But on Live Cream there’s a slow blues called Sleepy Time Time with a riff that goes from minor to major, and suddenly I understood how that minor scale works with major chords to establish the blues sound. A light went up! But that song gave me another epiphany: Eric Clapton’s unbelievable guitar solos made me feel an intense emotion every time I listened to them. I couldn’t really explain it but I suddenly saw a very clear goal for myself: I want to know how to do that – play guitar that make people feel emotion.
And this is Sleepy Time Time…
Q. Did you have guitar lessons or were you self taught?
A. I was self-taught, with the help of the many mates I jammed with – we all taught each other. We were forever seeking out new people to jam with as they might know chords or riffs we didn’t! And I listened to records and tried to work out and copy riffs and licks. I was also taking music theory as an extra subject at school, and that knowledge definitely helped me to understand what I was learning. So by my late teens I was the ou in the band who’d work out the arrangements and parts.
Q. What albums inspired you in this regard?
A. When Bruce Springsteen’s Darkness at the Edge Of Town came out the lyrics connected with me in an incredibly powerful way. To this day Badlands has me in tears by the first chorus . . . that album opened my eyes to the impact songs can have when combined with focused arrangements and production. It changed how I listened to music. I guess I started to think like a producer, looking at the bigger picture rather than individual parts or sounds – everything must serve the song; if it doesn’t it must go.
Here’s one of the songs off Darkness that really moved Willem:
Q. You’ve said that you consider the track Adam Raised a Cain to be punk.
A. To me punk is an attitude more than a musical style, and that song certainly has that attitude. I love punk, but then I love all genres – just when I think I don’t like a genre I hear a track that I have to admit is really cool! But there are many artists and tracks I don’t like, for many reasons – mostly to do with them being derivative/unoriginal/formulaic/boring/dishonest, and you find those things in any genre. Actually the word genre has become meaningless; the interesting things are always when people come up with stuff that doesn’t fit into any ‘genre’! In the early seventies I got into the Laurel Canyon singer/songwriter scene big time – Carole King, Joni Mitchell, Neil Young, James Taylor etc – and by the late seventies I’d gotten bored with loud blues rock and was immersing myself in jazz, particularly post-war jazz and more particularly what Miles Davis, John Coltrane and John McLaughlin were doing in the 60s and early 70s. I’d also discovered the real blues artists that all these loud longhairs I’d been listening to were copying, and immersing myself in that. So I wasn’t paying attention when punk happened in England in 76/7, but I caught up big-time a year or two later. I love the Pistols, Clash, Jam, Ramones, MC5 . . .
Q. How were you introduced to jazz?
A. I first heard Django Reinhardt when I was 12 or 13, and a year or two later I heard Inner Mounting Flame by John McLaughlin’s Mahavishnu Orchestra . . . the guitar playing was just beyond me. Also at the time drums were my main thing, and Billy Cobham changed the game! From there various roads led to Miles Davis . . . Miles’ 60s quintet is the highest level of musicianship I’ve ever heard, for me listening to that stuff is a spiritual experience. I also got big time into Charlie Parker, John Coltrane, Charlie Mingus and many others, and other guitarists like Larry Coryell. Listening to so much jazz changed the way I hear music and particularly the way I play guitar; my chord work is influenced by jazz pianists and my single-line playing by horn players, particularly Miles. I don’t consider myself a jazz musician though, although I’m a capable improviser and can hold my own with modal stuff.
On that note, this may be of use to guitarists out there . . .
Q. In the early 80s you had a band called Nothing Personal. Tell us how you got together – when, where and how?
A. While at varsity I’d met a bunch of wonderful musicians, many of whom have become lifelong friends – Adriaan Eksteen, Steve Louw and Rob Nagel among them. By the early 80s I’d graduated and was doing my 2 years in the army, but I had it fairly easy and had a lot of time to myself. By that time Adriaan Eksteen and I’d been playing together for 6 or 7 years and had a good vibe going. A guy we knew from varsity, Robin Hawkins, who had a band called Artvark was living in a house in Wynberg where he had a rehearsal room with gear where we’d often go for a jam; there were always people hanging out looking for a jam. That’s where we met drummer Simon Falkiner and singer Michael Copley. The four of us hit it off and were soon putting songs together from the riffs Adriaan and I would come up with and Michael’s lyrics. We played our first gig as Nothing Personal at the Movement Too club in Cape Town in December 1982. We weren’t exactly punks but we certainly had punk attitude in buckets! Our sound was more like a mix of Live At Leeds-era Who and the Jam, with a bit of our blues influences thrown in, and we were Bruce & the E Street Band nuts . . . but we played it all with Ramones-like energy. After playing every venue in the Cape Town area for about 6 months we moved to Jozi and tried our luck there. The band didn’t last but I loved Yeoville and I ended up living in Jozi for 20 years.
Q. How did you become a sound engineer?
A. I’d studied journalism, which provided me with an alternative career and I’ve worked on and off at various newspapers and magazines over the years while also pursuing music. By 1984 Nothing Personal was over. I’d quit a copywriting gig I hated and was at a loose end. Some mates with a band and an album out were about to go on tour and asked me if I knew how to mix a band. I’d never actually done it but bullshitted myself into the job . . . basically I learnt by making mistakes! But I did know how a band was supposed to sound and once I got a hang of the technical stuff I became a pretty good front-of-house engineer. I ended up mixing a bunch of bands, permanently on tour – at once stage I lived in the back of Kombi for a year! The gear was often iffy and the venues often unbelievably crap – like the Roxy Rhythm Bar in Jo’burg. I walked in and looked at the place and thought, you seriously play live music in here? It’s a square concrete box! That’s an echo chamber, not a venue! After about 5 years of this type of thing I was asked to mix a musical production in a proper theatre, with good acoustics and equipment. After that I only worked in theatres where you can do a really good, satisfying job. I did live sound on musical productions for another 10 or 15 years.
Q. Talk about Boere Punk and the Voëlvry tour.
A. A bit of background: By the late 80s South Africa was in a terrible state – state of emergency, people being detained and tortured, people dying in townships, a cultural boycott that isolated this country, the SABC and record companies refusing to touch artists that had anything truthful to say about the apartheid regime . . . An incredibly stressful and tense time. Amid this, in places like Yeoville, people were responding with fantastic creativity – they had nowhere to go. The saviour of SA music was Lloyd Ross, who started Shifty Records to record huge talents like James Philips, the Genuines and the Kêrels when no one else would. A few venues like Jamesons let these people play there, and a small but very powerful and influential scene developed. At that time Afrikaans music was basically an embarrassment to mankind – really bad schlage (German middle-of-the-road) songs that got even worse in translation. We all loved James Philips’ Bernoldus Niemand record which, along with David Kramer’s early records, showed that it was possibly to write Afrikaans songs that rang true and had something real to say. In early 1988 trombone player Jannie Hanepoot van Tonder and I’d both heard people talk of this one-man cabaret show at the Black Sun that we should go and watch. That was Ralph Rabie, then already known as Johannes Kerkorrel, and we were blown away by his songs. Also on the bill was Andre le Toit, later to become known as Koos Kombuis. We soon got chatting and, along with their manager ‘Dagga’ Dirk Uys, concocted a plan to start a rock and roll band that could bring Ralph and Andre’s songs to a bigger audience. Hence the Gereformeerde Blues Band. Our first gig, in April that year at the Pool Club in downtown Jozi, was a huge success and we realised we were onto something. At first I played bass and Andre played acoustic guitar, but he wasn’t a band person so Jannie and I asked Gary Herselman of the Kêrels – aka Piet Pers – to play bass, and I switched to guitar. Soon I quit my other gig – I was in Wendy Oldfield’s band at the time – and we started playing lots of shows. Lloyd recorded the Hillbrow/Ry single, which took off, and in January 89 we finished the Eet Kreef album. Meanwhile Dirk had organised a tour of university campuses for the first part of 1989, which became an ongoing, national tour sponsored by Max du Preez’s newspaper Vryeweekblad and named after a Shifty compilation of alternative Afrikaans music – Voëlvry.
Q. I believe there’s an interesting story about the photoshoot for the Eet Kreef cover?
A. The idea was a play on ‘let them eat cake’. So the art director organised a table with a few crayfish (as well some plastic ones) and a few actors to portray the aristocracy stuffing their faces, and then on the back cover you see the proles (the poor band) looking at the scraps that remained. Which is exactly what happened in real life! When we got there the actors had eaten all the crayfish and we were left with plastic props! The disappointment on our faces was real.
This is Johannes Kerkorrel and the Gereformeerde Blues Band being interviewed by Evita Bezuidenhout for M-Net in 1989 – it wasn’t broadcast at the time because M-Net was scared of government repercussions! Check it here:
This is Lloyd Ross’ documentary on the Voëlvry movement and tour:
Q. I found it interesting how you guys swopped instruments around during your sets.
A. Jannie, Gary and I had all been in bands for years by that time so were pretty experienced. We could all play drums, Gary and I could play guitar and bass, and Jannie is one of the best trombone players I’ve ever heard so there was no way we weren’t gonna feature him! So it made sense to swop around; I thought it gave us an advantage musically, sonically and, on stage, visually. Ralph wrote the songs and could perform them solo at the piano, so whatever we added had to serve the song and make it better. That was the only rule. We were helluva stoked to have Piet in the band – we were huge Kêrels fans and Gary is a rock and roll legend . . .
Q. Who did you play with after the GBB?
A. In the 90s I basically became a sideman for hire. I’d started playing on all kinds of people’s records, which then often led to me working with them on gigs and tours. I worked with Nataniel for about 15 years, which was a fantastic expierence! I played guitar, bass and drums in his shows and mixed many of his big theatre productions. I’ve been fortunate to perform with so many hugely talented people, all of whom taught me things and enriched my life – Nataniel, James Philips and the Lurchers, the Radio Rats, the Pressure Cookies, Big Sky, Luna Paige . . . to mention just a few. I played on various albums with these people as well.
In 1990 I bought an analogue 8-track setup and started my first studio in the basement of my house in Sharp Street, Yeoville. To this day my studio, wherever I live, is called Sharp Street Studio. Over the years I’ve recorded, mixed and produced albums for tons of SA artists and today it’s my main activity; I don’t gig that often anymore. I’ve recorded so many talented people – the Sunshines, Valiant Swart, Henry 8, AD de Vos, the Blues Broers, Bright Blue, to name a few . . . Currently I’m working on projects by people like Dax Butler, Greg Schoeman, Belinda van Zee, Marcia Moon, Bacchus Nel, Riku Latti and Adriaan Eksteen – all great stuff!
Q. Do you remember the Hip Replacements?
A. I recorded their one and only album! Scotty, Bertie and Andrew are all old mates and I loved their tunes and sound. Bertie (Mark Bennett) is a hugely talented songwriter. I played with them a few times over the years too. I even played drums with them once, but they thought I wasn’t hip enough so they replaced me . . .
For more on the Hips: https://www.facebook.com/pg/thehipreplacements.za/about/?ref=page_internal
Check out Ad de Vos:
Willem played on the Radio Rats’ recent album Concise Rock and Roll Primer – for more check:
Q. Tell us about backing Rodriguez on his first South African tour in 1998.
A. Since 1990 I’d been playing on and off with my old varsity mate Steve Louw and his band Big Sky. Early in 1998 Steve called and said, ‘If Rodriguez was to tour South Africa, would you like Big Sky to be the support band?’ I said, ‘Sure, but I thought he was dead?’ Steve said, ‘Well apparently not.’ So we rounded up the band, which at that time was Reuben Samuels on drums, Graham Currie on bass, Russel Taylor on keyboards and my wife Tonia (of the Pressure Cookies) on backing vocals and percussion. Then about 2 weeks before the tour was supposed to start we got word from the promoters that not only did Rodriguez not have a band, he hadn’t played for 20 years and didn’t even own a guitar anymore! So the promoter bought him an acoustic and asked Big Sky (minus Steve) if we would be his backing band if they paid us double. Of course we all knew the songs and had played some of them in cover bands, so we listened to the records and prepared. Then a few days before the first show we were in the old Milestone Studio in Cape Town, rehearsing along with a Greatest Hits CD so we could follow Rodriguez’ voice. Halfway through a song Rod walked in, grabbed a microphone and started singing along. Someone switched off the CD player and we finished the song together! We all looked at each other and agreed, yep we can do this. The tour is legendary. It was the only time in his life the guy performed live to his full capacity – his career stalled back in the early 70s partly because he was stage-shy and wouldn’t tour to his promote his records. Once he realised that Big Sky knew and respected his material and had his back, his confidence grew and he was great on that tour. Sadly from what I’d experienced and heard of subsequent tours, his drinking often got the better of him and some shows have been disastrous – which is sad. His health also deteriorated and he’s gone blind, yet his daughters (who manage him) kept sending him out on endless tours . . . it’s unfortunate. But on that 1998 tour he was fantastic.
Check Tonia Moller’s documentary on Rodriguez’ 1998 SA tour, Dead Men Don’t Tour, which features the man in full force – the live footage in the Oscar-winning doccie Searching For Sugar Man came from Tonia’s film:
Q. How did you meet Tonia?
A. We met in the late 80s in Yeoville. I’d seen her perform with her band Khaki Monitor – which was one of the first alternative bands to use Afrikaans lyrics – and she was doing cabaret work. Then she joined the Gereformeerde Blues Band on backing vocals and percussion for the Voëlvry tour. After that the two of us had a string of blues bands and played in venues around Jozi for years, while she also formed the Pressure Cookies to perform her own songs. We got married in 1996. (Interview with Tonia coming up in a month or so – Ernesto.)
Q. Tell us about making the soundtrack for the local comedy Skeem.
A. I’d been playing with drum legend Barry van Zyl for years. He and James Stewart (formerly of the Usual) had formed a music publishing company and among other things were writing movie soundtracks. Barry asked if I’d be interested in creating the music for a new movie, and that it would involve a band improvising rockabilly jams while watching the images. That sounded like fun, so I was in. In the end the whole deal became a lot more complicated, but much of it did involve jamming some breakneck stuff while watching the movie projected on a wall in the studio, with the director, Tim Greene, jumping up and down as he directed us . . . it’s actually a fun soundtrack to listen to.
Here’s the trailer:
Q. You also worked with Andrew Kay’s band the Skyt Muties.
A. I recorded their album back in the 90s. I thought they were ridiculously good and that Andrew was a real special talent. He revived the band for a few shows a few years ago and I played 2 gigs with them. I love those songs!
Q. What have been some of your proudest moments in your recording career?
A. I’ve recorded hundreds of artists at Sharp Street Studio, especially in the 90s when I guess I was cheaper than anyone else! As it turned out a whole bunch of really talented people never released what they recorded with me and never really recorded again, so I have these gems in my archives . . . Machines of Joy, The Andy Clegg, Rear Window are 3 that spring to mind – really original and quirky material that the world should have heard but didn’t. Those recordings are close to my heart . . . Of the released stuff, there are a few I’m really proud of, such as Valiant Swart’s Mystic Boer (for me his best songs) and Kopskoot, Henry Ate’s Slap in the Face, Randy Rambo and the Rough Riders/Die Naaimasjiene, the Blues Broers’ Sharp Street, Been Around and Cellar Tapes, AD de Vos’ Diep Karoo and Wolfman . . . I also co-produced James Philips and the Lurchers’ album Sunny Skies (with Lloyd Ross), which I think is a fantastic record. I also play guitar on it. I also really love Greg Schoeman and the Comeback Kings’ In my Street and Dax Butler’s Drink in Everything and Trouble in Mind.
Willem: I love the Randy Rambo and the Rough Riders/Die Naaimasjiene stuff! We totally ignored absolutely every rule. There will probably never be another album like Die Saai Lewe . . . Randy is still at it.
Check out Die Naamasjiene’s recent material: https://soundcloud.com/dienaaimasjiene
Q. Any last words/thoughts?
I really miss those musical compadres who are no longer with us – Johannes Kerkorrel, James Philips, Nico Burger, Izak van Zyl, John Mair, Simon Falkiner, Michael Copley . . . all wonderful talents, all gone too soon. You guys rock, wherever you are.
Cheers Willem, long may you rock
Ernesto Garcia Marques 01/07/2020