Although Bristol is a hub for live music and independent artists, it is still quite rare for off the grid foreign bands to feature at one of the most legendary Bristol Pubs - The Louisianna. It is rarer still for this band to be South Africa’s ‘thrash folk’ come indie rock band Shortstraw, and close to unheard of does such a band give one of the most uplifting and vibrant gigs of 2017.
I sat down at the Louisiana before the gig with the members of Shortstraw, easily identifiable from their Johannesburg accents, unkept look and carefree, effervescent manner. This is the last show of their European tour of 2017, having toured Europe last year with other South African bands December Streets and Al Bairre. I ask them how this tour compares to the last and lead singer Alistair Thomas replies that whilst the last tour was fun because ‘we could split the costs and combine forces, this tour has been more rewarding because we know that everyone is here for us’, although he does admit that it has been more challenging and daunting playing on their own. What’s interesting to note, is that when I ask what advice they have for aspiring musicians - having broken into an international market, won five awards, produced (almost) five albums and been together for nearly ten years (give or take a few members), they all agreed that teaming up with other bands is the way to go; ’so many people treat the music industry like a competition, but you get so much more done if you help each other out, which was the purpose of last year. We were all trying to achieve the same objectives.’ Along with this, the band named networking, saving money and having a well oiled team as the ingredients for success.
Having seen Shortstraw myself multiple times in Cape Town and Johannesburg, i’m used to an audience that sings every word and jumps up and down as regularly as they breathe. I ask how the reception differs - Europeans compared to South Africans. Rus Grant (Base) says, ‘we noticed there was a culture of clapping, cheering and then silence. Whereas South Africans come for a good time. The complete other side of the spectrum is Japan, where there is happy and dancing and then dead quiet.” Having said this, a lot of Shortstraw’s fans are relocated South Africans, or in Cologne’s case, Germans who have been to South Africa and seen Shortstraw there, then brought all their friends to the local gig, which was surprising for the band. Certainly when the gig starts I can’t help but notice the overwhelming South African twang amongst the audience. South Africa certainly produces a variety of music with everything from rap to trance and Shortstraw's own list of local bands to watch: Early Hours, We Are Charlie and Matter Moore.
Onto their most recent album, Those Meddling Kids (TMK), which is still being released and is a real novelty in terms of how far the band has come in their career. Shortstraw have conceptualised a unique concept with this album. They have released a single on the first Friday of every month, bringing them up to 7 tracks so far. Each track has been accompanied with a witty email to subscribed fans, an out of the box music video (watch ‘Boo’ for a taste) and cover art by a different visual artist or designer. Al tells me about this ambitious method; “The first album was written over four years and was completely disjointed. This one is probably less disjointed, and is definitely more experimental because we didn't sit down in a room with the conscious intention to write an album. My favourite song to play live is the latest single, ‘Our Simple Minds’ because it’s unconventional and unconformist.’ Rus elaborated further saying, “if you sit down for one session to write, it makes sense that you could be writing very similar stuff. So from writing and recording in different cities as we go, we’ve got this wash of a variety of stuff. The idea was to focus on songs. To not be an album band. Shortstraw is very much a song band.”
And this is exactly the perfect description of Shorstraw: A song band. Uninhibited by boundaries and unprecedented in their ability to make you have fun with their music.
Review: Ty Bennett