There is a certain amount of beauty to instrumental music, and that is especially the case when it is an experimental fusion of acoustic and electronic music. This forms the foundation of Johannesburg-based producer Watermark High‘s music. Our South African correspondent, Craig Roxburgh, recently sent a few questions over to Watermark High to discuss how he produces music, the state of the South African music scene, and how electronic music is capable of bridging racial divides.
Your music reflects a very minimal approach to such a technical and complex amalgamation of sounds that sees you fusing acoustic elements with electronic overtures. How do you usually approach creating these astounding and evocative sonic landscapes?
Thank you. It’s usually quite experimental and time consuming – in the sense that it’s just a matter of trying many different things to see what works. I guess it also doesn’t help that I do not write in a linear fashion. Each track is different but usually I’d try and write an interesting beat or rhythm first and then either come up with chords that work nicely with that, or I’d throw some samples in my sampler and just start banging away to see if anything interesting happens. I usually start with a reasonably clear idea of what kind of track I want to write or what mood I’m going for, which saves a lot of time as you could easily just get lost in various rabbit holes if you’re not working towards an idea or within a specific genre.
You seem to draw inspiration from a wide variety of genres on your latest EP, For Good. What are some of the artist you were listening to while creating this particular EP, and did they play a large role in influencing the overall sound of the EP?
I’m a huge fan of Lapalux. He’s always been one of my biggest influences. Not in the sense that I want to copy his style, but his production techniques in terms of using a lot of tape machines and his stuff sounding very organic and ever-evolving, has hugely influenced me. Apart from that, I am highly influenced by Prefuse 73 and his sample chopping style…trying to take sounds you wouldn’t normally mix, and to try and make them work together as a new hole – that kind of experimentation is really exciting and fun. I have also always loved Bonobo and his ability to write more accessible stuff, but still keep things really interesting and unpredictable. There are a ton of others but I’ll stop there.
The South African electronic music scene seems to be divided into two front. One being the incredibly commercial and popular front that gets a lot of radio play, and then the more underground electronic scene where most of the true talent attempts to eke out a living. Your music falls into the underground scene. Have you ever felt that being in this more underground scene has ever put you at a disadvantage, seeing as you’re constantly performing alongside a hundred other artists that have the same goal as you?
I guess it depends on what your goals are. With Watermark High, my main goal has always been to please myself first and to try and shape my own sound according to what I like and what genuinely excites me. My tastes are quite left-field so it makes sense that my music would end up being more niche. Although it has less mass appeal, it makes the connections you do make with people who “get it”, so much more special. There are things I could do to try and get onto radio or to reach more ears, like collaborating with vocalists (as most people prefer music with vocals over instrumental music), but because I’m passionate about instrumental music, I’m not really concerned with that. I’m stoked as long as I’m excited about what I produce and I believe that sticking to your guns and working towards having a unique sound would automatically improve your chances of standing out from the crowd in the long run, opposed to making conscious efforts to get more people to like you or to be more popular.
On that note, Spoek Mathambo’s recent documentary Future Sound of Mzansi highlighted a lot of the struggles faced by underground electronic musicians, and how the majority of the country pays very little attention to these scenes despite the fact that they are shaping the sonic landscape of South Africa. Why do you think this is the case that people would rather listen to a generic pop rock band rather than a unique electronic artist?
I guess that’s just the same age-old question we’ve been asking forever. I think it just boils down to people valuing music differently. Not everyone wants to hear “different” music or get excited by unique genres or movements or whatever. Most people just want to hear a happy pop song with a hook on the radio or go out to a club and dance to forget their shitty work week. It’s more disposable and functional to the masses. They don’t really see it as art and put very little effort into finding new sounds. There’s not much you can do about that. I mean, I get it, it’s similar to how I don’t care about sports, but most people are really into it. That’s why I try not worry too much about how my music is received, it’s outside my influence and I know I appeal to a smaller, but more passionate, group of music listeners and lovers, so I try to focus on them opposed to trying to please everyone.
However, on a better note, the documentary points out that electronic music scene has been capable of traversing the massive cultural divide that Apartheid left in South Africa, or rather is trying its utmost best to breach that divide. Does this make you proud to be part of a scene that is capable of breaking down such cultural barriers, and why do you think that electronic music is the best medium for such actions?
Yeah, that is very true and it is great to see. I come from a background of playing in lots of rock bands, for years, and there is definitely a big difference between the audiences of rock music and electronic music in our country. I think that’s simply because electronic music has a more racially varied appeal because of its history. And within “electronic music” as an umbrella, there are more variety in cultures because of the wide range of sub genres including hip-hop, house, techno, electro etc. each with its own story. Things are changing overall I think, and it’s great to see more mixed audiences everywhere.
The South African music scene is currently receiving a lot of international attention with many artists being invited to perform overseas, but at the same time all this attention is pointing out some of the problems with the local scene. What are your thoughts on where the South African music scene currently stands, and what are some of the major problems with it?
I guess it’s always been like this and not necessarily just in South Africa. Locally, a lot of people only pay proper attention to an artist once they’ve attained some success overseas (ie. Spoek Mathambo, Die Antwoord, Civil Twilight etc). I don’t really understand why and I find it quite silly. I guess, again, it comes down to how people consume music. People who are more passionate about music as art, usually actively seek new sounds and know about artists for their music (not because they are popular) where most people tend to wait for the press, radio and mainstream media to tell them who is worth checking out. Again, I’m not sure if there’s anything you could do about that and I would again rather just focus on the people in the know, opposed to wasting energy on the sheep.
On that note, what do you think can be done to improve the South African music scene and move it in a positive direction?
I’m not sure. I mean, the exciting thing is that if you do actually put the effort in to explore local sounds, you will find that there are amazing things happening across various genres, and a lot of festivals and organisers are booking line-ups that are more diverse, which I think is great and which is something that should continue. The death of terrestrial radio would also be great in my opinion. If people found more music through specialised internet radio stations or streaming services which recommend artists based on your listening history, the general public would have a wider musical vocabulary and it would also greatly improve the chances of these people hearing smaller artists that they’d probably love, but that doesn’t fit into the cookie-cutter requirements of big radio stations. That’s why I am a huge supporter and user of streaming services like Deezer and Spotify. It’s the future.
Finally, what are your plans for the rest of the year?
I’ve been very focused on just producing this year and that will continue. I will probably be back in the live space later this year but I’m hoping to have some more new music out later in the year. To stay up to date, I’d recommend joining my mailing list or just keeping an eye on my website: http://www.watermarkhigh.co.za