Sunday, October 25, 2009

wit and whiskey - a chat with valiant Vernon Swart

Vernon Swart is a veteran of live music living life large in a small town. jezebel stole off to Stellenbosch to meet a man respected for hitting things with sticks and painting naked chicks.

No early fader, Mr. Swart shares a surname and a past with blues rock band Valiant Swart. While it was sometimes kak to give tannie her weekly dose of sokkie draai in a penguin suit, his live performances paid his way through university. You could say he’s has seen it all, at least, as much as you can see from behind a drum kit behind the guitarist and bassist behind the stage lights. He even remembers some of it through the haze, though it’s left him half deaf in one ear. I went over to find out about then and now, and ended up talking philosophy and the future. Normal, I suppose, when you start with whiskey at two pm. And anyway, what’s normal in the music industry? This man survived hecks, thugs, and shlock and droll to become a proud member of the Cloud Appreciation Society...

jezebel : Tell us something we didn’t know

Vernon : Valiant always introduces me on stage as his brother, but we’re not blood relatives. But when we fly, the plane ticket is in his real name, and I’m V.Swart, so sometimes I get upgraded to business class.

Your lad Lucas is the drummer for indie-blues-rock band The Pretty Blue Guns. Like father like son?

He started playing classical guitar at school when he was very young. Then Karen Zoid recognised his talent, and he started jamming with her. One day the local church up the road announced that they needed a drummer – it was Andre, Greg and Brandon. He borrowed my sticks and went up and played. He had grown up hearing blues. I didn’t think much of it until one day I listened to them play and I realised he could play.

Funny, the Guns’ roots, when you consider songs like Devil Do. Both your boys are musical –is it in the blood?

I think there’s a musical sensibility that came through me somehow (though it’s sure as hell not my musical knowledge). Reuben was actually the one that wanted to play the drums, in fact that he was the one that was persistent. There was a long hiatus when I didn’t play, and there were drums around. I gave it all up to and be married and mow lawns while I was a teacher in Cape Town. I had a lot of musical collections, and they listened to a lot of music. Ruben always wanted to play and my excuse was that he wasn’t big enough yet (for the drum kit). Until Rueben said, ‘you know dad, how long do my legs need to be?’

Do you think many of today’s young rockers will be making music when they’re past 30?

I would love to say yes, but the sad reality is that many give it up, for many reasons, for better or for worse. You just have to look around the top bar at Oppi Koppi where so many bands signed their names over the years, and then quietly faded away, or went out with a bang. It's a tough job, not for sissies.

You’ve seen your fair share of creativity and counter culture, commercial and corporate. But now what would you do if your son gave up music and wanted to become an accountant? Or a lawyer. Or a married, lawn-mowing man…

I would go out and buy a big hat and eat it if either of them did that, but the old cliché applies, they could do anything they wanted and daddy will always love them.

Valiant Swart shared a gig with the Guns really early on. What was it like?

Valiant was always very supportive of new talent that way. They were pretty bumpy. But Valiant immediately saw it – that Andre’s got it. They were there on time, and we were late as usual. Valiant looked at their instruments – we couldn’t’ believe what these kids had – strats and fenders - stuff we couldn’t afford. I’d give my left ball for a Strat…

What is the role of constructive criticism in the evolution of musical creativity?

I’m not sure that there are many people that are actually experienced and articulate enough to voice their criticism. The question is what is the criterion to be a music journalist?

Good question. I guess nobody likes to be told they’re kak, but musos do want the public to buy their (sometimes kak, sometimes superb) mp3s.

Criticism is essential for any creative process. As much as artists might say that they're creating for themselves and they don't give a shit what people think etc etc, they are still out there performing and peddling their wares for the people. Artists wear their hearts on their sleeves, and they all want positive strokes. Criticism can motivate or demoralize different bands. Unfortunately, the standards of commentary fluctuate immensely. As we know, there is no such thing as absolute objectivity, but some journalists, especially the more inexperienced ones, tend to glorify their favourite bands and knock the others, musically and personally, which doesn't do anyone any good.

Parting thoughts?

When I quit teaching art, the principal of the art centre took me aside and said, ‘do you realise what you’re letting yourself in for, you’re now surrounded by responsible people that will always support you, but now you’re letting yourself into this drug infested chaos.’ But you know, it’s those people who are in the chaos who stick by you, through it, after it.

Bless you, Vernon.

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