With the help of local Industrial Metal band Terminatryx, we take a look at what it truly means to be alternative – and it turns out it’s much more than goat sacrifice and being angry at your parents.
The dictionary describes “alternative” as “the choice between two mutually exclusive possibilities” or “existing outside traditional or established institutions or systems, espousing or reflecting values that are different from those of the establishment or mainstream”. PLAYBOY has always been able to walk the line between being popular, yet against the grain of the mainstream (please, allow us to use that word without invoking images of thick-rimmed glasses, deep-V’s and beards), whilst still retaining prestige. When using the term in the case of entertainment and music, it is almost universally applied to genres such as Rock, Metal, Industrial, Goth, Hardcore, Progressive Neo-Black Metal, Viking Metal, Goth Rock, EBM, Darkwave, Power Metal, Post-Hardcore, Deathcore, Djent, Punk Rock… I fear I have digressed. The list goes on, but for the sake of this article, ‘alternative’ will imply all those genres and sub-genres encompassed in one. And let’s forget about the genre actually labelled as “Alternative Rock”, it is much too vanilla and indecisive. These genres are for the most part clearly divided from the so-called mainstream influence, more often than not choosing a darker approach to both music, aesthetics and subject matter (except maybe for Power Metal, it’s the happiest of the metals).
The South African alternative scene has stayed true to its ethos and for decades resided mostly underground, due to lack of recognition and simply the nature of the beast. Virtually no group falling under that moniker is on the Top 10. We’ll leave Die Antwoord out of this for the sake of genre, but they are most certainly not of the mainstream, and most certainly do rake in the millions. That is not to say music of the alternative persuasion cannot make you a living, Europe is packed with bands that wear leather and spikes as a day job. Finland’s Lordi are known for their nightmarish costumes and outlandish stage shows, and they won the Eurovision Song Contest in 2006, one of the most sought after prizes in popular music and famously won by artists like ABBA and Celine Dion in the past. They even have Lordi Coke and Lordi credit cards, metal churches and a children’s show about a heavy metal band of dinosaurs called Heavisaurus. So, has alternative inadvertently become mainstream in Scandinavia? Or is it simply a cultural phenomenon?
On this continent however, no one is in it solely to make money – it has never and probably will never be financially viable. But what it lacks in numbers, it makes up for in passion. To quote a vocalist of a local band, “when you take money out of the equation, you’re left with only the music and passionate people”. Unbeknownst to most, the South African scene has within it many influential and extremely talented individuals and groups, and the Dark Ages sentiment that it’s all a bunch of satan-worshipping noise unfortunately still perpetuates in the mainstream mind. There’s been innovation and variation on a grand scale for such a small scene; the first ever collaboration with the top-rated choir in the world (members of Stellenbosch University Choir), the world’s only Afrikaans metal and rock bands, the Voëlvry movement of the 90’s, and newspaper headlines with swear-words (Fokofpolisiekar) to name a few. There are also burgeoning metal scenes in Algeria, Angola, Botswana, Egypt, Kenya, Madagascar, Mauritius, Morocco, Mozambique, Namibia, Tunisia, Uganda, Zambia and Zimbabwe (check out Metal4Africa.com if you don’t believe us) – and all of them with a deep meaning and sense of community for those involved.
During the 80’s, popular music in South Africa was heavily controlled, sanctioned and mostly terrible. Never veering too far from the saccharine love ballads and songs about brannewyn, it only satisfied a certain percentage of the population. But as in any generation, there were those who rebelled and found inspiration from likeminded individuals from across the oceans. Fueled by anger towards the totalitarian government and conservative culture, an underground scene began to form. One of the groups at the forefront were a bunch of lads who called themselves V.O.D (Voice Of Destruction). Among their ranks were brothers Paul and Francois Blom, on drums and vocals respectively. V.O.D went on to tour Europe, scare the bejesus out of tight-lipped Afrikaners, and usher in a generation of riffing, headbanging kids.
Since those days, Paul Blom has had his fingers in many alternative pies. Producing alternative Afrikaans compilation albums (Kopskoot!), manning the drumkit for genre-busting Afrikaans band KOBUS!, and together with his partner Sonja Ruppersberg, running film festivals, performing live horror movie soundtracks with The Makabra Ensemble and being the driving force behind Terminatryx, South Africa’s only female-fronted Industrial-Metal band. I went round to Theo Crous’ (Springbok Nude Girls) Bellville Studios to get a taste of Terminatryx’s new album “Shadow” and get into their decidedly non-mainstream minds.
Theo played me some select tracks and some yet to be mastered, and the songs hit you right in the chest, as most metal/industrial tracks should – partly due to the magnitude of Mr. Crous’ speakers and partly because of how the songs are arranged. Terminatryx has taken all the elements they love in music and put it into one – catchiness, heaviness and darkness with a dash of tongue-in-cheek. In between the barrage of songs, I get some questioning in.
PLAYBOY: What was your vision for Terminatryx when you decided to start the project?
PAUL: The idea of a more extreme band blending Metal and electronic / industrial elements with female vocals appealed to me. I returned from Europe, where V.O.D recorded and toured, a few years before meeting Sonja. I played drums in V.O.D and in the UK bought myself a bass guitar to bring life to songs I had bouncing around my head. I messed around with a solo project dubbed F8, and when Sonja mentioned (in 2002) that she wanted to start an Alternative band with her on vocals, I was keen to make it a reality. With real Alternative music neglected across the planet, and even more so here in SA, women within that realm are even more rare. I like to tread uncharted routes, do something different to the norm, and with the male-driven Metal of V.O.D, I was keen to do something different. We wanted to give SA something it didn’t have.
SONJA: We simply wanted to do something different. The first validation came when popular German Goth / Darkwave group Diary of Dreams toured South Africa, and we were approached to support them. We jumped at the opportunity, so our first ever Terminatryx live shows were supporting an international act on an SA tour! For me it was a great learning curve and a huge lesson in what it takes to perform live, no glamour, just a whole lot of sitting around, waiting and lots of criticism.
PLAYBOY: How do you find the new digital age has affected both the marketing and the consumption of music in SA – especially the more underground genres?
PAUL: It is great for someone who don’t like entering a music store and discovering new gems. But unfortunately a symptom is also the diminishing of specialist stores, the mainstream chains staying afloat with their commercial stock. Some of these stores do have our music, but people often have to ask them to order discs, and if an incompetent sales assistant who doesn’t even know who The Beatles are stare at you blankly, it can be more frustrating than going on-line and ordering it without a hitch. I still love the real thing. Yeah, the illegal download side of it is a pity. In the long run it can affect decent output of music, as eventually, if you don’t at least break even, why would you want to do another album and run a loss yet again? We can only hope that people would regain their conscience and see music’s worth – the arguments are numerous, but unfortunately cannot justify taking something unlawfully, someone’s livelihood, be it a physical object or “invisible” music file – that’s the bottom line. Far less artists are part of large record company conglomerates and besides their creativity and energy, put in their own money to create a product they’re proud of, as we do.
SONJA: The new digital age has been great for everyone, especially the underground scene which has always struggled to get their work out in the world. It is however a double edged sword with illegal downloading being at the order of the day. People in general have no idea what goes into getting music recorded properly and the cost involved. We have seen the difference in having our work available on platforms such as CD Baby and iTunes vs. also having our physical albums in retail outlets such as Look & Listen and Musica. We are approaching a point where we will no longer have a choice in the matter, not having your work downloadable will be like not existing at all. Having a cyber-presence is very important and all the new platforms have made it possible for us to get our music out to the world. One should never underestimate the value of a physical CD that you can hold in your hand though, and having your merchandise available at live performances is key. People like meeting you face-to-face and getting your autograph on the CD booklet – this can never be replaced by anything that you download, or a personal message to fans on YouTube.
PAUL: The digital age has definitely improved everything from communication to distribution of music. In the late-’80s with V.O.D we did tours to Johannesburg from Cape Town with no cell phones, no internet, no press or on-line event guides to get the word out – photo copied flyers and poster runs! No bands could afford CDs – we were still trading cassettes with people around the world via snail mail and writing letters and answering questions for ‘Zines produced in bedrooms all over the planet, photo copied and mailed out to all continents. Today almost anyone can record a decent demo or even releasable song or album in their home, where we had to book into an analogue studio, sometimes very costly, no digital editing, you had to know your shit and get it right. Today everyone expects to become instant superstars simply because they were born – everything must just “happen” with the click of a mouse.
PLAYBOY: Aesthetics is an important part of any band’s representation these days, and you have nailed that quite well with Terminatryx, do you sometimes feel that current bands put too much emphasis on the aesthetics and not enough on the actual music?
SONJA: In my opinion South African bands in the Alternative sphere do not place enough emphasis on aesthetics. We were criticised in the beginning of being more polished on our looks than on our music. I have always felt that the combination of visuals and sound is what gets people going. People pay to see you perform live, you need to give them a show, you need to bring out your brand in your look, this does not only apply to the likes of Lady Gaga and Katy Perry. The performance must be a complete experience engaging almost all of the senses. Our live act involves the screening of visuals synced with our live performance. We always try to include this, but unfortunately most venues cannot accommodate the set up. Lucky for us our look is not that involved, but we make sure that our visual on stage match the excitement of visuals in our music videos. I have great admiration for the likes of Marilyn Manson, Gwar and local bands like Theatre Runs Red, who really bring it on stage when it comes to looks matching the performance.
PLAYBOY: Why do you think people are attracted to the darker side of things?
SONJA: Some people are just drawn to darker elements – unfortunately there is no explanation that I can give. I know I am attracted to it, but I think you are born that way. It is a love for drama and suspense and a drive to not go with the group and be one of the sheep. People attracted to the darker side of things are dedicated and committed to their lifestyle just as much as the mainstream run of the mill person is. We are picky and know what we want. We hate being part of the norm and therefore fill our lives with things from the fringe. I would not have it any other way.
PLAYBOY: You’ve both also been responsible for many local film festivals, like the HorrorFest, X-Fest and the Celludroid Sci-Fi Festival – where did your love for niche films come from?
PAUL: I think it reverts back to what Sonja said about it’s just something you’re born with – a taste that veers away from the norm. We also like making movies (and produce our own music videos), and darker-, horror-, paranormal themes simply make their way into it as a natural matter or course. With no-one ever making the move to create film festivals for Horror, Sci-Fi etcetera here in South Africa, we simply went ahead and did it ourselves. In 2014 Terminatryx will enter its twelfth year, and our HorrorFest will have its decade anniversary, and our Makabra Ensemble live movie soundtrack project will hit eight.
PLAYBOY: What are your views on the current environment for bands in South Africa, particularly those of the alternative persuasion?
PAUL: For the most part I just keep my head down and do my own thing, not getting influenced or affected by trends, doing it for the love of it, the way I want to do it. But, it will remain a struggle if you choose to pursue music, or movies, or anything creatively, that does not conform to the mainstream. Even though it is looked down upon, Metal definitely dominates in the SA Alternative realm, with Punk and Gothic alternatives waning. It’s a pity, as I appreciate all of it. Good news for fans of the latter though, late-March Terminatryx will be performing live with The Awakening (legendary local Goth band now situated in the USA) on their first SA tour in 6 years.
SONJA: I have seen great things happening in Cape Town lately, with up and coming bands like The Flaming DeVilles and Subvers helping to blow life into the scene. We are seeing the alternative life coming back into Cape Town with the opening of Underworld and our activities with the HorrorFest film festival which has kept an awareness and focus on all things alternative. Ramfest and Metal 4 Africa have been doing a great job in creating platforms for more alternative bands and bringing international acts to our shores. South Africa generally has a great Metal scene with great bands and loads of talent. We need more venues and more airplay. We need to invest in our culture because no one else will. It is no use sitting around waiting for things to happen, we need to make it happen.
PLAYBOY: Why do you think it’s important for people to break away from what is considered “mainstream”? And by that we don’t mean hipsters.
PAUL: It’s one of the few ways you can be true to yourself, and not do what commercial radio and TV prescribes. It seems like things are just dumbing down more, I’m not sure where we can still go from here… If you have hopes of making a lot of money in a short span of time, the Alternative route should not be your first choice. One does want a certain amount of recognition for your efforts though, but while it can be frustrating, you’ll have to resign yourself to the fact that the minute niche you may fall in here will not necessarily give you that. Abroad the population is far more vast and can sustain a wide range of Alternatives, and is a bitch to break into as you’ll have to join the queue – but locally it can be frustrating.
SONJA: I think for most people it is just the easiest thing to conform, it comes naturally to them and there is absolutely nothing wrong with it. It takes all kinds to make the world an interesting place, even Hipsters and Emos… but there is a rare breed, a tribe that refuses to conform and they avoid the mainstream with all their might, and as I have said before, it is based on the need to not just be another face in the crowd but to stand out, be unique and different. It is an instinctive drive and not something that is acquired. It is not a fad or a phase or hormones or angst, it is a personality trait that some of us are born with, some people to lesser or more degrees than others – in the end we are all on a spectrum in all things.
PLAYBOY: Sonja, do you ever feel prejudice or judgement for being a female vocalist in the alternative scene?
SONJA: There has been lots of debate about the subject and yes, I do sometimes feel judgement. Sometimes I wonder if the band would have done better with a male vocalist, but then it would not be Terminatryx, I guess. I have had one or two nasty experiences and comments and I think generally people prefer male vocals when it comes to Alternative music, but for all of the negativity I have experienced positive feedback and acknowledgement in bigger quantities and as I have grown older and more professional, I have learnt not to worry about the bad so much and to focus on the good. I have had many girls come up to me after a show thanking me for “representing” – it makes it all worthwhile.
PLAYBOY: Who are some artists in any field whom you think are full of promise and/or are doing good things for the entertainment industry locally?
SONJA: On the alternative music scene (involving women) I love Cold Hand Chemistry, Natalie from Conduit and previously mentioned Theatre Runs Red. In terms of Radio personalities I love Bryan O’ Pines from Zone Radio, Fluffee and the UCT Radio folks, and Susana Kennedy from Two Oceans Vibe radio (who also produced horror movies like Night Drive). I think they are doing a lot to spread the love and give some of the lesser known activities some airtime. Horror / Fantasy writers like Nerine Dorman.
PAUL: Louis and the MK Ondergrond guys have done quite a bit recently, besides the first SA Metal TV show, including adding our country to the Wacken Metal Battle roster, and of course our first choice of photographer, Dr-Benway.
*Ed’s Note: For a Real Alternative Music experience, visit RAMfest, taking place in Cape Town and Johannesburg 6-9 March, and featuring 4 International headliners (Trivium, Killswitch Engage, Foals and Biffy Clyro) and the cream of South Africa’s music talent.
By George van der Riet
PHOTOGRAPHY AND POST-PRODUCTION: DR-BENWAY
Model: Sonja Ruppersberg of Terminatryx
Make-Up: Michael Ivy
Hair Stylist: Daleen Badenhorst
Wardrobe: Wolf Clothing & Sonja
Styling: Sonja Ruppersberg & Michael Ivy
Tattoos & Body Piercing: WildFire
Dragon Rings: Tonto Brand
Studio Facility & Lighting Supply: Cosmesis / Masque
Assistant to Dr-Benway: Megan Davies
Published in Playboy South Africa February 2014