The Blues Broers are the longest-running blues band in the country. They have just released a new album, Into the Red. Therese Owen spoke to the three band members about the offering and the journey that began in 1990.
The Blues Broers have been a tenacious part of the South African musical fabric for 25 years. The three members, Simon Orange, Rob Nagel and Albert Frost, have also been part of other bands over the years, playing with musicians like Valiant Swart and Arno Carstens.
With the release of their latest album, Into the Red, they are embarking on a nationwide tour.
“We called our last album Out of the Blue,” explains pianist Orange. “We expected to make money, but we didn’t, so I suggested to Rob that we call our next album Into the Red.”
This is their seventh album. It contains unexpected swing songs as well as the more traditional blues sound they do so well. Frost’s taste for some electric blues breaks gives a few of the tracks that edginess.
The thing with The Blues Broers is that they are individually highly accomplished musicians and live, they offer one of the best experiences in the country. Their musicianship is akin to that of trained jazz musicians, just in a different form.
Vocalist, bassist and harmonica player, Nagel, and Frost live in the Karoo town of Tulbagh which is near the Ceres Valley. For the pre-production of the album, Orange and newly acquired drummer, Jonno Sweetman, travelled to Tulbagh.
“We would go and record demos there,” says Orange. “We’ve been together for so long we’re like a family. Like any family, we aren’t the best of friends all the time, but as long as we work through that the band gets on.
“You often end up in a bed and breakfast and if you’re not getting on it can be crappy. You’ve heard all the jokes before, but it doesn’t stop people from telling them.
“We’re making music because we love it and because it works as a business. There are things each of us are good at. Albert is a better frontman, Rob has an encyclopaedic knowledge of the blues and I know music theory.”
The pre-production then went from one beautiful setting to another, the famous Sunset Studios just outside Stellenbosch, where people like the Springbok Nude Girls, Valiant Swart and Larinda Hofmeyer have recorded.
“We went to look at a whole lot of studios which was great fun for me because I got to examine all their studio gear. We finally went with Jurgen (von Wechmar, owner) because his studio has great sound. Also, you can get very intense recordings with these people and then walk outside and there are bees and cows.
“The idea was to do it as live as possible. The central band of guitar, keys, bass and drums was recorded together, which means we had to be tight. Then we brought in horn sections which included saxophone and trombone. We also feature Melissa van der Spuy on the album. She would give herself different characters including one called The Breathy Slut!”
The band plan to tour the album and their favourite hits beginning in Grabouw on April 17. They will also be at the National Arts Festival in Grahamstown from July 9 to 11 and will finish in Pretoria’s Atterbury Theatre on July 22.
“We have decided that this time around we need to play a few theatres because our fans are getting on in years.”
Yeah, and the fact that The Blues Broers are that good they need to be listened to attentively.
Simon Orange: pianist, vocalist
What have you been doing outside of The Blues Broers?
I am a piano player for many bands
or recording engineers. I do soundtracks sometimes as well so people sometimes hire me to play piano or keyboard for them. I session for rock bands, blues bands, Afrikaans bands or Idols winners and even jazz, occasionally. I’m not a very good jazz player, though.
What is your favourite memory of a Blues Broers gig?
I always like the gigs where we have a lot of people on the stage, there’s a horn section and back-up people. Kirstenbosch was great and we did Ou de Libertas, that was in Stellenbosch. Yeah, a big stage and a lot of people on the stage. That always does it for me.
What is your favourite Blues Broers memory?
Well, I remember people who have gone, I remember our dear drummer, Frank Frost. I remember playing with him. He died 15 years ago. I remember my folks always used to watch me play as well. They have both passed on, but used to love to come and watch me play. They would quite often be the oldest people in the room, but it never seemed to bother them.
What is your favourite song on Into the Red?
I rather like Fire and Brimstone which Rob wrote. It’s an anti-gospel song, but done in a gospel style that has gospel backing voices, an organ and brass. Depending on whether you take it seriously, it could be controversial, but I just think it’s quite funny.
Why blues in the 21st century?
Well, it’s one of those music genres… we don’t really have a strict approach to it. We’re not from Mississippi or anything, but you don’t need to be Japanese to make sushi. It may not be the best sushi but it’s still sushi. Blues is timeless because it’s been around for so long and it doesn’t matter how old you are. I can carry on playing it for 20 years more. There is no limit.
Albert Frost: vocalist, guitarist
I have been performing my solo show with my loop show and showcasing all my guitars. I have been involved with a show called Riders on the Storm with six guitarists – myself, Valiant Swart, Piet Botha, Robin Auld and Mel Botes and a new guitarist, Nathan Smith.
I am busy working with Chris Chameleon on a gospel album. Can you believe it? When he phoned I was like: “Dude, I have been waiting for 15 years and this is what you offer me?” He basically took traditional Afrikaans hymns and set them to rock music. Arno and I are going to hit the road again later on.
I did my first job as a musical director. We launched it at the KKNK. It’s called SA Blues Breakers and features myself, Gerald Clark and Natasha Meister, who has a powerful voice and holds down a Strat lead very well. It pays homage to the blues from old-school to psychedelic.
My favourite part of all the gigs is that we just have fun. It’s a bunch of old ballies trying to play each others’ songs and making each others’ music sound good. That’s why we have been together for 25 years. If there is any kak it gets sorted out immediately This is my 20-year anniversary with the band which is massive for me.
Looking back at my dad (Frank Frost) and checking the look in his eye. Also, the last five albums we have done together and the fact that it is all original music.
Caroline. It is an African-infused song I wrote with Simon. I had that groove in my head for ages and the last thing I expected was for the rest of the band to like it. Caroline pushes the boundaries of blues but it somehow fits in with The Blues Broers.
I find it’s a lot more free than other music forms. I have no interest in playing jazz. The trick about the blues is you have such a small box to work within that it’s challenging. It’s a timeless form. It’s not like a rock album which has a time frame.
Rob Nagel: Vocals, bass harmonica
Actually, quite a lot. I do a lot of duo work with Basson Laubscher and am in a duo with Albert Frost. I also play in this band called Witzenbergies because that is the name of the mountain range surrounding Tulbagh. I play with Chris Kreef who owns the travelling Kreef Hotel, a fruit farmer called Jannie Theron and a bass player called Goodstuff Franzsen. We also have a new guy called Groenie Groenewald who is the future blues guitarist. He has loads of talent and reminds me of Albert when he was that age.
There are so many. It was the first Oppikoppi gig. It was on top of the koppie and was more like a family gig. You could almost sense the dawning of something big. The owners, Tess and Boors, were so enthusiastic about South African music. I think Valiant was also there. It was amazing playing in the middle of the bushveld.
I think it was when Frank Frost joined the band all those years back. We wanted to record and he came out of nowhere. He was a great drummer. That was more than 20 years ago and it was a life-changing move and again you could tell that something big was about to happen. We recorded our first album on cassette.
I think it’s Fire and Brimstone because it has the most amazing sax solo by Dan Shout and the most amazing female vocals. It’s like a choir of Whitney Houstons, but it is only one vocalist, Melissa van der Spuy. Maybe I like it for the wrong reasons because it has other people doing the music. I also play a bit of sax and I can’t play that solo. I curse Dan Shout often.
The blues chose me. It’s like falling in love. You don’t decide whom you fall in love with. It’s true love so it’s with you for life. You can’t say now it’s the 21st century you must start listening to hip hop. Blues is always there. It has resurgences. It always comes back. It’s not like punk or grunge which I can’t see coming back in a big way, decade in and decade out. It’s the root of popular music.