Oppikoppi has invited the band that helped start it all 20 years ago to play at the festival. Therese Owen witnessed the formation and subsequent success of one Urban Creep all those years back. She caught up with Brendan Jury and Chris Letcher in Braamfontein.
Urban Creep were considered the intellectuals of the rock scene in South Africa all those years ago.
Their sound wasn’t quite grunge and it certainly didn’t contain the then much-required distortion of metal guitars. But what it did have was the angst of that time and the fragile beauty of new beginnings. We were a country birthing into a fully fledged democracy and avoiding an outright civil war. Delicate times indeed.
Brendan Jury and Chris Letcher were not those spoilt white kids who started a band for the chicks and the parties. They were, and still are, musicians to the core of their beings.
Going against the grain with both their albums, Sea Level and Tightroper, they used violins, keyboards and understood texture and subtle tones. Their music has endured and is as good as anything else around 20 years later.
Now they are reuniting to play both Oppikoppi this weekend and the 30 years of Shifty Records celebrations next month.
Shifty Records was their record company back in the day. The label was owned by Lloyd Ross who had
a vision to record truly original South African music. In fact, it was the legendary prince of Shifty Music, James Philips, who persuaded Ross to sign the group after he saw them perform in Rockey Street, Yeoville.
“I was quite terrified at the prospect of reuniting because it was a very long time ago,” confesses Jury.
“It was strange visiting such an old time. But when we did our first practice I realised that the musicians in Urban Creep – Sean Ou Tim, Ross Campbell and Chris Letcher – are so good which is why it was so big at the time.”
Letcher agrees that the prospect of reuniting for these gigs was nerve- racking: “I initially had major cringe factor.”
Recalling those heady memories, the band were one of the most hardworking in the country prior to the days of the Springbok Nude Girls. They toured every small town in the country. They would play up to 23 gigs in a month which is still unheard of in this country. This is how they first encountered the Oppikoppi team.
“Carel Hoffman was a serious fan,” recalls Letcher. “They had booked one or two bands and then they invited us to play at this tiny, amazing gig. That was the seed of Oppikoppi. We played for 40 people and did a few of those gigs.”
“Oppikoppi’s farm owner, Tess Boorman, was really sweet and cooked us food which was amazing,” continues Jury. “Oppikoppi was an oasis for us during those touring years.
“What Oppikoppi did was make original South African music mainstream,” he adds.
“Elsewhere we were playing to the converted, but there we were brought into the mainstream.”
After the band split up, Letcher collaborated with Matthew van der Want and then left for England where he worked on film scores.
Jury toured with Arno Carstens in his solo career and has also written a few music scores. He says that one of his highlights was working on the score for William Kentridge’s opera, Ubu and The Truth Commission with Warwick Sony.
“I have been really happy working on Africa Rising with Black Coffee and did all the orchestral arrangements on it.”
He says another highlight was working on the score for iNumber Number: “I am really proud of that. The brief was: ‘Trent Reznor meets Africa’.”
He then did the music for the award-winning Unearthed, a controversial documentary about fracking in the Karoo.
“With Unearthed I was dealing with the stark reality, but it’s beautiful because it’s the Karoo so you can play with nostalgia and those vistas. In film writing one has to understand the way the director sees everything and understand the vision that they have. There are so many opportunities for composers, but it’s the most difficult time to be a musician.”
“I played Urban Creep to my in-laws who had been in exile and they called it ‘revolutionary’,” says Jury.
“I don’t think we were aware of what we were doing at the time,” contemplates Letcher.
Letcher has released two solo albums, Frieze and a second called Spectrascope. He recently did the music scores for Hard To Get and Cold Harbour. He has also composed the soundtracks for various BBC programmes in England. Letcher is currently working on music for a feature film called Impunity.
They will play OppiKoppi on Friday at sunset on the Wesley Dome.