I just couldn’t resist the idea. Getting three of my favourite musicians of the past 20 years in one room to discuss the beautiful animal that is Splashy Fen.
I knew there would be mostly laughing, a bit of sparring and recollecting of 25 years of history. I certainly wasn’t expecting total recall because, as it is with the rock ’n’ roll life, memories do go missing over the years.
So it was that Ard Matthews (Just Jinger), Dave Birch (Squeal) and Jon Ellis (Tree63) met at Iwantmycoffee to reminisce about the days of Splashy Fen of yore. The coffee shop in uMhlanga Rocks is owned by Matthews. They sell coffee, sandwiches and craft beer.
Matthews also broadcasts his iwantmyradio.com from the premises and his studio is tucked away behind the coffee bar. He is excited that he is broadcasting live from Splashy Fen for the first time. The studio will be situated next to the second stage which will feature comedy and up-and-coming artists.
The first sign of Matthews is when his dog, Jeff, comes bounding into the room. Matthews is grinning from ear to ear. His life back in Durban is going fantastically. Aside from his coffee shop, he has his solo career, the odd Just Jinjer gig and enjoys kite surfing on the warm Indian Ocean.
“Yeah, my life is pretty great,” he says.
After Birch and Ellis arrive, tables are moved for a photoshoot. Much fun and laughter ensue as Tonight photographer, Marilyn Bernard, clicks away.
The chemistry between these legendary musicians is strong. They are relaxed in each other’s company and as professional musicians are at ease with the camera. The customers don’t even blink.
Photoshoot over, we go into Matthews’ studio for the interview. It is an interview I battle to control as Matthews behaves like a man with attention deficit disorder, Ellis is eccentric and Birch tries to be serious and focused, but gets caught up in the chaotic energy of the other two. It’s clear Ellis and Matthews are close friends as they bounce of each other’s quips.
So when did their bands first perform at Splashy?
“Squeal first played in 1998,” begins Birch. “That was the year they allowed us in.”
Matthews chuckles: “I thought you said ‘sin’ – ‘they allowed sin.’”
Squeal’s relationship with Splashy Fen was an uphill battle. The event was originally a folk festival and only acoustic acts were allowed. From 1995 Squeal was one of the biggest rock bands in the country and by 1998 had already headlined Rustlers and Oppikoppi, but were not allowed at Splashy Fen.
To prove their popularity, Squeal booked an acoustic gig at the Durban Folk Club. They had a strong hold over the festival and stubbornly refused to yield in favour of the electric guitar. However, that year, the organisers acquiesced and allowed the big rock bands in. It made perfect sense. South African rock music was exploding with giants like Sugardrive, Springbok Nude Girls and Lithium packing out clubs across the country.
“It was nice to headline a festival which takes place in our home province,” says Birch.
Matthews could not remember when Just Jinjer first played Splashy. In fact, he did not have many clear memories of the festival. The band at that stage were huge and playing up to four gigs a weekend so gigs became a blur in his memory.
“I think we played and then left,” he says vaguely. “After the gig I made camomile tea and it stayed in for just 30 seconds which is longer than what I wanted it to stay in for.”
“Well, they didn’t allow religious extremists in until 2000,” says Ellis in mock seriousness. “That is when we played. We went down well enough to be invited back.
He continues: “I remember when Splashy first began and I attended as a music fan. There were only guitars and beers on the stage and it had no roof.”
So what makes Splashy such a great festival? “It is one of the prettier ones. I remember going there and wondering what the sound pain threshold is,” says Birch.
A side conversation is evolving between Ellis and Matthews. They start giggling and announce their new invention: Croc Martens, the most comfortable, coolest shoes ever. Oi! Focus!
Why Splashy? Matthews looks blank. Ellis takes up the question: “It has always had a sense of musical integrity and even if you get wasted there it is wasted with integrity.”
Matthews laugh again: “I just remember lots of flannel clothing.”
What is his best memory of Splashy Fen? “I forget her name now,” Matthews chuckles.
Birch tries to steer the conversation towards more serious matters: “I remember in 2004, all the tents blew away and then this sheep wandered through the camping area.”
“In 2008 there was a torrential down pour and Tree63 got stuck in the mud and Pedro Carlo (organiser) had to come and tow us up the hill in the pouring rain. When we stood on our guitar pedals on stage it was just mud,” recalls Ellis.
“The year Ard played the main stage and it was just him, his guitar and his iPad was amazing,” he continues. “After that gig Ard offered me a slug from his Jägermeister bottle. It was empty and when I told him, he just wondered off.”
Oops, I think I drank that bottle because Ard gave me a swig. Yeah, I think between Matthews, Huck Auben and myself we pretty much finished the bottle backstage. Matthews merely shrugs.
Again, Birch takes it back to serious. “That’s impressive. I don’t think I would have the guts to play just on my own without the backing of a band. I was impressed when I saw Chris Chameleon perform solo at Splashy. He was really impressive. When they put the stage halfway down the hill it was magical.”
Ellis nods his head in agreement: “One of my favourite memories is seeing Hothouse Flowers and Nibs van der Spuy’s band, Plagal Cadence, in the early ’90s and, more recently, Gangs of Ballet.”
The conversation moves on to Matthews broadcasting live: “We will be having late-night chats and interviews. We will be broadcasting the whole time.”
“Yeah, and the playlist will consist of only Squeal and Tree63.”
This invites jokes of band names and they eventually arrive at JustSqueal63.
So what can we expect from their performances at Splashy?
“Tree63 haven’t played together for seven years,” answers Ellis. “We will be playing favourites from the past. We got together to celebrate the legacy of Splashy Fen. The other two band members are flying out a week beforehand to practice. With this gig we are also putting a ribbon around the end of Tree63.”
Matthews is serious for the first time: “We have a guitarist now which makes us a four-piece again. For a while it was just the three of us and I was playing lead guitar. Then they were like: ‘No, you’re sh*t. Go back to playing rhythm guitar, back to where you belong!’”
“I had a motorbike accident 18 months ago and broke my arm quite badly,” says Birch. “I only recently started playing again so the guitar is going to sound much more meatier.”
Then he looks contemplative: “I suppose when you’ve had time to reflect there is a real celebration of what you enjoyed in the first place, why you started a band in the first place.”
Ending it there, I leave, grinning. That I could spend time with such wonderful musicians and then get to see them perform in the beauty that is Splashy Fen makes me realise there is a real celebration of what I enjoyed in the first place, why I became a South African music journalist in the first place.