“We’re not so fond of the bird rhetoric,” Louis says matter-of-factly in our living room, after I mentioned some of my working titles for this article. “The name’s just stuck and we like how it sounds. We thought at the time that it was a South African bird but it turns out its reach is far greater than that…”
Images and text by Philippus Johan
Louis Pienaar is the keyboardist and 1/6th (or 1/10th, depending on the grandiosity of the show) of Bateleur, and I happen to live with him. Before Louis, I happened to live with Nicolaas van Reenen, the multi-instrumentalist and arguable frontman (guiding-stage-presence, let’s say) of Bateleur. Other than our apartment, I spent most of my free time at St Michaels, the home of two other Bateleureans: Dylan Jefferys, the diligent drummer, who I’ve been friends with since school, with a degree in law and music, and Odon Human, the trumpeter/civil engineer. In these spaces as often – if not more – was Adam Bertscher, the shredding guitarist of notes, and Paul Mesarcik, the bassist. Save for Dylan and myself, these friends have been in each others lives for many years, and they’re all very, very democratic about how to make music together. If we’ve learned anything from 2016, it’s that democracy is time-consuming. Being in close proximity to this process, I asked some questions around this, wrote some words, and went to their final show in the hopes to find out what they were, if not a bird.
I remember Bateleur’s Facebook Music profile in 2009: a faded illustration of a tightrope walker balancing over a river (or a mountain? A forest?) on a gamboge yellow background. I immediately liked them (I suppose it is also worth mentioning that I ‘liked’ them too, there and then) despite not having heard any of their music prior, but there’s a reason for this — after I’d had my fun nu-raving, indie disco-ing and skinny-jeansing my way through 16-year old 2007, I was reaching a turning point in my identity, and wanted something less direct, willing to reveal its core at its own pace. I wanted to watch a gentle beast from afar, over the plains, capable of destructive force but humble in nature, grazing musically. And then I clicked play on the song Thanks, India. I didn’t like it.
But I did like what they were doing.
I like to imagine the music of Bateleur personified as an old man sifting through the files of some advanced archive system in a not-too-distant future, searching for a lost memory. His head would be down, gazing through a sort of eye mask, trying to find a visual reference to remind him of something he doesn’t remember, but is convinced is real, because a feeling — an emotion, a sense of place — convinces him it’s there.
Shortly before their presumed last performance as a band, I’m prancing around the Labia Theatre looking for familiar faces among the majority unknown. The excitement is palpable. The smell of popcorn fills the air. The reception is bright. I walk in on the band doing a quick sound check. They look excited, and they sound wonderful. Soon after, the cinema fills out for the band’s new music video/short film, a screening of Mendota Sky.
‘PREPPED FOR RELEASE’ writes the beekeeper on taped-up hives, ready to let go of them. The film follows a man who as a boy was obsessed with bees, but as an ageing young man, he grows weary of his passion; perhaps its been holding him back all this time? The song inclines gently before climaxing in a car crash, where the hives break open and the bees engulf the man, killing him. I think about this being the band’s last show preempting their first proper album – they’re prepped for release, but are they really ready to let go?
Ambitiously, Bateleur released their eponymous self-titled debut at one physical location called The Nest, an installation on the Kloof Corner hiking trail of Table Mountain. Built into the mountain and shaped like a rock with two ports – one for aux and one for USB – the idea was when a visitor whistles two tones, an LED light would activate, after which a USB can be inserted and the album would be transferred for free. Plug in your headphones to the mountain, sit back and enjoy the scenery as you listen to the album. An amazing sentiment, idea and execution. But one week into its activation, they found the whole thing destroyed, months of hard work taken away in one fell act. It’s hard not to let these kinds of setbacks affect your psyche, perhaps in the vein of “why can’t we have nice things.” At the show, leaflets with a Bandcamp download code are handed out.
The band walks onstage following gratuitous applause for the film. They’re all a bit older than the first time I saw them: I remember a time at Aandklas, a music venue and bar in Stellenbosch, years ago, when a friend Frank and myself would sit in for interviews and photos of the band because we fit the Bateleur look: long, thick hair and scruffy beards. I look at them now: neat, respectable boys, older, wearing simpler clothes and shining their eccentricity inwards, their music being the counterpoint.
I’d like to imagine you can take all of Bateleur’s songs and condense them into one long, patient movement. Everything they’ve made is in the canon of Bateleur: drawn out, moody trumpets; looping synth keys; shifts in tone and speed, like a conversation with one’s self.
The seated experience works for a Bateleur show. Their’s is aesthetic music, often about closing the eyes and finding the visual to match with – music for thoughts. But, just in case, on the enormous film screen above the band are overlaid visuals to aid the show: colourful jellyfish, x-rays of hands, liquids such as honey in various states of movement, night flying birds, mountains and ferns. The effect is hallucinogenic. There’s no concern over how to react to the music: just absorb.
On stage, Paul smiles and hops. Nic bends, suddenly extends, eyes closed: behind them, visible euphoria. Adam and Dylan are diligent, shredding hard and crashing cymbals. Odon manages to gravitate attention around him like a sun: my gaze loops from the string section and cellists to the core band on the right, back to Louis on the far left, sitting at his keyboard like a teacher overseeing an exam. I’ve always enjoyed shows for the songs that interrupt my train of thought: for this show, it was the songs ‘Chiaro‘ and ‘Zoom‘. Elements of Nic’s Fever Trails project have spilled over into the former, but in the most complimentary way imaginable. ‘Zoom’ brings me pause, thinking back to all the shows I’ve seen, and how this really is the logical culmination of years of hard work. Without drawing comparisons to the music of other bands, their’s is atmospheric and forlorn: best heard in big spaces. It’s with this song that I suddenly feel a loss. What if this really is their last show? Why do we struggle to appreciate until it’s all gone?
After the show, I head home. Louis mentioned the band would be coming over for drinks after the show, but by midnight, when they show up, I’ve grown sleepy. Still, I sit with them for a while. I ask a few questions but almost none are answered properly – all of them become lost in the jostling of each member’s individual understanding of the band. One question is answered though when I ask whether this really was Bateleur’s final show.
“We’ve been asked that a few times tonight,” it is explained “if you want to manage us, without getting paid, and take on all the emotional responsibilities and psychological trauma of this experience then yes, we will continue. But the point is that we can’t do it. We can’t do this and like, play, you know. There’s no career incentive for a manager. We’re not going to make you rich. Some of us are building fire detectors that will save thousands of lives and improve people’s quality of life, you know. We don’t have as much time as we used to.”
To continue my original conversation with Louis:
“We’re not so fond of the bird rhetoric,” Louis says matter-of-factly in our living room, after I mentioned some of my working titles for this article. “The name’s just stuck and we like how it sounds. We thought at the time that it was a South African bird but it turns out its reach is far greater than that.”
“But then, why’d you call the album location The Nest?”
“I don’t know. Haven’t you realised we’re a band of contradictions?”
Bateleur’s debut full length LP is out now via their Bandcamp below and more images, design and things from the author here.