Since 2012, we’ve witnessed the apex of EDM and its swift subsequent decline. And whether or not you rejoiced on account of this fact (like I did), festivals like Ultra are still drawing in loyal crowds and attracting household names associated with its heyday, suggesting that we’re currently wallowing in a prolonged drop-culture hangover. The question thus arises: now that we’ve reached peak EDM, where is the mainstream supposed to go from here. Is Fever Trails an option? Even those cursorily acquainted with the Bateleur member’s solo venture will vouch for the incongruity of this association. Fever Trails’ experiments are at least a few steps away from the ‘electronic music’ with which a majority of Southern Africans would be acquainted. Still, the idea of an incrementally expanding, diverse fanbase, in this climate, is not something to scoff at.
In the build-up to the release of (legal name) Nicolaas Van Reenen’s engrossing Wax Bridge EP – out now on Quit Safari – the decidedly dreamy multi-instrumentalist and I sat down for a discussion on the balcony of his Tamboerskloof apartment. I’d met Nic a few times prior to the interview. We’d once had a lengthy chat about authenticity and derivation in Cape Town’s garage scene on a blurry Assembly night that ended with Nic excusing himself to go to the bathroom, doubtless too polite to admit the conversation had run its course. He’s a friendly dude that punctuates his high-brow musings with earnest, hearty laughter: a disarming counterweight to any glints of pretension. He’s got jokes, too. When describing how it feels to pour yourself into your music, he alludes to the Adventure Time episode where Finn goes to another dimension and meets another version of himself who turns into a sword. [Spoiler alert: Finn then wields himself as a sword.]
If that’s too arcane a reference, I’ll refer you to the music on which he was reared. Having two hip, 20-something older sisters apparently aids the refining of one’s adolescent tastes. From an early age he became enamoured with left-of-the-mainstream acts renowned for phat beats. Blackalicious, Jurassic 5, Lateef the Truthspeaker, Cut Chemist and DJ Shadow are all artists he labels seminal in his life, so it’s conceivable why his solo pursuit would centre his production and drum interest. The latter manifests itself in some tasteful percussion choices on Wax Bridge; the track-defining drums that open the reductionist first track, for example, boast a refined immediacy. Those on the follow-up speak to his love for big beats hip hop. It shows that Nic’s comfort-zone remains close to his muso roots. Like most musical kids, he started with piano, which he promptly ditched for guitar and some experiments with the clarinet after matriculating.
Even his former Fever Trails bandmates, Sebastiano Zanasi (of Yes in French, Hessien+ and Christian Tiger School) and Dylan Jefferys (also of Bateleur) – and for a time, Skye McKinnes of Sakawa Boys – joined the project to help him segue between the comfort zones of working in a band and kicking it solo. It also helped the live shows, which kicked off before the name Fever Trails had even arrived at ex-rave-cave Liquid in 2012, with a show for his first solo body of work, Wrestlemania. The two, or sometimes three, extra live members contribute to spontaneity. Plus, he got to have some mates on stage that he chirped he could blame his mistakes on.
As of recently, Fever Trails is a one-man-show. And after gaining some insight into Nic’s process, one struggles to imagine a more honest depiction of Wax Bridge than having it performed by the exclusive sower of its seeds. That said, Van Reenen still shares Bateleur duties with Jefferys and both Fever Trails and Christian Tiger School are integral components of Quit Safari – a podcast-turned-label that he helped co-found and which Hessien+-mates Zanasi and Bas Van Oudenhove co-run. And while Christian Tiger School and Fever Trails don’t sound especially alike (despite being oft mentioned in the same breath), Nic believes their creative inspiration comes from a similar place. Quit Safari was, after all, founded partly as a podcast for him and some friends to house their side-projects but evolved into a club whose members share a vision, accommodating each act’s idiosyncrasies and offering one another unequivocal support. When the market is so saturated, Nic finds comfort in having at least five people that aren’t going to push his hard work aside.
There are moments on the latest release that cast vivid sketches of the goings-on in the recesses of Nic’s mind. As such, I was eager to learn about his understanding of his relationship with his audience. For instance, at least some portion of Fever Trail’s punters are comprised of Bateleur fans with a sole interest in what Van Reenen does next. He accounted that his work with that band opened up possibilities for more weirdness, both in terms of how his audience receives him and within his own creative process. Still, it’s never been his intention to write difficult music; he simply creates sounds that he finds enjoyable, and anyone that can tap into his mood will be his audience. It’s this open embrace of sonic freedom that results in such charming variety on Wax Bridge, with everything still clearly marked ‘Van Reenen‘ in bold, like a prep-school togbag,
Viewing art is a subjective endeavour. In Nic’s experience, this can manifest itself in chuckle-worthy ways, with gig-goers sometimes on a disparate plane of understanding. Once, after a show in Durban, he was passionately thanked for bringing drum & bass back to the scene. While he’s got no beef with drum & bass, he’s still flabbergasted that someone would make that connection to his music. He recounted the anecdote in a half-decent Durban-bru accent – it’s not hard to see the funny side – but gently winced at the prospect of such a stark disconnect. The new EP makes a clear allusion to drop-culture on ‘Draw Me’ but punchlines the quip with a drop-deprivation reminiscent of Cid Rim cutting short his ‘Recover’ remix at CTEMF 2013. One wonders how Nic’s Durban fan would have reacted.
A more optimistic observation is that his music is attracting fans from different ends of the electronic fan-pool (Nowadays, at least. As a UCT first-year in 2010 it wasn’t outlandish to enjoy both drum & bass and Bateleur). Attached to this conclusion was my intrigue as to where Nic himself believed he fell in relation to the mainstream conception of electronic music. And further, whether he thinks his listeners are more susceptible to Fever Trails’ experiments because of a particular affinity for familiar electronic sounds, considering its continued status as the flavour du jour for millions around the world. Van Reenen’s idea of electronic music revolves around the instrumentation used – an attraction solely to the synthetic is something he considers arbitrary. Blackalicious and DJ Shadow fall under ‘electronic music’ for him. They weren’t bands playing actual instruments. He adopts this unrestricted approach to his writing: not bound by any form of template, just writing what comes naturally to him with a strong emphasis on groove – a synopsis clearly pertinent to his newest work, too.
Because Nic’s music is a reflection of his own internal rhythm, it makes sense that he’d find his music intensely danceable. That he has a confessedly whack dancing style should theoretically be a deterrent, but patrons of his shows don’t seem to mind. In fact, they often get pretty loose, too. For Nic, this is what characterises a good Fever Trails gig. He loves it when people express a connection to his music by physically losing it and busting out some bizarre shakes at his shoes. So if you’re looking to get his attention, bust out your best Sam Herring at his next performance.
He revealed quite matter-of-factly that if his listeners get a sense of him in his songs, he’d have succeeded.
Despite any expressions to the contrary, Van Reenen made it clear that he has reconciled himself with the fact that there are always going to be listeners and critics with different perspectives on Fever Trails. It’s inevitable. His only real duty is to guide his listeners into a zone of comfort, and hopefully, appreciation, where they can find his music rewarding in their own way. The unparalleled self-affirmation that accompanies creating music of which one can be proud strikes me as a powerful creative impetus for Fever Trails. He’s interested only in making music that he believes is unique to himself. And regardless of how some people may interpret it, he’s determined to carve out his own path and be recognised for it one day. When you listen to something and get an honest sensation, you can feel its creator’s intent. He revealed quite matter-of-factly that if his listeners get a sense of him in his songs, he’d have succeeded.
Nic’s position on a so-called ‘arbitrary’ attraction to electronic instrumentation is detached from a broader context. Events like Sonar and CTEMF and their multiplicity of acts from across the electronic smorgasbord present an open-ended approach to a culture with progressive potential. They’re celebrations of the genre that manage to flirt with the interests of the mainstream while granting exposure to those at the other end of the spectrum. Attendees with a limited conception of the ‘genre’, having watched acts like Petite Noir and Fever Trails will have, in some way, broadened their understanding of electronic music. So it’s not so much an artificial allure to electronic instrumentation alone as much as it involves people identifying a kinship with a particular music culture and being able to explore one’s limits in regard to that comfort-zone. And with artists like Fever Trails operating on the periphery of an umbrella genre that in some ways monopolised the mainstream, there’s indeed room to test those boundaries and push them bit by bit.
Nic van Reenen’s creative endeavours are decidedly his way of asserting himself in the world. He doesn’t make any money off them – Fever Trails nor Bateleur. Rent and insurance are funded by his efforts with the recently-launched Field Music, a vehicle he uses to write music for TV commercials and other media content. His day-job is thus crucial. It removes the financial Scylla of those who’ve chosen an independent, creative road. As heroically indie as it sounds, he ain’t in it for the money. Charybdis, on the other hand, manifests itself in a psychological fuck-you; doubt – the battle of constantly having to find reasons to believe in oneself because there are a myriad reasons not to. As he put it, doubt is the achilles heel of the creative soul. Van Reenen doesn’t have any grand illusions about his career trajectory, but he firmly believes he’s good at what he does. He’s ostensibly drawn in chief to the cathartic fix he gets from actualising the sounds in his head. Watching people break it down is an added perk. Whether the mainstream will ever be ready for Fever Trails is a stretch, but the openness and possibilities of electronic music, in South Africa particularly, mean that his field is fertile ground for winning over new listeners.
Keep up to date with Fever Trails original work and fantastic remixes on Soundcloud, as well as Facebook and Twitter. Most importantly, purchase Wax Bridge here now and in all the usual digital stores at the end of the month.