“The guys are family, we have done everything together.”
It is common amongst musicians to call their band their extended family. But what happens when your “real” family commitments start to overshadow your commitment to your music? While it’s common for bands to break up after a few years, news that Only Forever, a band that has been part of the South African scene for twelve years, was disbanding, felt like the end of an era. Knowing the band’s importance in the scene, doing an interview on the eve of their final show felt like a good opportunity to learn about what it takes to go further, or not carry on at all.
It was a late Thursday in Randburg when I sat with the band in their rehearsal space as they practiced for what is to be their final show at Krank’d Up this month. For an hour I sat with drummer Jay Pienaar, and bassist, Nick Gibbs, swapping memories of the South African scene; the bands we have loved, the people we have known. This scenario is pretty usual for people our age, who have experienced our coming-of-age at the time when local music WAS rock music; when bands like 16Stitch, Pestroy, Sugardrive and Henry Ate dominated the festivals and packed out venues. For many band members, and fans like me, the scene was an influential part of our lives. Our friends, our interests and our lives were shaped by the scene. And so in a sense, we have lived (and some have died) by the scene.
We were later joined by rhythm guitarist, Sean Stephen, promptly followed by vocalist, Fernando Policarpo, who was delayed by family duties. We got down to talking about the best and worst times of the band. As one can imagine, when five (which includes the lead guitarist) men spend most of their twenties living the rock ‘n roll dream, there is bound to be both epically good times, but also bad times. Get them all in one room and you can laugh for hours about the things they got up to.
The band rocked the house at 2016's edition of 'Slamfest' with "Leaving a Lie."
For Only Forever, playing to empty venues was the hardest part of being in a band. But as they repeatedly tell me, “We aren’t the biggest band in South Africa but we have done some shit and we have had a really good time doing it.” They are loathe to be ungrateful: “When we played our first gig [which was a battle of the bands] we started with three songs and Fern didn’t even have lyrics to those songs, but now we have just completed a tour with 36 Crazyfists.”
“We didn’t win that battle, but we also didn’t win the war.”
But we were there to talk about the choice the band has made to part ways, a reality that, if not painful, does require a level of circumspection. When asked why the band can all agree that they had reached a crossroad, either they put in everything and sacrifice their family lives, or they back away and give space for new commitments. “Only Forever has reached a point where we can’t progress based on what is happening with life at the moment. If we wanted to take it further we would have to look at the overseas tours and really put effort into breaking out...it would be awesome...but we just can’t do it right now,“ was the sentiment generally expressed.
Earlier, we had discussed the reality that faced many bands in South Africa today; it can be a “thankless job” and an expensive exercise. The rock fanbase is simply too small to support bands and they have to look elsewhere in the world to reach more impressive audience numbers (and possibly make a living). But, touring overseas is expensive for bands in South Africa, just like it is for international bands coming to South Africa, who view it more like a holiday than a way to earn money.
But for a band that hasn’t necessarily put in the same level of work as some of the newer acts today, they recognize that they have achieved a substantial amount, all things considered. As Fern pointed out, “We have been fortunate enough to play countless shows with international bands, we’ve played with big local acts... we’ve been played on London rock radio, we’ve been in Rolling Stone Magazine, we’ve played Oppikoppi...not many bands can say that.”
Bet you would never think this band would cover Sting, would you? Check out the video of their version of "Shape of My Heart."
And yet, I get the feeling that Only Forever know that they never reached, and will never be able to reach the success of some of their counterparts, if you can call it success. Many people will agree, in South Africa, the industry simply isn’t able to keep many of our bands at a level where they feel they have achieved all there is to achieve. Certainly, bands that are “household names” still hold a day job.
But Only Forever members sitting in that rehearsal room can look back and feel moved. The level of reminiscing going on is not an exercise in futility, but a chance to feel proud. Possibly because they are all very intelligent people who have come a long way together, they can recognize their failings and be at peace with it, except Fern who seesaws between acceptance and denying that it will ever be over. At least three times he tells me, “The band is over for now, but I don’t believe it’s gone. It’s never gone.”
So what held them back?
All the members have an opinion on this: Fern talking to their cycle of playing new music before an album is complete; with the result that they never launched an album as well as they should have. Sean, who is mostly quiet during the interview, feels that they have always straddled a weird space of being an “in-between genre.” “We would play metal shows and be too light. Then we would play with rock bands and come in and just be so heavy.” Nick points to an unsustainable band turnover: “The member thing has been an issue. Three drummers and nine guitarists. I don’t think it was anybody’s fault. Anyone who left this band had a reason for it. But you build a relationship and you build a writing process with someone and then…”
Jay is more philosophical about who they are as people. “It’s not a regret, but it’s more an observation of the band... I think it’s the one thing that we have never done well and that is that we have never played the politics of the scene. We have always been on the outside... it’s not like we don’t know people, but we have never played the game. We were very outspoken on certain matters. We didn’t suck up. For lack of a better word, we are a very introverted band, we made very good friends but we kept to ourselves. Looking back, I wonder where we would have been if we had networked more and played the game more.”
Horizon Sets Fire was released in 2012.
The conversation moved steadily into the issue of the “scene” and how it has changed over the years, presenting new opportunities and new challenges. Back in the day, for a band like Only Forever, the way to achieve your mid-level goals were more straightforward. “The major focus when we started this band was to be on (national radio station) 5FM. You want airtime and it was a big thing. When you were on 5FM you would get good shows. But now, being on the radio means nothing. It’s selling stuff digitally, it’s about creating content online and getting people to the shows.”
The digital space can be a very frustrating space to navigate and can be meaningless in the end, depending on the goals of the band. I think most people can agree that getting followers is not going to translate into people at shows, paying entry fees and buying your merch. But are we interested in sales or having our music speak to the fans, even if the numbers are small?
Something that was said during the conversation really struck me and it speaks to not only how music is consumed today, but also about how people relate to music. “It was more involved then. It’s more detached these days.” While iTunes and other online platforms mean that anyone in the world can easily access your music and keep up with new trends, it does mean that keeping people's attention becomes a lot more difficult and getting them to gigs involves new approaches, especially in places like South Africa where fan numbers are reducing. Music has become less an art than a business and at the heart of this is the growth in technology.
Throughout our reminiscing, the conversation evolved into an “us” and “them” space - the way we did things in our youth and the way that youth do it today. Sean became quite animated about the school gigs he attended, which exposed him to all the great acts of the 1990s. These have dropped off, especially for rock bands. Audiences, markets, and industry are heading for where the money is, and with demographics changing, and little promotion, maybe the point is that rock bands will need to start looking elsewhere for the push.
Is there a better way to leave you than with the band's old video for "Bitter Goodbyes" off of their debut In Silence?"
Jay is a little in awe of the ways that younger bands have navigated the scene and recognizes the need for bands to make space for their new counterparts. “There is a new generation of bands that need to come through and experience this stuff. We have been part of three generations of industry in this country and it’s cool to see where it is headed. It is cool to see where it is now. And maybe when we start new projects, or whatever the future holds for us, it will be a different approach, not approaching it necessarily like we did twelve years ago. We will approach it with fresh eyes and learn from the younger bands. They are doing it in smarter ways than we were taught to do it.”
There are two ways that Only Forever were well-supported during their twelve years; they had a multitude of venues to play at (most of which have closed) that “supported the genre” and they had a hard-working individual behind the scenes. “It’s a big testament to Duncan (Bell) and Turning Tricks Entertainment. He has put a lot into the band and done a lot of work with us... the fact is, there are certain things we would not have been able to do without Duncan.”
“Thanks for interviewing us now that we’re breaking up.”
Talking of the previous show they had just played, Fern talks a little regretfully about meeting a new fan. “Some guy came up to us after the last show and was like, 'you’re the happiest mistake I made today.' What do you mean? 'It’s the first time I've seen you.' But in my heart I was thinking, this is our second last show.”
But having made the decision to break up, there is no longer space for what-ifs. “The decision didn’t come very easy but we discussed it, and were like, what regret. There is none. Even the worst shows, we can laugh about it.” It was time to head home and let the band finish rehearsing for their final show. Asked for their pearls of wisdom, and I am sure they would add to these given the time to think about it, the band had little to say. From Fern, “Record the album before you play it live.” From Sean, “Whoever is left, do school gigs.” From Nick, “Make it as heavy as possible. Do what you want, don’t do what other people want from you.”
From Jay: “Make a choice. Either do it or don’t.”
Only Forever’s final show will be at 4:30 pm at Krank’d Up, Sundowners on the 29th of September. Don’t miss them! Buy them all a beer and help to send them off in the way they deserve.