In Conversation with South Africa’s TREEHOUSE BURNING: The Brashness of Youth Meeting the Business of Metal

- Aug 03, 2019 at 12:01PM
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I have just finished reading the very dry, somewhat funny, book History of Heavy Metal (purchase now via Amazon) by Andrew O’Neill, which is less a full account of heavy metal’s history than a subjective take on a genre that is slowly becoming unbound from its trappings. Some people hate this. The purist metalheads, which O’Neill doesn’t pretend he isn’t, dismiss whole offshoots of metal for their deviance from metal’s origins. For me, I am learning to keep an open mind. We have moved on from Black Sabbath into the world of post, prog, and nu-metal, and it’s going to piss us off in all the wrong ways if we keep our backs turned away from the future. For the aging music lover that I am, there is a part of me that also resists the push from the younger generations to broaden and adapt what we accept of a certain genre. But I also accept that times are changing and we have to change with it.

“It’s this weird thing because we don’t really listen to that much metal anymore, but we’re a metal band and we like metal. I think we want to make angry music that is catchy. You listen to it, there is a tune in your head, but it’s heavy.” So ends an hour-long chat with Treehouse Burning, a young, up-and-coming band from the city at the end of the world, Cape Town, South Africa. They call themselves electronic metalcore or synth metal (or, in jest, “fad metal”) and their music is brash, bold, yet catchy.

I first met Jesse Kuhn (guitar) and Richard Poultney (bass) at a public meeting for metal4africa which offers a forum for metal fans to debate the scene and ways to improve it. The group is small and mainly a few older people, so it’s easy to notice the two baby-faced young men talking about Spotify lists and younger audiences. I remember thinking that we should be listening to what they have to say, and agreeing with much of it, at least because they’re the ones with the energy, even if we have the jaded experience of veterans.

Watch Treehouse Burning’s lyric video for “KRASITAM,” featuring Estian Smith, that was just released last month:


A few weeks later, Richard tells me that theirs is a story that should be told. I wonder what he means by this, and even half an hour into the subsequent interview, it’s not clear to me what the story is. But when I listen back to the recording, I begin to realize that this is not the conversation about a band coming into their own, but about people coming-to-age in a world that is ever-changing, and realizing that they need to be ever-changing to make sense of it. Like those that have come and gone before them, music is their outlet, but it is not enough to have passion anymore. Digging deep is not about experiencing life and writing about it, but about finding what speaks to others.

As Jesse says, referring to his approach when developing the music of Treehouse Burning, “It’s not about you.”

“When I am writing music, I am thinking about what is going to be big, what is going to be successful, what is going to be something that people like. There is a whole lot of passion, but there is a combination (of things)... what is popping, what is current and what we love.”

It’s hard to believe that this band started a little over two years ago as a collaboration between Jesse and vocalist, Nathan Schacht. Originally, the idea was to be a recording band, with Jesse programming much of the music, but it was somewhat fate that Jesse and Richard, who had been playing in another metalcore project, Reverse the Sands, met at a MyCiti bus station one day. “It was cool to hear fresh opinions on the local scene,” says Richard, and it wasn’t long before his fellow bandmates from Reverse the Sands joined them. With Gareth Ashton on guitar and Joshua Haller on drums, Treehouse Burning morphed itself into a performing band, and quickly rose through the local ranks to open for international bands, something most bands want but which few achieve.

Treehouse Burning’s Suffering EP was released July 12th. Check out the awesome cover art:


And so there is the fate of Jesse and Richard, but what other stars aligned to set the band on their journey? In such a short space in time, they have become the darlings of international lineups, opening for the likes of Fit For A King, Our Last Night and Dreamshade. In early-September, they are also going to be part of the lineup for the American metalcore band, Atreyu. I asked them what helped to push them to this point. “The moment that defined us locally, I think... was getting on metal4africa (SummerFest ‘18) as our first show, that was definitely a huge opportunity for us, and then followed up by Jam-Packed putting us onto the lineup for Fit For A King.”

Like all things in life, the journey is a little more complex. Being a big fan of mentorship, I am intrigued by Jesse’s journey into metal, which seems to have been shaped largely by the South African slam metal band, Vulvodynia. For those who don’t know their story, they also began as a recording band and within a short period of time gathered an international following, touring Europe for the first time in 2017, and quickly making this a long-term arrangement. They are the South African band known to have barely touched the local scene before heading straight for the “big time.”

The way that Vulvodynia chose to make the band work for them seems to have inspired quite a few people in South Africa, including, as I find out, Jesse. “The scene was almost like a, ‘before Christ and after Christ’ thing with Vulvodynia. Before it was like, ‘can we even be a big band in South Africa, it that possible’... and suddenly it was. And for a genre like slam... that was what was so great about it. It was the most, like, heavy arbitrary, random thing... and that’s the band that gets big and shows everyone that they can also do it. It challenged people’s mentality on what music to write. I am glad it was something different, that not a lot of people had done before.”

Get up close and personal with the band in this performance video for “Øphex,” released last year:


Just like Vulvodynia hasn’t escaped some level of criticism, so Treehouse Burning has also been scrutinized as a band, especially for their “party” aesthetic, at least this is what I gather. Whether this is deserved or not, I do start to wonder if we are a little too harsh on the metal scene, which although having its fair share of conservative metalheads, is far dominated by people like the fans of Treehouse Burning, who listen to metal for its technical brilliance, but don’t view themselves constrained to be only a metal lover, play only metal and live only metal. Metal has always had its popular times and less popular times, but maybe it’s about time that bands themselves evolve their music with the times and keep it current and popular, not relying on some unknown cultural force to drive it.

This is what Jesse and Richard are seeking, a flexibility, a chance to experiment and change. Jesse is the most defiant in this. He tells me, “When it comes to metal, people say, ‘It must be authentic, it must be real’ but I don't like that. Just because it’s made on a computer, it doesn’t mean it’s not metal.” At the time of its genesis, it didn’t even matter about the lyrics, but with Richard joining, the lyrical themes took on a seriousness that was needed. “Lyrics have always been an important thing to me in music,” Richard tells me, showing a softer side that belies his obstinate attitude and fierce criticism of the scene.

And so, is this part of their story: their brash attitude, their “fuck you” to the metal bands on the scene that expect great things without putting in the effort? I don’t think so. Their story is a few weeks later when I go to the launch for their latest EP, Suffering (buy the album now, via Bandcamp). While no one seems particularly inspired by the opening bands, the atmosphere takes on a notable anticipatory feeling when Treehouse Burning takes to the Mercury Live stage.

A live shot of Treehouse Burning on stage and getting the crowd revved up:


The beginning of their set is sloppy, the band seems a little nervous, although Richard can’t help grinning the whole time. For someone so shy and unassuming, the stage must feel like a playground. As the band warms up, their loyal fan base gathers itself and the human collisions start to begin. Treehouse Burning are able to sustain their energy through the almost-constant mosh pits and walls of death. Their fans are loyal, that is for sure, but are able to enjoy the freedom that the music brings: simple, heavy, straightforward. All the good things that make for an epic night in the pit.

Like a parent with some pride in the abilities of its progeny, I feel different watching them this time. Jesse and Richard have endeared themselves to me and I think about the interview from two weeks back and their earnestness when talking about their approaches to marketing, always looking for something fresh, trying new tactics, building up relationships with international audiences. They really care about the band, about doing well and making something of it. They know a band is as much a business, as it is a means to fuel creativity and connection.

“The name of the band is actually quite important to me. ‘Treehouse Burning’ is just a metaphor for growing up, so if you think about a treehouse, and childhood and innocence and things that happen in the treehouse... tea parties with teddy bears, that is what I associate it with, and then you get the burning… your childhood is done, you’ve grown up. Now what, where are you going, what is going to happen? To me, the band is so much more than the music I have written or even the shows we have played... it has opened so many doors for me in terms of people I have met and the experiences I have had. It is a cool learning tool for life.”

Featuring Christian Grey from Villain Of The Story, here’s Treehouse Burning’s very loud track video for “Seven:”


After their EP launch at Mercury Live, Jesse approaches the inimitable Patrick Davidson from metal4africa to ask his opinion of the set. While Patrick finishes his conversation with a friend, I intervene and give some pointers, which Jesse accepts with grace. They have some ways to go, but damn, there is no denying that they were impressively quick in making a name for themselves in the metal scene. During the interview, either Richard or Jesse has said to me about being a band on the scene, “Your biggest enemy is yourself. This is how I’ve always thought about things.”

I have to admire them and their total rejection of being pigeonholed, or of being told what is wrong or right, while still accepting that others might know more. Being able to program their music has given Treehouse Burning the ability to be free with the sounds; it has given infinite possibilities to what a song can sound like. And they are fully aware of this, fully confident in what their music can achieve. They are restricted only by themselves, and that is the beauty of what they are doing. For me, this is the future of metal music; this are the possibilities we will lose out on if we lack the imagination.

“What I don’t understand is, the foundation of metal was going against the grain, and being different, challenging everything that was normal. But now in metal, when you want to do something different, everyone is like, ‘why you don’t sound like Pantera,’ or this band, this band, but you want to be different. That is the most metal thing you can do, is be different.”

I agree, Richard. I agree!

Catch Treehouse Burning at Mercury Live on September 5th as they open for Atreyu. View the event details on Facebook here.
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