It’s a bright spring morning in early September as I struggle to locate Soft Light City where renowned SA frontman Francois van Coke is in the final stages of recording his sophomore solo album, “Hierdie Is Die Lewe” (This Is The Life).
Morning coffee is sluggishly sipped as I walk into the studio, eyes growing more alert as the scheduled set of tasks for the day quickly enters fifth gear. I study the room’s interior and notice the surrounding warmth and homely feel its textures present. Its walls lined by wooden panels form a modern earth-like shell that fences the recording space within both a secluded and inviting atmosphere. I’m informed how a last few lines of guitar will be tracked shortly as Van Coke and his two accompanying guitarists, Jedd Kossew and Richard Onraet, steadily prepare for the day’s worth of work ahead.
“It’s been a lot more smoother this time around,” Van Coke answers after I enquire how the recording process has evolved thus far. “With the first album we had jumped between studios hoping it would work out a little cheaper,” he recalls whilst laughing, “but it actually ended up being more expensive.” The costs of crafting an earnest product inevitably jabs a wallet or two, but luckily Soft Light City opened its doors despite prevalent service to the advertising sector as a welcome exception for the endeavour. “We’re truly fortunate,” both Van Coke and Kossew affirm, extending their gratitude unto the studio for the favourable opportunity presented.
Dual producers Johnny de Ridder and Rudolph Willemse casually discuss technicalities as guitar tracking begins. They calmly enter into decisions together, De Ridder remaining composed in front of an organised body of equipment as he directs the altered verdicts on screen. Van Coke interjects with a handful of comments from time to time, albeit largely accepting of the heeded assessments made. The phrase “tremolo vibes” gets tossed around as varying effects and smaller intricacies of a mere lick or short riff is discussed. “Just fucking nail it brah,” Van Coke comically teases whilst the group laughs as Kossew persistently struggles with an individual line. Van Coke stands with phone in hand ready to record the guitarist in action for a quick social media post that demonstrates a clever dedication to maintaining an active presence online.
Conversation meanders easily through topical and mundane affairs from insights of Die Antwoord’s new album to the humorous expressions or specific pout one may don when playing a solo on stage. “It’s supposedly the face you make when smelling shit,” Onraet suggests, laughter resounding across the room as he offers a demonstration. Their banter foils it from being just another dreary day at the office, facilitating a lively energy amidst tracking takes in lengthy amusing strides.
I listen intently as snippets of select songs filter through speakers in somewhat of a fairly languid style. There’s a clear emulation symptomatic of the artists they’ve been listening to that resembles the musical heroes of their youth. The Beatles and The Beach Boys are two prolific names instantly mentioned by Van Coke when expressing what listeners may encounter on the new record. Choral singing is one feature particularly made note of alongside what Van Coke describes as a sound packed with a lot of energy that isn’t necessarily of the hard rock persuasion. “It’s also more accessible in terms of radio play,” writing partner Kossew adds, indicating the pair’s mindfulness concerning what stance they feasibly may harness in the industry. “We don’t even really listen to a lot of hard stuff anymore either,” Van Coke surmises, signalling the present course of their writing style as a direct result of the artists they’ve become more accustomed to.
Sounds of a former era subsequently bleed into the new material, yet in a collaborative method unlike Van Coke’s first solo effort. His self-titled debut played host to several guest vocalists whereas now the collaboration primarily consists of Van Coke and his recruited live line-up alone. “I’ve got everyone I need,” he asserts while gesturing to his enlisted colleagues in the room. They’ve been affectionately nicknamed Die Gevaar (The Danger) where Willemse serves as regular bassist, Onraet and Kossew both as lead guitarists, and session drummers Werner von Waltsleben and Sheldon Yoko as revolving percussionists. Van Coke as lead vocalist is undoubtedly the acting face of the brand itself, yet each member appears to have contributed enough musically to amend the project’s solo standing. “We’re a massive family at the end of the day,” Onraet muses, “and we’re frequently inspired by the same things because we see one another so often.” Similar taste thus enables a united attempt at exploring what Onraet characterises as a “nice old-school feel” where the inclusion of a whistle, for example, or the use of a banjo is equally evaluated by all with no opinion rendered more significant than the other.
The iconicity entangled within each release Van Coke is involved in, however, doesn’t go unnoticed. The intonation and natural strain of his voice has kept listeners unwaveringly interested in any musical ventures his name has been attached to throughout a career already in its second decade. He lifts the leg of his jean when stationed at the couch against the studio’s wall and exposes a large bruise acquired from one of his many committed antics on stage. His immersive presence while performing evidently appears undeterred, and triumphantly so, irrespective of fatherhood drawing closer. “I know this might sound selfish,” Van Coke answers when asked of the album’s thematic landscape, “but it’s about me.”
My question of lyricism that follows accordingly unearths a sense of introspection as Van Coke unfolds how the record will deliver an earnest account of personal maturation. “Growing older and the experiences thereof,” he professes, “is something I’ve definitely addressed with this album.” Change isn’t a new conceptual springboard Van Coke has sought inspiration from, but the combined matters of marriage, parenthood, and life’s misfortunes all circumstantially alter just exactly what experiences one denotes in melody. Van Coke even admits how a couple of tracks unashamedly approach the concept of love. The angsty rock vigour ordinarily associated with the legendary frontman therefore deviates only marginally to reflect an emotion he maintains, “everybody can relate to.” It’s a quality of romanticism that lyrically mirrors his growth where a healthier lifestyle has replaced bygone days of notoriously reckless behaviour. Van Coke pauses slightly before suddenly remarking how there aren’t any harsh vocals on the record either. “There’s a bit of screaming,” Kossew retorts with a playful smirk before Van Coke sporting a similar grin states, “okay yeah, there’s a bit of screaming.”
There is simplicity inherent in the approach to this second effort devoid of any urgency to impress that seems unexpected given the paramount success of songs from the previous record like ‘Toe Vind Ek Jou’. This particular track is one the group admittedly felt that they had to top. “We even considered writing another song with Karen,” says Van Coke, “but quickly realised it just wouldn’t be the same.” Onraet agrees, divulging how a musician’s biggest hit often also functions as their greatest driving force. “If you feel like you’ve got more to give then you need to get it out,” he attests, “that’s the hunger that keeps you going.” A second duet with Karen Zoid consequently can’t be promised, but a small vocal feature from Freshlyground’s Zolani Mahola surprisingly is. “It isn’t a duet really,” Van Coke explains, clarifying again how guest collaboration will not function as a major trait of this album.
“Hierdie Is Die Lewe” then decidedly rests in the hands of brotherly kinship contextually lighter and sonically more reposed in comparison to what a new Fokofpolisiekar release might entail. Such an addition isn’t too unlikely, reveals Van Coke, but it may only surface in the following year or two. His second solo effort henceforth resides in the interim rather comfortably as a product of poignant description and energised motion. It will detail a personal journey indisputably relevant to all as the lapse of time and responsibility pursues one through age. Longstanding admirers may envisage a product formed by competent hands as the shared dexterity of Van Coke and Die Gevaar confidently yield an outstanding result.
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