Prism Tats tells us about his musical origins in South Africa

Prism Tats tells us about his musical origins in South Africa

Prism Tats is the drum machine-fuelled lo-fi garage-pop persona of Garrett van der Spek. His recently released album was self-produced, with help from Chris Woodhouse (Ty Segall, Wild Flag, !!!) who put an extra touch of magic into the mix, resulting in the ten tight, torqueing songs that make up Prism Tats. 

The well-travelled van der Spek, originally from Durban, South Africa, moved to Seattle as part of a university exchange programme and fell in love out there. Once he’d moved out stateside for good, he spent his time between Seattle and Los Angeles, building a repertoire for Prism Tats. We recently caught up with Garrett to tell us about growing up in South Africa.

“Tell me about your musical origins in South Africa”

It’s a question I get a lot. Understandably so, people want to draw the link between me, South Africa and the music I make. First off, if you’ve never been to South Africa, you should go. Secondly, if you’ve never been to South Africa, it’s tough to explain. It’s a place that is best understood through experience. It’s both exotic and familiar to visitors.
I was born there and spent 23 years of my life there and feel like I am still learning the complexities of the place.

For me it’s always been difficult to justify an almost exclusive western music diet while living on the southern tip of Africa. The lingering traces of British colonialism and the global spread of American culture meant Whitney Houston and Oasis were just as huge in South Africa as they were everywhere else in the world in the early 90s. I seem to remember for this reason most musicians and music fans looking to Europe and the US as somewhat of a promised land and a model of how music should be made and how a music industry should function for hip hop, rock and everything in between.

That we ought to have an inferiority complex about not being up to par. Which is a belief that I personally feel stunted my development as a musician. At the same time I was living in a society that was still so deeply divided that the first time I was ever exposed to the guitar playing of Ray Phiri or the vocals of The Ladysmith Black Mambazo was on Paul Simon’s Graceland. Sure I was only 9 or 10 the first time I heard it but it’s still embarrassing that it took a foreigner to introduce me to local music. So thankfully I quickly came to understand that Joseph Shabalala’s vocal on Homeless was as important to me as Kurt Cobain’s on Smells Like Teen Spirit.

Moving on into my teens I became aware that the music scene in South Africa was stiflingly small but at the same time inspiringly diverse. A double edged sword. You have the chance to access so many different styles of music from Maskanda to Kwaito to Pop to Metal to Electronica. By the age of 14 I had been playing guitar for a few years when I started a band with a couple of school friends to play at the high school variety show. The performance was so exhilarating and so satisfying that no matter how good or bad we were, I was immediately determined on repeating that experience as much as possible in any venue that would have us.

We played every conceivable event, thrashing out covers of anything considered “alternative,” as well as a few more adult-contempo’ pieces for the older crowd who were the ones who were inevitably watching us and most impressed. We were so hungry to perform as we developed our own material that it led to some very unlikely scenarios for four young suburban kids to be playing ‘Ticket To Ride’ along side their original material. Shopping malls, surf contests, battle of the bands, bowling clubs, drinking clubs, charity benefits, flea markets, we would play anything.

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That attitude got us into collaborations guesting with hip-hop crews, backing all female a-capella groups, singing songs in Zulu and having one of our songs endorsed by the beloved Orlando Pirates soccer team which led to a performance of our tribute song to the team to thousands of their supporters. Those opportunities to be exposed to and participate in crossing styles and cultural barriers was profound for us. Even though no one but us really took notice, in our own very small way we were bridging a gap between cultures in a country so recently (legally) undivided. It became apparent that while it was still so easy to stay separate, it was also just as easy not to.

There were really only two real venues in Durban that catered to guitar bands- one was called ‘Burn’ and the other ‘The Winston’, and they were next door to each other and both relatively small. As an alternative, we started to book small theaters to put on shows and eventually approached a hotel in a somewhat sketchy part of town where one could rent a room by the hour, to start hosting shows in their ballroom. Some of my favorite shows were at the Willowvale Hotel which became a popular place for bands to play. It was with that band at those shows where we would play and DJ that I really started to develop as a songwriter and a performer. It was also at that point I got the opportunity to study a semester abroad in Seattle Washington and bring it all to a halt. I knew nothing about the Pacific Northwest, had no idea of what to expect but was still so eager to explore, wanting to see for myself this musical “promised land” that I’d fantasized so much about.

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It was only after traveling and hearing South Africa’s musical influence abroad and people’s curiosity for my country that I realized how unnecessary that inferiority complex was. I realized being a South African musician was an asset. It has equipped me with a unique approach to music and a unique work ethic to achieve. For someone who has gravitated to making rock ‘n roll, there may not be an obvious African quality to my music but it’s inherently there and I sincerely believe I wouldn’t make the music I do if I had come from somewhere else. I heard David Byrne talking about how art often reflects the environment that it is created in and in some way I feel that I learned to play guitar and write songs in a place that has shaped my style. It’s engrained in me one way or another. The more the people and the sounds of South Africa continue to integrate and participate with each other the more potent the music scene there will continue to become.


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