Saving the scene

South African sardonic songwriting extraordinaire Matthew van der Want is returning to the live stage to launch his compilation album The Best and Worst.

Van der Want, who nowadays works as a commercial attorney, has been absent from the local music circuit for quite a few years, but last year he decided to get a band together and start gigging again, with the ultimate aim of recording and releasing an album.

‘I started a band last year, which I thought would be a good idea. We played a couple of gigs but it didn’t really work out,” says Van der Want with a wry smile. ‘I fired my drummer and despite the guitarist’s promises to stick around, he didn’t.

‘I think there is a reason I have spent a lot of time as a solo artist.
I think I am quite temperamental and precious about my songs,” says Van der Want. ‘I don’t think I have ever been described as easy to work with.

‘For me the whole thing was kind of fun really, it was a jol, something to do on weekends,” he says. ‘I wouldn’t say that I didn’t take it seriously, but I certainly am long past the ‘let’s crack the scene wide open and head to the top of the charts’ kind of thing.”

Despite a string of critically lauded albums as a solo artist and as a duo with former Urban Creeper Chris Letcher, Van der Want says almost all of his albums are no longer available in stores.

‘It seemed like a good thing to do,” says Van der Want about his new compilation. ‘I have had a play­list on my computer for years called ‘the best and worst of’ that I give to friends, because a lot of the material isn’t really in the shops anymore.”

So he added six new songs to his playlist and contacted Lloyd Ross of Shifty Records to inquire about using his recordings of the Van der Want/Letcher back catalogue on the compilation.

‘I said in my email it is a bit alarming that it seems all my stuff has been deleted,” says Van der Want.

‘It goes much further than me. I think it’s a shame that all those great recordings by the likes of James Phillips, Jennifer Ferguson, Koos and the Kalahari Surfers are no longer in stores.”

Ross gave Van der Want the go-ahead and the result is a 20-track compilation that combines eight songs from the two released Van der Want/Letcher albums, Low Riding (1998) and Bignity (2002), and a further two from their irreverent middle finger to the South African music industry, e.p. Tombi (1997), as well as four from Van der Want’s first solo album, Turn on You (1996), and one track from his self-released solo album, Play My Way (2001).

There are also six new tracks included on the compilation, three of which previously appeared on the self-released Van der Want/Letcher album, Casual Killing (2005), which the duo sold out of the boot of their car while touring.

Van der Want says they sold only about 400 copies of Casual Killing, so he is glad these songs will see the light of day again.

‘It was pretty amazing, because we made like 50 copies to start with and by the time we left Jo’burg they had all gone.

‘So we spent the tour buying blank CDs and sitting in the car with Chris’s laptop burning discs and going to photocopying machines in Hermanus and places like that making covers,” says Van der Want.

Van der Want says he is very happy with the three new songs he added to the compilation, especially a beautiful ballad called Dream of You, which shows that this nuanced songwriter’s career is far from over.

Dream of You, I think, is one of the strongest songs I have written. It’s one of those I recorded like three or four times and this version is the only one that will be out there,” he says.

‘There is another one called Mister Manners. My daughter was two-and-a-half when she came home from school one day. I had a ruler in my hand and she said ‘That’s a Mister Manners’,” he says.

‘It turns out that they had been whacking the kids at school, which was very hectic.

‘Emily is now six and now that school is known as ‘the place where they beat me’,” he says, laughing.

The Best and Worst will be launched at Back-2-Basix in Westdene, Johannesburg on Sunday May 25

Lloyd Gedye

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