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BOTW Interview: John Wizards

25-year-old John Withers is the man behind one of the most vital, original and stirring records we’ve heard all year. With his band, John Wizards, the Cape Town native has produced a body of work on their self-titled debut album that veers between lush electronica, sunshine-laced tropicalia and buoyant afropop. Teaming up with Rwandan refugee, Emmanuel Nzaramba, Withers sparked up a musical relationship in the most unlikely fashion.The album is set to drop this September through Planet Mu records, and we managed to catch up with Withers ahead of him and his band coming to the UK on promotion later this year.

PlanetNotion: We’ve been listening to your album, and Emmanuel and yourself have created some fantastic work together – how did you both come together originally?
John Withers: We worked on the same road – he worked at a coffee shop looking after the cars, and I was working in a studio across the road from that. I’d go to the coffee shop quite often and we just struck up an acquaintance from that, and from there started making music together.

PN: The album is such a unique and uplifting optimistic musical journey, does this reflect the two of you at all?
JW: I guess a big part of the reason that I make music is just to get that feeling of joy that maybe comes across in the album.

PN: So what is the writing process like?
JW: On the songs that Emmanuel sings on, I just play him the instrumental track, and he sort of does his own thing, and we work together through that and come up with something.

PN: And you sing on a few tracks yourself, don’t you?
JW: I do sing on a couple of them, yeah. I tend to be a bit self-conscious about my own voice, so the vocals are always a bit muffled. I sing on ‘I’m Still a Serious Guy’, ‘Lushoto’ and ‘Jamieo’.

PN: So, how did you select the musicians for your stage band?
JW: They were all just friends actually. They were people I played with before, and are friends I’d got to know over the years. It was a gradual process. I’d been in a band with a couple of the guys before, and when it came to actually wanting to perform the music, we just sort of carried on playing together. I showed them the songs, and then we added a couple of members, and that’s how we came together.

PN: The band’s name doesn’t differ too much from your actual name, what made you want to change it, albeit slightly, from John Withers to John Wizards?
JW: It was actually one of the guys in the band’s girlfriend’s idea. We always watch sport together, and we came up with this idea where we call sportsmen who reach a certain level of excellence ‘wizards’. It was just a play on that.

PN: You’re working on a lot of TV advert jingles at the moment, how did that come about?
JW: There’s a guy in Cape Town who tracks down people he thinks are decent and who might be able to make music for adverts. He will outsource the work and then passes it on to us. I guess I started working like that a couple of years ago, and I’ve been able to carry on.

PN: And how does working on an advert soundtrack influence your music in the way that you approach creating melodies, and dealing with the precise timings of an advert?
JW: I think if anything it’s helped in terms of solving problems with songs. When you create music for a commercial, you’re very much forced to have a completed song in 30 seconds. I guess when I was writing, before I started doing it for music, I would always start songs and I’d never really finish them. I had an idea of how I wanted them to be, but I never had the follow-through or the ability to make these ideas whole. I guess working on adverts quite steadily, and being able to work on them for a time, sort of trained me up to be able to finish things a bit better.

PN: So could John Wizards have existed without the internet? Do you feel your music would have turned out differently in a pre-digital age where you might not have been exposed to all the genres that appear to inform John Wizards?
JW: It’s hard to say. I imagine if there hadn’t have been the internet then I would have sourced that music out without it. But being able to source music from all over the world and have a broad palette of sounds to draw from has certainly played an incredibly large role in informing our musical taste.

PN: So when Planet Mu reached out to you, did they contact you after hearing your music online?
JW: Yeah, we had posted a mix of songs that we had done online, and they were not totally finished yet, but I just felt like I really needed to be done with them and put them up. I think one of the guys from A&R had heard it, and pointed them in our direction and they got hold of us.

PN: Are you planning on coming to the UK?
JW: Yes, it’s been pretty frantic and mad actually. I think the entirety of the tour will be in October and November, but the dates in the UK are just in October. We have a list of places we’re playing; Bristol (Simple Things Festival), Manchester, Glasgow, Nottingham, Brighton, London – one of them is on a boat! That should be exciting.

PN: Is Emmanuel coming over too?
JW: Yeah, well the plan is for us all to go over and play. It’s been a bit crazy because we found out a couple of days ago that Emmanuel doesn’t have his passport, so we’ve been going back and forth to the embassy to try and organise this. We just got his birth certificate from Rwanda though, which will help the process a lot.

PN: Outside of your trip to the UK, what else do you have planned in the near future?
JW: I think that after we’ve toured I guess I’d like to finish some new songs and maybe put some things out again. And I guess next year to play as many shows in as many places as possible.

- Ben Lifton

John Wizards’ self-titled debut album is out now on Planet Mu. You can hear it in full right now over on Pitchfork Advance, and head to the Planet Mu store to buy it.

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