Name any influential up-and-coming musical talent in South Africa and you will mostly likely find a link to multi-instrumentalist, musician, video director and producer Thor Rixon.
Up the road from the bustling Kloof Street in Cape Town is a Victorian house that has housed some of the most innovative voices of South African contemporary music. Those in the know might have also experienced the electrifying Naas Kitchen Turnups featuring the likes of Gqom king DJ Lag, Card on Spokes and Maramza. They were not only fresh and post-hipster but featured an impressive guest list of underground city slickers. Thor Rixon was always at the centre of this music-and-art posse with an unwavering ability to bring people together for the love of creating music and “vaabs”, as he would say.
It is at this house that I recorded one of my first collaborations with the enigmatic producer and was introduced to his unassuming but inventive style. It was also the location for ‘Fuk Bread’, one of the most iconoclastic viral music videos in South African internet history.
Back then, Rixon was pioneering for a gluten-free way of living with the help of his wacky friends as he tattooed the mantra on his head. It was the perfect meeting of performance art, film and music. While his second album continued on a path of alternative experimental meditation, his latest work, Songs from the Bath, is far more contemplative and mature. This is no surprise considering the two-year gap between the two releases. In the past few years Rixon has travelled the world, living in Berlin for a portion of that time.
“I’ve found myself becoming more focused and trying to refine the things I do,” he says. “Berlin opened my eyes to what the rest of the world is up to, whereas before, in SA, I almost had blinkers on, only really being exposed to what was going on in SA, which is not a bad thing at all.”
He joins many young South African artists who have set up shop in the German capital to cultivate a path for themselves to make art and also learn about the music business.
“Berlin is a very special city. It is very welcoming. It has a place and an audience for any form of creativity. Many artists from around the world – new and experienced alike – all come to Berlin to collaborate and create. The energy in the city is like nothing I’ve come across before. It’s geared towards innovation and collaboration.”
With an endorsement like that and the sheer volume of artistic work that has been produced by local artists in Berlin, it has certainly become a hub for innovation, especially in music. Rixon says that while he was in Berlin he got a chance to watch some of his favourite musical influences. “Watching them live inspired me to further my work. Meeting and working with fellow musicians in Berlin has led to some very special friendships,” he said.
One key alliance was with fellow SA independent singer-songwriter Alice Phoebe Louw who features on the album alongside Itai Hakim, Hlasko and Olmo. The album marks a departure from the tongue-in-cheek nature of his sophomore LP to a more nuanced ambient exploration of sound. This is probably because it was influenced by the different cities Rixon recorded and worked in while producing the body of work.
“Every city has its own energy, people and environment that are very unique. These influence you in a certain way and it’s exciting to put those experiences into form,” he says.
Asked if he believes that his music is better received in Europe than in South Africa, Rixon is ever diplomatic in his response. “I’ve found that my work has been received much the same in both Europe and South Africa. However, cities such as Berlin are geared towards music and nightlife; it lends itself to audiences that are more willing to hear something out of their comfort zones. This is not to say that SA doesn’t have open-minded audiences but rather that Berlin has an environment in which this ‘openness’ of an audience is cultivated and nurtured.”
This poses a challenge to the music industry at large – to venues and event organisers. It also makes one wonder why so many underground South African artists are finding comfort and more work in cities like Berlin that cultivate new and groundbreaking music.
Rixon’s approach to Songs from the Bath is personal, meditative and each song is different. “I wanted to invest a lot of personal feeling and emotion into the work that I hoped would speak to any listener. Through creating the album, my overall message became clearer and clearer, which acted as a binding agent for the collection of tracks that would make up the album," he said.
The marketing for the album also gave fans a little glimpse into the life and times of Rixon.
With launches in Johannesburg and Cape Town in February, the album has also received an audio-visual live show that transcends its original digital form. It has also been released on special edition vinyl.
“It has been a big dream of mine for a while to release my music on vinyl,” Rixon says. “This dream came to fruition when I got in contact with Roastin Records who were interested in printing some special edition vinyls of the album. And these records have been a labour of love and so fun to make. Each record was hand painted, stamped and written on, which took much longer than I expected.”
Rixon remains a magician who is able to weave together interesting musical progressions and market them in a way that is both unique, entertaining and groundbreaking. Just when one thinks they cannot be any more surprised, Rixon throws in a new curve ball. A perfect example is his latest single, ‘Theresa Toy’, featured in the African electronic music compilation Get Physical, which gives listeners an arresting taste of the next phase in Rixon’s musical journey.
He promises to stick around and play more shows before heading to Berlin for the European summer. “I have more music coming out very soon and some more performance pieces in the pipeline,” he said.
For more information and updates on Thor Rixon’s music, visit his Facebook page.