Worlds Apart: What happened when Tesseract went to South Africa

For once, the Tesseract boys stay on the rails
For once, the Tesseract boys stay on the rails

From doing shows in Russia to playing atop an igloo in Lapland, tech metallers Tesseract are no strangers to globe-trotting, and jumped at the chance to visit South Africa. In a hugely diverse country with 11 languages, metal is a niche scene, but it’s growing; there are thriving local bands, and giants like Metallica have sold out stadiums. We flew out to join them for their tour through Cape Town and Johannesburg, taking in incredible scenery and some of the most dedicated fans around.

Day One

Touching down in Cape Town, the band wonder what to expect. “I know surprisingly little about South Africa!” admits frontman Dan. We are greeted by promoters Duncan Bell and Wayne Boucher, who are working to raise the profile of South Africa’s music scene by championing local acts and bringing over international bands, and who organise annual music festival Krank’d Up.

“It’s huge to have a band like Tesseract over,” Duncan tells us. “They’ve always been an inspiration to a lot of the musicians in South Africa.”

“People were freaking out when we announced it,” adds Wayne. “I could picture them crying over their keyboards, typing about how grateful they were.”

The air is thick, and a storm breaks out, with forked lightning bisecting the skies. We drive out of the airport and pass a shanty town, its iron sheds studded with satellite dishes – a stark reminder of the social and economic inequality that lingers here. “It’s like District 9,” remarks Dan, referencing Neill Blomkamp’s 2009 sci-fi allegory of apartheid.

The UN classes South Africa as a developing economy, and the distribution of wealth differs greatly. The houses get progressively nicer as we head west.

Over lunch, Duncan shows us that Tesseract have made the front page of the entertainment section in Johannesburg newspaper The Star. The next stop is online radio station The Eye, where Dan, drummer Jay and bassist Amos are to curate a show. The media exposure not only reflects the importance of a British band like Tesseract playing South Africa, but is crucial to boosting ticket sales; many fans won’t buy them until they know a band has landed, fearing they’re going to cancel. The band have sold 120 tickets so far, but the number on the night will be 270.

At the studio, the guys play tracks from previous touring buddies and tell some stories, mostly involving a drunken Jay. Station founder Jon Savage reveals that The Eye is about to launch a dedicated metal show.

“Because metal is a majority white thing, it really has no attention,” he explains. “However, part of why we’re starting the show is because we’ve discovered these township metal scenes starting in Soweto. We said, ‘That’s newsworthy, let’s start with that and see where it takes us.’”

A successful tour can make you feel on top of the world

A successful tour can make you feel on top of the world

Day Two

Today is all about tourism. The trail up looming landmark Table Mountain is marked by a sign reading: ‘By entering this area you acknowledge and accept the inherent risk of danger or injury, severe injury, and/or death.’ Four people died and 50 were injured last year, but the worldly Amos is feeling confident, having recently visited Hawaii.

“It’s nothing compared to a live volcano, but it depends… you put us together, and the risk of death in any situation increases,” he grins. “James is just going to fall off walking backwards!”

Guitarist James looks worried. We get a cable car up instead, but Dan still gets “jelly legs” as the ground recedes. The lush grass and blues skies are ridiculously beautiful. At the top, Jay is in his element, doing star jumps on the edge. Then he befriends a dassie, one of the guinea pig-like mammals that roam the rocks. He christens it Rodney. “This is the best day of my life other than my wedding!” he raves. James is still worried, and mumbles how he has a high centre of gravity.

“I have extended family that I don’t know that live in this part of the world,” Dan contemplates, looking out over the city below. “It’s a little bit odd to know that part of my past belongs here.”

We make it down safely and drive east to Spice Route, a food/wine complex in Paarl. Today is Freedom Day, a holiday celebrating South Africa’s first multi-racial elections in 1994, after years of white minority rule. The place is busy, and everyone relaxes with pints of raspberry beer, before Jay realises he’s lost his glasses. Rodney was looking a bit shifty…

The next stop is a winery and goat farm for a tasting session. Amos looks like he was born with a glass in his hand, but Dan is struggling. “If it was ale… I could tell you everything. But this tastes like a £5.99 Morrison’s wine.” Oh dear. We learn the Chenin blanc is the most planted white grape in South Africa, and leave a little bit more educated. Outside, Dan and Jay start giggling like naughty schoolboys. It turns out they’re taking photos of the goats’ bums. Time to go back to the hotel and get an early night…

Day Three

Jay’s glasses have been found on the floor next to the goats (“It serves me right!” he laughs.) After a morning spent penguin-watching at Boulders Beach, it’s time to load in for the first show, at Mercury Live. Dan is in a reflective mood. It’s his wife’s birthday tomorrow, and he’s away from her and his two young sons.

“We get to do incredible things, but our partners usually stay at home as we can’t afford to fly them out,” he says. “Part of me doesn’t want to enjoy it, because I feel guilty on some level, but she understands it’s business. When we started out, we were going away and coming back with very little to show for it, so it’s reassuring for family to know that things are getting better. The song Survival ties into this topic – ‘10 years of hope have passed, you felt alone, and pictured life a little differently’. We do live very different lives, the artist and the family.”

Venue owner Morne explains that Cape Town’s scene is mostly indie, and only a handful of international bands visit the venue each year. Excitable Tesseract fans are queuing outside. Shane, 21, first heard the band four years ago, and was drawn in by the complexity of their music. “I literally feel like a kid again – I’m fucking excited!” he exclaims. Meanwhile, 57-year-old Peter is all about the prog metal.

First up are rockers Verona Walls, who clearly enjoy a strong local following. Backstage, Amos, who currently lives in Shanghai, writes the setlist out in Mandarin. Dan gets into the right headspace with meditative prayer and slows his breathing. He shows us his wristband, revealing he’s managed to lower his pulse from 100bpm to 76bpm.

Sidestage, it’s hotter than the sun. Venue staff fan the band with bits of cardboard, before they get onstage and launch into Phoenix. During the line, ‘Run with the pride of a lion’, Shane raises his arms, clenches his fists, and grins like he’s in Heaven. The set is sweaty and intense. Guitarist Acle, the quietest bandmember, is in his element, eyes closed as the music pours from his fingers. During Hexes, Peter grabs us by the shoulders and yells, “This is better than sex!” But the high point is Survival, the room moving in unison to its chorus. Afterwards, autographs are signed and selfies are taken – it’s clear the band’s presence here means a lot to people.

Dan runs with the pride of a lion… and sings with the lungs of a blue whale

Dan runs with the pride of a lion… and sings with the lungs of a blue whale

Day Four

Tesseract fever is still in the air as we board a plane to Johannesburg. Some passengers are wearing last night’s merch, and the band have an interview in Kulula airlines’ in-flight magazine.

We land and drive to tonight’s venue, Rumours Rock City, passing business parks, warehouses and gas stations. “It’s a different vibe here, eh?” comments Duncan. It’s all about industry in this city – making money.”

A man stands in the road holding a card reading: ‘Please help no food to eat. No job. God bless.’ Behind him, billboards advertise loans. Amos notices signs stuck to the lampposts, which read: ‘30 mins pain free abortion’ with a phone number. They are everywhere.

Rumours moved to the suburb of Cresta a few months ago, opposite a large shopping centre, and occupies a spacious building that was once a bank and a casino. The band’s dressing room is a disused office on the second floor, which looks like something from a zombie apocalypse. Its managers have worked hard to make it a thriving community hub, despite taking a financial hit from a robbery early on. Today, an armed security guard is on patrol.

Many people we talk to know those who’ve been affected by violent crime, but are keen to stress the passion of the metal scene, and the South African people, as a counterpoint.

“The nickname for Joburg is Hate City, because it’s regarded as the capital of all the hate and tension in the country,” explains Brandon, frontman of support band Red Helen. “But it’s also what I would consider to be the home of all the love in our country. The people are warm and hospitable, and when we have to stand together, we stand together.”

Upstairs, we get to read The Star’s feature on Tesseract. James is quoted saying that Dan and Jay “are quite often taking pictures of their own poo”, while the reporter calls him “the more reserved member of the band”.

Dan cracks up. “You’re never doing another interview again – that’s it!” he laughs.

“I don’t remember saying that, but I’m quite proud of it in a way,” smiles James.

Jay is less happy, and wonders why “reserved” James didn’t admit to the time he stood in piss in a Russian toilet, or went down a children’s ice slide naked in Lapland. James tries to look contrite.

Showtime begins with Only Forever’s chug and groove and Red Helen’s crushing metalcore. Brendon is a fearsome frontman, screaming: “If you think Jacob Zuma’s a piece of shit, put your middle fingers up!” They’re followed by the progressive, cosmic rock of Deity’s Muse, fronted by promoter Wayne. Then the crowd chant for Tesseract. With a bigger stage tonight, there’s more space for them to move, and the energy is electric. As the riffs envelop the room, people climb on tables, scream and cry. With fans on a high, drinking continues long into the night.

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Verona Walls play to a home crowd in Cape Town

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This is...this is just not metal

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Day Five

Today we visit the Rhino & Lion Nature Reserve. En route, walking encyclopaedia Amos informs us that it’s located in the Cradle Of Humankind – a UNESCO world heritage site where the fossils of early hominids were discovered, dating back between 4.5 and 2.5 million years. Puffy clouds hang in the air and the vast sky radiates an unearthly brightness.

Four lions are taking shade under a big tree. Amos looks at Dan. “So when you sing ‘Run with the pride of the lions’, you mean ‘Sit in the sun and chill!’” he laughs, referencing the lyrics to Phoenix.

At the animal nursery, Acle and James take the opportunity to stroke a three-year-old cheetah named Anabel. Acle is fearless. “I like cats – I’m a cat whisperer!” he smiles. A keeper chucks a lump of meat to Anabel, and she devours it in seconds. James stretches out beside her and she purrs. “That was incredible. What a frightening and wonderful experience!” he says. “Lying next to a killing machine that can run at 70mph…”

And with that, the trip is over, and it’s time to fly home. Tesseract are nearing the end of the touring cycle for third album Polaris, and after some US dates with Megadeth and Meshuggah, they’ll be focusing on the next record. Dan hints it’ll have a concept. Beyond that, their ambitions are as boundless as the landscapes they’ve just experienced.

“We’re being put in new arenas with bigger bands, and we want to tap into their following,” he says. “We want to be the band that steps onstage that nobody’s ever heard, where people go away thinking, ‘Wow, you’ve just changed my life watching that performance.’ We want to leave a lasting impression.” No doubt they’ve already done that here.

Tesseract play Arctangent festival in August. Polaris is out now via Kscope

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