One-on-one with Prime Circle's keyboardist

2012-03-16 00:00

IT is with a strange sense of déjà vu that I sit down to talk to Neil Breytenbach of Prime Circle. Less than a year ago, the keyboardist and I were in the same coffee shop, at the same table, talking about similar things — the band, its music and travels and why he chooses to live in Pietermaritzburg. All the industry’s main action is obviously in Gauteng, where the rest of his bandmates live.

“As a songwriter, I enjoy it here,” he says. “It gets me out of the hustle and bustle of whatever is happening in Johannesburg. I’m quite a spiritual dude, so for me to come out into the country, go to the Drakensberg, to Notties or just hang around Maritzburg and breathe in some fresh, clear air and write some good songs, is good for me.

“I think that if I had to live in a city with so much hustle and bustle, I don’t think I’d be able to release my songwriting side as much. I like to get away from it all, take a deep breath, destress and start writing.”

Although he’s only been with the band for five years, he is now a key part of Prime Circle’s make-up. He was responsible for Breathing, the hit single off the band’s last album, Jekyll & Hyde. It marked a new season for the band as it released its fourth album, where Breytenbach’s piano and keyboard arrangements brought more depth to the guitar-driven songs that the rock band had become known for.

And the success of the Jekyll & Hyde formula — which mixed up-tempo guitar-driven rock numbers with slower, piano-based ballads — is something the band is looking to continue.

“We’re looking to sticking to the theme of the Jekyll & Hyde album — where you’ve got your rocking tracks, you’ve got your ballads and you’ve got your middle-of-the-road songs ... but who knows what’ll come out,” he says with a wry smile.

Having just returned from a tour of Germany, inspiration is not far off. The band performed a number of its own shows to sold-out audiences, and is highly regarded in the country.

“Some of the people travelled 600 kilometres just to come and watch our gigs,” he recounts. “And I’m talking about the gigs we did by ourselves — not with the international bands. We were totally blown away by that.”

In addition to the band’s own shows, it has also shared the stage with United States rock giants Three Doors Down and fellow South Africans Seether, performing to crowds of between 3 500 and 7 000 people. “That might not sound like a lot, but that’s the size of crowds those bands are pulling there. Sting performed in a venue next door to one of those shows, with seating capacity of 2 500.”

“It’s difficult. The European people have pretty much seen it all, from fashion to music ... so for you to impress them is not easy. You’ve got to really up your game.”

That said, performing on the European circuit has its rewards.

“The whole infrastructure is more developed there,” Breytenbach explains. “But at the end of the day, all the bands are after the same thing. The difference is, there’s a bigger population there, so support for music is also greater.”

The language barrier doesn’t seem to have hindered the band’s progress either. Breytenbach says that having a German tour manager helps procedures, while they’re learning the language.

“Obviously the words we learn first are the swear words, which you can’t really use in a conversation,” he laughs. “But we are trying to learn, slowly but surely.”

“We have been to Germany four or fives times now, and every time we go back there the crowds are growing, so there is more of an awareness of Prime Circle now.”

And it’s looking to break ground in other areas, like India. “When we spoke to other bands about India, they were like, ‘What the? Why go to India?’... but it’s an untapped market,” he says. “We’re also trying the United Kingdom, which is tough — they’ve heard it all, and their musical genres are so widespread, so for a rock band to just get in there is difficult.

“And then there’s also places like Dubai, and we’re trying to get in there. But we want to break into Europe in a big way. That’s what our game plan is right now.

“With us having been in the industry for so long, we’ve realised that there’s a lot of talk out there. There’s a lot of drunk talk out there, and people making false promises.

“We’ve realised that you’ve got to put your head down and work. At the end of the day, it’s up to you and how you’re gonna make it work.”

Having been in the game for 10 years, what is the motivating factor in Prime Circle?

“The thing that motivates every single member of the band is we all love music. That’s the key — we’re all born into music. We’ve been wanting to be involved in music since day one.”

The band will be showcasing what it does in KwaZulu-Natal over the next couple of weeks, with two Botanical Gardens shows in Durban (next week) and in Pietermaritzburg, respectively.

“They are family shows. We enjoy getting to all our fans — not just the 18 to 30-year-olds,” Breytenbach says. “We want to get to the one-year-olds and the 80-year-olds. We want to get to a broad spectrum of people. Something like the botanical gardens’ venues do allow that spectrum of people. We love the shows, and we want to keep playing in Durban and Pietermaritzburg, as long as they keep inviting us back.”

• Prime Circle will be performing at the Durban Botanical Gardens on March 25, and at the Pietermaritzburg Botanical Gardens on April 29. See the gig guide for details.

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