Thor Rixon

Thor Rixon’s New Sound of South African Pop

Lior Phillips

By Lior Phillips

on 10.17.14 in Features

South African experimental artist Thor Rixon and I are barreling down a dusty farm road toward the Philippi Township in Cape Town, on our way to the home where he grew up. It’s winter here, but Rixon’s got the passenger seat window open while he breathes in the Philippi air. Eventually, the car is filled with the odor of the nearby pig sties. Rixon lets out a boyish snicker, “The one thing I miss the most about this place is this smell.” He turns back to face me, and squints, “I just love it!”

Rixon’s got thick brown dreadlocks that sit just above the shoulders, and a beard that falls somewhere between “mountain man” and “English poet.” Today, he’s wearing a beanie embroidered with a dinosaur and a white cotton polo shirt neatly tucked into salmon-colored slacks. There’s a crystal hanging around his neck, giving him the aura of a new age, peyote-smoking hippie hipster.

‘I would hear all the raw and bouncy sounds being blasted from the nearby townships. But while that was happening, I was also listening to classic South African farm music next door.’

Our day started off in Cape Town’s CBD neighborhood at Rixon’s townhouse. It’s a communal home that he shares with six housemates. “Everyone in the house is a musician”, he says, “So we’re all constantly bouncing ideas off each other.” His home life complements the way he dresses. The walls are decorated with kitsch oil paintings of wild horses, and the locker-room cabinet he uses as his wardrobe is plastered with hand drawn illustrations and magazine cut-outs.

Growing up on a farm affected the way Rixon makes music. “I would hear all the raw and bouncy sounds being blasted from the nearby townships,” he says. “But while that was happening, I was also listening to classic South African farm music next door.” Rixon was a restless child, bored by the quiet farm life, but stressed by a private school he never enjoyed. To center himself, he picked up the guitar, drums and trumpet at the age of 12. The music he makes today is accessible and emotive, swinging from limber, R&B-informed ballads to dank, burbling psych-pop to jubilant numbers that gracefully incorporate the rhythms and group-hollers of his homeland. The vocal harmonies, which recall Dirty Projectors more than South African farm music, are especially head-spinning. “I watched a lot of MTV, so that, mixed with the stuff I heard from my area gave me an ear for things that don’t necessarily stick to conventional pop.” Tea Time Favourites is marked by a mixture of exhaustion and hope: “Time Away,” features the helium-light vocals of South African singer-songwriter Chanel Van T over barely-there apostrophes of guitar and a sluggish, panting rhythm and “Confidante” is a slow-burning ballad that sounds like a secret being whispered in the dead of night.

There was just enough space for a mock-lounge area in his room, and a small corner studio with one microphone, a laptop and an African Karimba thumb piano. This is where he recorded his album Tea Time Favorites, and his living situation is vital to his creativity. “It is the goddamn best thing in the world!” he assures me, “Having creatively focused people around me drives me. It’s the fact that I can get outside ears and eyes on my work at any moment of any day.”

Rixon needs this kind of prodding to keep his freewheeling nature from derailing him. It was Rixon’s mother, Michele, who suggested he study music production at Cape Audio College in Cape Town after high school. “There I was, stupidly arguing that production was the boring side of music that didn’t involve a lot of playing.” In the end, he listened to her, “Above all, I just really liked the idea of making people move through music.”

Photo by Josh Hayman for WS

Photo by Josh Hayman for WS

It’s Rixon’s mother we’re going to meet at the end of our long, dusty drive and, after thirty-five minutes in the car, we reach rural Philippi. When we arrive at the farmhouse, Rixon’s mother and his 22 year old brother Niall greet us in the driveway. We’re ushered through the door by three frantic dogs, or “braks” as she calls them — an Afrikaans term given to mixed breed dogs. The lounge looks identical to Rixon’s townhouse; offbeat collectibles cover every bit of surface space. Within seconds, we’re hunched over her impressive CD collection as she rifles for the right one to play. They’re all covered in a thin layer of farmhouse dust, and I spot Led Zeppelin, the Specials, Celtic Soundsystem and the Police. She’s as invested in music as her son, making loud gestures and sighs every time she pulls a new band out of the jumbled stack.

“What do you say when you listen to your own son’s music?” she wonders out loud. “I’ve never heard someone put tones and textures together the way he does.” She turns toward Rixon and his brother and hums a line from one of his songs called, “The Fisherman.” It’s the subtleties — the vowel shape changes in his vocal, the careful and unexpected chord shifts, the acoustic plucks mingling with washes of Afro-pop guitar that make it one of the most physically gratifying and downright loopy tracks on the album. Suddenly the whole family is standing there smiling, swaying and singing, “Get in my bellllyy, you silly fish.” According to her, his EP sounds like, “He has ten pots on the stove at the same time and they’re all bubbling and cooking at once.”

Rixon appreciates the analogy. His endless hours as an experimental musician have resulted in multifaceted music, created in a home crammed with several people who inspire. What Rixon is doing is the ultimate definition of Ubuntu, which means, “I am because you are,” the very value that the world recognizes South Africa for. The words “rainbow nation” are often used to describe South Africa’s multi-cultural, multi-racial and multi-lingual diversity and Rixon could easily serve as its latest ambassador.

Photo by Josh Hayman for WS

Photo by Josh Hayman for WS

Our final destination for the evening is Cape Town’s famed Mount Nelson Hotel. This colossal landmark is the same colour as Rixon’s pants, and offers high tea to tourists at — to my local expertise — exorbitant prices. He walks ahead of me along its marble floor, hands clasped behind his back. He looks up to the ceiling and around him, scrunching his eyes in the process; “If I just keep pushing,” he says, shuffling slowly back toward me, “opportunities will arise.” From a town to a township to a five star hotel, he’s able to play, work and live across the cultural strata of South Africa in the same way he experiments with a variety of musical tapestries.

We spread out across three sun loungers to discuss the dynamics of being a musician in South Africa. On the surface, stories of people like Rixon may not seem relevant to those of us who don’t spend our days waging creative war. There’s a dilemma that every musician in this country will eventually confront: how to cope with a consumer culture that’s becoming increasingly diffuse. In this, though, Rixon sees options: We can craft our art around our ideologies. We can choose a vehicle to express our creativity. We can move to neighborhoods that match our social values. “I’m quite excited about where we are as South Africans” he says, “We get to mix those cultures together and I think that can only be a good thing.” With every choice of instrument, genre and collaborator, life moves closer to him, and the community becomes his community.