john wizards make magic music
Cape Town saw the start of a magical story back in 2010, when Emmanuel Nzarambra first met John Withers. A Rwandan refugee, Emmanuel was washing cars outside a coffee shop while John produced TV and radio jingles in the studio across the road. The duo...
Photography Francesca Dunn
"I used to really like reggae but John liked African music, so we mixed styles and created Lusaka By Night," he says of one of their first and most recognisable tracks. A true mash-up of genres (including hip-hop, carnival and ambient electronica) with a strong African influence, John Wizards have created a consistently happy, dreamlike world that never fails to bring smiles and move bodies. Having scored a deal with Planet Mu, last year saw them release their brilliant self-titled debut album and recruit four of John's most musical friends to join their live band. Touring festivals until September, they'll be back in London for a few shows in October before an Australian tour and finally time off to work on the next album. Midway through the festival circuit, we rescued a very charming trio (John, Emmanuel and guitarist/keyboardist Geoff) from the heat of their Latitude dressing room, sat by the lake and had a lovely chat about Cape Town, wizards and the ultimate jingle.
What music did you grow up listening to?
John: When I was a kid my mum used to play me lots of music. We listened to a lot of classical hits, like The Nutcracker Suite. She liked Nick Drake and Leonard Cohen, so we listened to that a lot too.
Your music is like, the opposite of Leonard Cohen!
Geoff: My Dad had a recording studio in the 80s so I remember listening to a lot of his stuff, lots of Jazz and Steely Dan and stuff. Then for ages I would just steal cheesy hip-hop from my brother.
Emmanuel: Back in East Africa I liked reggae like One Africa.
A real mix of musical backgrounds! How would you describe John Wizards in 3 words?
Emmanuel: I really don't know…
Let's just go with super interesting! You seem to have a really varied fan-base…
Geoff: Yeah, we do. In South Africa, there's kind of a thing where if a band ever does well overseas, people get pretty happy about it. I mean, we're not massively popular back home, but when people read an article in the local paper about how we're actually doing quite well overseas, people - both young and old - support that sort of thing.
You've been playing festivals all summer! What's been the best experience so far?
John: Down The Rabbit Hole in Holland was really cool!
Geoff: Yeah, they had a jacuzzi backstage…
John: …and the soccer was one cause there was a Dutch game and the atmosphere was really great.
Geoff: Primavera was awesome too, and Field Day.
What's your favourite place to hang out in Cape Town?
Emmanuel: Kemps Bay, where the ocean meets the land. There are a lot of tourists but the beach really beautiful. When you come from Cape Town you head up and over a mountain and down to the beach and it's like they have different weather over there - it's so relaxing. It's the place I like to be.
John: I really like Table Mountain. It's beautiful and if you live in town it's only like a ten minute bus ride away!
Geoff: I really like a place called Kalk Bay which is a little bit out of Cape Town but it has the warmer beaches and really great food. I know a friend with an apartment there so I have great memories there.
You've been travelling a lot for shows, but is there anywhere you'd like to visit that you haven't been yet?
John: I'd like to go to Italy and Japan.
Emmanuel: I'd like to go to Israel!
Emmanuel: Yes, because it's a historical place and a lot of musician friends I have been there. I'd like to see the places from the Bible.
If you guys could collaborate with any other musician or producer, who would you pick?
Geoff: I think it would be cool to collaborate with Nozinja, the Shangaan Electro producer guy. He's really cool and I feel like that would be crazy.
John: Yeah, Shangaan Electro is a super super fast electronic South African genre. There's this one guy who really popularized called Nozinja and he's just signed to Warp. He's cool. We've got a track, Limpop, that plays on the style and I met up with this guy's manager for a drink and he showed me a picture of him listening to our track with a confused and slightly pissed off look on his face. I don't think he knew what to make of it.
Emmanuel: If I could have collaborated with Bob Marley or his family I would make an exception because they were the ones that made me like music.
When we play your music at i-D HQ, everyone gets super happy. What makes you happy?
John: It's gonna sound really cheesy but my girlfriend makes me happy.
Emmanuel: Singing in front of people live.
Geoff: Being tickled and outside swimming.
John, you used to work producing jingles. In your opinion, what's the greatest TV ad jingle of all time?
John: Obviously the classic Coca-Cola one… that really stood the test of time.
Finally, who's your favourite wizard and why?
Geoff: I would have to go with Radagast the Brown from The Hobbit. He's so cool.
Emmanuel: I don't know any wizards…
You know, like a magic man…
Emmanuel: Well my name means magic. Lots of people used to call me magic because I'm interested in magic things, but I don't know if magic and wizards are the same. Someone can tell you a story and it has impact on your life and makes your positive thinking grow and helps you understand more just through a story. That's why I'm known as magic story. You can write a song and people listen to the message, it's like magic.
Text and photography Francesca Dunn