Cape Town-based reggae-metal band, Ill System are one of the reasons I have been thrilled to be back in the hood. They have been an infrequent presence on the local scene, but every time they play, you know it was worth the wait. Their live shows are energetic, authentic, and so much fun that they usually pass way too quickly. They’re also one of the few bands on the scene that is bending the genre and exploring an interesting crossover feel between chunky reggae and the heavy headbanging crush of metal. Add African-inspired percussion, and you’ve got a recipe for a proudly South African export.
The genesis of Ill System happened even before I left high school, which despite appearances, was an embarrassingly long time ago. However, they haven’t been entirely consistent in maintaining a presence on the scene and their repertoire has remained disappointingly small for a long time. Well, not anymore. It’s exciting to hear that they’re recording new songs, one which I got to hear just recently at the metal4africa Winterfest ‘19.
We directed a few questions at Sean Olsen (vocals/percussion/samples) and Gareth Howard (guitars) to get the lowdown on what to expect from the new material, what makes them different and what it means to be an African metal band.
Rumour has it that Ill System is in the process of recording a new album. Without having to spill too many beans, can you give us a rundown of what to expect?
Gareth Howard: We are definitely working on new material. We are deciding the best type of release to do as, these days, things are slightly different with the existence of streaming platforms. We have just released our video for “Sleeping Giant,” which was received really well, so you can definitely expect a variety of different sounds from us.
Ill System have a bit of a patchy history but has also been around for a substantial amount of time. Can you give readers new to the band a bit of an overview of your history?
Sean Olsen: Ill System started around 2000 and were one of the early adopters of what became “nu metal.” We moved the band to the UK for a couple of years and when Visas expired, half the band came back to Cape Town and the other half remained in the UK. Then in 2015, we got together for a “one-off” reunion gig. It felt really good, so we just kept going, but we’ve still kept the gigs selective.
Here’s a live performance music video of “Holy War” from Metal4Africa Summerfest 2018:
What do you think it is about the band that keeps it going?
Howard: I personally think it’s because we are slightly different from what is out there at the moment and we have the same values when it comes to the music we make. We like to create catchy, groovy and high energy music, but also place a lot of emphasis on our live shows to make sure that it is performed the way we envisage the music. We are also good friends and have a great time when we are all together, so it makes it really easy for us to keep it going.
Olsen: Ill System is a band that has a unique and powerful energy. Our songs are great fun to play and to listen to and the shared experiences at live shows between us and our audiences are what keeps us going. Also, lyrically, the message feels as relevant now as when we wrote our first songs. With the current state of the world, songs like “International Assassins” and “People vs the State” feel like could have been written just the other day.
For a short period, you played in the UK, but in 2014, members came back to SA and the band started playing on home ground again. So I have three questions about this. Firstly, I am guessing that much has changed since the early years. What is your approach to making music as Ill System at the moment?
Howard: Much has changed indeed. Mike was appointed on bass in late 2014 and I joined on guitar in early 2017, so the dynamics have definitely changed. Our approach is usually with Sean sparking an idea and we would slowly build on that idea until we have a song that we are all pumped on and then lay the foundation. As the song starts to take shape we include our various “peculiarities” that they were once referred to as (laughs).
Olsen: The biggest change is time. In the early days, we’d spend hours in sweaty practice rooms jamming away until we’d arrive at a song. Now we have proper jobs, families and other projects, so we’ve had to streamline our processes and share a lot of ideas electronically. And while there have been some lineup changes, the core sound of Ill System is both well-defined and flexible, which makes for a good songwriting blueprint.
Check out the artwork for the new single “Sleeping Giant:”
The second question is whether you’ve made any decisions about what you want to achieve or how far you want to take this music thing? Tell us more.
Howard: We just want to make music that we want to make. How that is received from fans and promoters is something that is really out of our control but obviously, we hope that it is received well. As long as we know that we have given it our all then, as far as I am concerned, that is a success. We plan to continue just doing us and I think that is a great place to be. There’s more music and shows on the horizon for sure, but the one thing we would like to do is visit more of the country and who knows, maybe back across the pond for a visit.
Olsen: I think what keeps the band going is we are at a stage where we put no pressure on ourselves. We are playing shows and making music that we like and luckily there are other people that like it too.
The third question is regarding any changes to the local scene that you can see, both good and bad. What are your impressions?
Howard: The scene is what you make of it at any given time. We like to look at it from a positive point of view at all times. Why look at the negative when you can see the glass half full? The only thing that has really changed is the amount of venues available for bands to perform. The bands are still around and there are more popping up left, right and centre so we have an abundance of really talented artists that makes the scene what it is. More international artists are making their way to SA, so there is no shortage of opportunity.
Ill System keep a bit of a low profile, and I’ve only managed to catch one show in six months. Is this going to change with the new album coming?
Howard: Well yeah a little bit of both. We are currently concentrating on the new set and new music. We pride ourselves on our live shows but also pride ourselves on the fact that we need fresh new music, so it’s really the combination of the two. We strive to keep things fresh and give the fans what they deserve which is a slew of new music.
Olsen: It’s true, we like to be selective with our shows. Cape Town does not have an abundance of live venues and we like to make sure we don’t oversaturate the scene. Having said that, we have been keeping a low profile to work on new material and the more we release, the more we’ll be keen to showcase those songs on stage.
See what Olsen is talking about with the music video for “Sleeping Giant:”
A brand new music video was recently dropped for “Sleeping Giant.” What was the thinking around the concept of the video?
Olsen: The initial idea of “Sleeping Giant” came about after the band reformed a couple of years back. The concept was originally about me, and by extension, Ill System being the sleeping giant who has been dormant and now awakes to find the world is in a worse state, and not enough people are speaking out about it. So we’ve come back to speak the truth and tell it how it is. It’s also telling people to stop sleeping and wake up, metaphorically. So yeah, that was kind of the idea and then the video was a way to visually express that.
Ill System is one of the few bands that is trying very hard (and successfully) to capture an African sound in the music. This has got me thinking about the idea of “African metal.” What do you think it means to be an African metal band?
Howard: Well we have plenty of African elements to our music. Be it the djembe, bongos, an African style riff or sample. It’s not like we have to think hard about creating this type of music so I think it’s just our vibe and what we want to make so it comes pretty naturally.
Olsen: The “African” elements in our music has always come naturally to me. I grew up playing percussion and when I learned to play guitar as a kid, I was drawn to the Zulu style of guitar playing. But I think it was when we moved overseas and people there started describing us as the metal band from Africa, that we started identifying with it and embracing it. Having said that, I don’t think one can define what it means to be an African metal band. There are many amazing metal bands from all over the African continent who are so different from each other with extremely diverse sound. We are just happy to be part of that and do what we can to put African metal on the global map.
The band’s International Assassins album was released back in 2005.
Secondly, have there been moments where you have felt constrained by “metal” and the expectations that invokes, or even the music itself, or the scene or the people in the scene?
Howard: Not at all. I think people kind of know what to expect from us now. We have our heavy moments in most of our songs. Sean likes to joke that we are always the “light entertainment” for the evening but it really couldn’t be further from the truth. When it’s time to throw down, we throw down, no matter who is in the crowd.
Olsen: From day one we have pushed hard to go beyond the traditional boundaries of metal. In the early days, I think I went out of my way to be “anti-metal” and not conform to any pre-conceived rules. But as time went on, it just became more a case of playing music we liked, incorporating all the various genres that appealed to us. And the way I see it now is, the scene is very open to different styles of music and we appeal to metalheads across the spectrum, as well as “non-metalheads.” I find at shows, as long as people have a good time and we give all our energy to the crowd, people appreciate what we do and are really into it, even if it might not be their own personal favourite niche sub-genre of metal.
Finally, just to say how glad I am that you’re back to cooking up your brand of metal and that we can expect an album really soon. As the final question, I wanted to ask you, what keeps you inspired to keep on being a musician in South Africa?
Howard: Phew, that’s a tough one but for me, it’s just the love of the music. We keep each other inspired in the band so I would always suggest surrounding yourself with people with the same values and energy. It sounds cliche but it’s true. Stay happy and energized and you have a perfect formula.
Olsen: Thanks for the love. Playing music is inspiring all on its own. It’s quite easy to be inspired. Also, we’ve let go of the pressures of “trying to make it.” We get to do everything on our own terms and write the music that we want and we have a great time doing it.