Our friends had the amazing opportunity to chat to musician and multi-instrumentalist Stelth Ulvang (of The Lumineers) at Smoking Dragon Festival.
Okay well firstly, what is it about South Africa that keeps you coming back?
Initially it was just a pretty curious place and it was fun coming down here originally with The Lumineers. On that trip, I think I met like 5 different musicians that all fall into the scene here (SA). The music scene is cool and it’s got this big range, so I said okay I’ll try to come down and do some solo stuff. It’s so welcoming here and I’ve met a lot of people so now I’m stuck, I mean I came back here partially for a wedding. It feels like family.
So, you’re here now for your solo stuff, but how do you balance your solo career and your time with the band?
With The Lumineers I guess it’s all in and then out, and right now is the rare occasion where The Lumineers are in the middle of this big record cycle but we have a few weeks off surrounding the holidays. It’s kind of like trying to get out of the country for a bit and trying to come to less depressing places I suppose.
How are you different as a performer in your solo career in comparison to your role in The Lumineers?
It sure is nice being able to sing stuff, just having the voice and the lyrics is such a different vibe. It makes playing with The Lumineers as the pianist and doing all the other instruments a lot less pressure and its very fun. It’s easy to get stressed out being the person that’s arranging the things and pulling the band together. I’ve generally had an all in better time doing stuff with The Lumineers, although I think in different ways its more rewarding doing the solo stuff even though you get caught up so much in the managerial mode. It’s the best of both worlds and when this record cycle ends, there will be a year before The Lumineers kick back off and I think I’d like to fill that time in with solo stuff and playing with other bands as well.
The Lumineers will be touring South Africa again in April, what can we expect from you guys this time around?
It was crazy doing a whole tour last time with only the 10 songs on the record, but there’s this new thing now where we’re choosing set lists and choosing which songs to add or not. Before it was kind of like ‘well these are all the songs we have’ and just giving those to people. I sometimes forget and then I remember what it’s like being a fan of music and the disappointment of them not playing your favourite song but also, when they do you’re like ah man that’s amazing that they played this more obscure song that they don’t have to because its all they have. I like that the set for us as musicians is always different.
I’m curious as to how you feel about curating your set like that? When you say that you play a more obscure song and some people will appreciate it but some people obviously wont, do you do it more just because it’s the song you want to play?
I guess everybody comes into it at different times and I think music should evolve. I think sometimes bands can get very stuck doing too much of the same thing or maybe, in a contrived sense, trying to do something so different. I feel right now that at least this second record [Cleopatra] is different enough and I think it’s a safe evolution with the fans; it feels like a breath of fresh air for everybody in the band and I think nothing is then too far-fetched or obscure. There are songs that we haven’t played at all on this tour that are on the record that are deep cuts that we have yet to play.
Sort of like secret songs?
Yeah there are some secret songs but also some songs that work so well as album songs are very complicated to play live especially when you’re trying to corral so many people into a very spacious or slow song; but Wesley the frontman is in a good way very stubborn and will latch on to what the crowd is looking for which isn’t always the clapping and singing along. I think it’s always a better feeling when the crowd is super into it though.
When you guys curate a set list do you change it from country to country or venue to venue, or do you keep a set-set list?
You’ve got basically the same songs that will show up and I think its deciding to put the few songs in that you can afford to put. So you can play this chill song during the set, but maybe if you do that one every night people won’t like it. I guess it’s just a gamble. With my stuff for example, on a smaller stage it’s really nice and there’s this feeling of having to sell yourself, but with The Lumineers you know that people have already latched on and you know what works. Country to country its basically the same songs that have crossed over.
You said that when the Lumineers have finished touring you’re going to work on your solo stuff, what can we expect from you in 2017?
So, I have a second record that I’m going to put out. I came here a year and a half ago in the Autumn and I actually played a festival called Adrenaline Fest on these grounds. I had a band of gentlemen that were playing with me around the country and it’s amazing the kind of influence that I got just from being down here for those 6 weeks, for the new songs on the new record of which I’ve written about 20 since then that I’m trying to fill in. I won’t stop coming back I think, as I said, I feel kind of hooked. I’m excited to be able to share these songs that I wrote while I was here. I play a different set down here as well, the music that the South Africans are into is pretty different in many ways to the American stuff and so I’ve pulled songs out that work so well here that haven’t worked well in the states and that’s very fun.
How then would you compare a South African festival or music event to those you’ve been to overseas such as in America?
Not to sound condescending but this is such a charming festival compared to the shit show that is Coachella and some of the other huge ones. It’s a breath of fresh air to be at a something like this where you start seeing the same people throughout the festival and recognising them, and shaking hands and telling people when your set is going to be. Coming across the bands that have played already and seeing them in the crowd watching music is something; at the big festivals with The Lumineers you’ll see a band standing side-stage but you’d never see them in the crowd. I was surprised, I guess, walking around this festival at the vast difference of genres that were played, and you’re thinking ‘oh smoking dragon that sounds like a hippy festival’ but there’s a good variety and seeing some of the indie bands that have played, it’s pretty cool. I really like this band BCUC, I met them last year at a festival in Swaziland I think, and they have a fervour when they play and I think that not punk music in general, but all music is going to have that fervour to it in the future. You can make music that’s not angry but is with intention, when there’s something that needs to be said.
Other than music-related stuff, what do you want to get out of 2017?
Less deaths of not just famous people, but of everyone. There’s been a lot of tragedy in 2016 and its weird that something that is unbiased as time can squeeze this kind of thing into the realm of this past year, hopefully it will be different this next year. I’m also looking forward to, amidst the shit show that is America right now, the amount of punk music that is going to emerge. Or maybe just the intention that is going to come out of music soon and how bands that hide behind the cloak of separation of politics and their music. I feel we’ll all be surprised to see some of them speaking out.
Okay, well I’m going to end off the interview with a really important question: what would you do if you encountered a smoking dragon?
I’ve thought a lot about the name of this festival and I keep thinking of Alice and Wonderland, with the caterpillar and the hookah and the hippy-ness of it. Maybe I’ll think of it more as in the dragon flying around like in the Neverending Story. Saying ‘Lighting up with the dragon’ would be the easy answer, so I would shoot for flying on its back.