JPR Live Session: Civil Twilight

Dec 2, 2016

Depending on your background, the term "power trio" may bring to mind the '60s sonic depth-charges launched by the Jimi Hendrix Experience and Cream; the twisty prog-rock styles of mid-'70s King Crimson and Rush; or the post-grunge bash of Seether and Wolfmother. In the case of Civil Twilight, the term means all of that – and much more.

"We like to write together, and jam for hours at a time," says singer/bassist/pianist Steven McKellar, who joined his brother Andrew (guitar) and childhood friend Richard Wouters (drums) to form the group in 1996. "We’ll play together in a studio, record all our jam sessions, and then listen back to them and pick the sections to work on that we think could turn into songs."

While comparisons to the arena-filling likes of U2 and Radiohead may be inevitable, Civil Twilight have without doubt found a niche all their own. Friends since childhood, Andrew McKellar and Richard Wouters both started out on guitar in their native Cape Town, South Africa. By age 15, Wouters had switched to drums; during an early rehearsal, Andrew showed up with his younger brother, the then-13-year-old Steven, who quickly proved his mettle as an emotive songwriter and soon after developed as a solid bassist. "We were all friends; it was pretty much that simple," says Andrew. "We just got into enjoying it, practicing once a week on Sunday and having fun."

Growing up, the three young men took advantage of the musical eclecticism that surrounded them in Cape Town. "My mother would play the piano every few days," Steven says. "That was my first experience of really sensitive, soulful music. When I first started playing bass, I got into jazz and studied that for awhile, but eventually realized that was not what I wanted to do." American and European bands like Nirvana, Blur and Oasis were making the same inroads in South Africa that they were in their native lands, and the McKellar brothers were quickly drawn in. "Nirvana really changed everything for me," says Andrew. "Here was a guy who sounded – and, as it turns out, was – pretty desperate, singing in a way that was very real. That band was really blowing people's minds; we’d never heard anything like that."

At the same time, native dance music and the mbaqanga and township jive styles popularized worldwide by Paul Simon’s Graceland album were inescapable influences. "South Africa can be a hard place to explain," Richard reflects. "It’s very heavily influenced by American and British bands, but it also has this aspect to it that’s totally unique. Being situated at the tip of Africa, and with its history as both a British and Dutch colony, we kind of create our own worlds."

The band (now based in Nashville) released their newest album Story of an Immigrant in July 2016.