Zef Lessons: Dave Navarro Interviews Die Antwoord

It’s easy to remember the first time you heard—or rather, saw—Die Antwoord. The bombastic, rhyme-slinging hip-hop duo from South Africa likely appeared before you on a computer screen circa 2010. Chances are it was their video for “Enter the Ninja,” or maybe “Zef Side“—in either event, your eyes and ears were at once assaulted, confused, and enraptured. Here was a bone-skinny white dude, deathly angry, flopping around in a pair of Pink Floyd boxer shorts, shouting at you in language you couldn’t comprehend. What Ninja and Yo-Landi Visser, the coed twosome that comprise Die Antwoord, came armed with was mind-warped, aggro-hip-hop rife with Afrikaan phrases and South African slumdog culture; they also had hair the likes of which had never been seen before.

But it was through their irreverence, a heart-swelling disdain for the establishment—the duo rejected a reported $1 million deal with Interscope following the release of their debut album, $o$, as a result of creative differences—that bred a rabid fanbase and an independently-released sophomore album, Tension, that includes a comedic skit in which a man clearly meant to be Interscope’s Jimmy Iovine has Yo-Landi sit on his lap like a creepy, overly-touchy uncle.

Now they’re touring with Jane’s Addiction, whose guitarist, Dave Navarro, is a nerdboy-Die Antwoord fan. For two years, he practically begged Perry Farrell and the rest of his bandmates to bring Die Antwoord out on tour. So naturally Navarro (with an assist from Interview‘s Dan Hyman) didn’t have to be asked twice to interview Die Antwoord, just after a show in Philadelphia and 24 hours prior to touching down for a joint gig in Williamsburg.

DAVE NAVARRO: How did it go for you last night?

NINJA: It was abstract, but I loved it.

NAVARRO: I looked at your setlist, and you didn’t do “Enter The Ninja.” How come?

NINJA: We just gauge our shows sometimes, and when we enter a totally new audience, I think we kind of have shell shock. You just gauge it. You’re doing a performance, but it’s relative to who’s there.

NAVARRO: Absolutely. We go through the same thing all the time. We’ll have a setlist ready to go and then based on the reaction—sometimes it’s the room, too—will dictate how our set goes. I find, personally, I like the size and the room in big venues like that, but I don’t necessarily like the seats.

NINJA: Oh, yeah. The seats are weird. We’d never actually played a show in our lives with seats.

NAVARRO: Oh, is that right?

NINJA: Yeah. That was our first time.

NAVARRO: We go through that, too. It’s kind of a double-edged sword, because you get the room and the stage, you get to have a lot of people, but they’re all sitting there, and it’s not the most inspiring of environments.

NINJA: But it’s cool. We’ve been doing different stuff before this. So when we worked out Die Antwoord, it was a strange type of thing—the sound and the style and everything. I think the last five years, we’ve been working out what we wanted. In South Africa, we’ve got a real small fan base, but they’re, like, super fierce. But a lot of the time, the majority doesn’t—they’re a bit retarded in South Africa. A lot of times you’re doing a show and you’re kind of at the mercy of a retarded audience. Usually you have a lot of these idiots standing around half-watching. We wanted to make a show that’s more like attack. It doesn’t matter if you’re into it or not. The show has almost nothing to do with the audience.

NAVARRO: I actually find that problem with the world at large. I’ve been into you guys for many years. Let me say first that Jane’s Addiction is super-happy and honored to have you guys playing with us.

NINJA: And vice versa. Thanks so much for inviting us. It’s the first time we’ve opened or rolled with someone that we actually like. It’s kind of weird for us, opening for people. It’s real peachy that you guys asked us.

NAVARRO: I’ve been fighting to get you guys to play with us for over maybe a year and a half now. There’s a couple of reasons. One, because I feel that you guys really ignite the audience in an unusual way and you also inspire us and ignite us in a different way than say, a similar-genre band playing with us. If we have two rock bands it becomes more of an obvious show. Die Antwoord is such a lifestyle band. That’s kind of where we come from in Hollywood; we’re really a lifestyle band. People either got it and loved it or hated it.

NINJA: Yeah, that’s the best.

NAVARRO: Yeah, I think so, too. Because when people get it, they’re diehard forever. And I see a lot of similarities—as different as our musical genres are. That’s one thing that spoke to me, is how personality-driven you guys are. There’s a lot of stuff going on right now in the electronic world, but there’s not a whole lot of personality in the artists.

NINJA: Yeah, it’s fucking boring a lot of the time. One-dimensional.

DAN HYMAN: Ninja, how much did you know about Jane’s Addiction before going on tour with them?

NINJA: We roll with a Nine Inch Nails crew. I think a few years ago, Nine Inch Nails, they did a tour with Jane’s Addiction. And my dentist, who put all the gold in my teeth—

NAVARRO: [laughs]

NINJA: He’s like a Jane’s Addiction freak. He gives us happy gas, and with all the gold I just got put in my teeth, I was listening to Jane’s Addiction the whole time.

NAVARRO: We find the only way we can get anyone to listen to us is if we put them out first. Can I ask you guys about the video stuff and the imagery that you guys put into your show?

NINJA: Yeah, shoot.

NAVARRO: You guys first put out the EP $o$, correct?

NINJA: We put out like 23 tracks for free on the Internet about two years ago. We didn’t even have an album. We just put out a whole fuckload of songs. We just called it $o$—it was like a phase. We didn’t really have an album; we just put out an album for nothing. We started taking old photographs based on this theme—the kind of underbelly of South Africa. Then we put out “Enter The Ninja” and “Zef Side” and did two videos. It took about a year to make—just with favors. We done that all for free, everything was just like people taking photos for us, friends of ours, and videos for us, done them through favors. We’d do these small little shows—like 300 people, 200 people there. Did that for like three years. It took really hard but really small in South Africa. Then all of a sudden, all of that stuff got noticed. I think those two videos we made started noise in an instant in like 2009 or ’10, in like a few days. Then everything went fucking mental. All these big labels wanted to sign them. Interscope compressed [the album] into 10 [tracks] for some various reasons. We’re like “10?” We said “fine,” and released that in an official album. But even now, albums are a real thing of yesteryear. Everyone just listens to tracks.

NAVARRO: Yeah, you’re right. At the same time, I felt like Tension feels like an album.

NINJA: We first wanted to call it The Tension, ’cause you got known for something and now it’s kind of a dangerous time, ’cause it’s like, what are you gonna do now?

NAVARRO: There’s so many people waiting and hoping for failure.

NINJA: Humans are like that. They’re just weirdos.

NAVARRO: It’s funny. A lot of people aren’t happy unless others are failing.

NINJA: We called it Tension because the label was this weird fucking presence. We felt like we hadn’t done our homework.

NAVARRO: Yeah, we were on Capitol for a lot of years. We just got out of that. Yo-Landi, let me ask you, on Tension, on “Uncle Jimmy Skit” [which mocks Interscope head, Jimmy Iovine], which I absolutely love, how did that come about? How accurate is that? Because I’ll be honest with you, I’ve heard a few stories of him from other artists. Is that an actual depiction of essentially what went down there?


NAVARRO: I figured. Is that one of the reasons why you guys split from Interscope?

VISSER: No. Not really. But the herbal tea part is true. He kept on offering us herbal tea, and it was really freaking us out. You know on the old Eminem album, the Marshall Mathers album, where he like goes into the office and (Jimmy’s) like, “I can’t sell these fucking records. This record sucks.” That was our interpretation of that.

NAVARRO: Would he let you touch his face?

NINJA: I squished his cheeks. Everyone was like, “Did you just pinch Jimmy Iovine’s cheek? He doesn’t like it if people touch him.” I was like, “He didn’t seem to mind.” He liked Yo-Landi a lot. A lot.

NAVARRO: Yeah, Yo-Landi, how you doing with that? Do you mind all the attention you get? Or is it a double-edged sword?

VISSER: Attention, it just comes and goes. Since we don’t have a major label, it’s like, what are we gonna do next? You have to make your own decisions.

NAVARRO: I think that’s one of the things that really appeals to people, though, is that you guys are really true to yourselves and essentially make your own decisions and your own moves. In the early days of Jane’s Addiction, we had to do that, too. We had to put on our own shows in underground Hollywood clubs and vacant lots and put out our own record. And even our covers wouldn’t get released, so we had to do alternative covers for the label. We had a lot of struggles and battles with that stuff, so I identify with that and I love that. I think that’s one more thing that keeps you guys really fresh and exciting, is that you don’t have any barriers. Ninja, you were talking about those early videos and that’s when I first became aware of you guys. And then you did the Harmony Korine film (“Umshini Wam“), which I just think is absolutely amazing. What I love about that most is it’s not a music performance video at all.

NINJA: It was supposed to be.

NAVARRO: [laughs] What happened?

NINJA: Interscope just said “No, you can’t pay for your own video.” We’re like, “What?” They’re like, “Can you send us the script for approval?” That was the beginning of the end. But Harmony, we had loved his stuff. All of a sudden they were contacting us. It was a total mindfuck. And I think someone who knew him gave him my email address and then he just said hi, we started talking for quite a long time. And then phoning each other and working out what we should do. He had a script, but he interpreted what we were about. Some of it was on, and some of it was off. We made it more realistic. Between Ninja and Yo-Landi, it had to be based on how we are. It had to be authentic. Yo-Landi was asked to be in this big movie, The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, that David Fincher filmed, to play someone else. She said no to that. We’ve been asked by other people [to act]. There’s this director I fucking love, Neil Blomkamp. He did District 9 and he asked me to be in this film called Elysium. But we don’t really want to do anything away from who we are at the moment. It would fuck with it.

NAVARRO: I know a lot of the fan base, particularly when it comes to music, they love it and they embrace it. And then it gets huge, which you guys are starting to do. Did that sudden explosion of attention affect the hardcore fanbase?

NINJA: We’re not that big.

NAVARRO: I disagree.

NINJA: We’re just getting there. I wanna be fucking huge. I wanna be the biggest pop group on the planet. But like, Lady Gaga asked us to open for her and tour with her. We’re like, “Uh, no thanks.” We don’t want to do those sort of moves.

NAVARRO: I heard about that!

NINJA: That’s when you’ll risk everyone who started with us. You’ll get retards who fall off and people that aren’t supposed to be attached to you. Hopefully people will go with you and do your adventure together and if they’re meant to come with, cool. If not, it doesn’t matter.

NAVARRO: We started in 1989 and had diehard fans up until we had a song on the radio; then they hated us.

NINJA: Yeah, they’re retarded.

NAVARRO: Yeah, but in a way, I love being inspired and excited by things that not everybody in the world knows about yet.

NINJA: Yeah, but I’m like way into pop. I would categorize Die Antwoord as pop music: extreme futuristic pop music.

NAVARRO: I would too. But I wouldn’t say it’s vapid.

NINJA: Yeah, but it’s not our fault that today’s pop is shit. We want to make good pop. Like “Bohemian Rhapsody” by Queen, it’s a weird-ass tune; it’s fucking strange. But it’s a massive, super-crazy fucking psycho hit. But it’s like the most avant-garde, weird-ass thing. And Yo-Landi’s dad, who’s a priest, bumps that shit. And then there’s Pink Floyd, Dark Side of the Moon. Strange-ass shit. Or the Doors, The Beach Boys, or the Beatles. They make this crazy pop music. But I think the world was a different place then. In the last 10 years, music is quite a bit funny. It’s almost a popular wasteland of authenticity, of originality. Even when we named our group Die Antwoord, it was “The Answer” because we wanted to make something that actually had a little bit of soul and still fit into the pop world but has presence.

NAVARRO: One of the reasons that it was so important to me to play with you guys is Die Antwoord and Jane’s Addiction are two very different shades of weird. Different shades of authentic and unusual. And both bands, people get it or don’t.

NINJA: Like you can hear a one-second clip of a Jane’s Addiction track and be like, “Oh, that’s Jane Addiction.” And you hear a Lady Gaga song and be like, “Oh, is that Rihanna?”

NAVARRO: Personally, I don’t give a fuck what they’re talking about.

NINJA: It’s like, is that Kanye West or P. Diddy?

NAVARRO: Also, I want to talk to you about bringing South African culture into your music. For America, that’s a really unusual duality. Now we’re hearing music and lyrics that we can understand that we’re not used to hearing. As a fan, I look up the lyrics, and I look up the translation.

NINJA: We did that on purpose. It’s super trippy coming to America because we know everything about it—from music and film. I know what a Southern accent sounds like; I know what a New York accent sounds like. And there’s western and hardcore and alternative music. Americans present shit so fucking well—from WWF to Fast and Furious. It’s all been so lusciously delivered. And it’s all part of American culture: what you see is what you get. And it’s real lush. And in South Africa it’s the exact extreme complete opposite of that: it’s all broken and dysfunctional. Everything I said about America, South Africa is not. There’s stuff there, but the bottom line is it’s not well presented.

NAVARRO: The characters you guys put in your videos it couldn’t be more anti-Hollywood.

NINJA: It’s raw as fuck. There’s a weird trick we discovered. Our style is super-fucking influenced. Yo-Landi digs, like, Nirvana and PJ Harvey and Bjork and hip-hop at the end of the ’90s. And I dig hardcore rap from the ’80s and beginning of ’90s. We’re super influenced by America. Big time. And we even started checking out WWF, like the wham-bam-thank-you-ma’am element. We were like, “Let’s take all this shit from South Africa that no one knows about and put it forward; real bold and slam-it-in-your-face style.” And it’s very un-South African to do something like that. But we’re delivering to you guys in the exact format that you’re used to.

NAVARRO: It’s really compelling.

NINJA: Thanks again for having us. We’re having a real blast.

NAVARRO: I adore you guys. I don’t know which one of you guys I’m more in love with. I’ll see you guys in Williamsburg.

NINJA: Yeah, it’s gonna be wild.

NAVARRO: Yeah, it’s gonna be great!