“It’s time to not be so negative about everything in life,” offers Ross Learmonth. “It’s time to just rock ‘n roll.”
Prime Circle’s frontman has reason to feel amped. Backed by a new manager, fresh record deal and expanded line-up, his band have just released their third album.
Produced by Springbok Nude Girls guitarist Theo Crous (“He brought a lot to the party in the sense of making the guitar sound like a huge wall of guitars”), ‘All Or Nothing’ is easily their best work: more powerful, more accomplished, more melodic.
At least part of that growth is due to the singer and chief songwriter.
“I’m at a good place in my life,” Learmonth explains. “For the first album a lot of my songwriting was done when I was in high school — songs like ‘Hello’. That was when I was experimenting with my first little joints and my first bit of drugs and getting caught at school with all that.
“I was in a very different place.”
That’s a slight understatement. Hits like ‘Hello’, ‘My Inspiration’ and ‘Live This Life’ have seen the Witbank band become one of South Africa’s top rock acts — and Learmonth’s ambition grow accordingly.
“You don’t want to write an album that sounds like it’s a pub album,” he confides, “you want to write an album that’s ready to go to a stadium at any stage.
“That was the goal this time,” adds the man whose band was one of the My Coke Fest headliners, “to try to write an album that was bigger than the band itself, to try to write something that could make us transcend where we were.”
So have Prime Circle become too big for South Africa?
“We’re definitely hoping to push as many countries as possible,” answers Learmonth, “but we’ll always be a local-based band.”
“I know that’s quite a touchy subject for a lot of South African fans — they fear losing their bands but it is a necessary thing if a band is to survive in terms of keeping sane. You have to try and do as much as you possibly can.”
That can be tough in a country where groups — like Watershed, Springbok Nude Girls and Parlotones — soon hit a rather low, but rather impenetrable, ceiling.
“What bands don’t really realise is in the end you start competing with yourself. Instead of battling other bands, the biggest competition you have is playing up to the height that you created at the previous gig you played at that very same venue.”
It’s a problem compounded by the lack of those venues.
“In this country you get a really big song and you resort to having to play wherever you possibly can,” Learmonth says.
And yet Prime Circle have managed to stay together — even grow — in a music scene where bands collapse quicker than Zimbabwe coalition talks.
Learmonth credits a rigorous touring schedule (“We decided quite a few years ago that we were going to do this fulltime and hit the road as much as we can”) and just being able to get along with his colleagues.
“The guys have become like brothers so we fight even more than ever,” he laughs. “It’s a good thing we can — you should be able to fight with each other and not let it become the be all and end all of the band. You work for the band and if you have a problem you should sort it out so that the band can continue.”
That’s quite a clinical way of looking at it. What about the joy of playing music?
“I think it’s a fine balance. There are some bands just doing it for the fun — that’s great in terms of the passion of music — and some bands are just doing it for the business without the passion and the fun which is also a bit bad.
“I cross that line every now and then. Once in a while I’ll have too many drinks at a show — which is always a silly thing to do — because you need to vent or you’ve been in that bus too long.
“And other times you just go too much business, you’ll lose a bit of your personality so you’ve got to really try to keep it balanced.”
Prime Circle certainly seem to have found that balance, judging from their new album — and the ongoing success that Ross Learmonth isn’t taking for granted.
“It’s brilliant that people actually give a shit about what you’ve got to say and are interested at all.”
- This article originally appeared on iafrica.com.