Lancaster Band: From left, Howie Butcher, Brian Davidson, Robin Lancaster, myself. Harry Lancaster is on drums behind Brian.
Lancaster band: Myself, Lloyd Martin, Robin Lancaster, Howie Butcher.
Kalk Bay : Yours truly setting up a barrel during the legendary swell of 80...er 80 something anyway.
Short version.Born to Ayrshire Scots parents in Lusaka, Zambia, Robin's childhood was spent alternating between Southern Africa and Scotland, a journey reflected in the African and Celtic influences in his music. He learned to play the guitar by listening to Hendrix, Ry Cooder and Neil Young, also absorbing the influences from the indigenous guitarists of South Africa such as Philip Tabane, Tony Cox, Madala Kunene and Steve Newman. The beach and surfing were the main elements of his early years in Cape Town, which he moved to when he was 10 with his mother and brother. He started out playing as a sideman guitarist in various seminal Cape Town line-ups such as the Lancaster Band and Steve Walsh Roots Rhythm band before going on to write and sing his own songs. He had several national hits with the band Z-Astaire, produced by Kevin Shirley who went on to work with Joe Bonnamassa, Led Zeppelin and John Hiatt amongst others. He then embarked on the journey to take his music abroad, and it was in the UK that his music evolved from the pop sound of his earlier recordings to the contemporary mix of roots influences that make up his sound today. Based in Cape Town, he has recorded and performed in New York, Nashville, London, Glasgow and California while touring the UK and South Africa regularly. Over the years many of Southern Africa's top musicians have appeared on an Auld album and the credits include musicians like Anton Fig from the David Letterman show, Louis Mhlanga, Schalk Joubert, Barry van Zyl and Johnny Clegg. Along with many tours of his own, he's opened for and performed with artists such as Osibisa, Michelle Shocked, Angelique Kidjo, Jackson Browne, Lloyd Cole, Mud Morgenfield and Seasick Steve.
The long version...according to Robin.The first music I can remember hearing was my mother in the kitchen, singing songs from the opera Carmen. We lived on the upper Zambezi river, Zambia, in a place called Sesheke, my father was a circuit magistrate. It was towards the end of the great post war American boom; all the cars had fins. My parents were working class Scots, Britain was all pooped out and many Brits had left for the former colonies. Zambia was Northern Rhodesia until 1964, and with my dad being in the service of the crown I got a British passport. There were no other white folks around and I spent my days running around with my mates in the bush with a bare arse, quite fantastic. Hippos used to trash the garden. My abiding memory of the people there was of generosity from folks who had very little.
The big thing at the time was calypso, Harry Belafonte, and my folks would play him a lot. The sound of those songs, the emotional tone, was something that made a lot of sense and still does. It was warm-blooded music, made by people who were born under the sun, and even though it was in a major key there could be a sadness inside of it. When we moved back to Ayrshire, after my folks got divorced, I heard Celtic music?... Scottish music?. Andy Stewart, Kenneth McKellar, also I enjoyed Peter Paul and Mary and Hermans Hermits. Tunes. Hey, I was ten years old, but the tune is still the cake...all the rest is just icing. I loved Rodgers and Hammerstein, Sherman and Sherman and the songs from the musical Oliver, written by Lionel Bart. He had that English music hall tradition, lots of chromatic movements that tied right into some of the songs from Carmen...the Beatles used it too. Someone's older brother played me Bob Dylans "Blowin in the wind", and the Beatles "A hard day's night", and that was that...I was hooked on rock 'n roll.
My mom decided to move out to South Africa, so my younger brother and me came out with her on the Edinburgh Castle, of the Union Castle Line that used to ship the mail. About a week into the trip there were flying fish and dolphins alongside, and things warmed up again. We set up in the False Bay area of Cape Town, and I discovered the beach and surfing.
After school, and I would like to point out that I was asked to leave, not expelled, a succession of foolhardy and desperate attempts to have a job then followed. I was a fridge mechanic assistant, or handlanger? in Cape parlance, a fisherman, a curio salesman, and my most successful effort which was a record salesman in the Musica chain. They should give Musica a Patron of the Arts award. Back then they provided gainful employment for 80 % of Cape Town’s musicians. The other 20% were employed by Paul Bothners, the music gear shop.
I started on acoustic guitar by learning to play Neil Young's "The needle and the damage done". My first lead licks were Santana ones, and then I discovered Hendrix, who I listened to pretty much exclusively for three years or so. I was a guitar player for years before I started singing. I played in high school bands, with the first “proper” band being Lancaster band, as a sideman playing licks and singing the odd harmony. We toured a bit and had a great time through the various incarnations of the outfit in the heady new wave era of anti-conscription campaign gigs, along with bands like Permanent Force and The Safari Suits. After I left Lancaster Band I moved to the bright side of town, Sea Point, to play with Steve Walsh's Roots Rhythm band. I thought that I was moving to the big city (well I had been in Muizenberg til then) and that I was going to get laid like nobody's business. As it happened, I tragically didn't get laid all summer. Steve played a lot of Neil Young, Dylan, Bob Marley, Tim Buckley, Garland Jeffreys..stuff that somehow related to African grooves, and his own material, which had that warmblood thing.
The early rural American stuff had a resonance for me, like the dust bowl songs that Ry Cooder recorded. I liked the simpleness, the way they didn't have to be sophisticated city slickers to nail something...that sly delivery. When I hear Leadbelly I don't hear America, I hear Africa. The first concert I went to was Malombo, featuring Philip Tabane who is a legend of African guitar. It made a hell of an impression on me and, along with Juluka, planted the seeds for what I wanted to do with my music. I guess that was: to make music that connected the 70's singer/songwriter ethos to the Africa that surrounded me. I had dabbled a little with African styles, like "There is a wind" on Ocean Motion, but using African elements in my songs only really happened, ironically, after I'd left South Africa in 1986. There was even some press about it back home along the lines of "Robin Auld playing mbaqanga in London shock horror". I had learned to play by hanging around older guys who had guitars, and they played stuff like Santana, Rolling Stones...African music was what came out of the maid's radio round the back, but it had always sounded interesting to me. I needed to learn to play it properly on the guitar, the same way I learned blues, folk and the other western forms, so that I could put it on the wall of the toolshed. Lucien Windrich of Evoid, who I was recording with in London, gave me a bunch of stuff....an imprint called Earthworks, some Revolver recordings from Durban, all mbqanga and maaskande stuff from bands like The Super Tens, The Soul Brothers, Amwazi Emvelo. I dived into it and learned how to feel it through on the guitar.
My songwriting started off, and still does, from guitar playing. I was a guitar player for years before I started singing, firstly with the Lancaster Band. I brought the late Brian Davidson, the singer from SA icons Freedoms' Children, into the Lancaster Band after we jammed one night in Muizenberg. Now that he’s gone, I’m realizing more and more how lucky I was to play with him. He was a real classic rock singer, able to float the note over the top no matter how much racket the band was making, on his day as good as Plant or Gillan. Brian and I parted ways with Lancaster Band when they went ska and I found it impossible to not play lead solos. The rift had been coming for some time anyway, the whole English punk thing never had much resonance for me spending my days, as I did, looking for surf in clapped out kombis listening to J.J. Cale and Little Feat .
A young sound engineeer called Kevin Shirley, who was working at Tully McCully’s studio Spaced Out Sound, started coming to gigs because he liked my guitar playing. I didn’t have too many songs, but he took the idea of a record to WEA. Showing a lapse of judgement not seen again, WEA took the record on. That was “At the corner", my first album. It didn’t do much, but the next few, released through a Cape Town indie called Mountain, had a whole bunch of radio hits. There was this throw-away tune called "Baby you been good" which went to number 8 on the Springbok charts. The suburbs loved it as much as the hip underground hated it. They both must have sensed my natural empathy for white trash culture. Due, no doubt, to my listening to Radio Good Hope requests every evening at an impressionable age. That album also contained the single All of Woman, which had already been a no.1. By then we were working non-stop, driving around the country in Murray's beat up van, or flying to gigs regularly. We dutifully trashed many a Holiday inn and did shows with bands like Tribe after Tribe, Hotline, Ella Mental and Petit Cheval.In retrospect people assume a master plan was involved, but we were just hanging on for dear life like everybody else. And we still seemed to have no money. The whole scene kind of imploded after a couple of years, everybody gave up or left. I had had enough of being the phase after the horsey one for teenage girls. Also, despite having an album with five singles on it, my erstwhile label managed a total of 600 sales, allegedly. As acts with one hit were selling between ten and sixty thousand or so, it seemed to be time to get out of Dodge.
I moved to the UK and started experimenting more with Celtic, African and blues elements in my songwriting. With trips back to SA and then back to the UK over the next decade, I also set about earning the title of a professional Soutpiel. That’s a salt dick..someone who has one foot in South Africa and one foot in Britain, which causes his umentionables to hang in the water. Very evocative language, Afrikaans.
Since those first three I’ve released another seventeen albums, more or less, through every permutation of the biz from major labels to independents, and worked with a whole bunch of wonderful people. Since the internet and digital recording arrived it's been easier to release music independently, and my label, the optimistically named Free Lunch, is now on its eighth release.
After a long stint in the UK, I am based in Kalk Bay, Cape Town again many years after living there when I was starting out. Boy the rent's gone up! I surf whenever I can and spend time with my family when not on the road. My personal journey as a songwriter is to use, at some point, everything I've heard and loved. It's a tall order, but it keeps me out of trouble.