Anxiety is a strange, strange beast. Most of us have it, I’m sure. I mean how can we not when almost every day involves worrying about making money or paying rent or arriving on time or avoiding some detrimental shit online or working through our traumas or or or…
Still, we never really engage with it properly. Well, I don’t, at least. I work too much or spend entire Sundays overwatering my house plants to avoid engaging with it. There’s this conversational dance my mother and I do whenever I’m down in Cape Town which goes something like this:
“You’re looking tired, David.”
“I’m fine, mom. You’re looking tired. Have you taken some time off yet? You know you need to.”
“No, no I’m fine. You’re looking pale. Are you sick? You know you get sick at the end of the year. You stress too much, that’s why. But you know, you’ve always been an anxious child.”
She’ll say the last part with a knowing smile.
It’s true though, I have always been a little bit anxious. I remember getting ready for school when I was younger – about nine or ten – and throwing spoonfuls of cereal into my mouth as I put my long, grey socks on and buttoned up my white school shirt, knowing full well that I’d always be ready before my father finished his own morning routine and was ready to drop me off. I’d end up sitting, fully dressed and fed, on the edge of my bed just waiting.
A year or so later, my grandparents gave us their old Telefunken TV set. It was an ancient thing, the type of television that still boasted in block, rainbow letters that it was a Colour TV, replete with fuzzy screen and wonky aerial. We had our own TV in the living room already so I got to keep the Telefunken in my room, and it was during these impatient mornings that I loved it most. SABC 2 always had the news on, SABC 3 usually had Verimark ads on repeat and eTV never really picked up signal.
SABC 1 was where it was at. SABC 1 had YoTV which had cartoons – an excellent way to kill time while waiting. But my father always outlasted the cartoons. Goof Troop or REBOOT would come to an end and to fill the gap between YoTV and some infomercial taking its place, they’d play music videos. Mandoza was there, Skwatta Kamp was there, and for some reason, an advert warning against the perils of underage drinking was there – and I loved it. This is because it used a Felix Laband song, ‘Donkey Rattle’.
I’ve tried to unpack the absurdities of a Felix Laband song being used in an underage drinking public service announcement, but I really can’t. What I can tell you is the reason I began drinking at 14 was due, in part, to that advert – and the reason I developed a life-long obsession with the music of Felix Laband is almost entirely because of that advert. Certainly, the reason I listen to Felix Laband whenever I’m stressed out or anxious stems from those impatient mornings spent in front of the Telefunken.
It was 2002 when Felix Laband brought out 4/4 Down The Stairs, and South Africa was enjoying a new wave of experimental, electronic music. Laband’s music was some of the most influential work to come out of this period and over the years, he’s evolved and polished his sound brilliantly. But there’s always been a deep stillness and calm about Laband’s musical production, and it’s most evident in his earlier music.
Take ‘Miss Teardrop’ for example. It’s a strange song on a cursory listen (most Laband songs are), but deeply sad when listened to with a more considered ear. Dig even deeper – through the padded percussion, the sharp, yet delicate keys, and along that subtle, reverberating bassline – and you’ll find an unquestionable sense of calm to it. It’s a song that demonstrates the shrewd use of repetition in a piece of music, masterful in the way it employs drum lines to guide you through its own highs and lows. It’s an exercise in calm, really – a slow inhaling and exhaling throughout, that, at the end of its three and a half minutes, sets you down gently through a slow, easy fade.
There are more songs like this. There’s ‘Red Handed’ and its shrill shake of the rattlesnake’s tail, cut right down the middle with restrained, metered keys. Or ‘Bats in my Hair’ which declares itself in long, wiry, almost metallic lines – like a piece of thin, malleable metal groaning through high winds. And certainly, ‘Getting Old’ is a lesson in taking it easy.
There are times, however, when even Laband’s music cannot bring me out of those strong bouts of panic. In these cases, I turn to a song by Gareth Jones, better known as Jumping Back Slash. The song is ‘Horses’ and comes from his 2015 EP by the same name. It was early December of the same year when I fell in love with the song. I had just packed up four years of my life in Grahamstown and was heading towards a larger, more foreign city. About 200 kilometres outside of Port Elizabeth, gripped by a sudden panic attack, I pulled the car over at a truck stop beneath one of those expansive bridges. All was quiet, save for the on-off blink of hazards and as I sat there for a while, trying to breath myself calm again, I put ‘Horses’ on.
It’s a strange song to find calm in, I know. At times I think the song could even be the sonic embodiment of a panic attack. Listen and you’ll see: High, whiny synthesisers, short and sharp lay themselves over the rolling percussion of endless drum machines, propelling the listener forward at a great speed. It’s an exhausting listen, really.
I remember interviewing Jones about ‘Horses’. He told me it was about drum machines and about “things that run and run and never stop.” I found a great deal of comfort in that. Maybe I didn’t have to slow my life down and deal with these panic attacks and these pesky bouts of anxiety. Maybe I could just carry on and watch them try and keep up with me. It’s an unhealthy mentality, I’m told, but it works for me. And when it doesn’t, there’s always Jones and Laband to keep me calm.