“What got me into music? Well, it’s been a part of my life for as long as I can remember,” says John Atterbury with a shy smile. A producer and musician, he hails from East London – not the East London of ELL – but the charming port city in his native South Africa.
Now he is in another East London, working out of a sunny New Cross studio. His bottomless passion for music is easy to tell – a double bass leans against a wall plastered with posters near a rack lined with acoustic, electric and bass guitars. An electric keyboard rests between studio monitors, with composition notes and scores scattered all around.
So, where does a white South African musician, who specialises in folk music, derive his influences from? “I grew up listening to a wide variety of music from different South African cultures. Juluka were possibly my earliest musical influence, long before I played music.” A multi-racial band from the 70s, they combined Zulu music styles like maskanda, story telling by song and mbaqanga, South African jazz, with Celtic folk and Western popular music.
His family background is also important: “One side of the family left Britain about two hundred years ago, but the other side came from Ireland in the 50s, so I grew up listening to more traditional Irish folk songs and jigs as well.”
How did the segregated nature of South African culture affect him? ” I grew up in the final and most chaotic years of apartheid, so people from different races were separated until I was a teenager. Most of my friends were white but I listened to multi-racial South African music like Tananas and Zap Dragons or [the black singer] Vusi Mahlasela…”
John’s first instrument was his voice as a child – now, nearing 30, he skilfully plays a number of instruments with bass guitar as his main choice. “My brother needed a bass player for his band when I was about ten, so like most bass guitarists in the world, that’s how I got into playing bass.”
“I had a lot of fun playing with my brother’s bands, he’s definitely a big influence on my own work. My sister played with us sometimes, too. She’s great on sax, and is a fantastic piano player as well.”
Music is a core trait of the Atterburys. “It runs in the family. My grandpa was a great musician, too. We used to have these folk nights when I was young, everyone would gather around at our home and play songs together. I guess it was influenced by 60s music. We’d mix traditional folk songs with The Beatles, Bob Dylan…The music of my parents’ generation.”
“It was really great. Dad would play guitar, my sister would be on sax, I’d play the bass and sometimes my dad’s friends would come over and jam with us. I also have a lot of friends passionate about music.”
Was the local music scene in East London an active one? “Not really, no. It is a very small city which wasn’t very rich music-wise. Culturally quite dry, I would say. We would play gigs but no one would show up.”
“In high school I opened up a club with some friends, it took off for a while. We would rent out a venue every two weeks or so and play there. Even if no one turned up, it was a lot of fun. It was so different to the music scene here, which is far more active and diverse. I guess that’s one of the main reasons I left for London.”
Leaving one East London for another, he was drawn to Goldsmiths for its creative reputation. “I basically wanted something more than an academic look on music. I don’t mean being technically good at guitar, I was never interested in anything like that.”
“Listening to different music and working with different people inspires me. The community at Goldsmiths has been really good for that. I wouldn’t have been able to do this back home.”
Seizing on the creative opportunities offered by London, he has become involved with musicians from around the world. He plays bass in Embers, a mellow indie-rock band he formed with some Goldsmiths classmates; their EP is out in the early autumn.
He is also is part of the Goldsmiths Choir: “The choir has been a really unique experience for me, sharing the stage with a large amount of people. We’re set to perform with The Matthew Herbert Big Band at Glastonbury. It’s kept me pretty busy.”
Busy is an understatement. When he isn’t rocking his Warwick bass on-stage or singing in a choir, he gives private music lessons and composes film scores. John is currently scoring an NHS documentary for sex workers in South Africa and a 13-minute short film. “I would love to get into film composition and scoring – so for my final project at Goldsmiths, I decided to do a short animation film about a mythical creature from Japanese folklore called baku, who eats bad dreams.”
John shows great creativity with his unique approach to composition and scoring; his talents as a music producer are just as impressive, judging from his work with experimental folk outfit Reigndear. Consisting of brothers Kent Dylan and Wesley Jay, they are also from East London.
“I’ve been friends with them since I was 14. I recorded them about a year and a half ago while I was visiting home in a tiny bedroom with a little microphone and a laptop. I came back to London and produced full songs with the recordings.’’
John’s animation piece, ‘baku’, will be shown at the Shunt Gallery on June 11 as part of Goldsmiths Electronic Music Studio’s showcase of student work.