News & Insights 8 March 2013

The Cape Argus (8 February 2009)

“Light years ahead of the pack”
8 February 2009
Evan Milton, The Cape Argus, South Africa

The Lightyears are a hardworking indie pop group with a special link to South Africa…

British indie-pop band The Lightyears are in Cape Town to play the Cape Town Tens afterparties, hang out with their South African flatmate Andy Skinstad – and launch Johannesburg, a song inspired by a tale of two Zimbabwean refugees.
The Lightyears’ pianist and songwriter Chris Russell saw a BBC documentary about two young Zimbabwean brothers who had fled the crippled country after their parents were killed, allegedly by government militia, and trekked on foot to Johannesburg. Leaving with nothing – mugged, beaten and with their shoes stolen along the way – the boys, younger than 15, sustained themselves on their trek with little more than the hope that South Africa’s City of Gold was rumoured to be a place where they could get food and shelter.

“Even though this story was obviously a million miles away from anything I’ve ever experienced, and told of hardship I couldn’t hope to understand, something about it struck a chord with me,” Russell wrote on the band’s online journal, noting that it reminded him of the story behind one of his favourite songs, The Hollies’ He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Brother.
The origin of the 1969 ballad lies in a tale associated with Father Edward J Flanagan, the founder of Boys’ Town: a street urchin staggering along carrying a younger child on his back is asked about his heavy load and replies, “Why Mister, he ain’t heavy, he’s my brother”.

Described as “Toto meets Graceland-era Paul Simon via classic Bob Marley, sung by Crowded House”, The Lightyears have crafted a moving indie-pop slow song in Johannesburg. When Russell played it to his London flatmate, a South African, he suggested that the band should get to South Africa and launch the song here. The flatmate just happens to be one Andy Skinstad, brother of local rugby hero Bobby Skinstad, and one thing led to another.

It’s not The Lightyears’ first music/sport pairing. Last year, the band re-recorded Posh We Are, the football anthem for their local club, Peterborough United.

“The original was written 30 or 40 years ago,” explains Russell. “A local charity wanted to re-record it and update it to raise money for kids and sport. We were thrilled to do it, and then we did a lot of press in the local area to launch it. We played the stadium, in one of the last season matches – thrilling again.”
Russell is speaking via cellphone from one of Cape Town’s beaches.

The Lightyears are Russell, brothers George Owens (lead vocals, guitar) and John Owens (bass player), and Tony Lyons (vocals, drums). Described as “Babyshambles without the drugs – and with better manners” by one Irish reviewer, the band found themselves winning a British Indy Award in 2007 for “Best Pop/Rock Act”.

“We were stunned to be nominated as we weren’t expecting it at all,” says Russell. “We really didn’t expect to win, which is what I think people generally do in these situations. We were on tour in New York and we were listening on the phone… Then we won, and our friend Andy picked up the award. It was great, because it meant we were recognised for what we were doing, and we’re an independent band with no record label, managing and repping ourselves.

“A couple of months after that we got to record a few tracks with Hugh Padgham. He’s produced for Sting and sold 50 million records with Paul McCartney and Genesis. Not a lot of bands get that opportunity when they’re up and coming.”
It’s not all sunshine and roses for the band, though. “In the UK it almost seems like there are more bands than fans. On the one hand it’s great because people are really hungry for live acts. But, because of the UK’s thriving music scene… it is very competitive.

“London has a massive concentration of bands… So it’s good to get your face shown elsewhere. We like to get to different parts of the world, and test out different markets.”

The band is starting to see success in America, especially the East Coast, and in Asia, especially in South Korea. “We go to America once a year and I think we have a certain appeal, partly because we are British. We have a loyal fanbase in Philadelphia where it’s as if we’re playing to people who know us really well and always pack out the venues.”
In South Korea, the band was invited to play an annual fundraiser hosted by the British ex-pat community to raise funds for charity.

With the beach wind picking up, and Russell and bandmates needing to prepare for their debut South African gig – at the city’s new Speedway 105 Cafe – the interview draws to a close. “I wish I could conduct all my interviews from the beach,” laughs Russell, and goes on to enthuse about the band’s few days so far in the Cape.

“In Hermanus we had a braai which was fantastic. It’s a bit of a shock coming from winter in England with the worst snow, and to be sat here on a beach in the blazing sun. You probably get used to it if you live here, but for a Londoner, let me tell you that i’s amazing.”

The Lightyears play the Cape Town Tens after-parties on Saturday 7 February and Sunday 8 February at Hamilton’s Rugby Club in Green Point (see Download the song “Johannesburg” from

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