As a teenager in the early ’90s, Ashton Nyte tried to learn The Mission’s ‘Butterfly on a Wheel’ on his acoustic guitar. Over 20 years later he performed that same song, live on stage, with its writer, Wayne Hussey.
In the ensuing decades, the singer-guitarist-producer had led his goth-rock band The Awakening to the top of the South African charts and onto the country’s biggest stages, thanks to a string of albums that – Trent Reznor-style – he’d written, recorded, and (mostly) performed himself.
Based in the United States since 2008, The Awakening have now been picked as special guests on The Mission’s 30th anniversary tour of Europe. On the eve of a month of shows, Nyte talks meeting Hussey for the first time, why his first ever song was a “mournful acapella dirge”, putting everything into The Awakening’s debut album ‘Risen’, his successfully eclectic solo career, new project Gemini Nyte, on-stage electrocutions, and The Awakening’s future.
Considering your long relationship with ‘Butterfly on a Wheel’, what was it like to perform the song with Wayne Hussey last year?
It was surreal yet strangely familiar. Before Wayne called me up I remember watching him from the side of the stage, running through the lyrics in my head and thinking “Don’t screw up!” Once I started singing it was simply magical, it really is a beautiful song to sing. As cliched as it sounds, it truly was something of a dream come true.
Did you tell him about trying to learn the song as a teenager?
I met Wayne a few days prior to our shows together, at a little pre-show party of sorts. We got along marvellously, probably because he is a lovely person and easy to communicate with. I don’t think I mentioned my teenage attempts at his song, although some of the evening is a little blurry, on account of too little sleep and maybe a little too much wine.
What were a few of the other songs you tried to play on that acoustic guitar?
Not too many spring to mind but that could be my ever deteriorating memory. I’ve never considered myself much of a guitarist. When I started playing I really just wanted to play well enough to write songs and sing them, or more specifically, create enough of a platform for my words and voice and let the listener fill in the blanks, assuming the listener had a magnificent imagination of course. I remember early acoustic attempts at ‘Five Years’ by David Bowie, ‘Waiting For The Man’ by Lou Reed, and the Roxy Music version of ‘Jealous Guy’.
What was the very first original song you wrote?
It was called something like ‘For A While’ methinks. I remember recording it onto ye olde cassette and then playing it back and adding a backing vocal via the old “tape to tape” dubbing technique. I couldn’t play any instruments yet so it was a mournful acapella dirge at best. I seem to recall playing it to my girlfriend over the phone but really hope that is just a figment of my imagination. If it happened, it would explain our estrangement.
Skipping forward a few years, what gave you the confidence to write, play, record, and self-finance the first Awakening album? I remember when ‘Risen’ came out it sounded like nothing else happening in South Africa at the time.
It was just something I felt I had to do. The first time I ever sang on stage was probably the first time I felt like my life made some kind of sense. As melodramatic as it sounds, I experienced a tremendous sense of purpose, even if I was dressed in a frilly shirt and my mom’s leggings. When the first band I sang for fizzled out it seemed logical to me to continue with my own project and do what needed to be done to pursue my passion. Recording took a while as it was a “pay as you go” situation and I was earning barely student wages, so I had a lot of time to map out exactly what I wanted it all to sound like, with my guitar and drum machine in my bedroom, before my weekly trips to Mega Music studios to chip away at the album.
How do you feel it holds up?
There are always things you want to change in retrospect but that recording captured a time in my life that will never be repeated. There is something beautiful in that.
You reworked some of your old songs for the ‘Anthology XV’ collection. Was there anything that surprised you while revisiting those tracks?
Many things. I enjoyed hearing the innocence and naivety in some of the older tracks. I was also struck by how very decided (aka single minded) I was about how I wanted to project my art. I like to revisit early works, both released and unreleased, from time to time to remind me to keep my art real and true to who I am. It’s all a work in progress. Hopefully I’ll never presume to have figured it all out.
On your solo albums you explore styles that differ from The Awakening. Do you think these have somehow made their way into The Awakening’s songs?
Definitely. The irony being that the solo albums were intended to be a separate avenue, even a parallel artistic existence if you will, but naturally the one inadvertently feeds or repels the other, thus informing its creation. Hopefully my work is richer for it.
Have you ever felt trapped by people’s expectations of what The Awakening should look or sound like?
Not really. I started releasing solo albums when I wanted to explore territory that simply didn’t gel with my vision for The Awakening. Ultimately I work under the assumption that if I really like whatever it is that I’m doing, there is a good chance others will too. I am sincerely grateful that this has often been true.
Apart from The Awakening and your own solo work, you’ve started working with Mark Gemini Thwaite who, ironically, was previously in The Mission. After so many years of writing and recording alone, what’s it been like to collaborate?
It’s been very refreshing working with Mark. He is a very talented individual and has become a good friend. It is the first time in my career that someone else has written and recorded the music and simply asked me for lyrics and vocal melodies. Fortunately we have a lot of creative common ground and after co-writing ‘The Reaping’ and ‘Jesamine’ for Mark’s solo album ‘Volumes’ we completed an album’s worth of material which we intend to release as Gemini Nyte next year. I think we recorded 12 songs in two or three months, so, yeah, a good time was had by all.
Next year ‘Risen’ will be 20. Looking back towards 1997, has there been a particular highlight?
I’ve really enjoyed a magical career and have so many, many wonderful memories: The first time I plugged into the sound rig at The Fridge (at the old gasworks, Auckland Park, South Africa) and heard my little guitar amp reverberating throughout that massive warehouse at the soundcheck for our first show. Hearing thousands of people singing the chorus of ‘Maree’ at our first Oppikoppi festival. Being electrocuted on stage whilst shaking a fan’s hand in the front row, who to this day must think I am some kind of superhuman. The way all the power went out at the climactic last note of ‘Sacrificial’ at a show at Icon in Johannesburg. The first song on the radio, the first number one, the many tours and wonderful people I’ve met or worked with over the years. It is actually almost fantastical when I try to get my head around it all and impossible to sum up concisely – clearly!
Looking ahead, what have you got planned for your upcoming European shows with The Mission?
We’re actually well into rehearsing the set at this point. Seeing as though we’re playing countries we’ve never played before it makes sense to hold off on the new album and play a “greatest hits/live favourites” set of some description. It’s a very powerful set, with songs I am very proud of and enough anguish and melodrama to hopefully please existing fans and appropriately introduce The Awakening to many others.
And, finally, it’s been a few years since ‘Anthology XV’. Is new music from The Awakening in the works?
The ninth album is recorded and mixed and, dare I say, ready to be released. Now it’s just a case of choosing the right time and place…
- The Awakening are special guests of The Mission on their 30th anniversary European tour, including Shepherd’s Bush Empire on 8 October. For all the dates, and the latest on The Awakening, visit www.theawakening.com.