Growing up in his native Durban, South Africa, Prism Tats’ Garett van der Spek knew from an early age that rock and roll was not only his calling but additionally his window—and rocket ship—to the outside world. He grew up listening to his father’s collection of rock records from the U.K. and U.S.: Beatles, Bowie, Hendrix, Kinks, Sabbath, but the unique influence of his homeland burns deeply, too.
“My earliest memory of being affected by music was when I was six years old, seeing a man busking by the side of the road,” van der Spek recalls. “His name was Elvis, a self-styled African ‘rock star’ who played a hybrid brand of rock and roll on a homemade guitar. I was hooked.”
“But it’s not strictly musical – there’s a strong element of invention and resourcefulness that permeates all aspects of life in South Africa—almost a punk ethic, a will to do it your own way, and if there isn’t a way, invent one. Separate from the music that influenced me growing up, I think I’ve consciously and subconsciously absorbed those qualities and applied them to the way I make my music.”
Van der Spek formed his first band in his suburban Durban high school, and it was clear that he was initially interested in the raw expressive power of rock and roll even more than writing songs or mastering his instrument. At a school talent show, he wore a dress as he jumped and thrashed onstage with his guitar, which he calls more of an artistic statement than an act of rebellion, and he refused to study music formally. “I avoided it,” he says. “I didn’t want to steal the mystery of how music works in my mind.”
In the late 2000’s, he moved to Seattle in a university exchange program, where he promptly fell in love and was married within a year to a Seattle native, whose own interest in art pushed him to continue pursuing what had started as a standard childhood fantasy. A constant tinkerer and whose growth as a songwriter continued to develop as he matured, van der Spek learned to produce his own songs on Garage Band, a program he admires and holds dear for its simplicity and availability. After immigrating, van der Spek worked days at a construction job but embraced the opportunity to see live music any night of the week. He also performed with his own band, a garage-rock trio who stopped playing together just as they were starting to build a local following. Soon afterwards he accepted an invitation that led him on a retreat to Los Angeles, where he found new musical inspiration in the Southern California sunshine, returning to Seattle with recordings of three new songs. Invigorated, he continued writing, naming his new solo project Prism Tats. Van der Spek found the Seattle scene receptive to his new well-crafted tunes and frenetic one-man shows, usually featuring just him on guitar playing along to a vintage drum machine with a manic energy.
“Everything that came out of that drum machine sounded like the beginning of a Prince song,” he laughs. “I’d have to turn it on and off with my face as I played guitar. They were wild, noisy shows, and very liberating, fun experiences.”
In 2014, van der Spek returned to Southern California when his wife, Laura got into grad school at UCLA, bringing with him the beginnings of what would become an album’s worth of self-recorded Prism Tats songs. He would eventually send those tracks to producer, Chris Woodhouse (Ty Segall, Wild Flag, !!!), to whom he was introduced through a mutual friend, who put an extra touch of magic into the mix, resulting in the ten tight, torqueing songs that make up Prism Tats’ surprisingly full-fledged vision of a debut album. Exclusively featuring van der Spek’s extraordinary vocals, drum machine, guitar, and programmed bass synth, the album is a true one-man rock-and-roll machine. It revs its motor on the squealing rubber of that elated sense of discovery all those years ago in stacks of his father’s vinyl, finds its heartbeat in the inward reflections of its maker’s mind, and distinguishes itself from the rest of the rock bands out there via his rare and self-taught sense of structural melodic sophistication.
“The album is about the experiences I’ve had since I moved to America, that total departure from what was,” he says. “I’d taken on this completely new life, in a country which in some ways was familiar, but in others was completely foreign. So these songs are all about that experience of evolving.”
Prism Tats is the culmination of a creative life spent on the grind, honing instincts and eventually going all-in on a singular dream. A riveting performer who gets the same feeling of elation and release from writing and playing as he did from demolishing rooms of drywall with a sledgehammer back at construction sites in Seattle, van der Spek’s tunes bristle and hum with electric energy while carving out unique emotional territory all at once. “Never Been Shy,” “Weird Guilt,” and “Excess” speed along with steam and heat, while the comparatively-meditative “Make the Most of the Weekend” and drum-machine-driven chime of “Midnight Mountain” slow the pace just a step.
The album is bookended by the reverb-laden “Pacifist Masochist” at the start and the back-to-back tag-team of “Haunt Me” and “Know It All” at the finish. This trio recalls the ghostly throwback groove-stomp and fuzzy warmth of bands like The Jesus & Mary Chain and The Raveonettes, with van der Spek flexing his vocal chops in different registers. These were the original three songs written on that inspirational trip to Los Angeles, and set the tone for the album’s coming and going with vigorous aplomb.
But just as van der Spek’s music isn’t all just hammering guitar-bass-drums rock, his lyrical and visual sensibilities don’t take themselves too seriously, and he’s often interested in injecting lightness and irony into his DIY rock and roll postures, citing his love of the tongue-in-cheek wryness of artists like Damon Albarn and Ray Davies. Especially living in LA [where van der Spek found Art Department work on advertising and fashion shoots], one is easily made aware of how obsessed and self-absorbed you have to be to pursue this career and others like it, and how ridiculous that is. And he isn’t afraid to make fun of himself, as in “Pacifist Masochist” or another album high-point “Death or Fame” (‘whichever comes first / I don’t mind / as long as it hurts’).
For an emblem of the congenial and self-effacing personality of Prism Tats, look no further than the album’s cover art. A stark black-and-white portrait of van der Spek, eyes shut but lids emblazoned with his stage name and a tiny teardrop in ink, it is a subtle, visual play on the band’s eponymous aesthetic. At first striking and even dramatic, it’s only after closer inspection that the levity is revealed.
The journey of Prism Tats has travelled from one side of the world to the other, and still the artist continues to learn, grow, and evolve with an uncompromised work ethic and optimistic attitude. And now, having accomplished his rocket ship dream of releasing his own brand of rock and roll music, van der Spek will be heading out with a band to bring the songs to life.