A decade ago, Civil Twilight — formed by brothers Steven and Andrew McKellar and childhood pal Richard Wouters — moved from their hometown of Cape Town to Los Angeles in search of indie rock stardom. “We just went there with our pillows and clothes and guitars,” says lead singer Steven McKellar, who worked at Starbucks to pay the bills.
When two years later their song “Human” landed on the USA Network’s hit “House,” the then-trio thought fame and fortune would soon follow. “It was pretty epic. It was right after the Super Bowl,” recalls Andrew McKellar. “We started touring after that and we thought we’d be famous. It didn’t quite work out,” the guitarist says with a laugh. When sparse crowds turned up to see them play on tour, younger brother Steven remembers: “It was devastating.”
Steven’s resemblance to “Twilight” hunk Robert Pattinson — enjoying a meteoric rise at the time — only added to the frustration. “We literally got asked once, ‘Did you name the band Civil Twilight because your lead singer looks like that guy?’” recalls Wouters. “I was skinnier and clean-shaven back then,” clarifies Steven, who adds, “We started realizing, ‘OK, this is a slow build. This thing’s not going to take off overnight.”
The threesome moved to Nashville, released their second album, “Holy Weather,” in 2012, and hit a crossroads. “Personally, I was just at the end of my rope. It had been a long time,” says Steven. Enter fourth member Kevin Dailey, a keyboardist who initially befriended the band thanks to his “really s—-y car,” a Mazda Tribute. “Richard would call me and ask me for rides, and I would drop him off at the house and hang out with the guys. That’s literally how it happened,” says Dailey, who then moved in with Andrew and helped the band engineer demos. “I never thought I would play with them. I was the guy with the car, ya know?” says Dailey. “He just revived us to a massive degree,” Steven says of expanding the group.
The band members, who cite Brit rockers like Oasis, The Verve, Blur and Radiohead as influences, say living in the country capital of the world has influenced their sound. Wouters says “the standard of musicianship” in Nashville has challenged them all to up their game.
These days, the band has their own version of Twihards. “We have consistent loyal fans that are crazily scattered demographically all across the board, and they’re incredibly loyal and I don’t think that happens for one-hit wonders. We see the same people across the country all the time. They’ll see us, like, 15 times in a year. It’s really awesome,” says Dailey, who adds that devotees come bearing gifts like instruments adorned with lyrics to their songs, boxes of cookies, and the always-appreciated “nice bottle of alcohol.”
Back in South Africa, they have also seen their fan base grow. “We’ve played some of our dream venues that we used to go to when we were kids,” says Wouters, singling out their gigs at Kirstenbosch National Botanical Garden. “It’s like 5,000 people on a big lawn outside. It’s really special,” says the drummer.
For their forthcoming album, “Story of an Immigrant,” slated for release on June 2 (the title track was released on March 9), the band is returning to their roots, drawing inspiration from childhood musical idols, including South African singer-songwriter Johnny Clegg. “We listened to his music a lot growing up, and that jive feel kind of crept in a little bit,” says Steven. “Lyrically, a lot of it’s talking about leaving home and discovering yourself in another land; looking back on the place you came from and trying to work out what it is to you now. I’ve never felt more comfortable in America and South Africa as I do now. I think that’s because I’m a little more comfortable with myself maybe,” Steven muses.
The band, on tour through April, will play a handful of shows at the South by Southwest festival in Austin, Tex., including the Fleming Artists Showcase at Swan Dive on March 20, and Quantum Collective’s Southwest Invasion on March 21, held outside the cooler-than-it-sounds Whole Foods.