SAMA award winning band Zebra & Giraffe have just released their third studio album The Wisest Ones. While the official album launch tour is scheduled for later this year, the band were going about the country treating fans to stripped-down versions of their regular tracks and a taste of what´s to come on the new album. I attended the gig at Mercury Live which was well supported by eager fans – probably because the band don’t perform in Cape Town half as often as we’d like them to. None the less, I was keen to see how Z&G would transform their classic electro pop-rock act into an acoustic set. As the undoubtedly talented musicians they are, they did not disappoint. In fact the simplified sound perfectly suited lead singer Greg Carlin´s voice without taking anything away from the signature Z&G style we´ve become used to. The overall result was a raw, semi-acoustic set, which aptly befit the chilled vibes and left fans smiling in anticipation of the new album.
Z&G started out as the solo project of lead vocalist Greg Carlin. It’s quite puzzling how a one-man act morphs into one of South Africa’s leading bands. So to get some answers to this conundrum I sat down with Greg Carlin, Alan Shenton and Mike Wright – the (now) three-piece band since they last graced our coastline – fortunately for me they were in a real chatty mood.
And then there was Zebra & Giraffe…
Greg: Yeah, I started writing about 6 years ago and released the first album Collected Memoriesas a solo album. We officially got together as a five-piece band exactly 4 years ago and started touring, this was followed by the release of our second album The Inside. Since then we’re actually a four-piece band, but for the sake of this tour (being an acoustic tour) it’s just Alan, Mike and myself. We recently recorded our 3rd studio album, The Wisest Ones.
How would you compare the new album to Collected Memories and The Inside in terms of the recording process and inspirations behind the album?
Alan: From a recording point of view it´s been a different process with each album. As stated Greg recorded all the parts of Collected Memories by himself – barring the drummer that he hired for that album. When we went into studio to record The Inside it was the five of us at the time. That album was written by Greg, our previous drummer Darren Leader and myself. Taking into account that two members had left, Greg, Mike and I went into studio in November 2011 to write and record all the material for The Wisest Ones.
So from a one-piece, to a five-piece and now a three/four-piece. How is it that the sound we’ve come to know as Z&G has not changed along with it’s members?
Greg: Well we haven´t actually changed our lead singer or song writers, it´s still me and Alan on lead guitar so the Rhythm section hasn´t changed really.
What is your strategy in terms of breaching the international market? Do you think that your latest album is the one that will take you all the way?
Greg: At the moment I think we´ve improved as a live act and this acoustic tour has been a great experience for the three of us. If we had gone overseas with our first album we would have just come off as mediocre. We were a very young band at the time especially in terms of getting to know each other. Now with just the three of us we´re a lot better friends, we play together a lot more and we are comfortable with each other and I think that comes across in our performance. I think that we are now at a stage where we are ready to go overseas and show them what we´ve got.
Alan: I agree. You can´t rush that process. No matter how good your debut album is, it takes a lot of effort to get four to six guys in a room together and go through the writing, recording and touring process and you just can´t rush it. I think that you have to be one hundred percent comfortable as a band when you go overseas.
Do you find that you already have an international fan base?
Greg: We have quite a small number of fans in the US and a few other areas. Sometimes we´ll get an email from a fan requesting we come to Rio or Japan. To be honest I don’t even know how they found us and it´s not really quantifiable until we tour those areas and chat to those people and make a name for ourselves, until then it’s not a major listener-ship.
You have done well to establish yourselves as a unique act considering the number of bands in South Africa. What do you think it is that sets you apart?
Greg: Well we like to be humble firstly, but from a musical aspect I think it comes down to song writing. In my opinion it doesn’t really matter what genre of music you’re playing, it’s just about good solid song writing. We´ve written loads of songs including loads of crap songs that we will never use, but the aim is to write as many songs as we can and then filter through what we think suits the album. In my case I think that the songs I write are very specific and suited to my voice – in that way I think we are unique in a sense that sets us apart from other bands.
Mike: I think in SA it’s common for guys to get together as a band, write a really good song and get a video on Mk which is followed by the demand for an album. All of a sudden it’s like ‘crap we have to write ten songs in two weeks’. Then the aim is only to write those ten songs. Like Greg said, we aim to write as many songs as we can and not just limit it to ten or twelve songs for an album.
Alan: I don’t know of any bands who write just ten songs for an album and at the same time there are bands who write between fifty and eighty songs for one album and then mix and match, scrap some parts and so on. I think that if there was one thing we would encourage anyone in this industry to do it’s to challange yourself in terms of song writing because it’s not just about production or having a good team behind you, although these things do help – it ultimately comes down to the ability to write good songs.
Would you compare Z&G to any other local/international band in terms of sound?
Alan: Someone compared us to Nickelback the other day.
Mike: What? Nickelback?
Greg: I think it depends on the person really, I´ve heard so many different things. Some people have said we remind them of stuff from the eighties, some people say Coldplay while others say The Killers and early Depeche Mode. I´d like to think that we have our own sound, but at the same time it´s inevitable that we may sound similar to other bands out there. The new album has been compared to Nine Inch Nails and Deftones so hopefully it will surprise a few people.
You’ve supported a number of international acts from The Killers, Snow Patrol, Panick at the Disco and Oasis. What was that like and who would you say was your favourite?
Alan: Snow Patrol was definitely my favourite. They´re such great guys and just an awesome band.
Greg: We never really interacted much with The Killers when we opened for them. The first two shows were in Johannesburg and due to certain delays we never got to do a sound check on the first night. For the first time in our lives we went on stage completely blind. To be honest that was probably the worst gig of my life. Luckily the next day we had a sound check and we felt much better – especially since we were performing to such a huge audience. The last show was in Cape Town and that was really amazing.
Alan: We actually get compliments about that Cape Town gig to this very day. We felt good about that gig and so did the audience and that´s what it comes down to really.
Which SA bands do you most enjoy?
Mike : We went on tour with Van Coke Kartel last year, and they´re such great guys. I think they are one of the best live acts in SA at the moment. They’ve got so much energy and put on an amazing show.
Alan : I agree, even if you don´t understand much afrikaans, it goes above and beyond the lyrics and comes down to the show that they put on. I don´t think there is a better front-man in this country and they are all so solid on their instruments.
Last question, who would you recommend as an ambassador should aliens land in Cape Town?
Francois Van Coke – there is nobody more South African than Francois!
Thanks guys for taking the time to chat. Zebra & Giraffe’s latest album The Wisest Ones has just been released and is on it’s way to music stores nationwide. For those of you who prefer to keep it digital, the album is available on iTunes worldwide HERE. If you’ve had a listen, feel free to share your thoughts.
Watch the video for I’ll Blame You – the first single off Z&G’s new album:
Go HERE to view the Z&G Facebook page
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Go HERE to view the bands official website