Zebra Giraffe

Zebra & Giraffe - The hit-makers

Words: Evan Milton Photography: Tyrone Bradley Videography: Zebra & Giraffe

“I’VE BEEN BAD” 

In September 2014, Zebra & Giraffe released their fourth studio album, Knuckles, with I’ve Been Bad as the lead single. The song featured the layered soundscape that has earned Zebra & Giraffe their dedicated fan-base – and a fistful of South African and African music awards. It also saw songwriter Greg Carlin venturing into new, more intimate territory. I’ve Been Bad was an instant hit when it was debuted to a crowd of 10 000 at Oppikoppi 2014 – but the song had no easy genesis. 

Two years after the release of their last award-winning album, The Wisest Ones, the pressure was on Zebra & Giraffe to hit new highs with their latest offering. Recording in the studio, the band were faced with a thousand blank canvasses at every turn: working with four multi-instrumentalists meant the possibilities within a single song were almost infinite. A large part of Zebra & Giraffe’s collaborative creative process was about trust; even more so, about knowing when to insist on a viewpoint – and when to let go.

Musicians record songs and hope their fans will like what they hear, but a good music video will exponentially increase the impact of a song. Zebra & Giraffe took their visual concept to director Ross Garrett (whose credits include Die Antwoord’s Fok Julle Naaiers) and with a cast that included the Johannesburg chapter of the Hell’s Angels and a collection of Zebra & Giraffe fans, the resulting moving images brought the song to life as only a classic music video can. A band’s work moves in cycles, and the acoustic tour and music video were just two components in the ‘lifecycle’ of I’ve Been Bad.

But the real test for Zebra & Giraffe, as for any rock ‘n roll band, was their live performance. The bigger the stage, the more time needed to prepare all the elements that make up a modern performance, like lights and visuals. But the music can’t hide behind smoke and mirrors – each song needed to be coaxed from its recorded version into something that would work for a live crowd, an audience where some people were fans and others were just there to drink beer. Turning a recorded tune into a live beast of a song required determination and dexterity in equal measure.

There’s a word for a tune that sticks in your mind no matter what: an ‘earworm’. Reverse-engineer that process, and consider all the hours spent perfecting just one part, and you have some sense of the rehearsal process. Over and over again, until all the parts fit into a seamless whole. Then the band had to shift gear and take themselves out of their close-walled rehearsal space and prepare for the open stage. If the goal was to make each person in the audience feel like the show was meant for just him or her, Zebra & Giraffe achieved it by a total belief in their music and total dedication to the band.

When Zebra & Giraffe started playing I’ve Been Bad on the Oppikoppi main stage, it was a brand-new tune for the entire crowd. By the end of the song, the crowd was singing along – and another test had been passed. Zebra & Giraffe poured everything into that set, but still had to save something for the next day’s stripped-down acoustic gig. That’s the cycle that a rock band inhabits: intense focus on the moment, but always with an awareness of the journey as a whole. But nothing can beat performing live. As drummer Mike Wright said, “This is it. This is what we do. This is our lives. We believe in this music. We believe in this band.”