Flash back to 2008 when Zebra & Giraffe released Collected Memories, a debut album that went on to produce seven Top 10 singles and win the SA Music Award for Best Rock Album. The album was a studio creation and some doubted whether the band could deliver what live rock ’n roll demands. So Zebra & Giraffe played the main stage at Oppikoppi and blew the crowd away – and then went on to win the MTV All Africa Award for Best Alternative Band.
Two years later, the band cemented their edgy rock sound with The Knife, played Oppikoppi main stage again, and killed it again. Now, with their new EP Knuckles, they’ve headlined Oppikoppi once more, as well as the Rise ’n’ Shine and I Heart Joburg festivals, with a date at the first-ever Tribe One fest to come. The new single I’ve Been Bad is out, with the building energy of their signature layered sound this time set against lyrics of tempered optimism. “I’ve been bad / The worst man / But I can satisfy you / Like no one can.” It’s accompanied by a video by Ross Garrett, whose credits include Die Antwoord’s Fok Julle Naaiers. And so the cycle starts again.
And still Zebra & Giraffe find ways to make it all bigger and better. “After three full albums, and doing all the things you can in South Africa, like playing with The Killers and Snow Patrol and The Prodigy and Oasis, and playing in Kenya and Los Angeles, we got to a point where we needed to know what our next step was,” says Greg Carlin, songwriter, vocalist and guitarist of the band, but also a musician whose vision extends far beyond just leather jackets and rock ’n’ roll style.
“It’s too easy to get stuck in the day-to-day running of things, being in a band and trying to survive – so much so that you forget the reason you’re doing it. We spent a year breaking it down, asking tough, honest questions like, ‘What are we doing and why are we doing it? How much do we believe in the music and how far do we want to go?’”It was a process that involved countless hours that no fan will ever care about, those things that separate a great band from one that is merely good.
Rewriting a line not 10 times, but hundreds. Working on a guitar part for a song not for hours, but for days. The bassist and drummer trapped in an exercise where they can play only one note each – and need to create a groove from there. Vocals in a sealed-off booth recorded over and over and over until there’s a different emotion oozing from every single word, instead of just a line some guy happens to be singing. And beyond all the practising together, the hours and hours of practising alone.
“It’s probably the hardest thing I’ve had to do in my life,” admits lead guitarist Alan Shenton. Intense and efficient off-stage as he handles much of the band’s management and administration needs, on stage he transforms into a blur of movement, one moment crafting a melody, the next shredding a complex solo.
“You become busier as the band gets bigger and your career evolves, and what suffers most is individual practice,” he says. “Until the age of 18, I was clocking as many hours as I could manage, me and the guitar. Now, you’re rehearsing with the band at great length, and that has great benefits, but to make the time for individual practice, just you and your instrument, multiple times a day – that’s hard.
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“Time withers away. We’re focused on getting the show right, the sound right, the lights right… down to getting the right shows and all the logistics. Doing albums and artwork and press. Where’s the time to keep the level of commitment to your instrument? To your craft of being a musician, as well as the craft of being in a band? It’s the hardest time to find, but when you make the time, and sit with your instrument… it’s the most rewarding time.
The more you find the time, the more you can find the time.” Each band member is a multi-instrumentalist, helping weave the sonic layering that gives Zebra & Giraffe their alternative rock sound. But, as Knuckles proves, it is songwriting that creates the emotional connection with a listener. However, once a rock song has been perfected for an album, it must then be translated into a form that works for live performance – whether that’s a big-stage stadium, festival audience or an intimate acoustic setting.
“We take the song apart with all of its layers from the album version and then figure out the sounds for the live set,” says Stef Henrico, bassist and live sample keyboardist. Henrico rides a Triumph Bonneville – the 2012 limited edition of the 1960 classic – and serious ink peeks out from under his shirt, but he also exudes the calm that good bassists seem to possess. “We’ll record four or five versions with different guitar tones for each part of a song; then we listen back to find the one that works,” he says.
“It can take three days per song and a critical listening process that means making pretty big decisions for each part of a song. Then we start working on how all those songs fit together for a set.“Preparing for an acoustic tour is the same thing: it can be a stressful process rearranging the song for a completely different setting. But I see it all as part of what we do, just like part of a gig means sometimes getting there and lugging speakers or rearranging the chairs in a small venue – or, for the big shows, taking the time to see how all of the visuals fit with each song. This is what we do.”
All serious bands practise and rehearse and strive for a pinnacle of creative achievement. What sets Zebra & Giraffe apart is not only taking the long view on their musical career, but also, almost as if borrowing from a top athlete’s training programme, how they’ve approached their music from a “high performance” perspective. There are lessons here for any ambitious creative, and it’s standing the band in good stead as they face down the harsh glare of the next step: growing their international presence.
“You are your own worst enemy and your own biggest critic,” says Mike Wright, drummer and drum-sample jockey as well as the ever-joking comic on the band’s long tours. “I really think our new material is a great collection of songs, and I know people will respond strongly to it. Whether they think it’s good or bad is up to their own personal taste, but we’ve created something that is super-accessible without sacrificing our artistic integrity. “There’s a level of intricacy in each song – even if we’re the only ones who hear it,” says Wright.
“Now we need to widen the demographic of our listeners, and widen our geographic demographic. Being a rock band is a struggle – there are all the things behind the scenes that the fans don’t see, all the work. But then there’s those 45 minutes on stage, with the band working perfectly together; feeding off each other and feeding off the energy of 20,000 people who are loving what you do – each for his or her own reason, but they’re loving it because of all the work you’ve done. There’s nothing in this world that comes close to that. It’s all about those 45 minutes.”