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Culture, Music

Some African Lick

by Andy Davis, images Jared Aufrichtig / 19.05.2011

Gazelle. Bootie shaking afro-house dressed up as political agit-pop? Is it just a gimmick, or do the guys actually have something to profound to say beyond getting asses twitching on the dancefloor and making money? We thought it was time to sit down with Xander Farreira and Nick Matthews and ask them the hard questions.

Mahala: You guys are doing a new album, how was your last album received?

Xander: We just like making tunes that people can enjoy. It’s been almost like two and a half years coming on the new album. We’ve learnt so much about music. We jumped into this whole game not really being great musicians and we’ve picked up a lot of experience now, playing all over the world, in front of so many people and we really just wanted to come and do something that is wicked that nobody can come and diss or say: “they play alright music but their whole vibe is just being weird and dressed up and shit”.

How do you feel about your old album?

Xander: You know we’re getting opportunities now to see big people and I almost like don’t want to give them the old album, I want to wait for this to be done cause it’s just like a new leg of confidence. Your confidence wears out on any creation that you create. For that time it was great, it was what it was. Maybe in 10 or 15 years it’s awesome again. So it’s not like I feel like hayibo, it’s kak. I believe the new one is much better but there’s still things on the first album that were amazing, that I still feel really good about.

Nick: It’s not a bad album, the thing is, it’s pop in a good package. And you’re always growing up and re-developing your skills and when we started writing that stuff and making it, we didn’t even know it was going to land up being like a pseudo-African political aesthetic. At the end of the day we were trying to make something that we knew would be commercially accessible and now we’ve gone away from that train of thought. We’re making music that we really want to make.

Xander: Instead of trying to make a hit song. Or something that’s catchy.

Nick: Yeah, or fit into a formula.

Gazelle, rise and fall of an empire

Do you feel that the pageant of your performance, the outfits, that dictator thing, did it kind of set people up for an expectation, like these okes are going to make a big bold political statement and then when the music hits, it’s just pop music. Do you have a message that follows through with that or is it just a way of getting attention?

Nick: There is definitely a message.

Xander: I don’t want to sound like a fucking hippie that feels enlightened or anything but we feel like we want to do something that means something. Not just another fucking attempt for fame and money. Because we got fame… we didn’t really get money. But let’s just go forward and make something that’s really honest. We wanted to make an album inspired by the people that drove us into this whole aesthetic of being political and outspoken about shit because that whole vibe came after the music.

That was one of the criticisms we had. There was so much potential in that pageant. We’ve got dictator problems in this country and on this continent. We’ve got political issues and it felt to me like it was always just a little bit thin. I was so excited in the beginning like we’re going to have some dance music like that French dude, Stromae.

Nick: Well we did in a way as well, you know. It’s not like we were just talking about flowers and sunshine and shit like that.

I was always listening to the music and waiting for the kick and it just didn’t seem to arrive on that first album. Like you’ve got my attention but where’s the beef?

Xander: When I look at it now I feel exactly the same as you. When I listen to that first album, there’s only really one song, or really two songs on the album, when it comes to message. There’s one song called “Try” and that’s why we always play it last, because you can see it really touches people. We want people to actually listen to the lyrics and say like fuck, these dudes are making a connection. I hope people who felt like you are pleasantly surprised with the new music.

So are you guys looking to go for a more original sound?

Xander: Completely. We went mbaqanga, we went maskandi, we went afro, we went West Africa. We got like mbube, we’ve got marimbas, we went all out with that. Every song on the album has got an authentic taste of here. I mean we’re friends with most musicians, we don’t have tiffs with musicians in South Africa, but they say when people want to book artists from South Africa, like for the Montreal Jazz Festival, none of these artists are actually authentically South African if they’re not traditional, like Tumi and the Volume are pushing a mainly American rap sound man… There’s nothing in it with like a maskandi bassline, so that is how we went. You’re going to hear for the first time maskandi and disco mixed and West African guitar mixed with Metallica old rock, two marimbas with electro. It’s all very cinematic.

Nick: The thing is, when we started this album, we actually recorded every single idea from a traditional instrument. We never had anything else. We never came to the guys with an idea and said put something on top of this, we were like, play.

So how did your headspace differ from when you were first producing your debut album? You know it wasn’t really until I heard your live set that I really got what you guys were doing.

Nick: Well this is the problem that we’ve always had. Our live show has always been much better than our recorded album. Our first album, unfortunately, is not good enough for what we’re doing now and it’s always been like a little burden on our shoulders because you want to promote yourself and you want to show people what you can do, but you don’t really have that hard copy. It’s easy to be critical. It’s really easy to say it’s a shit album but I don’t think it is at all, to be honest, I think it has a lot of questions that are trying to be answered and I think that this is something that is kind of influential in the way that we have grown as artists. We got to a point when we finished that first record where we only started really discovering the bigger meaning and purpose of our task together.

Xander: In the beginning we wanted to make something cool with an authentic, electronic kind of sound, that was our whole thing. And maybe two or three tracks had some African lick in it. It started there, but we were still looking overseas for influences. With the new album we forgot about the rest of the world completely and we said like, we going to make something that is truly from here and that has never been done before. That is our mission.

Gazelle, rise and fall of an empire

What were you doing before Gazelle?

Xander: Shit hey, myself, I was busy with so many different genres since high school, I played in rock bands.

Always as a musician?

Xander: No, I’ve been working as a professional photographer, cinematographer. From scratch, from being a location scout to assisting and working in the film industry and now I’ve come along a little bit. I had to sacrifice my film career for the last year and a half. I’ve just directed my first TV commercial. They got me to do that because of this whole Gazelle thing, they were like fuck you can be a good director because you’re directing all this shit. People ask you “who shot your album cover?” Us. “Who did the music video?” Us. “Who did the music?” Us. “Who did the design and the artwork?” Us. It’s tough to do everything yourself.

Nick: This is the thing, we’re pretty much multi-taskers. For example, Xander comes from the photographic and the visual as well as the music. Music is our common ground. I came from a technical background of sound engineering and production studio. Carrying speakers a lot. And I was sitting in the studio just chomping away at house music because I was involved in Coda and Iridium Project.

Oh yeah, you use to DJ.

Nick: Yeah exactly, I still do.

You use to be a house DJ when I was still raving.

Nick: And then Xander told me to stop it, hey. He begged me actually: “Please stop making house music man, please.”

And you were raised on a farm, right?

Xander: Limpopo Province. I had a talk with Miles Keylock and he was like “the biggest thing that everyone is talking about is that you are two white guys from South Africa and using all the South African musicians, exploiting the traditional sound,” and I was like what the fuck dude? The first music that I ever listened to in my life was maskandi. That was the music I grew up with, bro, you know like I had that first and then The Bee Gees and The Beach Boys.

That’s a nice mix of influences.

Xander: When I was six years old, the dude that use to drive the tractor had an electric guitar and he would like sit in his compound and he would play electric guitar. That’s why for me, in my head, if I hear a bass guitar what I love the most, is if it goes dun ga dun dun dun dun. So whenever anyone questions me, I say maybe it’s not your culture but it’s my culture because I’m from a rural area in South Africa. This is the music from my youth, it’s what I grew up with. So just because you’re from a city and you’re white or black or pink or purple. Just because you didn’t listen to that as a kid doesn’t mean I didn’t. That is my culture and my roots bro, you know. I’m just being authentic. You’re the one not being authentic, wanting to be a fucking gangster rapper.

Nick: It’s so easy for anybody who wants to take a knock at Gazelle, to go “oh, it’s a white guy standing on stage pretending to be a black dictator.” It’s so easy. But people don’t actually look past that. What they are actually visualizing is a reflection of their consciousness off of us. That’s their own chip. And that’s really a positive thing for us and gives us a lot of strength and power. Because we know, at the end of the day, that we are creating thought, generating questions and getting people to react to what we’re putting out there. And this is something which I think is going to be vital for us going into our new album and taking it to the next level because at the end of the day we’re not just musicians who are playing music. Obviously this is a key, fundamental factor, but we are also making…


Nick: No, it’s not about the money. The money will come.

Xander: We haven’t made fuckall money.

Nick: We are fucking poor.

Xander: We’re both kak broke.

Nick: We spent like R200 000 last year on shit like flights and music equipment and music videos. We got nothing bro. We made CD’s which we still haven’t made a cent off because we got fucked by a distributor. Anyway, that’s another story.

It sounds a bit like magazine publishing.

Gazelle, rise and fall of an empire

Nick: But what I’m trying to say is that we have a bigger cause and a bigger misision. This is what it’s about. And we take on the responsibility as artists and having the opportunity to stand on stage and spread that message and to give people that energy and to get them to question and to think about where they are at. This is really a big responsibility for us and we take it on with open arms.

Xander: I think though, with us, one of the things that is going to kind of put the cork in the bottle for a lot of people is that actually after a little bit of time they are going to realize what we have accomplished. It’s not just white people or black people that listen to our music, it’s not just this scene or that scene. We are one of the only bands in South Africa that have been able to play everything from the Jazz Festival to Ramfest, to be able to play Assembly and then Khayelitsha. We play everywhere. We cut through different genres and different scenes, without playing kak cheesy music like Freshlyground. We are able to reach the masses with our music because it’s so versatile and it’s so unique. I think the next album will really transcend and be one of the albums in South Africa that is truly a reflection, from my eyes, what our mixture is, what our whole cultural concoction in South Africa is.

Nick: Giving us a collective identity.

So when is it out? When do I get my copy?

Xander: All the recordings have been finished. And we just started mixing. Later this month we are going to play in Maputo, Swaziland, Joburg and then we’re also looking to play in Botswana. We want to flip the lid, do different shit, play to different people and build it like that from the ground up. So hopefully by the end of May I can take the album back to the States. So you can probably expect your copy by the end of June.

What are you doing in New York? How did you move there?

Xander: I won a Green Card in the lottery, bru. A friend won. And it’s been amazing bru. Fuck. Just being there, meeting people. I had dinner with Bono in April. I made a good connect with Knox Robinson there, the manager of Blk Jks in the States. Look don’t get me wrong. It’s been a fucking struggle and a hassle because it’s so difficult to live there but at least I have the papers and things are starting to happen. We’re starting to meet people and it’s just amazing that you can actually sit down and become friends with people like Albert Hammond from The Stokes. But I’m very cautious to ever ask people for help in any way. But just to see what these people are doing and seeing that these are normal people with their own insecurities, it pushes you to keep on going. Even though you think you want to give up sometimes because it’s going kak.

Nick: At the end of the day, it is what it is. For us we believe in what we do and we think that it’s cool that it didn’t work out for us to release the new album last year, because now is the right time. The album’s name is The Rise and Fall of an Empire.

Xander: Get it?

*Images © Jared Aufrichtig.

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