Greg Carlin sighs. It’s the question he’s been asked most since galloping onto the South African music scene as Zebra & Giraffe: ‘What’s up with the name?’
“I have no decent story,” he relents, the easy-going guy next door sounding just a little exasperated. “I wish I had a cooler story but I don’t.”
A far better tale is his rise from “obsessed” pre-teen Dave Grohl fan to the one-man band behind South Africa’s debut album of the year.
“When I was about 12, I just wanted to play drums,” Carlin remembers. Later he’d want to become a meteorologist, end up studying Fine Arts at Tuks and work at “Standard Bank doing a lot of techie back-end stuff”. But the ever-present music dream eventually won out.
While real life was getting in the way, Carlin — who got that drum kit before his 13th birthday — also taught himself to play guitar, keyboards, bass guitar and write songs for his bands in high-school and university.
When both groups went the same way as most SA bands — nowhere — instead of finding himself high and dry at the end of 2005, Carlin embraced the freedom, setting about making music in his home studio.
“I’m not the best writing songs jamming with a whole bunch of people, I’m usually much better sitting by myself in a room and writing like that. So it gave me an opportunity to go and do that, to write all this new music.”
And that’s when being able to play all those instruments really paid off.
“Every night I’d come home from work and just write. I wrote lots and lots and lots of songs — or even just little parts. I’d just record it, and come back to it a week later.
“Eventually I had quite a few songs and whittled them down to the 10 that are on the album.”
Enter Daryl Torr, one half of Harris Tweed, who joined the project as producer.
“That was a big choice for me,” admits Carlin, who’d planned on producing the album himself.
“But I trust Daryl, and I’d heard the work he did on the first Harris Tweed album so I was really excited. So I handed it over to him and it was hard at first because he started changing my songs and I was thinking: ‘Oh, no. This is bad’.
“But now that I listen to my old stuff that he changed, you can hear that he did everything for the right reason. I just had to put my trust in him.”
But in the recording studio Carlin still played all the instruments himself (“I thought: ‘OK, I can play all this stuff so let me do it’.”) — ironically except the drums.
“Drums are the one thing you have to rehearse all the time to be good at. I can pick up a guitar, not having played it in a year, and it’ll be OK, but if you haven’t played drums in a year, it shows. But I wanted the drumming to be really powerful and tight so I hired a session musician to do that. He was great.”
Carlin is justifiably proud of the resultant ‘Collected Memories’ and pleased with the way such a personal project turned out.
“There are some points where you make compromises. That’s where Darryl came in quite well: he also wasn’t into the idea of making a pop album or selling out.
“I suppose he was just doing what a good producer does — cut out certain parts, change certain parts — but it never interfered with my ‘vision’ to make this album. I was happy with everything. I don’t think I made a compromise on any of the songs.
“Pop music can be cool music, if it’s done with the right intent. But if it’s being made specifically to be sold and marketed as a certain product, then I have a problem with it.”
That doesn’t mean Zebra & Giraffe’s debut album is self-indulgent noodling — with tracks like edgy first single ‘The Knife’, it’s the kind of slick but dark electro rock you’d expect a fan of New Order and Joy Division to make. Carlin isn’t.
Instead he’s a fan of everything from industrial juggernauts Nine Inch Nails and Tool to Grohl’s Foo Fighters (of course). And Chris Isaak
“Over the last couple of years I’ve sort of become obsessed with him — I don’t know why. His melancholy lovesong writing, I guess. Also because I love David Lynch and he uses a lot of Chris Isaak tracks in his movies. I think I just picked it up from there.
“Actually ‘The Knife’ doesn’t sound like Chris Isaak but it was written as a sort of homage to ‘Wicked Game’ with almost the same chord sequence. I love that song so I wanted to write something that had the same feeling to it.”
Now, having written and played the song himself, Carlin’s had to teach it — and the rest of ‘Collected Memories’ — to a band so that he can take the songs on the road (“A lot of the time it’s the live show that makes you the money, the CD’s almost a promo tool.”)
Initially he wasn’t looking forward to creating a touring group.
“This is always one of the most nerve-wracking things for me. During the whole process of making the album I was wondering ‘How am I going to put a band together?’, ‘Where am I going to find people?’
“But I think I found a really cool bunch of guys and everyone realises this album is my project but they are still part of the band,” he reasons.
“It’s been rewarding — it’s actually been quite cool.”
They’re even prone to breaking out into 2 Unlimited’s ‘No Limits’ during rehearsal. “There’s something about bad music that you just can’t get enough of,” Carlin laughs like a man who’s certain he’s created some seriously good music.
- This article originally appeared on iafrica.com.