It’s a rainy Thursday night and the cold, drenched denizens of Cape Town have started filtering into The Shack in search of warmth and a drink. It doesn’t take me long to find Greg Allen, the frontman of The Medicine Dolls and my interviewee for the night. After walking through the labyrinthine bar with a draught in one hand and a cigarette in the other for a few minutes we find a spot that’s quiet enough for us to speak about their new EP, ‘A Good Chance of Bad Weather’, among other things.
“Sonically it’s more and it’s less at the same time than the last ep.”
After a bit of banter, just to check that my recording devices are working, we get to talking about their new material, set to be launched on the 6th of July. A band known for their unique sound filled with hedonism and heartbreak, their latest offering promises to unleash more of that. Having been in the works since their last tour, which took them through the heart of the country and then down the east coast, there is the promise of a subtle shift in the sound. The Medicine Dolls have expanded their sound and started experimenting with more instrumentation, a sonic continuation from their last offering, ‘Lost Love Lullaby’, which introduced some melodious, haunting piano lines.
“I can’t be arsed to like, sing the same fucking words or play the same riff.”
With a bigger focus on recording and the production of the EP they’ve started expanding the sound of their studio material with Greg saying that “Sonically it’s more and it’s less at the same time than the last EP.” For the moment, however, their live shows will continue to be the same bare-boned sweat fests that we’ve come to know and love. The first tangent of the night comes with a discussion about their approach to live shows. As far as they’re concerned live shows and albums are two different art forms and live shows should contain some kind of spontaneity. “I can’t be arsed to like, sing the same fucking words or play the same riff” Greg says with a hint of laughter dancing in his voice. He feels that it’s unfair to the paying audience for the band to deliver a performance that sounds exactly like the recorded version.
“All the good shit, and all the bad and all the stuff that makes us human.”
But that’s enough digression for now. In the course of their last three EPs the band has gone from singing almost exclusively about the dark, hedonistic side of life that exists in the shadows of people’s lives to adding a few love songs to their repertoire. ‘A Good Chance of Bad Weather’ is going to be a combination of those two elements. For Greg the song-writing process is very much influenced by the people around him. Often the things they go through resonate with him and he finds a song somewhere within that resonance. He’s not the sit-down-and-write kind of writer. His process is much more organic and involves him just ‘bonding with a guitar and a piece of paper’ as he writes down whatever phrases pop into his head, no matter how little sense they make. Through improvisation, experimentation, and scrapbook plundering a song will be born. He never settles for anything less than what gives him goosebumps.
As for a full length album, we’ll have to wait a while. There’s the chance of a release at the beginning of next year but they’ll only do it if they can do it properly in a studio. For now, though, it seems that they’re happy putting out EPs every few months. It’s a way for them to stay relevant in a scene that’s relatively small and very competitive, but that’s not the only motive. They’re not a band that likes to sit on songs once they’ve been written. If they have a handful of songs that are ready then they must be released lest they become stale.
“There’s cooler boxes and camper chairs.”
I saw this interview as the perfect opportunity to ask about what was arguably the biggest gig of the band’s career so far. On the 30th of April The Medicine Dolls opened for South African rock and roll institution The Springbok Nude Girls at Hillcrest Quarry. Considered an honour and perhaps even a surprise, they put on their game-faces and opened up for a band that has at least two generations of fans. They are in no way a safe band and there was the risk that some members of the audience may have found them a bit… edgy. After all, it’s the kind of concert where there were “cooler boxes and camper chairs.” The band feels like it usually takes one song to show people what they’re about, and once they had played that first song the audience, for the most part, got into the spirit of things and had a party. By all accounts the gig was a success and went down like an absolute dream.
In other news, The Medicine Dolls are heading on tour again with their first stop being the Grahamstown Festival on the 29th of June. The student town is one of their favourite spots and they head there every time they go on a tour of that part of the country. The fact that they’re performing on the opening night of the National Arts Festival gives them an opportunity to play to an audience that may be a little different to what they normally attract. The tour is short and jam-packed as they hit Grahamstown, Jeffrey’s Bay, and Knysna in one weekend.
A band that constantly leaves its mark on the local and national music scene, The Medicine Dolls are ready to blast new material into the ears of their ever-growing fan-base with their fourth EP so if you’re in Cape Town on the 6th of July head over to Mercury Live for what promises to be a legendary party.