His music career began as a visual art project where Xander impersonated an African dictator. Yeah, we said it was weird and complicated.
Gazelle - "New Beginnings."
(Starring Nick Matthew and Xander Ferreira, directed by Xander Ferreira, filmed on a tripod, editing and post poduction by Charmaine Greyling and Heino Henning at Searle Street Post.)
In my eternal quest to bring South African music to a bigger audience—previously I've written about Johannesburg duo Moonchild, and raw garage rockers Beast—I met up with Xander Ferreira, a New York-based, South African musician, artist, photographer, and DJ to talk about his album: The Rise & Fall of an Empire, under the moniker Gazelle. But what's nuts about Xander's story is his music started off as a visual art project starring Xander as an African dictator. More on which below.
His music can best be described as a glorious amalgam of afro-pop, funk, disco, and soul. There's definitely some Duran Duran in there too. See the video premiere for "New Beginnings" (above) featuring Xander singing on an elephant, reclining on a zebra, and using an alligator as a surfboard, decked out in the flyest threads I've seen on a male singer in a eon. Reflective suits in rural South Africa? No biggie
Noisey: So what was the spark for creating this album?
Xander: I started off more in the visual world. My first mission of trying to create something I really believed in came about when I was researching and studying the socio-political behavior of African dictators. I ended up with a visual art project and my first book published, which was called The Status of Greatness and it deals with sociopolitical behavior and modern day marketing of these dictators.
So I created my own character, as well as a strategy by synthesizing the various strategies of African dictators. I studied the lives of Muammar al-Gaddafi, Idi Amin Dada, and Mobuto Sebe Seko. I looked at their strategies and created my own, through visual identity, a voice and a following. The result was Gazelle, which I created with my partner Nick Matthews aka DJ Invizable.
I published the book and created an album all as part of a performance art piece. Then weirdly enough it manifested itself, it became a reality where the story actually worked and I ended up in the pop business. In the beginning it was almost like a hoax, even in the book I spell out my strategy, I say I'll follow these steps to make this character famous, and then one of the songs I wrote became very popular.
The album is called The Rise and Fall of an Empire, it's basically our portrayal of the cycle of life, death, and resurrection, with the narrative of a civilization or society or individual, looking at its life span in a socio political ideology. It's a story that can be put into any aspect, everything exists with a beginning and an end, it's this ongoing cycle of life, that's how the album is written, where it begins it ends and where it ends it begins, from the lyrics to the visuals.
What happened next?
So I ended up in the music business, traveling the world with Gazelle and performing. Things were going good, next thing you know I won the American green card and moved to America where I had to kind of start from scratch.
How did that impact Gazelle?
Once I was in the States I couldn't travel back and forth for the band because my partner couldn't get his papers. It became super hard to keep the band together so we decided to break it up. The album was all self funded and so it kind of took a back seat when we dissolved the band.
So we decided fuck it, let's release it ourselves, let's give it away for free. Gazelle's already broken up; we're not going to capitalize on this project. The message in the album and the story that felt so dear to me, I just wanted to put it out.
Who directed the "New Beginnings" video? How'd you come up with this concept?
The only people on set that day were the two of us. It's a zero budget music video. I directed it and shot it as a self-portrait. I shot it on a tripod.
How did you do make the crazy backgrounds? Where the hell did you get the giant animal statues?
That's kind of a funny story… very close to where I grew up there is this park I always used to drive past as a kid, where this crazy artists in the 70s built this whole park full of these huge concrete animals.
Oh my God! I've seen that place!
You have? Ya, I always wanted to create something there when I started Gazelle because there setting is so perfect. A friend of mine is a farmer and he owns that land now, so I asked him if I could go shoot there. We went, super ghetto, took the camera, put it on the tripod, didn't really have a fixed concept and just shot these portraits with different animals. I remember I even built the scrim to give light with a double bed sheet on a reed frame. There wasn't even an assistant on set to help!
I was sitting with this footage for a while and didn't know what to do with it, then met a really cool guy in the film biz in Cape Town, Heino Henning from Searle Street Post. I showed him this stuff and he really wanted to help put this out and he edited it for free. I had an idea to bring in a bit of humor and bring in this Charlie Chaplin-ish vibe—like a kids show. I made those puppets from some marionettes I bought in the Kruger park. My motto has always been to use that African aesthetic of creating something out of nothing. Or as I would have said: "Pimping on a low budget but hustling on a high level."
What are you up to in the States now?
When I arrived I tried to keep Gazelle alive, but it didn't feel right because it was still something old that I was trying to remake. Then I met two amazing musicians, one was Steve Williams who was the drummer for Sadé and De La Soul, and a bassist by the name of Paul Frasier who'd played bass for Michael Jackson and David Byrne and a bunch of people, so the three of us started playing together and they suggested we start something from scratch. I decided to create a project that's just under my own name, Xander Ferreira, so that's what I'm busy with at the moment and what I'm going to start to perform.
What's the angle of the music you're working on now?
I'm still using an African aesthetic of Afro Futurism and mysticism, but I'm trying to use less satire and make it more serious. In terms of the music I also took that more seriously. I started studying music and writing with some amazing musicians like Jeff Franzel who wrote with The Temptations.
The new stuff has got a similar sound, but it's a bit more grown up. I used a lot of inspiration coming to America, learning from people here. The soul world and the funk world influenced me a lot, so it's almost like a crossover. I was so tired of being put in the box of "world music" It killed me, because the only things from Africa seen as African music are either hip-hop, or world music, or like electronic music. There wasn't really anything that was just "a band." So I hope I'm able to use Rise & Fall as a vehicle to get some attention around what I'm about to do.
So you're gifting the world with Rise & Fall and keeping us in the dark on the new stuff.
Ya, I'm glad we're finally able to put out Rise & Fall, but it's also in a weird way too late. Maybe it's meant to happen this way—meant to be an album that's shared for free and given to the world without any expectation from anyone, no marketing, no PR, just organically put out.
Is there a theme to this new album like there was with Gazelle and Rise & Fall?
Since the beginning, I've wanted to make conscious music: something with a positive message. I think that's the essence of the music. Songs must have a message or motivation or inspiration in them. That's what's valuable in terms of music and in terms of time. Otherwise it's just escapism, which we have so much of today. All of those things are so temporary. So many people sing about bullshit. The world is so sensationalist driven, if you look at Die Antwoord and what's cool in the world, the message is basically: if you are fucked up, it's easier to get a following, because people feel better about themselves because they find something that's even more fucked up than their minds.
I try not to go that route, I take the tougher route of trying to create something with a message that gives something to the world rather than adding more to the bullshit of… sex, my car, money. Yes, everyone can associate with that, but it's not steering you in a better direction.
Music is definitely over saturated with bullshit.
Ya because it's easy, people know they can make money quickly because people want to hear what's fucked up, it's easy to swallow, they can associate.
Entertainment is fucked up man.
Exactly, we only challenge ourselves when we face obstacles, then that we're able to grow, otherwise we tend to just be in a comfort zone of regression and stagnation rather than progression.
When can we hear the new stuff?
I'm not sure. I've never been signed by a label or had a record deal. I got offers from people in South Africa, but it was too late: I already had songs in the charts and my music was already in radio. I'll put it out somehow, whether that be on the internet, as I'm doing, or performing songs, and hopefully I can get the right people to help me put it out. At the moment I'm totally free in terms of publishing, records, label vibes, so its kind of exciting because there's the chance of someone I believe in with right aesthetic and approach to get behind the project.
Why even make music in the first place?
For me, it's about trying to use my skills, my time and my energy to bring something to the world that people can learn from, that can inspire rather than just taking something: money, fame, etc. It's all temporary. I'd rather do this shit and one day when I'm dead have people be like "Wow that was amazing," rather than kiss their ass temporarily. I've been fortunate to have all those things for a brief moment—fame, money—but I realized its all temporary, it's a fart in the fucking wind.
DOWNLOAD THE WHOLE GAZELLE ALBUM HERE FOR FREE. (So far Xander's put out five tracks and there's six more to come, one released every week.)
You can see Xander spin African psychedelic rock, funk, soul, disco, and more at The Happy Show every Tuesday night @ Le Baron. Dance or die.