Interview with OKgiraffe by Joel Bergman

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Interview with OKgiraffe – September 2008


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I first met OKgiraffe at a party at my neighbor’s house in Montreal. I wasn’t expecting there to be live music at the party but when OKgiraffe started playing I was simply blown out of the water. Their upbeat, strange, gypsy, funk music is a truly original creation. They describe their music as thus:“We create bare acoustic funk, whipped in with Latin rhythmic sauciness and eastern European infatuation. “Urban Gypsy Soul” is what we call our vibe.” Their new self-titled CD is out and if you are looking for a unique musical experience get your hands on it. Their CD is good but if you really want to fully experience the band you must see them live. They are a relatively new band, but they are gaining notoriety and are playing more and more music festivals and shows across Canada, so keep your eyes open and chances are you’ll be able to catch them at a venue near you!

Joel Bergman from RAIN ‘sat down’ with OKgiraffe via Skype in September 2008.

OKgiraffe is:

Brandon Goodwin – Drums and a bit of trumpet (at the same time)

Rosa Smedley – Upright bass, guitar and lead vocals

Kevin Bertram – Upright bass, accordion, guitar, 2nd vocals

RAIN – So what have you been up to lately?

Kevin – We were down on the coast (west); we played Surge Fest on Reed Island, and played some shows in Vancouver and the Okanagan. We played 8 or 9 shows in 10 days and we were asked to come back at most places we played which was good. It seems like we’ve been doing a lot more than a year of playing. We’ve been playing at least 4 or 5 shows a month all throughout the winter and the summer.

RAIN – When and how did OKgiraffe start?

Kevin – We have been working in the current form as OKgiraffe since June 2007, so for about a year and a half.

Rosa – I met Kevin in Nelson, BC at Selkirk College in the contemporary music program. We fell in love, traveled around a bit in Thailand, playing music and writing our own style of music. It just worked. I had known Brandon for a long time and he had already moved to Montreal.

RAIN – Individually, how did you each start playing music?

Rosa – I started singing when I was a little girl. I took piano lessons for a bit, learned to play guitar from my brother and started writing songs on my own on both guitar and piano. I didn’t really get into it until I discovered the upright bass. I studied a year of classical music on the upright bass at UBC. I found it too narrow for me, and I also got tendinitis, which is why I decided to go to Selkirk College, where I met

Kevin. There was much more variety at Selkirk, they even had a Zappa band. I’ve just started singing again. I didn’t really get into it until I moved to Montreal and started taking singing lessons. I took opera lessons from a lady who normally does more soul stuff and it went really well.

Kevin – I started playing music in high school. I used to go over to a friend’s house; he had a bunch of instruments and I got really into it. I made an arrangement with my parents that if I went without TV for a whole year they would buy me a bass guitar. I held out and got my bass. I never really thought I could do music for a living until I moved to Victoria. The music scene in Kelowna at the time was all ages punk bands or big shows with really famous bands, there was no in between. All of my instruments are basically second instruments. I find it much easier to be creative with my second instruments.

Brandon – I’ve been playing since I was 13. I was mostly self-taught; I started by playing along to Nirvana records. I also played music at school in Jazz band and Concert band. I played trumpet in high school band in my hometown of Armstrong, BC, where I met Rosa. We actually played in a Heavy Metal band together in the 12th grade.

RAIN – Do you ever get bored of playing?

Rosa – It gets really hard when you are playing the same stuff for the same audience every night. We’ve been trying to only play in Montreal once a month and make it a really big show. We are playing more in other cities – in BC, on the East Coast.

RAIN – So you just finished recording your first full-length album. Why don’t you tell us about that?

Rosa – We recorded it at a place called The Treatment Room in Montreal, Quebec. A lot of really great groups have recorded there: Katie Moore, Angela Davis and Plants and Animals. We are playing a CD release party on October 22nd at the Divan Orange in Montreal. We are playing with 2 members of the Unsettlers, Bad Uncle and Cecile Doo-Kingue.

Kevin – A lot of our influences are older, so we are really into analog gear and analog recording. We are all into collecting old instruments. I’ve gotten a few really old instruments from really weird places, too. I ran into a guitar that was 80 years old at a garage sale. Brandon also has a really old, really neat drum kit.

Brandon – My drum kit basically has an old marching snare that I use as a kick drum. We are really fascinated with older instruments and analog gear.

Rosa – This is our second release, but our first full-length CD. It has 11 songs on it and is about an hour long. We used a whole bunch of different instruments on the tracks. We basically recorded the whole album live, which goes along with the whole analog thing as well. We brought in some members of Montreal based band The Unsettlers and they recorded some wicked background vocals on a track called “Yosimite Sam.”

RAIN – Do you work with other bands like The Unsettlers a lot?

Rosa – We’ve basically been co-opted into their band. We’ve been playing with them a bunch and really enjoy it. We’ve become really good friends. The song “Old Town” was also inspired by hanging out with Ben and Genevieve from the band and becoming friends with them.

RAIN – How do you go about writing songs?

Rosa – I usually write the basic lyrics and melodies on the upright bass, and then I usually sit down with Kevin and we try to add the guitar. Then Brandon adds special drum flavors in after. Once we all start playing, that’s when a lot of the arranging starts happening. It usually happens with all of us.

RAIN – Have you been writing a lot?

Rosa – We solidify a song about once a month, but they usually come in groups of 3 or 4. Five new tunes have been in the works. We tried to work on them on the BC tour. We are always writing; that is very important. We also try to add improvisations–we do whatever feels good.

RAIN – RAIN is about building community and getting the dialogue going about change and what we can do to change how the world works. What do you do to foster progressive change?

Rosa – I always question myself, question politicians, question others. I ask myself ‘What is the best way to be in this world?’ One of the things that I have realized is that we have to step up as individuals, we need to be sustainable. This was part of what Surge Fest was about. It was organized, in part, to educate people about becoming more sustainable and being less reliant on oil and electricity and the global food market. I believe that music also helps us to keep things in perspective, and it helps us to calm down and relax. I believe that it is possible to make change. Through our music we want to be spokespeople for change that we don’t need to fear. We need to build communities. As musicians it is a great way to build communities.

Kevin – In part it was a realization that we need to start small. If we can influence people in a positive way, it is more important to do this in a community sense, person-to-person.

RAIN – So why did you choose Montreal?

Rosa – I came to Montreal first when I was 16 and I completely fell in love with it.

Brandon – There was not much happening in terms of a music scene in Kelowna. I decided to move either to Montreal or Toronto. I spent a week in each city and it was clear after that. The culture, music and the food is way better in Montreal. Even the Montreal airport is better.

RAIN – Do you have any advice for up-and-coming bands?

Kevin – As far as strategy, an up-and-coming band should do as much on their own for as long as you can. We’ve just started to think about looking for some help with managing the band. It is usually Rosa and I who do all that sort of work but it is getting difficult with all the tours and more shows we’ve been playing.

Rosa – We haven’t decided if it is better to have someone work for us. At this point it would be difficult to give up direction and for now we are happy doing the work ourselves.

Brandon – It is good to do things yourselves to at least provide a foundation. If you do it yourself for as long as possible you have total control over your sound. The more experience you have on your own, the more you can have your own voice. If we start doing more and more shows we will probably need to have someone do help with the booking.

RAIN – What are the plans for OKgiraffe for the near future?

Rosa – We are booking a tour for the fall. We plan on playing Ottawa and Toronto. We plan on heading across Canada next year, playing a lot of festivals in BC and hopefully heading up north. We really want to play the Dawson City Music Festival.

RAIN — What is your favorite book?

Brandon – Freeplay – Improvisation in Life and Art by Stephen Nachmanovich

It is a book about music. It is about improvisation, not only in music but it ties into everyday life.

Rosa – Even Cowgirls Get the Blues by Tom Robbins

“There are lots of tidbits and random things in this book. It is about a girl who has massive thumbs and is therefore destined to be a hitchhiker.

Kevin – Rosa stole my answer! I like anything by Tom Robbins. He has a very offbeat sense of humour.

Favorite Canadian band?

Brandon – The Tragically Hip–They are the great Canadian band!

Rosa – Neil Young–I’ve also gotten really into local bands and people that I know. I did really enjoy The Fugitives.

Kevin – The Fugitives

RAIN – Why should people come and see you?

Kevin – We are so much fun to see live. We have a lot of surprises and it really freaks people out. Rosa and I switch back and forth with the guitar and the upright bass a lot. Since both Rosa and I are bass players we sometimes bring two upright basses to shows and play both at the same time.

Brandon – We also do things that impress other musicians. If I can impress a musician that I respect then I think we are doing something right.

Rosa – Our music is the kind of music that is so our own sound that you really have to see us live to understand it.

Listen to OKgiraffe

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