Okayafrica caught up with The Foreign Exchange and Zo! in South Africa to chat about their 3-hour performance in Johannesburg and more.
It was a Saturday evening at Cape Town's Zula Bar, and Long Street was looking darker by the minute. With hardly any sleep, let alone time to take in the sights, one of hip-hop's busiest acts, The Foreign Exchange, pulled up for soundcheck, ready to take on yet another night of their Love In Flying Colours 2014 tour. While Phonte stole a break, Nicolay and Zo! caught up with Okayafrica to chat about their marathon 3-hour performance the previous night in Johannesburg, the highs and lows of touring and the business of doing what you love. Read on for the full Q&A and take a look at Mpumelelo Macu's photos of The Foreign Exchange live in Cape Town in the gallery above.
Shiba for Okayafrica: How was last night's performance at the Bassline? We heard it was pretty crazy.
Nicolay: Yeah it really was, it was bananas. I don't think we were even ready for what happened. I mean we were told there was a really nice vibe but I think the moment we stepped on stage, that's when we got a hurricane of sound that didn't stop until we were done...
Zo!: It broke down... we broke our instruments at one point.
Nicolay: Yeah literally instruments broke, we were on for so long. They just wouldn't let us leave!
OKA: My sister was there and she said that you guys played for 3 hours straight...
Nicolay: Yeah we played a lot more than we usually would have. At some point we were up there just looking at each other like “what else can we play for these guys?”
OKA: Well let's hope you get just as good a reception tonight, Cape Town is a different kind of energy but if last night is anything to go by it'll be a different kind of fun. Speaking of which, this is your first time in Cape Town, how are you guys finding it?
Zo!: I'm loving it so far. We don't get to see much but it's kind of like coming home for the first time. It's good to see the different people and the reception we've received so far. It's an overpowering amount of love that we've gotten, which is such a blessing.
OKA: And I know you guys have done some work with Black Coffee yeah? Have you heard a lot of South African music?
Nicolay: Yeah that's right, I mean as you might have guessed we're all really into house music and we know that house here is really a big deal. He did a joint with Zo!, some Black Coffee remixes which was great, called We Are On The Move, and we kinda did that as an announcement of the shows, just reaching out to the South African people, and we wanna kind of keep doing that. We're really excited to kinda delve into the music out here.
OKA: Fantastic. You'll be spoilt for choice when it comes to house! And so with the FE album titles, there's always something very emotional about those. What's the motivation behind that?
Nicolay: Well the titles are usually the driving point for the albums. I mean we decide on those before we create any of the songs. The titles kinda give us where to go with it. We just really let the music reflect where we are in our lives. When we did Connected, that was very straight forward, a bit of a cliché really. Leave It All Behind was a title that meant a lot to both myself and Phonte because it was the time that I moved to the states and it had a lot of symbolic meaning on all of those levels. Yeah I think we normally start with a title that expresses a feeling or a sentiment or an idea or a state of mind and then we build the music around it.
OKA: And how many shows have you done on tour so far?
Nicolay: 50 or something like that?
Zo!: Yeah about 50.
OKA: That's one phrase you'll hear a lot in South Africa... “yoh!”
Nicolay: Yeah! We heard that one a lot... and when people say goodbye on the phone they don't say goodbye, they say “shap shap!” (laughs) It's pretty funny. But when we leave here we're going right back on the road in the US, and then we do that until the summer, and then we go to Europe in September, and then South America, so it has been and is gonna be a really crazy year.
OKA: Ok, that's a quite a bit to get through. So what's the worst part about touring? You've gotta have your highlights and lowlights...
Zo!: Worst? Well the funniest part about touring is that people think you're on vacation. So if you're in Cape Town, like we're doing now, they say "You gotta make sure you go to blah blah blah" and list all the places we gotta see, and I'm like “Woah man. We land at 2, we have soundcheck at 5. We play at 8. Everything is back to back to back so we're in a lot of different cities but we don't get to see much of anything except the hotel and the venue. And then even worse, the lack of sleep!
Nicolay: That's real…
OKA: So then how do you guys keep it fresh? With so much going on you'd think you guys would be half dead already!
Nicolay and Zo: CAFFEINATED SUBSTANCES!
Nicolay: I mean it's hard, there are some nights where you just have to get it from somewhere and push through. I mean last night we played for a long time like you said, so we didn't sleep at all. And you gotta do night after night without fail. I'll be honest, there are nights where it's incredibly hard but we feed off of the audience, the music and the people ultimately gets us there. Like last night, the people gave us so much; we could not have slept for like 2 weeks and it wouldn't have mattered. We were just on cloud 9. And then there's nights where you don't get that and it's a snooze-fest. The hardest part is that once you're on that ship, you don't get off. And you gotta keep it going day after day with all of the circumstances getting thrown at you. You get some venues that are great and some that are really difficult. People don't always understand, we're our own crew as well. We don't have a giant tour bus and roadies with people running up and down carrying our bags, none of that... We do it all ourselves, it's all grassroots.
OKA: That's pretty admirable, but the sweat pays off yeah? Speaking of which, The Foreign Exchange Music is a collective of all of your guys' endeavors, which can't be easy in such a niche market of music, right?
Nicolay: Yeah, people often don't quite get that either. The Foreign Exchange is really me and Phonte as a duo on record, but The Foreign Exchange Music is a record label, and on stage is a collective. So live, we have the full band, and Zo! was really the first person that we got in place for that and is at this point the senior member of the group as he's been with us live now for 6 years. So that in itself is kinda crazy. We also have the label, Foreign Exchange Music where we release mainly our own stuff, but in the case of Zo! we believe in his music as much as we believe in ours and part of him playing in the band gives us an opportunity to release his music, 2 albums of which we have on the label right now... The hardest thing about that is that every move we make we have to pay for out of mine and Phonte's pockets so it, can be challenging, but it's so much better this way rather than being under another label. We do have to get super creative but it's worth it. There are certain things that we cannot do but it also keeps us realistic about our music. We're not the type of group to fart around in studio for a month at a thousand dollars a day. We've learnt to make the best of our art with what we have just to make it easier to put out in the world. Once we reached that Grammy level, we knew we were doing something right. We know that we could sell a Zo! album so much better than EMI or Sony could because we know what he's trying to do, we understand each other. Knowing your own and selling your own has been the key for us.
OKA: Clearly, clearly. Sweet, and who'd you bring with you tonight, in terms of the band?
Nicolay: So many people, oh my God... We got Carmen Rodgers on vocals tonight, she's also on the album, we got Deborah Bond too... No Darien Brockington! People keep asking that here, but he's decided to pursue his gospel career so he's not with us and hasn't been for about 5 years! Its a fair question though. And then we got bass, guitars and drums, the full whammy.
OKA: Zo!, how many places have you visited with your album? You're an artist in your own right as well as with FE. How has your album been doing thus far?
Zo!: It's been impressive actually, like I said it's always interesting to wake up and go downstairs to the studio and whip something up... you know that's something that you make in your own house, in the comfort of your own space, and it goes out to the world and the reception is great. Meanwhile I'm thinking I made this with my bowl of raisin bran in my shorts... (laughs) and then next thing you know Black Coffee from South Africa is remixing it, it's something else. Just seeing all the corners of the world that your music can touch from the comfort of your home is still mind-blowing. I don't think I could ever get used to that feeling.
OKA: That's amazing... I mean really, if FE was a religion, some people out here would be worshipping...
Nicolay: Yeah especially after last night, I believe that! What a great time, what a great crowd.
OKA: It's such a risk as well isn't it, I mean you make something that you love and believe in so much and send it out into the world where it takes on a life of it's own and you can't really control what happens after that... Like raising children.
Nicolay: Yeah it is like that, and last night is a great example because we played all of our stuff, literally everything we could think of and everything we had and people were singing all of that stuff at the top of their lungs. They knew the deep cuts you know, even the stuff we don't play a whole lot and like Zo! said, you create something in the privacy of your own surroundings and you don't think too much of it. Then you see what we saw last night. Sometimes years after even... you stand face to face with people who know every word. That is a feeling like no other, like seeing your kids go out in the world and you know they're doing good, and you did good too and it makes you proud, and better for having made them. Its a personal thing, we're very invested in it. It's al the reward we need. We're not rich, you know, we're not making millions of dollars but that recognition is just really what keeps us going.
OKA: That's so good to hear, as solid FE and Zo! fans, that on both sides, you guys and the fans are on the same page. But how do you maintain that standard? It's so easy to fall off after so long but FE has managed to keep it consistent. There are so many acts where the second album comes along and there's a lot of experimentation, and some part of the music dies in a way, and the group loses its identity in a way, but clearly not for you guys if you look at the differences between Love In Flying Colours and Connected.
Nicolay: I think we're just lucky that our fans are so openminded and we have dropped a couple of albums that changed our game. Leave it All Behind was a predominantly R&B album, while Authenticity was real dark, stripped down, and Love In Flying Colours is quite bright and dancey... we have our fans to thank for that though, I can't believe they let us get away with that shit, it's really great. I've seen artists do incredible stuff and then take the game up a notch but their fans are just not having it, but somehow our people just know that if it's us, they'll give it a chance. They might not like everything we do but they'll give it a shot.
Zo!: I think a lot of the time they're already open to listening to more interesting stuff that's not force-fed or run-of-the-mill so the fact that they're listening to our music plays into it as well. It's the perfect situation for what were trying to do. It's been really difficult at times but all of us wouldn't have it any other way...
(Photos by Mpumelelo Macu)