Off the Record – George Kirkinis (The Steezies)


photo by Leah Rolando.

We’re in Muizenberg. On the beachfront.

George arrives for the chat on his cruiseboard. I left mine in the car, which is quite sad. Interviewing musicians can be intimidating, and the board would’ve added some much-needed cool to my walk.

He’s tall. He could easily have walked off the set of Vikings. As a frontman, you’re winning with that kind of stature and presence.

Basically, the oke isn’t a wallflower.

Neither are the Steezies.

One year after getting together, they’ve released an album, played at all the major shows and garnered a following bar none. They’re eclectic, funky and a full-on beacon of what true South African musicality can be. I like where they’re headed. Clearly, the peeps do too.

One word for them? If I have to.

Energy. Raw, uncut. South African.

Energy.

We caught up with George to find out a little more about the beginning of the Steezies, Iggy Pop, forest-dwelling, cultural cross-pollination and what it’s like being a Technicolor crayon in today’s society.

The Temperamental Pencil:

Was music always going to be it? The goal?

George Kirkinis:

Yeah, I hoped so, I really wanted to, that was always my ambition as a kid. I’ve always loved music, but, I actually only kinda got into playing later in life. I always played in my bedroom but was too unconfident to try anything else. Starting by doing covers on the side.

I’m 28 now, and when I turned 27, there was this weird shift and I realised if I don’t try, I’m going to kick myself at 50 or something, you know what I mean? I just had to try write something. So I wrote something. Then I wrote something else. Then we had four songs. Then someone overheard myself and my girlfriend practising, she’s the other singer in the band…

Pencil:

Oh wow, that’s pretty interesting, you guys have debriefings after gigs together?

George:

Hahahaha, yeah, it’s a lot to share….

P:

You were off in line 4 hahahaha…

G:

Hahahaha, definitely dude, and you know you’re harsher in a relationship than anything else and, she’s the other singer…. but now we have a bit more experience and we know each other when we’re off and stuff, so in the beginning it was teething stuff you know…

P:

Hand signals and the like haha…

G:

Yeah, nudges and winks and weird faces on stage haha, but everyone who sings, sings out at points, you know. So ja, someone overheard us practising and booked us for a gig in a month thereafter. So we had a month! We put a band together of friends and then played. That gig went way better than what we thought it would, we had like 6 original songs and people loved them, which was a massive surprise. We booked another gig from that, and another and another, and the whole thing has just been like a dream. I was doing covers in my bedroom and feeling very shy and now it’s pinch-worthy, I mean, no way, I’m here and on stage and playing.

P:

Did you jam from a young age?

G:

Yeah, about 13, but I had a really bad experience. I did my Masters in Scotland and, well, someone knew that I sang and called me up to sing at this thing, and you know when you’re like, when the notes didn’t come out in the beginning like you wanted them to? It was such a painful three minutes, and then I literally didn’t touch a guitar for years. Only a year ago I picked it up again, and now I’m in it you know, trying to better myself and whatnot!

P:

A rebirth?

G:

Hahaha, ja like a rebirth from the suffering!

P:

A phoenix from the ashes…

G:

Ja, it all came from definite crash landings for sure…

P:

I kinda think the best things in life do.

G:

Ja, in hindsight, it always is but at the time, you’re like ‘Fuuuuuck’…hahaha.

P:

First song you ever learnt to play and sing together?

G:

The first song I learnt to play and sing was, basic chord stuff, I think it was ‘Hotel California’ and I was very young then. Then kinda moved on to Elton John songs and things like that, but that’s when I was super-young, you know, and then later on, Jack Johnson side of things.

Then what I started doing, which was more relevant for the Steezies, was I learnt and started teaching myself all the music that I like, like funk and African-influence and all that. Just trying to teach myself the scales and structures that go with it and trying to replicate it, I think all musicians do that, and when you replicate something your own personality comes out, you always colour it in your own way. Iggy Pop had this thing, saying that musicians are a drain and the water that comes through is the inspiration, and when it comes out it’s your own colour, and that’s how you get to ‘individual’ music…

P:

Love that!

G:

Yeah, it’s in a book called, did you ever see that book by, I think Andrew Zuckerman, called ‘Wisdom’, it’s like a photo journalism-styled book. Really cool to check that out. He has another one called ‘Music’ and its all these musicians who give these quotes about their favourite things in music…

P:

Visually-driven?

G:

Yeah, they’re portraits, old wrinkled faces and stuff…

P:

Gritty…

G:

Yeah very cool, and just what they think about music, and that was Iggy Pop’s thing that kind of stuck with me.

P:

He’s a killer hey!

G:

Dude, such a badass, the beginnings of punk and stuff, very cool…

P:

Still looks badass…all ripped and shit.

G:

Hahaha, yeah, he’s still ripped and shit, he’s doing alright haha.

P:

One talks of the ‘quintessential Iggy Pop look’ haha.

G:

Yeah, exactly haha!

P:

Do you play piano as well or just guitar?

G:

Nah I only play guitar, I wish I could play piano, I think about it sometimes and I’d love to learn, but I think what I’m going to do is really focus on making myself a respectable guitarist, you know. It would be cool though, I look at keys players and it looks so cool, and I love funk music and it’s such a big part of funk music, maybe dude, never say never, I’d love to learn and get up there and jam it you know. You get intimidated when you start something and look up at how big the hill is to climb type of shit.

P:

Have you considered presenting and like, maybe TV, I’m just saying what I’ve heard on the straz, I saw you MCing at BRYNN’s album launch, and I just thought this would possibly come up …you obviously speak very well et cetera…

G:

Yoh dude, I’ve never considered it before you said it, yeah dude, I’d love to….

P:

Yeah man investigate it, people have concurred when I mentioned it to them…

G:

Really! I’ve never ever considered it, yoh, I would love that. I make money in such weird piecemeal ways! I’m editing a book right now, get a very small amount from music, I make films and things and it would be nice to get a steady stream, hahaha, that would be nice sometimes you know, so I will definitely, thanks for inspiring me!

p:

Overheard chicks talking at Merc, hahaha, you could do a Timotei ad with that hair, hahaha.

G:

Hahahaha, this is what happens when you don’t wash it hahaha, thanks man!

P:

Do you surf? Living in Muizies? I know you skate because you rocked up here on your board…

G:

Surfing, love, absolute passion, I love being outdoors in natural landscapes and that’s like the most amazing way, so my favourite thing is to mission and find waves around the peninsula and ja, it’s a huge part of my life…

P:

Did you grow up here?

G:

No dude, I went to school in JHB. I spent my early childhood in rural Natal, that’s where my love for the bush came from, also spent a lot of time after school traveling around the world and things, lived in India for a while, lived in Scotland, done some cool stuff. Lived in a forest by myself for a year…

P:

Yoh….

G:

Got the itch hey?

P:

Yeah man, I really want to do the forest thing, do the whole Viking thing haha…

G:

Yeah man, so isiZulu is another language I try and speak…and after I got my Masters in Literature, in Scotland, I lectured poetry in India for a while and came back, and from where my childhood was, I knew about this rural school that had like a really bad pass rate. Nobody could speak English but they were being examined in English, and I lived close to that school in the Ubombo mountains in a forest by myself, and then just went and taught there. Super rural northern Natal, it was crazy man and really fun….

P:

That’s an amazing thing to do man…

G:

Ja, it was incredible part of the country.

P:

Must have been super fulfilling….

G:

Yeah super fulfilling, super heart-breaking, very difficult and I moved to CPT after that and that was about 3 years ago…

P:

How long have the Steezies been jamming together for, like a year?

G:

On the 23rd of April it was a year….

 

Photo by Zoe Cornell

P:

That’s crazy man!

G:

Yeah, everything has happened so quickly and that’s what I was kind of saying, because we didn’t anticipate or expect any of it, anything that happens is, it’s all already surpassed, or superceded rather, anywhere it would go and it’s just a dream to be honest.

P:

You mentioned isiZulu is your second language. Is it a conscious decision to make the music’s lyrics multilingual, due to the cultural climate you guys play within? Or is it an organic process and that’s just the way the lyrics came out? Or is it, as you guys say, an attitude you attack music with?

G:

Yeah, it’s like, the thing is with the whole musical project of the Steezies is our influences. I like to think of it as very South African music because it’s inspired by being in this country. Being in this country, you are a product of so many things that you hear and culturally around you. I’m very lucky to have access to one of those languages and have spent a lot of time and a large portion of my life in Zululand in the rural areas and it kinda operates on a few levels.

On one level, the language lends itself, you know, to the cadences, to the beats and sounds of music and it’s like a natural thing in a way, like a musical language in many ways, so many internal rhythms…ummm…

P:

Kinda like Shakespeare and iambic pentameter…

G:

Yes!!!! Exactly…so like English works in the iambs and the short and big stresses and you can do all sorts of things with that with English hip-hop, where isiZulu has it’s own rhythmic scheme, which is really really cool to play with…

Consciously, what we wanted to do was embrace as many as possible and harness as many of our influences as we can but you know, that’s kind of a natural thing and because we love Mbaqanga music from the 60s, I just love that style of music. It’s a type of Afropop that emerged around the 60s with various influences, so, I just loved the sound of that, you know, so that just came through naturally, and then in terms of the bilingualism was, ah, trying to cast the net wider in many ways and just a love for the language… if you’ve got access to it…

P:

Helluva smart thing to do….

G:

Yeah, also these things can’t happen too intentionally, if you know and love another language and you connect with it, it just comes out of you, like a beat comes and you’re like, oooh, that sounds like it’ll fit these rhythms…. type of thing.

P:

Very cool man!

P:

What’s your stance on UFO’s?

G:

Hahahaha, that’s so great! I think that it would be naïve to assume that what we see and experience in our known universe is the sum total of life around us.

P:

Sounds fucking Sagan-esque hahaha!

G:

Hahahaha!

P:

Is this the first time you’ve been asked this?

G:

First time ja, haha, thanks man, completely on the fly, but it’s because I think the whole thing with UFO’s, you can like, because conspiracy theories can taint the idea of things and it goes two ways, sometimes people can start looking at things with a stigma, I think it’s better to look at things in principles, don’t think like, this is happening, (pulls a Vulcan sign), but ja…

P:

So, there is life out there?

G:

I believe so, ja, definitely!

P:

Are we onto string theory? Is there another George living in another time, another dimension, with short hair, not doing Timotei adverts?

G:

Hahaha, I think in a different way there are multiple George’s and Pencils that we have access to and, you know this thing about your cells being completely recreated every seven years with your central nervous system, if you look at the ‘I’ that attaches you to you now, and you look at the 50-year-old you and the seven-year-old you, I see them as completely different things, but whether that extends to like a lateral plain, I don’t know haha

P:

I do like where this is going though haha!

G:

What are your thoughts on that?

P:

On string theory?

G:

Yeah…

P:

I do like the idea that there are a number of versions of me living in parallel universes making different decisions to the ones I make now, I like the split A/B testing thing where I’d like to know what decisions would affect various life paths. But if I’m honest I have fuck all idea of what string theory is, heard it on Big Bang once and thought it sounded kiff so…

G:

Well even if it is just a thought, even if it isn’t real, how you apply it to your own life is, like butterfly effect stuff, like each decision you make has consequences for you….

P:

Yeah man, once a thought is in your escrow, whether it’s positive or negative it’s not going to differentiate in the escrow

G:

Yeah, your role is for you to experience it and then to think about and wonder, how did I get here hahaha!

P:

The Steezies is quite a different sounding name? How did you guys come up with it? Sounds cool?

G:

It’s style-and-ease, which is a term in skating and surfing culture, and the first time I heard it was with Gang Starr, like a 90s hip-hop artist, massively influential period for me, and it’s that song – ‘you know my steeze’, it’s just like, the term just stuck with me but it’s like style-and-ease, and the way we relate to it is like having individuality, because ‘steeze’ is often an individual thing, it’s not that replicable, it’s your own concrete identity of your style that you create.

P:

Where do you find your inspiration? When it comes to music and lyrics, when it comes to life, what you’re going to have for breakfast?

G:

Inspiration for music and for lyrics is kind of societal things, things that I disagree with or have trouble living with and amongst, and the lyrics are, pretty much without exception, and in some way or another, a critique on some facet or element of society, and then what we try and do with the music is give it a playful release. Because, like catharcism goes in a multitude of ways and there’s a huge spectrum of musical colours, like one way is to wear black and to get in and get people really in on an emotional level, and another way is to provide a release, and that’s what we try and do. We go in the release direction, not for any reason other than that’s how we do it, in a playful manner. Everything has like a very well-thought-out subtext and the release often comes in during the chorus.

P:

Makes it quite palatable then?

G:

Hopefully yeah, it gives it another dimension and then while people are jumping up and down and dancing and whatever, hopefully the lyrics resonate. I don’t know, the idea is it kind of works on two levels, intellectually and physically. Just dancing and releasing whilst understanding we are all afflicted by a very similar thing and that’s the human condition.

P:

Did you study? Interests outside of music?

G:

Yeah, I got my Masters in Literature, Poetry actually, at the University of Edinburgh. I was at Rhodes and did well enough there to secure a place in Edinburgh…

P:

What, like an honours or scholarship vibe then?

G:

Yeah, I got this award where I came second in the Humanities faculty and it made easier for me to get a place at Edinburgh to do my Masters.

P:

Wow, man that’s super impressive. You want to take it from here? You probably should hahaha. Me and my pretty little diploma are feeling very small hahaha!

P:

Stance on plant medicine vs big pharma?

G:

Ja, plant medicine man, definitely. My first introduction to it was in rural Zululand, and being really sick and having sinus issues and different leaves being burnt over a pot and using a towel and inhaling things and whatnot, it’s not to say that I don’t think that if you’re in deep trouble that western medicine can’t help you but over-prescription is also a thing. You just have to be conscious – your food is your medicine, there are a whole lot of things.

We all exist as composite beings – how active you are, what you put into your body. I love medical research and stuff like that – we are where we are today because of that and how people have developed ways of counter-acting ills and that’s saved lots of people that we know, myself included. But everything is a balance and that’s why it’s hard to say do this or do that. But if I had to tend I’d say plant-based. If things are bad then western medicine for sure, but it should be a last resort and not a first port of call.

P:

You’re the first person in these interviews who has really said both and I like that. Plant medicine is such a buzzword thing now…

G:

Yeah man, especially when you have a polarising topic like that, often I think that the truth is somewhere in between and that’s why it’s a polarising topic of discussion.

P:

Which bands do you look up to, both locally and abroad?

G:

Locally – love Nomadic Orchestra, love what they’re doing and they’re amazing guys. I think Crimson House are also amazing and doing incredible things, the Grassy boys, I, uh, had a sneak peek at their new material, which I can’t share obviously, but I’m really excited and they’re going in very cool directions…

P:

Yeah Grassy have been killing it for a while now…

G:

Yeah, and it’s that same region that we like – they’re in the business of moving people and giving people a playful release. It’s like the glimpse on someone’s face you see during a really good Crimson set or Nomad set or Rudi’s where there are just smiles and upliftment and I love that.

Not to say that other emotions in bands aren’t good, I personally, if you had to ask me what my favourite is, I’d say that….the nice thing about the Cape Town music scene is that everyone is soooo nice, so many cool musicians. I was MCing BRYNN’s launch and love and respect what they do, love their music as well…

P:

Yeah, they’re a clan as well hey…BRYNN and Southern Wild etc

G:

Such legends, yeah man, and the cool thing about that is we all get along as individuals and our genres are so different and the line-ups get quite mixed which is cool. I think it’s always good to embrace a variety and versality rather than keeping everything as one homogenous thing. That’s what I was saying about the spectrum of colour, there are so many different colours and you have to try and paint with as many as you can.

P:

I do get a very ‘daisies and rainbows’ sense from the CPT music scene, which is cool, a kind of resurgence over the last two years…

G:

I think everyone in the scene has realised that in order for it to happen, we need to collaborate. The stakes are different now to when we were kids, attention spans are shorter, and I think the movers and shakers are trying to show people that investing time in music and the scene is worth it, and this is entertainment, that this is a great thing to support and invest in.

The advent of electronica has definitely been a thing and instrument-based bands still dig listening to electronica and love it et cetera, but I think the idea is to show people you can get that feeling you get from a DJ, you can get from a band…I like the organic feel of band-made music, it’s like holding on to something wooden or analog, I like that, perhaps that’s a reaction to a hyper-digitised age.

P:

If you and each of your band members were an animal, what would they be?

G:

Katie Beard (Vocalist) – human mango fruit dude, like a puppy dog, like a giant ball of joy all the time

Mark Davis (Bassist) – Giraffe, because he’s super tall and very slow

Bilal Ezzideen (Drummer) – three-toed sloth

Jono Prest (Trumpet), Luke Neville (trombone) and Evan Froud (trombone) – the three monkeys, they’re all mates from school and so in tune with one another and they all complement each other in their own way

Lauren Davis (Vocals and Percussionist) – an elegant antelope/gazelle

P:

You’re a new addition to a crayon box, what colour would you be and why>?

G:

Imagine you left the crayon box in the sun and they all melted together – I’d be a Technicolor crayon haha.

P:

Favourite song to play with the Steezies?

G:

I think it might be ‘Mina’ or a song called ‘Womyn’, we played it on Expresso Show, it’s a song about gender fluidity and it’s a really fun song to play. They go next to each other often.

P:

When is the next big gig the peeps of SA can come and see you guys play?

G:

Well, we’ve got a gig coming up on the 15th of June at Mercury, that’s the next I reckon! We’ve got some pretty cool stuff on the horizon for that.

What we are doing is forming a supergroup with the Ingoma Choir from Imizamo Yethu. Our band has increased by 5 members, all of them are singers, and all are from Imizamo Yethu. They are next level, and the music has become next level as well. It’s all happening, but basically, do you know about this festival called ‘We are One’ that we’re trying to throw?

It’s a festival we’re putting together to showcase the best musical acts from CPT and from Imizamo Yethu and Hangberg, and what we want to try and do, because CPT is so segregated, especially between informal settlements and the outside, is try to create an annual festival inside an informal settlement that gets people going and has the best musicians, and kinda forcing musicians that want to be a part of it, to collaborate, basically. On a proper level, we want to get some cross-pollination of styles at the festival, on a holistic scale and from different backgrounds and heritages. In a cultural sense, and in a musical sense, cross-pollinating musical styles in front of a mixed demographic audience.

I’ve been spending a lot of time in Imizamo Yethu, can’t say too much but I think we’ll get a really massively multicultural act. Starting from the 15th of June, at Mercury, we’ll be able to feel that. We have a couple of other gigs here and there, but Mercury is the next biggie. As well as the festival, ‘We are One’, in September.

P:

Are you happy with the feedback on ‘Snorting Lines of Turmeric’? Anything you’d do differently next time around?

G:

Dude, really happy with it. Far surpassed our expectations, the fact that we even have an album. Raiven (Huntsman) is an incredibly good producer, he took our sound and we grew a lot from it.

Obviously, when people record you hear a lot that they have better songs out there, but what Raiven says that I like, is that it’s like a snapshot of a time with the Steezies. So, ja, the album is a snapshot of a time and I hope we can continue producing things and people can track our growth and be patient with that. People have done that with our live shows, they’ve watched us very patiently and allowed us to grow and it’s been a nice cushion to go on so far. So ja, really proud of it, the fact that we have something out there and it sounds like that, and strength to strength you know, it’s a start!

P:

Yeah man, like a stake in the ground… ‘Snorting Lines of Turmeric’ – the visuals that come to mind are funny – did it come from your time in India?

G:

Yeah, like I was saying, a lot of our stuff is poking fun, or not poking fun but critiquing, in a playful way, elements of society. That line is from one of our songs, ‘Anarchistic Amadeus’, and the full line is ‘snorting lines of turmeric to make that chicken finger lick….’. It’s like the whole song is looking at different elements and aspects of society. So ja, ‘Snorting Lines of Turmeric’ is a playful critique on CPT’s very hedonistic but pseudo-hippie culture, if you know what I mean.

P:

Are you stoked with the response to your latest vid, ‘Mina’?

G:

Yeah, it took 2 days to shoot and about a week of prep, was quite a stressful time haha, trying to make it come together with absolutely no budget.

P:

Make-up is kiff!

G:

Yeah, we did that ourselves actually, we wanted to be Zebra, but we just didn’t have the time, so we just went with big stripes and things. The nice thing about this, because I’ve done some commissioned work for clients and stuff, is no one can tell you it’s too much, you’re allowed to just put everything in your brain out there…

P:

And just be!

G:

Yeah man, just be! Be as creative as you can. It’s an incredibly freeing process, just to define our own limitations and inhibitions as opposed to letting criteria or rubric do it for you. Because nothing we’ve done is based on sales projections or anything, it’s genuinely what we wanted to do.

P:

Yeah man, and there’s no greater validation than being true to yourself and having people accept and love your thoughts…

G:

Yeah exactly, that’s the stuff you don’t anticipate because you never do it for that, but you obviously hope that that’s what’s going to happen. So yeah, with Mina, the reception has been great. I hope it gets circulated – you always want your ideas to have reach you know, grow legs and live their lives you know, and spark ideas for somebody else I hope, I guess that’s the point.

P:

Love that hillside scene too.

G:

With the burnt fynbos?

P:

Yeah, that’s the one, epic work man.

P:

Have any pets? Are you an animal lover?

G:

Yes, ja, two puppies…we actually got them and then went straight on tour up the east coast, so they’ve grown up around the band all around the country and in cool forests and cool places. They almost always come on stage with us, there are quite a few videos of them on stage with us…

P:

What kind of dogs are they?

G:

They like Ridgeback/Labrador vibes. They’re big and very playful and naughty. Yeah, definitely an animal person man…

P:

Ultimate dinner companions, alive or dead? Let’s go with three?

G:

Wow, okay…ummm…probably Jean-Paul Sartre, the French existentialist – he’s inspired a lot of my writing. Someone musical – I think Gil Scott-Heron – beginnings of rap there and 70s protest stuff…

P:

Already a cool table….

G:

Hahaha, yeah, pretty cool table…then we’ll have to go with someone big in terms of human rights – I think maybe William DuBois who was a big black-consciousness figure, or if we’re going in our own country obviously Nelson Mandela, or Desmond Tutu. I would love, LOVE to sit with Desmond Tutu.

P:

That’s an epic table man!

G:

Yeah man I’d like to mix it up like that, there’d be some great conversations going on there. The thing is, our human history is plagued by trying to understand the severity of what we’ve done to each other, and that happens still today, it’s immutable and has different shapes and forms so that’s it for me, the thing I can’t grip and understand. If I could, I’d love to sit with people who have dedicated their lives to that…

P:

As I said, not exactly a wallflower. I see great things for the Steezies and George in the very near future. Starting with a guest appearance in Vikings, Season 5 Part Two.

Catch the Steezies at Mercury on the 15th of June and look out for the We are One festival. Okes are making waves of their own.

If you want to get your hands on ‘Snorting Lines of Turmeric’:

You can follow the Steezies here:


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