When long-time friends Marcus Azon and Cameron ‘Pepa’ Knight started making music together as Jinja Safari in 2010, they named their then two-piece after the tribal nuances and mythical themes that became the soul of their instant crowd-pleasers such as Peter Pan and Mermaids. It was also somewhat of an ode to co-frontman Marcus’s missionary grandmother, who had been stationed in the East African town of Jinja in Uganda, since his childhood. From what started as the soundtrack of this unknown far-away land formulated within the realms of Azon’s runaway imagination, Jinja Safari have taken their unique brand of Afro-pop/ jungle rock to new heights thanks to some serious expeditions abroad. It has led them to grow in leaps and bounds as a debut album and national tour wait patiently in the wings.
For Azon, Pepa and their bandmates Joe Citizen (bass/vocals), Alister Roach (percussion) and Jacob Borg (drums), their reputation of a wild live show and ability to sell-out venues across Australia has resulted in a case of namesake mirroring reality, having headed out on their own whirlwind safari late last year. Taking to stages in New York and London on the band’s first international tour, the experience cemented the notion that your first time, is one you never forget.
“It was just so incredible”, Azon fondly recalls. “It’s very lovely to go back to those early days where you have to really work for the attention of every audience member, because sometimes things get taken a bit out of perspective at our shows. Like currently, on our last Australian tour when it was sold out for the majority, there were just so many people hyped up and I think they kind of forgot what it was all about – but maybe that is what it’s all about, just the mayhem and the fun and the nonsense”, he contemplates. “But going into the overseas shows, where they are a lot smaller and we’re supporting other bands, it’s like we had to focus a bit more on the musicality of our approach, and we all tried to step it up in the vocal department and work on really hitting what we needed to hit. I know for myself, I was getting up and running and doing vocal rehearsals and kind of being as professional overseas as possible. Because I don’t drink, I kind of put that bit of focus into trying to be a young professional musician. ”
Playing to bustling, energetic crowds is something party bands like Jinja Safari could easily become accustomed to. But in the face of adversity and with a larger, more beady international eye cast upon them, the band found it better to stick with what works.
“We kind of just had to give it everything every time, like it was our last show. So much of our music only works on vibe. If there’s fighting in the band over something stupid that happened on tour, or there’s just people in the crowd that aren’t getting into it, then you kind of respond off each other. Because we’re still a young band, you kind of need to give it everything and leave all your band shit at the door, and leave all your preconceptions of who you think you are the door before you get on stage.”
It was an approach that paid off for the band by the time the UK leg of the tour rolled around. Surprised by a warm turnout at a local dive bar just days after a revered set from industry keynotes at Brighton’s Great Escape Festival, Azon remembers feeling stunned at the reception of the crowd.
“When we got to London, we were supporting another band in Camden, there were a tonne of people that came out to see us, it was just incredible! They all knew the lyrics to the songs and they were singing along and the whole place was like, old-school jivin’! We were just feeling fantastic – we were on the other side of the world and there were people singing songs that I had written in my bedroom a year and a half earlier. So for a first young band experience overseas, that’s as good as it can get – that kind of surreal experience.”
It’s not the only surreal experience Azon encountered while in a foreign land over the last six months. The opportunity to tour the northern hemisphere, also meant the chance to test out new material that was inspired by lead songwriter, Azon and production mastermind, Pepa’s independent ventures abroad late last year. Both journeys of self-discovery, what resulted was a wealth of new found ideas on the identity of the band that has also helped shape the sound of the forthcoming album and the likes of their latest single, Toothless Grin.
“In October last year, I went to Uganda and Pepa went to India, and we came back with just a whole bunch of samples. We had these stereo wave recorders we got from the music store, and we just recorded as many samples as possible. One in particular, was just these kids near the border of Sudan, playing a bunch of drums and bells and what not, and I sampled a bunch of that. It was a really interesting way of working – finding a way to put a melody and vocal line over the top [of the samples] and then adding some guitar. It just adds another element of something a bit more real," Azon says.
“I just watched Paul Simon’s documentary, Under African Skies, and when people ask you what it means to be in an Afro-beat band, I feel like we’ve had nothing to say about that”, Azon says. “When you compare it to Paul Simon’s Graceland project and what he was doing, there was so much political turmoil that inspired the whole project and all we’ve had is this over-privileged, white Australian indie band trying to replicate an East African sound with very token East African rhythms and melodies. So to actually have been there, in a third world country and have heard some of the stories of these kids and their parents, particularly where war has been going for 20 years and the horrors that have happened there, are just beyond what we could perceive here in Australia”, Azon tells with passion in his voice, making it clear it’s a topic close to his heart. “To bring that back to music; to have some of those things in our tracks gives us the sort of weight you need in Afro-beat for it to make a bit more sense, as opposed to just cutesy drums and forest rock.”
Azon’s experiences while travelling also had an impact on the writing process of the forthcoming album, as well as musically. “I think lyrically, I’ve never really been interested in simple love stories, so I think now there’s going to be a little more of opportunist references. I definitely wrote a lot of lyrics while I was in Uganda because I was travelling by myself and I didn’t have anyone to talk to, so there was just so much confusion and so much to take in that I just wrote a lot of song ideas. Not even just about East Africa, but mainly about myself and who I think I am”, he philosophises. “You have this idea of who you are and the way you see the world, and I got really lost in Uganda because there were a couple of times that I got into some pretty dangerous positions. So there’s a lot of East African lyrics but more so a lot of self-reflection songs.”
Currently safe and sound in their hometown of Sydney, Jinja Safari are now getting ready to launch into a national triple headlining tour come August with fellow cosmic-pop craftsmen; Los Angeles’ White Arrows and New Zealand’s Opossom. The Blind Date Tour, dubbed from a joke that stuck about all three bands having never actually met, will mark the first chance for the band to showcase their new found perspective on song writing and production to homeland fans. Having previously recorded and produced material independently from their bedrooms, Jinja Safari have taken yet another evolutionary leap for the band – working with a producer.
“We got this guy in Brooklyn that started working on a couple of tracks of ours. He did Toothless Grin and another one, just to see how we’d go with working together. What he did with Toothless Grin was restructure it; slight changes, just repeating some things and cutting some things, and made it into a lot more of a cohesive pop song. It’s just been really great working with him”. The guy is Chris Zane, producer of records for bands such as Friendly Fires, Passion Pit and Mumford and Sons. Azon continues, “Obviously we were over the moonchild when we found out he’d be working with us – then we found out he was actually excited about our music! We’re finishing the whole album with him now, so there’s going to be a lot more of going into the studio and recording, but it’s all going to plan. We’ve been trying to get a closer sound in our recordings to what we have in our live shows.” And the plan for said upcoming shows? “It’s kind of always going to be a bit of a manic dance party, and I think a lot of our new songs are a bit more raw, a bit more rough and ready, and not so kind of light and fluffy/forest animals. We’re moving out of the forest so to speak”.
BY TEGAN BUTLER
JINJA SAFARI hit the road with White Arrows and Opossom throughout August, playing The Hi-Fi on Friday August 10 (18+), and Saturday August 11 for an under 18’s show. Tickets onsale now. Jinja Safari’s current LP Locked By Land is out now through Dew Process.