“I don’t really consider myself a talented musician at all but I do think that there is something to be said for just being honest. Where I come from, when I’m writing my music, is a place where it’s all about baring all of your shit without editing, glorifying or dumbing down anything.”
WORDS: DAN CHARLES
PHOTOGRAPHY: HAYDEN PHIPPS
LIVE PHOTOGRAPHY: LAURA MCCULLAGH
What’s the use between death and glory? That question, posed by Pete Doherty, isn’t simply an exultant and unsubtle homage to The Clash made to impress Mick Jones. It’s a contemplation of the purgatory between the ecstasy of success and the utter misery of failure that one might find oneself trudging through – particularly in the world of a working musician. Is the pain of fighting through that space worthwhile when one side so often ends up being a cyclical means to the other? I’m sure that this is a question that Greg Allan, the frontman of Cape Town based garage rock band The Medicine Dolls, has asked himself from time to time.
However, for an artist like Greg, that question is futile. Adorned in a leather jacket, a wedding garter slid over the thigh of his tights and hair that looks as if it’s being held together by the tears of Robert Smith – Greg has torn himself apart across stages all over South Africa for many a year in pursuit of that aforementioned rock ’n roll glory. This pursuit found The Anti Retro Vinyls – an indie rock band consisting of brothers Chris and Carl van Reenen and Harry and Greg Allan – moving from Durban to Johannesburg in 2013 after being signed to independent music label Just Music. But the success of a record deal and an affably received debut album was shortlived as the band imploded towards the end of that same year. Greg soon found himself without a band, moving back to Durban and waning ever further away from glory and leering ever so closely to the opposite end of that scale.
“I was doomed after the breakup of that band. I mean, it was my brother and my two best friends in the world and none of us were talking. I was a very broken person. But then I moved back to Durban for about a week and that was when Bex came back into my life. She found my suicide note, man.” Bex Nicholas, who would eventually become the bass player for The Medicine Dolls, an ex-girlfriend of Greg’s who was managing a scuzzy pub in Pinetown at the time, had reached out to him upon his return to Durban at a time when he felt as if all of his bridges had been burned. “At that time there were a lot of lines drawn in the sand so I didn’t feel like I had any friends – especially not her because of the drama that we’ve had in the past. But she had heard that I was in Durban and she sent me a message to know if I wanted to hang out and I was like: Yeah, that would be amazing! I have no one else.”
After weeks of consolation, Bex convinced Greg to move back to Joburg to give the band another try and, one Facebook status later, the second iteration of The Anti Retro Vinyls was formed with Sarel Reynolds and Tate Sutton (two COPA-trained musicians with exceptional hair), and the band was gigging within a week of their formation. But the vindication of the band’s reformation was shortlived. The murkiness of an underlying drug problem was beginning to corrode the band’s relationship with their label and, ultimately, each other. “Once CAT got a hold of us, it went to a really dark place. We weren’t recording anything at all and we were too fucked up to approach our label in a professional way so we built up this animosity in a very juvenile manner. Once that starts happening – it’s not fun and games anymore.”
At the time, Bex had moved into a “nasty little cottage” in Melville with Greg and was working in a strip club while Greg resorted to selling drugs and instruments on top of frantically gigging in order to cover their rent and fund their lifestyle. This unsustainable situation led to the inevitable demise of the band and the decision for Greg and Bex to use what money they had left to buy two tickets to Cape Town. “I looked at Bex and said: We’re going to move to Cape Town, I’m going to teach you how to play bass and we’re going to start a new band. In the last band, I had chosen members based on different things and this time I just wanted to have a band with nice people. I didn’t care if she couldn’t play, she was a lovely human being and that’s what I was looking for at that moment.”
That band became The Nasty Narcotics – a name that would be shortlived due to a devastating case of divine intervention in the form of Greg being Ubered into a hospital after an overdose. “Once I had come to and I was lying in the hospital bed thankful to be alive, the nurse asked what I did and I told her that I played in a band. She asked what the band was called and there was this pause in the fucking universe while I was lying there after an OD and then I said that we were called The Nasty Narcotics. She was not impressed. The name proved to be a bad omen of sorts. Soon after Greg’s incident, their guitarist at the time was also hospitalised due to the side-effects of an evening that unfortunately proved to be too eventful – forcing him to leave the band to recuperate and forcing the band to, ultimately, change the name.
“The day we changed our name to The Medicine Dolls, there was a real gear shift. Before, I always felt like there was this wall in front of me and I was kicking against it trying to make shit happen. But since we changed the name, it’s just been a forward motion.”
This forward motion has led to The Medicine Dolls (Greg, Bex, and Daniel Paulseon drums) becoming one of the hardest-working bands in the country right now, having already released three EPs over the course of a year as well as committing to a life of constant touring through any town in the country that will have them – no matter what the attendance is like. “We play for the people that are there, we’re not upset about the people that aren’t. A band is one percentage of a gig – if you don’t have the we’re all in this togethermentality then you’ve got it wrong.”
But you don’t tour through every pass-by town from Ramsgate to Vryheid just because that’s the only way to make sure that the rent is paid on time (even though that may be true in this band’s case). The music that The Medicine Dolls plays and the people in the band are everything to Greg Allan. His aggressive commitment to the life that he leads is something that he bleeds into every Medicine Dolls show and, for the duration of their set time, you are invited to share in that same commitment – to stave off death and reach for glory.