THE MEDICINE DOLLS Band // Interview

The Medicine Dolls are a three piece post-punk/garage-rock band out of Cape Town, South Africa, formed in late 2016 by Gregory Allan (Guitar/Vox) and Bex Nicholas (Bass/Vox) later joined by Kai Von Fritschen (Drums/Vaabs). Drawing influence from bands and artists like The Cramps, The B52s, Nina Hagen and The Cure, adding a twist of surf-rock and glam, to create a unique sonic cocktail. 

Let’s have a bedtime chat with Gregory!

What’s your story?:)

At the tail end of 2015, Bex and I were at the end of our rope, sharing a grotesque little cottage and a pretty self-destructive lifestyle in Johannesburg. The band I was in at the time had just collapsed in on itself due to a handful of drug fueled ridiculous cliches and Bex had also found herself without gainful employment. After spending a week or so, pacing up and down, breathing in more nicotine than oxygen, it dawned on me that a serious reinvention needed to take place.

At that point in time, Bexy had never played a note, nor showed any real interest in learning to play any instruments, so of course my brain said “she’s like the perfect bass player“, for this new band that I was slowly starting to dream up. Once that thought had arrived, it was now a matter of certainty.

I walked into the living room and proclaimed “we are moving to Cape Town!… and starting a band!… and you’re gonna play bass!”. She agreed. 

We scraped together what little money we could, sold almost all of our belongings (we didn’t have many belongings) and got ourselves a pair of plane tickets. After arriving in Cape Town and couch surfing for a couple weeks, we ended up staying in a series of cheap backpackers/hostels in the centre of town, selling hand made copies of my solo EP to tourists and pedestrians by day to get our accommodation bills paid and trading them for drinks at bars in the night times.

After about a month of this tiresome but deeply romantic struggle, a friend of ours gave us the most incredible helping hand, by hooking us up with the downpayment and first month’s rent on an apartment.

 Over the rest of 2016, we mucked about, Bexy learned how to play on a borrowed bass, we found a drummer, we lost a guitar player, we scraped by and we became The Medicine Dolls…  we’re still The Medicine Dolls. 

Your style is so damn weird, what’s your aesthetic inspirations?

So many influences, definitely Siouxsie Sioux and Robert Smith, but i think a seminal moment in finding my “uniform” was seeing a clip of The Libertines playing the Johnathan Ross show (I must have been about 18 at the time) it was a magnificent rendition of “Can’t Stand Me Now” and Pete Doherty had his hair teased, wearing a fantastically ill-fitting leather jacket.

I just wanted to be part of their gang. Another notable influence musically and aesthetically is Nina Hagen. I think she may very well be the most stylish cat that ever lived. As a band I think we have a massive respect and appreciation for the energy and attitude that can be expressed through a bold aesthetic, I know personally I fell in love with a photograph of The Cramps before hearing any of their records.

How do you create such a garage sound without using any effects pedals?

When we first arrived in Cape Town, I had no gear whatsoever, no guitar, no amp and certainly no pedals, we’d had to sell pretty much everything we owned before leaving Johannesburg. When we first started rehearsing I would have to borrow bits and pieces from new friends or total strangers to get by.

I think that need to adapt, kinda forced me to keep the sound as simple as possible and not fuss over the fact that every time we played I had a different guitar sound, as long as there was overdrive and a little reverb, I was happy with using one sound throughout the set.

By the time we had settled in to our new surroundings and acquired instruments and such, I had gotten so used to playing without pedals that it just stopped crossing my mind. When we went into studio to make the record i fiddled about with loads of different gear and sounds, but coming out of it I now have a spring reverb pedal that sits on my amp during the set, and I’m quite happy with the built in “Dirty” Sound of my “Orange Crush”.

Melodies and riffs are catchy and aggressive, and what about you?

I guess if there was a message behind our music, or our band in general really, it would have to be a firm stance on and belief in freedom of expression. Lyrically we are pretty all over the place, tragedy, fairytales, real life experiences all collide and create a pretty message-free expression that listeners can then apply, or not apply to their own experiences. Open to interpretation for sure. 

I can hear a sweet taste of 60’s style keyboards, how did this sound come in your punk pot?

Yeah, those dirty organ sounds do something to us. We started out using those sorts of sounds, just as extra production on some early recordings, we were quite certain we would remain a trio and therefore not have that element introduced to the live set up, but I got carried away by the added creativity that came with that extra dimension and started writing tunes around organ parts instead of the other way around.

96 Tears‘ by Question Mark & The Mysterians… the first time I heard that tune, I totally lost my heart to that cocky organ sound, along with the likes of The Mummies, The Monks and The B52s. As yet we have not found a permanent fourth Medicine Dolls to take the role of keyboard player, but we have started the search.

Have you ever tried to quit smoking?

I have tried (not hard enough) and failed a handful of times over the years… its a rough one, haha. It does seem to have become something that is tightly linked to our public image (we get a lot of flack for it).

I think the main reason for that comes from being a little uncomfortable in front of cameras, and feeling uncomfortable is the ultimate trigger for lighting a cigarette.

That said, I do agree there is something deeply satisfactory about it all. In South Africa, during the plague-induced lock down, we had a ban on cigarettes for about five months… a ridiculous law, haha. We thought it might be the best opportunity to try and give it up, but as I’m sure everyone on the planet can relate to, it was a hell of stressful year for a smoker to try and kick the habit. We ended up like the majority of South African smokers, buying illegal unheard of brands at 10x the price of regular cigarettes. A very strange time that was. 

What do you think of the underground scene in Cape Town? 

The scene in Cape Town is pretty insane actually, some ridiculously good bands around at the minute, as well as a dedicated live music following (Well, it was last time I checked… in March) But It does seem like a lot of good things are bubbling away, waiting for things to go back to normal.

There have been a handful of great releases during lockdown, bands like Julia Robert, Elle E and Runaway Nuns, all put out killer new material this year… just stoked to be able to get out and see it live soon. Sadly we’ve lost a handful of our premier live music venues due to the financial covid strangle, but I do look forward to throwing some more DIY-type gigs once we’re allowed outside. 

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