Artist Stories, Stories

Sakawa Boys: Brilliantly Trading in Our Frail Emotions and Working Through Collective Anxiety

Sakawa Boys 2014 Anxiety Katinka Bester
by Katinka Bester / Courtesy of the artist

I find the Sakawa Boys in the middle of a smoke break in the front garden of guitarist, Skye McInnes’ grandparents’ house; their designated rehearsal place for the past few days as they prepare for the release party for their debut album, 2014 Anxiety. The room they’re cramped into at the back of the otherwise sunny and welcoming family home has very little space. A messy bed dominates the dim, seemingly unused bedroom and instruments and amps are positioned haphazardly around it. White towels and old t-shirts labour in the task of muting the already ‘too-loud-for-the-suburbs-on-a-Sunday’ drums to a more reasonable volume as they run through a few songs from the set the band are preparing, whilst yoga is conducted in the front room.

The quartet of John Seth (lead vocals and guitar) Skye McInnes (guitar) Keenan Oakes (bass) and Peter Scott (drums) found their reputation as the Sakawa Boys ballooning rapidly following the release of their demo single ‘Lazy Eys’. Like much of their material, that debut single was mostly recorded out of the bedroom of lead singer, Seth, or wherever they could manage it. Most of the material on 2014 Anxiety was dreamt up and subsequently recorded in short, taxing intervals over the past few months in that selfsame room.

Though they’ve only just now released their debut album, Sakawa Boys been settled in the consciousness of the increasingly fluxed Cape Town music landscape for just over 2 years now and have already played on relatively big stages. By the end of 2014, they had Rocking The Daisies and an opening gig for The Black Lips at Psych Night (amongst others) to their credit. Everyone who you might’ve spoken to about them thought consistently highly of the band before they had even released their debut EP, V in 2015.

The parallels that can be drawn between the Sakawa Boys and their defrauding namesakes are not as arbitrary as they seem at first. The practice of young Ghanaian entrepreneurs harnessing the power of the internet and the frailty of human emotion to con lonely people out of their attention, trust and worldly possessions is rarely seen through anything other than the lens of barely-concealed affront that the odd BBC and VICE documentary affords us.
“There are these people who put up these identities that they seduce people with – and they play with their emotions,” explains Seth. “It’s so constructed and curated and I think we all do that in this age of existence; with social media, there are all of these constructed identities that we put up; and as musicians, we trade in emotions.” “We want to elicit feelings,” adds Peter Scott. “It’s about bringing something out of someone, and there is a manipulative element to that, too.”

Attending one of their shows – very early in the process if I recall – it became apparent that their appeal was anything but accidental as they delivered one of their already notoriously emotionally- and sonically-intense performances as an opening act for John Wizards at the Assembly. They were tagged, prematurely they will argue, with a label of ‘shoegaze, with pop sensibilities’. They were certainly influenced by the genre – admittedly taking inspiration from the likes of Lotus Plaza, Beach House and even The Smashing PumpkinsMachina/The Machines, but on closer listening there’s barely any of what Seth describes as the “hazy, indistinct guitars and vocals” that have come to loosely define shoegaze. “That sound with lyrics that say nothing; it has all has fuck all to do with anything. I just want to our songs to be about something, to say something.” says Seth. “For us, it’s more – the songs are about these feelings. Their application is broad but also intensely personal to us.”

Perhaps this is how they seemed to transmute the vacillation between agitation and apathy into a reverbed and anxious on-stage energy. The intimacy of that shared ennui of one’s twenties quickly hooked a small but excited following who hung on their handful of demo recordings and spurious live performances. ‘Yeah, small, but not that excited,’ jokes bassist, Keenan Oakes. “Even though it’s only a few people – if they like it they then really like it,” Skye McInnes qualifies. “And then they might come and say so after a show, and that really moves us. And it would be great if there were more like 1000 of those people in Cape Town, but there’s not much of that mindset around”

They make no secret of admiring if not the exact paths, but the trajectories that bands like John Wizards and Beatenberg have enjoyed, especially in foreign lands. “We believe in our music and we want to take it to whoever resonates with it,” says Oakes. “We want to compete with the best. We don’t want to just stop with something like Rocking the Daisies,” intones Peter.

While there’s an admiration that exists, there’s an undeniable disconnect for a band like Sakawa Boys. “It feels like a lot of the market is geared towards happy, feel-good, simple, sing-along with your friends kind of stuff,” explains McInnes. “Midday and major key, you know. And then you compare that to what we do, which is a bit sad and not quite what you go to festival for… I suppose,” he says without any real conviction at the end.

“If you had a show in Cape Town in 2006, people had to be able to dance to it.”

Most of the Sakawa Boys members have more than paid their dues in other projects and bands around Cape Town through the years, with notable associations to 2006 indie-rock sweethearts New Loud Rockets, black-metal-internet-famous Wildernessking and Fever Trails along the way. Whilst projects that they all enjoyed or enjoy, the foursome of the Sakawa Boys represents a sort of musical reprieve for them. “I was 19 or 20 when I was in that band and it could be really frustrating back then,” says Seth of his time in New Loud Rockets, who broke up in 2009. “We would sit there and say that we can’t really work on this specific song because people won’t be able to dance to it. If you had a show in Cape Town in 2006, people had to be able to dance to it.” says Seth.

It goes some way in explaining why four young men of different backgrounds, creatively and otherwise, came together to make music. The connection between the members is one borne of a kinship found somewhere in between the isolating islands that depression and anxiety can seem to feel like. And it’s that same well of emotion that has been drawn from for most of the 8 tracks that appear on their debut LP. Scott explains that, “for most of us, 2014 to 2015 were some of the most transformative years of our lives. I have never changed more than in those years; I can’t really think of myself before that time.”
“And I think the band helped us through those issues,” agrees Seth, “I had quit my job in 2013 and my whole world became these three guys, essentially. I was pretty ashamed and feeling defeated by corporate life. I stayed in my mom’s room, I lived off my savings and I played in this band. When you’re sitting in a room and you have just enough money to survive, you end up putting a lot of emotion and feelings into the music.”

“Music just means something different for us. We get so emotionally affected by playing, or even listening to music. There was a time where I couldn’t listen to Beach House because I was always crying. It would crush me. With our music, I don’t know, maybe we want to crush some people,” Scott laughs.

There’s already tangible progression of the Sakawa Boys’ sound from their four-track EP and the roomier and more intimidating format of their debut long player. Tracks like ‘Settle’, ‘The Hungry Ghosts’ and ‘Wound’ have familiar elements in them, but there’s something more ponderous and melancholy in the broad, melodic soundscapes and textures they experiment with on this body of work.

Despite the pages of copy on their social media sites listing their many varied influences, they find comparisons largely reductive. “I mean you can never really say that our music doesn’t sound like someone else’s – our music isn’t made in a vacuum,” says Scott. But on these tracks there’s a certain ownership of a distinct sound they’re looking to cultivate. “Especially with the new stuff that we’re writing now, we have a feeling like, that is Sakawa Boys,” admits McInnes. “It’s so difficult to get there – especially now everything has been done, or seems to have been.”
Oakes adds, “I think we also got better as song writers and we learnt how to be a band together. I think from soundscape to soundscape, there’s a strong progressive element to this album. I think it’s maturing, rather than an outright evolution, really.”

After being produced and mixed by Seth himself (mastering by Michael Clarke), 2014 Anxiety was released in late July. And all that’s left is the small matter of the release party for the album later this week. Surprisingly, its debut will likely be the Sakawa Boys’ last live performance for the foreseeable future as the band go on separate journeys for a little while. The most notable journey is Seth is going to study a Masters in Sweden, where he hopes to also advance the cause of the Sakawa Boys across Europe. But in their (hopefully) brief absence, 2014 Anxiety is here for us to enjoy. “It was the weirdest thing because I’ve never cared about, or worked so hard on something in my life and then the day it went out I was, like, fuck it, I don’t care anymore. It was out there and it didn’t belong to us anymore.”

Sakawa Boys will be playing their final SA show for at least a year tonight, their album release party for 2014 Anxiety at Stags Head – aka EVOL (RIP). All details here. Buy the album on iTunes or Bandcamp, so that great musicians can keep making great music.

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