Maynooth hip hop duo Tebi Rex drop their sophomore album. Matt O’Baoill muses about the return to live music, the benefits of criticism and his working relationship with Max Zanga.
“If everyone was just blowing each other’s trumpets constantly it’d be shit. Everyone would be making bad music.”
The Twitter account for The Sunflower Lounge describes the Birmingham live music venue as “intimate”. This was certainly the case for one lucky punter who, for about fifteen minutes, was the only person in the crowd for Tebi Rex’s first live performance in almost two years. Matt O’Baoill, one half of the Kildare alternative hip-hop duo, says that he and bandmate Max Zanga were “buzzed to be back on stage and going nuts in some space” and that he’d “rather do that 100 times than a virtual gig”. Thankfully, it wasn’t long before more people arrived and the crowds only got bigger for the next stops on the short tour, peaking with a hefty turnout for their headline show in London during the summer.
For O’Baoill, it’s difficult to separate the joy of creating music from the thrill of performance. I ask him if he thinks he’d still make music if he was told gigs were never coming back. “I don’t know if I would. I think I would still do it as a cathartic process and as a hobby, but I don’t know if I would go as far as to continue being an artist, publicly, without being able to perform it.” Part of the reason for this is that, for Tebi Rex, there’s no substitute for the type of feedback you get from fans in a live environment. “As much as we’ve thrived off people writing to us online saying ‘this was my favourite track’ or something like that, actually having someone come up to you and give you feedback in person is remarkable and really hard to match.”
I spoke with Matt in late October, the day after the band threw an album launch party, and he was thrilled with the reaction he and Max have received so far. “There were people there last night who were at our first album launch party telling us how much our sound has grown and changed. That type of feedback is irreplaceable.”
Tebi Rex’s new album, It’s Gonna Be Okay, bounces gleefully between genres and perspectives. I put it to Matt that you could call Tebi Rex an “internet band”, and that listening to the album evokes the sensation of scrolling a social media timeline. There are a myriad of voices, themes and sounds. Tracks are liable to change direction dramatically in a matter of seconds. From a genre perspective, Matt says, “we make whatever music we’re listening to or like at the time. We’re constantly a moving beast.” As for the social media thing? “We spend so much time diving into things that we see online. We’re big Twitter heads so I think a lot of our Irish success is down to that; embracing meme culture and that type of thing.”
Tebi Rex are a great example of a band that knows how to use Twitter and engage with their followers in a natural way that doesn’t come off as an awkward PR strategy. According to Matt, the frequent, small-scale, feedback you get from messages and comments about tracks online can serve as a heads up for the reaction a song or album will get in a more long-form piece like a review in a magazine. “I think what social media has done there is give you a heads-up before a review. I personally get really excited for big reviews because very often you get reviews done that might be a lot of your press release and then have one or two little comments about you that’s from the writer. I love when you get someone who dissects this stuff and goes into it and whether it’s for better or for worse, that’s ok with me. We’ve had really good reviews where people have dissected a song or a tape and really hit the nail on the head. It’s really fulfilling when that happens, and you feel like someone really ‘got’ it. Then you get the reviews that really grill you on things like mixing, production or vocals and rapping and they’re really good, healthy, reviews too. I think sometimes people don’t take enough value out of those. It can be a very good thing. If everyone was just blowing each other’s trumpets constantly it’d be shit. Everyone would be making bad music.”
Given how pervasive social media is now, I wonder if Matt and Max find it difficult to ignore the trends that seem to be popular and doing well for other artists, so they can focus on making music that’s mainly interesting for themselves. “You definitely do get those kinds of intrusive thoughts,” Matt says, “when you see something doing really well or an artist you really like and you’re like ‘hmm, would that work for us because that’s what’s popular right now?’ I have this really big fear of trying to do that, trying to make a song or a tape that I think other people will like that I don’t really like all that much, and then it’s a failure and then people don’t like it and then no one likes it and like, what’s the fucking point?” Matt laughs. “Imagine someone slated your song in a review and you didn’t like it either. It wouldn’t make sense. So, I think you just have to make the kind of stuff that you like.”
Tebi Rex’s first album, The Young Will Eat The Old, was a meditation on fame and celebrity inspired by Greek mythology. Thematically, It’s Gonna Be Okay is a more intimate affair. According to Matt, there’s a lot more of his and Max’s personalities in this record. “We are the characters in this story, but we’re actually channeled through another character called Eddie. He’s on the cover, the merch, the videos. We’ve used him as a train to carry this story. You’ll hear Eddie on different interludes. It’ll start with him speaking and then it’ll switch to me or Max.” In Matt’s view, this album is more relatable. “This is more about our personal lives. Diving into a lot of the stuff we worry about day to day while still holding a concept or theme in there but making it much closer to home.”
A recurring theme during my conversation with Matt is how much he enjoys and appreciates his relationship with bandmate Max Zanga. I ask him if he thinks collaboration would be easier if they were in a studio, 9 to 5, Monday to Friday instead of sending snippets and ideas back and forth over WhatsApp or email. From a lyric-writing perspective, Matt says he “wouldn’t change our style at all. If we were in a studio together, 9 to 5, I would still leave that room to be by myself and write things. I don’t like writing in front of people, because it’s a very strange process that I go through to get my verses and hooks in place, it’s a lot of trial and error, and I don’t like people hearing the errors. I don’t mind doing that by myself when there’s no one around, and that’s often when you get your best moments, pushing the boat out with yourself. I wouldn’t change our process too much. I love when he sends me an idea, or I send him an idea, and we take it from there. It’s often the version of an idea I don’t like that makes him say ‘That’s the one’. Whereas in a studio setting I probably would have only given him the version or option that I preferred.” When it comes to the music production side of things though, Matt says “that’s always better to do together.”
So, what’s next for Tebi Rex? When I ask Matt if he has any intention of releasing a solo project, he says that he’s thought about it but that it’s hard to imagine performing without Max. “I have much more craic being there with [the music] and doing it with my friends. I often think that even if I was to do solo performances, I’d still bring Max along. I couldn’t do it alone, and I really don’t want to. I’d always want to bring the crew.” I mention that in recent interviews, the lads have alluded to taking a break. “Projects are so mentally and emotionally draining,” Matt tells me, “it’s not that we’re taking a break from Tebi Rex, more that we’re going to take a break from making a big project. If Frank Ocean can do it, why can’t Tebi Rex?” Judging by the new album, however long it takes for Tebi Rex to release their next project, it will certainly be worth the wait.
It’s Gonna Be Okay is released on Word Up Collective.
Words: Joe Joyce