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Why things have changed but it still ain’t different for Tebi Rex

Words: Dylan Murphy
Photography: George Voronov

Havana Club and District share the same affinity for grassroots hip hop culture and we’ve teamed up to showcase the Irish acts pushing the needle. Following their performance at Other Voices, Dylan Murphy took a stroll along Dingle Bay with Tebi Rex to dust off the cobwebs. They spoke about their sophomore album It’s Gonna Be Okay and keeping perspective in the midst of uncertainty.

Havana Club host All The Way Up Thursday May 12 at 7pm in Wigwam, Dublin 1. Click here to book your tickets now.

“It was honestly like, I don’t want to say one of the worst moments of my musical career, cause it turned out fine, but….”

At the end of November, Tebi Rex suffered an unforeseen hiccup. Performing in front of their biggest crowd to date in support of Easy Life in the Olympia Theatre, the pair’s music inexplicably cut out midway through their fourth song. Though they managed to keep the crowd onside with an impromptu acapella version of a song it only bought a short amount of time as DJ R3D tried without success to resuscitate his laptop. Accepting defeat, they wished the crowd good night and disappeared to stage right.

“People were really happy with it and they were understanding”, Max Zanga, one half of the Kildare alt-rap duo says. “They said, ‘Look, they were three songs in and they killed those songs’. It’s just frustrating ‘cause when you know you have an audience, when you know you have them captivated and you can do whatever it’s frustrating to fumble the bag at the end”. 

Tip toeing along the shoreline like a tightrope, Max acknowledges that even with five plus years of experience, disappointments still cut just as deep as they did on day one.

“In terms of my headspace? I wanted to die. I wanted to sink into the floor, I’m not into some positive positivity reign supreme sh*t. I was thinking ‘I’m going to K word myself’. Then you give it some space. You reflect on it. We even spoke to Easy Life’s team and they were lovely about it. It’s calm, it’s not the biggest of deals.”

In the grander scheme of things, it was a small setback that faded into obscurity once they hit the stage in Kerry. Max is just glad they play live, especially given that they missed the livestream edition of last year’s festival because they were isolating. 

This more optimistic worldview developed in part as a response to a worldwind couple of years for the rapper in both his personal and professional life. At its best, going freelance in the world of events during a pandemic could be considered brave and at its worst, it’s irresponsible. Coupled with his younger brother facing and successfully beating cancer, nobody could blame Max for feeling helpless, angry or jaded. However, walking against the coastal breeze, he remains resolute.

“I don’t know how I’m going to eat in February, but by January something will pop up. It’s gonna be okay.”

Max Zaga, Tebi Rex

“I don’t know how I’m going to eat in February, but by January something will pop up. ‘It’s gonna be okay’ is basically what I‘ve been saying for the last two years. If you say yes and keep an open mind, things usually end up better than you think. Sh*t sorts itself out, you can’t stress about things you have no control over cause what’s the f*cking point.”

Nodding in agreement, Matt explains that their second album, It’s Gonna Be Okay helped cement this point of view in his life too. While he was facing significantly different issues and working through them at a different pace to Max, the process of creating the album allowed them to make sense of the things that kept them up at night. 

“I think that’s probably the trickiest thing. One drawback is me and Matt are so different”, Max says. 

“For songs it’s great to have very different viewpoints. ‘Men Are Trash’ works so well ‘cause we approach it from different angles. I’m talking about being a f*ck boy and he’s talking about being a soft boy. It’s funny cause the different approaches make it interesting but the album has to be cohesive. We might have the same themes or broad strokes but we’re dealing with different stuff. Matt’s not dealing with the same mental health shit [as me]. In terms of making it fit, it’s about really hammering the points we agree on but then making it clear we are different people.”

“I think when you get to ‘Fear Lasta Lampaí’ I’m totally confident in myself” Matt says, using the album’s sequencing to highlight their own separate, but intertwined paths. “Whereas I’m just feeling it out in the songs before that.”

“I’m probably not good til ‘Tree in the Woods’”, Max adds. “By song seven Matt is happy and for the rest of the album I’m still trying to work through stuff.”

Throughout the two years since their debut album The Young Will Eat The Old Max suffered sporadically from panic attacks. He cites the first instance of the unprovoked attack to his senses as the synthesis of the album’s realist arc and an experience that lingered in his mind throughout the process.

“I was at a party in a posh enough area with a bunch of Trinity heads. A girl came up and was like “I don’t want to be really weird, but can I talk to you? Look, I really love the song ’Men Are Trash’, it really inspired me’. She then said something that freaked me out and I was weird about it. With music as well you tend to project these versions of yourself that are embellished or maybe not the full thing. I went outside and started having a panic attack. I started having panic attacks and it was a thing that was consistent.

It was this thing where I legit left the house and had a full blown panic attack and it was something I thought about a lot when I was writing the album.”

This moment of vulnerability encouraged Max to undertake a more deliberate approach to write closer to his real experiences. Something that Matt also bought into and had only existed in flutters in their more conceptual debut album.

“It was always going to be much more personal. The last album was a lot of fun, but it was very much us telling a story as opposed to us talking about ourselves at all. Whereas with this, we used Eddy, the tree and everything else as a train for our own personal stuff”, Matt explains.

The best stuff you write is the stuff you know the best and you know yourself best so it was nice to do it that way.

Matt Ó, Tebi Rex

“The best stuff you write is the stuff you know the best and you know yourself best so it was nice to do it that way. Obviously, it got very dark at times and very very personal between mental health issues or struggling to be a young person in Ireland or even Max’s brother. I think it was a conscious decision to be very personal and obviously masked it a bit with the story with Eddy and talking to a tree, it kind of had that concept there. It made it more digestible –  not just us being f*cking sad for 45 minutes [laughs].

If you try to feed them positive bullsh*t from song one, I think it’s less believable, I don’t think it means anything”, Max says without hesitation. 

“If we started an album about how it’s going to be ok and it starts in a very happy place it just feels like bullsh*t to me. We wanted to have a little bit of an arc. The first half is someone telling themselves something they don’t necessarily believe – that they know is bullsh*t. You have songs like ‘Deadman’ where we are like “No, it’s not going to be okay” or ‘Lost Time’ which is very sad… The main thing we want to say is throughout the album, from start to finish in terms of the beginning to the end nothing dramatically changes in our lives. I start off the album with anxiety and my brother having cancer and that makes me feel miserable and those things are still present in the end. I still have anxiety, my brother still has cancer. But it’s having that more positive outlook. It’s not ‘I love everything’. 

Everything is still f*cked, but I’m trying to enjoy the space I’m in. I’m trying to enjoy making music and enjoy being alive as much as possible”.

Havana Club are back at it again, hosting All The Way Up on Thursday May 12 at 7pm in Wigwam, Dublin 1. This year’s event is set to be bigger and bolder with a jam packed line-up of fresh acts including Sello, Celaviedmai, Plantain Papi, Alicia Raye & R3D to name a few – all celebrating the best of street culture. Click here to book your tickets now.

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