The first time I heard the electro-soul outfit, Zero 7 was on the original Six Feet Under soundtrack. The sultry song, “Distractions” got into my psyche and has remained there –coming out in whispers and hums that soothe and seduce. It’s that kind of song – they’re that kind of band. At the heart of Zero 7 are Sam Hardaker and Henry Binns. This techno-duo combines vintage funk with cutting edge instrumentation to create sexy, soulful grooves. Glide's Joanne Cohen-Schenker had the opportunity recently to talk with Hardaker about their past, present and what the future holds in store with their latest album, The Garden due out in May.
Both men began their careers in the 1990’s as sound engineers in London – remixing music for big-time Brits such as Pet Shop Boys and Robert Plant. Their former college-mate, Nigel Godrich, notable producer for Radiohead, gave them a shot at re-vamping their sound. The results were stellar: A completely different remix of “Climbing Up the Walls” that appeared as a B-side of Radiohead’s single “Karma Police.” But how did they make it sound like an ‘original’ as opposed to just another spin-off?
“We don’t take on a remix unless we feel pretty confident that we can add something and give it a worthwhile re-interpretation,” answered Hardaker. And worthwhile it was...word was out and Zero went to hero in no time at all. One good remix deserved another, beginning with Terry Callier’s “Love Theme from Spartacus” followed by ones for Sneaker Pimps, Lambchop and Lenny Kravitz. This was what one might consider the turning point in their career –going from behind the scenes and into the spotlight...
“We didn’t exactly run into the spotlight,” Hardaker is quick to add. “I don’t think either of us wanted to be in that position. We did a few remixes -- just messing around in the studio with no intention of being perceived as the artist. Over a period of time we started writing our own tracks – without a plan to make an album, necessarily."
The duo’s 2001 debut album, Simple Things,
was both a blast from the past and a look into the future. Techie-synth sounds echoed over lush, sexy voices to recreate the romance of sixties French pop with post-millennium styling. Guest singers Sia Furler, Mozez and Sophie Barker along with dreamy instrumentals made this album the essential ‘chill pill.’ Plus, the song “Distractions” put Zero 7 on the map when it became part of the HBO series Six Feet Under
Hardaker’s excitement is palpable as he reacts, “That was really the first time that something I loved [Six Feet Under
] would be featuring our music. I was so honored when they approached us.” He adds sarcastically, “Usually, it’s like ‘can we use one of your songs to sell shampoo?’
Their second album, When It Falls
was released in 2004. Among the returning artists were Sia Furler, Sophie Barker and Mozez -- their breathy harmonies creating cinematic soundscapes reminiscent of big screen music from eras past. With so many guest performers one can only wonder what a live performance would entail. Apparently, anywhere from eleven to twenty people can appear on the stage. This must make live shows a very daunting task...
Hardaker agreed, “Yeah, it was a real challenge initially and not something we were particularly comfortable with. But I think we got a lot of people around us because we wanted to hide in the middle of all the musicians. At some points we’d have three lead vocalists and a backup singer – that doubles the size of the band. But this time when we tour it’s going to be a lot smaller because there’s just Sia and Jose and a regular band with drums, bass and guitar.”
Now on their third album, The Garden
, Zero 7 seems to be moving into a progressively warmer area. The latest guest vocalist to ‘sultrify’ their sound is Scandinavian singer-songwriter and guitarist, Jose Gonzalez. With his own critically adorned album, Veneer
in the UK top ten, we were curious to know how this collaboration came about...
“We heard his record when we were touring our last album and we both instantly loved it. When we sat down to write for The Garden
we felt it would be interesting to send Jose some stuff and see how he responded. Luckily, he liked it. We never approached anyone like that before. We just called him up and said ‘listen, I don’t know if you actually know our stuff...which he really didn’t,” Hardaker chuckles. “He was like –‘Zero, who?’
From barely familiar to part of the family...Jose will be on their U.S. tour starting in September. When asked if he will become more of a permanent staple, Hardaker hesitates, “Well, I don’t know because Jose’s also having a fantastic adventure with his own record. It’s just getting bigger and bigger...and I know he’s keen to get on with his new stuff. He’s in that strange situation where this record he made three years ago is just breaking through now.” As for Sia Furler, who has recorded on all three albums...Hardaker replies, “Yeah, we enjoy that collaboration...it’s always interesting what she brings into it.”
Even more interesting is their latest guest singer...none other than Henry Binns, himself. Having done most of the backing vocals on their previous records, he is now giving it a shake in the forefront. Hardaker seems quite pleased with the results as he explains, “It was a way for us to develop things and not be so reliant on other people. Unlike our previous albums, we weren’t working in London so we spent a lot of time just the two of us. Henry got into this thing of laying down vocal ideas and some of them just stuck. He sings a couple of songs with Sia and does the lead on a track called 'Your Place'.”
Besides producing and programming every inch of their music, they are extremely instrumental in all aspects. The creation is clearly more important than kudos, as Hardaker comically states, “I guess maybe we should credit ourselves on our albums. All the keys and piano are us. Most of it [piano] is Henry and I play the synth parts. We do some of the drums and all the percussion is ours.” With a pause (as if he has surprised himself) Sam continues, “So I guess anything you hear that’s not explained on the cover is us.”
Zero 7 is successfully navigating its way through without too much concern for the ‘roadblocks’ or labels that may have stuck along the way....Genres such as acid jazz or electronica are limiting – even I have pegged them as “electro-soul.” Hardaker’s opinion on it all...
“I don’t really know what I perceive us as. We’ve had a lot of strange labels attached to us; none of which feel particularly comfortable. But I don’t know if they [labels] ever do.” Hardaker pauses, contemplates and continues, “We’re not a four-piece kind of rock band and we’re not an out-and-out electronic act, so I guess people struggle to categorize us.”
Struggles are definitely part of the creative process. Being on a major record label (Atlantic) often means cutting through a lot of bureaucratic tape. However, on the flip side it can certainly be a creative launch pad. Hardaker’s take...“I could answer that question differently depending on the day. But, we’ve been pretty lucky. We have a good relationship with the guy who runs our label. He signed us when he was running an independent label and he’s since become MD of a major label. We’ve been very fortunate that he lets us get on with what we want to do and doesn’t give us too much shit, really. I know a lot of people who have a much tougher time. There are obviously conflicts all the way down the line. They’ve got their interests and we’ve got ours. They don’t always coincide with each other. When you’re involved with that kind of relationship you have to keep fighting for what you want.”
It appears they have won their creative license...and definitely the attention of the media, as well. Another song from Simple Things (“In the Waiting Line”) appeared on the highly successful Garden State soundtrack. Were they paying homage to the movie by naming their latest album, The Garden? Hardaker states in a blasé way, “There isn’t any relation at all. You know, I haven’t even seen that movie.”
As for their name -- Zero 7? It’s a well known fact (or is it fiction?) that they took their name from a nightclub in Honduras. But what was so special about this place? Hardaker answers suspiciously, “It might not be true that story...you never know. I can’t be too specific. I think you have to retain a little bit of mystery. I’ll tell you this much...it was never intended to be the name of the band. It was just something that happened when we did the Radiohead remix. They called us and said, ‘we love it, we’re gonna use it ...who are you?’ kind of thing. We just came up with that name in half an hour and we thought that was just for the remix...and here we are five years later.”
...The perfect lead-in to my last question...where do they see themselves in five years from now? Hardaker wittingly retorts, “In a bar in Honduras, I hope...” How refreshing...a serious talent that doesn’t take himself too seriously.
Joanne Cohen-Schenker lives in New York and is a contributing writer for Glide, Blogcritics.com, SanityCentral.com and other publications. Check out some of her other thoughts at jocoschenker.typepad.com or email her at reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.