Whichever way you look at it, Simple Things, the debut album from Zero7, made a musical impact in 2001 that most acts can only fantasise about. Not only did it stand out as an extraordinarily well-rounded body of work in its own right; elements of it could soon be heard everywhere, on numerous compilation albums, television programs, commercials and idents. The chances are that you probably heard some of it somewhere last week. But inevitably with that kind of success there are downsides. The ubiquity of their lavish, laid back sound meant that Zero7 became intrinsically linked with the lazy umbrella term of (try not to shiver when you read it) Chill Out. Go and wash your brain out with soap if it makes you feel better.
The point is that album no.2 was always going to be put together under more pressure. How do you bring something new to the table, without losing that distinctive sound that so many people liked in the first place? And then, how do you keep enough of that sound, without inviting listeners to make too many comparisons with your omnipresent debut?
For what it’s worth, you can see what we thought of When It Falls, and of course you can listen to the album and make up your own mind about it. But you might also be interested to hear how Zero7 went about the process themselves, because we got the chance to talk to Henry Binns (pictured right in the main photo) about the new album, their meteoric rise to success, their love of playing live, and the pressures that come with leaving three years between album releases.
Pixelsurgeon: Hi Henry. Thanks for taking time out for the readers of Pixelsurgeon, in the midst of promoting your new album, When It Falls. But before we come to that, let’s talk about how you got here in the first place. Simple Things was a hugely successful debut, both commercially and critically. But how long did it take for yourself and Sam Hardaker to realise what you had accomplished, and appreciate the impact that your music was having?
Um, I’m not sure I quite experienced it like that. I was just incredibly pleased things were going well. The really striking thing for me was when we started playing live, which is something I had never imagined myself ever doing. The response we got from a live audience was really incredible for me. It changed what the whole thing was for me, all the writing and recording of it was forgotten and the worries we’d had were over. All we had left to do was play the music.
Going back even further, how did Zero7 come together in the first place?
Sam and I have been friends since we were about 15, we’ve always loved music, and always went about buying records together. We always wanted to make our own music but didn’t quite know how to go about it. We did a stint in Engineering College, but soon managed to get jobs in a studio (RAK). We worked there for about 5-6 years, learning our trade as it were, and eventually managed to set up our own little studio, along with Nigel (Godrich). He was also a mate from school days, and had helped us get our jobs at RAK. From there we did various bits and pieces to earn a living and spent as much of our own time as we could, working on our own stuff. Nigel started working with Radiohead, and offered us the chance to do the remix of ‘Climbing up the Walls’.
That’s when we called ourselves Zero7, and it grew from there, doing remixes, then an EP, and finally managing to get a deal to make our own album.
So the Radiohead remix was crucial in getting you ‘out there’ in the first place. But back to more recent history, did you listen to Simple Things much in the time leading up to, or during the recording of When It Falls? Or did you just start from scratch with open minds about what you could do next?
No I didn’t listen to Simple Things at all. We were just looking at the blank walls again scratching our heads. Saying that, it’s not like we’d forgotten Simple Things, having just finished touring it for months! I think any creative work has a connection and some sort of continuation from what has come before.
Presumably you must have felt some pressure (other than just the pure creative desire) to make the follow up something special, but while you worked on the new material did you ever worry that you had been away for too long?
Yes, there certainly is a whole different type of pressure on a 2nd album. We tried not to think about it too much, and just get on with making the music we liked, just like we’ve always done really. I didn’t feel like I’d been gone too long in the sense of writing and recording, as even during touring we were coming up with ideas. I suppose it’s very stimulating in that way, hanging out with all our musicians and stuff. When you haven’t had anything new ‘out there’ for a while you wonder if people have forgotten all about you, or if you are still relevant, especially as it always takes us a while to write our music.
But really, there’s just no point dwelling on these things, you’ve just got to get on with going into the studio everyday. I don’t know how to do anything else anyway, so I’ve got to keep at it, and hope people keep liking my shit!
It seems like you don’t have to have the television on for too long these days to hear some Zero7, and whether people have heard Simple Things all the way through or not, literally millions will have heard your music add a distinctive atmosphere to programmes or advertisements. Presumably this extra financial benefit helped you to take the time you wanted to over the new album?
Yes it helps financially in the sense of paying the bills and keeping the family. I’m not rich yet, but I don’t have to worry about money either. However it doesn’t really make any difference to how long it will take us to write an album. Wild horses dragging us by our arses couldn’t speed us up; it just takes however long it takes. In fact I think it took us twice as long to write the 1st one when we were totally skint!
Are there any ways in which you have particularly liked, or particularly objected to the way your music has been used on television?
I haven’t objected to it, no. But I have worried about how it changes the perception of our music. Having been used as background music on so many things, and it having been labelled ‘chill-out’ has made me worry that it becomes sort of like wallpaper, and seen cosmetically, and not really listened to in its own right. But at the same time it does go to pay off some of the massive deficit an artist is always in with its paymasters.
Apparently a lot of the new material grew out of experiments you made on tour over the last three years. How did the transient nature of touring alter the way you worked, and did you prefer the process this time around?
Touring was just an amazing experience in itself. I suppose what we took from it when we got back into the studio was being much more at ease with working with our band. Whereas before we would have programmed a drum beat or searched for a sample, we started to naturally feel to get one of our musicians down and play something on an instrument. So that is something different about how we worked on the 2nd album. I can’t say I prefer one way better than the other; each album was made how we felt it at the time. Each experience is different.
The new album seems to have a ‘rounder’ sound somehow, where more incidental melodies and hooks punctuated Simple Things. Do you agree with this statement, and if so, was this a deliberate path that you decided to take, or just a natural evolution of your approach to writing and recording music?
There was never a master plan of what each album was going to be like or how we were going to make them. I suppose Simple Things was written over a very long period of time, and somehow included something about everything that had happened to us in our lives up to that point. However, When it Falls was written in a very concentrated and intense period of time, and reflects how we felt. We had just come out of the massive and intense experience of our first album and being involved in the machinery of selling a record; not just being in our own little world of our studio. A lot was going on in everyone’s personal lives. Musically, I had fallen in love with Joni Mitchell’s For The Roses, which I found very comforting, and appreciated for its subtlety. I guess all these things influenced When it Falls.
Bearing in mind that the Zero7 sound is so rich, warm and layered, how do you know when a track is complete, and it’s time to move onto another? How do you judge when the sound is ‘full’ enough, and do you ever end up taking parts out of your music for the final mix?
For us finishing a song is more about when we feel we have got the arrangement right. I suppose we do have lots of layers in our songs, but, believe it or not, most of the time we are trying to peel things out of our music. I suppose when a sound we put in feels inconsequential to the whole of the song, we know its finished. We often take bits out as well. It’s difficult to tell when a song is finished, but at some point you just have to let it go, that’s where When It Falls comes in.
The distinctive vocals of Mozez, Sia Furler and Sophie Barker make a welcome return on the new album. How did your relationship with these singers come about originally? Did you know any of them prior to writing the songs, and have them in mind, for instance?
Well, Mozez has been a mate for years, and we originally were working on tracks for an album he was going to do. This World was the first whole song that we wrote as Zero7 and gave us the idea that we could be more than just a remix outfit. After that we didn’t know how it was going to go, and I suppose we had an eye out for a female vocalist to complement Mozez. For a long time we had a lot of instrumental tracks and tried out lots of different singers, none of whom were quite right. Then suddenly, amazingly and very fortuitously for us, Sia and Sophie turned up at about the same time, and we wrote the songs with them very quickly and it all just happened. We finished our album and were suddenly this band with three amazing singers!
New vocalist Tina Dico kicks up a summery storm on the second track, Home, which is also the first single. How did she appear in the Zero7 picture?
We had heard Tina’s demos some time previously, and loved her voice. She was over from Denmark, working on songs for her own album, which is what we originally got together in the studio to do. We had a track and a melody floating around that we had been working on with our guitarist Dedi Madden, and started working on that with her. Somehow it just turned in to a very Zero7 sounding song, which always seems to happen with the singers we work with….
What input, if any, do the vocalists have on how the songs take shape? Is it simply, say, suggestions for lyrics, or is it a much more dynamic process, where the final song ends up being quite different to the one which you initially had in mind?
The singers are crucial in the writing of the songs. It’s something we all sit down and do together. Each of the singers we work with has a very strong character and idea of what they want to the song to be saying, just as we do. On the last album we didn’t write any of the lyrics, on this one Sam wrote a few. I think there is a meeting of minds between us, and the singers we work with, and the songs usually come out as everyone had intended them to.
Whilst on the subject of vocals, it’s worth noting that there are a lot fewer instrumental pieces on this album. Last time around, six of the twelve tracks were instrumentals, this time there’s only two, in fact just one if you consider that even Look Up has some backing vocals. Were these just the tracks that seemed to make the best shape as an album, or did you deliberately focus more on the songs this time?
We did actually intend to have more instrumentals on the 2nd album, but for some reason it just happened that we came up with all these songs. It just came out like that.
Are you looking forward to taking the new material on tour?
Yes very much so. As I said before, playing live was an amazing and inspiring experience for us, and I do love doing it. And you know, I enjoy the company of all the musicians we work with; we have a lot of laughs on tour. Sam and I both have young children though and we do miss them a lot, so that part of it isn’t so great.
Presumably you’ll focus on the new material, punctuated with some of the tracks from Simple Things. When you play live, do you try and get as close to the studio version as possible, or do you reinterpret the track and improvise around it?
We put a lot in to our live shows, and they differ quite a lot from the studio version. We see playing live as a chance to take the record somewhere else. Also we want people to be able to jump around a bit, so we do do quite a lot of different stuff with the songs.
If you weren’t Zero7, which group or solo artist would you like to be, living or dead?
Well this whole interview has been about your music, but presumably between that, sleeping, eating, drinking and general bodily functions you must find time for other things. What else do you get up to?
Basically I’m a family man; I have a little boy and little girl, and a third on the way. They take up all the spare time I’ve got.
Well, thanks very much for your time Henry. Here at Pixelsurgeon we wish you the best of luck with the new album and tour.