Interview: Zaza, May 8 2010, European Tour with Black Rebel Motorcycle Club, Estragon, Bologna, Italy


First of all, I apologize for taking so long to post this. Zaza, the three piece Brooklyn-based band (that we have referenced in our Best-of 2009 and end-of-year podcast, review of the Pains of Being Pure at Heart North American Tour) has been gracious enough to speak with our European friend, Davide prior to their sound check in Bologna before opening for Black Rebel Motorcycle Club on May 8 at the Estragon.

It has been a very busy spring for Zaza. They have already completed their first European tour after opening for Black Rebel Motorcycle Club, and we can expect a full length LP from them in 2010, which was on my wishlist from 2009. So well done and godspeed!

Join us as Davide embarks on a world of conversation with Zaza, covering the live versus recorded debate, how they signed with Kanine, their history with the Pains of Being Pure at Heart, and the organic process that they have enjoyed since it all started.

Davide: Ciao everyone! I’m Davide. I’m here in Bologna at Estragon. I’m here with Zaza, a band that we all know from the Panic Manual and we love, andwe are sure that everyone in the future will know also. So I’m here with Jennifer, Danny, and their new drummer Dru. First of all, thank you for taking the time to talk with us.

Jennifer: Thank you for having us

Danny: Of course

Davide: I have a list of questions that was gently reminding me from Allison. First, were you surprised from the attention the Cameo EP got?

Danny: What, the attention?

Davide: Yes, like the hype. Were you surprised or were you like OK, because you knew it was good?

Danny: It was good, yes. Were we surprised? I don’t think you can set yourself up for expecting success or not (expecting success), you know? You just kind of just put things out there and…success is all relative. So I’m very proud. I think we’re all proud of how it’s been received. But surprised? No..we do what we do.

Davide: Have you ever been in a situation before (Zaza) where you were in another band/project in the same situation? Where you released an EP that just came out and you were waiting for the response?

Danny: Well to set up the opposite end of it, I guess I’ve been in a band where it just kind of went enh, where it was kind of a negative response. So I’ve personally tasted the other end of the pill.

Jennifer: I’ve certainly..I guess the word would be grateful of the certain attention that we got with the EP. Everything was very natural and nothing seemed contrived, so that’s what I’m mostly grateful about. As for my past I was in a band called the Warlocks and I’ve had a lot of really wonderful experiences and I got to enjoy a certain level of operation in that the Warlocks were really established. But you know, when I was in college I was in a hip-hop band, I played bass for an acoustic act that never did anything. (It was) just to play music and to be engaged in it, especially because I was kind of not into the rock scene at the time. I mean, that’s always where my roots have been, but at that time I was more into sort of just playing in strange projects that were challenging. It was great.

Davide: What was the name of the hip-hop band that you were in?

Jennifer: They’re called Free Moral Agents. I think one of the guys is from Mars Volta and I was the first bass player.

Davide: When you say hip-hop it was more like the Roots like with a whole band playing?

Jennifer: Exactly. It was just like the Roots.

Davide: When you said hip-hop I was thinking more like R&B like a wannabe Missy Elliot.

Jennifer: No, I wish. I wish that I had been like that.

Davide: That would have been very challenging. *laughing*

Jennifer: Very challenging

Davide: Talking about crossing genres, how about a Warlocks, Free Moral Agents, and Zaza reunion?

Jennifer: *laughing* Exactly.

Davide: (to Dru) And were you also in the same kind of situation?

Dru: The last band that I was called the Detachment Kit and our last release was our first entirely self-produced independent release completely financed by in house. There was neither a positive nor a negative reaction to it because we printed and put out a release with the same distribution we had. However, it just kind of fell in line so to speak, with the releases of that year. Independently we didn’t have any kind of promotion or publicity or anything like that unless we paid for it. So we spent all of our money making the album, so the response was just flat. Nobody came back and said it was awful and nobody came back and said it was great.

Davide: So that was the first time?

Dru: It was the fourth record that the band put out. The first three were on labels and the last one was independent.

Davide: You said for the upcoming full length album, you’re going in a different approach compared to the EP…

Danny: Well, it is and will be different, but to make it different from the EP…it’s not like we sat in the studio going “Must do something different from the EP”. It was simply an evolution of what we’ve done and what we’ve been writing and how we’ve grown as a band. The EP was recorded very early on. In fact only a few months after Jennifer and I met. So it was very kind of embryonic recording.

Davide: So the Cameo EP was the first thing from your first meeting.

Danny: It was kind of the nucleus of what we wanted to do at that time. Now going into the studio I think there we’re more mature as a band. We know each other better, we know what we’re capable of, we know what we’re not capable of, we know what our strengths are, as I’m sure for our third album, I’m sure I’ll be saying the same thing.

Davide: So the EP wasn’t the birth of like one year of working and jamming and going around?

Danny: Well, no, there was definitely the process of writing the EP.

Jennifer: I was on tour for that whole first year that we were writing. I was on tour with the Warlocks at the time so I would go back to New York and we would be in his (Danny’s) loft apartment with headphones in a room this size of just equipment everywhere. He introduced me to loop pedals. So I mean, I had never worked with anything besides a distortion pedal. We were using harmonicas, we were using one of those autoharps, and we were using a grand piano, we were using my cat’s meow. We were using everything and looping it and trying to create really cool sounds. That’s basically how everything was born. That’s why we have 17 tracks of every song. Because we wanted it to be really big by looping things.

Danny: We had recorded the EP before we had..

Jennifer: Yeah, we had no direction for how it was going to come out live. To us it was just something that was being birthed out of me coming back and forth…and Danny’s such an amazing songwriter. He’s so prolific too and he’d come back with all these ideas, and essentially he’s a drummer to start. And he always gives us really interesting sets of beats and rhythms. So dancey and so hypnotic and so perfect for the way I play bass that it just became very natural. All of it…but again, we were just using everything we could. Like now we’re in a position where everything is really concise. We know our sounds, we know where we want to direct. But back then we were just letting everything fall and see how it landed, being completely mystified by it, and really excited about it. Like anything when it’s in its childlike infancy.

Davide: So you can say you even tried different genres, like different sounds since you just met?

Jennifer: Oh yeah…we were switching instruments and everything…

Danny: Before Zaza I had never played guitar.

Jennifer: Or sang

Danny: Yeah, or sang. Jenny plays keyboards and sings as well and she had never done that before. Like she said, the only pedal that she used previously was a distortion pedal. So it was very much a learning experience and growing experience.

Davide: It was the first time you actually were singing, singing in a band…

Danny: Well, I used to sing to myself.

Davide: Of course, but doing it for real. Like in your mind, you realize when you were singing by yourself or with your friends and in your mind “That’s a band where I will also be the singer”. You learned this about you, also.

Jennifer: Oh yeah, that’s such a great way to put it. I remember when I first heard…I had never heard Danny sing…and I heard it recorded the first time (I wasn’t with him). And I casually said to him “Uh, was that you singing?”, “Yeah”, “You have such an amazing voice”, he said “Oh no, it’s OK”, and I said “Did you sing a lot when you were growing up?” and he said “Well no, I made up songs with my dad but not really.” So it’s amazing that someone can have such a talent and…

Davide: Not knowing it

Jennifer: Yeah, and not have it expressed until 20 something years later.

Davide: So from the EP how many songs did you have to choose from? Like 20, or less?

Danny: No, less.

Jennifer: Like 12 or 10 maybe. We had Darkhouse, we had Win You, we had Spiders High, we had Let it Go..(starts singing). We had all kinds of fuckin’ songs. Remember we had that..

Danny: (starts playing guitar to another cut song)

Jennifer: I have no idea what that song is called. We were listening to a ton of Beatles at the time. I was such a late bloomer and my mom liked rock ‘n roll. She poo pooed the Beatles, so I fell in love with the Beatles when I met Danny. It was like an out of body experience, but I started writing too much pop music at the time. It was so was a lot of Beatles. But yeah, we had a lot of songs that didn’t make it (to the EP).

Danny: We still have them, we just never released them

Davide: Yeah, when you put your fifth album out you can call it “Early Years, B-Sides”

Jennifer: Yeah, why not? Radiohead does it. They just released a song that was 10 years old on the last album.

Danny: I think there are songs that…just because you immediately write a song, doesn’t mean that it reaches its full…I mean, there are songs on the EP that when we play them live don’t sound like they do on the studio recording.

Jennifer: But they’re the same song structure

Danny: They’re the same song structure, but again when we talk about the growth and maturity of a band…Jenny’s example of Radiohead, there was something off In Rainbows that was literally off Pablo Honey. There are always live recordings where they’re sound checking with it and you just see them continually throughout the years where they couldn’t get it just right. Once you put something down on recording it’s very much…that’s what I wanted to say about vocals. Being a drummer and recording you kind of come in and try and get everything perfect and then the scenario sounds stamped and good. Then you go with vocals and when you sing something or you sing a lyric it’s set in stone once that release comes out.

Davide: I think it’s more personal even. With singing I think it’s even more personal. In the middle ages, women could not sing in the presence of men other than their husband. Because it (the voice) is so personal and it’s so intimate that it was forbidden.

Jennifer: Yeah, that’s the reason people feel connected to operas, because of the word. You can express yourself through an instrument but it’s a conduit, and when you’re singing vocals it’s not an external instrument; it’s straight from the body, which makes it very intimate.

Danny: It’s like the difference between having something technically perfect on recording and then having something emotionally perfect. Some people express their emotions through their guitar playing. So if you’re recording a good take, something that may be an expression of how you were feeling, it’s carrying the moment that you have the mic in front of you. When you’re doing vocals especially, you can’t just walk in on any day and say OK, now I’m going to record this live and have all this emotion. You have to put yourself in that space. A lot of times you hear about when AC/DC would record vocals, the only way to record them would be to have a bottle of Jack Daniel’s, almost wasted. And you think about that and it sounds like stupid rock star stuff.

But then the more you play music and the more you kind of realize they were doing that to get within that space to record. And not that…I mean, it’s heavy metal but…

Jennifer: Well no, I remember reading about Bat for Lashes on her first record where she worked with a producer who would ask her, “Well, what’s the feeling of this?” and she would say, “It’s the feeling of telling a secret to a childhood friend and getting under the covers in bed”, or it was raining outside and they got a huge long extension cord and she could dance out in the rain and sing.

Danny: Bjork recorded in the ocean. I can’t remember which album it was, but they were talking about the production where they went to the coast and had to run a waterproof cable into the waves so that she could stand in the middle of the ocean.

Davide: I think she’s married to an artist. They made a movie about the whale or something? So that’s like putting the artistic consequences to the extreme like voice, singing or…

Danny: Well I’m just getting to the point that studios can be very sterile, emotionaless places. They’re dead in terms of sound, you’re in a tight box with lighting and you just have this microphone. So to be able to put yourself into a space of recording in waves or whatever, there’s an importance to that. It’s not somebody just being weird.

Davide: I just realized that’s why you hear about bands renting a whole villa or something…to leave the city and escape the studio.

Danny: Yeah, that’s completely what that’s all about. And again, the more you work in music, the more you play music, the more you’s like the Rolling Stones renting a mansion. It wasn’t a rock star thing. The purpose was to get them out on the road and to spend some time…American bands do that in Berlin all the time, or come to London.

Dru: Grizzly Bear rented a house on the cliffs and there are elements of that home itself on the record.

Danny: You could hear recordings of doors

Dru: Yeah, and branches on the windows so the scenario that you place yourself in in recording is evident in the recordings.

Davide: You mentioned Grizzly Bear, and the importance of voices. But nowadays it’s more common to have each member of the band singing. It’s not like there is a singer who has all the duties of singing, for example with Fleet Foxes it’s shared throughout the group. Do you think that could happen here with Zaza?

Danny: As I was just saying, Jenny has never sang. She only recently started singing, whereas before it was always just me singing and on drums both recording and live. And not in an attempt to do the same thing that the Fleet Foxes are doing because they’re doing very orchestral type…But I think there is a romance and a sonic quality to the blending of human voices. They can’t be emulated by technology or…

Davide: Autotune

Danny: Well they have autotune and all these pedals that match your voice to play guitar or…and autotune. The interaction of a female / male to male voices creates a unique sound that can only be found in that specific pairing of people. So say Grizzly Bear. Grizzly Bear would sound much different if it was four other people and one the same. So that uniqueness that can’t be copied or emulated is important. Music now for better or for worse is being driven by technology. Whether it be autotune or whatever. For example when Black Rebel pull off an incredible live show they’re not using backing tracks. It’s three people on stage giving their absolute all to do it. There’s no compromises, there’s no cheating. They never have a bad show. But the risk of that is that you have a bad show. Whereas if you have that safety net you don’t have to worry about that. So I’m in no way saying that it’s wrong for bands to do that but at the same time, it’s a slippery slope. Even if it’s a great recording that you do, you go out on the road and use that, it’s…part of going to a live show and seeing a band live is that you’re awed by their ability to perform. That’s why I don’t feel a real need to perfectly recreate our recordings on stage. I feel like if our live experience is different and sounds different, that’s not necessarily such a bad thing. That’s just part of the presentation that we give as a group of people on the stage.

Davide: Usually it’s supposed to be like that. You go to see a band because you expect something better or different from the CD. To have the full experience of hearing them on CD and hearing them live. You don’t expect to hear the same thing on the CD, otherwise you can stay at home and listen to the CD. That’s the thing about going live…interaction and other people.

Danny: Some people believe that. Other people believe that they want to hear that hit song or they want to hear and be able to recognize exactly what they heard on an album, which is fine. But to each man their own. I don’t think that should be the qualification of playing a good live show. Recreate your recorded material. Yes, using backing tracks allows you to do things that you had recorded pre-replicated on stage. I mean, we’ve run into that. We have the ability to do that and use backing tracks. And for awhile we flirted with the idea of putting backing vocals on to make the vocals a bit bigger. Like I would double my vocals, and we did it for like a day. We decided this is a bad road that we shouldn’t go down.

Davide: It’s funny you mention Grizzly Bear. In their Best of podcast from last year, the Panic Manual creator was talking about how you should rip off Grizzly Bear’s popularity by changing your name (Zaza) to Polar Bear. And then at the same time you were signed to the same label (Kanine). So what happened? Nowadays it sounds old fashioned for a label to send out scouts to go to shows and look for bands. That’s not how it happened with you–what’s the story there? How did Kanine get a hold of you?

Danny: Kanine is run by a married couple, Lio and Kay. And Lio especially is very active in the music scene. So he was trying to book us to play a show because he booked shows.

Davide: As a promoter

Danny: Yeah, kind of. So he kept on asking. Things kept on coming up and we could just never do it. At that point we had already recorded the EP and I kept on saying No, I’m sorry, we can’t play that day. We can’t play the month after that. So then he asked, well is anyone releasing your record? Because I really like it. I’ll make it. He (Lio) has a good ear. It wasn’t just a courtesy “Ah well, you can’t play a show so I’ll put out your record”. If you look at his roster, which has a lot of Brooklyn bands, but at the same time we’re all bands that are friendly and supportive with each other. But no, there wasn’t a Kanine scout. Again it goes back to what Jennifer was saying about being very much more about personal relationships that you develop. For instance this Black Rebel tour. We all know each other personally. And Jennifer especially is very good friends with them.

Davide: That’s the plus of living in Brooklyn! Everyone knows each other as part of the New York scene, especially in the last couple of years. But in the end it’s just a matter of people knowing each other as friends who try to help each other.

Danny: Which is how it should be.

Jennifer: It’s like anything else. It’s a community because you all do the same thing, so you understand each other.

Davide: You’re originally from California?

Jennifer: I am, Danny is from Oregon, Dru is from Pittsburgh.

Davide: How did you meet?

Jennifer: We met through a really really amazing artisan called Todd Pearson, a New York artist that we were mutually friends with.

Davide: So how long were you living in New York before you met each other?

Danny: I had lived in New York for about a year.

Davide: So you moved from Oregon to New York?

Danny: Not really intentionally. I kind of got stuck in New York. I was on a tour and I’ve always wanted to live in New York, but I really didn’t have a choice because I didn’t have any money.

Davide: So it was like, I would like to leave but I cannot.

Danny: It was fortunate in the sense that I wanted to live in New York since I was 10 years old, so I was there and figured…

Davide: Why spend the money to leave when you can spend the money to stay? (To Jenny) so you were in California playing with the Warlocks and then you decided to go to New York?

Jennifer: We were on a break until before we were going to record the next record so a few months, and I had some friends out in New York City that I was going to play music with. So I just brought my bass and a bag, and a one way ticket and I met Danny two weeks after I was there, and just stayed.

Davide: Do you miss California? Which part?

Jennifer: Oh, terribly. Southern California. I miss the oceans, and my family, and mountains, and horses, but you listen to the universe when everything falls into place you just ride it.

Davide: The rivalry between Los Angeles and New York, it always seems like the two sides of the American Dream. Like if you go to Los Angeles you have all the glamour. If you go to New York it’s more artistic and seems more rock compared to Los Angeles.

Jennifer: Oh yeah, I’m a pretty good divide between New York and Los Angeles.

Danny: But I wouldn’t say specifically that we’re that, or a Brooklyn band, or as much as New York influences us, L.A. does, or Portland Oregon.

Davide: So you said that you met Danny two weeks after going to New York. So when you started you were a duo, but are you guys a couple? How many people ask you the question of the White Stripes, I know it’s a very lame question…whenever you see a female and a male singer, there is this question.

Jennifer: Danny and I are a couple of people who play music together.

Davide: But now you’re a trio. I asked you before when we were chatting outside. (to Dru) You were playing with them (Zaza) for almost a year.

Dru: Almost a year, I think the first show was in the first week of June, 2009. They had just come home from the Pains of Being Pure at Heart tour and Kurt was still playing with them.

Davide: That’s around the time the Panic Manual got to know you, when you were opening for the Pains of Being Pure at Heart. And at the time Kurt was still playing with you and on your MySpace page you still have a shoutout to Kurt.

Danny: Well, it’s xo to Kurt.

Jennifer: As in, thank you for your time, we appreciate it.

Davide: Like an honorary title

Jennifer: Sure, yeah.

Davide: So now that you are three, you had to adapt from being a duo to being a three-person band. Did your creative process change?

Danny: Well the addition of Dru, or a live drummer, was…when it was just Jenny and I, the amount of work that we were doing onstage. Usually it’d be drum machine, me, Jenny on bass, so I would have to control everything and I would just be dancing around like a clown onstage. Hitting buttons and hitting strings. Plus we didn’t have the element of live drums. And the importance of having the primalness and power of actual drums on top of that is important. And Dru has been doing very well – he’s been doing all of the electronics and drums.

Davide: And you knew each other from friends?

Dru: Yeah, through friends.

Jennifer: We played the night with Tricky and Dru came to a lot of our shows. And we all went out to eat after and Kurt couldn’t do a show with us and I said to Danny, too bad he doesn’t play drums because he’s really great and I’d really like to have him in our band. Danny said he’d ask him and then a week later Dru was in the band. I had no idea Dru could play drums. I just liked him.

Davide: I can just picture you in a diner at 3:00 AM having this conversation

Jennifer: We didn’t say it while Dru was there, this was after he left. I didn’t even really know Dru — I just had this premonition that he would work and  he’s a hard worker with great rhythm and really understands our dynamic. Essentially, everything just worked out. Danny and I work together so much that we needed another person to fill in the gaps.

Danny: Dru was a guitar player and was never really was a drummer.

Jennifer: So essentially we’re all doing something (that we weren’t trained for). I’m playing keyboards, I’ve been singing.

Dru: But it comes out in the methods…Danny writes guitar parts that are very percussive.

Danny: Jenny plays the bass, while very rhythmically, she also has a rare finesse and ear for melody. What would normally be a guitar lead line becomes a bass line. It’s using different instruments. Maybe not for their stereotypical purpose…

Davide: A song like Arms’ Length is so good because it comes from a distance that becomes a music train that you keep hearing from a distance and you hear it coming closer and closer. The simpler the better sometimes. It sticks in your mind and it’s not cheap.

What do you think about selling CD’s now, I mean it’s not as easy as it was in the 90’s…

Danny: We just sold out of all of our CD’s for the next three shows, so within the first three or four shows…

Jennifer: The European market is different though

Danny: No, I’m just saying that the CD is not dead.


More to come. Join us next week for Part 2!

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Posted on by Allison in Concerts, Everything, interviews, Music

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9 Responses to Interview: Zaza, May 8 2010, European Tour with Black Rebel Motorcycle Club, Estragon, Bologna, Italy

  1. Ricky

    nice… part 1 of 3 ..its like in the actors studio haha

  2. josh

    this is confusing. Is there couch surfing involved in this interview?

  3. Davide

    finally its on! :D ..glad to see it made its way to panic manual..

    p.s.=no couchsurfin involved in this interview

  4. Allison

    Davide and I met through the power of Couchsurfing ( but no, there was no couchsurfing directly involved with this interview.

    Inside the Musician – this should be our new series!

  5. Davide

    ..but not too much inside..its better to not sound like a Rocco Siffredi porn franchise :D (google serch can be merciless)

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