Zero 7: simple joys

Not every band's first release is a Radiohead remix, and not every band's debut album is so acclaimed: It's nominated for England's Mercury Music Prize
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Not every band's first release is a Radiohead remix, and not every band's debut album is so acclaimed: It's nominated for England's Mercury Music Prize and wins “Best Newcomer” at the Muzik Awards. But talent aside, the lucky British bastards of Zero 7 hit the jackpot by being in exactly the right place at the right time. Years ago, the group's masterminds, Henry Binns and Sam Hardaker, studied audio engineering with Nigel Godrich, who later went on to produce Radiohead. Godrich — who has also produced Beck, Natalie Imbruglia and Travis — hooked the duo up with jobs as assistant engineers in the studio at which he was working. When Godrich got his big break with Radiohead, Binns and Hardaker nagged their pal for a piece of the action.

“Nigel was doing OK Computer,” says Hardaker. “And we started bugging him to let us do a mix. We had met Radiohead before — they recorded in the studio where we used to work. We would sit on the sofa and watch football with Ed [O'Brien], Colin [Greenwood] and Jonny [Greenwood].”

With Radiohead's blessing, Zero 7 were given an early version of “Climbing Up the Walls” to deconstruct. Their moody, dubby rethink became a favorite of Gilles Peterson, who played it constantly on his BBC radio show. Peterson then gave Zero 7 a remix job for his Talkin' Loud label — folk-jazz legend Terry Callier's incandescent take on the “Love Theme from Spartacus,” to which Binns and Hardaker added beguiling orchestral elegance.

Zero 7 were later offered remixes for Lenny Kravitz and others and released a downtempo compilation for the Kinetic series Another Late Night in February, but their 2001 debut album, Simple Things (Ultimate Dilemma), put them on the map. Alongside iconoclastic instrumentals such as “Polaris,” which sounds like Aphex Twin jamming with Headhunters-era Herbie Hancock, were the hypnotic vocal tracks “Destiny,” “The Waiting Line” and “Distractions,” powered by soul-stirring vocalists Sia Furler, Sophie Barker and Mozez (an Al Green for the postmodern, downtempo age).

Simple Things' rich, complex and soothing yet disturbing sonic tapestry drew comparisons to everyone from Portishead to Massive Attack but, most of all, to the French electronic duo Air. Binns and Hardaker find the comparison too simplistic. Although Air and Zero 7 both have an anachronistic, dreamy cinematic sweeps powered by vintage sounds (such as Fender Rhodes keyboards), Zero 7 work the more soulful end of the spectrum. “You can tell from Air's albums that they're soul boys,” says Binns. “But they're coming from a European pop vibe. They're rock-soul, and we're soul-rock. The French are also always ironic and theoretical, and we don't have much irony in our music.” “They're more conceptual,” adds Hardaker. “We're just bumbling through it — there are no theories behind what we do.” But whether they've produced their album with a grand scheme in mind, Zero 7's musical approach has made for big numbers: Simple Things has now sold more than 100,000 copies in the United States alone. Remix recently sat down with Hardaker and Binns to pry for secrets behind the Zero 7 sonic equation.

How did you establish a career as remixers before you put out your own music?

Sam Hardaker: At first we didn't have the ideas together to make our own tunes. We didn't have any singers to work with, so we were just sitting around making endless instrumentals. We were ready to make music, though, so remixes were the perfect first step to start creating. Once we'd done that, we felt more confident.

Most remixes are done for the dancefloor, but now there's a whole chill-out remix genre. Even songs by Roger Sanchez and John Digweed have received the downtempo treatment.

Hardaker: If people are up for reinterpretations of records, they shouldn't just be confined to dance music.

Henry Binns: But if a “chill-out mix” is an element that the A&R men are demanding, it's not cool.

How do you feel when Zero 7 is categorized as chill-out?

Hardaker: I don't really care about it, because it has nothing to do with us. We're not a part of some scene or movement. It can get a little cliché if you're constantly listening to adagio strings next to a Nick Drake vocal.

You're also fans of house music — have you ever thought about doing an uptempo house track?

Hardaker: We probably will. We've talked about where we can go, and that could be cool if we could make it work in a comfortable way. I'd like to try it. We'd also like to attempt an MC track, but it would have to be right. It might be a cool way to lose that chill-out tag!

How do you feel about the remixes of your own material?

Hardaker: My favorites are the most recent ones for “In the Waiting Line.” I love the one Bugs in the Attic did — they do great broken-beat, and their mix works well for the vocal. Madlib's remix is probably my favorite one of all that we've had done. It's a Yesterday's New Quintet one, this kind of jazz thing that he does, and it sounds live, like he played everything on it. It's not what you'd expect from a remix — just an obscure little bit of dirty, groovy jazz. No one will fucking play it at all!

Binns: It shows a lovely contempt for the song. The song starts, the vocalist gets two lines into the verse, he takes her out, does some Fender Rhodes stuff, she comes in for the last line of the verse and the first line of the chorus, and then it repeats!

Does that deconstructionist approach inspire your own music?

Hardaker: Definitely. It's more like Radiohead, the way some songs from Kid A are not really structured in a conventional way, but they always have choice melodies.

How did your Radiohead remix come about?

Hardaker: Radiohead aren't into remixes of their own music. I think they've only allowed a couple. But Nigel gave us an analog cassette of an early version of OK Computer, and we picked up “Climbing Up the Walls.” We thought it would be really difficult to remix most of the songs, but that one for some reason seemed possible; the song's vibe lent itself to what we were thinking about. We sampled the chorus off the cassette and EQ'd it to take out the low end and make it really middle-y, just to see if it would work with the chords. We sent Radiohead the results to see if they were into the idea. Obviously, Nigel had warned them that he gave us the music.

Binns: At first, they were like, “We really like the end bit. Could we have a bit more of that?” They liked it but said it didn't sound finished, so that forced us to go back and address it.

Hardaker: The concept of something being finished was new to us. We would just tape things and then stick them on the shelf, so we needed a push. We just started throwing shit at it. They actually sent us the a cappella vocals, but we never replaced the ones we took off the cassette; you can hear bits of the original music and tape hiss. We don't want things to be all clean — that's bollocks. For us, that's an essential part of the sound as much as anything else.

How did remixing Radiohead affect your career?

Binns: Absolutely not at all. Other than a few Radiohead fans, nobody noticed. We just thought, “Okay, well, we had a go.”

Hardaker: At first, we heard nothing from anybody. Obviously, it's not a dance record people would play out, and we didn't think anyone on the radio would play it. But a few months later, Gilles Peterson was doing an end-of-the-year roundup of his favorite things, and he played our Radiohead remix! He was like, “This one is an absolute fucking monster — one of my tunes of the year. Look out for more good stuff from these guys.” I was like, “Somebody knows who we are, man!” Soon after that, we had a chat with Peterson's label, Talkin' Loud, and they asked us to remix Terry Callier's version of “Love Theme from Spartacus.” They thought we'd probably mash it up in the same way, but instead we did this Bacharach thing. It was much more classic — very simple and sparse. I think when we sent it to him, he was like, “Where's all the dubby shit, all the noises and big beats?”

Binns: We just did what we felt the song called for.

Hardaker: One thing we didn't like about remixing was that many remixers would take a song and turn it into this mad, trip-hoppy squelch thing, so we did something that was completely different. It was more a nod to the past. With melody and music, you can get away from that trip-hop thing. We were never that into it. We are more into hip-hop, Kraftwerk-y sort of electronic things and a bit of the stuff on Warp. But, mostly, we are into songs.

It's hard to tell the difference between what's programmed and what's played live onSimple Things.

Hardaker: The percentage of live versus programmed is 50/50.

Binns: We're always contentious about the drums. Sometimes a programmed beat sounds like a drummer, but it will never be a drummer; it's a machine. So if you're leaning towards live drums, you need a live drummer. The sound of blatant drum-machine drums can be a whole vibe unto itself, but I don't think there's any space in the middle for me. Our song “Destiny” obviously uses a drum machine — and is supposed to sound that way — whereas “Give It Away” has a drummer.

Much of your music is programmed. What was the challenge in translatingSimple Thingsinto a live concert experience?

Binns: That we didn't sound like a jazz-rock band. The sounds were the key to that. It wasn't going to be a problem to get the musicians to play the notes.

Hardaker: Our drummer, Crispin, has always been a funk drummer, and Henry would tell him to play things straighter, less funky. You can be groovy without playing funk beats.

Binns: Don't get fucking funky on my ass, or you're out!

Are you going to record with the band?

Hardaker: We're not going to have to wade through all kinds of breaks to find the drum sounds we want anymore. Now we can cut through that and just do it live. It's a matter of it sounding right. We don't want it to sound too expensive.

What was your background in studio work before you started the band?

Binns: I had a 4-track, and we were both into music. Sam had the idea of going to an audio-engineering college, School of Audio Engineering, where we proceeded to not learn very much.

Hardaker: There were 300 people in this college and only two little studios. You'd get something like an hour a month to go in there, so we'd rush into the 8-track studio, loop up a four-bar drumbeat, sit back and go, “Yeah!”

Binns: Nigel had been there before us, and Tim Simenon before him. I think he actually recorded the first Bomb the Bass album there.

Hardaker: Nigel had gotten a job at a studio already, and there was a job vacancy. Henry and I both went for the interview, and Henry got the job. Six months later, there was another opening, so Henry said he'd put in a word for me and get me the job. Eventually, Henry, Nigel and I had the run of the place. Henry and I were the tea boys, the oily rags of the studio. We sat in on loads of sessions: New Order, The Cure, Scott Walker, Young Disciples. We learned everything — how to put two mics on the snare, getting to know the Fender Rhodes.

Is your studio setup now more computer- or analog-based?

Hardaker: It's both. We inherited some equipment from the studio we used to work at. We've got this old 3M two-inch tape machine. In fact, it used to be in the Rolling Stones' mobile studio. I think they recorded Bob Marley live on it.

Binns: It does work, but it's laborious to get it going. It doesn't run by a quartz motor, so it always speeds up and slows down.

Hardaker: Nigel bought a [Digidesign] Pro Tools setup, and that changed everything.

Binns: On our first remix, we used an Akai S1100, an Atari 1040 ST and a digital Tascam 8-track. Pro Tools came later, and now we can't do without it.

Hardaker: It's so much easier to save everything so you can constantly change shit as you go along. Before, editing multitracks wasn't easy. We mix most everything off Pro Tools, but we have a cool old Trident desk that's fucked up and dirty; it's just nice to have the music run through something that's got more character than an average Mackie board. You can hear the generic sounds of Mackie desks, Pro Tools and all the plug-ins all over records now. It's a real turnoff.

Binns: We're definitely recording the drums for the next album on the 3M.

How do you see the Zero 7 sound evolving?

Binns: I've been trying specifically not to do verse-chorus-verse, middle eight and then the outro. I've been listening to a lot of different kinds of music; I almost like a kind of blues nowadays, like 12 bars.

What did you learn about arrangements and song structure by transforming other people's songs?

Binns: We were trying to not do normal arrangements; we were always trying to make it more interesting. Around that time, we were into DJ Shadow, as well — the way he used samples — and the atmosphere he created was just unbelievable. We had a song with Radiohead in place, so we just wanted to turn it on its head.

Hardaker: We've never done a remix where we've really chopped it up. We've always pretty much left the vocal or the central vibe of the song. We change the structure a bit, add a section or two, but we tend to let it flow as it's written.

What are you bringing to your remixes, then?

Binns: I always hope that we put a spin on them — do something that's different, that's good to listen to but contrasts with what the song was originally.

Hardaker: A couple of the remixes we did took us toward what we did in the album. We were just messing about. We didn't have a strong sense of direction. I don't even know if we do now.

the equipment equation

MIXER

Trident Flexi Mix 32-channel monitor board

COMPUTERS

Apple Macintosh G3 Atari 1040 ST (“We run all the sequencers off the Atari. It never crashes, unless you knock it on the ground.” — Hardaker)

SOFTWARE

Digidesign Pro Tools 4.3

SAMPLER

Akai S5000

MIC

RCA 77DX tube microphone (borrowed from Godrich)

SYNTHS/KEYBOARD

Roland Jupiter 8 Roland Juno 106 Jen Synthetone SX-1000 (“It's like a Moog, but even more shit. Next to it, Moog is like a Rolls Royce,” says Binns. “Of course,” adds Hardaker, “it's all over our album.”) Clavia Nord Lead 2 (“It never gets used,” says Hardaker. “It's a new synth that's supposed to be like old synths.”) Fender Rhodes electric piano Wurlitzer electric piano

OTHER SOUND SOURCES

Fender Squire short-scale bass guitar “Thousands of records”