Let me say upfront that it doesn’t really matter to me how people discover something they enjoy and that includes the bandwagon. If someone got into a band because they heard one of their songs in a commercial, good. And that’s not the band selling out, that’s the band gaining exposure and more audience. This is all for another post, really, but it’s preamble to my writing about Zero 7. ((Basically, I don’t wanna be accused of being a poser.))
I started listening to Zero 7 because of the film Garden State. I remember seeing that movie and literally driving across the street immediately afterward to buy the soundtrack. It had a sticker on the cellophane wrapper emblazoned with a variation of the line Sam (Natalie Portman) proclaims to Large (Zack Braff) about “New Slang” by The Shins: “You’ve got to hear this one song, it’ll change your life, I swear.” Braff’s 2004 directorial debut was about a 25-year-old who sought direction to find his identity. At the time, I WAS a 25-year-old who sought direction to find his identity. So yeah, there was a little resonance going on there.
Zero 7’s “In the Waiting Line” was a standout track for me, both in the film (it plays as Large sits motionless as the party spins faster and faster around him) and on the soundtrack (smackdab between the record’s two tracks by The Shins – “Caring is Creepy” and the aforementioned “New Slang”). I picked up one of their records, As It Falls, and I was hooked.
The band – a duo, really, with musicians and singers joining them on particular projects and tracks – has a varietal sound that starts as ambiance, meanders into the realm of the acoustic, takes a sharp turn into bass-rich techno loops, and finally settles into something that resembles none of these genres on their own. You know those records where each song feels different enough from the last that each one is seemingly by a different artist in a different genre? Like Beck’s Midnite Vultures or Radiohead’s OK Computer? A Zero 7 record sounds a lot like that.
On When It Falls, for example, it kicks off with “Warm Sound,” a stripped away combination of bass beat and a male voice with light vocals eventually joined by a flute, while the next track, “Home,” an organ (likely a synthesizer but still) accompanies a female vocalist ((Sia, who has left the band and is recording some highly-anticipated solo material)) as a trumpet finds its way into the mix and then a full brass ensemble. The next track, “Somersault,” is a purely acoustic ballad with no discernable “tech” in it to my ear. Closing the record is “Morning Song” with its whispy, almost windy, sound that culminates in an uplifting piano instrumental. You get the picture.
I enjoy it all though it’s the acoustic and lighter work that I dig the most. I’ve made many a mix CD with songs like “Somersault” to play in the background during candlelit small group discussions and for meditation purposes at work. My boss liked what he heard and sought out their records, too, and we’ve been using it in our work the last three years or so. And that’s how a thirty-year-old youth director and his sixty-year-old pastor came to go to the Zero 7 concert at Epic in Minneapolis last Saturday night.
As far as I can tell, this is Zero 7’s first US tour since I’ve been listening to them (they’re from the UK) and I didn’t want to miss out. I invited Kent and we headed out for a 9:00pm show after a long day including Merlin’s funeral and an early morning of managing worship services ahead of us. Undaunted, we arrived and found a decent spot to stand for the next three hours approximately fifteen feet from the stage. I joked with Kent the 9:00pm start time would never happen. I’d never been to a concert that started on time. The opening act, Body Language, ended that streak when they stepped onto the stage at 9:00pm sharp.
Hailing from Brooklyn, Body Language concluded their nine-city stint opening for Zero 7 in Minneapolis and I dug what I heard (links: Facebook group and a review of one of their recent shows). An eclectic mix of instruments, harmonized male and female vocals, and a fun sense of humor all combined well for a set that made it clear they were having a lot of fun. I think it’s easy for a band to come off as aloof or too cool for school, as if we’re daring to bother them enough to come from backstage and humor us with their little musics. Body Language gave off a most opposite vibe. They dug the crowd, we dug ’em right back. I was sincerely disappointed they didn’t have any CDs available for purchase at the counter.
The Zero 7 set was great in ways I didn’t expect. Kent and I went to the show with our love of their acoustic work in mind. As soon as the first song started, we realized we were crazy if we thought they were going to go that route for a concert. They stuck to their more technoish, beat-blasting fare, even turning some lighter songs like “Home” into outright body-shaking bass thumpers. And that’s okay, we were certainly excited to see them either way. If anything, we had to laugh at ourselves for our naïvity.
We were off to the side a little and were thus privy to a show of a roadie or two tuning guitars in-between songs. They changed instruments after almost every song which doesn’t surprise me. When I play some of my favorite Zero 7 songs on my ukulele with chords I find online, I’m often needing to grab my capo and play in a different key. Many band members kept switching instruments, too, all humble enough to partake in whatever instrument the song needed – from a giant keyboard to a tiny set of bells. We couldn’t quite figure out what the large box one of the singers was “playing” was; the movements her hands made seemed a cross between playing an accordion and a theremin but I don’t know that it was either. (EDIT: Mohammed wrote in the comments to let me know the instrument is called a harmonium. Here’s an improvised YouTube clip.) As for their setlist, they played a lot off the new record, took vocal breaks to play instrumentals, had a solid encore, and I was happy to hear old stuff like “In the Waiting Line,” “Home,” and “Pageant of the Bizarre.” I got to sing along here and there and that means I was having a good time. I would have had an even better time if the two women dancing in diameters that would rival the equator perhaps four inches in front of us would have been more aware of their surroundings when it came to flailing arms and purses, but whatever.
Is it that I’m not a great photographer or is the camera on my Nokia 5310 just not that great? Eh, a little from Column A, a little from Column B. Here’s the only decent shot I got – it’s of Eska Mtungwazi singing “Mr. McGee” from the new record, Yeah Ghost:
As for the venue, Epic is pretty much The Quest. I can’t really tell any difference, except the last few times I went there under its former name I was free to move upstairs without needing to get VIP reservations for bottle service. Maybe that’s the difference between a UK band on tour and a local show, maybe that’s the difference between old management and new management (if a change was even made). Either way, Kent held up pretty well despite recent knee issues but I couldn’t help but eyeball the empty, cozy-looking couches upstairs…
I hope you give Zero 7 a try. Let me know in the comments if you have.