ZAO - Sound In The Signals Interview

I recently had the chance to interview ZAO. We had the chance to go in depth about and discuss their upcoming album. Check out the full interview below!

First off, thanks for the interview.

JEFF GRETZ: No problem at all, thanks for having us!

Your new album 'The Well-Intentioned Virus' is coming out in December. It's been awhile since you released an album. How long did you work on this one and what were some of the things you wanted to accomplish with this new set of songs?

Songs have been floating around for awhile, the opening track on the album “The Weeping Vessel” was actually started before the last record (Awake? - 2009) was even out. The songs just kept building up. I think around late 2014 we stopped adding songs for consideration to clear the vaults and we were at about 20 at that point.  I did drums in about 3 days for all 20 in the summer of 2014 and from that point it was little bursts of a day here, a couple hours there, until everything was tracked over the next year. I think all in, if we had been in a studio “lock-out” situation where we did nothing but record, the record could have been done in 2 weeks. But we are all scattered geographically and we took our time and raised funds in the meantime. The actual mixing was wrapped up in about 2-3 weeks from start to finish and again, the only reason it took that long was a lot of emailing of files and phone calls to make things work since we all weren’t in the room together.  Then we had to figure out how it was coming out. As far as the songs themselves, we just wanted to make a concise cohesive statement with a single album. And really, there were one or two songs that we knew absolutely were going on the first record back, so the other choices fell into place to keep a flow and a little audio universe if you will. There were songs that we REALLY loved that are held aside, only because they didn’t fit the overall vibe. They are a bit different, they will be their own statement later. 

I've had the chance to listen to the album in its entirety, I think it's a really strong album, and one thing that I noticed is that guitar work on this album is really neat. From just the sound of the guitars to all of the little things thrown in. It sounds like a lot of time was spent on them. Can you tell me a little about tracking the guitars and what that process was like?

Because of the slow nature of figuring out how and if we could pull all of this off on our own, a lot of time passed. So a LOT more thought went into every detail of those types of things. I honestly don’t think this much thought has EVER been put into a Zao record. Not for lack of caring, but for lack of TIME. There was always a schedule to keep from a label, or a hole in the tour schedule. We kind of had that luxury with Awake, but it was a different type of record we were making so those little details didn’t really fit. As far as the recording, we all work pretty fast in the studio. All of the guitar stuff was worked out in the demo process for months (a couple of songs for years) so there was a lot of time to mess with different types of sounds, layers, extra parts/overdubs. Scott in particular spends a LOT of time and attention on the demos to present songs to us. They are almost releasable (and sometimes indistinguishable from the album) except they have no vocals and electronic drums playing a basic skeleton of the beat compared to what we end up with, although a lot of times I keep what he did and just replay it.  But by the time the tracking happened, every part was mapped out to the finest detail, but also allowing for happy accidents  and it was just a matter of documenting it. Everything went through the usual array of Marshalls, Peavy, Mesa in different combinations and then different combos of those were picked for sonics.

"Observed/Observer" was the first song released and you teamed up with Revolver Mag for it. Why did you pick that as the first big taste of this new record and what did you think of the response?

I guess the easy answer was “it’s the best one”. But it’s not. Haha. Really though, we had put out one song, although it was in a different form, as a single last year (Xenophobe) and we knew that was technically the first taste, and it was pretty in your face and aggressive. So we just decided to do the more mid-tempo melodic one next. We also have that contingent of people that complain any time there is a vocal melody. We happen to like hearing vocal melodies. So we just figured, “this is one of those songs a lot of people will hate, so we’ll put this one out, and if people like it, we’ll know we are okay”. 

The artwork for this album is also really interesting. Can you tell me a little about who came up with the concept, why you think it fits the album, and what some of the meaning behind it is?

That was done by a great artist named Matt Kerley. Dan in particular has been a fan of him for awhile, and had long thought about asking him to do art for us.  Holy Mountain Printing, that handles our merchandise and is helping with the album release, had actually commissioned him, unbeknownst to us,  to do a shirt for us a while ago and we were just thrilled. So that was Dan’s “in” to approach him. We sent him the record, Dan sent him the lyrics, and we told him “it’s going to be a gatefold cover, so make it stretch out”.   The art is great once you have the lyrics because every song is represented somewhere in the piece. It’s really designed for how we used to listen to records growing up. Sitting there with the headphones on, and the cover opened up and really digging into the artwork details and the lyrics and finding things you missed, that whole experience.  We were so thrilled with it, we didn’t change anything. We didn’t even want to put our name on it, or a barcode or any of that stuff. So we added extra expense to our pressing costs by printing UPC stickers and marketing stickers to go on the shrink wrap so the cover is just the art, none of that “marketing stuff” getting in the way.
Album Artwork
The closing song on the album "I Leave You In Peace" is a pretty epic sounding song and a great last song for this album. What was the process like building that song and kind of transitioning it into the sum of all its parts? Was it written as a closer or did it just fit at the end of the album?

I don’t know that it was more of a process than others. It’s weird, some songs just come out that way. We went back and forth on “simpler” songs a lot longer. “Observed/Observer” for instance had a totally different structure and kept getting changed because nobody was happy with it for a lot longer than I Leave You In Peace was worked on. The first time I heard it, I knew it was the closer. That song, and Xenophone, those were the two songs that we knew we HAD to get, you just get that feeling. And it’s weird for Zao, we never know if a song truly works until it’s “done”, which is when Dan does his thing on it, and we never hear what that is until the instruments are tracked, he doesn’t “demo” with us. Songs you think are trash (for me the song A Well-Intentioned Virus was a “b-side/outtake” from early on, I just didn’t see it working, and now it’s the sort-of title track and one of our preview tracks) turn into something totally different once Dan is on them. But yeah, Xenophobe and I Leave You In Peace I told Scott early on, “Dan doesn’t leave the studio until we have these”. Then when I saw Dan’s lyrics for Peace, it just made it even better. It’s a lyrically VERY heavy song, and very important in the overall lyrical arc of the band, there are a lot of hidden easter eggs in that one for long time followers. It might be my favorite Zao song.

ZAO has this great legacy, and you've gotten more than a couple classic albums under your belts, does the legacy of the band ever weigh on your mind when you start writing a new album this far into your career or do you just write and not worry about it?

Not really. The thing that is funny is, a lot of those classic albums have different baggage for different members as well. And as a writer or performer, your view of “what does this album mean to people” gets skewed by when you are hyper sensitive to the feedback - which happens RIGHT when it comes out. The joke in the band is that every single Zao album is somebody’s favorite and somebody’s least favorite. As far as swaying the writing, I mentioned before there were some songs that were a little off the beaten path for Zao, and we are still into them, and are finishing them. But having the material we did, we decided to lump the more “traditional” ones together first. That’s probably the closest we came to thinking “is this ZAO?” even though it didn’t change the writing, maybe more so how we presented stuff.  But aside from that, we just do it and aren’t really worried about it.  Could Scott and Russ put together a song like Rising End right now?  I’m sure. But that song exists, let’s try something else. If you’re trying to re-write 5 Year Winter or Savannah all day, you don’t end up with Rising End.

It looks like you put a ton of thought into not only the songs for this album but also the physical aspect. You're releasing a CD, cassettes, and vinyl. I think this is the first independently released album (am I right on that?). How was doing this independently beneficial in making sure that this physical packaging worked out the way you wanted it to and what are you looking forward to with it?

It was liberating. Nobody told us no to anything, which has happened almost every time, even though there have been some really awesome packaging over the years for the band. We handpicked every aspect. I live in Brooklyn so I have all of this stuff in my backyard. The guy that we get the vinyl masters cut at is right here, the pressing plant is here, I walked over to get the test presses handed to me. The guy that does the cassettes is here in Brooklyn and I had been tipped of to him by some friends. The company that we used to do the CDs and the Gatefolds for the vinyl is in Manhattan, so I was able to personally go over and pick paper stocks and go over minute details because we knew exactly what we wanted. It was weird, it was all coming out of our own pockets but we probably spent more money not doing it all in once place because we used the logic that, we will use these different people that are good at a specific thing and combine them into exactly what we want. Records are our currency. We’re collectors. And the actual object is important to us, and I don’t know if a traditional label situation would have given us that. So we cut the budget on a PR person. We did all the press outreach ourselves, for better or for worse. But we also know that if the word gets around that this thing exists, and people get it in their hands, it was something we made happen and it’s exactly as we wanted it. No compromises to anyone.  That is empowering.

I guess that wraps it up. Thanks for taking the time to answer the questions. Do you have anything else you would like to add?

No problem.

Pre-Order The Album: HERE.

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