Progressive synth mastermind Steve Moore should be a name on every FACT reader’s radar, having turned out a prodigious amount of material over the last couple of years.
A solo album, Pangaea Ultima, on ex-Emeralds man John Elliot’s Spectrum Spools; singles for his friend Ron Morelli’s L.I.E.S. imprint; ‘Mercury’, an excellent and somewhat overlooked 2013 album by his “electropop boy band” project Miracle with Daniel O’Sullivan, released on Planet Mu; and even an album of cosmic-tinged yacht rock electronics under the name Lovelock, released on Kompakt back in 2012.
A side of his output that few over this side of the pond will probably be familiar with, however, is his band Zombi. Formed with co-conspirator Anthony Paterra in Pittsburgh at the dawn of the ‘00s, Zombi grew out of a DIY basement scene, then dominated by the complex contusions of math-rock. Their musical obsessions, however, were rather different. Taking their name from the Italian translation of George A Romero’s Dawn of the Dead, Zombi’s music is a rocky, heavyweight take on horror and sci-fi soundtrack music, as typified by the likes of John Carpenter and Italian prog group Goblin. Thanks to the sterling work of reissue imprints such as Death Waltz, this music is now right back in vogue, but at the time, Zombi sounded like something of an outlier. “In 2001 there weren’t too many others into this stuff save for cult film buffs,” remembers Paterra. “But I really don’t remember us thinking that it was out of step for some reason. We just wanted to play music that we would enjoy listening to ourselves.”
Zombi’s long-time label Relapse have just re-released their first three albums – 2004’s Cosmos, 2006’s Surface To Air, and 2009’s Spirit Animal – in deluxe vinyl editions (all are recommended, although the pair suggest Surface To Air is their favourite of the bunch). And while the band haven’t recorded for three years, following a successful US tour with Goblin, they’re planning to return with fresh material and more live shows. In this far-reaching and extensive interview, FACT caught up with Moore and Paterra to talk about Zombi’s beginnings, the synth music revival, and future projects.
I got sent two promo CDs this very morning which made reference to the music of Goblin and Giallo film soundtracks, which I guess suggests this sort of music is having some sort of a moment. Back when you started in 2001, I remember this music wasn’t anywhere near as familiar as it is now, and probably only really of interest to progressive rock heads and film geeks. How did you come to hear this kind of stuff? And why did it feel like a path worth pursuing?
Anthony Paterra: I was introduced to Goblin at age 12, which was when I first saw Dawn Of The Dead. I begged my mother for a VHS copy as a Christmas gift, and she caved. There is a special place now in my brain where every note of that score is stored. As I entered my teens, I started to play drums, and my teacher was into a lot of classic rock drummers. I cut my teeth on John Bonham and Mitch Mitchell. But he also loved Bill Bruford, and that sent me in the direction of Yes, then to Crimson, and from there all over the prog-rock world. So here I was 16, into progressive rock, and I loved all types of slasher, giallo, and sci-fi films. I certainly picked up on the scores of those films, plus whatever classic or prog-rock I could get my hands on. I think getting into technically proficient drummers and musicians at an early age opened my ears to some of those scores. I could definitely tell that there were serious players involved, and that was all it took for me. It seemed like an intelligent path to pursue. In 2001, there weren’t too many others into this stuff save for cult film buffs. Luckily there were some cool mail order services and some great video stores in the Pittsburgh area.
You’ve said you grew out of a musical community that tended towards no-wave and math-rock – music that’s often in peculiar time signatures, and can privilege complexity over melody. But even as far back as Cosmos, it’s clear you’re making music with a very strong, well-thought out melodic sense. Did you get the sense that this music was quite out of step with what was going on?
Steve Moore: I have a soft spot for math-rock, especially the heavier stuff like Breadwinner, or the first few Don Caballero records. But growing up on late ‘70s and ‘80s AOR radio and film scores I’m also a sucker for a memorable hook. Something you can sing, or hum. Connecting with an audience on a rhythmic level is very primal and gratifying, but being able to connect through a hook or melody is how you get to people emotionally, which I guess is what I like to try to do. I feel melodic music can be beneficial to the listener – somehow therapeutic – whereas music that’s rhythmically complex but devoid of melody can come across as self-indulgence, or a vulgar display of power. So I wanted to make sure that our music, even though it was rhythmically complex, was also melodic and memorable. Which probably did put us out of step, and I’m pretty sure we knew this and didn’t give a shit.
In terms of kit, what did you gravitate towards? Was it easy to acquire vintage synths for relatively affordable sums at the time?
AP: I remember buying my Moog Source on eBay for $500. That synth now can sell anywhere from $1000 to $2000. Cheap compared to now, but we still dropped what for us was a decent amount of money on equipment. I’d say the cost for our first synth rig, in which I had a Moog Source and Sequential Circuits Six Trak, and Steve was running a Polysix and Prophet 600, was probably around $1500. That wasn’t a terrible amount of money at the time, but to set yourself up with that rig now would be at least double the cost. We really just wanted to obtain the instruments that were used to make music that we were fans of. But no-one was rolling out that type of gear, at least on the art-space, basement show scene that we called home for a few years.
SM: My first synth was a Realistic MG-1, the Moog-designed Radio Shack synth. Bought it on eBay for probably about $200 or $250. This was I think 2000 or 2001. After picking up the Moog, I found a Korg Polysix at a used music shop in Pittsburgh for $350. I remember reading the equipment list on the inside of the Halloween III CD and seeing all that Sequential Circuits gear, that’s when I picked up my first Prophet 600 and Pro-One. Prices just keep going up, it’s insane.
How did you hook up with Relapse? At the time, and probably still, I think they’re principally viewed as a metal label, albeit an open-minded one. What did they see in you? What did you bond over?
AP: I think they initially got excited for the name, and what we were emulating at the time. But it really came together when they saw us perform live and realised we weren’t too bad on that end. Our good friend Rennie Jaffe, who is still with Relapse, was living in Philadelphia at the time. He became friends with the owner, and got him and some folks out to see us play a couple of shows in the Philly area. We went out for some food after the second show, and we told them we were eager to work and really just wanted a chance. Being a label that was in good shape, they could afford to take a chance on a band that really didn’t fit with any of their roster. Really happy things worked out as they did.
Can you talk a little bit about the visual aesthetic? I get the impression you’re interested in cosmic phenomena and natural wonder, but it always seems to be quite rooted in a sort of ‘hard science’ – it’s seldom fantastical in a Tales From Topographic Oceans sense.
SM: That’s kind of what I always hated about prog-rock and new age music, the mysticism and pseudo-spirituality. On the right drugs that stuff is great, but in most cases I find no use for it, I can’t connect. So I think we were always coming from a more hard sci-fi or sci-fact place, having grown up in the era of Omni magazine and Carl Sagan’s Cosmos.
In terms of cinema and fiction, what do you gravitate towards? Specific authors or directors?
AP: I love a nice dose of sci-fi, beat and Southern Gothic when I read, and my film tastes aren’t that far off.
SM: I’m a speculative fiction guy – authors like William Gibson, Neal Stephenson, Philip K. Dick. For film, I’m into directors who aren’t afraid to linger on a shot. Kubrick, Malick, Carpenter. I was recently turned on to the films of Ben Wheatley. Really looking forward to seeing his newest, A Field In England.
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What’s the stuff that has had a big influence on Zombi that people seldom pick up on?
AP: Toto’s ‘Africa’ and Van Halen’s ‘Sunday Afternoon In The Park’.
SM: Yeah, the Van Halen thing is so obvious to me, I don’t know why more people don’t see it. Also, Steely Dan.
When did you start to work on solo material? Was this always on the table, or is it more the product of not being able to work together for geographic/time reasons, or whatever?
AP: I remember recording some drums and crafting some very elementary songs on a Tascam 4-track probably around 1998 or 1999. I also recorded a whole album of songs with only a Boss 660 drum machine, using the synth basses along with percussion. It was completely weird and I remember playing it for some people and just receiving blank stares. When I met Steve we both bought matching Boss BR-8 digital recorders and traded ideas and recorded the first Zombi album with that machine. I recorded some solo material after that, but it wasn’t until the first Majeure album in 2009 that I really tried or had the confidence to release something. When we stopped touring year-round and were in different locations, our solo work naturally picked up and it’s been a rewarding experience for us both.
SM: I’ve been writing and recording stuff on my own since the early ‘90s when I got my first four-track recorder. I just never had a means of getting this music to anybody outside my circle of friends until people started taking note of Zombi. I finished my first solo synth album in 2003, around the same time we recorded the Twilight Sentinel EP, though it didn’t get an official release until 2008.
Steve, I gather you and Ron Morelli of L.I.E.S go back a bit – how did you meet? Musically speaking, what do you have in common?
SM: I met Ron about 10 years ago. He was living in Philly with a good friend of mine from Pittsburgh, Shawn Brackbill. When Zombi was in Philly we’d crash at their place. He moved to Brooklyn shortly after. We kept in touch and when I was living in Nyack I’d see him around occasionally – we have a lot of mutual friends in the city. We definitely share a love of some old classic electronic music, and we both were into hardcore/punk stuff in the ‘90s.
In the past, you’ve both been quite cool to the idea that your music might take some influence from house or techno. But critics have continued to draw lines between your work and dance music – and Steve, you’ve even released on a straight-out dance label, Kompakt. Do you think your relationship to dance music has changed over time? Perhaps there are strains of dance music that have moved closer to your way of thinking?
SM: Well, in the beginning we really wanted to stress the fact that, even though there’s only two of us, we’re a ‘band’, so we really emphasised our rock influences in interviews. I’ve always been sort of fascinated by techno music, but the whole ‘90s rave lifestyle really turned me off. I don’t like synthetic drugs, I don’t like dancing, and I don’t like dance clubs. It wasn’t until I think 2006 when I first heard the Dopplereffekt ‘Myon-Neutrino/Z-Boson’ 12” that I realised techno could be approached in an artful way. That’s what made me want to give it a shot.
Antony, can you tell me a bit about your Majeure project? How does it differ from the work you do in Zombi? Do you have specific sonic or stylistic ideas for it?
AP: The one thing that ties it all together are the drums. I write everything for Majeure with drums in mind – at least for my album releases. I just really like the challenge of trying to write music on my own because it is a very difficult process for me. I do have specific ideas in mind for it, but I’m not sure I can describe them – I just want to write music that is driving and evokes some spike in the listener’s heart-rate. Music that you can immerse yourself in, and imagine yourself with in any setting.
And Steve, are you going to continue to work with Daniel O’Sullivan in Miracle? Will there be live shows, or does it feel like a mostly studio project?
SM: I met Daniel back in the mid-‘00s when Zombi was on tour with his old band, Guapo. We hit it off and after the tour we started trading ideas back and forth via email. We’ve talked about doing another album, and I’m sure eventually it’ll happen, but we both have a lot of other things going on that take priority. Miracle is definitely a studio project, very low-commitment. I’m not opposed to doing shows, we did a couple back in 2010. But I’m not going to force it, if there’s a demand I think we’d seriously consider doing more shows.
Do you feel like an audience has built for this sort of elaborate, progressive synth music that wasn’t there when you started Zombi? Who are the dudes that listen to this music?
AP: I have a feeling it may have always been there, but it just took a lot longer to come to fruition than styles of music that were receiving more press at the time. I remember thinking when the Mars Volta released their first couple albums that this was it, prog-rock is gonna come back! But it doesn’t work that way. The whole rediscovery of synthesizer-based music has me befuddled, but it makes sense if you think of things working cyclically. Honestly, I didn’t even know about half of what was out there when we started this band. My only synthesizer reference points were Tangerine Dream, Kraftwerk, John Carpenter, and Vangelis. Or the times synth work appeared in rock, like Van Halen, or late ‘70s, early ‘80s Rush and Genesis. It wasn’t until years later, probably around 2005 or 2006, that I was introduced to things like Ash Ra, Klaus Schulze, Manuel Göttsching, Popol Vuh. And now recently Brian Bennett, Andriessen Jurriaan, Alan Hackshaw – it’s a never-ending resource, undiscovered music pops up all of the time and makes you wonder how you never heard of it. Who listens to this stuff? It’s a far-reaching audience that spans across two or three generations. But it’s mainly dudes, as you mention.
What do you make of this sudden spate of soundtrack reissue labels? Is this a positive trend?
You played a ton of shows late last year with Goblin – their first ever US tour, I gather. How was the experience?
AP: It was completely surreal. You hear of bands who get to tour with their heroes, and we’ve been able to do that on different levels. Touring with bands like Trans Am, The Fucking Champs, and Don Caballero was very special for us, as we were both fans and really respected what they were doing. Those three bands alone had a profound experience on me as a young musician. When we first heard of the Goblin tour being a possibility, I was cautiously excited, as touring wasn’t something we had done in many years, and I didn’t expect it to happen again. But getting the offer, talking things over, and realising we’d never be able to live with ourselves if we didn’t do was impetus enough.
It was utterly fantastic. When we rolled into the first show at the Varsity Theater in Minneapolis, Goblin were in soundcheck, and we assumed our normal setup positions in front of the stage, Steve clicking and clanging while setting up his keyboard stands, and me starting the arduous yet pleasurable task of staging my drums. Goblin ripped into the track ‘Goblin’, from their 1976 production Roller, and I looked over to Steve and we were both smiling like little kids. I had tears in my eyes, it was wonderful! And to be fortunate enough to watch [drummer] Agostino Marangolo and [bassist] Fabio Pignatelli every night was so valuable to us as musicians. For Steve and I, as a bassist and drummer, we were schooled every damn night by those guys. Top-notch musicians who don’t get the credit they deserve. In their 50s and 60s, just crushing it every night. And the rest of the band, Massimo, Maurizio, and Aidan – completely pro, so respectful to us and to all around them. Simply beautiful people in every sense of the word. The most surreal part of the tour happened in Pittsburgh. Here we were, 12 years after we started, sharing a stage with the band who were a common bond in our musical partnership, a band who scored the film we took our name from, a film that was made in the Monroeville Mall where Steve worked as a teenager – and in Pittsburgh, home of the Dead franchise. Literally ground zero. Our families were there, all of our friends. It was a wonderful night.
What else are you both working on at present? Steve, I think I read you were working on a film soundtrack – can you tell me anything about that? And anything fresh coming up for Zombi specifically?
SM: I scored the new Adam Wingard and Simon Barrett film The Guest, which just premiered at Sundance. It’s being described as a Terminator-meets-Halloween action film – it’s about a young soldier who comes home to check in on the family of a fellow soldier who was killed a year earlier, and he attempts to “fix” all the family’s problems in increasingly violent ways. It’s difficult work, but really rewarding. Seeing the audience’s reaction at the premiere was as gratifying as any show I’ve ever played. As far as Zombi goes, after the Goblin shows we feel revitalised, and we’re planning on getting together to write new music some time in the near future. We’d like to have an album out by the end of the year.
AP: I’m doing some solo touring in the spring for a couple of months across the US and Canada, so I’m trying to finish a new release for our cassette label, VCO Recordings. In addition, I’m currently writing for a new full length Majeure album for Temporary Residence, hopefully out late 2014 or early 2015. And I’ll be visiting Steve sometime in late February or early March, and we’d like to do some playing. See if we can find the eye of the tiger again.
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