A sneaky little email slipped into my inbox last Wednesday, and there, slap bang in the middle of all the blurb was an even sneakier little date involving British band Zero 7.
A few inquiries later it turned out they were also sneakily headlining one of the stages at the Personal Fest. All very low key, all very low profile, but after a chat with the two main men behind the group, the thick mist passed.
Henry Binns and Sam Hardaker were teenage friends in north London, and ended up working at a music studio together. The short version is that they reckoned they could do better than what was going on, so they started making music together, and got a break on the Radiohead album OK Computer, with a remix of Climbing Up The Walls.
They are the dynamic Grammy-nominated duo behind chill-out music band, who since their debut album Simple Things in 2001, have always had a rolling band-member concept which was followed by the fast lane to fame. Guest vocalists who have collaborated on their records in the early days include the quirky blonde Australian Sia Furler and fellow Brit Sophie Barker while the Swedish-Argentine folk singer José González appears on third album The Garden (2006), although none of them work with Zero 7 anymore.
However, on their latest album soul singer Eska Mtungwazi, folk singer Martha Tilston and Rowdy Superstar contribute to a more uptempo record from an electronic band synonymous with a slow-paced, floating lounge style that, according to the pair, appeared on every makeover TV show going.
This change in pace has led some fans to become disheartened with the band, they say, who after eight years in the spotlight, a gold debut album, tracks featuring on numerous US TV programmes and countless award nominations, have learnt to adapt to the whims of their public and press.
Having played the Personal Fest last Friday and following Saturday’s soundcheck at La Trastienda, Henry and Sam talked to the Herald over a beer and some empanadas about the festival experience, their latest album and the fame game.
This is the first time Zero 7 have played Buenos Aires and their turn at Personal was surprising for them. The phrase of the moment, TIA (This Is Argentina), springs to mind. Henry says: “It wasn’t quite what I expected as it wasn’t the usual experience of big festivals. It seemed quite separated. We arrived and about 50 people were in front of the stage, so we were slightly worried that no one was going to turn up. But once we started there were about 500 people, but I think Chic were playing at the same time. I could hear Good Times going on in the distance as we were doing a ballad. How can you compete? Surely everyone is going to want to dance to that!”
Sam adds: “We’ve come this far and wanted to play here for a while. This was the first opportunity we’ve had to do it, so it was really exciting and we wanted everything to go smoothly. With a festival you show up and you’ve got half-an-hour so usually in the first few songs there are a few problems that need to be sorted out, and we had a few of those, so it was a bit bumpy. Festivals can be a bit hit and miss. You just cross your fingers and hope when you go out and start the first track that you won’t have major issues. We were expecting crowds as far as the eye can see and to be carried out over their heads! But I think it was a good vibe. I’m looking forward to playing La Trastienda though as the intimacy is more satisfying.”
That said, it must have been a bit of a bitter pill to swallow for one of the headline acts: the festival’s capacity is 30,000 and a miserable five percent of the crowd turned up to see the seven-piece. But apparently the gig looked and sounded fine, according to Henry’s Argentine girlfriend, who was in the crowd. “She thought ‘great gig, what was the matter?’ so sometimes it is the case you get bummed out by a gig but the people have no idea what’s going on because they’re enjoying the music.”
LDN. Going back some 20 odd years, the pair met as teenagers who went to neighbouring schools and had friends in common. Despite their shared love for music, the plan was never to form a group. “We were both really into music and went to a little college that did a sound engineering course. We got into music by working at studios, and we were drawn to sample-based music, that’s what we were really into,” says Sam.
To be more specific, it was electro and hip hop, he adds. “That was the first music we heard and the whole concept of making a track out of someone else’s track really fascinated us. When we first got into studios, we wanted to work out how to use a sampler, to bring in a few old records in and dance around the room for hours. The start of house music was the first movement in our teenage years and we got swept up by drum machines and synthesizers. We didn’t have any interest in being a band. But we were always messing around with our own ideas and eventually got our own place to do that in.”
All of that “messing” eventually led to the release of the 14-track debut Simple Things in 2001, which went gold, was nominated for the Mercury Music Prize, and led to the band winning Best Newcomer at the Muzik awards.
“That first record we put out was the most popular,” says Sam, “so we had an extreme baptism into the music industry. We did ridiculous stuff we never imagined such as being on TV, being on Radio 1, travelling the world, and our first ever gig was at Sonar in Barcelona. We’d never been on stage before so it was crazy for a while. Then we did the classic ‘lost our way for a while’ and the pressure of all of that was quite distracting to us — and we weren’t sure whether we were going to make another album.”
Some people work well under pressure, rising to the challenge, but the pair just weren’t prepared for it. Sam continues: “Those were weird times. We’d never encountered that before or given it a minute’s thought, that there might be that sort of scale of reaction to it. It was quite bizarre. Maybe we should have been more prepared but we weren’t and that was the way it was. But that led us into a difficult second record, some people liked and a lot of people didn’t so we learnt a lot from the two extremes. From arse kissers telling us it was the best thing since Marvin Gaye, and we’d be thinking ‘you’re crazy, that’s ridiculous!’, then on the next record people were saying it was rubbish, although to us there wasn’t actually a gaping hole between those two records.”
Despite its name, that album didn’t make life any simpler for Henry and Sam. Literally famous overnight, how did they strike a balance of combining their regular lives with the glitz and glamour of being in a suddenly famous band? Henry says: “I still don’t really know. It was all a bit odd and it’s a bit of a blur. By the time we’d got to making the third album I’d left London for Glastonbury, and it felt like a career. But despite all the nominations, I still haven’t quite accepted it and find it hard to come terms with people thinking that I’m, or we’re, good.”
Moving to the home of the mother of all festivals in itself was a reality check for Henry. “It’s actually a bona fide place so it was liberating. Sia came to stay at my house and moving definitely helped with the creative process at that time. We’d just started working with José (González) — he was on that third record, and that was just before he was thrust into that space because of Nike (Jose’s track Heartbeats was used in the brand’s advert).”
Sam compares their those first albums and how they were received: “I think it was helpful to have such extreme responses to the first two records. It was quite levelling because we realised it was all ridiculous and irrelevant to us because we just need to be thinking about where we’re going and carrying on working. And that’s what we’ve done.”
Apart from making a great first record, and the tracks Distractions, Destiny, In The Waiting Line and Give It Away, confirm that, Simple Things gained so much momentum so fast because the latter three songs were used on CSI, House, Sex and the City, Smallville, Raising Helen and Roswell, among other TV programmes. Henry says: “All that has been absolutely essential for us and what has bankrolled the whole thing. There’s not many ways of gaining revenues in this business anymore, but that is one of them. We were very fortunate to get that.”
STRAIGHT BACK DOWN. Sam’s version of events also brought them back down to earth. “We were having a little moment in the spotlight and were the sound bed to every home makeover, DIY, travel and cooking programme, and that was A bit weird, thinking ‘that wasn’t actually what I had in mind.’ I don’t know what I did have in mind, but it definitely wasn’t that! So you become equally cursed and blessed: we sold a lot of records but it eventually becomes a turn off and people started to associate us with background music and Alan Titchmarsh! But it’s out of your hands and you have to ride it out.”
Another way of keeping things in perspective has been to participate in other projects such as their instrumental bands Kling and Ingrid Eto. “We got into that on this last album as we’d lost our way a bit,” says Sam, “and in the thick of the album we weren’t really happy with where we were heading. So by dropping everything and doing other stuff was massively helpful, it kept things flowing when it can get a bit stagnant.”
“It’s the curse of the collaboration!” jokes Henry. “But we rely so much on the people we work with and we waited a long time on this album for someone we gelled with. We’d worked with Sia before, but made a conscious decision not to this time in order to put ourselves in a different space.”
Sam adds: “We’re not a traditional band so we have to come up with different approaches to the record-making process in a way that helps us expand our ideas. To try things that aren’t so comfortable often leads you to different places. That can be difficult but you stand to gain a lot more by going a bit further.”
Having played some UK shows, Sam and Henry have remained in Buenos Aires for a few days and will undertake a US tour in November. “It will be interesting to see how it goes with the North Americans,” says Henry, “as it’s a very different record and I wonder if they’ll want makeover music or if they are ready for something else!“
FREAKED OUT. “I feel there’s a different perception in the US of who we are,” says Sam. “They are more open whereas I feel in England that we’ve been put in a certain place. That’s fine, we can’t change it, but this is a different sounding record, that some people are not prepared to go there with us — they’re freaked out by it. In the US they’re more up for different versions of certain tracks. The gigs in the UK have been alright, but I stumbled across some comments on our website — ‘I’ve never walked out of a gig before’ — and I got really down about it. The idea of anyone walking out and ripping up tickets after one of our gigs is upsetting. Then I remembered there were 2,000 people at the end making a lot of noise. But it was essential for us to make some changes in the way we work, and I’m just sorry that we’ve put some people off! Perhaps you have to lose a few along the way to keep your own sanity and keep developing.”
Photo courtesy of Solar Management