Interview: Henry Binns of Zero 7

By on Wednesday, 3rd September 2014 at 11:00 am
 

Studio-based electronic music duo Zero 7 put out a handful of new tracks over the summer, culminating in the collective release of their new digital only EP ‘Simple Science’ on the 18th of August. We recently featured a review of the EP, but as I discovered last week, the tracks were never really intended as a concentrated work. Rather, they individually represent the creative mindset of musicians who have earned themselves a certain degree of artistic freedom.

Last Thursday morning Mountain Standard Time, or Thursday afternoon for those on British Summer Time, I had the pleasure of chatting with Zero 7’s Henry Binns over my first cup of coffee. Our editor and resident electro expert Mary Chang was originally slated to do the interview herself, but due to a last-minute schedule change, she asked me to fill in. Despite my unfamiliarity with electronic music in general and specifically with Zero 7, I was intrigued by the band’s latest single ‘Simple Science’, having heard it on BBC 6music earlier in the week. Armed with Mary’s carefully curated list of questions, I fired up Skype on my laptop and placed the scheduled transatlantic call.

My very superficial introduction to Zero 7 had been through coverage of another English artist, Bo Bruce, who talked about having worked with Binns on her 2013 album ‘Before I Sleep’. (You can read that interview, which was also conducted over an early morning cup of coffee here.) Even just hearing Bruce discuss her work with Binns, I quickly understood that Zero 7 were well-respected and influential studio musicians. What I didn’t know until Binns patiently talked me through an abridged version of the band’s history was that Zero 7 had some important early career influences of their own.

Binns and Sam Hardaker started Zero 7 in the late 1990s, after having met at school and beginning together as sound engineers at London’s famed RAK Studios. They eventually teamed up with another friend and schoolmate, Nigel Godrich, to start their own electro dance studio, Shabang. Godrich had begun doing some engineering work with Radiohead and was tapped to co-produce their 1997 album ‘OK Computer’. In what Binns calls “the mother of all lucky breaks”, he and Hardaker were given the chance to remix a track from that album, ‘Climbing Up the Walls’, which propelled their careers into the public spotlight. Binns would also receive a rhythm sampling credit on Radiohead’s next album ‘Kid A.’

Zero 7 released two EPs on Ultimate Dilemma Records before dropping their debut studio album ‘Simple Things’ in 2001. Featuring vocals by Sia of recent ‘Chandelier’ fame, as well as Mozez and Sophie Barker, the album went gold and was nominated for the Mercury Music Prize. Zero 7 would release another album, 2004’s ‘When It Falls’, before signing to Atlantic Records for 2006 LP ‘The Garden’ and 2009 LP ‘Yeah Ghost’. These last two albums saw Zero 7 begin to experiment with their sound, enlisting new vocalists and taking a more upbeat tack to their normally downtempo sound.

[youtube]https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2fm7jt1pdX0&list=RD2fm7jt1pdX0#t=34[/youtube]

In 2010, Atlantic issued a Zero 7 compilation album called ‘Record’, which Binns described to me as “a bit weird, given that we’ve never had a hit record, really.” After touring that album, Binns and Hardaker found themselves at a natural pause. “Basically, we’d sort of finished a chapter and I think we sort of needed to stop, having done it solidly for 10, 15 years. We were writing LPs, you know, because that’s what you do, and it’s nice to do that. But it’s lovely right now just be able to not think about it and just go in the studio and say ‘What shall we do today? Ok, cool, we’re going with this, let’s go for it’”.

The pair’s new tracks do pick up where they left off in that experimental, pop-leaning thought process. While he acknowledges Godrich as a important mentor to Zero 7, Binns says that at this point in their careers, he and Hardaker are drawing from a “big cauldron of influences”, including r&b, disco and house. “My history in music is more r&b-based–rhythm and blues, not Chris Brown, know what I mean? Whereas Thom and Nige started listening to The Smiths. Now, you know, we’re all coming back, we all hate where we started and want to be the other guy! That’s the impression I get anyway of our music now.”

One of the most apparent influences on Zero 7’s more upbeat recent music is the pervasively sunny “Los Angeles sound” brought to ‘Simple Science’ by producer and singer/songwriter Tommy Leonard. That warm, bright sound is an interesting contradiction to the lyrical message of ‘Simple Science’, explains Binns. “I think it’s a dark song, ‘Simple Science’, it’s about a relationship that just isn’t working. I think people miss that because it’s very bright and the chorus is all quite happy and up. And I suppose maybe it’s quite a male thing, to think that, you know, this should all be so simple, and we love each other, but it just isn’t working. That’s basically what it’s saying. In a very, very upbeat way, but I think it’s bittersweet, it’s always got to be bittersweet.”

The vocals on ‘Simple Science’ were provided by vibe singer Danny Pratt, who also worked with Zero 7 on 2013 track ‘On My Own’ (audio below). Like many of Zero 7’s vocalists, Pratt was introduced to the pair through mutual friends. Binns says that he connected instantly with an intangible but “profoundly moving” emotional quality in Pratt’s demo. Those vocals, along with the arpeggiated synth theme described as “Frankie Knuckles-esque” in the ‘Simple Science’ press release, comprise the large scale brushstrokes of the song. “That was just an interesting twist for us to put that sort of thing against this very happy song. We’re always looking for something to twist it. That seems to be the pain that me and Sam go through in order to get stuff that we’re happy with.”

[youtube]https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JLR_RgF6izQ[/youtube]

Binns explains the process of finding just the right sounds as quite painstaking, right down to the fine details. “I want to be able to say that no, we wrote ‘Moondance’ on the fag packet before the session and cut it in three days, but no, it is very difficult.” In that context, he talks about cutting the radio version of ‘Simple Science’, which truncates the song from around 8 minutes down nearer to 4. “We’ve spent so much time talking about why do we have to do this. We like the 12-inch, the journey, the whole (process) of going through it. ‘Simple Science’ potentially is quite a normal pop song, you know, and I think it sort of needs that to sort of give it some metal. Once you truncate it down, as you say, into a palatable FM radio format, suddenly you’re like, ‘Oh…bummer’. But listen, you know what, I quite like that radio edit, if I’m honest. And hopefully people like it and they are sort of slightly salivating over it, and they’ll be happy to get the full, blissful journey.”

‘Simple Science’ was released in July on 12″ vinyl with a track called ‘Red, Blue and Green’ as its B-side. ‘Red, Blue and Green’ is a dub version of an as-yet unreleased song with vocals by Resa, another vocalist Zero 7 has been working with, “who’s a fantastic singer and you will get to hear more of her voice, I promise.” Binns describes the evolution of ‘Red, Blue and Green’ as quite spontaneous. “We didn’t really have a sort of visual trajectory, you know, that doesn’t seem to ever be our driving force. It’s just, getting the thing to work, you know. We put a beat on it. It never had a beat. And then we put a bass line on it, and we were just building it up, this whole song got ripped down to just that little vocal thing that you can hear. We just went off on a journey and followed that journey. And I love it. It took probably the longest to mix that one, from a sonic point of view, we spent a long time trying to get it just right.”

Only 2 weeks after the ‘Simple Science’ vinyl release, Zero 7 dropped another 12″, this one featuring ‘Take Me Away’, which Binns thinks of as “a straight-up disco” track with vocals by Only Girl. Despite its placement as the A-side track on the disc, Binns talks about its hidden treasure quality. “You know, I love disco music, and I promise you I wasn’t jumping on the bandwagon, we have always been into it. But I like that one, people haven’t picked up on it in the same way, and I think it’s a shame. It’s almost got that sort of B-side thing about it, which I absolutely love.”

[youtube]https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9CBeCy3AC28[/youtube]

The actual B-side to that disc is a techno-dance track called ‘U Know’. Initially conceived after a night at Block9, the after-hours portion of the Glastonbury Festival, the music reflects its anxious energy and constantly shifting focus of attention. Binns relates that experience from 2013: “I think Julio Bashmore was playing that particular night, and we just really got into the spirit of it and had a brilliant night. One of those nights to remember, and it was inspiring to us. I think it was the memory that kind of kept on coming back to me and Sam.”

Even while discussing the inspiration behind ‘U Know’, Binns is careful not to ascribe too much context to the new songs. He points out here that while the tracks have been released as a digital set, they weren’t necessarily conceived as part of a larger release. “It’s important to note with this whole EP thing, Sam and I, at the moment, are very, very happy doing some songs, finishing them, not really knowing exactly where they’re going and enjoying just putting music out to people who listen. We were feeling quite summery, and that kind of music seemed to suit this summer. And I think we’ve now got an EP that is much more autumnal. I won’t put too many more words on it than that. Is there an LP at the end of it, can we marry up ‘Simple Science’ with a more sort of, for want of a better word, introspective sound? Possibly, yes. I mean looking at our history we probably will, but I don’t know. The fact of the matter is we’re just getting on with it.”

The discussion of context naturally leads to the question of Zero 7’s music being used in film and television. Probably the most well-known example of that is the drug scene in the Zach Braff film ‘Garden State’, which uses Zero 7 track ‘In the Waiting Line’ as its background music. Binns talks about ‘Garden State’ as a “game changer, particularly in the US, because I think that album soundtrack was pretty big. I guess you could call it a cult classic, right? I mean, it actually ended up being that.”

[youtube]https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AuR8FAxsW98[/youtube]

When I ask Binns about their songs being taken out of context in that way, he is decisive in his response. “I mean, look, by definition they have, but I think where they’ve worked it’s been really good. I mean, there’s been a lot of crap, but I can’t sniff at that because that is really my main source of income. We’ve been very, very lucky, and it’s not something you brag about, but it does bring in the money to let you do what you want to do. And you know, it’s not that easy in the music business these days. But the really successful examples of where we’ve been synced in movies have been really good. It’s helped the music, you know. It’s given it a whole new audience.”

Zero 7’s digital EP ‘Simple Science’ is out now on Make Records. The limited edition 12″ vinyl singles for ‘Simple Science’ and ‘Take Me Away’ are available at Zero 7’s official merchandise Web site.

Many thanks to Henry for taking the time to talk with me, and to Jeff for arranging the interview.

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