”You start off down the road, and a whole lot of time later you end up somewhere. I think that‘s part of the joy, really.“ Sam Hardaker is talking about the recording process, but call it a metaphor for living. Half of British nu-soul duo Zero 7, Hardaker is on the phone from the group’s north London studio, tucked away in a cozy mews where his and musical partner Henry Binns‘ rather massive record collection sits next to a sampler and turntable. After recently returning to London from their first live European tour, the pair are chilling out for a bit, sifting through potential tracks for the Another Late Night compilation series, a diverse assortment of tunes designed for the club comedown set. It comes easy for Binns, who as a soul, jazz and classical enthusiast has always preferred the relaxed sounds to the raucous. ”I don’t know what‘s wrong with me,“ reflects Binns. ”Only now have I been able to vent my mellow whatevers.“
At the moment, Zero 7 are gearing up for their first trip to America, where they’ll play in a few select cities. They refer to their live show as the biggest success of their career, even though the group‘s debut album, Simple Things, was nominated this year for Britain’s highly respected Mercury Prize. Building upon elements of jazz, ‘70s soundtracks, hip-hop and mood music infused with soul — but not a vocoder within earshot — it’s the kind of album that should have been the follow-up to Air‘s Moon Safari. Singer Mozez, contributing a sense of wonder to tracks such as ”I Have Seen,“ ”This World“ and the album’s title cut, could well be the British answer to Isaac Hayes and Roy Ayers. Additional vocalists Sia Furler and Sophie Barker transform some of the record‘s instrumental pieces into outright songs, some of it for better (the wistful ”Destiny“), some of it for worse (the overwrought ”In the Waiting Line“). The album’s most riveting moments — the analog keys of ”Give It Away,“ the descending bass line and swelling strings of ”Polaris“ and the muted horn section of ”Red Dust“ — are the songs for which Air comparisons abound, but they‘re hardly derivative.
Hardaker and Binns are uncomfortable calling themselves artists, and it’s as producers that the duo are able to home in on the nuances that distinguish their songs. It is the balance in the crack of the snare and the weight of the kick that gives their music a quiet power, inviting repeated listens. ”We never recorded any of it with the whole band playing at one time,“ says Hardaker. ”We recorded a string section and live drums, but everyone else came by one at a time and left their little bit with us.“ He laughs. ”That kind of demystifies any romantic idea of us sitting in the studio all playing along harmoniously together.“
Friends with Binns since they were teenagers, Hardaker can remember being transfixed by the electro and hip-hop making its way to London in the early ‘80s. He and Binns recall watching Run-DMC live and being blown away by this music that seemed to come ”from another planet.“ The two left college to begin apprenticeships at ’60s pop producer Mickie Most‘s RAK studios, where they helped engineer everyone from the Pet Shop Boys and Robert Plant to New Order. After five years of working on other people’s music, they got their first real break when college mate and Radiohead producer Nigel Godrich asked the duo to remix Radiohead‘s ”Climbing Up the Walls.“ This led to a string of other impressive remixes, which gave Zero 7 the courage to start creating their own music. Their reverence for superproducers such as George Martin, Quincy Jones and ’60s jazzsoul arranger Charles Stepney, and modern influences like DJ Shadow‘s debut album and Air’s first EP, Premiers Symptomes, resulted in the band‘s first limited-edition EP, titled EP1, which, like its follow-up, the limited EP2, quickly sold out. (Those early EP tracks also appear on Simple Things.)
Putting together a touring band has provided a source of inspiration for these studio dwellers. With all the album’s singers in tow, as well as two backing vocalists, a full band, an ever-growing keyboard rig, and some samples and strings on tape (”I hope that‘s not too ’N Sync of us,“ chuckles Binns), Zero 7 are doing what they never imagined — playing music in front of an audience. ”It‘s been fun being in a group and getting input from a bunch of people,“ says Binns. ”It’s been a buzz opening it up a bit and letting people take it in different directions.“
Zero 7 perform at El Rey Theater, Friday, December 14.