Interview with a Zomby

Hunting electronica’s ultimate Anon in New York with his astounding new album on loop

Music Feature
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All clothes Givenchy Bibi Borthwick
What will music sound like in 100 years? My shit, but with no drums

Zomby walks into a room in the Bowery, Manhattan, pulled by his young boxer-beagle cross. Tall, bright-eyed and slender, the British electronic producer is dressed in grey trackpants and neon-yellow flyknit Nikes. His eyebrows are filed points and his Bic’d head shows the signs of yesterday’s trim. 

This audience with Zomby is closer than most get to him IRL. He is never shot without his identity obscured, rarely appears live and is unwilling to have his voice recorded even on a dictaphone. His preferred methods of communication, whether through music or speaking on the record to a journalist, are strictly digital. 

His eyes rest on the new-season Givenchy on the bed in its wrapping paper, and he chains his dog to the seat opposite mine. As his master changes his shoes and gets ready, he sees the occasional table, jumps up and goes straight for the Givenchy call sheet.

My mask is not part of a rebellion. I’m not part of a rebellion. I’m just trying to make great records and vanish into the heavens 

Zomby’s new mask – kept in a soft black cotton bag like a jewel – was 3D printed by an artist-designer in Japan. Taking care not to place a smudging finger over the bold, clean gold surface, he places it on the table for me to photograph with my BlackBerry. He’s reluctant to shoot around people, so a decision is made to find a deserted area down by the river, under the Brooklyn Bridge, while I volunteer to stay behind and look after his dog.

Bruh, I love this dog as much as I love Givenchy. He’s a little god with a tail 

Bouncy and just the right side of scary, he stretches his legs out, bends his head down, lays his ears flat and barks. The wagging tail makes me think he likes me; the snapping of the jaws whenever I get close enough to tickle his ears suggests not. He looks longingly up as he pulls morse-code holes into the bed’s crisp white cotton with remarkable verve and dedication. 

What do I wear to record in? Anything – I’m not like that. I’ll start to write something at 4am in boxer shorts, or after I walk in from a club head-to-toe in my rad shit. It makes no difference to me at all
But it’s hard to deny something so well made and aesthetically perfect. If you’re in the hood, dressing flashy is a rebellious thing. Same if you’re in a Michelin-star restaurant in a Nike tracksuit. I’ll sit first-class on a flight in a tracksuit by Balmain and get evil looks as I become demonic to various GBE mixtapes. It’s not a huge act of reclamation: it’s a realisation these things are for you too. Just because someone is rich, it doesn’t mean that things on that level are for them; and if someone is poor, music or art not for them. I don’t buy into those ideals

On his return from the shoot, Zomby is excited, yet oddly calm. He changes out of his clothes and gives them back carefully to the stylist, making a quick joke about keeping the wares, out of respect. Sitting back down again as the room fills with people from his label, he rolls a spliff and pulls on his shoes, like an actor changing back into day clothes. Tired and serene, he leaves with his dog. He says he’ll call us later. He doesn’t. 

We deal in jungle, hardcore, garage, grime, house, techno, whatever it is. We have artists who articulate the wants of the masses, but not in a pop sense, in a real sense. From pirate radio in the 90s to now, this is where you find the music people really want. They make it for each other, not for commercial radio. But you already know this 

Since he started releasing music in 2007, his face has only been seen by the select few who work with him or know him personally. From the strobes, skunk and Red Stripe fog of London’s raving circuit, then tuned to the bass pressure of nascent dubstep, he began working on his sound under the moniker of Zomby from behind a grinning Anonymous mask worn with the most luxurious of garms. 

His first releases were marked by a combination of the Day-Glo romanticism and skipping rhythms of Britain’s pirate-radio culture, a thirst for digital music’s glittering hardness and an absolute, almost messianic belief in his music’s artistry and power. They had conceptual purity – each record seemed like a series of sketches along a theme. While made in club-friendly styles, from grime to hardcore to trap to dubstep, his music was gleefully unaligned to the self-serious, conservative and tasteful pretensions of so much dance culture. Where Were U in ’92, his 2008 debut album, was a no-holds-barred race through the Dionysian rebellion of breakbeat hardcore’s year zero, taking in samples from Gucci Mane and Aaliyah and featuring such titles as  “Pillz”, “Daft Punk Rave” and “Fuck Mixing, Let’s Dance”. He says now that the album wasn’t a retro plea for jungle’s return. It was a call for now. Where did that revolutionary spirit go? When did we all get so polite?

In 2011, after half a decade releasing on a succession of underground labels, he made a shock signing to 4AD, once the home of cult 80s bands Pixies, Cocteau Twins and This Mortal Coil. Zomby’s addition to the label’s roster coincided with a wider shift in music towards the limitless possibilities of digital and the poppification of dubstep. Dedication, his first album for the label, was anything but a pop record – constructed out of shards of songs presented without intro or outro, it’s an uneasy but thrilling listen. A testament to a departed father’s work ethic and an articulate affirmation of the importance of toil, genius and craft, it doesn’t sound like an album on a major indie label. It sounds like a long-form tone poem on the state of the British urban classes composed from their digital folk music. Our folk music. 

Am I a rebel? In all honesty, not really. I mean, maybe if you try to confine me I’ll rebel, but I’m not replying to anything. The conversation is one way, from me to music. I just have a relationship with music, not with ‘classical’ or ‘trap’ or any other term. Both music and sculpture are composed and when perfect seem surreal or timeless. It’s probably the frontline of an entropic battle I’m never going to win 

After living in France, Barcelona and London, Zomby moved to New York in 2011. There, in his home studio, he began recording the music that makes up With Love, his forthcoming album. The tracks were composed, saved on his computer and “curated” into the album later. Written freeform at speed and at all hours of the day and night, with an end product forming only in retrospect, the record is a tableau of feeling and mood, a 33-track-long set of sketches and studies. It’s auto-biographical but free from narrative, as strains of sound – from the skittering snares of trap and tectonic futurism of drum & bass to hints of classical études and Japanese Noh – drift past, with dots joined at a later point. Track titles were chosen only as the album was being readied for release, and include the poetic, religiously themed “Ascension”, “White Smoke” (a possible reference to the choosing of the Pope, which was taking place during the process) and “Shiva”. When I was playing the just-WeTransfered mp3s from my phone on the flight over, they carried keyboard-stab working titles like “khjgldfg”, “jtcrutydcuytf” and “DIDIGIGHOGH”.

How would I describe With Love? Like someone took me to a dark room and set fire to my soul
What is the appeal of nothingness? It’s a blank canvas
What about tattoos? I’ve had a few. I’ll have more. Eventually I’ll be neck-to-ankle deep in them, but you have to take time to heal. I basically want to be covered in the Sistine Chapel, head to toe. I just live on planet earth so I fly about and look and soak it up. I have a private life too – my entire life hasn’t been dedicated to making music. Rather, I’m a working, living artist and, until I die, this is it

As he arrives on a street corner near his Lower East Side home a day later, Zomby is visibly upset. We walk out into the afternoon, the air freshened by the watery ions of the nearby river. The electric-blue light of the late March sky turns every wing mirror and window screen into a bright dart, and we walk through a car-shop lot to grab a coffee. An interview, he says, is not something he needs to do, or what he’s here to do. Not when there’s so much work to do. Not when the work speaks for itself. 

Zomby is perhaps most in rebellion against the cult of Zomby. His music as almost a transcendent state of disappearing in between the notes. His belief that space and surroundings mean nothing points towards a fractured zen. Mercurial in music and character, he slips in and out of consciousness, operating deeper below the radar, seeking the notes between the sheets. As we speak, he notices things that look unreal – the shape and statement of graffiti, the space around a sculpture – and talks fondly of how dubstep took away all unnecessary elements, leaving only the memory of last summer’s tune. He speaks in code and dresses in a flashing haze. But behind the mask, Zomby is hiding in hell, grinning at the heathen. 

Is new music possible? Maybe... but probably not. I do feel at this point that we have some nearly original music – especially viscerally new, of course – but in compositional terms, most constellations have been charted and explored. But you can work complexity into a sleek nothingness, which becomes a new refinement, critically of parts composed. My music is digital prose. I like to sketch outlines sometimes, and sometimes I’ll fill them in

With Love is out on June 17 on 4AD.

All clothing by Givenchy by Riccardo Tisci; trainers and mask Zomby's own

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