Nothing surprises us when it comes to Zero T’s wildly eclectic output. One of the most prolific artists in this realm of music, he’s carved such a wide-armed remit it’s never a shocker to hear him fire off a despicably gully breakbeat tear-up one week and an all-out neo-soul jam the next… Or a surprise album with his next-door neighbour who he’s lived alongside for over ten years but only just met and found out is an exceptional pianist.
The North Quarter-released Kilburn is the album in question and Onj is the neighbour. A professional musician for over 20 years, Onj excels in the jazzier and experimental sides of his craft. Registered blind, he’s also a huge tech head. So while he was unaware of Zero T, and didn’t have that much knowledge of drum & bass, he fell in love with the music and the collaborative process straight away. In fact it turns out, one of his dreams has always been to be sampled. Now it’s daily situation as his neighbourly link-up continues to flourish.
The start of an exciting relationship, there’s plenty more to come from Zero T and Onj. The pair have only been writing since September last year and not only are they a whole album deep, there’s already another Kilburn-inspired release in the making. You can check this short video documentary for more background and read on for even more details, including the ridiculous situation that led to them crossing paths after being anonymous neighbours for so long…
This all starts with you being neighbours, right?
Zero T: That’s right. There was another neighbour on our block who was a wannabe DJ who spent a few years terrorising the block with his mixing.
Good tunes, though?
Onj: One in every 500!
Zero T: Some were alright but when you’ve heard them for the fifth time that day and you’re trying to get to sleep it doesn’t matter how good the tunes are! Then in September last year he had a party that went on until 5am.
Onj: You couldn’t watch TV in your own living room
Zero T: It was face pounding! Anyway, it’s a bit lively round here in Kilburn, so when things kick off, I’ll go on Twitter and search to see if anyone else is complaining.
Onj: I do the same thing!
Zero T: I guess it makes me less angry knowing other people are angry too, and it was obvious that Andre was as annoyed as me. I could tell he was in the same block as me from his tweets and it turned out we’re just two doors away from each other.
The irony of a wannabe DJ bringing two professional musicians together! Is this person aware of this situation? Is he on the block still?
Zero T: No to both questions. He got raided a few months later and, judging by the amount of plains clothes police officers there, he won’t be back for a while.
Oh whoops! I wondered if you’d found about each other through hearing each other play music through the walls or something…
Onj: The loudest I ever get is playing my piano. It rings through the block, but no one’s ever complained.
Zero T: I use headphones and a Subpac. To make it more farcical, we’ve been living in the same buildings for 10 years and never knew each other. I’d never seen Andre, his wife and kids in all these years and they’re two doors down from me. Now we bump into each other all the time. It’s a very London thing to happen isn’t it? People living within swing-a-cat distance, but never encountering each other before.
Mad. How quick was it before you started creating together when you did eventually meet?
Onj: Within five minutes! It was like a very quick date, really. He messaged me at 1.30 and had come down by 2.30, by 3.30 I showed him tonnes of stuff and said let’s make some music. On Monday he sent me a track on Dropbox and asked me to put some Rhodes on it. I sent it back in half an hour!
Zero T: We’re very similar in that respect – we like turning things around super-fast. It’s great to say ‘here’s an idea’ and have him respond more or less instantly. We can have the basis of a tune done in a day.
I knew he was musician after we’d messaged on Twitter. His YouTube channel was linked on there and it was like finding a treasure trove. I spend so much of my time trawling for samples and so much music on there was right up my street. Stuff I’d listen to and stuff I’d sample. So yeah, it was a very quick progression from neighbourhood watch stuff to, ‘Let’s do some tunes!’ It’s ridiculous how it happened; we had no plan or intentions, it just came together like this.
Onj: It’s so bizarre and I’ve actually always wanted to be sampled. So much of it is instrumental; for someone to find a use for it is a huge compliment to me. And in the end we came up with a sick album! I couldn’t be happier!
I love this! Was D&B in your diet anyway Andre?
Onj: Not the 174 variety so much, but definitely the 160-165 jungle side of things. I was very much into garage and jungle having grown up in that era. In 2004 one of my uni friends did a D&B remix of a track of mine. He introduced me to Adam F and LTJ Bukem and people like that. After I’d met Cian I listened to Off Broadway and it was like a missing puzzle piece. I want to make more of it. I love the energy of it.
You were in DJ Mag recently talking about accessibility and technology from your perspective as a blind musician. That was a really fascinating article.
Onj: Oh I love tech and love being on the bleeding edge of it. It’s been a staple of my life. Being blind, I’ve had to have the tech to do what I want to do. My phone is an extension of me and acts as my eyes. So I can’t have bog standard, chunky phones for instance.
Yeah totally! So when did you both realise you had an album on your hands rather than an EP or single?
Zero T: It grew out of the ground without us realising it. I was starting my next North Quarter EP when we met. We got a few tunes going and had five or six done very quickly. That’s an EP finished but the tracks were still churning out, so we realised we had an album in the making.
I’ve never actually sat down and premeditated an album. It makes things a lot more difficult for me, you overthink everything and you’re not in the moment. For me it’s important to just write the song that’s in front of you and make it as sick as you can.
The whole release concept, marketing and format comes later. This is a perfect example of that; we’ve called it a concept album, but that only came about later, we were just collaborating freely and enjoying the process.
The environment, the block of flats and the story of you two meeting is the concept. Kilburn plays a role as the stage and setting doesn’t it?
Zero T: It does. It wraps up a lot of aspects of who we are, too. We live here. Our backgrounds are Irish and Caribbean and this area is famously Irish and Caribbean. It’s a neat bow that brings things together.
We’re doing a follow up EP which will have downtempo versions and remixes and a few new D&B things which we’ll call Kilburn Park: the other tube station in Kilburn. It’s been cool. It’s like we’re shooting a film without having a script and, as we’re shooting scenes, we can see the story revealing itself. That’s how it happened.
Onj: It’s a very organic process.
Does this process fit how you work anyway Andre?
Onj: It’s hard to say because I’ve never worked on an album like this before. Not in this way. I’ve recorded live things for people’s albums in studios, but nothing has ever been this way for me before. It’s been a new experience and I’ve appreciated it a lot.
Have you written it together in one of your studios? Or have you been bouncing things between two doors?
Onj: The internet did all the work!
Zero T: Yeah we did it in our own respective studios using Dropbox and speaking on Whatsapp. I can send over something for Andre to work on and, while he’s doing that, I can be working on the next section or mixing down a tune or whatever. I’m not sitting in the corner waiting for him to finish so we can move on.
Onj: It’s a much better way to multitask.
Zero T: It’s how the album came together so quickly. We both have day-to-day lives and day jobs and families and stuff, so you find the time to work around that. It’s a lot more efficient.
Totally. Would it start with a beat or Andre, would you send over ideas to Cian?
Onj: I sent over a few ideas. That’s how one of the interludes came about.
Zero T: That’s right. It was a mixture of things. I had the bones of one or two tracks going and I asked Andre to add to them, but most were started from me sampling Andre’s tracks.
I’d go through his Youtube channel, find something I liked and Andre is a very meticulous archivist and has stems for everything he’s done on an FTP. Anything I wanted, I could grab. That’s another reason this was so quick – he has a wealth of stems I could work on instantly. Once I’d drum & bass-ified it, I’d send it over for him to augment or add another instrument.
And you’ve wanted this to happen for years Onj?
Onj: It’s always been a dream of mine that someone would find something I’d done that they thought worthy of their time to work on. Like I said before, it’s a massive compliment as far as I’m concerned.
Awesome. Is your meticulousness a result of you being blind and having to know where everything is?
Onj: Oh no, I know many disorganised blind people! It’s just my obsessive nature. My wife is the same as me and she’s fully sighted. Organisation is the stuff of life! if you can find things easily, you can leave the house quickly.
Zero T: I’m the total opposite! I’m so lazy with all that. Like I’m making a track then, a year later when it’s ready for pre-masters, I can’t remember what the track was called. I’ve spent days looking for things. I wish I was more like Andre in that respect.
Onj: Haha. Actually I’d like to ask you a question Cian. How long did you expect me to turn things around, having worked with other people in the past?
Zero T: It was very fast! It blows my mind to be honest. I can pick a chord but I can’t play so to watch you and to work with you at that speed, it’s just wizardry really.
I love that. Tell us about the collaborations with the singers…
Zero T: I’m always on the hunt for new singers to work with, especially those who’ve not been involved in D&B before. We started reaching out to people and I generally approach singers with a neo soul / halftime version of the track. That’s what the singers were given to record to so they wouldn’t hear the D&B beat at all. It works out much better creatively with people who don’t really know or get drum & bass because people get discombobulated by the D&B beat. Singers work differently over a slow jam to work over.
Onj, were you discombobulated at any points?
Onj: Maybe for five seconds but then I realised I had to play fast.
Zero T: I even had Andre play to a halftime beat or to no beats at all. We noticed on Spiritual Sound that you were playing super fast with the music. You were playing at 174 rather than halftime. When the breakdown came in, you played very differently.
Onj: it’s a natural musician thing isn’t it? To play at what you hear and not at half of what you hear.
Zero T: Exactly. It’s the same for singers so I don’t expose them to the D&B beats. There’s always a risk they might not like the D&B version but everyone did. Terrell King hadn’t had any exposure to D&B at all and the two tunes we did with him were big heavy smashers. I was worried he’d be like, ‘What the fuck is this?’ But he was into it. I found him on Fiver actually. I thought I’d give it a shot and see who was on there and found him. He smashed it so much I suggested he was a featured artist instead of just being a gun for hire, which has exposed him to another world of music.
The icing on the cake was getting Ursula Rucker involved, too. Lenzman had mentioned the idea of spoken word on that beat and I thought of her straight away. I reached out to her and I told her how 4hero brought me into this music world as my first release was on their label Reinforced. We spoke about Andre and our project. She was super cool about it and loved the idea.
Onj: She reminds me of Jill Scott, I was very happy to have her on the album.
Zero T: Definitely. We had a cool zoom chat with her before she went in to record. She remembered Kilburn from recording with 4 Hero in the 90s. Dollis Hill is 10 minutes up the road, so she knew the area and brought a very pleasant positive vibe to the whole thing. Goes without saying that it’s a huge bucket list moment to work with such an iconic artist.
Absolutely! She ties up the album so well, too. So, wrapping up, what have you learnt from each other?
Onj: Well I’ve got more of a taste for a genre I’d only listened to in passing and I want to do more of it and incorporate more of my stuff in this world which is new to me, but also familiar. I was thinking about the track we did called Twenty Three, which we recorded the vocals in my living room / studio. When we did that, I hadn’t heard the D&B version, we just recorded Ms Naye over the halftime version.
But when I got the first mix of the D&B version, I was like, ‘How the hell did that come from that session?’ I was in that session and I couldn’t get my head around what Cian had done. That was exceptional and I got a taste of that. You can’t take away the memory of a good taste, I want more of that!
Love that! Cian?
Zero T: For me Andre is a golden goose. I have a multi-instrumentalist friend called Sam Ishfaq who works me with on lots of different project like Searchlight. So I’ve been really inspired by working with real musicians anyway but living next door to Andre is just amazing.
We’ll be working together a lot in the future. We’re doing things under my Bruk Rogers alias, we’ve done some remixes for Cooperation Recordings and Tru Thoughts. For me Andre is an amazing and inspiring resource. Instead of finding a sample I can say, ‘Hey lay down some chords that are on the vibes of this,’ and have him crack on. I’m always excited by people who can do things I can’t – singers, rappers, musicians in general. It’s very exciting and inspiring.