May 26, 2017: Gridlok will make his debut on Blackout with his fifth studio album Z3R0 H0U2.
His first solo drum & bass album since Void in 2009, and his first drum & bass album since Project Trendkill in 2013 with Prolix, Z3R0 H0U2 marks the start of a new chapter for the Californian artist who relocated to Amsterdam last year. A new stage in a career that took off in 2000 and has since seen him play a consistent and influential role in the North American drum & bass movement with crews such as Hive’s agenda-setting Violence collective and his own Project 51 stable.
He’s also played the role of consummate ambassador for US drum & bass over the years exporting his gritty, wily and often left-of-centre tech D&B on numerous high profile labels such as Ram, Virus, Dom & Roland Productions, Renegade Hardware, Playaz, Bad Taste and CIA. Each release adding to the smouldering, slow-burning international drum & bass explosion that’s been simmering since almost day one, but also strengthening Gridlok’s own ties with – and inspirations from – the European scene. In hindsight, his re-settlement in The Netherlands was only a matter of time.
Z3R0 H0U2 isn’t some cheesy story of a happy-go-lucky drum & bass international nomad whimsically finding his spiritual home, though. Its foundations – the title concept and some of the older tracks on the album – were dug when Gridlok was based in San Francisco experiencing an entirely different headspace. Feeling a distinct lack of drum & bass scene and community in the city, and across the US where the small pockets of true drum & bass scenes were so geographically stretched, the sense of urgency in the title was real and personal.
“When I originally came up with the title of the album I was thinking of the desperateness of my personal situation,” he explains. “But it quickly developed into a lot more layers. All over the planet things seem to be at critical mass right now. Drum & bass, politics, there’s a lot of weird things going on. The more I got used to the name the more layers I saw beyond me trying to do drum & bass in San Francisco. It’s zero hour in general.”
It’s certainly zero hour for Gridlok fans. In case the world does burn before May 26 and you don’t get to hear it, take our word: Z3R0 H0U2 is a powerful document that maps and develops Gridlok’s strong signature of red alert tension and pensive suspense that’s been evident since his earliest and biggest breakthrough cuts; from the highly strung Relapse in 2002 to riot-bound Skanka on Ram in 2007 and everything since… Including his last album Motion Picture which flipped his sonic vision to show us the slower, moodier shadows that lurk beneath his high impact, sci-fi tech drum & bass.
Z3R0 H0U2 builds on these traits again; tapping into some of the genre’s most timeless aesthetics. One moment we’re transported to any given Sunday in 1998 at The Blue Note, Hoxton (the steppy, spaced-out Synthetic Blue), the next we’re in the middle of a Virus night at The End (the sandpaper bass chugger Germ), the next we’re writhing in pure panic as the twisted sirens of the unclassifiable paranoia-funk banger Upside Down ignite and insist.
Those are just three of the 13 scuffed diamonds in the rough that is Z3R0 H0U2; an album that’s cohesively connected through its rough, grainy sheen, clear use of analogue machines and its precision balance of peers and contemporaries from all chapters in Gridlok’s career: alongside Blackout bosses Black Sun Empire and relative European neighbours such as Mindscape, Optiv and BTK are some of Gridlok’s oldest comrades in drum & bass, Hive and AK1200.
Expect tracks to be revealed from the album in the weeks building up to the release. A full circle project poised in tone, texture, technology and time; Z3R0 H0U2 doesn’t just mark a new chapter for Gridlok but also shows us where he’s come from on his never-ending musical journey. In his first interview in over four years, we found out how he came to arrive here and where he might be heading. That’s if the world isn’t actually at zero hour…
Is the studio a way of escapism from imminent doom for you?
It’s definitely my way of expressing myself and feeling better about whatever I’m thinking about. So it’s more of an expression thing for me. I know dance music tends to be more escapist, and I love that, but my records over the years have had hints of life in them and maybe things that aren’t so comfortable. Like the American Dream song and video.
Of course. Plus it’s hard to escape in music when it’s your full time job. You have to find other forms of escapism.
I think having a hobby is important. Andy C loves watching football and I think that’s so cool. When there’s a big match on he’s not thinking about music at all. You need that. If you’re doing music all the time it will get weird. You need an escape from the escape.
What’s your escape?
Sci-fi movies are definitely a big source of escapism. I’m always sitting in front of a DAW, interacting with it. With films I love how you can sit there, absorb it and have your senses tingled. The thing I love about really good plausible future narratives is how if we bust our gut we can really make this shit happen. Look at iPads and iPhones – they’re straight out of Star Trek! Did the art inspire the reality? I think so.
Did sci-fi have an effect on Z3R0 H0U2?
I get a good amount of inspiration from sci-fi. I love soundtracks from movies such as Bladerunner, THX 1138, Logan’s Run, even Ex-Machina is in that same realm. Quiet, moody. Especially the ones with 70s production. It’s the polar opposite of, for example, Michael Bay.
A lot more grit and layers of texture
Yeah which, to me, is also reminiscent of the roots of drum & bass. Dillinja, Fresh, Dom and Optical and a lot of the original guys doing techy stuff is influenced by retro movies and sci-fi. The Angels Fell is the ultimate Bladerunner anthem. These influences have been a part of drum & bass forever, especially the style that I really like which I guess you’d call real neurofunk.
I have to ask your thoughts on the use of the term now…
I’m starting to hate it to be honest because I think it’s causing segregation. I don’t think there’s enough cultural diversity in what guys are calling neurofunk now. It’s all drum & bass built on drum & bass. There aren’t enough African vibes man. UK, Jamaican, American, black vibes. Which is a core part of drum & bass. I love how drum & bass tore down racial and cultural barriers and how exciting creations were coming from the crosspollination of cultures.
That was evident in jungle and soundsystem/dubplate culture in the UK. How was that fusion reflected in America when you started your journey?
The US and UK are very closely related in this way, I think. Both countries have such a strong presence and influence of black music and for us it’s reflected in the hip-hop roots. You listen to Evol Intent, R.A.W or AK1200 or The Burner Brothers and all those guys who have been around forever and put out cool music in the US. There’s definitely a hip-hop undertone to what’s going on.
You mention AK1200 who’s on Z3R0 H0U2, as is Hive. Was it important to have your original roots on the album?
It wasn’t part of the plan or package, it just ended up starting to work out that way bit by bit because I felt a bit isolated being in San Francisco. Having a lot of minds around me, especially minds I respect, was important at the stage I was writing those songs. They helped me at the foundational stages, which is the most important stage. It’s about that initial spark.
You’ve been in Europe for almost 18 months. So if you started writing Z3R0 H0U2 in the US, this whole album project has been a trip…
Yeah man. Upside Down is the oldest tune on the album and that started around four years ago. Although it wasn’t written with an album in mind. I don’t know what I had in mind when I wrote it. I didn’t think it would ever get to any formed stage. But at one point Calyx & Teebee were on tour and Calyx was in the studio listening to it. He was feeling it, gave me some pointers and said ‘dude you gotta put a snare drum in it’. It was cool feedback that motivated me to finish it.
Vault Dweller is a personal favourite for me. That really grainy intro and weird bass sound…
Thanks. I had a lot of fun with Black Sun Empire on that. I’d just bought a new stack of avant garde 70s records and picked some samples from them I was dying to use. I’d also recently picked up an Arp Odyssey synthesizer and was feeling inspired by it. It’s a very basic barebones analog synth with a super aggressive tone and really got me sucked in for a while. I was stoked when they came over because I hadn’t had the chance to use it in a track yet but had the gnarly unconventional sound you hear as the main bassline dialled in on the Arp and was eager to try to fit it into something.
Speaking of Black Sun Empire. I was surprised this is your Blackout debut!
Long time coming, right? They hit me and a few other homies up when they were just about to launch Blackout but it was just as I was starting to work on Project Trendkill with Prolix. I knew my plate was already pretty full, I didn’t want to spread myself that thin and it didn’t feel like the right time. But now I live in The Netherlands and have played their parties and hearing the records they’re putting out, I felt it was a perfect fit for Z3R0 H0U2 and I plan to continue working with them in the future.
The Project Trendkill album was your last drum & bass album but it landed at a very similar time as Motion Picture. That was a very diverse range in just over the space of a year….
I guess Motion Picture was done in my spare time. It was digital only, so never having to occupy hardware and things I use in my real work. It was over a long time and very casually. It’s actually my personal favourite.
So this was musical escapism – not thinking about dancefloors or being Gridlok?
Yeah man, Motion Picture was an escape for sure. I wrote it over the course of around two and half, three years. People know me for making heavy drum & bass but that album has got no pressure or stresses of anything else, it just lives on its own in its own little musical world.
Could there be another project like that running away stealthily in the background right now?
Not yet. But there really should. One step at a time though man… Right now it’s about Z3R0 H0U2.
Gridlok – Z3R0 H0u2 is out May 26 on Blackout