From exceptional releases on labels like The North Quarter, Dispatch and CIA to joining the dots between R&B and D&B on exquisitely sexy mixes like this, Zero T has definitely kept himself busy during this strange old year-of-two-halves.
Now off the lockdown leash, loving being back behind the decks and feeling energy and vibes from shows he’s not felt since he first got into the scene in the late 90s, the Irishman-in-London is even busier and sitting a whole stack of unreleased material.
As always with Mr T, the vibes range from dusty heart-massaging soul to grizzly grainy filth, often within the same track. You can catch a flavour of what’s to come on this production mix he recently did for Rene Lavice’s Radio 1 show or chow down on his latest EP for Lenzman’s The North Quarter – Off Broadway, a six track trove of Zero T treats that span his whole sleazy, sizzling signature.
With plenty more set to drop later this year, including the first single from Zero T & Beta 2’s live soul and jazz project Searchlight, we called him up for a long overdue catch-up…
Take me back to freedom weekend and your set for Goldie’s residency. That was legendary…
That was my first show back since Star Warz in Belgium, February 2020. The whole week running up to it was very uncertain, then XOYO had their issues with power, so they had to change the venue last minute. It felt like a bit of a cursed week, but then the world has felt a bit cursed for the last four or five years hasn’t it? So I didn’t hold my breath for that night to happen at all which would have been a shame, it was such an honour to be asked by G to play the opening show. That was a proper career highlight regardless of lockdowns or anything else. But it all came together, and it was a night I’ll never forget, even though it took a while to find the venue!
That gave it a 90s vibe, if anything, which is apt due to the energy at play in these shows coming back…
I was going to say! I’ve played quite a few times since we’ve opened up again and they’ve all had that energy and vibe I last experienced in the 90s as a teenager. Everyone’s been cooped up for a year and a half, some people have never got to go raving before the lockdown, so the crowds are all really into all the music. It’s just been great. And the best thing is, I’m sitting on hours and hours of new music. I’ve played five shows so far and I’ve still got so much music I’ve not tried out. It feels so nice to look at my key and see so many options to mix – either my own stuff or all the incredible stuff everyone else has been making and sending to me. It’s a very nice position to be in and very inspiring.
Do you think the time away from the circuit has given people time to find their sound?
I think since the late 90s D&B has suffered this situation where you get something that comes along and really blows people’s heads off and then you get endless copies of that idea that aren’t quite as good. That’s not new. But I do think there’s something in the idea that being away from DJing will help encourage some interesting ideas… When you look at some of the most influential artists from the 90s, their most unique and game-changing records generally came out before they headlined or even DJ’d at all. Then their sounds did definitely change when they became headliners themselves.
We are all influenced by DJing and getting that crowd reaction and the sad thing is there’s no model to avoid that. Making a living off solely making drum & bass without performing it just isn’t possible. And that means we’re less likely to hear someone come along with a sound that’s completely out of the box and not influenced by the whole culture of rinsing it out. And I think because of that we’ve found that music – and I mean this across the whole of music – just hasn’t evolved as rapidly as it once did. Listen to any jungle or drum & bass record from between 93 and 96 and the sound is worlds apart. But then it slows right down. For me the difference between something made in the mid or late 2000s isn’t drastically different from something you’d hear now. Only the production techniques have got a lot better.
Since things went digital, maybe?
Maybe but I think it’s a whole halting of culture across all arts since the 2000s. It’s very hard to find something completely new – it’s just repeating or riffing on the same ideas that already exist.
But those new ideas sound fresh to new ears…
I joke about this to a lot of DJ friends similar age to me. When we draw those big classics like Wormhole or Compound it’s now like someone in the 90s playing something from the 60s, which is quite bizarre but also great: This music is now 30 years old, it will never go away and it draws in new people all the time. Every day a new kid falls in love with D&B. I can think of so many other genres that have come and gone and not had that consistency.
Amen! When we’re talking about the decades, I think about the time you came from and your very well-established love for 90s rnb!
Absolutely. I’m a 90s kid through and through. I was born in 1980, I came into the 1990’s as a 10 year old and left as a 20 year old. My route into jungle was through hip-hop and a lot of triphop (although I hate that term) like Massive Attack, Tricky, Portishead. There were loads of compilations like Dope On Plastic and James Lavelle’s Mo’Wax label, all that beatsy type of stuff. I also have cousins from the US who introduced me to hip-hop. They left a copy of ATCQ – Low End Theory at our house after a summer visit in 92. I was a bit too young to get it at the time but a year or so later I put it on and was like ‘okay, this is it’.
Then, when I started to hear jungle like Dillinja and Lemon D, I could hear them pulling from the same sources. I didn’t know what sampling was back then but I understood jungle as a fast form of hip-hop that had all the elements I loved – the jazzy elements, the breakbeats and the whole repurposing culture. And my approach to it all hasn’t changed since I got into it. As a fan, as a DJ or as a producer, I’ve never changed my ethos.
Sampling culture, essentially…
100%. For me, it’s all about sampling. It’s all about source, where you’re finding your source and trying to be different. My heroes are DJ Premier, Pete Rock, Dilla. Guys like that. The sample kings. It’s one thing to go and find the sources they sample and re-use them. But what you want to find is stuff that evokes the same feeling and vibe. Basically digging is the main thing I do. More than any other part of the music making process. About three times a year I’ll do a deep dive and create this big batch of samples.
Like a palette to paint from?
Those days are great when you’re feeling uninspired to make a full tune…
Yeah. I’m a firm believer that you should never have dead time. You can’t be creative 100% of the time. You’re not always on the best form. I think either Mako or Villem once said, ‘It’s not about your A-game, it’s about how you are at your C-game.’
Sounds like either of them. They’re both philosophical dudes
Totally. I think Mako was quoting Andy Villem. But it’s very true and, back to what you’re saying, I do try and minimise the time I spend on the computer and a lot of that will be listening and sampling and collating all these little ideas which can help trigger creative ideas later on down the line. Then I work in short 45 min bursts on things. I have a bad habit of smoking, so I’ll bounce down the idea I’m working on, make a cup of tea and listen to it while I’m having a smoke. So I’m still working and thinking about where I want to go when I’m next in the studio. You’re writing in your head so when you get to the screen you’re prepared.
I do the same!
It’s funny. What began as a necessity is now part of my creative process. One of the barriers of finishing or progressing a tune is looking at it. Music has no physical form, you need to listen to it and feel it. Getting it off the DAW and onto your headphones, or in your car or whatever means you hear it as a tune, rather than looking at it as a visual digital project. You absorb it in a different way, it’s all about tricking your brain into getting out of the creative process and into the critical listening process. But we all develop unique ways of doing things don’t we?
We do. So let’s talk about Off Broadway. I like the title. For me that says ‘for the heads’. As in ‘not mainstream’.
Interesting! That wasn’t the intention. You’re right technically, but I was coming more from a different perspective. Particularly two of the tracks – Fortune Green and Drama both have that Taxi Driver, grimy, neon lights, hookers and drug dealers type of New York vibe. The sounds are spooky 70s funk, crime scene and soundtracky type of stuff. Also invoking old library music, jazz and vinyl, Like those old brown and green covers that you knew would smell of cigarettes. So Off Broadway was that; capturing the grimy Midnight Cowboy feeling.
Yeah I’m feeling that! Going back to your hip-hop love, it’s no coincidence that a lot of your music comes on Metalheadz and The North Quarter, which are run by huge hip-hop heads.
For sure! Metalheadz in particular was what made me fall in love in D&B in the first place especially Lemon D’s Urban Style Music. He was sampling the same records hip-hop producers were. For me it was mutant hip-hop. Hidden Agenda, too. They were making this alien hip-hop from Mars, that’s what it is for me and Headz showed me that, just like anything could be turned into hip-hop, anything could be turned into drum & bass.
That’s the most important thing I try and maintain. Even though D&B can be still be very self- influenced, it’s still a huge melting pot with so many different references and influences. You can hear hip-hop influences, techno influences, soul influences.
Yeah totally you can hear a thrash metal energy to certain things, can’t you? You can make anything into jungle but I learnt very quickly that if I’m going to make this music then I would have to be a student of all music. I need to absorb, listen to and sponge up everything. Find out what I like and go and find stuff that is like that, or how to turn things into what I want to hear. That’s why sampling is so important.
Once I have the source samples it’s just a case of triggering things. I’m not writing the tune; I’m doing what the sample is telling me what needs to happen to it to be a good jungle tune. I’m just a conduit for making that happen and I’m trying to honour that sample as best I can.
Love that. That’s the pure art of sampling!
It’s the difference between being a producer and a musician. If I was an actual musician, I wouldn’t know where to start writing a tune! Having no limitations can be a death knell. It’s like, ‘Where do you even start?’ Having limited resources gives you that struggle and that rawness and energy. When you had 12 seconds of sample time, the shit you’d have to do to get the whole tune into the sampler was super creative. The break would be one and a half seconds, so you’d have 10 seconds left for all the other elements. You’d sample stuff at +100 then manually slow it down which would give the sample a unique quality which is part of the grit and weirdness and grime and texture that made the records great.
It’s refreshing to chat about sampling like this. It keeps coming up in other interviews such as this one with Quartz and this one with Aston from Freestylers who was very forthright about using samples because if something does become a hit then clearance will be paid!
I agree. And all they’ll get is the profits you make so, when you consider how diminished the music industry has become in regards to royalties and making money off recorded music, it’s not worth them fighting. In all my years I’ve never had an issue with sampling. Maybe that’s because none of my tunes have got big enough.
No, honestly, that would be the reason why. But, for me, if I do have a big hit then take the money! One, it’s not going to be much. Two, I’ll still benefit from the profile of that track. For a bonus three, I’m never thinking about money or licencing or anything like that when I’m sampling anyway. For me the energy and the essence of jungle and drum & bass is about being wrong. Doing the wrong thing from the way music is ‘meant to be’ made, to the whole punk attitude. it’s illicit, it’s illegal, it shouldn’t conform in any way. For me, sampling is the absolute essence of this music. It’s ‘I don’t give a fuck’ music. That’s what drum & bass should be about.
I don’t run a label so it’s easy for me to say that. I completely understand it and I never have a hope of any of music being used in games or films or TV. But if it’s just tunes for people to listen to and DJ then I don’t see the issue. And in the scenarios where the label has said the sample is too hot then I’ll ring Ishfaq, my multi-instrumentalist pal. He’ll then recreate it or play something that fits that vibe. That is still part of sample culture for me, anyway. And the Off Broadway EP definitely has that. It’s sample music that’s inspired by a vibe that Bristol guys were doing a lot of in the mid 90s. It goes back to the b-boy thing. Die, Krust, Roni are all big hip-hop heads and they were sampling things that recreated the vibe that guys like Rza was capturing with WuTang. It wasn’t the same source sounds necessarily, but it invoked the same feeling.
I loved that back then. I still love that now and I miss it from D&B. More recently it’s started to come back a bit, which is cool, but that’s what I attempted to capture – that 97 Full Cycle vibe and what Die in particular was doing at that time. It gives me everything I want from drum & bass. The mood, the funk, the elements. It feels organic and human and not like computer generated music.
Totally. So you’ve been super busy lately with your music, across all the labels!
I agree it’s been my most consistent period ever. I had the CIA release at the start of the year then the Dispatch release, now this North Quarter EP and I’ve got a huge queue of things coming out soon including a solo release on Symmetry, an EP for Sofa Sound, a follow up EP to Can’t Hide from me and Steo on Integral, two tracks on the Metalheadz 25 LP and a remix of KILLSWSH on PAV4N’s label 4NCY. Then there’s also the Searchlight project…
Tell me more…
It’s myself and Dom Beta 2, we’re signed to Goldie’s other label; Fallen Tree. It’s a jazz and soul album with lots of live instrumentation. We’ve got Sam Ishfaq playing multiple instruments and Irish Jazz pianist Aoife Faughnan playing keys on two tracks, and some guitar by my brother also. Plus loads of vocal talents; Tolu Mackay who has become a superstar in Ireland since we recorded together and she’s absolutely amazing. We’ve done three tracks with her, two of which were co-written with Goldie. Then there’s two neo-soul bits from KSR. We’ve got two 90s hip-hop inspired tunes with rappers and singers including one with Steo and Pav4n on a tune together and another with Illaman and Lariman, an Irish-Nigerian reggae singer who featured on Calibre’s Second Son LP many moons ago. We’ve also done two remixes from Timeless. There’s State Of Mind, which has been turned into a 165bpm thing with live drumming.
Yes! You played that at Goldie’s dance didn’t you?
No that was Sensual. That was the second remix from Timeless we did, which took a lot of work, as Goldie mentioned on the mic on the night!! They’re not really clubby drum & bass tunes at all but written from more of a ‘live’ perspective. They look back to that Talking Loud/4Hero era of music. In fact the whole Searchlight project is very inspired by 4Hero who’ve been our idols since day one. They were the first people to sign music from me and Beta 2, outside of our home label Bassbin. So they’ve been such a big influence on our lives, especially the Two Pages album. We’ve always said it would be great to write an album with musicians and write it from a musical point of view. The album’s been done for a bit and we’re working on the launch now. The first single release will be in November, so watch this space and follow us on Instagram, Facebook or Twitter.
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Can’t wait to hear more! What else is coming?
The batch of solo release I mentioned earlier, a remix of a Total Science classic, a lot more North Quarter stuff and a special project for Metalheadz, although that will not be finished until next year. Also on the non-dnb tip; I have a new solo alias specifically for solo Broken Beat productions called Bruk Rogers and my debut release is coming on CoOpR8’s Our Music Our Culture 2 LP. I was always a huge fan of the style from its inception and to get my first bits signed by two of Bugz In The Attic (Afronaught and Mark Force) has me buzzing like I was in 99 when I first had tunes singed by 4Hero!
Zero T – Off Broadway is out now on The North Quarter
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