WORDS

In Conversation With: ZHA

Anyone who is vaguely familiar with dubstep, grime or garage should have heard of White Peach. Whether it’s the artists on their roster, the music that they’ve released or their record store, it’s fair to assume that they’ve made their mark on the scene. Artists such as Sorrow, Glume & Phossa and Sukh Knight have all released on the label, however White Peach’s reach stretches further as they also manufacture and distribute vinyl. Behind this operation is Zha, who is also known for running the labels Fent Plates and Yellow Flower, as well as for his productions and DJing.

As White Peach approached the milestone of 50 releases last month, it was only fitting that it came from the label head himself with the Snails EP. The title track is trademark Zha, with a pumping bass and chopped up Bollywood vocals, as well as a breakdown that deludes you with it’s musicality before throwing you back into the deep end as the bass and drums roll out. Meanwhile the second track Daisy carries nostalgic synths, subtle bursts of trumpets and those familiar chopped up vocals that Zha is known for make it the most musical track on the release. Shattered oozes with tension as the tribal grime beat sits underneath the mystical strings, aggressive horns and terrifying war-like vocals. The EP cinematically finishes with Tunnels, with more natural percussion, eerie pads and a crunching, roaring bass.

We caught up with Zha and had a chat about legacy, vinyl and his favourite naans.

 

Am I right in thinking that you’re a pretty busy person?

I work around 18 hours a day normally, at the moment I’m working about 16 so I’m getting some extra sleep.

Wow.

We employ a considerable number of people across multiple companies and I also have personal academic commitments, so I’m currently juggling a dual life. I’m fairly busy but have on and off periods. In music, you have a busy period around October to January and then from February to May. Between June and September it really dies down. There isn’t much retail consumerism, everyone is outside and spending their money on festivals or holidays, not really by their computer. So that period is my downtime and my hours go down to around 14 a day. I then get my evenings back and I can smoke cigars and chill. I view it as having seasonal working blocks, so this is my ridiculous period at the moment but I know that when we get to June, I can chill again.

I guess that’s a pretty good time to be chilling. The sun’s out and it’s light after 4pm. What are your academic commitments?

I’m currently doing a Masters before going into my PhD.

Does your academic side influence your involvement in the music industry at all?

 There is only one relation that comes to mind – value relativism. It’s about the value that is given to something that only exists in the sphere of that one thing. So what is the value of music inside the sphere of music and then outside of music? I think the frustration that I have is that so many people who work in music choose to virtue signal it, but this isn’t the case, as much, in other arts. I think that music doesn’t have any intrinsic political or philosophical value, other than its utilitarian or hedonistic purpose.

Music has a value to derive pleasure. But what I think happens is that people think that the music itself has a greater intrinsic value, say a specific song can represent the struggle of black people in America because of police brutality. I think “No, it’s just an 8 bar grime loop. There’s nothing more to it.” The people that make music with the belief of extrinsic value are then validated by their fans which perpetuates more virtue signalling. They suddenly think that they are now in a position to give a political opinion or ridiculous medical advice when they’re not qualified to do so. I’ve realised the meaninglessness of music and have learnt to just enjoy it for what it is. I’ve purposefully made sure that, as a brand and artist, I’m not virtue signalling online. I’m not looking at causes to see if I can exploit them and make myself look good. If anything, my academic side has had the opposite effect and taught me to treat it for what it is and not make it anything greater than that.

That’s really interesting, not the answer I was expecting if I’m honest. 

I suppose if you asked that question to some other people, they could be like “Yeah mate, the reverb in my snare represents the struggle of …”. I’m like “Bro, you’re talking sh*t.” I always crack up at this anecdote, when someone is like “I’ve got this tune that I made for the people in Gaza. Please download it.” I’m sure that guy getting bombed right now is just thinking “Thanks mate, really appreciate that dubplate bro.” If there is a particular issue that affects you, don’t use the tools in music to weaponise the cause. Instead, get up and go and help those people directly.

I guess it would have to be a pretty heavy dubplate to help in that situation. So for White Peach you have the label releases on vinyl, the manufacturing, the distribution and you also mix on wax. What’s your connection to vinyl?

Obviously I purchased records when I was young and there are a couple of elements to why I use them now. There’s an element of snobbery connected to being a record collector, but I don’t share that outlook. In a world where digital music is so disposable and difficult to keep track of, vinyl documents music so that you physically can’t escape it. So if you create your music and put it on a physical platform, it’s on Discogs and catalogues where it’s forever reserved. I can still find music from the 1930’s when Russians were putting weird stuff on wax and listen to it.There’s an element of importance for me to be able to say that if we’re putting music out there, it has to be physical in case I ever move on from this. I know that the legacy or memory of what we’ve left behind will remain.

There’s also the more business side of it where it really bolsters the foundation of you as a record label. I don’t think that you could be a big, branded record label if you didn’t do something physically. There is a disparity which is very obvious between digital-only labels and labels that are physical. I couldn’t actually name you a record label that is excelling through only releasing music digitally. Even American EDM brands prioritise their merchandising, so there’s an element of physicality to their business model. With respect to vinyl and the scene that we are involved in, it’s fundamentally important to have the physical presence.

The manufacturing and distribution side was all by chance. A friend asked me 5 or 6 years ago to press some records for them, I said yes and it naturally grew to where it is now. It was a similar thing for the distribution side. After we pressed their records, I’d give them their stock and hit them up later and ask them how they were getting on. One friend only managed to sell 100 units and had 200 left, I asked him to give me the records so I could try to distribute them to stores and it all blew up from there.

Why do you mix on wax?

 I view it as – you can’t own a tobacco shop and not be a smoker. It’s like when you see the massive purveyors of vinyl turning up to a set with their USB. When I was a little guy it didn’t really matter, but I still mixed vinyl because I liked it. As I got older, playing out more and sometimes headlining, I felt like I was the dude championing people to manufacture and retail on vinyl so I had to be an ambassador of that. Also, I just like mixing records. I find it an absolute sweatbox. It’s a nightmare doing it live, it’s so stressfully fun. I see USB DJ’s and they just hit play whilst having a chat with you. I can’t do that, my head is in the decks for the whole hour. I’m not looking up.

So I like the challenge, but I also view pressing something to vinyl as an entry barrier for quality. Not everything gets released on vinyl, but pretty much everything gets released on digital. If you were to listen to a person mixing records, for me the quality of music tends to be better. The label has to be like “This artist has sent me 10 tracks, I have to pick the best 2.” Whereas a digital set may contain some average tracks that they were sent earlier in the day. I also feel like there’s an element of quality control with cutting dubplates costing £20 or £25 each. If I’m cutting someone’s tune, I really have to like it.

So there’s an ambassador element, an element of quality and also that it’s a nice, stressful thing to do.

I guess cutting dubs for you must be easier for you than it is for most people and dropping a tune that you’ve made, on a dub that you’ve cut must be pretty satisfying. 

When you’re at the dubplate level with your own tunes, it’s even worse. You’ll make the tune and think it sounds good. Then you’ll get it cut, play it and then think “Wow this sounds really bad.” So you go back and re-work it, get it re-mastered and then cut it again. I think the best part is when you get the test presses of the final mix and you go out and get a reload of a tune that you literally just made in your bedroom. I have a studio now but you get the connotation, it’s just me in a room [laughs]. It’s so bizarre to me that I’m mucking around making a tune, then the next week I’m in front of 500 people playing the track and some people are like “Oh my god, what is this?” I’m just like “This is just some silly thing that I made.”

What motivates you to stay in the industry, to keep on doing what you’re doing?

 Hmm… I think there have been phases. In the beginning it was this drive to have something that is successful. That element of needing something where I’m not an utter failure and can’t afford my mortgage. That element of necessity, you actually have to choose a profession and work. Now, it’s become more paternal. I have a pretty big roster of artists and 3 record labels, of which White Peach is not the biggest. I have this paternal responsibility to ensure that I’m providing, through digital or record sales in every quarter. Those artists, especially in a time like now, are partially relying on me working. That’s a massive motivator. If I just stopped working, I’d be doing a great injustice to the music that they’ve gifted and trusted me with.

A bit more egotistically, I think legacy is quite important, I’d like for the labels to be remembered for doing something substantial. That we released good music and have inspired others to produce or be passionate about something linked to music. There is a part of that which is linked to ego I suppose, because it comes from a place where I want the legacy of what I’ve done to be important. However, how important can dubstep and grime be in the grand scheme of things actually be?

I guess that’s similar to what you were saying about the physical aspect to vinyl and the memory that leaves behind. You said that White Peach isn’t the biggest label that you run. Is Fent Plates the biggest then?

Yeah Fent Plates is our biggest. Yellow Flower is the baby. There is NAAN but that’s just an imprint, it’s not a record label. I’m a bit weird about this, I have a very strict definition of what I deem to be a record label. It’s not somebody that sells vinyl out of the bedroom. That’s now become the norm, to get a logo, think of a name and sell vinyl out of your house. To me, that’s not a record label. That’s somebody selling vinyl. A record label is the licensing, publishing, brand development, key planning and the big picture to develop artists. It’s an operation. There’s a big project around it. NAAN isn’t that, it’s literally just a platform where I put out music that only I make. That’s it, there’s no obligation to it.

Fent Plates is our biggest because the streaming numbers are in the millions, totalling tens of millions. The artists are a lot more prominent and you have some writing scores for games, they’re the big dogs. It’s really interesting because they’d never fill up a club, but they rack up millions of streams in a month. It’s the other way around with White Peach, it’s more cult-based. We can put an event on and sell out that room. But if I did a Fent Plates night, nobody’s turning up.

You just briefly mentioned NAAN and for me, your music on NAAN is my favourite out of all of your productions. The fusion of the Asian influences with electronic, more western sounds is really interesting. Where does this influence come from?

 Ah, I’m brown. I play the tabla a little bit, also the sarangi and the sitar. I’m really crap at it but it’s easy to go into a recording session for an hour, play the sarangi and take that hour of recording and manipulate it. My early stuff used samples more, but for my latest stuff I’m trying not to sample. I think it’s harder and more credible as a musician. Samplers get bad stick and rightly so if I’m honest. Someone else has spent 30 years perfecting their musical craft for somebody to pinch it and stick an 808 on it. I felt like I needed to not be dishonest and try my best to use as many real instruments as possible. There’s a level of importance with carving out what you want to be and what you want to represent in music. This isn’t to say that I don’t have records where I completely sample everything! Having your own sound is criminally important. Nowadays, 99% of people have top production quality. What differentiates you from that great 16 year old is your musicality and what sound you’re going for.

I was making this Asian influenced music under a different alias, then switched to making grime and dubstep and then ended up going back to making grime-y, dubstep-y Asian music. It’s all gone full circle. I think it’s nice to see how loads of other artists that aren’t Asian have made Asian influenced music. I think it was around the time that Sukh Knight was making way more aggressive, clubby stuff and I was making more chilled out music that everyone didn’t like. But I’ve now ended up going back to doing what I did 10 years ago.

I grew up listening to Bollywood in the background, it’s always been around me. I’ve always liked the aesthetic and sound of it. There’s something that clicks in me when I hear it appropriated in western electronic music. I don’t know, it just really appeals to me.

I’ve been listening to dubstep for a while, but it wasn’t until I heard Koshi by De-Tu on White Peach that I was really like “woah”. Do you have any plans to release other people’s music on NAAN? 

NAAN isn’t a label. Growing a record label so that it provides an income and everything else, it’s such a huge responsibility. I don’t think I could spread myself any thinner. I’d have to find artists that make Asian electronic music and then ask them to make a certain amount of releases a year, license it, publish it … nah. Hopefully somebody might read this, be inspired by it and go do it themselves. In my previous experiences, I know of record labels that tried this and they all failed. It’s a niche within a niche within a niche. It’s a difficult sell.

Since you’ve already had tracks like Koshi on the label, why not just have the NAAN releases on White Peach? 

Firstly, the artists on White Peach are way better than me. I’m not a producers producer, I don’t make tunes as good as them. I don’t have any formal training on the physics of music, nor the musicality of it. I can do whatever I like on NAAN, it’s a bit of fun. So I don’t want to lower the quality of the label itself and if you own a record label then it can just become a bit of a vanity project if you only release your own music. I’ve seen other labels where the owners release on it quite a bit and it takes away from the reason you’re running it. The final thing is that I feel like I have complete freedom on NAAN. The next few releases are already planned, one of them has 2 grime bangers on one side and the other side has 2 Asian drill flips. The one after that is a 110 house tune and on the flip, a 130 BPM garage tune. On White Peach, the decisions I’m making have an impact. If I release something stupid or leftfield, we have a reasonable audience who could think “This isn’t very White Peach”. So it’s a combination of all of these things.

From my perspective, it’s a shame that you don’t think that your music stands up in terms of quality. 

Honestly [laughs], if you spent a day doing what I do and listened to the sheer amount of music that I get sent, then you listened to the quality of it and repeated that over 10 years, you will eventually realise that there are so many incredible producers out there. They spend every day, 8-10 hours a day making music and studying it. I don’t do that, I literally sit down and poop out a tune a year and then go and do 100 other things. It’s a matter of fact, I’m being truthful! Their productions are ridiculous. The amount of times I’ve gone to people like Glume and Phossa, being like “Listen, how are you making that sub?” I harassed De-Tu over how they make their subs once and asked them to show me what they do. They tried to explain it to me but I had no idea what they were talking about so I pretended to understand.

Why did you choose the name NAAN? 

I finished the first record and I was having dinner with my family, we were eating daal and naan. That was it, it’s as stupid as that. I had the aesthetic, I bought the Bollywood sheets and I ripped them up. Then I thought “I have the music and aesthetics. I just need a name.” I liked how naan looked in Arabic, it’s just 3 letters so fits nicely. I looked up and saw that there are no other record labels with the name and that was it. There was no more thought behind it.

All of the record label names have stupid reasonings behind it. For White Peach, I was 18 or 19 years old and at uni in first year. I was smoking white peach shisha and filling out the form for director of the business and I needed a name. I really liked the white peach shisha flavour, so I just called it that. I wish I had thought a bit harder about all the names!

What’s your favourite naan and what would you eat it with? 

Garlic butter naan with kebabs, I think it’s amazing. I’m not a fan of peshwari naan. I go to India as much as I possibly can and when I was in Mumbai a couple of years ago, I had this noorani kebab with garlic butter naan and it was the most heavenly kebab wrap that I’ve ever had in my life.

That sounds incredible! So your latest EP is the 50th release on White Peach. That’s a massive achievement, how does it feel and did you always plan on making it this far? 

There were no plans, we’ve just kept going. We’ve hit 50 and we’re going to carry on. This year was a bit of a slow one, we’ve only put out around 7 releases whereas normally it’s around 12. I didn’t really know what to do this year, I found there was an element of ethics involved. People are dying in a pandemic and then I’d be like “Hey guys! Here’s a new record!” It would have been bad to do so. For next year, we’ve got the next 5 or 6 releases signed and I’ve taken on 2 new artists.

Ironically, this year was meant to be more focused around events so we had planned 12 cities in the UK and 8 in Europe and then the pandemic happened and it all got cancelled.

That’s a shame. Has anything changed you creatively over the last few months? 

Yeah, I did have more releases due this year but I had to pull them because they were so club focused that I thought that they’d fall flat. These were tunes that were dubs and had been played last year, so I was ready to release them. Now the pandemic has happened, club music isn’t important and people don’t really care about it. Creatively I’ve been working on more chilled and relaxed music. To be honest, that’s my forte and what I’m better at doing. I prefer making more chilled music than club music. It’s a bit more timeless, whereas club music has a period and then everyone moves on. In a weird way I’ve embraced the more chilled side of music. I was on a streak of gigs before the pandemic where I was flying to different countries in January and February. I was in clubs then I’d come home and be frothing at the mouth to make a banger. I feel like this change has been a good thing, it’s made me ask myself why I’m trying to pander to make music just to get a reload. It’s so silly. Make something that someone can actually listen to with headphones and think “This sounds nice”. So I’m now trying to make more emotive music.

One last question. Let me set the scene: You’ve just come home and smell something burning. When you open the front door, you see a fire. What is the one thing that you’d save if your computer had already gone up in flames? 

Ah, I recently had this conversation and I said that I’d obviously smash open the side of my computer and pull out my SSD. That’s got my whole life on it. In this example has my computer set on fire?

Yeah, gone.  

It’s gone? Ah sh*t. Honestly, I can’t think of anything I’d get from the house. I’m not a materialist. The records will all burn to the ground.

I guess you could take some records? 

That can all burn bro. I think I’d be a bit of a stoic and let it all burn to the ground. That’s life? I’d just have to start again. I think I’d get nothing. I’d let it burn and be like “Sometimes life just throws you a sh*tter.” Actually, I have a nice cigar collection, I could throw that into a bag. Then again, they’re all replaceable.

Zha – Snails is out now on White Peach 

Follow Zha: Facebook / Soundcloud / Instagram

Follow White Peach: Facebook / Soundcloud / Website