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Cold Snap 

British duo Zero 7 rode its chill vibe to the top of the U.K. charts. But will its mellow electronica play in America?

Wednesday, Dec 12 2001
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Cynical groups that believe a meteoric rise in the music business is impossible without compromise and video airplay will want to study the career path of British duo Zero 7. If it weren't for members Henry Binns' and Sam Haradaker's insistence that their uncommon string of successes was due to happenstance, one might think some massive conspiracy was behind their overnight Next Big Thing status. Zero 7's very first release was a remix of Radiohead's "Climbing Up the Walls" -- a break afforded the twosome by their college friend Nigel Godrich, Radiohead's producer. Based on their reworking, the pair scored again, when English downtempo taste-maker and BBC/Radio 1 DJ Gilles Peterson tapped them to do similar work on a song by soul-jazz heavyweight Terry Collier. Zero 7's first original releases -- the unpromoted, small-budget EP1 and EP2 -- sold out almost as soon as copies hit the shelves. The U.K. press nearly ran out of fawning praise and exaggerated comparisons when the band's debut album, Simple Things, made its arrival in Britain last May. Then the disc was short-listed for the prestigious Mercury Prize, awarded to the best British album of the year; presently, it has already gone well past gold. Elton John even dropped Zero 7's name when asked by Interview magazine what was in his CD player.

Without a whiff of false modesty, Binns says that the hype has gotten out of hand, and he seems quite relieved to learn that American mainstream radio and press rarely, if ever, bend over backward for groups like his. European favorites such as Air, Massive Attack, Portishead, and Gus Gus -- acts that are regularly, if oft incorrectly, likened to Zero 7 -- aren't exactly chart toppers over here. Simple Things' tranquil electronic-soul music has no marketable American precedent, and the musicians' conspicuous lack of attitude will get them on few magazine covers stateside. That change of affairs couldn't be more welcome for Binns and Haradaker.

"I think overexposure is a bad thing," Binns says, speaking from his home in North London. "It's a bit of a double-edged sword. There is a certain ethos -- especially in the States, I gather -- that all exposure is good exposure, and I simply don't believe that. Maybe you're going to push a few more units, but in the long run ... I don't know. Like our record label's been trying to get us on kiddies' Saturday morning breakfasttime things, and we're like, "No, really, we're not going to do that.'"

So what is the brouhaha all about? Why the engraved invitation to take over English pop culture? The simple answer is that Zero 7 revives a few old sounds, albeit in a different manner from its regurgitant electronica peers. Lately, sampler-reliant producers have utilized two different styles -- the cosmic soul of '70s Stevie Wonder, and Nick Drake-style folk rock -- to give their productions more depth, but never both simultaneously. Each throwback fascination figures prominently on Simple Things, subsumed in a fashion that's unique. As New Music Express put it, "one of the most refreshing features of Simple Things is its supreme lack of irony and kitsch." Zero 7 doesn't have a pretentious bone in its body -- a rarity for a U.K. media darling -- and its grand scheme seems to be that it doesn't have one.

Another theory about the group's success is that Zero 7 is the leader of a chill-out renaissance, which is supposedly luring British youth away from clubs and into relaxation. The same NME article declared Simple Things "the brightest and most unabashed celebration of the laid-back life," as if the group is waving the flag for some slacker rebellion. Beyond the soothing pace and nostalgic string passages on Simple Things, this sentiment is probably motivated by the group's connection to "The Big Chill," a massive party that happens a few times a year in the countryside of England and on a less frequent basis in Australia, New Zealand, Japan, and France. "The Big Chill," which describes itself on its Web site (www.bigchill.net) as "a way of life dedicated to transforming the spirit of our times," tends to present chilling as a kind of movement. Since Zero 7 played its coming-out party at the festival's "Enchanted Garden" party in Wiltshire this July, the media seized on the "poster boys for taking it easy" angle.

"We had a brilliant time at "Enchanted Garden' this summer," Binns states. "We'd been gigging for a bit, and that was the first time people knew the tunes, and they were all buzzing and stuff. It's kind of a festival for thirtysomethings with kids. It's a really beautiful environment, with peacocks roaming around -- not grubby like Glastonbury. But the whole chill thing is still just a name; it's not a social movement yet. A social movement of chill is kind of a bizarre idea to me anyway. I can envision 14-year-olds going, "Yeah, we're chilling tonight,' as if it's something serious."

"Big Chill" founder Peter Lawrence isn't put off by Zero 7's reluctance to pick up the chilly gauntlet. "They still claim that there's not really a chill-out scene, and try to distance themselves from it," he writes in an e-mail. "But the weekend they played at Enchanted Garden was one of the most amazing coming-togethers at one event that I have ever been part of, and they were right at the center of it."

He also adds, "I rate [Zero 7's single] "This World' as pretty much the greatest soul ballad ever written."

Hyperbole? Perhaps. But Binns and Haradaker, who are sound engineers-cum-songwriters and "not really musicians as such," have a rare intuitive talent for constructing compellingly melodic arrangements and for layering different instrumental parts. Simple Things' "This World," while not something a Motown collector would chuck his records for, is indeed magic. Combining a sultry violin line reminiscent of Barry White's Love Unlimited Orchestra with bright modern-day atmospherics and a vocalist who evokes a melancholy hopefulness, the ballad is a true novelty in electronic music. The cut, like every other number on the album, succeeds in crossing the notorious electronica chasm that divides moody pastiches from full-fledged songs. How the pair got here remains a mystery: Binns won't elaborate on how they suddenly blossomed from "knocking out beats in a tiny studio under our cupboard" to the dramatic multipart arrangements on Simple Things, other than to say, "Through lots of sweat and blood."

Whatever the cause of their creative transformation, the men of Zero 7 were lucky to secure the funding necessary to realize their vision of cinematic songs supported by a rhythmic bedrock. With some extra cash from their label Ultimate Dilemma, Binns and Haradaker increased the orchestral sweep of the EPs' tracks, adding the promising but relatively unknown singers Mozez, Sophie Barker, and Sia Furler, along with an eight-piece string section, a flutist, and a trumpet player. Ingredients, in short, that make for a very rich, very deep sound.

Zero 7, though, is not a conventional band. The players on the album basically stuck to parts scripted by the production pair, and Binns stresses that "we don't rock at all." The percussion is a mixture of decelerated funk drum samples and a live drummer, balanced in such a way that isn't easily identifiable as either. The folk feeling comes from simple acoustic guitar parts and a general sonic cleanliness, while the singing is grounded more in black musical traditions. Binns and Haradaker grew up on hip hop and "soul in its many guises" and took an interest in easy listening and folk only later in life. And when Binns says folk, he means it in a decidedly nontraditional sense.

"I think Radiohead writes folk songs," Binns says. "They just dress them up in a different way." Zero 7 dresses up its folk differently too, along with its soul, ambient electronica, trip hop, and easy listening. In the end, that carefree genre-blending is what endears the group to so many critics and listeners: No one's quite sure where Zero 7 fits into existing categories, and the freedom from context feels liberating instead of directionless. Zero 7 makes really robust, really well put together mood music -- analysis is discouraged and distracting. As suggested by the title of the album, it's the simple things that fascinate the duo. Binns just hopes that the whirlwind of attention will not complicate matters too much or force-fit him and his partner into a compartment against their will.

"We've got to be careful about expectations, because it's our first album, and we did our best," Binns offers. "A lot of people are saying we're the new Quincy Jones and all this, but come on, we can't even be mentioned in the same breath as someone like that. The next goal is to make another record I would enjoy listening to -- that's really the only criteria by which we work."

Though the band would deny it, Zero 7 proves that the rock 'n' roll dream still works on some level: A couple of unassuming, understated chaps can go from zero to hero without a frontman, a wardrobe consultant, or high-concept bollocks. Maybe a new act doesn't need strings pulled by shadowy financiers in order to emerge from the underground. Conversely, maybe the hype machine does have a reason for being, and maybe it gets things right from time to time.

About The Author

Darren Keast

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