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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.
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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."
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