Wednesday, 24 June 2009




So 2009 has barely begun, but it looks like we have a winner: Roman bass/drums/sax trio Zu are waltzing off with the album of the year prize. Carboniferous wastes no time in justifying this arguably dubious and certainly premature claim… ‘Ostia’ kicks in with an impossibly sexy live techno throb underpinned by obese bass, before evolving through several larval stages, each more obscenely exciting, twisted and hyperactive than the last.

‘Chthonian’, featuring Buzz Osbourne, is so vastly sludgy that it out-Melvins Melvins and then gets all wildly polyrhythmic and irresistibly danceable, just to make you die from joy. There’s no room for slack here: eight more tracks blaze by, each and every one a killer, big on ultra-precise low-end syncopation, bawdy bludgeon and rhythmically fiendish tangents. Somewhere in there Mike Patton shows up twice, to great effect, but his usually domineering presence is somewhat more diffident, audibly cowed by the monstrosity that this band have become.

 The degree to which Zu have been enhanced is almost absurd, akin to bolting an interplanetary rocket booster to a Lamborghini. Their former mathpunkjazzcore was peerless in terms of intricacy and invention, but this is the new and improved 2009 model, in which raging complexity is supercharged by serious heaviness and copious grooves. No dry intellectualism, this – Carboniferous’s natural habitat is the dancefloor/moshpit/boudoir. To reiterate: album of the year. No lie.

 (originally published in Rock-a-Rolla)


A bass saxophone, almost as tall as the man who wields it, thunders like the Horn of Gondor, shaking loose kneecaps and rupturing intestines. A spindly man in shorts chokes and mangles the life out of a seemingly innocent bass, sputtering and stuttering deep-black arcs of metallic crunch. Impossibly twisted beats that lurch and thrash like the death throes of copulating snakes overtake the man on the drum stool, who abandons his post and rattles out trigonometric paradiddles on a speaker cabinet instead. Jaws drop, nodding heads simplify patterns, and stiff bodies dance awkwardly to irregular rhythms. It’s a wet March Thursday in Glasgow, and Zu are headlining Stereo. The three-piece from Rome have been perfecting their dextrous band of hyper-complex, twitchily heavy low-frequency instrumental skronk over the past decade, and my god but it shows. Musically, they’re one mind only ever-so-slightly inconvenienced by the necessity of being split into three bodies. Their post-human tightness and devious compositions have carried them across the world’s oceans, and attracted collaborators ranging from free-jazz legends to the godfathers of experimental sludge. Rock-a-Rolla finds bassist Massimo Pupillo backstage, accompanied by a vast bowl of gratis curry and the room-shaking soundchecks of support bands Action Beat and Vars of Litchi. A personable, inspiring and enthusiastic chap, he begins by explaining how Zu came together:

“Me and Luca [Mai, sax] met when we were 14. We were from the same neighbourhood in Rome, a very, very suburban area near the sea where nothing happens – except a lot of people stealing and a lot of junkies. Those are the main two attractions of the place. So with really, really few people who were into music at all, it was easy to connect with the one other weirdo who was. Friendship and music obsession became a band.”

“But it took a long time for us to focus and understand what we really wanted to do. The band came together in ’97, but we became Zu in 1999. We decided to stop gigging for two years. This why the band is called Zu – it means ‘closed’ in German. So for two years we just closed ourselves off in a room and just practiced until we found the idea of what we are. Everything we listen to is important to us. We don’t choose with a rational mind where we want to go and how we develop the direction of the band. We are such voracious listeners that we want to take out parts of our taste and explore them – we want to do this Naked City kind of thing, where we just slice up, cut and paste every kind of music. You play one bar of country, one bar of hardcore…we want everything digested, mixed together.”

“There were no conscious decisions. Not having a guitar came about because we couldn’t find a guitarist we liked. We try to work with what we have. By itself, the instrumentation we have is very limited. There’s no harmonic instrument in the band, which limits the music a lot. It’s good, it forces you to be more inventive.”

For all its compositional and technical intelligence, Zu’s music has always been emotional too, leaning heavily towards the fierce, the aggressive. Massimo believes a harsh environment may well produce harsh art. “Music and geography are connected,” he says. “You express many things in music, you write your biography. You listen to music by somebody, and through that you speak of your place. We started at an early age listening to metal, then hardcore punk, industrial music, free jazz, avant-garde…everything. All kinds of angry music. We think we express the other side of Rome, away from the classical architecture. Rome is such a Catholic place, and we are deeply anti-Catholic. My parents were completely atheistic, very, very left-wing people.”

A self-taught bassist, Massimo has developed a fiendishly spidery, twangy style that’s highly distinctive. But why pick up this most unglamorous and anonymous of instruments in the first place? “It’s the same story as each and every bass player. In my first band, the guitar player was better than me, so I played bass. It was the perfect choice. I really felt at home. It’s a very underrated instrument. I don’t use a lot of pedals… [One is] a crazy hand-made evil distortion. This also involves limitations. It took me ten years to use pedals. For a long time I went straight into the amp, exploring what it was possible to do with my hands.”

“I’ve always been drawn to bass players that built a structure and not just followed chords – like early Charlie Haden when he was with Ornette Coleman. Rob from Nomeansno has been a huge inspiration, as was Mike Watt, Sasaki from the Ruins, and of course the masters – Mingus, etc. And Peter Hook, who did something different, building the song from a bassline, not just following chords. I think maybe if you are taught how to play then it’s more difficult to unlearn what you’ve been taught and do something new.”

This striving for the new, pushing themselves ever onwards, is what keeps Zu alive, keeps their music fresh – and most importantly, keeps it fun for the band themselves. “Every song contains something that’s new for us, “ says Massimo. “If you repeat yourself, it’s easier to sell records, it’s easier for a journalist to say ‘They do this music’, but it’s less interesting for you as a musician. We want to grow through our music.”

What kind of music that is is open to debate. There are discrete elements of many things in there – prog, math-rock, noise, metal – but no genre’s norms dominate at any given time. And one particular classification raises Massimo’s hackles more than most. “We mostly know what we are not,” he says. “We are not a jazz band. We don’t consider ourselves to be a jazz band at all, especially not free jazz. People see a saxophone and think jazz. But the music is so structured and composed that I don’t know how anyone can think it’s free. I play exactly what Jacopo [Battaglia]’s kick drum plays, or play a counter-rhythm. If you listen, you’ll see it’s not free.” 

Though their albums and live gigs more than stand on their own merit, the subject of collaboration looms large when you talk about Zu. Following chance meetings, copious drinks and unfettered mutual appreciation at gigs and festivals, they’ve ended up recording with, among others, electro-ambient composer Nobukazu Takemura, scattergun free-jazzers Mats Gustaffson and Ken Vandermark, and experimental guitar legend Eugene Chadbourne. An album with Nomeansno’s Rob Wright on vocals and second bass is in development. Right now, they’ve just completed a short European tour with Mike Patton, giving avant-rock’s foremost workaholic free reign to splatter his vocal tics all over their work. “The plan is to have the next record on Ipecac, and he will be on some of the songs, but we don’t know how many yet. We’ve done one song with the Melvins too. There are a million bands trying to do what they do, but they’re very clever musicians.”

Massimo promises that the Melvins tune will appear in tonight’s set, and that it’s very easy to spot. It’s an optimistic claim, partly because Zu are far heavier, denser, more vicious than they were when they first visited the UK with (Sweep the Leg Johnny spin-off) Check Engine in 2001. Back then, their complexity, energy and presence was in place, but there was also a brittleness to their disorienting rumble. Zu 2008 have been working out, big style. At least half of tonight’s songs have sufficient mass and crunch to suggest that they are Melvins-bound. There’s a cowload more muscle to their sound, largely thanks to Massimo’s newfound willingness to embrace the effects pedal, but also due to a more bullish attack from the whole band. The cranking up of the heaviness quotient suits Zu, their syncopated sideways assaults more punchy, more brutal, but no less dizzying, no less structurally overwhelming. 

What’s clearly evident about Zu, both as people and in their intricately confrontational skree, is that they relish the oppositional, prioritise the importance of friction and struggle in the development of art and of the self. Playing the kind of music they do takes devotion, obstinacy, and courage. “It was really hard in the beginning, in Rome. Even friends of ours were like, ‘What the fuck are you doing?’ But we gained strength. We really wanted to prove something. That you could live, or at least survive, playing this music. It’s quite a privilege, even though sometimes you’ll be broke, and you’re always at risk. It keeps life interesting…though sometimes you’d like less interesting. But it’s amazing. Being on tour so much is also good for the music. We wouldn’t be so tight if we only played 20 shows a year. And if we hadn’t had such shitty jobs we’d have no perspective. For years I was illegally putting up concert posters in Rome. If I have to live a basic lifestyle, I’d rather be on tour. I never dreamed of playing arenas, I never thought of myself like that. I always wanted to play music for the love of it; I thought it could save your life. And I’ve achieved more than I ever dreamed of.” 

 (originally published in Rock-a-Rolla)

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