|Jeff Zagers - Still / Alive|
There's something spectral, historic, and familiar to Jeff Zager's music, like the visitation of a lost loved one in a dream. I'm at once placated and disturbed by Still / Alive, his excellent, new LP on the perennially great Wharf Cat Records. There's a chance I feel this way because Zagers' music, like an ancestral tapestry, pulls from a wide net - I'll say right off the bat that I've never heard anything quite like Still / Alive, and I consider myself a fairly well-listened individual. There are jazz, folk, rock, and electronic elements alive and teaming under the surface of this disembodied pop record. Somehow it doesn't sound cluttered or overdone - it's moving, actually. A song like "A Hole to Hollow" is as heartbreaking as it is pleasantly pensive, and that's an indication of the record as a whole.
It's not surprising, though, when you consider how long Jeff has been working on it, having started writing back in 2009 and entering production in 2012. It shows. Aside from the intricate, layered song structures, Alive / Still is sonically impressive. Simply put, there's a very high sound quality on this release. Knowing that Jeff did the mixes himself makes it an even more staggering feat. Zagers recently completed an eighteen-day tour alone. That's serious commitment, but what else would you expect from an endeavoring, earnest, and exceptionally-talented individual?
Still / Alive is streaming on Spotify, but I recommend checking out the "Still Alive" single on Soundcloud and buying the whole record. It will surely be one of my favorites of the year.
Jordan Reyes: You play a lot of instruments! When and how did you begin picking them up? What makes you want to learn more?
Jeff Zagers: There was an acoustic 3/4 sized Kay guitar given to my family when I was born. Around the age of 8 or 9 I started attempting to play along to recordings. I stayed on guitar for years, taking lessons here and there from a music shop. Then I took lessons for a couple years by David Kimball in South Carolina. He taught high school classes in the morning, private lessons in the afternoon and performed in orchestras or theater plays at night. On top of that, I don't remember what his primary instrument was but if it had strings, he could play it. I learned a lot of things from him, but what resonated most was triads.
JZ: I discovered multi-tracking and learned bass and drums. Moved to Savannah, Ga in 2005 and started diving into newer music outside of what was available to me growing up. I was finding kinship with folk forms. Jazz and country, and noise. The echoing of your surroundings.
|Photo by Shaye Garrigan|
JR: Tell me a little bit about Still Alive, your new record on Wharf Cat. When was this material written and recorded?
JZ: Hmm, what do you want to know? I was approached by Carson Cox about getting a record together of my solo work. He spearheaded the idea and later it morphed into him working with Wharf Cat to assemble it all.
JZ: I was working with decomposing material to make new soil for the surrounding area here. To ripen and to rot. The tidal wave that is humanity is teetering on its last resources. Wasting so much as a planet. A lot of thought was given to the ocean and the land of this earth.
JZ: The material was written over a number of years going back to 2009. The production itself took place june/july 2012 - december 2013.
JR: I can't think of many other artists I know from Savannah, GA. Are there any names I should know?
JZ: The birds here are a kind of revolving door ensemble. There is an orchestra in my back yard on a nice day. They line up on the telephone wire and just sing. The coast has very nice sounds too. Maybe some of the most moving moments of my life were caused by the sounds and movements of the ocean.
JZ: It’s a very peculiar town where the art line is blurred due to the fact that you see everybody everywhere if you are out and about. You know them as people, not as personas. Being attracted to the type that stays busy is natural in most "artists". Mike Williams comes to mind. Might be hard to find online but you can find a few things.
JR: The first thing that sticks out to me is the layering in your music. There's a lot to grasp before you fully understand it. Do you yourself do the mixing of the record once you assemble the component parts?
JZ: Wow, thats cool to hear. For the "discerning ear". Yes, I recorded and mixed the whole album. The mastering is a separate process with professionals involved, but I complete all final mixes on my own. I think I spent a good two months mixing the record after I finished recording it. No computers. Just a digital 8-track and a 4-track. Mixed down to a CD-R recorder. I really enjoy mixing and sequencing at the end of working on a record. It just comes together, and segues show themselves through listening back and I just follow what feels right. No fuss.
JR: I often hear that people say there's not as much room for guitar-based music anymore in terms of music's trajectory. I don't really think that's true. You synthesize guitar and rock-based instruments with electronics and are successful with it. Do you think you have to combine rock with something else to be doing something worthwhile with music?
JZ: Wow, music's trajectory. A duality arises when thinking about this subject. No, I don't think music has to have guitar in it to be worthwhile. This is a pretty loaded question. I think people still really like guitars, and I don't think it is fading away in the grand scheme of things. But new music has been born for years. I enjoy minimal synth music, which sounds like dance music without the drums. It makes me dance more! I don't know why but without the all too common sound of a kick and snare, not hearing those very regular tones and just these new tones, is stimulating.
JZ: Most of this music was written on a keyboard or piano and was not written with guitar but simply has guitar as a rhythmic effect.
JR: What makes music a worthwhile pursuit for you?
JZ: My fellow composers, past composers, present composers. The exercise of improvisation, the breakthroughs, the places you go, and the lessons you learn.
JZ: I ENJOY music.
JR: There’s also a bit of jazz in this record I think. Maybe that's just what I get from hearing woodwind instruments like a sax. Do you have any sort of history with jazz?
JZ: When I moved to savannah I was discovering Charles Mingus, Thelonious Monk, Sun Ra, and Rahsaan Roland Kirk through a used/new record store and the public library's cd section. All of them just really blew me away and immersed myself into their worlds for years. True composers. I hold them very dear to my heart.
JZ: I lived in Durham for a couple months in 2008 and was finding a lot more of their recordings available up there. It’s a great area to find music. I started mixing guitar/sax/bass/ and drums when I was living there and brought this sound back to savannah with me. I tried to make a more full sound. I called it Rock Band. It was a live set of songs consisting of guitar/ bass and dueling saxophones on tape. I would play drums atop of the tape with each track being sent to its own amp proper and it would have the effect of a full band playing. This was the era that those composers music started to make its influence in the sound.
JR: Your previous solo ventures have come out as tape and CDs, I think. How has the transition to having a physical LP been? Are you pleased with it?
JZ: Yes I am very pleased! The transition was fairly smooth. I had released 3 full lengths before this record. I gave just as much time and thought to those as this one.
JR: Along with the new LP, you also put out a music video directed by Carson Cox. It's really sort of fourth-wall-breaking at times and reminds me of Videodrome a bit - I don't know if I'm completely off but that's my read! What were some of your ideas behind the video? How'd you and Carson link up for it?
JZ: He thought it would be fun to do a video. While recording the album, I had a day out of the blue where I recorded tons of songs in my house. Different ways of hooking up the camera and audio. Just getting a feel for all the ways to capture something using an old video camera and an audio mixer running AUX into a VHS player. This resulted in a day of musical renditions ranging from lip-synching videos, acoustic numbers, pre-recorded music mixed with live vocal takes. I changed the scene/lighting for each song. So those original tapes are all full takes of songs. A good hour’s worth of material. I sat on that for a year or two and thought a video for the record would be cool, using new or different material. Around a year later I took the same camera and realized it only picked up light in the lens so I used it to capture windows, and bright objects. Kind of an infrared feeling to it with anything that exposes light. So I was moving the camera rapidly back and forth and sort of shaking it around to make trails using the VHS tape. I sent both those tapes to Carson and he edited them into what would become the music video for “Still Alive.” He did a great job editing it and made it really, really busy. I still have yet to see Videodrome.
JR: You’re also doing a bunch of touring for the album. I haven't seen you so I have to ask. What's your set up? Do you end up having to loop a lot of stuff?
JZ: I just wrapped up the tour yesterday. Eighteen days on the road. Driving myself and performing every night. It was a blast. As I type this, it is 9:30pm and I just want to go somewhere because I am so used to being out at this time right now. But I am going to restrain myself and get some house chores done. :)
JZ: I used pre-recorded material and have a number of instruments to work with to keep it fun and alive. If you want a list, I was itching to see what this looked like in print and try to imagine it with out hearing. Here goes.
JZ: A CD dj player, sampler, mixer, microphone, acoustic guitar w/ pick-up, a synth, a reverb tank, and tambourine. Fully-mixed versions of songs with more instrumentation and samples on top. I have no shame playing pre-recorded songs for I would rather have it sound good then try to juggle so many things and make it sound half as full.
JZ: I can't count on my hands and toes how many sets I have seen with loop pedals lately.
JR: What all is in the future for Jeff Zagers?
JZ: I would like to get my green thumb back. It’s been too long.
JZ: I’m ready for the next record. Working on the pre-production now, which will take a while. So much can be spontaneous, but it would be nice to finish the compositions and sound design before starting the actual recording this time around. Sometimes you get too far and can't go back when you realize that you might want to leave it open for change. I’m looking forward to it. Expect guests from the outer ground on this next record.
JR: Anything else you'd like to say?
JZ: Thank you for this opportunity. Music is Still Alive!