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A Quietus Interview

Zarjaz Of Tronics & Freakapuss: Being A Real Person Is Overrated
The Quietus , February 1st, 2013 06:29

Is Zarjaz, aka Ziro Baby, the UK's most underground cult star? Dale Shaw conducts the second ever interview with this most fantastical of characters

Zarjaz, formerly known as Ziro Baby, is a true underground sensation, unknown to almost all but beloved by the few who have stumbled across him. Emerging just as punk rock was cresting, he released his first single, the Geoff Travis funded 'Suzy' in 1978 as Tronics. Blissfully lo-fi and sci-fi obsessed, Tronics went on to release a number of albums on tape (pioneering the cassette-only indie movement that would follow), the blistering single 'Shark Fucks' and the Buddy Holly/baroque tinted 'Love Backed By Force'. After the 'One Charming Nyte' single came out on Creation in 1984, Zarjaz all but disappeared. A spell in hospital and a retreat to Croatia followed. But slowly the momentum was growing. 'Shark Fucks' featured on a Messthetics compilation and the What’s Your Rupture label, home to Iceage and Fucked Up started a reissue programme. Now Tronics devotees Sic Alps have released a split single with Zarjaz’s latest entity Freakapuss on his new home Drag City. Finally this post-punk pioneer might be getting some recognition, but why has it taken so long? Zarjaz explains.

I was interested to hear about your very first band The Star Dogs.

Zarjaz: I was living in York and I was probably about 12, just hanging around on the street. And we were like a street gang, we had running fights. Guns were involved. I didn’t have one, but guns were used. Knives were used. I’ve been stabbed three times. And I was at school and it just felt the natural thing to do music, so we had this band. It didn’t last very long.

So how did the Tronics came about?

Z: I was calling myself Zoom Harlow and I was very good friends with Jock McDonald. He used to manage John Lydon and he was the resident DJ at the Speakeasy. I became friends with Jock and he helped me audition people there. So I got this band together and I thought Zoom Harlow was not a good idea, so we called it Ronnie Git and the Gits, knowing that it wouldn’t stay that. I really liked fridge door writing and I kept seeing Tronics written on them and that’s where the idea came from. When the band was going, I just changed the name.

Tell me a little bit about 'Shark Fucks'? That is one of my favourite records. What can you tell me about that?

Z: I really remember it quite vividly and it was around the time of Fuck Dancing Let’s Fuck [See below, Ed]. I can’t really say there was any process or meaning to it, it just developed. But I would say that I was really influenced by Chuck Berry, I was really influenced by the war in Cambodia and Pol Pot. You know how you hear a big noise going backwards? [Makes noise] ZZzzuuuummmmm. It’s like that and 'Shark Fucks' was like that.

You were part of that post punk scene, but do you think if you’d gone down more of a conceptual art route that would have changed things?

Z: I always thought what I was doing was conceptual art. Like the ‘Fuck Dancing Let’s Fuck’ T-shirts. Originally the whole idea of it was to be an artwork and I only printed ten as a limited edition art print that wouldn’t even be worn but would just be hung up somewhere. It got bootlegged and people were telling me it was the top selling T-shirt in the world.

What was the original idea behind that?

Z: I really feel so close to art. I feel that I am an artist and not a musician. On my passport it says that I’m an artist. Although I want to get that changed to fantasist. I’d rather be known as a fantasist. But at the same time, I always felt that I wanted to do music but I didn’t want to get involved in the music industry or the pop scene. I feel very strongly connected to Apollo. So one day I saw the Madness T-shirt saying ‘Fuck Art Let’s Dance’ and I thought that was appalling. It was just everything I was against. What can you do without art?

Didn’t you have another run in with Madness? Over the name Zarjaz?

Z: That was just a word that was used in the 2000AD comic. So I picked up on it and started using it. I thought I should get permission, so I wrote the editor and then I got a letter back saying, ‘Yeah, of course, use it.’ I’ve got the letter at home with Tharg’s picture at the top. The editor from space. Then I got mixed up with Alan McGee and Joe Foster and put out 'One Charming Nyte' [on Creation]. So because I was using the Zarjaz name I thought I’d lay this on 2000AD, so I arranged to see the editor and I went dressed in the height of 18th Century fashion, in a limo…

So how were you dressed, describe it?

Z: Louis XIVth with a fluorescent wig. When I got to the 2000AD offices, I met the editor who turned out to be a man and didn’t look like Yoda at all. He took my letter and said ‘What the fuck is this?’ And it turned out that what he was upset about was that, Madness wanted the name [for their label]. But 2000AD said they had to pay them and put an extra Z on the end. So instantly I became public enemy number one.

With 2000AD or Madness?

Z: Both. Both parties. It all hinges on this letter. They didn’t like this at all. First I wasn’t paying them and secondly I didn’t have to put the Z on the end, I was authentic.

Every time you seem to have dipped your toes into the waters of the music industry you’ve had problems. Do you think that’s their fault or yours?

Z: I think it’s their fault. I think the music industry is wrongly a very political area. True creativity is just squashed – it’s attacked. Like I say, we are public enemy number one. Because we are the best music going, we are the most interesting. Everybody’s stealing our ideas, all over the place. I can’t really accuse anybody. I can point people in the right direction.

That’s something else that’s happened quite a bit with you. Certainly the Tony James incident.

Z: I think the worst thing about that is there is no way they will mention me. As far as the world is concerned, I don’t exist and that’s how they want it. In the music press there is this saying, ‘The worst publicity is no publicity.' Even calling you an idiot, they don’t like to do that because it gives you publicity.

How did Tony James come across you?

Z: He just used to turn up at my gigs. I kind of knew what I was doing could be easily stolen. I was wearing kneepads, doing that futurist thing. One day I had this really vivid dream of me on a Judge Dread motorbike in a Clockwork Orange [outfit]. I thought, ‘Ok that’s the signal. It’s goodbye to all that, here’s the new thing.' And it kind of all happened at the same time. Tony James was there, trying to get me to be his singer. What they were doing at the time, they were dressing up like Rambo. And I said I don’t really want to do that. I’d already dropped conventional rock and roll to do futurist rock and roll. Now I’m going to drop futurist rock and roll and do baroquabilly.

I didn’t really want to do Tony James’ band. It wasn’t called Sigue Sigue Sputnik then. He came to me one day saying he wanted to call it Nazi Occult Bureau. I said, ‘No Tony. That’s it, I’m out.' And then the next thing I knew, I saw them on the TV dressed in my kneepads, dressed in my futurist stuff. I must say it wasn’t the band that did it, it was Tony that developed those ideas, claiming that they were his. And that’s why he doesn’t mention me at all, because he can’t. I’m not saying that I created that band as it turned out to be, because there are a lot of things that they were doing that I don’t like.

You mention how that idea came from a dream. That’s something that has happened a lot in your life and your career. Dreams and visions and things like that. Can you tell us a little bit about that?

Z: I live in a very dangerous situation. I don’t see myself as a part of reality at all. I’m really excluded from reality. Maybe in an intentional way. So I can act out these ideas. I think that being creative doesn’t come easy. You have to put your neck on the line. And I decided a long time ago that if I was going to be good or make something really worthwhile I’m going to put my neck on the line and if it gets chopped off, that’s what happens. But at least I’ve created something.

Do you ever regret having to live in that realm?

Z: That’s what I mean it’s a very dangerous situation because I really love people and I can’t relate to them all the time or they see me as a bit of a threat maybe.

How so?

Z: People like to be in their comfort zone. And I’m not in their comfort zone. And I’m also very isolated and I think they can sense that.

Do you think you need that mix of isolation and turbulence in order to do what you do?

Z: Absolutely. That’s absolutely it. Again that’s why I say the danger of it. Because it’s like, do I want to be a real person? Or do I want to use my life to make something? It’s sad, but I get on with it.

Steve Dore [Freakpuss bandmate]: Being a real person is over-rated.

So you find it sad as well?

Z: Yeah.

Have you ever thought about giving it up and having a more conventional life?

Z: I have done. I was in Croatia for a few years. I think it was the end of the 80s, into the 90s, I had a massive withdrawal. And I was in a mental hospital for a while and then had a long period of treatment outside the hospital. I couldn’t go outside without medical assistance. Two nurses at once and then they got me better and reduced it to one. I’ve come a long way since then. I’m still on the edge. Going outside can be a nightmare. So I got the opportunity to step out of London and be in Croatia for a number of years. Most of the time I was there on islands living in stone houses, living on a generator, by the sea and just getting away from it. Getting away from people. Some days I’d only see a donkey. I came back to London and it was really like the world had changed and I was coming to a new world.

What was going on in your life, that lead you to that period of withdrawal?

Z: Just turmoil. Inside. Creative turmoil and trying to relate to people but not being able to because of what I am. I’m like the Elephant Man really. When I went down, I really did go down and it took me a long time to crawl back up. I don’t need a nurse to go out, but I’m not 100%.

You talk about the reason you stopped performing because of an incident when you were harassed or chased?

Z: There was a time in the 80s. I’d done a few gigs with no publicity or very little. And there were girls camped outside my flat. Screaming, spraying on the walls. And then I had something in the NME and they saw it and they started saying about all those girls that were there.

So that was reported in the NME?

Z: Yeah, I think it was 83. And then I remember one day I went out to get a bottle of milk or something, early in the morning. I was living in Earls Court and the whole of the street was lined with girls at the side of the road and they were saying ‘that’s him, that’s him’.

And then there was a previous time when I had a girlfriend who just went nuts and said I was Jesus. She got sectioned in a mental hospital and she told all the girls in the hospital that I was Jesus and I went to visit her. And I just remember seeing this corridor of crazy girls like maybe 15 of them racing towards me in these dishevelled hospital gowns screaming ‘he’s here! Jesus!’ The nurses grabbed me, pushed me outside, slammed these two glass doors and the girls hit the doors. And I just stood there like ‘what the fuck?’ But that was before they were camping outside my house. And I just turned off. If that was the early 80s, I was in the hospital by 87.

Are you feeling comfortable having Drag City as your new home?

Z: Yeah, they are really lovely. Comfortable is the word I think. When I talk about things being dangerous and I live in this dangerous situation, it’s people like Drag City and Steve and yourself. I’ve got a lot of really great friends. I’m in a comfort zone that allows me to be comfortable but I don’t have to worry about being on the Brit Pop Awards, or the Classical Brits or things like that.

'Shark Fucks' has a very stripped down sound and now it’s just the two of you in Freakapuss, is that the sort of approach you like?

I’ve only ever done two band interviews. And this is the second one. The first one was with Tronics. So I haven’t come around full circle but I feel very grounded in what we’re doing and I’m so grateful that I met Steve. I know that what we are doing is so great. And he reminds me of Pierre Batcheff in Un Chien Andalou.

That’s a film I have trouble watching. The eye stuff…

Z: I’ve seen it three times today! I’ve got it on my phone. I watched it on the train.

[The interview ends with the three of us watching Un Chien Andalou on Zarjaz’s phone]

The Sic Alps/ Freakapuss single 'New Trawgs III'/ 'Here Today Here Tomorrow' is out now on Drag City