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Paradox & Pure Rhythms: Zun Zun Egui Interviewed By John Doran
John Doran , January 8th, 2015 12:02

Kushal Gaya and Stephen Kerrison talk to John Doran about their new album, postcolonial identity and chopping out the boring bits

Zun Zun Egui's excellent new album Shackles' Gift opens with a field recording. The band were in frontman Kushal Gaya's homeland Mauritius in March 2013 to play the national Independence Day celebrations and the initial ideas for their second album were starting to coalesce. On their downtime the band interviewed characters they ran into with the aim of making a short documentary about their trip to the African island nation and former French and British colony. As well as a "mad inventor" and a "hedgehog hunter", they spoke to a woman who had spent her entire life working in sugar cane plantations, and it is her voice that you hear first on Shackles' Gift. Gaya says that the woman explains in Creole about "who she is and her job. She has worked on a plantation since she was a child and she has worked for that plantation family all of her life."

The chance encounter made the singer realise that there was "a kind of postcolonial behaviour continuing with the people who still employ workers in the fields. They get paid now but there’s still this weird mental servitude that goes on. Some people still believe that they are inferior to others. I’m not talking about specific communities, but in between these communities there can be this kind of insecurity and this feeling of, ‘I’m only good for this kind of work.’ I didn’t want to impose any kind of judgement on it. It was just an observation made by someone who has worked her whole life in fields – that is her life, that is her identity and that is how she identifies herself."

Another meeting that helped shape the conceptual direction of the album was with an elderly fisherman who talked of a strand of Mauritian folk music. Workers in sugar cane plantations would sing along with the rhythm of the heavy machinery they were working next to, creating a kind of proto-industrial music. Gaya became obsessed with this idea and began to mix strands of industrial and dub rhythms into the already heady Zun Zun Egui sound.

As befits such a progressive group, Zun Zun Egui are a completely different beast to when they formed in Bristol in 2008. Guitarist and singer Gaya joined forces with Japanese keyboard player Yoshino Shigihara after they both moved to the UK, and they became the focal point for a large and constantly changing line-up of musicians brought together by a love of free jazz. After settling into a steady line-up, they released some early, well-regarded EPs and went on to develop a recognisably unique sound which drew on the traditions of (among many other things) tropicalia, punk funk, Afrobeat, Ethio jazz, free improvisation and no wave. This sound formed the basis of Katang, their debut album released on Bella Union in 2011. Released this month, Shackles' Gift, produced by Andrew Hung of Fuck Buttons, feels like a destination they’ve been heading toward for a long time.

I spoke to Kushal Gaya and new guitarist Stephen Kerrison recently about their trip to Mauritius but also how Shackles' Gift is definably a British album.

Can you tell me about the trip that Zun Zun Egui took to Mauritius 18 months ago which inspired the theme for the album?

Kushal Gaya: We were invited there to play the Independence Day show. While I was there I hooked up with this old fisherman who had been involved in music out there for a very long time and he was telling us stories about his forefathers. The folk music they listened to was a very strong component of the culture. He told me that the music came from people working in sugar cane fields and from them hearing the sugar cane mill – they used that noise and that rhythm to create this folk music. To me this was an incredible story because I was always loved harsh industrial music like Whitehouse and Throbbing Gristle, and I thought that the Mauritian folk music he was telling me about was even more brutal in a way. It was like an even earlier form of industrial music but it wasn’t conceptually driven – it came directly from the actual real-life situation of workers composing music next to heavy machinery, and it was born of servitude. It was an early form of industrial music and in that sense it was very forward-looking. It was futurist art.

Stephen, can you give me the new guy’s point of view on the trip to Mauritius?

Stephen Kerrison: I’m afraid I can’t, as I was yet to join the band at that point. I can tell you exactly where I was at the time though: I was in the pub. Kush rang me and asked if I’d like to come and play some music with Zun Zun, maybe help out with some ideas they were working on. I said sure, asked him where he was and he said he was sitting on the runway waiting for his flight to Mauritius to take off. So I guess the trip was a turning point for my role in the band too, although in a different capacity to everyone else.

I’m guessing given the history of Mauritius, with its postcolonial ties to both France and Britain, Independence Day must be a really big deal.

KG: Yeah, it’s a massive thing. After independence in 1968 people predicted doom for Mauritius. There was a famous report that predicted a really harsh famine within a decade because of a lack of natural resources. This politician couldn’t conceive of Mauritius standing on its own two feet. There was panic and a lot of people fled the island, but thank God he was proven quite wrong. We were a country that didn’t have much in the way of natural resources and only had a very embryonic higher education system but Mauritius has ended up being an African country with one of the highest GDPs in the continent. So Independence Day has a big significance. There are 12 languages spoken out there, which is an awful lot in such a small space. We’ve never had a civil war, which is quite remarkable, and Independence Day represents that. But I should say, I’m not a nationalist or anything like that. I don’t believe in nationalism - I believe in being a decent human being first and foremost.

Talking about the 12 languages - Mauritius is obviously very multilingual but it’s also multicultural and multi-ethnic - does the music of Zun Zun Egui reflect the complexity of Mauritius?

KG: I think in the early music of Zun Zun Egui, it was clear that it was really eclectic. I used to worry that it presented a lack of focus or suggested that I didn’t exactly know what I wanted. One way to look at this question is that if you go out to Mauritius and try the cuisine, you'll sample a really coherent taste in the food - it really makes sense - but it is actually composed of many different influences. I don’t know whether that’s a valid way of looking at it, but I do think that the cuisine of a country - especially an ex-colony - represents how you can include elements of different cultures in one dish. Taking that as a way of looking at things, I feel that now we have found a sound and a way of doing things even though we are still eclectic in our scope. I’ve always tried to reach out for very different elements and tried to pull them into one thing.

Growing up I was exposed to all kinds of different languages. My grandmother spoke three different Indian languages. Friends of the family spoke Chinese all the time while we were with them as well as speaking Creole. And being exposed to all of these sounds pushes one to be completely open and to have a minimal focus. But the minimal focus part of it comes from Europe and is something that I learn more the longer I live there.

So Mauritian folk music has influenced the music conceptually, but I was wondering if sega has influenced you directly. Are there any examples of Mauritian folk music on Shackles' Gift?

KG: Yeah. There’s that song ‘Soul Scratch’ for example which is very much based on seggae - which is a mix between sega and reggae. So in this music you have the reggae one-drop in the music but you also have the sega shuffle. And it’s all in a ternary rhythm - all the rhythms are in triplets on that tune. There is another track ‘Late Bloomer’ which has seggae and sega influences. On previous records there has been a much more direct influence and references to Mauritian music though. But the conceptual influence - as you call it - made me think of machines more than it made me think of actual Mauritian music. It just opened up a door in my mind.

When I was thinking about this idea I was watching a lot of heavy machinery on Youtube. They have these weird American conventions where people congregate to look at a lot of really old factory machines. They just turn them on for fun. They make this incredible noise. There’s a machine called the 1936 Fairbanks Morse 32D that makes this incredible rhythm that sounds almost like techno.

Some of this music has been influenced by sega and Mauritian music but it has been made by a band that’s from the UK. My roots are very important to me but there are five people in this group and we’ve made this album which is inspired by machines and it is definitely a British album. All five of us bring our own influences.

On the track ‘City Thunder’ you do sing, “Sometimes I worry. I left my country…”

KG: That tune is almost about a confusion or a constant paradox. And the more I go back home to Mauritius the more this paradox grows. I actually love being in cities – it is liberating to be in a big city like London and to feel the possibilities of being here. On the other hand I also feel completely uprooted and the feeling of community and having direct access to really earthy things – to family, to my immediate environment. I’ve missed these things really badly. Every time I go there I feel the physicality of being there and I feel like I’m in my natural pool. But also when I go back there I feel like a foreigner. When I go back there and talk to people they’re like, "My God, you’ve really sucked up British culture to an incredible degree." You know, when I moved here I could barely speak English and I’ve learned it over the last 14 years. It’s been a massive journey, getting into the music over here, trying to understand what music was about in the UK, understanding the subtleties of the language and the humour. That took me a good five years on its own. That song is about that paradox.

SK: I find ‘City Thunder’ a really emotional song lyrically. Questioning why you've chosen to leave the comfort and safety of a smaller community in search of something more is a mental process so many people find themselves going through at some point.

Even given the exploratory and forward-looking nature of Zun Zun Egui, it’s remarkable how much of a step up in quality there’s been on this album. Was there a game plan for Shackles' Gift or did it just unfold organically?

SK: With the writing, we were really adamant that we wanted to make a much more concise and ‘classic’ record than Katang. We got quite obsessed with the songwriting process, studying certain albums and songs and really listening hard to what exactly it was that made them so amazing and timeless. I must have listened to Superunknown a hundred times the summer before last. And endless Beatles. Marrying that focus on the importance of melody with the more traditional percussive elements that we were learning was a big thing for us. Recording in London was a conscious choice too – trying to incorporate those traditional influences into a modern, city environment without falling into the trap of cultural tourism or sounding like a fusion band. With the recording, we always knew we wanted Shackles' Gift to sound modern. We weren’t afraid of moving away from the ‘band in a room’ sound. I do love that sound, but with this we wanted to try something new, to get a bit deeper with the production side of things.

KG: It was a much more focussed process this time. We were operating much less on tangents. The big concept that I had at the back of my mind was the influence of dub and industrial music. These were the colours I was trying to paint with. I don’t know if the dub thing comes out as much, but it’s there in some songs. For each song we tried to stay focussed on what that song was about. We tried to be much more succinct in our compositions. Lyrically, I wanted to get down to a very, very emotional state and the vocal helped frame the rest of the music. I read this really great Brian Wilson quote during a period that I’d been having trouble writing succinctly that said something along the lines of, "Instrumentation in music is like a frame to a picture and the picture itself is the vocal." That helped me to really focus.

Also, if you look at a song like ‘I Want You To Know’, the second part of that song came out of jamming, but we were jamming with focus and we didn’t let it drift into indefinite regions. We were always trying to keep the energy up and we would record things and then listen back to them. The bits that had a lot of energy and were in focus with the original idea were used to make the song.

And instead of using my usual process of finding a guitar riff and using that to compose the song, I composed using pure rhythms. I was singing to pure rhythms. I would take the rhythm, add the vocals and then build the song up from there. I really think that rhythm is the earth [that the song is cultivated in]. It is the whole identity of the song. Once you change the rhythm to a song the whole identity of the song changes. So I had very specific identities I wanted to include in the music. Different rhythms have different characters assigned to them. So I would harmonise the guitars and bass with the singing and build the song like that. That happened with that song ‘Ruby’.

Talking about ‘Ruby’ and ‘I Want You To Know’ - these are really heavy songs relatively speaking. I know you’re a fan of Led Zeppelin but where did these heavier grooves come from? Are they a reflection of this machine/industrial idea? There’s a hint of Kyuss to some of these tracks.

SK: Well the whole band loves Led Zeppelin, and as for Kyuss, ask Kushal why he tunes his guitar the way he does sometime! I don’t know, I don’t think there was too much of a conscious decision to make ourselves heavier in a ‘rock’ sense, but we did want to make a record that didn’t feel frivolous.

KG: Yeah, absolutely. That kind of really cyclic, heavy, machine-like rhythm was my take on the industrial thing. And the rhythm I used on ‘Ruby’ was a religious work rhythm from Mauritius from a specific community which uses that rhythm for weddings and work. It’s an Indian rhythm, from the Tamil-speaking Hindus of the south. I’ve always been around that rhythm.

SK: At one point, ‘Ruby’ had loads of different parts, loads of chords, two key changes and a proper rock riff. It took us absolutely ages to realise that because the whole song was carried almost completely by the percussion and the vocal, it needed very little else. Personally, I found ‘Ruby’ the most difficult song to nail. On the other hand, 'African Tree' was quick and impulsive, coming together in its current form quite rapidly, which is a rarity for us. ‘City Thunder’ is probably the oldest song on the album. It had a form (albeit quite a different one to what it has now) before I even joined the band. It was very, very long and quite dubby, and again it had loads of parts. We knew it wasn’t quite right but couldn’t put our finger on the problem. Then Andy Hung basically told us it’d be better if we just chopped out all of the boring bits. So we did. The busy-ness of the arrangement was making it harder to hear the song's heart.

‘I Want You To Know’ was originally a disco number that we wrote after Kushal and I got pretty into Nile Rodgers’ playing and songwriting. It was really fun but it wasn’t quite working, so we tried slowing it right down and that did the trick. That song became so much more about the feel of how we played it, rather than how well we played it, which really you could say about so much of this album. We spent a lot of time learning to feel the songs as well as just play them.

Can you tell me about working with Andy from Fuck Buttons?

KG: Andy Hung from Fuck Buttons produced the record. I was convinced that I needed some kind of guardian of the vision for it, if you see what I mean. When you set out to do a record like this you can sometimes lose sight of your vision and lose track of what it was you were trying to do in the first place. So I thought perhaps we needed an actual producer on this record, someone to facilitate this actual vision coming to life. For me this is the role of the producer - a facilitator who can also contribute musical ideas. We toured with Fuck Buttons in 2009 – I’d always loved where they’d been and what they did and always respected them. They have pushed certain boundaries. I went to this gig in Brixton and I bumped into Andy there and I was just chatting to him and told him I was looking for a producer. I wasn’t thinking of him, but he just said, ‘Hey dude. I’ll produce your record.’ I was like, ‘Really? Actually that could be a really cool idea.’ And it was a cool idea because he comes from a totally different background. He doesn’t work in guitar music.

First of all I love him as a person – he’s an incredibly nice, pleasant person to be around but he’s also completely honest about what he thinks. So if there’s something that’s not working he’ll let you know. That’s something I really appreciate about him. So I went round to his house and played him demos and we secured the vision and made it focussed. He was a big part of making this record happen.

Who else helped on the album?

KG: I’ve always been a massive Soundgarden fan, especially of the albums Badmotorfinger and Superunknown. I’ve always loved the songwriting on those albums. So I sent an email to the guy who produced them, Michael Beinhorn. He was in Material and co-wrote Herbie Hancock’s ‘Rockit’ with Bill Laswell. I sent him an email thinking, This big time producer is never going to reply to me. I was just genuinely interested in his way of working. But he replied to me and basically mentored some of the songwriting I'd been doing. They’re not even songs that are on the record. I was on Skype with him, I exchanged loads of emails with him. He has been a massive contributor to me becoming a little bit better at writing tunes.

One of the previous shared loves of ZZE is free jazz - were any other shared loves explored on this record?

SK: As I mentioned, we all love Led Zeppelin. But also This Heat, for sure. There’s still a smattering of Fela in there. James Brown as well. For me, though, it was more about moments during the writing process when we’d be listening to stuff that maybe some of us hadn’t heard before. Sharing those things with each other, and each of us taking something from it that we’d then apply to what we each were bringing to the table. That was great – interpreting each other’s influences in our own way.

Shackles' Gift is out January 26 on Bella Union