Zero 7’s fortunes have changed dramatically in the past few months. When State caught up with beatsmith Sam Hardaker after the release of 2009’s Yeah Ghost, there was a sense of pride in the new record, a resounding ‘life after Sia’ optimism dampened only by the conviction that the new album lacked much of a ‘single’ (“But we were never much of a singles band anyway”). This time round, Sam’s only a touch short of all-out venting: there’s a palpable sense of frustration.
The purpose of our interview, on paper at least, is to quiz Sam on Record, Zero 7’s new ‘Best Of’ album. “Yeah, this is supposed to be to promote it”, Sam agrees, “but it’s a strange thing for a band like us. We might have made four albums and been around for a while, but we don’t really feel like we’re in ‘greatest hits’ territory. It’s what labels do these days. Sometimes they put ‘greatest hits’ albums out after three albums. It wasn’t my idea, put it that way. The whole thing is a compromise. There are tracks that, well, it would be silly not to put them on. We told them what we wanted, we argued about it, and we compromised. We got to do some new remixes, which was nice.”
Having been dropped by Atlantic after Yeah Ghost (along with a host of other non-American acts, with many claiming that these days the label simply doesn’t understand the European market), the ‘greatest hits’ approach is far from the end: “For a band like us, it became oppressive”, Sam explains. “This isn’t the end of Zero 7 by any means. Just because we’ve put out a ‘Best Of’ record, that certainly doesn’t mean we’re over. It just means our relationship with the label’s broken down. We’re not in a hurry to jump back in and make another album, but we’ve got lots of other things knocking about. It’ll give us a chance to be focused on something other than making another album. We’ve felt a little bit railroaded recently. This’ll be a chance to step back and take a look at things, try some new things, and decide what we want from it all”.
If there’s one stand out problem for Zero 7 these days, it’s the music industry’s short attention span. “For them, it’s all about one track. We even have to argue with the record labels about how we’re described on stickers. They still want to write about the chilled out aspects of the early albums, with comments like ‘it captures the coffee tables of the nation’. Ultimately, that’s what the public want to think of us. If we can’t – or in reality don’t want to – produce the track that fits that image, we’re not of all that much interest.”
The tours are proving a problem, too. State’s starting to feel like a bit of an agony uncle as Sam rolls into other recent issues: “the shows are more complex to put together now, and it’s difficult to make any money from it. While things generally went fairly well, on the latest tour we kept feeling like we didn’t quite nail it. We used to be more of a studio band than a live band in the early days. Maybe we’ve stayed like that all along”.
“Of course, we never set out to perfectly reproduce our stage show in a live setting, but you don’t always get it exactly as you’d hoped. Sometimes the electronics are just too complex to set up, and we’re getting to a point where we can’t afford to tour in Europe, it’s getting harder and harder. More and more, we’re thinking why are we doing this?”
Perhaps the state of play is something that’s reflected strongly in Zero 7’s tour schedule. Most of this summer’s festival appearances are DJ sets rather than live. “We’d rather have carried on the American tour with a full band” Sam explains, “but in this climate it’s just too difficult. It’s just so much easier and more manageable to head off somewhere with a big pile of discs”.
Many early Zero 7 fans might point to Sia Furler’s departure as the band’s biggest current problem. “We still get shouts for her at every show”, Sam admits, “we miss her part, and our audience do, too. She was part of everything we did until the last record. At the same time, that’s not happening at the moment. She’s making her own music and doing a lot of other projects, and we wanted some variety. People come and go they bring with them changes. We wanted to try some new things, but we certainly wouldn’t rule out working with her again. The thing is, though, people are stuck in this notion of what we were ten years ago. It’s not very relevant to us now. We’ve changed in our interests an motivation as people, sometimes people get it, sometimes they don’t”.
Henry’s vocal role was another feature of our earlier interview, and it’s something Sam’s partner is still struggling with: “I don’t think he’ll ever be truly comfortable. It’s not what he really wants to do, and it’s a real challenge. I don’t think for a second he’s found his new calling. We had some fun with it, but I think if he was asked, he’d prefer to stay mainly in his old position behind the keyboard”.
Oddly – especially for a ‘group’ of only two – Zero 7 are currently located a fair distance from each other. With Henry based in his spiritual homeland, Glastonbury, and Sam preferring the big city and remaining in London, their song-writing technique is somewhat unique. “When we were in the same place, I’d usually write for a few hours on my own and then I’d go and find him. He’s usually in his barn, fixing an old chair or something. He comes in and listens to what I’ve done, and does it a bit of work on it. It’s more of a sort of ‘relay’ thing, we don’t really come together until we’re finishing a track.”
Things, it seems, are going in a difficult direction for Zero 7 right now, but we have a feeling they’ll pull through. Sam seems genuinely happy to have been allowed to vent, and clearly feels that for all their recent difficulties, the band still have a lot to offer. Despite his obvious dislike of the direction of Record and their treatment by Atlantic, this two-piece and their heady assortment of collaborators are far from done.