THALIA ZEDEK from COME / UZI / LIVE SKULL Interview
Thalia Zedek has been active in bands since the mid 80s. Her ground breaking and criminally underrated works with looped noise in Uzi, New York No Wave with Live Skull and distorted guitar fuelled blues with Come have left indelible marks on all those that have heard them.
Today, Thalia has just released her fourth studio based solo album entitled ‘Via’ on the Thrill Jockey label. Her distinctive smoky vocal rattles throughout the vibrant collection of songs and as always whilst the sales may not have been stellar the song writing and musicianship definitely is. It would appear that Zedek was born to stay underground and her creativity thrives on it.
The day before her recent one off show at The Buffalo Bar in London I caught up with her to discuss the new album and gain some knowledge about her vast history in the indie rock scene.
WALLERNOTWELLER: As a youngster I loved the Come album ‘Eleven:Eleven’ enough to follow you through your solo career, up until the current day. What I didn’t know was that before Come you were part of this incredible and intense No Wave New York band called Live Skull, at the moment very little else makes it onto my stereo.
THALIA ZEDEK: You probably know this but I’m not on all the Live Skull releases, I kinda joined half way through.
WNW: Yeah, I was aware of that. Right now I think the ‘Snuffer’ EP is the one for me, I’m sure you are on that one.
TZ: Oh great, I think ‘Bringing Home the Bait’ [debut album released 2 years before Thalia joined] is probably my favourite. I was really into James Lo’s [Live Skull drummer] style. I met them as I went to all their shows in Boston and I was somewhat dismayed when they told me that they were looking for a new singer and asked if I would do it. I was a huge fan so against my better judgement I joined. I think the band changed a bit after Marnie [Greenholz, bass] and James Lo left but that first record I did, the ‘Dusted’ record, it was half James Lo and then half Rich Hutchins on drums but at that point Marnie was so on it.
I joined after they made two records, they did ‘Bringing Home the Bait’ and ‘Cloud One’ and also they did the ‘Pusherman’ EP, which was really good. In fact I found out everything is being re issued on this French label pretty soon [it turns out that record label is called Desire Records and they are just about to release the ‘Bringing Home the Bait’ album, the rest of Live Skull’s catalogue will follow].
I was never the driving force behind them; it was always Mark C and Tom Paine. As I said I sort of came to them at the halfway point and did 2 full lengths and an EP with them before they broke up.
WNW: Do you actually recall recording the Snuffer EP?
TZ: Definitely, yeah, we recorded everything with Martin Bisi who recorded the original Sonic Youth stuff and I think he is still recording now, stuff like The Dresden Dolls, but he’s been in Brooklyn forever and I still see him around once in a while. But, can I remember recording that session? Now I think of it, probably not, it was a while ago. I do remember doing ‘Dusted’ and a bunch of other stuff but I think it was an EP that was maybe recorded at the same time as something else but I don’t think they were left over tracks… I don’t know, they were kind of foggy years for me.
WNW: I read an old interview with yourself from your days in Come and you were talking about your time in Live Skull and you said that you never really felt like a New Yorker.
TZ: I said that?
WNW: You said that, yeah.
TZ: Well people always think I am from New York for some reason but I am definitely not, I know a lot of New Yorkers and New Yorkers are like New Yorkers. You can be a first generation New Yorker or a second generation New Yorker but I didn’t really have any New York in my blood or my history so yeah maybe that was it but what I can say is that I love New York now and I love living there too. It’s one of those cities where I can say that I love living there way more than I can say that I love visiting there. That saying of it’s a nice place to visit but I wouldn’t want to live there, well, with New York it’s the opposite. When I would visit the city and play shows there before it was always a little too crazy and it wasn’t until I got to live there that I got to really appreciate what a warm, interesting and cool city it was.
WNW: Compared to New York Boston must feel pretty laid back, almost a lazy, sleepy city.
TZ: I wouldn’t describe Boston as lazy, but it definitely doesn’t have the hustle that New York does. It’s a much, much smaller city and there are a lot of universities there which means there is always an influx of students and that keeps the economy on a more even keel. So I couldn’t say it’s lazy but it is much less urban city.
WNW: Your new solo record, ‘Via’, has been a long time coming it’s been some five years since the release of your last full length, ‘Liars and Prayers’. Why the long gap?
TZ: Some of that is me writing in spurts and there can be a couple of years in between them sometimes, I am not the most prolific writer. It comes in waves for sure and for a while now it’s been two or three years between records minimum. So we pressed the last record and did a bunch of touring on it, we toured in Spain and by then I already had half the songs for the new record and when we got back my drummer quit. I found a new drummer fairly quickly but I was in a little bit of a discouraged mood and I had a bunch of family stuff as well that I was dealing with so that took priority. I did continue to play music but I wasn’t feeling very inspired and I definitely wasn’t thinking I had better put out another record and go out on tour again.
WNW: Plus of course you would feel awful now if you had simply released a half-baked record.
TZ: Yeah but you know I don’t really fall into that category where I put out a record every two years and tour in between them, I’ve always had other jobs to do at home. I’m not the sort of person who wants to be on the road and tour one hundred and fifty days out of the year, I just can’t do it. My relationships are just too important to me and it’s not uncommon for me to get caught up in stuff.
So I had this new drummer and I moved, and my parents moved into town and my father got really ill and passed away, there was a lot of stuff going on. I was playing music that whole time but I was not really doing a lot of shows or thinking about recording. I wanted to but I had enough on my plate to worry about when it was going to happen.
My drummer and me had been playing around a year and a half, maybe two years at that point and writing tons of stuff, just playing and not really recording and then he got offered this amazing job in Buenos Aires and told me that I might wanting to start looking for another drummer and I was just saying “No, I wanna record with you before you leave”. It was just one of those things that kicked me in the ass; I had all these things I’d been jamming on so we got to do them.
WNW: I video you have made for the track ‘Winning Hand’ is such an engrossing watch. It’s a creepy film though with you just staring at the camera and smoking.
TZ: We made that with a pretty well-known artist called Suara Welitoff, she does shows all over the place and I’ve been a model for her for many years. She does a lot of stuff with video and is a photographer and that was actually some footage that she had taken of me that had previously appeared in some of her art shows and we have collaborated in the past when I have done live stuff, she will project stuff while I play my songs. So we asked if we could use one of these videos for one of my songs and that’s the one she chose which uses part of a piece that she’s already made. Funny thing is I quit smoking like four years ago and there I am smoking these cigarettes. In fact if you have a physical copy of the album there is a photo of me on the back taken by Suara, the one with the hands, well that’s a really old photo too. It’s weird to have it all, it’s like “Well you used me so now I can use you.” It’s a symbiotic relationship.
I don’t tell her what to do so that is what she came up with and yeah, it’s very eerie and really not too much of a music video thing but even though it’s me it is kind of engrossing because it’s odd to have someone just looking at you for that long, it’s kinda weird, right? Suara is a pretty interesting person and I would encourage you to check out her stuff if you like that video, all her stuff is really, really cool.
WNW: The lyric “Where I wanted to be by now, Is not this place though I have come far” from ‘Winning Hand’ could mean a lot of different things to different people. Are you talking about your career in music, or does it deal with more personal issues?
TZ: Yeah, it’s fair to say I was thinking of that, I would say that the rest of the song is not about that. It’s a little bit of a struggle for me in terms of the fact I feel unbelievably lucky to do the things that I have done and to be doing what I am doing like even having people interviewing me. I’ve worked in music all of my life with musicians that are so talented and I’ll never ever have that so I don’t take it for granted. I have been so absolutely lucky although other people may look at me and think well, she never really made it. There are always different levels, how do you compare yourself?
I know that I am very, very lucky and I have done way more than I ever thought I would. When you get older you go through that thought of “Should I stop doing this?” Because I am doing it for myself then maybe I shouldn’t be inflicting it on other people, it gets confusing. Touring especially brings a lot of ups and downs and it takes a pretty tough person to do it and I don’t think I always handle it in the best way. There are the extremes, sometimes you can play to a packed theatre for one night in Barcelona and then play to 13 people the next night, it’s really an extreme situation to be in and you have to be a really even keeled and tough skinned person to deal with it.
WNW: Well you have a great bunch of people travelling with you though, which must help?
TZ: I do yeah, the guys that I have been playing with are called the Thalia Zedek Band but I used to go out under my own name. I never thought that I would be playing with them for so long because they are all really great and all have other projects so I thought I would just do it under my own name because of the way as people come and go or would be busy.
WNW: David Curry’s viola playing is exquisite on the new record.
TZ: He is amazing and Mel [Lederman] is a great piano player too, Mel plays on all of my albums from the very beginning and so does Dave [Bryson, Drums], I have a really solid group of guys.
I don’t have a booking agent in Europe right now but I’ve met a lot of cool people on this current tour and I am pretty confident that that we will be able to come over and do a proper tour. I know it would be easier to come over and tour solo but my band is amazing and are a huge part of the sound, they beat playing the songs just on guitar. I really am a band type of person.
WNW: Do any of them bring music to you or is it pretty exclusively your songs that other musicians play on?
TZ: Well as I say they pretty much all have their other projects so they don’t and maybe sometimes I feel like “Do I have to write everything?” But it’s probably better that way. It’s not really like a democracy but I don’t write anyone’s part, I just play with people who understand me and they add stuff to what I am doing but I do have the last word, they know it’s my thing and they like it that I do all of that work.
WNW: Changing the subject now your old band Come has just had a re-release of the some would say classic 1993 album ‘Eleven: Eleven’. How involved where you in that?
TZ: I was really involved in it, the way it worked out was that Chris Brokaw [guitar] got stuff rolling because he was playing in this pretty great band called Dirt Music with Hugo Race who was in The Birthday Party and their records were being put out by Glitterhouse which was the German label that actually put out the first Come single. So in the course of dealing with Glitterhouse a lot again they got talking and Rembert [Stiewe, founder of Glitterhouse Records] brought it up that he would love to re issue ‘Eleven: Eleven’ as it was one of his favourite records of all time. So we were all a little bummed that we had fallen out as friends so Chris asked us what we thought about re-releasing it and we all agreed that we would love to have it available again.
That was in 2010 and it took years to get it cleared from Beggars Banquet. We were hoping that we could put it out in 2011, I mean wouldn’t that have been cool for ‘Eleven: Eleven’ to come out on 11/11/11?
WNW: Yeah right.
TZ: it was just really stupid contractual stuff and I am just gonna go ahead and say it as I don’t give a shit but Beggars Banquet were saying that “We own this record for ever”. No one could find the contracts and they were insisting that they owned it so we thought “We are just gonna go ahead and do this, we are not waiting anymore”. It’s just stupid record company stuff which is kind of ironic now because it’s out on Matador in the States which is owned by Beggars Banquet so in a way they got it back (laughs). Whatever, you know, we didn’t care really, we just wanted it to come out.
In the meantime from it coming out on Glitterhouse, Matador wanted to do this 25th anniversary thing and wanted to put together a box CD for it so they contacted us about using one of the songs because they didn’t own them any longer and then they said “Hey, do you want to play a Vegas show and that just seemed like it would be so much fun. Vegas is cool, getting back together 20 years later and playing Vegas? It just seemed like a blast. Sean, Arthur, Me and Chris were really into doing it. So we did that and a warm up show in Boston and we really enjoyed it so we thought we might play a New York show too and we based a few more shows around that.
Now we have the reissue too, I’m not really an archivist but I would say that about 99% of the stuff from the cover that is on there was from stuff that I kept in my basement so yeah I was pretty involved in it. I didn’t put it together or design it but I sent in a lot of the raw materials and tapes.
WNW: ‘Eleven: Eleven’ is generally regarded as your best work, I personally prefer your first solo record ‘Been Here & Gone’ but I understand its appeal. Is it your favourite?
TZ: I recognise that it is due to people’s reaction to it but I didn’t understand why people thought it was so much better than the other stuff, I really liked a lot of what we did afterwards. I never quite grasped why it had the effect on people that it did. I know that a lot of people who had ‘Eleven: Eleven’ didn’t have a lot of the other stuff and when they did that seemed to have a different effect on people.
It wasn’t recorded any differently and the whole process wasn’t different from our other records. I don’t know. Sometimes I will write a song and I think that it’s great and then when you play it live people just don’t get it. It’s hard to tell so I would say no, when we recorded ‘Eleven: Eleven’ at no point did we think that it was going to be an important record, they were just the songs we had at the time like all of our other records. It’s just for whatever reason this one ended up touching people in a certain way.
WNW: Are there any plans to write new material with Come?
TZ: I don’t think that anybody has any interest in it, I was offered it a couple of times and I had a couple of songs kicking around that maybe we could have done something new with on this tour but I just don’t think so. For one thing logistically it would be really difficult but for another thing I think people have different lives now that maybe wouldn’t allow for it. We don’t really talk about it but the couple of times that it has come up nobody has been really into it.
WNW: And finally Thalia, what do you feel is your greatest musical achievement so far?
TZ: Um… I really liked this record I did with a band called Uzi, it was before Live Skull and I listen to that record sometimes now that Matador have reissued it and I just think, man, we were really ahead of our time and now it does not sound dated at all. We did some really cool stuff with tape loops and things like that.
I really like ‘Been Here & Gone’ too. I hadn’t listened to that record in ages and this winter it was on my iPod on the way to work and I thought it was just an amazing record. I literally hadn’t listened to it in years and it really gave me the idea of what I did this past March with a residency type of thing where I did all of my records in a row. That whole idea came from that listen of ‘Been Here & Gone’.
The record I still play most off of though would be the first one I did for Thrill Jockey, ‘Trust Not Those in Whom Without Some Touch of Madness’. Some of those have become staples but I really loved revisiting those songs from ‘Been Here & Gone’, man, Chris Brokaw plays such beautiful slide guitar on it. That record went out of print and I put it back in print myself so I could have it with me on the tour. I found out when I was doing this residency by asking Matador for some copies and they told me it was out of print. I had no idea and they told me that [the copywrite] had reverted back to me. I was like Jeez, thanks for telling me, so then I said what about iTunes and they said “no, we took it off iTunes too” so it was literally not out there anymore so I asked them to send me everything they had straight away and I re did it myself so now it’s out at least.
WNW: Thalia, thank you.
Thanks to John from PENNYBLACKMUSIC for setting up this interview.