You were about 27 at the time you started Ze Records with Michael Zilkha in New York City. New York is a vibrant subject in many artists’ music and is a muse for a lot of musicians, especially NY in the 1970s. Can you describe what it was like living in New York at that time?
In fact all became with the Velvet Underground which was my favorite band in the early 70’s. New York at that time was “ZE” place to be. In 1974 I was 23 when I first came to N.Y, I was living at the Chelsea Hotel, I became friend with Patti Smith, and Richard Hell. Andy Warhol was hanging out with his gang at Max’s. Lou Reed and William Burroughs at CBGB’s. I started a magazine called “Rock News” in 1975, until end of 76. In 1977 I produced my first single with John Cale (Marie & les Garçons) I was sharing a loft in Soho with Patti Smith ! NY at that time was not a Disneyland for Yuppies it became in the 90’s, but the film set of Martin Scorsese films, Mean Street or Taxi Diver… I mean for me it was a dream came through !
What part of town were you living in when you formed Ze?
In 74 I was living at the Chelsea Hotel on 23th street, then my first apartment was in Gay street in the West Village, then I move to a huge loft in Lafayette street in Soho wich I share with Patti Smith. But when I started ZE I was living in a uptown brownstones on 80 th street between 1 and 2 avenue.
What was the impetus for starting Ze? What is your background in music?
No professional background, just a big fan in music. I was an art student, but most of the musicians are too!
What was your primary responsibility at ZE back then? How is it different now?
We were very naïve and very fortunate, we had total freedom about what we wanted to produce, no strategy except having a good time. The difference between back then and now was like we were writing books with a goose feather, then a guy named Guntenberg came and invent printing…. If you see what I mean !
What was your relationship to the artists? Was it a familial one or was the relationship more business?
No familial neither business, I guess respectul, we tried to gave them freedom to do what they wanted to do, as long we had choosed them it was trust ! Some of them were friends.
A lot is made of how much New York has changed since the ‘70s. Many artists don’t believe it was for the better. What, if anything, do you think was lost that has changed art in the city?
I am not a nostalgic person, but of course NY was a very creative environment at that period. I believe Art movements works by cycles anyway.
Can you define what ZE stands for (and stood for in the ‘70s and ‘80s) as a label? What would you say were your goals, musically, for the label?
Total freedom and the personality of two foreigners with a certain vision of what music should have been at that time in that city we loved. Right time, right place ! We were lucky enough to had the money to produce music we wanted to hear, did not care about what people said and tried to enjoy ourselves.
You were responsible for the art direction at ZE, and the iconic checker cab label. What role do you think art plays in music? What do visuals add to the sonic experience that is music?
To me music, graphic art, movies and to a certain extend literature or even painting is the same. My English is not good enough to explain exactly what I am trying to said, but to me a record of Miles Davis, a painting by Jean Michel Basquiat, a film by Martin Scorsese or a book by Nick Toshes are talking about the same thing. As an art student I was of course very interested and concern in the graphic image of the label. But graphic with an attitude !
The ZE 30 disc includes many of your classic artists: James White & the Blacks, Suicide, and Kid Creole and the Coconuts (to name a few). Thirty years on, are there any songs that have surprised you in their ability to stand the test of time? Any missteps – material you thought was great at the time that just doesn’t stand up?
Of course there are some production or songs that aged differently, you cannot be 100 % right. But I am amazed that most of our production are considered today as classic. And I think if we had to produce them today we will not change anything. So I guess we must have done the right thing back then !
What was your role as co-founder of Ze? Did you seek out talent? Any artists you had a challenging time signing? Any interesting stories to tell regarding artists who got away?
We equally share responsability with Michael, seeking and choosing artists or producing them, except on the visual which was more my department.
I personally wanted to sign the B’s 52 and Devo when I saw them playing at Cbgb’s or Max’s. They both ended up with Island Records which was obviously a bigger label than us.
ZE has gone from being a label on the cutting edge of New York’s No Wave and post-punk scene to being a boutique re-issue label. No doubt, Ze was far ahead of it’s time, and much of the music is still being copied today. What was your motivation to sign Michael Dracula and start releasing new material again?
I like to quote Edgard Varese words : “ An artist is never ahead of his time, but most people are far behind theirs”. I met Emily McLaren the girl behind MICHAEL DRACULA through the guys of OPTIMO, she was a big fan of ZE, and she is a brilliant songwriter, she sings, plays almost every instruments on the album, wrote the music and lyrics. I could have produced this album a little bit better but I always tried to please the artist first…
What is your relationship with the original ZE artists today? Do you still keep in touch with them?
With some yes, I have a couple a projects with some of them but as I said before I am not nostalgic and I don't like revival.
What is the most difficult challenge in running a record label?
Try to find the money to make your dream possible.
What do you think an anthology of ZE’s groundbreaking catalog means to music in 2009?
I hope the same thing as the first album of the Velvet Underground in 1967, like Brian Eno said : Maybe not so much people brought it but most of them who did, started a band ! And I could had : or start a records label!
Are there any artists of the last ten or so years who you would have signed to ZE back in 1978? Why or why not?
Bjork : because she is Bjork !
Why did the label close down in 1986?
I personally left ZE and NY in 81/82, mainly cause I had a strategical difference of view with Michael Zilkha, specialy around the delicat subject of his (then) wife Cristina. Not that I did not like her of her albums. She was/is a brilliant girl but as far I was concerned they had a sick relationship which was interfered with the image of the label. In terms of business Michael had Daddy’s money to spend for me it was my money, obviously not the same income!
Also I though that by 1982 the golden years of NY creativity speaking where fading and I wanted to travel more. That is what I did by producing Lizzy Mercier Descloux next two albums in south Africa and Brasil. I also produced French artists during the 80’s, like French pop icon LIO, with who I had my first gold records.
When I left ZE, Michael continued for a couple of years, lost interest in music business, divorced Cristina, left N.Y move to Texas and went into the oil business with his father…
You are based in France now? What city?
No, I live now in Salvador de Bahia, Brasil since 3 years now and I have been developing a project of a Cultural Art Center, called A FABRICA, sort of the Sundance film institute, but for all arts.
France has some labels that seem to share some of the spirit of what you guys were doing in NY back in the ‘70s and ‘80s (Ed Banger comes to mind). What is the French music scene like? Can you elaborate on any similarities or differences between Paris and New York City?
Different time, different people, difficult for me to juge. The energy is really different between Paris and NY. The music is definitely more interesting in France than it was at the end of the 70’s. I like Pedro Winter work and the two guys from Kitsuné and I know they like ZE too.
ZE had a distribution relationship with Island Records. During the original run of ZE (1978 – 1986) Island was an independent record label. That changed in 1989 when Chris Blackwell sold Island to Polygram. How do you view the decline of the traditional record label (Sony BMG, Virgin, etc.)? “Is this a case of good riddance to old rubbish,” or is this a frightening trend in music that will lead to a drop-off in quality of recorded music in the future? What impact will the fracturing of the market and the rise of self-produced music have on independent labels?
Island was on of the best indie label of the 70’s and Chris Blackwell a great producer. The decline of the record label came when the heads of these labels or majors came from business school and not from the music world. Then some guys invented the mp3 and digital music and it was the same like when Gutenberg invented printing. Books were never the same again.
In an interesting role reversal, U2 loaned money to Island when they were in financial trouble. As pay back, Chris Blackwell gave them control of their masters. Several artists are taking a more active role in generating financing for their albums (Patrick Wolf is selling shares in his latest album). What are some viable models for “record labels” in the future?
Knowing Chris Blackwell, I am not worry about his finance, in stories there is always 3 versions: mine, yours and the real one!
Talking about viable economic models for record labels, if anybody have a brilliant idea I am interested in, ;-).
More seriously I am very optimistic for the music cause people “use” more music than ever, but since a couple of years kids thinks that music is free ! We are in the middle of a revolution. But one think is sure, is that you need talented people to write, play and produce music, and that no machine or industrial revolution like the digitalisation of music, film of books can remplace.