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INDEPENDENT SINCE 1978

Michael Zilkha

Michael Zilkha • 1979 Blank Tapes Studios*

Michael Esteban

Michel Esteban • 1979 Blank Tapes Studios*

 

 

INTERVIEWS

STRANGE DAYS MAGAZINE : JAPAN 2009 THE DAILY TELEGRAPH : UK 2009 INK 19 MAGAZINE : UK 2009 FLUX MAGAZINE : UK 2009 VMAN MAGAZINE : UK 2009

STRANGE DAYS MAGAZINE : 2009 JAPAN
INTERVIEW WITH MICHEL ESTEBAN

You are living in Brazil currently. What made you want to move to Brazil? How long have you been living there?

I am afraid it is bit of a long story! In fact I discovered Brazil in 1985 for the recording of “One For The Soul” the album of Lizzy Mercier Descloux in Rio. I instantaty felt in love with the country, the people, the music, and decided to move there after the release of Lizzy’s album. But “life” has others plans for me. When I came back in Paris to mix the album, I meet the artist LIO. We felt in love and start working together. By 1986, we had 3 Top 5 hit singles in France and a gold album in 1987, but most of it, a beautiful baby named Nubia. In 1989 we separated, too much work, success, all mixed with family life. But I could not moved to Brazil with a year and half daughter in Paris. So I promised myself that I would move when she will be 18. During that period I came every year in Brazil for a month or two and definitely moved in 2006.

It's the 30th Anniversary for ZE Records. When you started the label, did you think ZE Records would continue for such long time?

Absolutely not, we had no marketing plan whatsoever; we were just having fun doing exactly what we wanted to do, without being concerned with consequences. It was total freedom. It was a lot of fun and I enjoyed every minute of it. I guess that is why people still enjoy that music today. But I had at that time no intention of making a “carreer” in the music business, I was more interested in Art…

Many of the representative works on ZE Records are going to be re-issued this time in Japan by P-Vine Records. What do you think about this?

I am very happy and very proud, in a period of the music industry is in a total revolution and crisis it is great that Japanese companies keeps interest in the “history” of music. Japan will be soon the biggest and most complete worldwide music library, and thanks to Japanese’s music lover and records companies. In 2003 when I restarted le label I used this slogan : THE FUTURE IS HISTORY!

You and Michael Zilkha used to be friends? What sort of friendship with did you have?

Michael and I were opposite, he was born in London from a very rich family from Iraq, and his father was a millionaire. Michael was raised in the best university, he was speaking perfect French. When I meet him in New York in 1978, he was working as theater critic for the Village Voices. I was French born in Paris, did not go to the university but in Art Scholl: Ecole des Arts Graphiques de Paris and Shool of Visual Arts in N.Y. I loved music, art, cinema and New York, where I was then living. I had a good business in Paris : Import records shop, which was also selling rock merchandising, rock magazines and books. I had published a “punk” magazine “Rock News” in 1975/76 and few books, Patti Smith, Lizzy Mercier Descloux...

But despite very different background we both loved music, Michael had no experience in music business but a good flair and has passion for words (lyrics). I was more interested in the music production, the visual and graphic and the label image. Michael had too much money…!

Do you keep in touch with Michael Zilkha, or is there still any connection between you and him?

We did not talk for years but when I had the idea of re-launching the label, I called him in Houston where he lives now, and we meet in NY a couple of weeks after. He was not interested in the music business anymore, he had moved to Texas, remarried after his divorce with Cristina. He was working with his father for years in the oil business, then in the wind energy business (which was a good move from oil…) but apparently they sold that company too. Made more millions. They also own a wine business in the States. So life has separated us because we are not going after the same goals. I am still in the music business, and still not millionaire.

You were introduced to John Cale by Patti Smith who was your friend around 1977, which became the trigger to make you establish the label. Would you tell us a bit more about the background?

In fact all became with the Velvet Underground that 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!

In 1978 when John Cale and Jane Friedman (Patti’s manager and then John’s girl friend) started their label SPY records, John asked be to be Art director, we worked a couple of months on SPY, then John told me that we should met a young English man, who was working as theater critics for the Village Voice and had his “Mothercare” (A baby clothes empire in the UK) Daddy’s money to invest in the music business… Michael was very shy but very passionate, he was speaking French perfectly, and we immediately get along fine. SPY was John’s baby and he wanted to produce every artist himself. So after a couple of months, I left Spy and went with Michael to start ZE (our 2 initials and a play on words with THE Records…)

What kind of image for sound did you have in mind when you started running ZE Records? What were some of the biggest influences you got from the music scene in New York, London and Paris at that time?

I had no direct influence at that time from the music scene around. In fact we wanted to do something different. My music influence comes from my musical background, all the music I loved since I was 10. Then, I had the chance to witnessing from 1974 to 1977 the birth of the so called « new wave » in NY, Patti Smith, the Ramones, Televison, Richard Hell, Talking Heads Blondie, and then « Punk » in London, The Sex Pistols, Clash, Subway Sect, Buzzcoks, Siousxy ect…I have seen most all the firsts gigs of these bands, as a « journalist » for my magazine « Rock News ».

But in 1978 to my point of view rock was a little bit boring after these two last waves. Disco music was coming and that was fresh and fun! On the other side on the ocean in Manchester an English guy had the same opinion and Tony Wilson started Factory Records. A great label!

9. You called your sound "No Wave". What does this "No Wave" mean?

We did not call it, journalists called it. I don’t like to put a name of different style, for me music is music ! I used to say: There is good or bad music, now that I am a little bit wise (?) I say there is music I like and music I don’t!

Anyway, I guess it comes from the fact that we had just before the “New” Wave, and all these new bands were reacting against that. Then Brian Eno was commissioned by Chris Blackwell to make some demos with all the interesting new bands from NY, cause his label Island Records had missed the last (New) wave: The Patti Smith, Television, Richard Hell, Blondie, Ramones, Talking Heads, ect. But Chris did not like any of them, so he only put a record out, from theses tapes, called “No New York”, with James Chance, Dna, Mars and Teenage Jesus & the Jerks. Then we signed on ZE James Chance, Lydia Lunch, Arto Lindsay and Mars and Island distributed ZE….

What made you decide to have August Darnell as a producer?

Another long story: Back in 1978, Michael (Zilkha) wanted to produce a disco single for his girl future wife Cristina. Disco Clone was a song written by Cristina's classmate from Harvard: Ronald Melrose. Michael asked John Cale to produce the song and that was ZE first release. But John was not exactly a Disco producer... Bob Blank came along and produce the second version of Disco Clone and Chris Blackwell mixed it! Bob Blank introduced August, who was at that point quitting his brother’s band Dr Buzzard’s Original Savannah Band, to Michael. Michael was looking for a producer for Cristina's album and August lied and said he was the producer of Savannah Band and was hired by Michael to do the job.

But it was a great move cause August was absolutely brilliant!

There were the artist’s likes of James Chance and Lydia Lunch who are considered having affinity for the No Wave scene. Did the "No Wave" movement mean a lot to you?

Like I said before I am not concerned by the name you put on music style. I was raise in the 60’s listening as much the Beatles, the Stones, the Beach Boys, James Brown, Otis Reading, Jimmy Hendrix, Aretha Franklin, or even Miles Davis, Coltrane or Mingus and for me there was no difference? I just loved it all.

So because we have released on ZE: James Chance & the Contortions, James White & the Blacks, Lydia Lunch, Mars, Arto Lindsay, artists related to the “No Wave movement”, we are considered as a No Wave label. But on the other side there is the Mutant Disco side of ZE and even the cross over between the two…. So let say we were just interested in talented and creative musicians whatever the style of music they played.

Lizzy Mercier Descloux is one of the representative artists on ZE Records, who used to be in fact your official and personal partner. What do you think is the most brilliant part of her from your point of view?

Lizzy was first my girl friend back in 1974 when we meet in Paris, she came with me in NY on my second trips on 1975, and she stayed in NY for years. Then she was my best friend for the rest of her life, and one of the most creative artists on ZE. She was a total artist in all she did, writing, playing music and signing, making pictures or painting, acting in films, living. She has a poetic way of life. I miss her a lot.

She then achieved to take the essence of the world music such as African and Latin music into her own sound. Was this her own idea?

Lizzy and I were “partner in crime”, we were like real brother and sister. Our friend Richard Hell used to call us “ Les enfants terribles” (from the Cocteau/Melville film) I was a little bit older, 7 years, but we had the same artistic background so we evolved together. After the NY period from 1975 to 1981, we were interested by the African sound and more generally by any kind of music we did not know. We were just very curious.

ZE Records made the exclusive distribution deal with Island in 1979. What was the main reason why you chose Island as your distributing partner?

Island records was at that time one of the best independent label in the world, and they were a kind of small major compagny with their own distribution. I had a great respect for Chris Blackwell; he was a friend of my then girl friend (Anna Wintour, the fashion editor) so the connexion was easy!

Your choice of Steve Stanley as a producer, who did great job on Lizzy's records, was suggested or advised by someone else? Or were you introduced to Steve by somebody?

In the distribution package deal I signed with Island I had the opportunity to record in their studio in Nassau Bahamas, Compass Point studios. Which was a great studio at that time. All majors Island artists were recording there. It was cool to records with studio neighbors like Bob Marley or Grace Jones… and meet then at the cantina…

Steven Stanley was a very young Jamaican studio engineer, really creative, a bit crazy and really fun to work with. I meet him during the mix of the Casino Music’s “Jungle Love” in 1979. He was assisting Chris Blackwell for the mix. Then when I produced in 1980 the Suicide Romeo album there. Steven was the engineer for Alex Sadkin who produced the album. Steven was working on all island productions in Nassau, Marley, Grace Jones… So when in 1981 I came back to produced lizzy’s second album “Mambo Nassau”, I naturally asked Steven to works with us. I believe it is the first time he had the title of “Co producer”. After he worked with Tom Tom Club. He was a genius in the studio.

ZE Records later released the artist’s likes of Cristina and Was (Not Was), which made the label shift the direction to creating more dance-floor oriented sound. Then the new concept "Mutant Disco" had been born. What did "Mutant Disco" intend to demonstrate on its term and goal?

We did not have “concepts”; we were just producing the music we wanted to hear. And at that time “underground” disco was really cool and fun. Most of the Prelude albums were recorded at Blank Tape studio, which was our general Headquarter. We tested all our mixes at Paradise Garage before release, cause they had the best PA system in town.

I guess the “Mutant Disco” side of ZE reflects our love for Dance Music and our own ironic vision of it. August Darnell was the first one to remix a “No Wave“ track: James White’s “Contort Yourself” which became a cult classic of the Dance floors. But you have to realize that at that time in Clubs, you did not hear Rock of No wave remixed. So during 1979 and 1980 we recorded a couple of great fun disco records: Aural Exciters, Don Armando’s 2 nd Ave. Rhumba Band, Was (Not Was), Gichy Dan's Beachwood No 9, Material with Nona Hendryx, les Garcons, Cristina, Coati Mundi…

Was (Not Was) for me is the perfect example of Mutant Disco. The perfect bridge between MC5 and Funkadelic with witty lyrics. Les « faux frères » Was, two talented Detroit freaks nourished by Motown music on one side and the MC5, Iggy and The Stooges and Mitch Rider and the other. I mean where could you find in 1979 a band featuring, Wayne Kramer former MC5 guitarist, Charlie Mingus former trompetist Marcus Belgrave, Sir Harry Bowens, who had been a vocalist/pianist/arranger for the O'Jays, Parliament/Funkadelic's flamboyant percussionist, Larry Fratangelo, and House pioneer Ken Collier behind the desk.

But we did not called it “Mutant Disco” yet. That name and the original vinyl compilation of 6 songs under that name came from a great guy from Island Records London, called Rob Partridge. Rob was the brilliant PR of Island. He love ZE Records and had that great idea of this compilation by selecting 6 titles in our catalogue for a mini album. But that remained about it at that time, it was not a hit record, even if the British press was dithyrambic and that “The Face” called us of “Most fashionable label in the World”… Too much, too soon!

In 2003 as I relauched the label I selected 25 titles on ZE back catalogue; remasterized the whole and published Mutant Disco Volume 1 and 2, then in 2004; I released Mutant Disco Volume 3 (Garage Sale) in 2005. Mutant Disco Volume 4 (The Last Dance) will release in January 2010. It obviously became an influent style now, and I am quite proud of it!

ZE Records once stopped its business in 1986, while it looked successfully running. What was the business situation of the label at that point?

A strategic difference of view with Michael Zilkha, especially around the delicate subject of his wife Cristina in 1981 took me away from ZE. 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’s next two albums in South Africa and Brazil.

When I left ZE, Michael continued for a couple of years, lost interest, divorced Cristina, left N.Y move to Texas and went into the oil business with his father.

By contraries, you re-started the label in full swing in 2004. What made you want to re-start the label at that time? What was your motivation?

In the beginning of that new century when I start to listen some records from DFA or Output, I realized that most of these bands were very influenced by the music that we produced 30 years ago. And when I met James Murphy and Trevor Jackson they both told me that they were big fans of ZE. It is always pleasant to see that by your work you have influenced talented people! So I guess it was the right time to re re-release our entire back catalogue, which was unavailable for years, and most of the records were never released on CD. A new generation who was not even born at that time seemed interested by the music we produced then!

I was also a great opportunity to digitalize and remaster all these analogue tapes and released the best sound possible. That was not the case back in the 80’s cause we were dependant of the vinyl pressing of our distributors. And some were not very good!

Without this work I guess most of these recordings could have disappeared and that would have been too bad. Fortunate and thanks to that new generation and particularly to Japanese’s fans, this music is alive today and is part of the music history.

Do you have any connection with the music scene in Brazil, where you currently live in? Also, is there any chance that you will release the albums of the Brazilian artists in the future? Please tell us about what coming up on ZE Records and your goal and plans.

Of course, I love Brazilian music. My old friend from N.Y, Arto Lindsay, who was raised in Brasil, is also now living in Bahia, he introduced me to lots of musicians. But I am actually working here on the creation of a Contemporary Art Institute. The institute will welcome artists from all around the world in residence and mix with Brazilian artists on various projects. The recording studio of the institute will then records these encounters with various artists but also projects with Brazilians musicians too. It is a big and enthralling project, which includes all arts and takes most of my time now. But obviously ZE Records will be a part of it and I will keep reissue the rest of my back catalogue in 2010. We have also for next year various projects. The 30th Anniversary of the Mutant Disco original release: A great Limited collector Box set with the 4 albums is scheduled. A series of releases called ZEVOLUTION ZE RECORDS RE-EDITED. We are asking dj to re-edits songs from our back catalogue. We will release a ZE Paris Edits, ZE N.Y Edits, ZE Brazilian Edits and hoping for a great ZE Tokyo Edits. Like you see not too much time to go to the beach…