Uncharted is our weekly showcase of independent artists we think you should hear. This week: Zacht Automaat, a Toronto/Oxford duo of reclusive psychedelic geniuses with 11 albums to their name in just three years.
The pair, who share roots in the Hamilton, Ontario weirdo institution The Battleship, Ethel, pull from all of the drawers in the big, old cabinets of psych experimentation: the freewheeling horns of "Solo Dancer" on Charles Mingus' The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady, the Soft Machine's rambling melodic journeys, Robert Fripp and Terry Riley's tape loop magic, and on to the ruminative synth studies all over Black Moth Super Rainbow's Start A People. Don't be surprised by the dearness of kraut grooves – Didur and Michael McLean, ZA's second-half, have together done a stint or two backing up Can's Damo Suzuki.
Released Nov. 1, Calico Corp., the record label run by Slim Twig and his wife Meg Remy (that's U.S. Girls), have treated Zacht Automaat to a double LP retrospective curated from across their broad body of work — for some, a more manageable morsel; and for the great many, a proper introduction. "This record is our ambassador," says Didur, "[It's] out in the world bowing, shaking hands and kissing cheeks as we speak." Which sure sounds cute, but shit, what a first impression the Zacht Automaat double LP makes. It's a real charmer. Truly, an endearing look at a band that's gone undercover for far too long.
Carl Didur doesn't like to talk about himself, but he was happy to exchange emails with us about the ecstasy of improv (when it's good, it's great), the creature comforts of Can, and music-making: "the relentless obsession."
Was there a particular album, or a show, maybe a piece of gear you played or purchased, some moment that comes to mind when you realized that the synthesizer was more powerful or at least more attractive to you than the guitar?
I asked my sister's cool boyfriend in high school if there was music that wasn't made with distorted guitars and he copied McDonald and Giles from his parents' LP collection onto cassette for me. Shortly after that I tape traded through the mail with someone from Texas for The Polite Force by Egg and I knew then that the sound of oscillations through distortion could rival anything a guitar could produce. I was off. My friend Andrew Dordevic bought me my first vintage HP sine wave generator from Active Surplus years later and I stopped having dreams about finding secret rooms full of them.
As in some of your other projects, improvisation is central to the way Zacht Automaat makes music. Has it ever gone horribly wrong? Like performance-stoppingly bad? Or are you just that good?
Mike and I played shows for seven years where we simply walked on stage with the band and began making stuff up. The high points from those shows were transcendental and the (many) low points were just tedious. One gig in Oshawa will not be spoken of. That experience informed the Automaat method, which involves trying to balance between ecstasy and responsibility by working out more good shit beforehand. Also, we never jam. Jamming is something different and something wrong and evil.
If playing a bit off-the-cuff is important to what you guys do, do you ever find living away from your collaborator (McLean’s in England for school) affects your chemistry? Is their any benefit to your new geographical arrangement collaboration-wise?
We knew Mike would be moving to Oxford in 2011 and that is why we recorded eight albums in 2010. Now we record when he visits twice a year, clumsy with our instruments but full of repressed ideas. I have the rest of the year to prepare songs and make demos for the next session while editing and overdubbing from the previous one. Improvising is an important time-saving tool, but meticulous arrangement is as important to the final result. I can write a tune, chart it, make a video of it, send it to England where McLean learns it and when he shows up in Canada we can count-in "1,2,3" and record it instantly (almost). We have also tried playing over Skype and have sent tracks back and forth for overdubs — Bags Inside Bags was partially made in this fashion — but we prefer being in the same room together, arguing in real-time.
How do you find the time to release 11 albums in 3 years? Is the tape just always rolling? Is there some other thinking behind this rapid-succession beyond “for the love of the music”?
I cannot be stopped. I will work for 12 hours straight, pass out on the floor, wake up and work for 12 more hours. I don't find time — I steal it, barter for it, make it out of aether and tears. McLean, as an archeologist, can handle the tedium and can keep track of the details; as a dreamer he gets as restless as a child in class. This all seems to work out, if you don't consider our health. If you rephrase "the love of the music" as "the relentless obsession," you're on to something.
Back in the early 2000s, you guys, under the Battleship, Ethel moniker, played backing for Can frontman Damo Suzuki a number of times. How’d that come about? You wrote about his creature comforts in a blog post: “sleeps often, eats well.” Do any other peculiarities strike you? Tell me more about that relationship.
McLean met and befriended Damo when he first came to Hamilton. McLean is a wonderfully friendly person who can dominate a conversation out of sheer goodwill, while Damo is a twinkly-eyed and sleepy monk who never speaks. They make a ridiculously funny pair: "Frog and Toad Go to Space." We opened for him in Hamilton and the next time he came to town, we were his band. I think the next year we toured with him. Damo stayed with McLean in B.C. in 2006 in his mountainside cabin for quite a while as well. His slideshows were apparently of meals he had eaten in various parts of the world.
We got a boost in confidence when he admitted mischievously that Can often sounded bad on stage (see question 2). He thought we were musically uptight and were stuck to our preconceived notions of "the song" and not playing freely, but that he could "share our space." It was good advice and nice times. He reluctantly let us release a live recording we did with him we called The Kings of Norway, even though he said it sounded "not too good." Damo makes me feel calm.
In the genesis story of Zacht Automaat, the notion of “new means of organization” figures prominently. How does that — a “new means of organization” — relate as a philosophy to the way you guys approach making music?
The "new means of organization" motto, in a pragmatic sense, relates to studio method. The goal was to reduce the interference of the recording process to a minimum level. Less technology, less complexity; more flexibility, more creativity. Access to expensive technology is no longer a limiting factor in music-making. We made all of our albums with two SM58 microphones, a TASCAM 4-Track and a computer I got out of the lost-and-found bin. That's why it sounds so fine.
Previously on Uncharted: