Thursday, January 14, 2021

Interview with Zach Vazum of Vazum by Dave Wolff

Emily and Zach
Interview with Zach Vazum of Vazum by Dave Wolff

Vazum describes themselves as a deathgaze band. How do you define deathgaze as a genre and how does it differ from most subgenres incorporating goth rock, industrial and post-punk?
Deathgaze is a new genre and it is yet to be defined. I think it could go in different directions as we progress. Currently, we see it as a combination of the layered, shoegaze wall of sound and the raw, heavy riffs of deathrock or metal. We find it difficult to fit within the confines of goth rock, industrial or post-punk because those genres have already been so well defined by our icons and heroes that there isn’t much room to breathe. We see new bands mimicking the revered bands of the past and we see record labels pushing safe sounds. Familiarity makes sense for those trying to fit an algorithm. But we are creating our own algorithm.

What is the lineup of Vazum and who were the bands you previously worked with?
I’m on vox/guitar and Emily is on vox/bass. We use a drum machine live, and when recording we both play synth and I play drums. About ten years ago I played drums in a Detroit band called FUR, which was my formal introduction to the post-punk world. We made a few albums and I contributed to some of the writing process. Previously I had been in more ’90s sounding bands. After FUR ended in 2013 I played with a bunch of Detroit acts, including George Morris and the Gypsy Chorus, Le Voyage, Visitors, and After Dark Amusement Park. Most recently I’ve been drumming for a band called The Muggs who I went to Spain with in 2018 for a month-long tour. 

Was Emily playing in any bands before Vazum was formed? In what ways does your experience contribute to your present band?
Emily grew up in Los Angeles and was indoctrinated into the early deathrock scene, sneaking into clubs such as Whisky a Go Go. This early exposure is a strong part of Emily’s DNA which she brings to the VAZUM sound. In Detroit, Emily sang and played bass in several bands, the most notable being The Fontanels and Grenadine. Both groups played locally but Emily became disillusioned with certain aspects of the scene and decided to instead focus solely on her own company, Raven Eve Jewelry. Through Raven Eve she has met some of her heroes, such as Courtney Love and Ogre from Skinny Puppy, which has helped fuel her artistic ambition and express herself with VAZUM.

How did you hook up with Emily and what differences were you beginning to see in Vazum’s sound when she started working with you?
Me and Emily met through mutual friends in 2019. We were part of the same scene and going to the same clubs. We sang karaoke every week. I didn’t know she was a musician until later on. We started out by recording demos of a few songs Emily had written. Then when things went south with the bassist who had been playing with VAZUM, Emily stepped in for live shows. It wasn’t until the Spring of 2020 when we really started writing and collaborating together that I realized what a unique talent Emily is and how much she has to offer. First with lending vocals to the “Vampyre Villa” songs and then writing the “Rated V” album.

Did Emily have professional training before joining Vazum, or is she mostly self-educated? 
Emily’s parents are jazz musicians. Her mom is a singer and her dad is a guitarist. She had no choice but to listen to Mahavishnu Orchestra and be told about flat 9 chords. She took piano and violin lessons but was never formally trained as a vocalist. She is mostly self-taught. 

At what point after Vazum formed did you begin to develop something that sounded different from most goth rock, industrial and post-punk? 
We began to develop the deathgaze sound in early 2020 after I played a demo version of “Embers” for Emily and she said it was the most exciting thing she’s heard in a long time. That was a defining moment that shaped the rest of the “Vampyre Villa” album. Emily later coined the term deathgaze while we were recording the song “Rat”. She added whispery vocals in the chorus which gave it more of a My Bloody Valentine feel over the top of the heavier guitars and drums, and proudly stated ‘this is deathgaze’.

How does the term “deathgaze” represent the nuances of the band’s musicianship?
Though we sometimes use electronic drums and keyboards we like to maintain an organic sound. The tempos are not perfectly on time, the instruments don’t exactly line up with each other and there are flaws in the performances. This keeps it real and raw for us. The organic element is a big factor for deathgaze. We like the sound of acoustic drums and often play them atop electronic beats. We layer the guitars and lean heavily on dissonance. Many of the songs shift keys. I and Emily both sing, sometimes in unison and sometimes in different lines.

Do the organic elements you described give the music a chaotic feel that sets Vazum apart from other bands of your genres?
Yes, the chaotic or sometimes nervous energy is an important part of the deathgaze sound. It seems a lot of artists are relying so much on programmed beats and backing tracks that their music sounds cold and lifeless. I am a fan of the cold and lifeless sound but it’s just not what we’re interested in. I grew up on the 90’s bands who played their instruments and had their own identity like Soundgarden and Jane’s Addiction. I always gravitate towards real instruments. That said, we are working on an electronic album. 

How many different directions can deathgaze take as you refine your sound? How much potential for growth does the band see for the long haul?
It’s pretty open-ended. We’ve been scheming up an electronic, EBM style album, but first we’re going to release a more straight-ahead post-punk album called V+ which we’re almost done recording. Lately, I’ve been more into thrash metal and I see the aggressive, fast-paced guitars and drums creeping more and more into our music. We haven’t delved much into the industrial, sample-based side of things either, which I think we’ll also start to explore as well. We anticipate a lot of growth over the next few years, within the underground music scene and beyond. The possibilities are limitless. We’re in a good position in terms of being to record albums and produce our own videos and content. We’re just going to keep hammering away and making music that we are proud of.

Are you considering other genres to draw from as Vazum expands their horizons, such as dark ambient music or doom/death metal?
Yes, we are going to explore the various genres of metal and incorporate it into our music. I have a definite sound in my imagination that we have not yet achieved, one that is difficult to describe but very heavy on the doom side of things. We have only just begun using keyboards and can go in a more synth-driven direction as well. We’ve even discussed taking some jazz standards and playing them in our style. The possibilities are endless. 

Discuss the releases Vazum has come out with since the beginning and their importance to the development of Vazum’s sound.
“Fall Guy” was a Joy Division sounding song that sort of launched the VAZUM project. It’s the first song I released as VAZUM and gave me the confidence to move forward. The debut self-titled album was a way of proving to myself that I could write and perform as a leader. The second album “Void” was more of a band effort and a good method to further my songwriting. The third album “Variant” featured two Bauhaus covers which really opened up my eyes to the nuances of Daniel Ash’s guitar playing and Peter Murphy’s lyrics and vocals, both being a big influence on me since. Our fourth album “Vampyre Villa” was the beginning of deathgaze and Emily’s introduction to the band. “Rated V”, our Halloween album was a collaboration between me and Emily in which we created in the moment and were free to experiment and have fun. And “Vazumnacht”, our most recent dark Holiday EP, is also a collaboration that gave me and Emily the freedom to try different ideas and get more into electronic drums and synths.

Did Vazum have different lineups on their earliest releases before Emily joined or was it primarily a solo effort?
I recorded two albums, Void and Variant with my friends Zachary Anderson on guitar and Michael O’Connor on bass. The three of us were the core of the band for about two years and we wrote some songs together. We tried a handful of drummers for live shows but none of them work out. Then I played drums and sang for shows before abandoning live drums altogether and using the drum machine. 

What Halloween-based themes did the band draw upon for “Rated V”? Were they themes or horror or urban legend or something else altogether? 
Emily is a horror film savant, with some of her favorites being “Suspiria”, “The Thing” and “Bram Stoker’s Dracula”. “Rated V” began with an impromptu screenplay that Emily wrote, interweaving the stories of a clown, werewolf, vampire, Frankenstein girl and witch. We down-tuned our guitars and started jamming ideas. We decided which riff would fit for each character. Then wrote lyrics based on Emily’s screenplay.

How involved was the storyline Emily wrote for “Rated V”; how well did the characters relate to each other and how did the music you composed reflect the lyrics?
The story is about two pages long. It begins with a clown and a fortune teller at a carnival. A troubled man is in the fortune teller’s tent. He bears the mark of a pentagram on his hand. When the fortune teller sees this she exclaims ‘the mark of the beast’ and quickly banishes him. The man is startled and runs off into the night. He finds himself in the moors where he transforms into a Werewolf. After a night of terror he awakens in a graveyard and scurries off. Later that evening an old tombstone in the graveyard is slowly slid to the side and emerges a crusty Vampyre. The Vampyre heads into town and finds himself enchanted by a beautiful young woman who is not alive at all, she is Frankenstein Girl. She later meets a Vampyre hunter at a pub and tells him of her encounter with a Vampyre earlier that night. The Vampyre hunter embarks on his journey but is distracted by an old house where a Witch lives. The Witch then seduces and kills him. We strayed from the storyline when writing the lyrics but we did arrange the songs in order according to the story.

Does “Rated V” offer any new perceptions of classic horror film creatures?
The song “Witch Lich” is unique in that Emily plays the role of the Lich which is usually male. She wrote the lyrics in Latin, through the view of a female necromancer. The other characters are more conventional. We have a deranged clown, werewolf, Frankenstein girl, vampire, and vampire hunter.

Are the traditional roles of vampire and vampire hunter reversed, for example, vampires viewing vampire hunters as evil?
We were thinking about the vampire hunter as the Van Helsing archetype, like in Bram Stoker’s Dracula. So it’s more traditional roles of vampire and vampire hunter.

I read on your Bandcamp that the songs recorded for “Vazumnacht” were inspired by the legend of Krampus. In what ways did the legend inspire you to rewrite Christmas songs with darker themes?
Considering the amount of conflict and unrest in 2020, it only seemed fitting to punish the wicked and wreak havoc on conservative values. What better way than with Krampus laden Christmas carols. Emily was intrigued by the aesthetics of traditional European Krampus costumes and designed our own costumes for which we did a photoshoot and a soon to be released music video for “Unholy Night”. 

Was any research on Krampus or research on the traditional holiday songs you covered involved in recording “Vazumnacht”? How far back did you have to go for accuracy? How much input did you and Emily have into writing the lyrics?
Despite the annual assault of holiday music, I didn’t pay close attention to the songs until I had to play a Christmas show with a band I was in. That forced me to actually learn the music and in the process I began messing around with ideas of my own. I searched for darker holiday songs and came upon the “Batzz in the Belfry” version of “O Holy Night” which inspired me to go in that direction. Once Emily and I began jamming “O Holy Night”, it became clear the lyrics didn’t fit and that’s when we incorporated the Krampus theme. Emily was already well versed with Krampus and brought me up to speed.

Why do you think it took such a long time for the legend of Krampus to resurface as part of holiday tradition, and how do you account for its recent resurgence?
I think America is slow to embrace anything that challenges convention. And some people probably feel threatened by Krampus. They don’t want their Christmas traditions taken away. I had not heard of Krampus until a few years ago when I saw a trailer for one of the Krampus movies. I’m sure the movie has had a big impact. We’ve also seen people in Krampus costumes for Halloween. It’s slowly seeping into the culture. Despite all this, my parents weren’t sure what Krampus was and were a little confused by it.

I’ve heard Krampus mistaken for Satan, much like the horned god of Wiccan and pagan religions. Does the legend’s entry into pop culture have the potential to dispel myths like this?
I think there’s a lot of confusion about Satan, Satanists, and Wiccan and pagan religions. Growing up I learned about Christianity, Judaism, Islam, and Buddhism in school. I didn’t have exposure to anything outside those religions, but Emily has studied on her own and has made me more aware. I think Krampus could bring more awareness to other folk tales and legends. People are sure to become more interested. 

Describe the promotional video you made for “Carol of the Bells” one of the songs on the Christmas EP and how well the imagery fits the lyrics written for it.
We wanted a rural feel for the video so we drove to some farms and started filming. To our luck, it happened to be a full moon rising and we were there just before sun set. We got some beautiful shots using Emily’s Samsung Galaxy. The colors were very vibrant and clear, and there was a cool graveyard close by. Emily then edited the shots together, but we didn’t have any performance footage. So we later mimed and sang along in my living room in front of some curtains which ended up being a lot of fun. Emily then spent hours and hours editing everything together using three different apps on her phone. We are very happy with the way it turned out. We think it’s our best video yet.

How many promotional videos did the band release prior to “Carol of the Bells”? How do those videos show your creative growth?
I’ve tried making as many videos as I could since the beginning. I thought it would be more engaging for people to have something to watch. I think there are over thirty VAZUM videos on our Youtube channel now. The videos definitely tell the story of the band, with the earlier ones being a solo effort and then incorporating other people over time. Since Emily has joined she has taken the lead on the majority of the videos and has given us a more focused aesthetic.

Assuming most or all of your videos are self-produced, how much creative freedom does making your own videos given you, and how much has the band been able to utilize said creative freedom?
We have complete freedom with the videos. But we are limited to our skillset and the software we’re using. It’s always a work in progress so with each video we learn something new. We have a lot more ideas for videos and are constantly brainstorming and thinking about new shots and concepts. 

What can you reveal in advance about your upcoming video for “Unholy Nite”?
“Unholy Nite” features our Krampus costumes that Emily designed. We had fun getting into character. We prepared a small area for a set, lit dozens of candles, and started filming. The production of the video is more straightforward than that of “Carol of the Bells”. There isn’t any performance footage either.

How soon do you plan to release the video for “Unholy Nite” and how do you plan to promote in on social media outlets?
We plan to release the “Unholy Nite” video in late January or early February. We will post it on Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, and Youtube. We usually do a Youtube premiere first and then a Facebook premiere.

-Dave Wolff

Febrjuary 1 updates: Vazum's promotional video for "Unholy Nite" js now streaming at Youtube.
Read Dave Wolff's review of "Vazumnacht" here.

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