Interview : Grahm Zilla

17 May

Renowned for his involvement in Thunderheist, Toronto-based producer, DJ and musician Grahm Zilla has helped bring long-overdue attention to a genre previously neglected by North American listeners.  Not one to step back and stop creating, Zilla has recently embarked on his own solo endeavour in the wake of Thunderheist’s hiatus, remixing under the moniker Nautiluss and garnering acclaim for his first remix, Edu K, which perfectly showcases his unique, accessible and multi-dimensional  bass and beat-heavy vibe.  Supported by friends, fans and colleagues, Zilla has earned praise from artists like Sinden, Nacho Lovers and Egyptrixx (who he’ll be performing alongside on May 22) as well as good friend Jessica Gentile who makes up the other half of Zilla’s additional collaborative project, Bassanovva.  Dirtbag Journalism had a chance to speak with the artist about the importance of solo projects, the impact of Thunderheist and why suddenly electronically influenced music has returned to the limelight.

Dirtbag Journalism:  Why do you think it’s important for musical groups to take a step back and focus on their solo projects?

Grahm Zilla:  I don’t know that it’s necessary for all groups to do that, but in my case, it was a necessary move.  Before Thunderheist, I was only making music as a hobby while I held down a soul-sucking day job.  I was relatively green as a producer/songwriter, so I’ve never really put out music that was 100% my own.  Now I have the experience to actually make things sound the way I wanted them to five years ago, and thanks to Thunderheist, I’d like to believe that people will at least check it out because of the work I’ve already done.

DJ:  Do you approach your solo work differently than you did when you were focusing on Thunderheist?

GZ:  Absolutely.  In fact, in the past three months, I’ve completely changed how I make music altogether.  A lot of my early stuff was written in hotels or airplanes, so I was always reliant on my laptop and software – which is fine and everything, but these days I’m really into not staring at a computer screen all the time.  Also, I’m horribly addicted to the Internet.  And for that reason, everything is dedicated outboard including drums and effects, and I barely look at the computer until it’s time to do arrangements.  It gives me sonic consistency even if I change the tempos.  Also, it’s very tactile which rules in this day and age of visual experiences.

I’ve also been recording rough vocal ideas to come back to later when I end up working with singer friends or work up the courage to actually sing myself.  The first few Nautiluss remixes were done this way.

DJ:  How has your experience in Thunderheist influenced your DJing and solo work?

GZ:  As far as DJing is concerned, Thunderheist got me playing outside of my hometown for the first time.  It’s one thing to DJ for a crowd that you know, but take yourself out of that situation and it can be a really harsh reality check.  Different cities – let alone different countries – can have drastically different taste, and so it taught me to be way more flexible depending on the crowd I’m playing for.  I still believe that as a DJ, your job is to make sure that people attending have a good time, and a lot of that time it means reading the crowd and going with what works.  Obviously it’s important to try to educate them to new stuff, but there’s a very fine line.  I think once you get to be a headlining DJ, this constraint is removed because people are going there to see you – but I’m not there yet.

As far as production goes, I’ve learned that there are certain types of music that work in a club environment, and others that are better off at home.  The good news is that I’m really into both of those paths – I don’t want to limit myself to either category because that would just be boring.  I like making people dance, but I also like to make people think.  I think that the pressure for me to repeat another Jerk It became pretty big with Thunderheist, so I’m actually really stoked to be doing weird shit again and not worrying about whether it will be a hit or not.

DJ:  Do you find there’s a distinct electronic – using the term in a very broad sense – scene prevalent in Toronto?

GZ:  I don’t really go out that much in Toronto, so I can’t really tell you whether that’s true or not.  But I think that a scene is growing naturally as more and more of our local producers get international recognition (Nacho Lovers, Azari and III, Egyptrixx, etc.) to the point where these guys are starting to pack mid-size venues.  All I know is that I feel like things are sort of coming to a convergence point right now.  It’s a good time to be here, and I think the local crowds are feeling it, too.  One example are the Faktory after parties where people tend to come out and leave the stereotypical Toronto indifference at the door, actually have a good time and – gasp! – dance.  Or they’re just really high and/or drunk.  Either way, I will say that my best two DJ experiences in Toronto were at those parties.

DJ:  Why do you think people are increasingly gravitating towards electronically influenced music?  What do you think has pushed it further into the “mainstream” spectrum?

GZ:  Well first, we need to distinguish that we are talking about North America and not overseas, because they are entirely different beasts.

I think it’s more accurate to say a resurgence has occurred because if you think about it, the 80’s were ALL electronic instruments.  Then the 90’s happened, and well, we all know how ugly that got.  And now it’s become cool again due to the influence of people like Daft Punk on American mainstream artists.

But then in general, I’d like to think that it’s because electronic instruments allow for infinitely more innovation than traditional instruments.  You can only make a guitar/bass/drum kit sound so different.  Sure, there are bands that run crazy effects on their stuff, but that’s definitely not the norm.  I actually find it amazing that indie rock bands are generally so reluctant to get some electronics involved.  Most of the time when I watch them play, I’m usually left feeling like something is missing.  Look at The XX.  If it wasn’t for Jamie XX, they would just be a rock band.  A good one, mind you, but a rock band nonetheless.  Synths are the XX-factor.

DJ:  Do you consider electronic or dubstep to be this era’s innovative sound?

GZ:  I mean, there’s definitely some innovation that’s coming from that genre, but I think most people’s perception of dubstep is limited to a certain strain of it.  You know, the wobble bass – aka wubstep – has become pretty mainstream and has comically become the new “jock jam”.  If you look deeper, there’s definitely more interesting stuff out there, like Zomby, Joy Orbison and Sbtrkt that take more experimental approaches to it, and take it to other places entirely.

To be honest, I’m excited about the hybrids that are coming out that ignore the traditional genre boundaries.  The music coming out on labels like Night Slugs and Grizzly – Sinden’s new label – are kind of what I’m talking about.  Speaking of which, I just so happen to have some music coming out on Grizzly this summer under the name Bassanovva with my friend, Jubilee!

Grahm Zilla will be playing May 22nd at The Social with Egyptrixx and Lucie Tic ( PA and DJ Set)

Posted by : Anne T Donahue

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