Brought to You By the Letter 'E': Thalia Zedek on Her New Records, New Band
Thalia Zedek discusses how she turned toward quieter music after the breakup of Come and how a creative rut led her back to the land of the loud.
Thalia Zedek's music greets you like a friend.
Listen to any of the music she's recorded since her 2001 solo debut Been Here and Gone, including 2016's Eve, and you're struck by the warmth and familiarity. It's there in Zedek's voice, in the tone of her guitar and in the timbre of the accompanying instruments. There's something deeply comforting about the mournful strings and powerful percussion heard in "Evil Hand" (from 2004's Trust Not Those in Whom Without Some Touch Of Madness), in the smart, chamber rock of "Body Memory" from 2008's Liars and Prayers, in the whisper-in-your-ear intimacy of "Julie Said" from the 2014 EP SIX and in each of the deeply moving and thoughtful tracks on Eve.
The subtlety and emotional nuance may be a far cry from the music Zedek made as a member of the mighty Live Skull and, later, the alterna-titan Come or it may just be the same colors revealed through different shades. Zedek hasn't put a governor on her volume knobs. Included in a flurry of creative activity is E, the band she's formed with Jason Sanford of Neptune and Karate veteran Gavin McCarthy. The loud and lordly trio marks its recorded debut with a self-titled LP that announces itself like a carpet bombing campaign.
The material that comprises Eve, she says, began arriving just as she was putting SIX to rest. The new album's magnificent, almost seven-minute opener revealed itself first. She tracked it on her own and quickly debuted it on the stage. It soon became an audience favorite as well as one that her bandmates appreciated. "They insisted that we record it as a full band," she recalls, "and I agreed. Once they all started playing on it it became a different song."
The dreamy, hypnotic compositions that have formed the bulk of Zedek's solo output has its origins in the fading days of Come. In a period of roadwork between the release of 1996's Near-Life Experience and the arrival of the 1998 swan song Gently, Down The Stream, Zedek and bandmate Chris Brokaw traveled with pianist Beth Heinberg and percussionist Nancy Asch. "The songs actually worked really well that way," Zedek recalls. "I really loved how Beth interpreted rock songs. She had worked at the Boston Conservatory as an accompanist and was really sensitive to what we were doing."
The pair remained friends and after Come dissolved for the first time in 2001, they would often meet up to play music at Heinberg's home. "When we did that stripped-down tour I discovered that I wanted to do singing and writing in a different way," Zedek recalls. She built Been Here and Gone around the piano and guitar sound that she'd grown fond of. She added David Michael Curry on viola and other players (including Brokaw at times) to embellish the sound.
By the time the group entered the studio to make Trust Not the group took a more minimal formation, but not necessarily in sound. "Dave does a lot of stuff with loops," she says, "and we started to get more on the noise side of things." The shift away from the high volume of Come was in many ways something that allowed Zedek's singing to evolve. "You can be more expressive; you can do more stuff with phrasing. When you're singing over incredibly loud music, which I am currently doing in E, you mainly have to create a melody line that's going to be strong enough to cut through all the crazy stuff that's going on. It's less about the words and more about the impact."
She adds, "I think that change made me a better singer. My ears were getting pretty shot. I just really wanted to play music that did not require me to wear earplugs. Now we've gotten pretty loud again. But that was the idea at the start."
Eve doesn't just provide a snapshot of Zedek's evolution as a songwriter and vocalist, it also spotlights the sensitivity the full band demonstrates toward the material. Much of that, Zedek says, can be attributed to the shared history that she and her bandmates share. Curry and pianist Mel Lederman have been with her since the start; bassist Winston Braman (a member of Come during the last days of its initial run) entered the fold in 2008. The newest member of the ensemble is drummer Jonathan Ulman, who makes his sophomore appearance on the record.
When drummer Daniel Coughlin left the group in 2010, Zedek brought in a variety of players before finding Ulman. "Jonathan is the master of restraint," she says. "Most people, when they go into the studio, they want to add more and more stuff. He takes more and more stuff away and comes up with these devastating parts. Everybody falls in line with him."
The lineup has remained consistent enough that the group bears the moniker of the Thalia Zedek Band, an indication that concertgoers and record buyers have come to depend on a particular idea about who appears in the group. Another relationship that's been fundamental in Zedek's career has been the presence of Thrill Jockey. The label has released Zedek's material since Trust Not Those. Having been dropped by Matador after Been Here and Gone, she recorded one EP (You're A Big Girl Now) for Acuarela/Kimchee and released Hell is in Hello through Return to Sender.
Thrill Jockey founder Bettina Richards was someone Zedek had known during the former's brief layover in Boston. "She'd come see us when we were in Chicago but we weren't in super close contact," Zedek recalls. "I didn't really think of myself a Thrill Jockey artist at first because I didn't realize how eclectic they are. But Chris Brokaw said that Bettina really loved my music and suggested I get in touch. Bettina was really into that idea."
Thrill Jockey is also the home of E, the Thalia Zedek Band's louder, wilder sibling. The outfit grew from Zedek's need for some wider musical companionship. "In my band I write all the songs and although everyone comes up with their own parts it's still very much on me," she says. "If I lose momentum nothing happens with the music. I'd been doing my own thing since about 2000 and felt like I wasn't growing, creatively."
Tom Johnston, who'd managed come, was one of the first people to lend a hand in getting Zedek out of what she describes as "a rut." Johnston's friend Stephen Konrads (The Eternals) had found himself in a similar place within his creative life. She was initial skeptical in part because of their disparate aesthetics. Soon, however, she discovered that a new wave of creativity came over her. "I missed that collaboration. Come had it because me and Chris wrote together," she says.
She'd been a fan of the experimental Boston trio Neptune and was especially enamored of Jason Sanford's playing. "I wasn't a rabid fan but I remember thinking, 'I get what this guy's doing,'" she recalls. "I don't think anyone else would have thought that because our paths didn't really cross. Thalia Zedek Band never did shows with Neptune. Our fans probably wouldn't have seen the connection but, for me, there was something there."
Zedek and Sanford soon found themselves moving in similar social circles and the occasional meetings proved that they could get along well enough. Before long Sanford found himself without a few of his regular collaborators and eager to make new music. "I was really nervous about asking him," she recalls. "It took me a long time to work up the guts to do it. I think we were at a barbeque at his house and I finally said [imitates an insecure voice], 'You ever wanna play together sometime?'"
Their initial meetings were little more than noise-making sessions. For the better part of a year they'd meet as time allowed and improvise for hours on end. "There really was a connection there," she says, "I was pleasantly surprised."
It became apparent that they had material and were quickly becoming a band. They recruited a drummer Alec Tisdale (Volcano Kings) for a time but his professional life kept him from committing to the Sanford-Zedek project. "We wanted to do more than four shows a year and Alec didn't want to tour," she says. Gavin McCarthy had been present at several E shows and agreed to take over Tisdale's spot. "To our surprise and amazement," Zedek offers. "I found out later that he was actually going to ask us if he could join as a bass player. We asked him if he wanted to play drums and after about 20 minutes of playing it was like, 'Holy shit!' Jason told him he was in if he still wanted it."
The group operates sans-bass, something Zedek is perfectly fine with. "My first couple of records didn't have bass and I've always been OK without it," she says. "That's not to denigrate bass players or anything. And in E, I think it really didn't occur to us. We already had two guitars."
Add to that the experimental nature of Sanford's playing, including his use of alternate tunings and homemade instruments that soak up some of the bass frequencies. "It's not really a baritone guitar but it hits the lower frequencies," Zedek says. Sanford also uses a stomp box that hits ultra-low notes. "Jason's got a lot of tricks up his sleeve! I think it was a good challenge for him to do a lot of really, really low-end stuff."
Zedek's enthusiasm for the group is decidedly audible and she says that there's already material for a second E record in the works. Its arrival is contingent on the members being in one place at one time, meaning that the material probably won't emerge in the very near future. "We are pretty psyched about touring," she notes, hinting at some live E activity in early 2017. She hopes that more dates with the Thalia Zedek Band will appear by then.
She says that a consistent problem in her performing career, one that reaches back to her time in Come, has been getting gigs between the coasts. "We had this booking agent who would get us as far west as Minnesota and then we'd drive from there to Seattle," she recalls. "It was frustrating because we wanted to play other places. When I was in Live Skull in the '80s we played everywhere: We played Nebraska, Kansas all of that. With my band it's been a matter of just going where there's been the most interest and that's really been the coasts. On the other hand, that kind of becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Right now I'm leaning toward the old school way of just driving across the U.S."
Maybe driving across the U.S. and carpet bombing via those low, low frequencies.