Photo: Zachary Gray

The Velvety Face of Halfnoise’s Zac Farro

When not working as Paramore's drummer, Zac Farro continues his electronic experiments with Halfnoise, sounding now more fully formed than ever.
The Velvet Face EP

“Dude my service is so terrible in Nashville, I had to walk outside ‘cos I don’t get no service here, it’s insane.”

At 26, Zac Farro has already had quite a life. After having formed one of the most successful pop punk bands of the MySpace era along with his brother Josh, vocalist Hayley Williams, and bassist Jeremy Davis when he was just 12, he went on to live mostly in band vans and roadside hotels as Paramore exploded in popularity.

At the end of 2010, Farro and his brother broke away from the band in dramatic fashion as Josh published a scathing blog post accusing Hayley Williams of treating Paramore as her solo project. Shortly after, Zac came back to music with Halfnoise, a small electronic side project, and Novel American, a rock band formed in the wake of the Farro Paramore exodus. While Novel American quickly fizzled out after the band couldn’t find a suitable vocalist, Halfnoise slowly grew into Zac’s main creative outlet.

Now, after a soul-searching journey to New Zealand, two full-length albums, as well as two EPs as Halfnoise, Farro seems to be only getting started. Having officially rejoined Paramore as the drummer in February, he says he has no intention of abandoning his smaller indie project, seeing it as his creative safe space he has needed for a very long time, his latest release, The Velvet Face EP, continuing on the electro-pop vein he mined on 2016’s Sudden Feeling, which landed on PopMatters’ Best Pop Albums of 2016 list.

Farro recently sat down with PopMatters to talk his new EP, his old (and now current) band, and so much more.

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Did you originally envision Halfnoise as this rejuvenating project? Did completely changing gears from what you were doing with Novel American and Paramore musically work as rest for you?

To be honest, I know this doesn’t sound like a great answer, but there really wasn’t a plan. To be honest I wasn’t really sure what I was gonna do in life, let alone if I was ever gonna do music, so I just sort of started dabbling in writing, took a shot at singing and stuff. My friend Dan who I just recorded the EP with, he recorded my very earliest demos and my first record and he was saying like “Hey man, I’m getting into producing stuff and if you write music I’d love to produce it.” I didn’t really have any intention of making Halfnoise a thing, I was just kind of enjoying writing music. It was up to that point where he was like “Lets record some stuff,” that was followed by other friends in Nashville going like “We need an opening band for our tour,” and I was like “No way in hell am I singing in front of anybody, like I’ve never sung in front of people, I’m not gonna do it.”

It’s actually kind of awesome, ‘cos they gave me the opportunity and kind of pushed me to get to where I am at now, ‘cos now I love performing and singing, and I just never thought I would ever do that. It wasn’t my intention to leave Paramore and not do the Novel American thing and just like go and be like “Oh, I’m gonna make this band that’s very different.” I just kind of naturally just started writing what I wrote and it just kinda came about.

So it wasn’t burn out that made you flip to the polar opposite of the musical world.

There definitely was a part of me that wanted to try something other than what I’d done my whole life. You know, playing rock music was awesome, but I definitely wanted to try something else, because, especially at that point, I was listening to more Radiohead, Sigur Ros, a lot of more ambient, ethereal music. So I wanted to try my hand at stuff I was kinda listening to at the time, but it wasn’t like “Oh I gotta make something that’s so different,” it wasn’t like a conscious desire to distance myself.

The cool thing about Halfnoise is that up to this day it’s been entirely up to what I wanted it to be and either people like it or they don’t — it’s been such a really cool safe place for me man to just write music and explore. It’s just been a really cool creative outlet for me. You know I always tried to keep it that way. So it’s just really awesome that anybody would want to talk to me about it or even wants to listen to it. And it’s not like the most fun thing every single day, it’s like every single job, you get tired of it, but I genuinely do it because I live to make music.

I was just talking to the Paramore guys the other day and I was like “What the heck would we do if we didn’t have music?” I would literally be the most boring person, I would just like not have any purpose in life. Music has just given me so much direction and so much purpose and I just couldn’t see myself doing anything else, so yeah, sorry I just went on this huge rant.

Have you grown accustomed to the front-man role already? Was that an awkward transition?

Dude, it kinda sucked: at first it was so scary man, you know it’s very weird to step out, because you get so comfortable being the drummer. ‘cos you play so many shows, maybe one day you’re just not feeling good, you can kind of like hide back there and just keep your head down, and just play the drums, but when you’re singing you just gotta be who you are, you gotta turn it on every night, you gotta be up front, and singing’s so different to playing an instrument, so it was definitely a steep learning curve for me, cause I grew up playing drums, I know that like the back of my hand, but I love it now.

You talk a lot about New Zealand being a big part of who you are as a person, what in particular made you take to that country so much?

Honestly, I went there and everything happened at this perfect time of my life. I just never really knew who I was until I went there. And it’s not like I’m any different, if anything I’m just a litle bit more goofy or a little bit more myself but I just used that time to just grow up, sometimes it takes moving away from home. For me it took moving to one of the furthest places across the world. You know, I just found it to be something really interesting at that point. The way of life, the culture, the humour, everything there was like super in line with what I love and what I connect to. The landscapes dude, the scenery is insane, don’t even get me started on that.

I was just meeting people I had no history with ‘cos, you know, walking around Nashville people would be like “Oh you’re Farro, I know your brothers,” or “I know your parents,” or something. And that’s not a bad thing, but you just kind of feel like you’re put into a box, like this is who I am so much that I wasn’t really able to move forward. I just lived these really normal, but really rad years of my life in a place where people were meeting me for the first time and I could be whoever I wanted to be. Not that I’m like super different now, but it was just a really cool time, I’m really thankful I did it. It not only changed my life, it kind of defined my life, like this is what I want to be forever.

It might sound like such a dramatic thing, but it was just really helpful and it’s like the best place in the world. I learnt to surf, I lived out of a van, I made some of the best friends of my life, I laughed the hardest I’ve ever laughed and those things are now just a huge part of who I am now. And that was another thing, that’s where I found out that I love making Halfnoise music. Before I was kinda one foot in one foot out, kinda just like not really giving my whole self to it, you know, and I probably thought that I could just not do this and I think that was not cool for the music too, ‘cos it’s not cool when you start second-guessing that.

Is there a story behind recording Volcano Crowe at the bottom of a volcano?

There wasn’t this elaborate story, but I went there and we didn’t record just in one studio, we recorded in three different houses, and one of those was under Mount Raupehu, which is the largest active volcano in New Zealand. It doesn’t erupt really anymore, I mean it did like in the ’80s, but it hasn’t in a while. We went when it was completely covered in snow and that was the first week of recording, so yeah it was under this volcano, which is where I kind of named myself in a way. It’s kind of funny ‘cos the family I stayed with was the Crowe family, so in a weird way I kinda named myself there, the album’s about me changing and about me letting go and giving in to things that are just happening, like that transition that New Zealand gave me, so I kinda named it Volcano Crowe ‘cos it was under a volcano and the family I was staying with was the Crowe family, but I also kinda gave myself a name, like I was the volcano, I don’t think I ever thought of it that way, but I think that’s exactly what I did, I don’t think I ever told that to anybody.

Yeah it was awesome: one week we recorded in this massive beach house which was right across the street from the ocean and it was made out of shipping containers, have you ever seen one of those modern shipping container houses? So it was like all glass and it was in this beach town, but it was in the winter, so there were no one around, just the three of us, it was awesome.

Moving on to Sudden Feeling, it seems like you’re taking almost a step back from the indie sound of Volcano Crowe and taking a dive down to the roots of pop music, have you always been a fan of this retro aesthetic, or is that just a recent obsession?

I think that’s something I definitely discovered in New Zealand, but I always loved indie rock music and I think that indie music has been especially inspired by the classic pop music of like The Beatles. Maybe that’s just what I see. And so on Sudden Feeling I was listening to a lot of The Beatles and a lot of Talking Heads, that kind of drum machine, ’80s New Order stuff. I think it just progressed from there, ‘cos even on the newest stuff, on The Velvet Face EP I was thinking of The Kinks and The Velvet Underground and The Beatles of course, but yeah I’ve just always kind of liked it. All of my favorite movies were like Wes Anderson movies and he also pulls a lot from kind of music too.

Since you’ve said that you love photography, I wanted to ask about your directorial debut. Was the music video for “French Class” the first thing you ever directed?

Yeah, it was the first one I properly directed. I helped out with “Know the Feeling”, the very first video we did for Sudden Feeling, the record. Then I had my friend direct the next one, but yeah, this was the first video I properly directed. Oh man that was super fun, I felt a little nervous, cause I’d never done something like this and I don’t really know any of the terminology of film and all the words people use, so I was afraid the people working with me would think I’m not up to it. It’s like when you get to the studio and they’re like “Should we use this mic or do this,” and for people who don’t do music they’re like “What the heck are you talking about?” So I didn’t know any of that kind of stuff, but I knew what I wanted.

And honestly my friend Tony, who’s the guy in the video on the rollerblades, he just comes alive when the camera’s on him, so I just gave him some pointers and told him about some stuff that I wanted and he just kinda did the video by himself, he’s just so amazing. But yeah I’d love to do more, I’m stoked on videos. I normally just do photography, I don’t usually do cinematography, but I try to do everything at least once.

You mentioned Wes Anderson. I wonder what other movie directors have inspired you?

It was more about the aesthetics that drew me to Wes Anderson and his humour. But I really like Richard Linklater, the guy who did Dazed and Confused and Everybody Wants Some!!. He also did Boyhood. I just really like how he takes a part of time and expands it into an entire movie. Like Dazed and Confused happens on the last day of school, so the whole movie is just one day. Boyhood they had to shoot over 12 years, which is crazy, but that’s kind of like how I like to write music too, I try to fit everything into one day and that’s like a song, so I really relate to that, but in terms of aesthetics Wes Anderson definitely takes the cake.

Have you ever thought of going into movies or has music always been your only creative outlet?

Movies would be awesome one day. I mean music videos are cool, but really I’m more just a photography guy. You know I actually have been thinking about that after that music video, like that would be something really cool down the road. But you know I’d be more inclined to go into movies just movie soundtracks. That would be really cool.

Since you had to completely restart growing your fanbase with Halfnoise, has it been strange to start anew? How have you been received by fans who knew you from your past projects?

You know everyone was really rad about it, there were definitely some people who were like “Hmm I didn’t know Zac could sing, I didn’t know Zac could make music,” but even if it’s like not their style of music, ‘cos it’s definitely very different to Paramore, they still like come to the shows and have been like super cool and supportive. I really hate it when people leave bands they play in and then make a new band that sounds just like the band they used to play in, but it’s not as good. It’s like you should’ve just stayed in your band and made it the best, I mean it’s not always that easy, but I was just stoked that it happened to sound different, ‘cos it wasn’t like “Wow, he just wants to make Paramore kind of music without being in the band.” Everyone’s been really cool about that.

Since you’ve come back to doing small venues after having done the whole mega stadiums run, would you say you prefer lowkey settings better?

They’re both cool for different reasons. There’s nothing like playing for a whole lot of people in festivals, it’s just like cool, it’s an experience in itself, but there’s also nothing like playing in a small club, the intimacy of it. But yeah, I think they’re both awesome. For Halfnoise, it’s definitely cool to play small venues.

Since you’ve been touring and travelling since you were 13, have there been any other places on the road you connected to as strongly as you did with New Zealand?

I really started liking LA. Los Angeles has become this really cool place for me. I recorded Sudden Feeling there and this last trip to the UK, especially in Leeds it was like so cool. Also like the time we went to Paris also seemed like another New Zealand because of the people we met there. I definitely want to go and record the next Halfnoise album there. I also felt really connected to old French music too, which made me connect to that place and man, you should listen to the French pop playlist on Spotify, it’s so cool, it’s like all these amazing old French pop songs and it’s so dope.

What’s your relationship to Nashville like, what’s your relationship with home?

It’s tough dude: I go to a place like L.A. and I’m like “Damn, I could definitely move here,” and then I come back home and it’s like I could never leave, ‘cos there’s just so many cool people there. My favorite thing is to just hang with people, just be around people, just hanging around and having a laugh. And with Nashville it’s like super hard to top it, because almost everybody does music and everyone has almost the same schedule.

In New Zealand everyone would have real jobs, so you couldn’t hang out all the time. So Nashville will always be this home kind of place, but it definitely feels small at times, it definitely feels like it has its limits. It is actually a really small place land-wise. But I love it, it’s like a family member now. It’s been this way my whole life.

Do you ever think of promoting Halfnoise to full band status, getting people to work on it full-time, or do you just see it continuing as a small solo act?

You know man, I kinda thought about that throughout this whole time. It’s kinda difficult, because not only do I now play in Paramore again and heave to get into full-time touring, but you know I thought about it cause it’d be cool. The only thing keeping me from doing that is that this way I get to keep the creative freedom and I think just need that with it, and I definitely have people who I play live with that I really want to keep playing with me, but I think I’ll just keep it as my solo thing. And the thing is, me and my producer play almost every instrument, so even though it’s great having friends perform with me, there’s no real need for anyone else during the creative process, I just really want it to remain this safe space I can create in. Having someone else could be cool, but it could also affect it and make it into something I wouldn’t want it to become.