Interview with Zola Blood
"Poured out two hearts that used to rhyme, but now don't beat together."
Stabbed bass patterns growl across the atmosphere of “Two Hearts”, a pounding drive contrasted against the rushing fluidity of air. With accelerating jitters, sweeping chords, and irresistible beats, Zola Blood pulls the listener into the division of minds, duality coming undone.
“It’s about the idea of losing something you didn't think it was possible to lose,” vocalist Matt West reveals. The song is the title track of a four-song EP, the band’s first venture since their 2017 LP ‘Infinite Games’. It was a long journey throughout those three years, with more change and disruption than they anticipated.
How would Matt describe that time? “Fast, exciting, frustrating,” he tells us. “We’ve been through some big stuff since the album, with relationships and some of us having kids. So we've had to figure out how to make that work with being in a band. We also parted ways with our management, which was a bit of a horror show and meant we've been away longer than we wanted.”
Instrumentalist Paul Brown adds that it took a while for the music to emerge naturally as well. “Without wanting to feed into the 'second album' cliché, we had a year or so where we weren't fully focused on music for a bunch of reasons,” he says. “We didn't want to commit to an album, and it took us a while to find an in into the next set of songs. We did eventually – three out of the four tracks on the EP were written around the same time and worked together musically and thematically. We've been away for a while, so instead of waiting to get another six or so tracks written and recorded, we wanted to get them out as an EP and keep writing.”
As opposed to picking up where ’Infinite Games’ left off, ‘Two Hearts’ has been more like starting a new chapter for the band. “When we started writing again, we wanted a clean slate and to change some things,” Matt recalls. “We found with the album that if we built a kind of shared language – even little mantras – around what we were doing, it just helped keep things on the same page musically. We struggled a bit to pin that down, and abandoned a couple of recording sessions while we were going through the process because we weren't ready.”
Although it may not have been as easy of a process in some ways, it didn’t limit their usual tendency to experiment. “In terms of the writing process, each song was different,” synth expert Ed Smith relates. “But someone will have sparked the idea with a drum loop or a chord sequence or melody. Usually that just comes from us hitting each others’ instruments in the studio, and if Matt feels compelled to write a melody and lyrics to something, then it’s good sign.”
“In the early stages of a song, we tend to go through quite a creative phase of throwing lots of ideas in before figuring out what’s actually needed and cutting some of the fat, figuring out what works best for the song,” he continues. “Sometimes that can be really quick – ‘Two Hearts’ is a good example where it was pretty easy to put the puzzle together. On the other hand, ‘Silver Soul’ was kicking around for a couple of years before we figured out how to make it work. For that one we kind of wrote the music around the melody/lyrics – often it's the other way around.”
Their second single began as a piece drawn from their ongoing collection of concepts. “We have a pretty big library of demos and ideas that are all half finished sitting in the ether,” says Paul. “Sometimes you need to get away from a song for a while to see the wood for the trees. I think we had about 20 versions of [‘Silver Soul’] over two years, but what we've put out is really close to the original idea.” With verses moving in rhythmic bliss, and a chorus pouring out in an endless stream, it’s hard to imagine that the song existed in any other form. The vocals settle in the track’s atmosphere like a calming exhale, a stirring melody navigated through Matt’s silken tone.
Working across distances might normally hinder a band’s workflow, but for them, it created a more streamlined approach. “One thing that we did differently was spend quite a bit of time working on the songs separately, adding our parts and sharing it back,” Matt explains. “There was a period where we were all in and out of the UK a bit, so we ended up arranging things remotely and spent less time together in the studio trying to figure it out. Not seeing each other actually worked well – we weren't all in a room debating snare hits or whatever. It meant more surprises and quicker decisions.”
While crafting something sonically bolder than ‘Infinite Games’, Zola Blood have also conceived something lyrically heavier, holding significance when looking at the larger picture of the world. “‘Two Hearts’ has a hint of Brexit in there that you probably wouldn’t notice,” the singer observes. “I think a lot of people had friends or family who surprised them at that time, and the conversation feels so much about judgement and values that trying to put all of that away and return to normality is a whole new thing for everyone to deal with. The lyrics play on that a bit – the idea of knowing someone intimately and then for a moment not understanding them at all.”
Establishing these kinds of themes in what seems to be an effortless topline actually involves a lot of careful thinking, and even overthinking. “The lyrics take a long time, and I agonise a lot over every line of the melody,” Matt admits. “Before we go in to record, I will have tweaked it over and over to have it sit in the track exactly how I want it to. With the words, I'm always trying to reduce them but keep them as meaningful as possible. I like the idea of songs being ambiguous enough that people can have completely different takes on what they're about, but if you look hard enough you can find the thread.”
The cover artwork for the EP is similarly ambiguous, tying together an overarching meaning through two figures twisting, laced together. “We worked with an amazing artist called Ozge Cone,” Paul tells us. “She's done a lot of work with the Erased Tapes label, who we are big fans of. It all started by having a conversation about the themes within the EP, about the push and pull of relationships and how in order to preserve something you sometimes need to let it change. From that developed the idea of incorporating the Japanese method of Kintsugi, an art of repairing broken pottery with lacquer gold to show how imperfections can make something more beautiful. She then tied the concept into the the idea of a relationship, with two people intertwined separated by the gold. We love it and feel it really sums up the music.” The full picture is striking, with a shimmering crack slicing through the engulfing darkness and shadows defining the smooth contours of skin like sculptures.
When thinking about a live show, an inspiring tour with RÜFÜS DU SOL in 2018 led the band to make a conscious effort for everything to sound bigger throughout the formulation of ‘Two Hearts’. “We all love watching big electronic shows like John Hopkins or Max Cooper who obviously put so much thought into all aspects of the production, the flow of the set and the way visuals help create real moments within that,” Ed says. “Those dynamics are really important, and we’ve tried to build a show that has big moments – where we get to wig out, keeping in mind we’re a band with a singer and live instruments. It’s important not to lose the visual and emotional connection that comes with that.”
They’re hoping to establish this connection through a European tour, which has been recently rescheduled to February 2021. But in the meantime, Zola Blood are already thinking about the next way to string together magnetic sonic movements.
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