Dark Synth Duo Zombi Is Back from the Dead
A cautionary tale concerning debt, touring, and the pitfalls of ignoring David Byrne’s advice.
Photo courtesy of Biz 3
When Talking Heads mastermind David Byrne gives you advice concerning the music business, you should probably take it. Zombi bassist and keyboardist Steve Moore certainly wishes he had. He ran into Byrne at a bar in Pittsburgh back in 2004, not long after Zombi had signed on with Relapse Records. Moore and Zombi drummer Anthony Paterra were looking to make a career out of their night-prowling instrumental excursions, so Moore asked Byrne if he had any hot business tips. The reply came abruptly and without mirth: “Don’t get in debt to your record label.”
Fast forward to 2015: It’s been four years since Zombi have released an album. This is after unveiling a new record almost every other year from 2004 to 2011. From that point forward, Moore and Paterra cranked out solo joints left and right without even a whisper of a possible Zombi album. Meanwhile, they had essentially stopped touring in 2007, with the exception of a high-profile stint opening for Italian soundtrack masters Goblin in 2013. In fact, it seemed entirely possible that Zombi had quietly gone tits up and only came out of retirement temporarily to play with their heroes. As it turns out, that was nearly the case. Moore recently gave us all the sordid details along with some insight into Zombi’s excellent new album, Shape Shift.
NOISEY: It’s been four years since the last Zombi album, which is much longer than usual for you guys. What happened?
Steve Moore: Ten years ago when we were really active and touring a lot, we put out a record like every other year. But [2009’s] Spirit Animal and [2011’s] Escape Velocity, those albums were a little different. They weren’t quite Zombi records. They were, but we weren’t writing or recording them the way that we used to. We wrote them individually and traded files back and forth. So even though there were albums coming out, we felt like we were on a break. So to us it’s been like eight years, not four.
With the exception of the 2013 run with Goblin, you haven’t toured since 2007. Was the band on a conscious hiatus?
It was just sort of a circumstantial thing. We started doing regional touring in 2002-03, but we tried to make it our full-time thing from 2004 to 2006. We did a lot of shows and it was difficult because there wasn’t much of an audience for what we were doing at the time. We definitely came across to a lot of people at the shows, but we were opening for bands like Isis. Granted, they have a fairly open-minded audience, but the success rate for a band like us opening for a band like Isis in the mid-2000s wasn’t that high. It seemed more subversive for us to be playing this kind of music back then. If 20 percent of the audience was into us, we considered it a success. And we weren’t really making a lot of money because we were always the band opening for other bands. I racked up a ton of credit card debt. By the time we did a tour in the spring of 2007 with Trans Am and the Psychic Paramount, it just seemed like a good time to sort of stop.
What did you do at that point?
I got a full-time job and started to hustle remixes and stuff like that, trying to pay down my debts. It took a long time. Plus, Zombi was super in-debt to Relapse Records. We took tour advances anytime we could. We’d have them order us merch and just put it on our bill. Before we knew it, we were like $15,000 in the hole to Relapse. For a successful band, that’s not really much money. Put out one decent album and you can make that back. But because we were such a niche thing, it was difficult for us to even continue making records knowing that we weren’t gonna see any money from them. We still had all this money to pay back before we’d even have a chance to recoup recording costs. Plus, I was living in Nyack at the time, which is right near New York City, and Tony was living in Pittsburgh. I had to move to New York to get work. We still wanted to do Zombi stuff, but taking the band as seriously as we had been was becoming cumbersome. It just wasn’t sustainable.
Which is why you and Tony didn’t record Spirit Animal and Escape Velocity together.
Right. And we didn’t take any money from Relapse. We recorded those albums ourselves, and it took a long time. We didn’t tour, either. [Laughs] Those records were essentially just us trying to get out of the hole with Relapse and me trying to get out of credit card debt. It just seemed like maybe Zombi had run its course. It was a little too difficult to keep being a band, given all the circumstances. It was really that Goblin tour that brought us back to life—pun intended, I guess. [Laughs]
Yeah, seeing you on that Goblin tour was a surprise only in the sense that you hadn’t played in so long.
We’d been sharing some demos for a new album for a few years at that point, but nothing was hitting the mark. We weren’t happy with it. But when we got offered the Goblin tour, it took us about ten minutes to discuss the fact that we had to do it. [Laughs] Even if we were a little out of shape, we knew we had to do it. But because the last two records were essentially just studio records, we knew we couldn’t play that material live. It’s either too boring or too complex for just the two of us. Since we didn’t have anything new and we couldn’t play anything off our last two records, we decided to do the thing where bands go on tour playing their “classic” albums. So we played our 2005 tour set and had fun doing it. We realized this is the way it should be. When it came time to do the new record, we knew we had to play together in the same room again like we used to. I live in central New York now, so Tony would drive up and hang out for a few days. We’d set up all our gear in my basement and jam. Tony would set his digital recorder in the corner of the room and we’d just have at it for hours. There was some marijuana involved. It was like the good old days.
That whole story seems like a real cautionary tale. Were you able to get out of debt?
It really is. [Laughs] But yeah, I paid off my credit card. And it was just a couple years ago that we finally got into the black with Relapse. It’s funny; I have to tie it back to one of my few celebrity run-in stories. Around 2004 or so when I was still living in Pittsburgh, Zombi had been talking to Relapse and we were getting ready to put out Cosmos with them, which was our first official album. David Byrne was in Pittsburgh performing and I saw him at this bar, Gooski’s, in the Polish Hill area of Pittsburgh. He was having a few beers there after his show. I didn’t see his show—I was just drinking there. He’s such an intense person, there’s this intense aura around him. Everyone in the bar was talking about him but not actually talking to him. At one point he went up to get a drink so I went over and asked him if he had any advice for someone in the music world, someone trying to make their band a serious full-time project. Without a second’s hesitation he said, “Don’t get in debt to your record label.” [Laughs] There was no humor in his voice. It was serious advice. So I thanked him and then went and did exactly the opposite. [Laughs]
Photo by Dave Cerminara
Just a few years after Zombi stopped touring, synthesizer music and horror scores became fashionable again. Did that have any effect on you guys?
Yeah. All these bands started popping up where people were citing John Carpenter as an influence. Oneothrix Point Never was using all analog synthesizers. And then people started rediscovering us. People who were really into that sort of stuff would do the research and then find out about us. These days, there’s no shortage of bands claiming to draw sole inspiration from Fabio Frizzi and Goblin. That’s fine, but what we were trying to do was take those ideas into a different setting—like what if Trans Am was influenced by John Carpenter? We’re not trying recreate anything. So I feel like this is a story I need to tell because I think it’s possible that everyone who found out about us at that time has the entirely wrong idea about us. They jumped in at a really odd part of our cycle. People think of us as a Goblin or John Carpenter type thing—and obviously they’re influences—but we’re a band, you know? I feel like we’re coming from more of a math rock or post-rock type of place. We’ve got real drums and bass, you know? We’re just borrowing the language of the horror film score. I think we’re a lot closer to a band like Battles or something—instrumental rock bands. We just happen to have a John Carpenter vibe. But I think a lot of people write us off because of our name or whatever press they’ve read. I feel like there’s a larger group of people who could possibly like our band but would be turned off by the horror influence.
Do you think there’s a way to expand your audience without alienating the fans that came to you through the horror angle?
I don’t want to distance us from anybody, but I’m hoping this new album will be the one where people can finally form an objective opinion about us. We’re going to be playing shows, and I want people to come see us because that’s how you really get the experience. Back when we started, Goblin wasn’t touring. There were a lot of bands working in isolation coming to the same conclusions, but music like this wasn’t as prominent. And you know, I think touring with Goblin was kind of the best move for us because I feel like it really highlighted the differences between the two bands. It showed what a different band we are. But I’m open to playing with any type of band because I don’t feel like we fit into any specific scene. The only problem is now I’m old and have kids, so I can’t leave home for that long. [Laughs]
You’ve got some dates coming up, though—including an appearance at the Housecore Horror Festival.
Yeah, I’m really excited about that tour because we’re playing some places where we’ve had good times in the past and we’ve got Pinkish Black opening for us, who I’m really into. After the tour where Zombi opened for Goblin, I did a quick tour playing keyboards for Goblin, and Pinkish Black were the openers on that one so we got to hang out a lot. I really connected with those guys. They’re coming from a very similar place. They had a similar upbringing.
Speaking of upbringings, you actually worked at the Monroeville Mall in Monroeville, Pennsylvania, where Dawn of the Dead was filmed in 1977-78.
Yeah, I grew up in Monroeville, and the mall is just where everybody went on the weekends. By the time I was old enough to start looking for jobs, the mall was the ideal place to work because you’d probably be going there anyway. I worked at a really funny store in the mall called Natural Wonders. I think it was a regional chain. It was one of those faux-New Age stores, where you could buy crystals and New Age CDs. It was really wack, but it was cool because I got access all those back hallways that they shot a lot of the scenes in.
Is the film commemorated in any way at the mall? Is there a George Romero statue or a Dawn of the Dead memorial plaque or anything like that?
I don’t know. It’s been a long time since I’ve been there. But in the 80s, it was still on everybody’s mind because it was kind of a big deal. The whole horror world in general was big where I grew up because we had George Romero and [zombie special effects master] Tom Savini—all these guys were Pittsburgh guys. And all these films were being shot in Pittsburgh—all the Romero movies, Creepshow, Martin. Remember Innocent Blood? A lot of that was filmed in Monroeville. Where I grew up was literally just down the street from the airport they used in Dawn of the Dead. This world was unavoidable for someone of my interests.
You recently wrote and recorded the score for a Belgian horror movie called Cub. What can you tell us about it?
I’ve wanted to make music for horror movies since I was a kid, and in a way it’s kind of exciting to be able to do that and not have to be constantly keeping my love of horror scores in check. I can just really go crazy with it for these movies I score, whereas with Zombi we’ve always been really cautious about taking it too far. So doing it for a movie has been therapeutic in a way. [Laughs] But the movie is dark. It’s really well done, really well acted, and some legitimately creepy shit goes down. It was really fun to work on, so I hope people see it. I don’t wanna give too much away, but there’s definitely stuff in this movie that you can’t do here in the States. If you’re feeling like American horror is a little formulaic and safe, you should check this one out.
What’s strange is that your music isn’t in the trailer.
[Laughs] Oh yeah, you saw the one with the campfire song. That’s one thing I’ve learned since I started doing film scores: Your music is never in the trailer. I don’t know why that is, but I think it might be because the musicians are usually struggling to finish the music when the trailer is being made.
J. Bennett first interviewed Zombi back in 2006, when dinosaurs roamed the earth.