Zombi’s Steve Moore on “2020” The Album, The Year, and The Mood (Interview)
When most people think of rock music and subsequent offsprings like heavy metal, they often think of a guitarist (sometimes two), drummer, bassist, and finally a singer. However, a musician that often shows up just as often in rock’s history is the keyboardist, having evolved in equipment from electric piano/organ to meletron to analog and digital synthesizers.
Metal, for its part, has often blustered about with the attitude that such instruments detract from the genre’s focus on heaviness, but the truth is keyboard-based instruments have existed in metal since the beginning. Led Zeppelin, Deep Purple, Rush, and yes, even Black Sabbath -- they all eventually used them. Iron Maiden famously proclaimed they’d never use keyboards to then only later eat their own words by the mid to late 1980s.
Since then, synthesizers have even found their way into extreme metal, whether in the otherworldly intros/outros of thrash and death metal bands or sometimes taking center stage on many a black metal song.
Concurrent to metal’s use of keyboard and synthesizer instruments has been progressive rock’s adoption along with its offshoot genre progressive electronic, defined by such groups as Tangerine Dream and Vangelis who reached a great deal of renown in the 1970s to early 1980s. A number of these groups even started composing film scores, which proved to be a method to simulate the sort of emotional atmospheres created by a symphony but with multi-tracked electronic waveforms that constituted a far smaller and financially appealing budget.
This, in turn, inspired synthesizer-heavy bands like Goblin and even filmmakers like John Carpenter to compose their own synth-based works to accompany horror, science fiction, and thriller movies. Thanks to metal’s love for movies like these, metalheads for decades have often had synth-heavy soundtracks amongst their record collections.
All of this -- from metal’s reticent love for incorporating synth to the cinematic thrills soundtracked by non-metal synth composers -- distills into Zombi. Together for nearly two decades now, Steve Moore and A.E. Pattera have been creating music that originally started as a tribute to the maestros of italian-horror-soundtrack synth-rockers Goblin. They even got their name, Zombi, from the italian title of George A. Romero’s Dawn of the Dead, which Goblin composed some of their most well-known work for.
The band’s metal and punk bonafides are blatant, whether it’s their long partnership with legendary extreme music label Relapse Records or touring with heavy-as-a-metric-ton bands like Isis and Daughters.
Over the past decade, Zombi haven’t kept the most constant presence. Their previous album Shape Shift was four years in the making while their latest, 2020, took a whole half-decade to see fruition. Live performances have also gone absent for a number of years at a time. The general absence is understandable once you reckon with how many projects Moore and Pattera are involved in, including solo projects, other bands, and even composing film scores -- the latter being an opportunity to elevate their talents to audiences that might never otherwise discover Zombi while also indulging in the craft their musical heroes Goblin were so well known for.
I had the pleasure to chat on the phone with Moore where we discussed a range of matters including the difficulties of messaging as an instrumental band, how the pandemic has delayed planned changes, and comparing the band experience to the creation of film scores. Where we started off, though, is pondering on the nature of their new album’s title, as it’s certainly one that could be interpreted in many different ways.
So the title 2020 for the new album, under normal circumstances, that would seem to be a little bit unimaginative, but giving how the year's turning out, I think this is gonna be quite a memorable album title. So how exactly did that title come about?
Well, I mean we have a sense of humor. I think that there's definitely something a little bit funny about taking an iconic year like 2020 and naming your album title that, and it was sort of maybe a bit of a reference to 2112. We just thought when growing up the year 2020 seemed like it would really be the future. It turns out that it kind of is but it's not really the future that anyone really wanted. So in a way it turned out to be a very dystopian and post-apocalyptic album title [laughs]. We had it all set before the Coronavirus hit, you know, and another reason for the title is we’ve been a band for about 20 years now. It just seemed like a way to sort of mark our time as a band.
Now that's interesting that you had it already in mind beforehand. Also, I like the relating of it to 2112.
Yeah, we're massive Rush fans.
Kind of related to the idea of themes and subject matter, since you guys are an instrumental band, do you ever feel exempted from letting your music make a comment about society or what's going on in the world? Or do you generally feel glad that you avoid that?
That's really interesting because in these insane times it does kind of feel a little bit weird to not be making a statement but as I mentioned, we've been writing this album over about the last three years or so. All of this stuff was put together before Coronavirus and the massive civil unrest in the United States had really started. Our whole thing is that we've always wanted to provide a bit of an escape for people. So in a way it wouldn't really work for us to try to bring our politics into things.
We have tried to do that in other ways like in the promotion of the new record. We did a raffle, actually a few weeks ago now, for a test pressing of the new record and all the proceeds benefited Black Lives Matter and other appropriate outlets. I think we kind of feel bad because we do have a bit of a voice and we don't use it for that so it's good being able to say things like Black Lives Matter. It’s very important to do that when our music may not really dictate it because our music is more for just escaping reality. So yeah, there's a bit of a divide there.
As you say there, at least with social media and I guess the marketing of the album you're able to make some part of your voice heard.
We can make a contribution at least in the only way that we can. It was pretty great and a really rewarding experience.
It's been five years since the release of Shape Shift, which, not by much, but I think it's the longest gap you've had between studio albums.
Yeah, it probably is.
Was it just a consequence of the touring for the last album and then other projects coming up taking up time for both of you? Was there any other particular reason for the longer length?
I think a lot of it had to do with the touring based around the last album. When Shape Shift came out we did a few short tours here in the states to promote it but it was about maybe a year later that we got asked to support the Swedish pop metal band Ghost. We did a handful of shows, maybe about a week's worth, in the states with them. Through meeting Tobias [Forge], the head of Ghost, it was very clear that he was legitimately a big Zombi fan and wanted us to do more shows with them. So we ended up doing a full European and U.K. tour opening for them the next year.
So it was just all of these really great opportunities for us and it really extended the album cycle for Shape Shift by an extra year and a half. It took us that long after all of these tours for us to sort of let the dust settle and figure out like, “Well, what do we want to say now?” We've been a band for like 20 years now so what's the point of just putting out another album if it's not somehow different and yet somehow an expansion of what we have always been?
That definitely makes a lot of sense, though also I have to say it’s really cool that Tobias is such a big fan that he brought you guys out.
I would say he likewise was probably an influence on the new record just in the sense that I really love his guitar playing. That along with some film work that I did last year required a lot of guitar playing. So I think all of that came together and I really wanted to add a lot more guitar to the new record because we never really work with that instrument at all.
It's funny how that naturally came up because my next question literally was going to be that obviously you had bass in previous albums, but I think this is the first time I really heard the electric guitar prominently featured in Zombi.
I played some guitar on our Spirit Animal album, which I think came out in like 2009 or 2010. So there's some guitar on there but really, for this new record we already knew that we wanted to sort of expand our lineup in a live setting. There's just really only so much the two of us can do. It began after, like I said, we really toured the shit out of Shape Shift. It really cemented the fact that we wanted to try to do something really different with the new record and that entailed that we envisioned having more members of the band playing live.
So a lot of this stuff when we were writing it, I sort of had a four-piece band in mind because that's what we actually had a tour set for October here in the states. We had dates set and it would have been like a three or four week tour to support the album but of course all of that got unfortunately canceled. So I think it was sort of a natural progression that we both wanted to do something a little bit different and the guitar seemed like a really fun and easy way to differentiate this album from our previous work.
So hopefully when things change and live shows become a thing again you imagine the band would expand to something like a four piece for live shows?
Yes, we are absolutely planning on that. This is going to seem funny to some people but I will be playing bass and we'll have a synthesizer player doing all the keyboard parts. Then we're going to have a guitarist and Tony [A.E. Pattera, the other main half of Zombi] will be playing the drums right now. We have a booking agent working on a spring 2021 tour in Europe and it definitely seems like Europe's probably going to open up before the states. Yeah, the states are just fucking everything up right now. I think there seems like a very real possibility that we may not be able to tour the states for a long time but we're moving ahead trying to figure out how to get to Europe and it would definitely be as a four piece.
The press release mentioned a fair bit of rock influence mentioning Blue Öyster Cult and Rush. Would you say those groups are a new part of Zombi's composition or have they always been there but just shine through more on this record?
I definitely think they shine through more on this record, but they’ve always been there. We definitely get pegged as the Goblin/John Carpenter sounding band, but I think if you listen to a lot of our stuff it draws just as heavily from places like Van Halen, especially the Van Halen tunes where Eddie plays synths. That was a major, major influence on me growing up. I wanted him to play keyboards all the time because I thought it sounded fucking rad. His guitar stuff is cool but I was always into when he played the synthesizers.
Also, I was always into Blue Öyster Cult as they were a pretty heavy rock band that had lots of synthesizers as well throughout their different phases. So yeah, I think that the rock influence has always been there in the band but we always grew up playing in rock bands. With Zombi, we wanted to do something different but I think at this point we just want to rock a little bit more now. We might be done with being obtuse and difficult and feeling more like, “let's just be fun.”
Obviously you already mentioned you had it in mind before everything happened this year but do you think the events of this year kind make you feel like, “Fuck it! Let's just do what we want because time is so short?”
[laughs] The funny thing is I was already at that point before any of this happened. I was totally ready to just be a full on active band again. That was the whole plan with this new record to try and kickstart that. To just be like an active band like we were in the mid 2000’s when we were touring a lot. We kind of really missed that. I'm at a point now where I have young kids but they're in school now along with after school programs and stuff. So I'm a little more flexible to do more touring and we definitely have planned to really be a band again. Then this [year] has just been like the most epic bummer.
Yeah. For a lot of people it is.
There's just something about putting out an album and not being able to play any shows. It's just a little anticlimactic.
How would you compare the reception you generally get from audiences to your music to say seven or 14 years ago? I'm asking that considering in the last few years synth heavy music has been so popular whether it's the return of Goblin, John Carpenter whether in with studio albums or performing live, soundtracks to pop culture phenomenon like Stranger Things, or the popularity of synthwave in general.
You know, it's hard to say looking back to when we started by signing to Relapse [Records] and first really found an audience. There was no scene for it at all, really for what we were doing but that was exhilarating to us as we really enjoyed being the odd band out. We sort of became this band that in a way could tour opening for almost anybody because we didn't fit in anywhere. We ended up doing tours with bands like Isis, Trans Am, and a really wide variety of different types of rock groups. Usually we went over pretty well. It's interesting now because there are so many synth based acts, like you mentioned, out there now that have really gained a fair amount of notoriety. If anything that probably pushed me to want to play more guitar on this record. Like I mentioned before, when we started out we kind of liked being a band that didn't fit in and in a way I think we still don't want to fit in [laughs]. It's a bit like shooting ourselves in the foot really as we could just put out a fucking straight up synthwave record in order to try and ride that wave. We don’t because that's just not in our hearts.
We're just Gen-Xers and we just don't want to be a part of the trends. I have no problems with any of it or any beef with the trends in any way but it definitely did push us to make a heavier record than we might have otherwise.
Last question here. You've composed a number of film scores including quite a few between your last album and this latest for Zombi. For example, you did The Guest, Mayhem, VFW, and most recently Bliss. Besides Bliss, which I mean to see as soon as possible, I've watched the others and thoroughly enjoyed all of them.
Bliss is pretty cool.
Yeah, with it on Shudder now I definitely plan to check it out soon. In going back and listening to some of the scores you composed, they really do help create the mood of those movies. So what was it like transitioning from a band situation to a film composer?
It's been interesting as I've always wanted to make music for films since I was like literally probably six years old. At a pretty young age I realized that a lot of the film composers that I was really into had actually been in bands when they were younger. That or they were bands like with Goblin. I was also infatuated as a child with Queen's soundtrack to the 1981 Flash Gordon movie.
So I was just always into rock bands, film scores, and the combinations of them. As I grew older I got into people like Danny Elfman, who started out with Oingo Boingo, and it seemed like a lot of the film composers I was really into got their start by being in a band. So that was always the route that I wanted to take. I wanted to get into a band that would then get me into making film scores.
Zombi kind of did that because it enabled me to make solo records on my own. I put out a solo record called Light Echoes and that's what director Adam Wingard heard and was like, “I want you to do The Guest.” So it worked out exactly that my involvement in music then got me into the film score work. Overall, it was really a pretty easy transition. I would say the biggest difference is that there's no instant gratification at all but rather the most delayed gratification imaginable. The total opposite of playing a show. It’s literally months upon months of working and toiling just night and day on something relentlessly until it's finished. Then it still might be five to six months before anyone actually sees it.
So I always try to attend the premieres of these films or film festival screenings of them because it's the closest thing to playing a show with it. Being in the theater and seeing how an audience responds to the movie really is a really thrilling experience.
2020 is now out via Relapse Records.