Positively enigmatic is a description well-suited to London “synth-gaze” duo, Zetra. The band’s two members, Adam (guitar/vocals) and Jordan (synthesizers/vocals), shucked off the oppression of their history together in previously failing bands to round up a mixed bag of influences like My Bloody Valentine, Mortiis, Gary Numan, Lush, Torche and Type O Negative and reconstitute them in a shimmery wall of shooting star hyper-melody via a dusty array of vintage instrumentation and recording devices.
This speaks nothing to how their self-titled debut EP, which is actually more LP in length, is a concept record based on the tragic legacy of 1960s cosmonaut Vladimir Komarov, the Russian test pilot who has the distinction of being the first human to perish in space. Both of Zetra’s principle members took a stab at the incoming barrage of our email questions to discuss sputtering tape machines, saluting outcasts and isolation motivation.
Let’s get the boring shit out of the way: what can you tell us about the history of the band?
Jordan: “We are Zetra, a gothic heavy metal shoegaze band based in London.”
Adam: “Zetra emerged out of the stifling summer heatwave of 2018 from a set of riffs we were throwing back and forth between each other that didn’t fit into anything we’d done before. By the winter we’d dropped everything else we were doing musically to focus entirely on Zetra.”
Jordan: “In the time since we have been slowly releasing music on Bandcamp and printing super limited runs of cassette tapes. Most recently, a two-volume collection of songs written and recorded in lockdown called With Your Demons. Now, we are preparing to release our debut self-titled EP on Death Waltz Records.”
What previous experience with other bands did you have and how did they drive you towards the style and format of Zetra?
Adam: “We both have a background in heavier music, but spent a long time looking in other directions exploring synth-pop and new wave.”
Jordan: “Our last band before Zetra wasn’t even really a band, it was more of a sci-fi kids TV show like Eerie Indiana or Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure. I guess the shadows of all of our previous experiments are coming through in Zetra.”
There are a variety of influences I hear in the EP, ranging from metal and rock to new wave and indie rock/shoegaze. Where would you say your musical backgrounds lie or has it always been in your nature to explore various musical styles?
Jordan: “The first ideas we tried out had a ZZ Top Eliminator/Afterburner heavy new wave kind of thing going on, but we just let the sound evolve on its own. The guitars felt better cranking up the fuzz, the vocals felt better being more ethereal and the songs felt better at slower tempos. Each new song or idea pushed us further toward an unconscious goal.”
Adam: “There are a handful of influences that remain constant for us: Smashing Pumpkins, Black Sabbath, Gary Numan, Type O Negative, Radiohead, Tangerine Dream, Paradise Lost, My Bloody Valentine, Mortiis, but we always try to bring new things to the table. What is most fun for us is listening to what other people think we sound like. So far they have come back with reference points that we never even considered, Ghost, Tiamat, and Deftones are current favourites.”
How long did it take to write the new EP?
Adam: “‘Union’ and ‘Satellite’ were actually the first songs written for Zetra. With both based around the theme of Komarov’s doomed mission the decision was made to create a concept EP out of it. The story instantly set a sci-fi/horror tone and everything came together so fast, I think we had all the demos down on tape within a month.”
Was there anything that was done differently in terms of the way the album was written or recorded compared to how you had done things with other bands in the past?
Jordan: “When we started writing for what was to become Zetra we knew that we wanted to stick to being a two-piece on record and on stage without relying on backing tracks to fill in the gaps. We’re using a drum machine in the same way Godflesh use one, where the sound is always the two people and a drum machine. I’ve always been drawn to the sound of late ‘80s and early ‘90s drum machines for the huge kits that were the sound of most of my favourite alternative metal and industrial records.”
Adam: “We always like to write and record quickly, but for this record we rarely wrote a whole new song in a room together, which definitely speeds the process up even more, and you can sort of leak out creativity rather than splurge it all in one session. It usually takes place over a series of hushed, whispery voice notes sent back and forth late at night. We could probably make an unsettling alternative album purely from those.”
Jordan: “Over time we have accumulated an arsenal of obsolete equipment, but this is the first time we have worked entirely in the analogue realm. For recording Zetra we try to stay away from modern digital recording for as much of the creative process as possible.”
What sort of equipment did you use to write and record and were you already familiar with all of it before Zetra or did the band provide you a quick learning curve when you decided to do things yourself?
Jordan: “We run all sequencing on an Atari ST and record on an 8-track tape machine. I’ve been recording my own music forever, on 8-tracks and more recently with computers, but for years I’ve been chasing the sound of the recording studio in my hometown where all the local bands would end up making demos. It was hidden behind a dodgy nightclub and some pretty grim rehearsal rooms, but the studio was a 24 track full-analogue, 2-inch tape jewel that could have been frozen in time in 1991. It’s more than just the tape itself, there’s also a nervous energy that goes into the recordings when you know you have to nail the performance in one take, or if you have to make a decision to overwrite a take with no ‘undo’ button to rely on. Although things can go wrong. ‘Descent’ was the last track to mix for the EP and in the closing 30 seconds of the song the tape machine started to speed up so fast it sounded like it was going to explode, but it coughed and sputtered and then died. We kept the sound of its final breaths in the track.”
What is the significance or story behind the album’s title? I understand it’s a concept record of sorts about Vladimir Komarov. What about his story was important or significant to you to write a record about it? Is Komarov a person who is still well-known and held in high regard in Russia?
Adam: “The fact his name had never come up before struck me the most. Names like Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin are household names in western culture,and anyone who’s had a fleeting interest in space exploration will know the first dog in space was Laika and the first human was Yuri Gargarin. But even self-proclaimed space nuts I know had never heard of Vladimir Komarov as the first human to die in space, let alone the tragedy and heroism in the details. He sacrifices himself to save his friend, knowingly boards a doomed spacecraft and even almost pulls it off. The story could be a perfect modern tragedy, but it’s left out of all mainstream accounts of the space race. Society glorifies the individuals who reach the peaks of human achievement, but we’re writing about the mountain of bodies they’re clambering over to reach these peaks.
Although I must admit I’m not sure about Komarov’s current status in Russia, I know he’s been honoured in monuments but I don’t know, for now, whether that translates to the people. I’ll get back to you. Self-titling the EP as Zetra reflects that these were the first set of songs we wrote for Zetra, so this is probably the purest form of Zetra that Zetra will take. I get obsessive over a band’s first proper release: did they have a Plato-esque perfect form or idea of what the music should be, that then gets bent into different shapes. For better or worse.”
How would you characterize Zetra against work you’ve done in previous bands you’ve been in? What are the good and bad things about the two-man format?
Jordan: “Adam and I have been the creative driving force in everything we have worked on together in the past, so to move forward in a two-piece format didn’t feel strange at all.”
Adam: “Yeah, the first band we did together had six members and we’ve lost a member every subsequent project, so in many ways it’s probably how it always should have been as we’re evidently difficult to work with. We’re both control freaks creatively, but we can hash out any disagreements efficiently between the two of us, pistols at dawn style.”
Tell us about Death Waltz Records and how you came to their attention? Was the original plan to release it yourselves independently?
Adam: “Death Waltz Records is home to all your family-favourite gorefest/slasher/horror/sci-fi movie soundtracks and their originals department have been putting out some killer records by Joel Grind of Toxic Holocaust and Pentagram Home Video.”
Jordan: “When we first met our manager, he sent our demo to a few friends with the message ‘this is going to be your new favourite band… or you’ll hate it.’ Luckily, Spencer from Death Waltz happened to be on that short list. We were already big fans of Death Waltz and incredibly excited to get to work with them on the EP.”
Have you been able to perform live as Zetra yet? If so, how do you present live and how does it go over? If not, are you planning to and how do you want to interpret the recorded songs on stage?
Adam: “We managed to play a handful of warm-up shows around London and a fantastic Halloween party thrown by Death Waltz in the official smallest theatre in Europe, but never really got any momentum going before everything stopped, so we’ll be kicking that stone back down the mountain whenever we can get out there.”
Jordan: “The live lineup is a drum machine, Adam on guitar and vocals, and me on synthesizers and vocals. The dream is to be able to tour around the world and we’re happy playing with any band even when we don’t necessarily fit. We like the idea of being the weirdest band on a heavy bill, or the heaviest band on a synthesizer/electronic bill.”
I’m guessing that the coronavirus has cancelled a bunch of plans you had in support of the EP. How was your support plan for the album altered in light of the virus and various lockdowns? Were the two videos part of the original plan or did they come during isolation boredom?
Jordan: “Like everyone else, we were not expecting to spend the majority of 2020 in lockdown and whilst it has definitely put any hopes we had for being able to tour in support of this EP on ice, it has also forced us to be creative. We released a two-volume collection of songs that were all written and recorded during the first couple of months of lockdown. The collection is called With Your Demons and we put it out on limited double cassette tapes that sold out in the first weekend of putting them online. We could see the first small wave of word of mouth spreading online and we received messages of support from some of our favourite newer bands like Puppy and Video Nasties, which was unexpected.”
Adam: “I’d say our creativity during lockdown owes less to isolation boredom and more to drawing energy from the collective isolation around the world. I’ve always been able to draw a lot of inspiration from my shitty North London studio apartment, in particular from the isolation inherent in living on your own. Seeing this isolation spread across the city and the world makes me feel strangely more connected to the solitary masses. I think the most gutting thing is missing out on gigs, from both sides of the monitors, especially when we had a couple festivals lined up. But being able to put our energy into making a video for every song on the EP soothes the wound. We enjoy being in the position of having big video ideas with no video budget, you have to get more creative with how you’re going to achieve the effect you’re looking for. The video for ‘Ithaca’ in particular required us to become a feast for the bugs of Epping Forest, so I’m excited to see that one pay off.”