ZeN (Vocals, Keyboards, Programming) of Waiting for Words
WAITING FOR WORDS is actually on the last leg of his massive tour started in 2011. They recently performed in Paris with DE/VISION, celebrating their 23rd birthday and are going to carry on their tour with PSYCHE as well as opening for ORCHESTRAL MANOEUVRES IN THE DARK in Paris. While still promoting their master piece album, ‘Follow The Signs’, they also released a DVD of their videos as well as a live album recorded in Oberhausen in January. Perfect timing to get to know this unique band a bit more for a long interview with its leader, ZeN.
Reflections of Darkness (RoD): Your last album, ‘Follow The Signs’, to me is remarkable and have a true original sound that makes it different from the usual electronic production, a kind of analogue, or organic, feel and sound. Can you tell me about the recording process and how did you get to this sound?
ZeN: We don't have a real process for recording. It really depends on the tracks. Especially since this album was recorded over a long period of time, with different musicians. I'm happy you find our sound organic. Probably because we are very bad in technology, VSTs, software and so on! Most of the times we record the old way, plugging directly the synth on the mixing desk, perform live and then to computers. There are also some human errors we like to keep, it gives a real live feels. We also jam a lot which can be strange for an electronic band... But people tend to forget the electronic music was first performed by artists like Vangelis, Jarre, Kraftwerk or Tangerine Dream, with very progressive music spread other “songs” that lasted no less than 15 minutes!!! Those artists were jamming on a single sound or rhythm or appreciated bass for hours, improvising a lot. And we did that a lot, wherever with El Lute and Mycrotonik or with Melanoboy. We also used some good old fashion methods, hitting stuffs with a drum stick, using some toys keyboards, or using old drums machines and distorting sounds. We also used a lot of effects on the synths, analogue effects, pedals. Working with Steve Prestage is also key to this sound.
RoD: The song ‘Miles Away’ is an instant pop hit. Can you tell me about the inspiration and recording of it?
ZeN: The recording was a bit painful. We plaid this song since a year before and it was clear to everyone that it had a great commercial potential. There was a lot of pressure, especially when two key members of the band left WAITING FOR WORDS! Hopefully, a keyboard player helped be with this bass line, drum and a couple of lead synth melodies. Then I did have enough tracks to work on, adding my production to it. The result is even better than the way we plaid it before that. It was a great song already, but very synth pop oriented and it would have please a lot of pure synth pop fans. But the output of this version, even if still completely electronic, appealed to a larger audience (pop fans, club fans...). For the inspiration of it, one of Soe's best friend was living a complicated love story with someone already in a relationship. This song talks about that. Having to leave your beloved one go back to his live, wife, kids while you are on your own waiting for him.
RoD: How do you decide on which songs Soe is going to sing?
ZeN: It's not really decided in advance. Soe was a guest before this album, contributing here and there. For this one she composed a lot of vocal lines and wrote lyrics too. As she recorded all vocals for me as guide tracks, I kept all her lines and started play with it, keeping some, cutting over. That's how she ended up on ‘Pain or Signs’. We really choose what serves the songs the best.
RoD: Soe sings on almost all the songs in concert. Does this mean she will sing also more on the next album?
ZeN: Certainly! The tour allowed us to really play with our voices and explore new ways of mixing those.
RoD: People Theatre appears on almost all your releases since ‘A Mix Through The Night’ and he is even touring with you. Soe sings on his song ‘Again’ as well. Can you talk about your relationship?
ZeN: As you raise it... a long relationship! It started by having him doing a couple of remixes, and then becoming real friends. He's part of the team. We share lot of advices each other for our respective careers. He had a great input in the production of the album, on various levels. And now, for selected events, he plays keyboards and backing vocals on the tour, which is a great bonus. We work also closely together on all live sequences programming. He helps us a lot with bass, drums and very rhythmic parts. He produced at least a rhythm or a bass on almost each songs we perform on the tour at the moment. And he have a great vocal tone that is very complimentary to Soe and my voice. I don't think of anything that happens to the band that he is not involved in or at least informed of and his advices are very precious to us because he goes straight to the point. If he feels we're going the wrong way or if we could do something better... he tells us. And vice versa. I'm waiting, and not very patiently, the release of his first album. It's awesome. There are some great, great songs on it. People will be amazed!
RoD: Another person collaborates on all your releases. Steve Prestage who was mixing engineer in the 80's for cult artists like Peter Gabriel, Japan, XTC. How did you met him and what is the nature of your collaboration?
ZeN: It's really to the credit of our ancient drummer, El Lute. They knew each other pretty well since years and when we were looking at mixing ‘The Curve EP’ back in 2008, El Lute thought it would be a good idea not to take a “synth pop/ electro” producer, but someone experienced, with a more analogue sensibilities, capable of working on pure electronic or typical pop rock and even on vocals only records. We had a great contact, obviously with the background you've mentioned, we understand each other. As we are quite good in providing some very clean tracks, with a pretty advanced mix and know exactly how we want it to sound like, it gives him some space to bring a real creativity and some real artistic ideas to the songs. We'll certainly keep on working together for the next releases I'm sure.
RoD: There has been a lot of changes in the line-up of the band over the year. How do you explain that? Ego problems?
ZeN: I thinks it's almost normal for bands formed lately. When you look at the band with not a lot of changes (U2, Depeche Mode, Camouflage...), generally they knew each other when 16 or 18... they grew together, passed from teenagers to almost grandfathers together! When you meet musicians around 30 or so, it's a bit harder. You didn't often live the same life or have the same background. Having said that, there's a pretty good longevity for a band that doesn't make its leaving of music. Inoks was on keyboards quite often, Theo plaid guitars for 7 years in total, El Lute 8 years and so on. Of course there have been sometimes some ego problems. When you work with very talented people, you also have to deal with strong characters. But most of the times, members left the band mainly because of day jobs or family constraints that were not compatible with a band life.
That's also why since 2009, WAITING FOR WORDS is more a project like Recoil... a kind of boat that take people on board for a cruise... just a trip or a longer journey. And I maintain some extremely good relationships with most of the members, no hard feeling in general. It won't be very much a surprise if people like Theo collaborates again in the future for a track or two... or more who knows? I'm in regular contact with Mycrotonik and we keep on helping or advising each other from times to times. We are working together on a track and see what happen from here. And I would love to play at least once with El Lute on drums. We all made our mistakes you know? But at the end of the day, what matters the most is the band and its music... not the individuals. All those musicians are really talented. I've never heard such guitar or drums parts than the one I've heard from them. It was an honour playing with those lads
RoD: You are using a lot of visual screenings on stage and your promo videos are remarkable. Can you tell me about the importance of it and how do you work this?
ZeN: I've always been influenced by bands using visual projections live. Pink Floyd, Genesis, Kraftwerk, Jean-Michel Jarre, Depeche Mode, U2, Duran Duran... It gives such a higher dimension to the songs and the performances. I have the chance my brother is very much into that. He was probably one of the first V Jay in France with his crew, V-Form. They are cult amongst the Rave scene in France and maybe in some parts of the world. Even if I try to be a decent performer on stage, seeing 1 or 2 persons behind a keyboard and a singer was not really the funniest thing on earth when we started you know... Obviously, around 1992-1993 3D computer images was becoming normal in promo video or on live projections. We used already in the early days when we were electronic. We dropped it when we turned into bass-drum-guitar act. When back in 2004, technology made such improvements! Almost all venues are now equipped with video projector.
As per promo we were not very good at it until we met Cécile Veve and Raphael Duvernay who directed ‘Miles Away’. The best thing we've released before as video was Magz’ incredibly funny and very well produced SIMS video, ‘Cause I Do Believe’. ‘Travelling Man’ was an attempt for us to kill a couple of days off while touring in UK! Luckily, Raphael and Magz were kind enough to continue producing some other work. I work more on editing and visual stuffs now, but I still have millions things to learn, and video work is incredibly time killing. Having to wait hours to see the result of your work is the most frustrating experience for a musician!
RoD: The last video was filmed in New-York. Can you tell me about the making of it?
ZeN: It was really down to an incredible luck! Raphael had some work to do in New York exactly at the same time as we were touring there! We managed to catch up together other 2 or 3 days. It was very fun and creative work. Raphael is constantly brainstorming. While filming a sequence he already thinks of the next one. He have a strong sense of editing. He films with the final result he wants to achieve in his mind. He exactly knows what he wants even though there is a lot of room for improvisation and new ideas on the set. He often had ideas on the way from a location A to B. While in the subway, you suddenly starts seeing him pulling out the camera and go “Ok, ZeN, do this, Soe, do that”. Very funny but can be very exhausting! Both, ‘Miles Away’ and ‘Pain’, demanded an awful lot of physical energy. We were dead when coming back at the hotel at night... Just dead. But what a result!
RoD: Within a short space of time, you released the Pain EP, a Live Album, a DVD and you've been remixing some artists. Do you sleep sometimes?
ZeN: I don't sleep a lot it's true... But most of the time, as my day job have me traveling a lot, I've got a lot of time to kill away from my family or in train, planes... And sometimes, things go very fast, without a lot of efforts too. The live album was mixed in two days. Pure chance. The soundboard recording was just perfect. I just had to adjust a couple of volumes here and there, equalizing and work on the audience volume to give the live feel of it. As it's a soundboard recording with no mike to capture the audience and the atmosphere, you can't hear it a lot and it sound a bit plate. So I used the sound of the camera take and mixed it a bit in the background. And the DVD, the longest and hardest thing was to learn how to burn a DVD and create a menu! And the thing is that are tours are long and spread over 2 or 3 years. Because it's very long finding good opportunities and setting up tour's logistic. But we always have to have a recent release on the market if we want medias, even indie and obscure ones, to talk about our concerts.
RoD: As I wrote in the review, I don't understand why you are not bigger in Germany? How do you explain that?
ZeN: Certainly because we don't live there. It's a very closed market, managed by only a couple of promotion/ touring agencies like Pluswelt or neuWerk. They already manage dozens and dozens of very important and successful acts that demand them a lot of time and energy. So why investing on a French band that will demand a lot of financial investment to come over – even though it's not that expansive with Thalys or Easy Jet? Maybe we should have invested more in going there at our costs instead of trying to develop us on the UK market, I don't know... But we're not regretting the UK experience. We had the time to grow and work hard on our live performances with no real pressure. UK is a blank and open market for synth pop. What do we have over there? MESH and TEKEK? And they are not that successful over there, certainly less than in Germany. We were fresh and new for English audience more used to OASIS stuff. So they were curious and pretty cool with us.
RoD: You had a lot of votes for the Alt-Fest contest that is going to happen next year in UK... and you're not programmed yet. Did you have any contact with the Alt-Fest team?
ZeN: There has been a couple of contacts yes... but I'm not that sure we'll be part of it. When you look at the acts already booked, it seems to be a copy and paste of WGT, Amphi Fest and so on. It seems the existing touring agencies work on placing their usual acts which is fair enough as they have a business to run. But what I really don't get is, why putting up this poll thing on their site, telling people they were to choose also who will be part of the bill... and some acts that had not even more than 2 votes are programmed whereas bands in the top 10 are on a kind of “be patient / waiting list”... We climbed to number 7 or 6 for Christ sake! Of course we had a lot of support from our fans, but that's what happen with all kind of contests. On top of that it was really a fan initiative who raised our attention on the fact that we were already ranked. Do we have to feel guilty because our fans took this opportunity to vote for us massively and fans from other bands didn't? I don't think so. It's very frustrating especially because we are investing and touring in UK since years whereas nobody else wanted to do it. Not participating in the first UK event of that kind would be very sad to us and our fans over there.
RoD: You have performed with major artists like ONETWO, A FLOCK OF SEAGULLS, T21 and you've just plaid with DE/VISION for the third time, then OMD and touring with PSYCHE again. How did you met those artists and what are your relationships with them?
ZeN: I run in parallel some web radio activities and I met most of them while interviewing them or doing some promo for them. I tend to have some very good social skills with artists! When I interview them, they feel immediately I'm not a journalist but most of all a passionate fellow, a musician and all of them thank me for how interesting the questions are. We generally stay in touch after and of course, they discover my music, my activities in organizing concerts... and when they plan or want to come over and play in Paris, they naturally turn to me first and we set up gigs together.
Having said that, I never met A FLOCK OF SEAGULLS before and it's really down to the work of our manager in UK. Touring there paid at a certain time. For PSYCHE, it's Darrin who contacted me a year ago saying he liked our stuffs and that we should do something together. And sometimes our fans do the job for us! They requested us intensively on the Facebook page of the CLAN OF XYMOX gig in Paris... it certainly paid off too. But we're not playing with them only because we are nice guys and helped them you know! Andy Mc Cluskey was not really into our music at the time I met him. We tried a couple of times to play with them in the past, but Andy must really love the band he will put as a support act, and I respect that a lot. So, being invited by them to play in Paris was definitely a sign of us doing better music. *laughs*
RoD: You must have been ask this question a lot of times, but what can you tell about the French synth pop scene and how do you fit in it?
ZeN: There's no scene here! In the sense of having a bunch of bands joining forces together, sharing opportunities and so on. It's a very selfish environment, every one stays on his side which is really silly I think. I tried to create something with some other bands for 5 years. I gave up when I realized there was absolutely no exchange. It was always in the same direction. I have them play, share the stage, share the opportunities... but nothing was never coming from their side. We helped some bands from UK, Germany, Italy, Spain or Belgium plaid in Paris for years... Come on! Before us DE/VISION hasn't plaid in Paris for more than 7 years... and if we haven't set up this last gig, no promoter in France were ready to invest in a show. It was very close not to have a “Rocket & Swords Tour” date in Paris.
So now, we're on our side too and we just carry on for ourselves. Having said that, EBM or darker scene seems to be more generous. We start working together with bands like K-Bereit and Vuduvox which is strange as we are much more poppier than them but it works quit well. Certainly because fans of this scene can switch to something almost mainstream like DE/VISION to something darker like FIELDS OF THE NEPHYLM in a second. The only artists with whom there are some real exchanges and respect... are probably the biggest of the artists I’ve ever met... OMD, Alan Wilder... Sarah Blackwood came over from UK for our Birthday gig 3 years ago and sung with us in a tiny little club for 50 persons! Useless to say that little pettiness and jealousy of “artists” who hadn't and will never – including myself – achieve the 10th of the 100th of what those artists achieved seems so ridiculous compare to that. When you have Jim Kerr crossing a crowded room after a 2 hour gig to come and salute you and tell you our album is quite good and very interesting... No comment :)
RoD: You are signed to a British independent label, Foundry Records. How did this happen?
ZeN: We met our manager on the official forum of... OMD in 2004! “Follow The Signs” as we say :) He was booking act for a venue in Coventry and that's how it started. He then founded a management company and signed us. He spent time trying to find some record deals for his acts. We then realized there was no point in getting signed to Sony or else when we had all the means necessary to have our own label. We convinced him to set up his label, Foundry Records. He's really the kind of old school label manager, influenced by Tony Wilson or Daniel Miller you know? It's a great partnership and most of all a great friendship.
RoD: The Live album, recorded in Oberhausen, is only available on bandcamp and on CD-R on your website. Why such a low profile release whereas it's a fantastic live album?
ZeN: It was a really a fan thing you know? I listened to the recording when back at the hotel after the gig and the sound was amazing. As we are still promoting the studio album and the DVD, I thought it would be a bit confusing to promote this at the same time, but it was so good I wanted to give it to the fans who asked for some live recordings for ages. We are working on a Live DVD of the recent live in Paris, last December. We don't really know how the sound will be in the end. And I hope we will certainly got something out of the recent Birthday concert. So, there will probably be a real Live album compiling all those performances to go along with the DVD... we'll see, but something will definitely be released on a larger scale
RoD: The cover you did of ‘Someone, Somewhere in a Summertime’ is fantastic. Why did you cover this song and is this a regular track you perform on stage?
ZeN: It's one of my all-time favourite song. I wanted to do a version since years. I needed to work on some stuffs in studio and wanted to bring some new tracks on the tour, so I tried something with this one... and it worked! The audience responses in Paris, Belgium and Germany were speechless. Almost everyone told us how great our cover was... so yes, I'm sure it will become a classic in our live set :)
RoD: You've celebrate the 23rd birthday of the band. How do you feel about it?
ZeN: To be honest with you, it was just an opportunity of doing a special gig! I don't really feel all of this started so long ago. And the real career of the band started in 2004-2005, even if we achieved some very good things in the 90's. But I was so convinced in 1999 everything was ended that getting back was like a new beginning. I feel proud in a way as I don't know a lot of French band from my generation – in our indie underground league at least - who lasted more than 2 decades but most of all, keeping on producing some new music and still having a lot of projects for the years to come... and most of all, still progressing and getting new fans every day.
RoD: The concert with DE/VISION in Paris was presented as a Birthday Concert. How did it differ from the rest of the tour?
ZeN: Almost all the gig! We only did a 3 or 4 songs from the usual set list, main hits like ‘Miles Away’ or ‘The Curve’. The rest consisted of songs we haven't plaid in Paris for a long time, like ‘Above the Sky’ or never before, like ‘Mon Ami’. There was also be some brand new covers we always wanted to do (Heaven 17's ‘Let Me Go’, DM's ‘See You’). I was a very nice gig not to miss! Very emotional with the audience.
RoD: As mentioned above, you will play with OMD in may in Paris. How do you approach this concert?
ZeN: The good thing is that I know Paul, Andy and a bit Mally since years and I have some regular SMS communication with Paul. It's not like it was “just” this cult band I adore since decades and I would suddenly open for from a day to the next. We had time to build some trustful and very friendly relationships. And it was built year after year, inch by inch and this new step seems logical for a lot of people around us. Andy and Paul have been through so many things in their career, you don't gain their trust in a second and based on nothing. I've been tested a lot of times LOL. I take it more as a mark of trust and respect than anything else. Receiving an encouraging SMS from Paul saying they were happy having us with them... wow, it makes your day you know. I also know the venue as I've been there to watch some other acts. HUMAN LEAGUE and SISTER OF MERCY played there. This place is full of good old fashion new wave vibes! And even if it's a 900ish capacity, it looks more human than other places we did like Le Bataclan. Having said that, I say that from the audience perspective... I will certainly be more impressed when I'll do the sound check on stage!
Over than that, we have a so busy agenda until mid-April that we didn't really have time to think about it. Ask me the question on April 15th and I'll be probably freaking out and stressing and everything. But we don't take it as an achievement. It's just another step on the way to our very slow progression. The good thing is that we have 2 gigs in Bordeaux and Toulouse 6 days later with Psyche.... A real “down to earth” thing that I'm sure will be as amazing as we love the atmosphere of tiny little venues or maximum 200 capacity. There's a lot of energy shared with the audience. The concert at Le Klub last year is one of our best memory of this tour
RoD: The tour is programmed until July. What are the plans of WAITING FOR WORDS for the future?
ZeN: We don't really know. I was just about to put an end to the band in December. I was dead exhausted and burnt out by the past years. This life is really a constant fight. You fight for public interest, against medias, promoters and so on... you always have to convince, sale yourself like a product in a supermarket, or a day job recruitment process... Musicians are not respected anymore. We're really treated like piece of shit sometimes. People in the “normal“ life would be treated this way in a normal job... employers would go straight to justice and jail! Who would go to work every morning without any salary and even have to pay from their own pocket to do it! It's insane. If you add the fact that your work is stolen every day.... We have sold a lot of records between 2008 and 2012... Bad luck, the two distributors we have went bankrupt. We have lost a lot of money in that. And now? We have a great distributor (Infrastition/ Season Of Mist) and we were strongly supported by the Paris Virgin Megastore.
We have put all our efforts and marketing in pushing people going there to buy our last album.... And bingo, like a sort of luck... Virgin Megastore is going bankrupt!!! It means we won't be paid on any single sale since 2012.... How depressing is that? We don't even want to earn money of all that... we would just appreciate not losing money and especially not having people earning some on our back. There are still some CDs of ‘A Mix Through The Night’ and ‘The Curve EP’ available on the market at Amazon and elsewhere... but nobody knows where the money goes as the distributor bankrupted... And just at the moment you're about to say, “OK, I call it a day, this is it“.... Bingo, OMD support act, some nice reviews and interviews, this great gig in Oberhausen, the energy coming again to produce some new material.... “Life's a carousel” as sing the band Paper Route :)
On top of that, we already have some discussions for possible gigs in November. So the tour may carry on in places but only if these are places we never been before or in our region. When you look at our gig history, I never really stop touring since April 2004... It's been 9 years on the road now, I start feeling it physically and mentally... I have to pass this “psychological“ threshold (The band split up a first time in July 1999 after more than 9.5 years of activity, 7 years of touring and 3 albums) I guess before figuring out what we’ll do next. So... who knows in which state of mind we'll be in July? We had this strong mojo with El Lute. If we're still climbing in awareness, sales, gigs, projects... we'll carry on. If we have to go back to the point we were in 2004, we'll stop. I'm still stuck on it, and I guess it's fair to say we are still improving and growing, isn't it?
We have a lot of projects and we'll carry on producing music. The only question will be, what will we do with the new material? Will we have enough energy, strength, time, budget and will to start a new war or will we keep a low profile with all this for the tiny little great gang of fans we have? Only time will tell... But we'll definitely do some gigs here and there from time to time. We never say no to any decent live proposal and in the region we've just been moving, far away from Paris jungle, there are a lot of opportunities with a lot of creative people, open to new ideas and new projects. Future is bright and Life is what we make it :)
Thank you very much to ZeN for having taken the time responding to my long questions!
WAITING FOR WORDS Line-up
ZeN: Vocals, Keyboards and Programming
Soe: Vocals, Keyboards and Programming
Peter Rainman (live musician): Backing Vocals, Keyboards and Programming
April 11th, Poitiers (Fr)
May 18th (supporting OMD), Paris (Fr)
May 24th (with Psyche), Bordeaux (Fr)
May 25th (with Psyche), Toulouse (Fr)
July 16th, Nimes (Fr)
www.Waitingforwords.com / http://www.facebook.com/Waiting.for.Words