An Interview with Spencer Zahn

Will Schube chats with Spencer Zahn about his solo debut, New York's jazz scene, and Dave Harrington.
By    September 24, 2018

If you want to do something cool, just hit up Dave Harrington. The New York jazz and experimental staple is one of music’s most interesting creators, and very few musicians have a similarly unblemished track record. That’s not to say that Spencer Zahn, who just released his solo debut, People of the Dawn, wouldn’t have made a stunning record without Harrington, but the latter’s name is a co-sign in and of itself.

People is one of the year’s best: experimental or otherwise. It’s a stark, dystopian landscape of humming synths and lonely piano with cymbals and walking bass lines populating these desolate works. Zahn’s no stranger to the texturized valleys of music; he’s spent years touring and recording with experimental pop groups Empress Of and Kimbra. Now center-stage, Zahn’s decontextualized what he’s learned with these collaborators, alchemizing the joie de vivre of pop music into something exuberantly avant-garde and foreign. And yet, because of the cohesion between Zahn and Harrington, nothing feels untouchable. This world is worn and etched before being reached, as if we’re the aliens now able to understand the foreign code we’ve spent years cataloguing. Zahn is our translator. There are echoes of DARKSIDE and Autechere, LEAVING-style jazz and ’60s New York minimalism, but like all great records, Spencer Zahn’s People of the Dawn only sounds exactly like itself. —Will Schube

There’s a real specificity to your music. I know you pushed back the release date because the vinyl wasn’t sounding quite right. Are you a perfectionist?

Spencer Zahn: Lately I’ve been trying to get away from that and go with the 85% mentality, like, it’s never going to be perfect. I think leaving a little bit of control up to chance or the people that I trust was really important for this album. For Dave [Harrington] and I, we let each other explore a lot in making the album. It wasn’t obsessing over certain moments, but getting those special improvised moments sounding as good as they can. I think it worked out well and was relatively fast, but at the same time I’m really happy with it.

When did that process begin? Did you bring songs to Dave and you worked on them together? Was it more collaborative?

Spencer Zahn: I started recording a bunch of modular synth stuff in Melbourne, Australia in August, 2017. I basically had six hours of modular material. I cut up a bunch of my favorite bits and then booked studio time with Dave. We took my favorite parts from those Melbourne recordings and started building atop those at the studio in Brooklyn. The core of the writing process was these synthesizer prompts, then I would write parts on top of them. Sometimes the modular stuff would get muted, but it was a good springboard.

Were you specific with Dave about what you wanted out of instrumentation and production, or were you letting him work off the music in whatever way he felt?

Spencer Zahn: We went into it with the idea that it’d be an upright bass and fretless bass centered album. We decided together that since we didn’t have tons of studio time, we’d only add four more elements, which were three synths and piano. In the end Dave played a little bit of percussion, but we really tried to streamline it and present these elements the sound world.

Was that time restriction in some way helpful in pushing the sound of the record to a precise coherence?

Spencer Zahn: Yeah, it was amazing. Since I recorded most everything on my own, it lets you hear each instrument as another voice or player. They all have their own space and it lets the music breathe a bit more.

When you had these original synthesizer recordings, were you and Dave improvising atop them? Would you chop up those parts as well?

Spencer Zahn: Usually I would have a basic idea of what I wanted to play. I’d do a few takes and then we’d hone it in. There are no overdubs or cutting up of parts. I’d do a few takes on a piano, then a few on synth, then bass, and the only editing we’d do was taking stuff out and letting stuff have more of its own room.

Was the bass your instrument growing up?

Spencer Zahn: Yeah. I started on piano but I moved shortly after to electric bass. I started playing electric when I was 11 and picked up the stand-up over the years. I got into different synthesizers and these new ways to make sounds. That became a really big part of what I became interested in what I listened to and what I created.

Did you study jazz? How did you develop that side of your style?

Spencer Zahn: The jazz thing started when I began taking bass lessons as a kid. My teacher was a great, young bass player from my town and he turned me on to the great, early Miles quintet records and the bands that came out of that; Herbie’s bands, Ron Carter’s stuff, and Wayne Shorter. I got more into the ‘60s/’70s Miles, Herbie, and Keith Jarrett stuff a bit later. Afterwards I decided to move to New York and went to jazz school at NYU. I developed into a jazz musician there but now I don’t consider myself a jazz player in the way a lot of the great jazz musicians in New York are. But I do consider myself an improviser and a lover of jazz music.

Where did you grow up? Was there a music community there?

Spencer Zahn: I grew up in Massachusetts in a small town called Mattapoisett. There wasn’t really a music community but I had two amazing teachers. The school band teacher in elementary school was great at motivating kids to play well. We had a great school band and it just so happened that the kids in my year were quite good. We had bands all the way until we moved to New York. I had a great teacher in high school as well that really pushed me to think of it as something other than a fun hobby, more something that is my life.

When did you first feel like you were a professional musician who could make a consistent living off of it?

Spencer Zahn: There are two moments. Before I was touring a lot I was tour managing for Charlie Haden. Working with him was so amazing on so many levels. I think he really showed me that it was possible to be a touring musician and recording artist. Then, when I started playing with Empress Of, we toured a lot in those early stages. I realized that not only was it something I really wanted to do, but also that it’s sustainable if you do it right.

How did you get involved in tour management?

Spencer Zahn: That was just a one-time thing and it was only for Charlie Haden. He called me on the phone one day and asked if I’d be interested in doing it. I think if it was for anyone else I probably would have said no because I’d rather play, but with Charlie being who he is and so important to how I listen to music and play the bass, I really couldn’t say no.

So you were familiar with him from New York? How did you meet him in the first place?

Spencer Zahn: Yeah. One of the people I studied with is Ralph Alessi, the amazing trumpet player. Ralph studied with Charlie at Cal Arts. Charlie called Ralph to see if there was anyone willing to help him out on some tours, and Ralph gave him my number. And that was that.

What were the jazz and electronic scenes like in New York when you first moved there? Did you move Dave Harrington and those folks then?

Spencer Zahn: I met Dave in 2008. We didn’t get to play together until quite a bit later. We always knew each other and were always in the same circles. When I first moved in 2006, though, I mostly played with kids in my year from NYU and the grad students. We were really into Ralph Alessi, Ravi Coltrane, people like that in the New York jazz scene. Going to those shows constantly and seeing how these people composed and played—there were so many great musicians and they were all playing right around where we were living. So we’d just save up our money and go to shows two or three times a week.

When did you begin transitioning to being a touring musician, playing with Empress Of and Kimbra?

Spencer Zahn: That was around 2010 or 2011. I started playing with a lot more bands who were signed to labels or indie labels. I opened for Kimbra with Empress Of and that’s how Kimbra and I started working together. After Golden Echo, she asked if I’d play keyboard and some other stuff on Primal Heart. Now we’ve been working together for nearly four years.

So you’re more of a collaborator than a touring musician?

Spencer Zahn: Definitely. Especially with people like Dave Harrington and Kimbra. I’m trying to make as much music with people as possible. I think New York is a really inspiring place right now.

Is there anything that you took from working with these other artists on their records that you applied to your solo album?

Spencer Zahn: Some of the sound palette stuff that I’ve done with different artists. I bring a lot of that to my music for sure. But that’s one of the things that I’m most excited about when recording my music. It’s just so different than the bands that I tour with. It’s a breath of fresh air for me to play something that’s a bit more improvised and exploratory. It’s not pop music at all but it has elements of what I do with Kimbra in terms of the sonic space I use.

Will your future work mine similar territory you think? Or do you want to get poppier?

Spencer Zahn: I’m definitely interested in writing with pop musicians and working with songwriters in a more traditional pop sense. But the music I’m working on now for a second album is definitely in the world of the first one in that it’s a vast cinematic sound. It won’t have any kind of singing or lyrics on it. But I love working with vocalists and I’m always interested in working with pop artists.

When did you discover that the blend of jazz and electronic music was the sound you wanted to chase on this record?

Spencer Zahn: I’m not sure if there’s an exact moment but I’ve probably been on that path for the last six years working with different indie pop artists and laying more low-key, local improvised jazz shows in New York. Last year when I played a festival with Dave and a group called EXO-TECH—which includes Kimbra and a bunch of amazing New York and Australian musicians—I realized that it was okay to make the music I was making, even if it’s not a pop record. That doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be made. After seeing an audience get excited about that sort of experimental music, I thought, ‘Yeah, now’s the time. Why wait any longer?’

Was it that similarity in musical spirit that made you want to work with Dave on this record?

Spencer Zahn: Definitely. Right when I brought up the idea of doing a record with him and the initial thoughts I had about making the modular synthesizer the foundation and having acoustic bass and piano on top of it, he got excited about the idea too. We started throwing some ideas around too. I think I booked studio time the next day.

Now that this record is done, can you reflect on what it’s like having one in the bank and if the second one might come quicker?

Spencer Zahn: I’m planning a few things. In that planning I’m just trying not to forget to give myself some time to enjoy this one. It’s the first time in my life and career I’ve put out a solo album. It’s nerve-wracking and scary, but I feel really proud of what I made with Dave. I’m really lucky to have such a great collaborator in him. It seems like a family affair with this one.

We rely on your support to keep POW alive. Please take a second to donate on Patreon!