Rising from the ashes of Bucolic Sound Investigations (BSI), ZamZam Sounds hails from the old growth Cascadia forests of Portland, Oregon. Like their older label, ZamZam scans the far reaches of the globe in search for the freshest and weirdest takes on roots reggae, steppas, and dub-tech. Keeping in accordance with sound-system and reggae traditions, ZamZam only releases seven inch records and in limited pressings, though they do not skimp when it comes to releases. Each release is packaged with a customized screen-printed artwork that makes each release something truly special to behold. Not simply slaves to the older sounds of dub, ZamZam has a penchant to include very esoteric and unique samples that create an even more psychedelic dubspace for your mind to inhabit that make a lasting impression. I remember the first time I heard a ZamZam track. It was when I was going b2b2b with Reconstrvct resident True Nature and Dub Savage on a RWD.FM show sometime last year. True Nature dropped Ishan Sound’s ‘Forward’. I wanted to rewind tune right then and there, but I couldn’t force myself to stop skanking. Afterwards, I asked him what/who in the hell was that. The rest as they say is history. Since then, I always dreamed of including ZamZam in our feature series and when Alastair gave me the go ahead, I jumped at the opportunity. I had so many questions to ask and it was hard to just narrow them down to twelve, but I think I picked a range of questions that were both engaging and enlightening. Along with the interview, E3 has included a weighty vinyl and acetate mix that showcases what ZamZam does best. Enjoy!
TRUSIK: A simple but loaded question to start us off, what attracts you to dub and reggae over other genres?
EZRA: We love the foundation riddim, the hearbeat riddim. The ethical principles and social and spiritual concerns of reggae that infuse dub, even when the lyrical content is not present. Bass and drum, earth and stone, mind and heart, human and divine. We’ve just always loved it and always will. The root is so strong, the branches so many!
TRACY: The concept of the remix comes from dub, and this informs our world in so many ways.
TRUSIK: In what ways, beside the obvious 12inch and LP records, does your old label Bucolic Sound Investigations differ from ZamZam Sounds? They seem to mine the same sonic vein or is ZamZam something completely different from BSI Records?
EZRA: ZamZam is definitely in the same vein in that it reflects our love of dub in all its forms and facets, if anything it is a little more tightly focused on dub – BSI occasionally delved into some tangential areas like modern composition, dancehall, etc… though our working definition of dub is still very broad!
TRACY: Another way ZamZam is different from BSI is that this time it is just the two of us, and our daughter as she gets old enough to help out.
TRUSIK: ZamZam possesses a particular identity as a label, which is true to the roots and culture of reggae and dub yet faces forward with a sonic inventiveness and experimentation that is usually found outside of traditional reggae and dub labels, assuming that is a conscious decision, what do you look for in a tune that makes it ZamZam worthy?
EZRA: That’s a great question. As I mentioned we love roots, we love reggae, we love traditional dub and dubwise music. So we love tunes that are expressions of those idioms, but we also love the way dub can move virally through other forms, other technologies, other geographies, other traditions. So we are very consciously and intentionally not a “roots” label. We are a DUB label, past, present, future… so we what we try to forward is music that we feel is clearly anchored in dub principles, but that is pushing it forward in different ways, hopefully sincere ways. Not mimicking the sounds of the past, not trying to sound like so-and-so, but personalizing dub to create new forms – sometimes radically new, sometimes more subtly, so I think that’s why our vibe is broader than some labels who hew to a more narrow sound. Basically we just know it when we hear it. We listen for the artist’s voice. We get a lot of demos, and frankly a lot of material that comes to us is very well-produced, but we if we can’t hear the artist’s unique voice coming through, then it’s not where we’re trying to go.
TRACY: There is a lot of great music being produced right now, but we need a track to hit a few very special marks before it comes into the family. Being able to discern a clear artistic vision in the sound is a must. We do A&R with two sets of ears & aesthetics, and provide balance for each other in that way. We debate tracks all the time. All the time.
TRUSIK: Following the point about ZamZam’s “identity”, ZamZam’s use of individualized covers, the quote ‘sounds from the well’, and the pyramid atop the cube symbol – for those that don’t know, can you give us a run down on these “sacred meanings” and why you chose to use them? Do these symbols possess a personal meaning for you or are they more subjective, left to the consumer to come up with their own meaning with them?
EZRA: ZamZam refers to the mytho-historical spring (now within the Hajj precincts of Mecca), a spring that continues to give water to this day. We wanted a name with the ancient resonance of Rasta/biblical themes, but as neither Tracy nor I are Christian or Rasta, and I personally am Muslim, we wanted something more unique to where WE are coming from culturally and spiritually – grounded in the Islamic end of the Judeo-Christian-Rasta-Muslim arc. So the logo refers visually to a drop of water, to the well itself, to design elements from traditional Islamic geometric design. it’s all in there but of course we don’t expect all or even most to know, it’s just embedded in our vibe.
TRACY: The logo and tagline are definitely meant to convey some mystery, some history, some heavyweight sentiments. We’re not without humor or levity, but we are serious about bringing something Real into the world, because so much in our contemporary environment is fake, thin, and culturally impoverished. We decided that if we were going to dive into this world (of the music biz) again, that we would do it on our own terms, and succeed or fail with this all-in attempt called ZamZam.
TRUSIK: Not to belabor the point but, ZamZam strikes me as somewhat indebted to how hardcore punk disseminated it’s music – in the sense of the DIY nature of your output with limited pressings, the imagery, and the social and political nature of reggae music. Is there any affinity between the two or am I way off base here?
EZRA: We’re glad you see and feel that! We both definitely came out of punk too, socially, politically, musically, Tracy on the East Coast and me on the West, so yeah, the whole DIY ethos is where we come from and what we want to promote in terms of culture and cultural production. Carefully curated tunes in carefully designed, handmade packaging for those who know and care! Which means we have an almost no-growth model – we need to make a little money on each release, and the artist needs to be paid. But beyond that it is not a very capitalist adventure we’ve embarked on! There will never be a huge market for what we do. And we are totally cool with that. We would rather concentrate on creating a beautiful body of work that will hopefully stand the test of time, and still be around when hard drives fail and the Cloud evaporates.
TRACY: ZamZam is totally DIY. We are old enough to know life without the internet, without social media or smartphones. We know the art of the photocopy machine, finding artists through word of mouth, the struggle to be involved in a scene. We also just want to be proud of this endeavour, and treat the artists with respect, not as a commodity.
TRUSIK: I once remember watching a Youtube video of Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry on the meaning of dub, Perry had made the argument that the sub bass frequencies can be viewed as the earth while the drums are representative of the sky. So in a roundabout way, my question is do you perceive dub in a visual sense? Do colours, images, or particular thought patterns come to mind when you listen to dub music?
EZRA: Tracy’s process involves meditating on the music in order to generate the design. So every design she creates evolves in direct response to the music and how it resonates with her and what it brings up for her. So yes, in that sense it is very visual, almost literally. And in a broader sense, because dub is so much about space, creating that sense of space within a track, it is almost impossible for me personally to listen to dub music and not imagine it in three dimensions – at least three!
TRACY: When I get down to designing, it is always after having gone through the long process of A&R that leads up to our final release schedule, so I have a good feel for the tracks and how they fit into the larger arc of the label as a whole. I listen repeatedly to the tracks I am designing for, definitely in a kind of meditative state, trying to get at what the sounds represent – sometimes the track titles or vocal elements act as signposts along the way. Beat patterns, melodic motifs, sub layers, sampled bits, I don’t try to represent each element visually in a one-to-one ratio, but I do try to account for them, to sum the equation presented by each pair of tracks. Often I will have designed a cover at least a dozen times over – versioning my designs, essentially. Music is definitely a visual experience for me, in the best instances.
TRUSIK: In comparison to England’s history with reggae and sound-system culture, where do you find yourselves situated in the United States where there seems to be an absence of that kind of sound-system culture? Does this negatively impact your aims with ZamZam Sounds, or rather do you look at label as an example for current & future US labels to strive for?
EZRA: We talk about this a lot, because you’re right, there is very little context in the US for what we are doing, and extra very little in Portland. This is and always has been a very rock-centric town. There are lots of other labels, lots of other scenes bubbling, but they are all quite marginal compared to the now decades-old scourge of indie rock, and lately the American Roots thing. So it can be a little lonely locally, but we are comforted by the fact that we have allies and comrades all over the world. I don’t think we really see it as any kind of model for anyone but ourselves.
TRACY: We were fortunate enough to visit Bristol in summer 2013 for St Paul’s Carnival. Being in a place with such long and rich history in sound system culture was like taking a deep breath of hyper-oxygenated air. In the US there is no analogue, no comparison. But you have to start somewhere, and build what you can, even if there are only small pockets of appreciation (geographically) nearby. We aren’t able to be (or interested in being) venue owners or promoters but for a full and real culture to develop, all of those things need to come together over a sustained period. The Reconstrvct crew had Ezra out in the early summer, and their commitment, and that of Dub Stuy and the other sound systems being built lately, is especially exciting to see.
TRUSIK: ZamZam has a world wide variety of producers in it’s stable, was that another conscious decision to showcase the breath of contemporary dub music?
EZRA: Definitely. We wanted to reach out to our old friends from the BSI days first, bring attention to local producers who we feel are world class, like Strategy and Alter Echo for example, and basically just build with anyone we feel a musical kinship with.
TRACY: There’s no geographic barrier to having an incredible perspective on dub – great tracks come from everywhere, with local influences sometimes providing exceptional results. El Mahdy Jr comes to mind especially in this case. Being open to these perspectives is everything to us.
TRUSIK: Additionally, what up-and-comers are on your radar at the moment?
EZRA: Speaking of locals, Gulls (who runs Boomarm Nation and is basically responsible for turning us and the rest of the world on to El Mahdy Jr) will have a ZamZam single before long, and a great producer called Titus 12 who we met through Ossia (Young Echo) are two soon comes. Also the awesome Danny Scrilla, recently made famous by Om Unit (who got Danny in touch with us).
TRUSIK: Have you considered the possibility of working with guest vocalists on an EP, or is that left up to the artists themselves? If so, what vocalists would you have in mind? Which leads to the next logical step, has ZamZam considered releasing an LP or some sort of compilation in the future?
EZRA: We are always open to vocalists, and in fact our upcoming Egoless 7” features a wonderful vocal from Senegalese singer Daba Makourejah. But yes, we leave that up to the artists. Also, our next Heights & Worship release features a fantastic lyric from reggae great Carlton Livingston. Can’t wait for these.
TRACY: In terms of longer-format releases (still strictly vinyl), we have established Khaliphonic, a sister label with exactly that mission – so ZamZam will remain strictly 7”. The first Khaliphonic was the Dub De Gaita 12” featuring Adrian Sherwood, the next will be a 12” double pack of vintage unreleased Disciples material.
TRUSIK: For the mix you’ve recorded for TRUSIK, did you set out with a pre-conceived idea or theme with the selection or did you ‘go with the flow’ so to speak?
EZRA: I chose to split the difference between current and future ZamZams and tracks from good friends and allies. It’s short and sweet, strictly vinyl and acetate, done live.
TRUSIK: One last question to conclude, what does the future portend for ZamZam Sounds in 2015?
EZRA: Hopefully many many many more 7”s! I have gone on the record saying that if we get to 50 releases we will buy an old ice cream truck or something and open a mobile record shack. So support vinyl, help us get there!
TRACY: As long as we can fit a couple of 18”s in the back and rig it properly, we’ll run that truck all over this town. But really, 2015 is looking to be a busy year for us, with an absolutely packed release schedule.
ZamZam24 is out in November and available to pre-order from Unearthed Sounds.