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Zelienople Interview: “our biggest enemy is cynicism”

Capping off 2020 with one of Sun 13’s favourite releases, we talk to Chicago’s Zelienople.

While some may have read our review of Zelienople‘s 2020 release, Hold You Up, their discovery was without a doubt the find of 2020. How they evaded us for so long is anybody’s guess, but that’s the beauty of the chase. It’s elusive, very much like the band itself.

Art has a way of creeping into one’s life for a reason and the Chicago trio’s music very much feels that way in this instance. A case of you not finding the music but in fact the music finding you.

On the strength of Zelienople‘s incredible Hold You Up, the last three months have been spent going down that perilous mine-shaft where many treasures have since been found.

First and foremost, Zelienople (Matt Christensen – guitar/vocals, Mike Weis – percussion and Brian Harding -guitar/clarinet) are purveyors of shadowy emotionally charged songs. Both in long form experimentation and immaculately arranged cuts condensed into the more conventional ideas of song craft, the varying styles form beguiling juxtapositions that put you in that ever vulnerable between tears and euphoria.

The boundless prestige of Zelienople‘s artistic output is simply mind-blowing. From the beauty of their 2002 debut, Pyjama Avenue, where there are echoes of Jim Reid fronting Low, through to the experiential leanings of Sleeper Coach (2004) and The World Is A House on Fire (2012), that subconsciously lend themselves to the venerable ’90s Kranky era, it’s evident that Zelienople are immune from failure.

Bands like Zelienople are why we care so much about music. Their body of work, a celebration of both underground music and artistic expression as a whole.

With Hold You Up cracking Sun 13’s Top 50 Albums of 2020 at number 4, the year needed to be topped off by reaching out to the band for an interview. Earlier this week, Christensen, still living in Chicago, and Weis, now based in Michigan, agreed to answer our questions.

Sun 13’s Top 50 Albums of 2020

Sun 13: Your output has been very consistent since the turn of the century. From the outside, it seems like Zelienople is the kind of band that’s always working on something. Is this case?

Matt Christensen: “Yes, always. Whether it be playing with new people, researching new ways of composing and approaching music, gear, I’m always working on something. And when I’m not working on something, I’m thinking about music quite a bit. At this point I feel I’ve devoted my life to this art. You know how people say that something chooses them rather than them choosing the thing? I feel that way about music. I’ve always felt a drive to do it.”

Mike Weis: “For twenty years music had been a central focus in my life, it was an obsession that seemed to overshadow everything else. However, within the last five years or so my interests have branched out and as a result, I seem to only get around to creating music when inspiration is so powerful that it can’t be ignored. Most of my creative energies and interests these days go into gardening, photography, trail running, hiking and ecological restoration.

“However, I can still be pulled away from these other activities to work on music when I’m invited to collaborate on a project that seems interesting. But yeah, Zelienople is a train that keeps on chugging along, it’s been that way ever since the three of us met back in the mid-’90s.”

S13: What was the inspiration and process behind Hold You Up?

MC: “I wanted to do a live album, with as little overdubs and multi-tracking as possible, so the whole thing was tracked on a stereo field recorder. I have some problems with the way it sounds, but that would be with anything we record, and I’ll probably look back on it at some point and not remember why I had these criticisms.

“I wanted the album to be more rhythmic, and I wanted to have one guitar sound (for myself) throughout. Other than that, my usual inspiration is the city, social issues, and now, parenting. As far as social issues, and the time when I was writing the lyrics, I had plenty to work with.”

S13: I find that Hold You Up is perhaps your most emotionally weighted album yet. Would you agree with that?

MC: “No! I mean, I’ve been more weighted emotionally when writing and recording other albums. This one was unusually light for me.”

S13: Strangely, it feels close to Pyjama Avenue. Listening to both records one after the other, they feel in some way loosely connected. I’m sure that wasn’t in the thinking when writing the album, but what would you say to that?

MC: “It actually was on my mind! But maybe not until after we recorded a couple tracks? I could be totally forgetting, though. Maybe Mike will remember if it was deliberate…”

MW: “Pajama Avenue is my favourite record of ours but perhaps that has more to do with a connection to memories than it is to quality. The only connection that I can think of between Pajama Avenue and Hold You Up may be the way that these songs came to us so naturally and the performances were so fluid and effortless. Most of our recordings are usually done in one take and if it doesn’t work well within one to three takes it’s usually a sign that the song should be trashed. I don’t think we ditched any material we started for either of these records. I remember having that same sort of exhilaration when listening to the playbacks of songs for both of these records like we just knew this was really special material.”

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S13: Safer really sets the tone for the album, both sonically and thematically. Was it an easy decision to make it the opening song?

MC: “It was the first song we recorded. In fact, I think that the whole album was recorded in the same order as the track order on the album. I feel that it’s a little sludgy, eq-wise, but a good performance. I think that Safer and America are the breeziest songs on the album.”

MW: “That song just jumps right in. Usually we either ease into an album with a subtle intro or an in the face blast, but this song was just a perfect pop opening. It makes me think of Rumours by Fleetwood Mac.”

S13: The title track says so much and has those same emotional burdens that something like, say, Ship That Goes Down from Sleeper Coach has, in my opinion. When you wrote this song was it an easy decision to use it as the title of the album?

MC: “Man, I don’t remember!”


S13: America feels like it was such an easy choice to finish the album with. After the darkness, there’s a vibe that there is light at the end of the tunnel. Was this the thinking with that song?

MC: “Yes. The song was about the state of the country, at the time. I was talking to a friend about current events, and it was really nothing new in the course of history and humans and how we try to define society and impose rules on each other. Anyway, my friend said that our biggest enemy is cynicism, and he’s right. If there’s a solution to a problem, that should be your focus. Even when you don’t want to focus on that solution, remind yourself that it’s still there.”

MW: “We wanted to make that song the ‘single’ and use it as a promo with a video but there was some concern from our label and distributor that it may be a little too political and the stance taken within the lyrics a little too vague during these sensitive times.”

Zelienople - Hold You Up

S13: Your discography is so vast. You guys come from a jazz background and can certainly feel that within the music you create. Do you make a conscious decision to write things that are more experimental (i.e. Give It Up, Gone) or something a little more conventional like Hold You Up?

MC: “I wouldn’t say that we come from a jazz background, necessarily. We all listen to jazz to varying degrees, Mike probably being the jazziest. But, I think that we all come from an experimental place, and not just in regards to what we listen to.

“I think that we all had a drive to start things from scratch. There were some things you come up with on your own without being aware of what others have done. For me, that was counterpoint and phasing composition. I mean, I was trying to do that stuff, and then I heard Steve Reich, and I was like ‘Oh, that’s how you do it. Nevermind…’

“But as far as jazz goes, and answering your question more directly, over the last few years I’ve tried to mimic Coltrane when playing single note patterns. Since the beginning, we’ve never played a song the same way twice, and we’ve relied on pulse, improvisation, and spontaneity over structure.”

MW: “None of us come from jazz backgrounds. We all started out as fans of music (industrial, new wave, space-rock, shoegaze, etc.) and this enthusiasm eventually turned into an overwhelming urge to create our own music. None of us were formally trained. That said, beginning in the late ’90s and early ’00s I got really into the free jazz and improvised and creative music scenes in Chicago. The talent in the city during that time was incredible and there was something interesting to take in nearly every day of the week. I immersed myself in it and of course it influenced my own work and spilled into Zelienople.”

S13: How much do you think Chicago influences the music that you make?

MC: “For me, it’s pretty much everything. I was born here, still live here, and work in social services serving the city. I love and hate the city. Maybe equally.”

MW: “Yes, Chicago is a huge influence on our music. However, a few months ago, after living in Chicago for 25 years I moved to Michigan so it’s a bit of an experiment to see how this will affect my music life.

“As I mentioned earlier, music has taken a backseat in my life lately so it wasn’t as difficult of a move to make as it would’ve been ten years ago (I would’ve been kicking and screaming on my way out of town back then!). My creative inspiration comes almost entirely from nature these days whereas in the past it was completely anchored in urban life.”

S13: Chicago seems to be bathed in such a rich history for bands like yours. Again, as an outsider, there seems to be always something that makes one gravitate towards the city for new music. Are there any bands we should be checking out?

MC: “Back in the day, I don’t think that I was too keyed-in to what was going on with that stuff. I think that people tend to think of Tortoise and Kranky and post-rock when they think of Chicago. I didn’t really feel like part of that.”

MW: “Chicago has always been a magnet for talent and curious explorers. Think of the early days of blues, Sun Ra, AACM, industrial, noise, art-rock, post-rock, free jazz, improvised music and especially all things experimental. There’s just so much incredible shit happening with music in this town at any given time. This is what pulled me to Chicago in the first place.

“In high school my friends and I would sneak up to the city from nearby northwest Indiana to visit Wax Trax Records, Medusa‘s nightclub and all-ages concerts. It’s just an exciting place to be for music enthusiasts interested in the weird and new. The community is so tight in some circles that it feels like we’re living in a small town. Legitimate venues come and go, DIY spaces are born and die, artists and curators are constantly fluctuating so it’s always shifting and changing in really exciting ways.

“I was knee-deep in all of this for so long. I organised shows, invited international artists and hosted touring musicians for so many years. It’s become a bit of a joke within my family about how many musicians have slept in my son’s bed before he was born (probably 20 to 30!). Recently I started curating my own concert series at a Buddhist temple and hope to continue this even from a distance once groups of people are allowed to gather again.”

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S13: Zelienople has been around long enough now to experience both facets of the old and new world whereby physical product has slowly been taken over by streaming and the like. How does a band  like yours try to counteract these new ways, if you try to counteract it at all?

MC: “While it’s nice to have a record to hold, and an analogue format to listen to, I think that we are at a place now that every artist has dreamt of. There is absolutely nothing stopping you from making and releasing music if you have even a basic computer. This seems to be what punk and independent music was all about, and it’s ironic that a lot of people complain about it.”

S13: With the current pandemic, this is a difficult question to ask, but are there any future plans? I’m assuming you have more material kicking around for future releases?

MC: “We’ve been talking about getting together as soon as it’s safe to do so, which I don’t think will be too far away (fingers crossed). I’d like to focus on it for a week and get it all done.”

MW: “I’m excited to get these punks out here to Michigan to begin recording new Zelienople material as soon as safely possible.”

Hold You Up is out now via Miasmah Recordings. Purchase from Bandcamp.

By Simon Kirk

Product from the happy generation. Proud purple bin owner surviving on music, books and LFC. New book, Welcome To Charmsville, available from all major vendors.

21 replies on “Zelienople Interview: “our biggest enemy is cynicism””

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