Interview by Nicki Stein
Issue 66 • August 2018 • Harrisonburg

Experimental and eccentric, this electronic artist brings a freewheeling playfulness to his rich soundscapes—and most other parts of his life.

“Since I can remember I always wanted to be a cartoon character,” Zach Williams earnestly explained. “I always connected to them more.” As the artist at the helm of ethereal trip-hop project Zooanzoo, Williams—otherwise known as Zoo—creates small worlds out of sound for his listeners to inhabit, offering up melodies that can be worn like a second skin. The pulsating rhythms of Zooanzoo’s frenzied, hypnotic refrains allow the swirling thoughts of a buzzing brain to melt away, the contents dripping like a sweaty-sweet popsicle onto hot pavement, the candy-colored liquid sizzling for a moment, then evaporating into the throbbing summer heat.

Zach “Zoo” Williams

Zoo began experimenting as a solo artist around 2012, but his first connection to music extends back to his childhood, standing next to his grandmother in church singing Southern gospel. “Belting out songs with her signature vibrato,” he remembered fondly, “that’s my first contact high.” As a kid, Zoo picked up any instrument-like object he could get his hands on. “The first time I held a guitar was my sister's,” he recounted. “I went to experiment with the tuning and snapped a string,” he giggled at the memory, but that spirit of experimentation is clearly threaded through Zoo’s exploratory style of music-making.

In middle school, Zoo found punk and electronic music. From there, he continued to experiment sonically, sometimes with the help of his partner Josh Hebdon (AKA Sprit) on drums, until the current iteration of Zooanzoo’s sound announced itself. “Creating under Zooanzoo came about as a necessity,” Zoo said. The name he performs by, although originally bestowed upon him as a teasing nickname by classmates, is now a core part of Zoo’s identity. “I identify with Zoo more than my birth name,” he said simply, “It seems even closer to my true self.” Zoo toys with a sense of escapism by cloaking himself under the blanket of that better-fitting identity and tucking the warmth he’s pulled from it into the fabric of the songs he writes.

Josh “Sprit” Hebdon

After years of honing his sound, experimenting with operatic overtures, toy instruments, and recorded voice memos, Zooanzoo released an official full-length album, LOUD MOUTH, in 2017. “That's when it began to feel a bit more real, or intentional,” Zoo said, referring to his career as a professional musician. “It was like I wasn't the only person who resonated with the tones I was creating. It reached out, connected me to people.”

Building on the success of the first release, Zooanzoo’s second full-length NECK OUT was released late last month on July 27 from Beau Travail Records. “A lot of the songs that are created through me have two souls in them,” Zoo said of the release. “The album has that dichotomy: a tender, awfully sensitive side that wants to heal and hold, make love, and recognize our mortal vulnerabilities. The other side is a loud mouth growling the twisted gospel, rather spit acid than drink OJ, vulgar, over the top, hound toothed, bat eyed, demon.”

Cover art for NECK OUT

The songs on NECK OUT do seem to tug at opposing poles: the soft plunking of acoustic guitar strings that open the album’s first song “Dionysus” are a soothing lullaby, blending with the ethereal drone of high melodic voices like a ghostly choir. Then, a few bars in, the tune turns dark, almost cinematic in its chiaroscuro, exaggerating the shadowy side of Zoo’s rhythmic vocal patter. Contradictions abound, but that’s what makes it interesting.

In addition to writing and performing the music of NECK OUT, Zoo animated a music video to accompany the single “May I?”. He used a technique called rotoscoping where the animator traces over video footage frame-by-frame to create a fluid, live-action effect. “Animation frame-by-frame will drive you mad,” he said with a smile, “but the payoff is totally worth it.” In the video, a cartoon version of Zoo swims across the screen as bright shapes, some recognizable and some not, squiggle along to a smooth beat. Pictures swirl into one another, characters dance in barren landscapes and flail their arms. The imagery is joyus but jittery, and best of all, Zoo is himself a cartoon character at long last.

As for his next moves, Zoo shows no sign of slowing down. With a collaborative album in the works, as well as a record release show to look forward to, Zoo’s life as a performer continues to pick up momentum. But even amidst the hubbub of his unfurling career, Zoo thinks of music as a healing force: “This energy that strengthens me, teaches me even, allows me to escape,” he explained. On NECK OUT, Zoo has tried to stay true to that sense of emotional vulnerability inherent in making and listening to music. “That moment your spirit may evaporate or explode from pure honesty and vulnerability. To strip away the skin, the sensation of being naked, exposing yourself to the sun—or judgement. Peeking from the shell, taking those risks ...” he mused. “It’s what drives humanity along. It’s what carries this album.”

Zooanzoo will perform an album release show on Friday, August 3 at Restless Moons Brewing in Harrisonburg. NECK OUT is available on vinyl at zooanzoo.bandcamp.com.

Photography by Alex Kent

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