“Life was really about suburban living, because I grew up in the suburbs, as did most Australians even though that’s something that people run away from, at least for a while, when there’s a lot more going on in suburbia and to put it down like that is just absurd,” reflects Nic Oogjes, “Afterlife was about facing up to who you are and being part of the discussion about bigger issues under the surface, which is how in Australia we hold a lot of our insecurities and thoughts about national identity, under the surface.”
Oogjes is speaking about the themes that run through both the 2012 debut and its 2016 sequel by his band NO ZU, an eight-piece collective whose unique take on percussive groove music has recently been embraced with critical acclaim and headline sets at Golden Plains and WOMAD.
Having begun as a solo recording project in 2007, Oggjes has been the factory center of NO ZU’s expanding lineup ever since. The enthusiasm and level of critical thinking exhibited throughout our conversation can be easily identified within the propulsive rhythms and abstract universe presented on Afterlife.
Afterlife cover art
“We’re connected by this umbrella term Heat Beat, semi-tongue in cheek, but also that’s an attempt at stripping away the ego and being about a collective sound with a clear focus,” explains Oogjes, “everyone has their own idea of how they fit into it and what particular skills or dynamics that they can add to it, I definitely don’t say ‘this is the way everything’s happening’ and that’s it.”
Created at a time when the terms ‘wave’ and ‘post’ were being used to create endless subgenres, Heat Beat was an off-the-cuff term invented to lampoon the journalists who sought to categorise ZU’s sound and list their apparent influences. “There’s this world of global dance music from salsa to afrobeat, I mean you could just name a million, and they all fit in together as a unifying thing and that’s part of what the Heat Beat is,” says Oogjes, “so it is quite easy for people to pick who they think our influences are because a lot of things relate to it.”
The phrase has since become both emblematic of the band’s philosophy and practices in a literal manner. “If we’re not drenched in sweat after a show then I really don’t feel like we’ve put in enough energy,” he grins, “we played a show at Howler and the air conditioner wasn’t working. It was packed and I was in my element. When there’s just sweat dripping and people taking their clothes off, feeling the heat, that’s the whole point of NO ZU.”
While Life had a density to its sound, Afterlife’s tracks are largely built around simple grooves with layers of percussion, horns, effected vocals and the creative use of delays and reverbs shifting in and out of the arrangements. The result is a deep, global funk music that is also heavily hook-ridden, giving it an accessibility that has surely aided its commercial appeal.
“Since the last record I, and I’m sure a lot of the other guys, have been listening to a lot more dance music than previously, and dub as well, where you only need three elements and you can base a whole track around it,” explains Nic, “I’ve got a real aversion to music that sounds too clever or intellectual for the sake of it. By pulling out the bass at one point so you can hear the drums for 16 bars, there’s something in the pleasure parts of the brain that really gets off on when the bass comes back in.”
Although there are some more electronic base tracks that involve mostly just Nic, the majority of the songs were tracked all together and then picked apart. “We record a whole bunch of live grooves with as much percussion and saxophone and stuff as we can, and then I go back and start stripping things down and trying to find what needs to be there,” he says.
“It’s a complete intuitive process. As an example in Spirit Beat, there’s this breakdown bit where I use the deep voice ‘it goes, goes , goes’ with just the kick and the bells. Something like that would have just happened at rehearsal and got us excited. It’s essentially body music that you shouldn’t really be using your brain for.”
NO ZU are consciously self-referential, in both inventing their own terms, such as titles like UI YIA UIA, and musically recalling their own songs within one another. Oogjes compares this to Parliament/Funkadelic, who famously created an abstract narrative that runs throughout their catalogue.
“I think to have something focused and for people to feel like it’s a complete world of its own it needs to have references from within itself and that should come through clearly, so that’s probably the main drive of NO ZU that’s maybe different. I like to think of our catalogue of music like one work and things relate to each other,” he explains.
Within that lexicon the term Heat Beat could also be seen as a satirical comment about both national and musical identity, and the crushing/blending effect that can have on culture. “I think homogeny and gentrification – whether it’s of current dance music or rock’n’roll, is actually the point. That’s the scary thing for me and something that I’m happy to rebel against, because that in itself is pretty gross,” states Oogjes.
“But all that said, you can just cross that out and say ‘but also NO ZU’s just body music as well’, because it’s also meant to be about the feel and not the brain, so there’s a real contradiction there, but I think that reflects society as well, so that’s fine.”
NO ZU launch Afterlife at Max Watt’s on Saturday April 23. Afterlife is out now through Chapter Music.
Published in Beat Magazine on 20/04/2016