Rock the Dub Interview with DEAD P.A.
In the first of two "Drum & Bass from Texas" interviews I lined up, I got a chance to chop it up with DEAD P.A.'s Papa Zero. He hit me up sometime last year, and we chopped it up a bit just talking about their music, his personal situation, and live DnB in general. What I loved about DEAD P.A. was the ability of them to, within a genre of producers and DJs who feel they are larger than life, were able to still poke fun at themselves and genuinely have fun making the music they make. No grandstanding or "holier than thou" posturing, just dope music with a real emphasis on the live show. Jason looks at his crew as a sort of "Blue Man Group" type of thing, which fits them to a T (minus the corporate money). Not just tight tunes, but a true experience that you have to see/hear to believe...
khal: What’s the story behind DEAD P.A.? The core of the group is Papa Zero and The Human Drum Machine. How did you two get together, and what was the inspiration behind creating a live Drum & Bass band?
Papa Zero: George and I performed in rock bands in high school in the early 90's and as anyone in a band knows - it's no easy task to keep it together. When my band Backlash found itself in a rut struggling to maintain a drummer for several years, George was asked to join. Shortly thereafter, he swiped the band's bass player to form yet another band. I purchased a drum machine and sampler and took a new direction with a more electronic edge. The solo performance evolved into Population Zero in 1996 and I began playing clubs, warehouses, and festivals throughout Texas. In the meantime, George had gone off to school in Boston. Upon his graduation and return in 2003, he made contact with me and happened to mention that he had acquired a Roland TD-10 drum kit. The suggestion of a jam session was made and we quickly realized the potential for a live performance. Levon and Krystal joined the act in subsequent years but their schedules often dictate that the touring act remain the two founding members. Although we both love Drum & Bass, I wouldn’t say that we were compelled to specifically be a “Drum & Bass band.” The majority of my solo material around 2003 consisted of DnB and it seemed to make for a more frenetic live performance with a drummer. We play DnB sets but have included many other genres when circumstances allow. In some cases, we find it better to portray ourselves outside Drum & Bass altogether since we don’t quite sound like conventional DnB artists. We’ve started using the term “Drum n Breaks.”
khal: What’s your setup like? There’s obviously drums and your keyboards/synthesizers, but what else is involved with your live shows?
Papa Zero: Our primary goal is more performance oriented rather than mixing. I’ve always preferred to interact directly with the music and audience rather than act as a sort of “meta-composition” DJ. Accordingly, our setup will change with the circumstances surrounding the show and the songs we are performing. Obviously, when we are flown out to a show we have to scale our gear to what will keep us both self-contained as well as travel ready. I always bring a small multi-channel mixer for multiple instrument input. We run live mics for vocals, key-triggered drum loops and basslines from my K2000, I run a DJ mixer as a hub between the live drummer and some pre-arranged backing track material. It’s so much fun having a live drummer on the crossfader and a bit of a laugh to pull turntablism “tricks” on a DJ mixer without actually using any turntables. I used to play guitar during our sets but in January of 2007 I was diagnosed with malignant brain cancer. The resulting tumor significantly damaged the fine motor skills in my left hand so that I am no longer capable of playing guitar.
khal: You’ve recently dropped an album, The Dead Will Rise. How did you guys produce the album – was it made in the same way as your live shows are, or did you use samplers and drum machines and the like?
Papa Zero: Although I always use Logic to record and sequence when writing a track, I really don’t constrain production to any rhyme or reason. This can contribute to me taking forever to finish something. I use an assortment of hardware and software, analogue and digital. Our songs vary in tempo and feel so I often have to rework or reconstruct them for a live show. The only song on the album that we’ve never played live is “Lifeguard.” I’m afraid to let George near a mic to sing that one live since his performance during the recording turns out to have been a once in a lifetime cut! Fortunately, he makes up for this in his ability to play the hell out of the drums and MC.
khal: You’ve gotten loads of accolades from throughout the Texas area. Where else have you guys brought your brand of DnB to? Do you have any dreams/plans on trying to craft tunes for release on a DnB-specific label?
Papa Zero: Ironically, and despite the fact that we didn’t have a release, we’ve played through a considerable portion of the U.S. up to this point. We’ve played weeklies such as SuckaFree in Panama City, Beyond Beats in OKC, and Torque in Orlando, mainstay events like Tastemakers of Breaks in Miami during WMC, Devil’s Night 9 in Las Vegas, Soulstice in Fayetteville, Bayfest in Mobile and big one-off events in Los Angeles, Salt Lake City, and New Orleans among many others. I try to keep photo albums of shows on our homepage and our MySpace sites. Labels in dancefloor / club / electronica genres always release material based on the merits of whether or not it flows with the cumulative catalogue of its releases. This only makes sense since their primary market (the DJ) is looking for music that will easily fit into his or her set. I typically write songs without regard to how DJ friendly they are and this has worked against us in getting music released on DnB labels – but we’re always open to it.
khal: What do you think sets your brand of DnB apart from a DJ who is equally skilled at rockin’ a party? Do you think there could be a situation where you’d perform live with in tangent with a DJ?
Papa Zero: Aside from the obvious difference of a live and in your face performance – the one thing that tends to really set us apart is our sense of humor. We’ve never fit the mold of “hardass junglists” and our shows inescapably reflect that, be it George’s off the cuff rhymes making fun of me onstage or outlandish costumes and stage theatrics. In regard to performing alongside a DJ - during the Winter Music Conference of ’06 we had the pleasure of performing with the DMC champion DJ ID. After we performed our set, ID wanted to “jam” with us – so while he beat juggled, scratched, and threw in cut samples on vinyl, George went to town on the drums and I played leads or basslines on synth. It was really an improv of sorts that couldn’t have lasted more than 20 minutes, but the crowd just went effing nuts.
khal: One thing I have seen in pictures is you guys not being afraid to go all out, dressing up in wacky and interesting get-up, helping give the show more character. How did that aspect come about? Are there future concepts you guys will be employing, costume wise?
Papa Zero: Conceptually we’ve always wanted more of a “Blue Man Group” style performance where the music is joined at the hip with visuals, the live performance and an event we’re playing as a whole. Though we wanted this from DEAD P.A.’s inception, we’ve had to build up to the point where the catalogue of music and chemistry of the show could really facilitate some of those ideas or convey a unified theme or message. It started mostly with the customization of our sets to fit themes of parties chosen by promoters but gradually worked into theme tours and performance theatrics like those in the current “DEAD P.A. for President” Tour.
khal: Are there any things as a band that DEAD P.A. has not tackled as of yet? Where do you see the outfit progressing to in the near future?
Papa Zero: We’d love to collaborate more with other artists – onstage, in production or remix. There are a million theme sets we have talked about working up – from Drum & Bass covers of cheesy 80’s songs to cancer awareness-themed sets. I don’t think we’ve really even scratched the surface of where things can go. We’ve even talked about doing an acoustic arrangement of some of our tracks to perform live. George and I quite often video tape our escapades while touring. In light of the things we’ve seen, my cancer, and our undiminished sense of humor, we’ve discussed the possibility of story boarding and pitching a reality show. Of course, everything has a proper time and place and each of these wacky ideas may have to wait for its respective moment.
khal: The live DnB band aspect has not had that one shining star that’s gotten acclaim for both production prowess when it comes to albums as well as their live show. Do you feel DEAD P.A. can reach that height, or is that not on your radar?
Papa Zero: I’ve been hearing about a live Evol Intent project in the works forever and look forward to seeing what comes of it. I believe both Roni Size and London Electricity saw a bit of limelight in regard to both release and live performance but certainly no DnB artist has had the spotlight like Moby, Prodigy, Chemical Brothers, BT or Crystal Method. So far the only “breakthrough” artists for electronica in general have been a bit more transcendent of genre. On occasion I think we do tap into hooks and performances that have mass appeal but I can’t really objectively say whether or not we’ll become superstars. We certainly aim to get our music out to anyone that cares to hear it and have been grateful for the response we’ve seen. Whether or not we breakout and are accepted into the mainstream, I do believe that DEAD P.A. is a prototype of sorts for acts that will come about in the future consisting of similar setups. Technology is making it more viable everyday and a large part of our success thus far has a lot to do with the fact that there isn’t anything quite like us out there. It’s only a matter of time before more acts pop up. KJ Sawka of Seattle is one performer I hope to hear more from. While his live P.A. set is a bit less of a confrontational performance than ours, he is a brilliant drummer that really captures the essence of Drum & Bass.
khal: I know none of you guys are DJs, but do you actively follow DnB releases? Are there any tracks that you wish you had produced, or that you would like to recreate live?
Papa Zero: Since neither of us are DJs we don’t invest in releases as a DJ would so I don’t always have my finger on the pulse of what the hot new sound is or the latest and greatest track. For better or worse, this probably speaks to the fact that we never sound like what is going on in DnB. We do get exposure of course, from DJ mixes we get as well as from the artists themselves but I don’t think either of us has ever wished we had made a song that we heard. Every song is a creature hatched from the unique character of the artist that pieced it together and while I have many faces and wells to draw from I can’t covet the character of another – I can only relate and enjoy the art they provide. In regards to doing cover songs – nothing is off limits too us. We’ve performed dancefloor covers ranging from Pantera’s “Broken” to Britney Spears' “Hit Me Baby One More Time” without blinking. With the right context, we’d do a cover of an electronic contemporary as easily as we’d play a song from The Muppet Show.
khal: Where will you guys be performing next?
Papa Zero: Because of my cancer affliction I underwent a ten hour open brain surgery in January of 2007, 6 weeks of daily radiation, and have undergone 11 chemotherapy treatments. Needless to say this put music and performance on the sidelines for a while. We had so much momentum going into ‘07 and unfortunately only played 3 shows – one of which I was unable to attend. While I’m still fighting cancer, I’ve gotten to the point where I’m capable of touring again so we’ve booked quite a few gigs this year already. I’ve been amazed at how quickly the ball picked up right where we left off. We just hit Austin on the Guitar Hero 3 stage during the SXSW music conference. Upcoming shows include a slot on the annual Houston 91.7 FM Rice Radio concert as well as a performance in Dallas for Fully Funktional’s party “Simply Evolve.” We are still coordinating and booking dates for our “DEAD P.A. for President” Tour and look forward to hitting New Jersey for the first time in June.
khal: Do you have any final thoughts, comments or shout outs?
Papa Zero: Our gratitude goes out to everyone that has come out to our shows, bought a CD, sported a DEAD P.A. T-shirt, booked us, or just taken the time to listen to our music!
DEAD P.A.'s The Dead Will Rise is available courtesy of Goinka Records. A forthcoming split 12” between DEAD P.A. and Devine & Emily Play will be available courtesy of Goinka Records and 2nd Movement.