Toronto’s ZONES are a musical mirage

The impressionistic pop duo drift into tropical hallucinations on their new album 'After Image.'

March 28, 2016

Photo: Dan Fischer (via Aesthetic Magazine)

Toronto’s ZONES make impressionistic pop music, softly abstracting recognizable sounds into sun-bleached daydreams. Euphoric slacker-rock, shimmering synths, and echoey adventures in dub become tropical hallucinations with the welcoming warble of a third-generation cassette.

Following a 2014 debut on Doomsquad’s Heretical Objects Cooperative, multi-media artist Derek McKeon has been joined by Kat Murie for the laughing gas landscapes of ZONES’ new album After Image. Toronto’s Pleasence Records will release the LP on April 1st followed by a tour bringing the duo to Guelph’s Kazoo! Fest and Halifax’s OBEY Convention.

Drift off with a premiere of the song “Voyageur” below and read on for an interview with founding member McKeon.

AUX: You started ZONES as a solo project in 2012. What kinds of musical experience did you have prior to that, playing solo or with a band?

Derek McKeon: When I was younger I was really into making noise and drone music. I circuit bent this children’s tape deck with a bunch of oscillators and filters into a sea of pedals, which was my instrument of choice paired up with plastic Casios and Portasounds. It would still play tapes but would mulch them up in really cool and weird ways. I was less interested in writing songs and more invested in tones, textures and improvisation.

I started jamming with a few of my hometown buddies James Mackey and Chris Parkes under the name Iridescence. Maybe a year later Chris moved into my apartment and we kept the project going. We were really digging up old funk and classic psych/kraut records and poking at these musical tropes while exploring the more psychedelic and noisey vibes we gravitated towards. We played a bunch of shows around the 2011 time period but never got around to recording any of it unfortunately. Almost immediately after that I began working on the material that would be heard on Real Time.

I was definitely more focused on creating visual art than composing music, especially while I was in school. I still played casually, but once I graduated I almost needed to do something completely different after spending four years focusing on making artwork. That’s really where ZONES came from; all of these ideas built up gradually over time and finally poured out in that post grad summertime freedom.

Your music is often described with the term ‘hypnagogic pop’, which was coined by critic David Keenan in a widely discussed article for The Wire from 2009. Were you initially inspired by the artists he included under that umbrella (early Ariel Pink, Skaters, Pocahaunted, Emeralds, etc.)?

I think I was more inspired by the economical ways of having a solo music project and being self sufficient. Making music has always been a very personal release for me so having a solo project just made sense. As a fan of the Olde English Spelling Bee, Not Not Fun, Night People etc. catalogs I really dig a lot of those psychy/lo-fi tones but never originally set out to make a hypnagogic project. I wouldn’t necessarily categorize myself under that umbrella, but it does get thrown around as a reference point for sure.

Seven years later, those artists have all moved on to different sounds and projects. How do you feel like your music has evolved, especially since Kat Murie joined you?

I feel I’ve grown a lot as an engineer and producer. I’ve gotten a lot of new gear that really streamlined my process and allows me to make music a lot more smoothly. Other than expanding my synth and drum machine collection, I’ve basically eliminated the computer out of my creative process. A lot of what I do lends itself to being in the moment, and having a process that allows you to jam while multi-tracking and having all your machines sync’d up is just insane – I don’t think I would have the same results if I were entirely ‘in the box’. I mean I’ve spent years accidentally recording over tapes or somehow losing that perfect take; I think I’ve gotten a better handle on all of it these days.

Playing live with Kathleen is a really informative process as well. We end up dissecting the recorded material down to the most essential loops. We really push to clean up the sound and tailor the tracks to work well in a live environment. She’s also an incredible songwriter and melody master so that’s definitely helped me take these 10-minute jams and turn them into something more digestible for the audience.

The whole live experience ends up being completely different than the recorded material. When I make the records, the sky’s the limit and I really don’t even consider how it would be performed live. Once the time comes I’ll bring out all these tracks and we’ll sit there and figure out how we’re actually going to play the stuff without just having one massive backing track.

The instrumental passages on your new album sometimes seem even more dreamily abstract than your 2014 debut, Real Time. Was that a conscious decision to move further away from traditional song structures?

It’s funny you say that because I’ve always thought the tracks off After Image to be more structured. They’re by no means traditional, but the track lengths are considerably shorter and there are a couple hooks or choruses here and there. I think you’re right though when it comes to the instrumental tracks – those ones were done more or less in a live environment and have a real loose, jammy quality to them. It’s a lot of trying to sink into and marinate in the vibe of the track, opposed to perfecting ‘the part.’

You’ve also collaborated with Peter Rahul from the Analog Preservation Network using video gear found at thrift shops. Can you explain a bit more about his process of real-time video editing set to your music?

Peter and I had been talking about collaborating for a really long time. It really worked out as we both work with video feedback systems but have drastically different styles. Peter has quite an impressive collection of ’80s video gear, so we brought our collections together and started experimenting. We knew what we were capable of, but we really pushed each other to try and cook up something new and exciting. I had already edited the whole sequence together, but all of the video-FX were manipulated in real time. We set up two stations where we had a plethora of parameters we could tweak in time with the track; it was really tough to get the perfect take – but also really fun. I’m pretty excited about how it turned out.

I also understand you collect disco records. What sorts of inspiration do you find there, and how do you integrate it into your music?

Haha! I suppose you’ll be hearing that influence seep in a bit more on the new material or if you check out a live show. There’s something about funk and boogie bass lines that really get me. In terms of influence, I guess I really like to use a similar swing in the drum grooves that is often found in that type of music. Also the tones are totally spot on, all the synth brass and envelope filtered clavs – solid gold! On the newer material the rhythm sections are totally soaked in that funky disco swing.

I imagine you’re the kind of person who has explored the deepest realms of YouTube. Can you share a few of your favourite discoveries?

Its nice that Scott Bartlett’s OffOn is on YouTube.

This is from Ron Hays’ laserdisc – another video synth classic. It was also part of the inspiration behind the “TIDES” video.

Weber Cooks.

Your music and visual art complement each other perfectly. Do you consider them to be parts of the same conceptual body of work?

Thanks! Yeah, I definitely want the same vibes to be echoed throughout both the music and visual art. Making artwork in relation to a music project can be really challenging yet a very rewarding procedure. For the After Image cover, I really wanted to experiment with different processes and try to make something that I had never done before. While I was recording I sort of had an image in my head of what I could imagine the album artwork were to look like. It was a long process of experimenting but ultimately the final image ended up looking a lot like what I had imagined in my head, somehow.

What comes after After Image?

I guess it’s just the nature of how music gets released these days, but I finished After Image about a year ago and had been playing some of those songs live on the Real Time tour. I’ve already started on the next album. The new jams get filtered into the live show and the old material gets re-done with all of the new sounds I’m currently working with. I did that with Real Time and I’ve already made new versions of After Image — same tracks but at different tempos with new drums and bass tones. It’s just an alternate version to make things more interesting to play live. We setup the live shows to be fairly improvisational so the gear we use really ends up changing the sound.

Once we finish the release tour I’ll set aside some time to sit down and properly record the next album. There is a cover track coming out on a local compilation, which I’m pretty stoked on. I’m also working on a new project with my good ol’ pal James Mackey called NIGHT DANGER. It’s been a long time coming but I’m actually incredibly excited about the stuff we’re cooking up, and the plan is to put out a tape sometime soon!

ZONES’ After Image is out April 1st on Pleasence Records. Catch them live on the following tour dates:

April 1st – Toronto (Release Show) @ Smiling Buddha
April 6th – Guelph (Kazoo! Fest) @ Silence
April 17th – Hamilton @ HAVN
May 6th – London @ Vibrafusionlab
May 7th – Windsor @ Phog Lounge
May 8th – Waterloo @ TBA
May 13th – Ottawa @ Pressed
May 14th – Kingston @ Artel
May 19th – Montreal @ Casa Del Popolo
May 20th – Peterborough @ TBA
May 21st – Toronto @ TBA
May 28th – Halifax (OBEY Convention) @ Deep Water Church

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