singer/songwriter/mastermind PARKER and guitarist MARLON BANJO of
Robert Urban reviews the new Zerocrop album Painkiller for GAY GUITARISTS WORLDWIDE - Sept. 2008
Painkiller is the brand new 10-song album (released August 2008) by London-based rock project Zerocrop. And Zerocrop is the ongoing rock project of openly-gay singer-songwriter-lyricist-producer/arranger/sound designer/recording genius Parker. Parker's partners in pop experimentation include his brother - guitarist Marlon Banjo (gotta luv the stage name...) and noted UK pedal steel player Steve Honest (Kathryn Williams, Dolly Parton, Culture Club). Zerocrop's previous albums include the drug-themed Fucked (2004) and the sex-themed Ain't No W*nker (2000).
Deliciously dark, disturbing and mesmerizing throughout - Painkiller makes for the perfect soundtrack to accompany certain lugubrious moods and/or dangerous states-of-mind. By way of elucidation, the album's track listing is revealing:: 1. Die Screaming - 2. Ugly - 3. Razors - 4. Don’t Hurt Me - 5. Empty - 6. Nightvision - 7. Scum - 8. Inside The Prison - 9. Resist The Devil - 10. Evil. Get the picture?
The overall theme of Painkiller's songs is violence. That being said, one might expect the music to be typical: violent death/speed metal or anarchic punk or grand heavy rock - but it's not - which makes its effect on the listener all the more creepy & seductive. Painkiller is essentially a pop album - but a pop album crafted out of many far-flung experimental sounds and drawing from a variety of alternative/electronica/experimental pop styles. It's songs are, for the most part, presented simply and with a nice beat.
Parker sings his spooky and unusual lyrics as if he is merely reiterating troubled voices he hears in his own head. It is an unnasuming, mid-range, matter-of-fact, Norman Bates-like delivery - sung right into the listener's face. It's as if Parker knows he is possessed by sad, dark visions - but is not adversely affected by it. It's scary stuff. And Parker does this VERY well - totally owning his mannered, meticulous vocal style.
Musical comparisons are always iffy with innovative, exploratory projects such as Zerocrop - but this listener hears some kindred channelings to the past - in smooth, alluring rock approaches taken by the likes of "Diva" era Annie Lennox, "Three Friends" era Gentle Giant, "Avalon" era Roxy Music, "Lark's Tongue in Aspic" era King Crimson; and here and there in the basic pop of The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, T.Rex, and especially The Smiths. During a listening to the entire Painkiller album, The Beatles' experimental "Revolution #9" from The White Album repeatedly came to mind. At times, Parker's vocals sound like a kinder, gentler Morrissey. Yet the Zerocrop frontman's lyrics and mind-set offer more bite, more wickedness, and more inner psychological honesty.
Painkiller is loaded with highly unusual techno rhythm beds, music "concrete" sounds, spoken-word effects in various tongues, backwards sounds, complex, dense vocal layerings and off-the-wall sonic samplings (check out esp. the opening track "Die Screaming"). Yet the guitar work on this album, ubiquitous throughout, is wisely tempered and subtle. Electric guitarist Marlon Banjo - processed thru producer Parker's beauteous sense of instrumental arranging - comes off as a kind of 21st century anti-guitar hero - in the vein of Johnny Marr or Andy Summers. Banjo's luscious guitar work is more about texture and rhythm than melody. His lines may be said to be "non-guitar solo" type solos - rich with innuendo and attitude. And one might think the pitch-perfect steel-pedal guitar of Steve Honest would add a country/western flair to the proceedings, but coupled as it is with so many non-country/western sound sources - the effect is more other-worldly and haunting.
Painkiller features two songs - "Ugly" and "Razor" - that qualify as pop hit singles of the first order . Both tracks are outstanding (and this is key to appreciating Parker's musical brilliance) in that they are totally "commercial" sounding, yet they have been crafted in such an odd, original way.
"Ugly" is a dancey rock 'n roll-inspired tune about feelings of inadequacy in the face of someone special (something we've all felt at times) It kicks in with an absolutely irrestable-sounding guitar riff-groove in the vein of The Rolling Stones' "Shattered" or T. Rex's "Bang a Gong". Another singer might offer generic bratty, punky vocals, but Parker sings unnervingly calm, even, floating lines throughout - layering them in thick, dizzyingly dissonent clusters of notes. The effect on the listener is not unlike James Stewart falling through his hallucinated spiral in the film Vertigo. (!) After just a few listenings "Ugly", this reviewer can't stop humming it and frankly, it's driving me crazy. (the sure sign of a successful hit).
The slow, S & M-tinged ballad "Razor". Never before has the topic of self-harm been presented so calmly and with such subversive appeal. (I thought of the final suicide-murder scene in the film Dead Ringers when I first heard this song.) Again, Parker achieves pop perfection from entirely disparate ingredients - pitting an echoed-out steel pedal guitar against drum-machine sounds and who knows what other sonic electronica. And as with many of Painkiller's songs - Parker lyrics in "Razor" are deceptively different from what the ear expects from the song's musical style. This track epitomizes the album's overall hypnotic, painfully self-introspective, emotionally dismal, eerily hushed quality.
Zerocrop's Painkiller is an important endeavor in rock music. In it, Parker ups the ante for all producers of computer-based, digitally recorded popular music. He creates modern, original, extremely well-produced radio-friendly songs whilst rarely resorting to the obvious - (No small feat in today's world of mostly uber-formulaic drivel). Painkiller will be of special interest to gay fans of rock - as it offers daring, difficult and different takes on a variety of gay cultural/lifestyle issues.
I urge all radio hosts within reach of this review to air some Zerocrop Painkiller pop - asap!. You just might help propel this most-inventive of rock projects into the fame it rightly deserves. - Robert Urban, URBAN PRODUCTIONS, NYC
ZEROCROP guitarist MARLON BANJO Interview
- What brand/model/year instrument(s) do you record and play out with?
I have a Fender Stratocaster from about Ď92 which is my main guitar which is great. I have a big bodied jazz Guild from about Ď75 which you hear on a lot of tracks. I also have a bunch of other guitars which donít get played including an SG and a Gibson 335. These are all too expensive and lovable to risk so on gigs I take an very old Ibanez 1 pickup model dating from the mid Ď80s I think.
Any special/favorite amps/instrument tones/effects/approaches/techniques you've used/discovered in recording and/or performance that you really like?
Nearly everything is either Direct Input or goes through a Digitech effects board. Parker owns the soul of the recordings so legislates on all sounds but I like compression sustain and anything that makes a B-52s sound or bare uneffected Captain Beefheart, that is, analogue-like, mid range, warm. I hate sparkly chorusy/flangy sounds.
- Who are your main influences as an instrumentalist? Which artists? Which bands? Instrumentalist? Which artists/bands were your favorites in your youth?
I like things with a human pulse or groove and a warm sound. These are the things you hear first before melody, lyrics etc. I like heavy reggae bands a lot because the rhythm is a conundrum. So the paradigm for this would be Black Uhuru. But groove and warmth comes out in individual records in unexpected places. Itís present on an old recording of You Might Need Somebody by Shola Ama and its on Sugar Sugar by the Archies! I was obsessed with the Beatles from a very young age so they (especially the late middle period) probably set the criteria for the way things should sound and probably gives me a very analogue ear. I also like textures so I pay attetion to film scores a lot. At the moment I really listen a lot to Cliff Matrinezís score for Solaris. The Bourne filmsí music is good too and tells its own story too if you listen carefully. I like voices and would recommend Lo Cor de La Plana currently. I also listen to a lot of Jazz of all periods. Iím still stunned by the death of Esbjorn Svensson..
- So how is it working/gigging/recording with your own brother? Any onstage bottle-throwing spats or punches exchanged at press conferences? Any similarities with other rock royalty sibling relationships?
No problems. In many respects he has been my protector through recent emotional scenarios and he and Steve Honest looked after me like a baby last year in Berlin. We donít take bottles on stage and try to avoid wearing spats.
- Seriously, one can hear a haunting sympathetic musical vibe between you two on PainKiller. Do you sense it too?
This is probably because Parker tells me what to do and I try to follow it to the letter. He has very clear ideas about what he wants and is a real composer in that sense rather than someone who presses a button and sees what comes out. I disagree with what he says about experimentalism in that respect. But there probably is something in the question. In my other life I work in psychiatric settings and our family history, although settled in many respects, has a strand of torment going back a long way. So we probably do have a tortured vibe which would be in sync. Itís got something to do with attacking as a form of calling out for help.
- How does your brotherís brooding, sardonic, spooky takes on gay attitudes, S & M, etc. affect you?
Like his brooding sardonic, spooky take on everything else. I’m used to it and it’s a source of warmth and entertainment. You should see him deal with an unsatisfactory restaurant. I guess you could call it queer whiplash deconstruction.
- I would love to know how you get that satisfyingly odd & dark funky clean tone that forms the rhythm bed of ďUglyĒ. Is it a real guitar amp micíd? lined-in? or digital modeling? How did this tune come together?
I love that too and I donít exactly know how itís done. When I heard the finished product, I forgot that it was me and was thinking Iíd really like to know how to get that sound. As I recall itís a DIíed sound and Parker has added touches of a little something to which only he knows the secret. Also, although I use a pick, I also hit the strings with a lot of nail and a bit of the back of my middle finger so you get that sound of something being thrown against the strings. (Parker: I really like that technique because there's two rhythms going on. Ugly was recorded straight in and dry, with many phrases snipped out and played by a midi-sampler. The effects sound is the Guitar Amp plug-in in Logic, sandwiched together with an very overloaded signal from a cassette tape of the same part).
- Is there a particular favorite solo or part you played on Painkiller, or a certain piece of composed music you wrote, that you feel represents your finest work?
Parker is the Master of Painkiller and I am his servant but the aforementioned backing to ďUglyĒ I am proud of. He probably recorded it when I was unaware so I should learn to be less self-conscious.
- Any special thoughts on the guitar, and what it's meant to you in your life?
You can hold it against your tummy in difficult times. I think itís probably the only instrument you do this with. I recently didnít play for a year and, having now restarted, I am amazed how much better it makes you feel. It has to be basically one of the most primitive instruments and so probably gets in touch with us in a manner that is way below words. Funnily enough, valve amplifiers do the same thing. Hearing a good guitar sound is like being wrapped up in a blanket.
- Are you involved in any other musical projects youíd like to tell us about?
I am ashamed to say not at the moment although I have a ton of stuff I should be doing things with. Other aspects of life are too demanding at the moment. I remain at the behest of Zerocrop though.
Zerocrop singer-songwriter/mastermind PARKER interview
- So, you are called "Parker"Ö.
My name is Parker. Everyone just calls me that - it's my surname. An old boyfriend years ago started calling me Parker as a joke, and it caught on with everyone. So everyone just knows me as Parker.
- And you are also called "Zerocrop"Ö
Zerocrop is a name for this music rather than my stage name. Obviously there are several other people involved who make it much more than it could be, on the musical, internet and design side. But the whole thing begins and ends with me so I suppose you would call it a solo project. But I would say Hello I'm Parker. No one ever hears it right. Martha??
- Where does the word come from?
On an cruising website Zerocrop would mean a person with a shaved head like me, but I also like the cut and paste connations of the "crop" part and I am obsessed with numbers of which zero is one of my favourites. The first cd had a multimedia side where there were lots of transcripts from gay phone lines or chatrooms, where I had edited myself completely out of the conversation - or if you like "Zero Cropped" and cut back to nothing. The images were made anonymous and idealized, removing the original features in a similar vein.- Tell fans about your particular style of songwriting - describe it in your own words -
Most of my songs are experiments. Can you make a pop song about this subject? Does it work? What happens if you play this at twice the speed or half the speed or backwards? Ideas for songs come quickly to me but getting them finished to a point where I'm happy with all the words and melodies takes ages. All the songs have a particular meaning for me but people often have their own interpretation which is probably just as well considering some of the subject matter. I am probably quite intense as a person and this comes out in the songs. I try to do things with a degree of humour but often very dark humour. On this album I'm singing about gruesome emotions but those feelings only last while I'm writing the song. I'm getting it out of me. Then you're stuck with it all the time you're recording which I think of as my penance for showing off in the first place.
- Who are your main influences as a singer and as a songwriter? Which artists? Which bands?
My favourite guitar player ever was Ricky Wilson from The B-52s, who played a four string guitar with off-kilter tunings. He was the most wonderful, inventive guitar player. Nothing was ever overdone. Lots of things were innovative about that band, boys and girls making music, unusual instrument line-up, no obvious front person, everything shared, spoken words mixed with harmonies, the song stuctures which are all brilliant fun to sing. The B-52s are sometimes perceived as frivolous and wacky but I think they are all very accomplished with something to say about the world.
I grew up attracted to bands like Siouxsie & the Banshees and The Creatures. They wrote songs about all kinds of new subjects and the music was very creative and often experimental. They had many interesting collaborators and at least a couple of really genius guitar players. They were people who had grown up in suburban London, which was also my upbringing, but they were so stylish, aloof and edgy, and their music pointed a way forward. They didn't give a damn about conforming musically. In contrast to the B-52s who are quintessentially American, the Banshees could never have come from anywhere else except the UK. But there strange similarities in that both bands were self-taught, started more or less as a perverse joke, and wrote their songs much more by improvisation than a structured approach.
I'm influenced by anything I hear that I like which is really a long list. I don't listen to music radio or watch tv but I hear loads of music through my friends who play me new things all the time. I find owning masses of MP3s irritating so if I like something I just buy it. It's more sociable having lots of records and cds about the place that visitors can look through rather than wading through your iTunes library. If I get together with my brothers, we sometimes play records together again, just like we did when we were kids and living at home. My tastes are from every genre, high-brow to trashy but I love guitars. Good guitar solos are rare as hen's teeth and should stay that way. I'm more attracted to guitar playing that is atmospheric and hypnotic, where you can't be entirely sure how the some of the sounds have been made.
I love voices and wish I was a better singer. I sing along to everything at home but if I'm out, then I like to shut up and dance. I listen to a lot of spoken word recordings too, from which words and phrases sometimes spark ideas for songs. I get more by listening to voices than I do by reading.
- How is the overall music making scene in your locale?
In recent years gay clubs in London have started to invite a lot more live performers of many different kinds which is a change for the better. I came across great bands like Cantankerous and Baraclough, playing live at clubs like Kashpoint and Electrogogo, rather than on record. I enjoy seeing live music. Watching how other musicians go about things always inspires me to want to make music of my own.
- Can you relate any special feelings or experiences about being an openly gay artist in the mostly straight music world... especially regarding your artistically formative/learning years?
I had to think about this question for ages. I reckon my musical and gay identities were separate things before I started Zerocrop in 1999. It wasn't a planned decision to bring them together, more an accident. I've always made music but started making sounds and images with stuff from gay phonelines and chatrooms just for my own fun. I became very fascinated with how people expressed or portrayed themselves. It was a while before I thought of making it into pop songs and to release them on cds. I was trying to create a kind of world of Zerocrop populated by certain mysterious sexy characters. I put all the sexual and gay stuff into the music because I hadn't heard that anywhere. I thought it would be interesting to look at it in a musical context and also quite humorous.
Zerocrop music is all from the point of view of this individual gay man and his friends. I'm trying to give a flavour of who I am, when and where I am living, in my music. I'm not trying to represent anyone but myself and my loved ones. I include my friends and family in my music because that's seems like the natural thing to do. Both my brothers are better musicians than I am and I hope the other one will play on the next record too.
The new album is slightly less autobiographical and much less sexually explicit than the last two but songs like "Scum" (about the murder of a gay man in London) and "Inside The Prison" (about abuse of war prisoners) and "Ugly" (about vanity and jealousy) are definitely in the Zerocrop tradition.
Other than that, I don't really think about being a round gay peg in a square straight world when it comes to music. In London, my musical life is my friends and their friends who are making or designing or promoting or djaying or dancing to music and they are gay and straight, boys and girls and various combinations of the above. I would be very angry if anyone who really liked music was touchy about people's sexuality but I guess it still happens. For me it's hard to get inside that psychology. Music seems so far above all that petty crap. How is it in America?- For an openly out LGBT player - how do you think the overall music scene differs today from years ago?
When I was a teenager in the 80s, the main source of information about pop stars, was the music press which was very strong in Britain. My best friend and I read avidly all the interviews with our heros, looking for some statement that could be interpreted as clear coming-out. But things were always very ambiguous. People rarely seemed to go into print, probably through fear of the tabloid press. It seems a world away from now where lots of artists are out. Nevertheless the media still thinks it's all a bit shocking. However, alongside this greater sexual acceptance, much less challenging or experimental music makes it into the mainstream today, which is a shame.
- Even as edgy and dark as it is lyrically, with the song ďRazorsĒ ≠ you have a potential pop hit single on your hands. Itís irresistibly delicious - even hypnotic - to listen to. Tell us about feedback youíve gotten on it. Am guessing the lyrics have caused a buzz.
I try to work some light and dark into songs to get a contrast going and Razors is a ballad with a hefty overdose of that. It has a beautiful tune and a bleak lyric about cutting yourself, it's electronic but there's lashings of real pedal steel playing. It's difficult to get the balance right with a song like "Razors". You don't want to come over all sad and suicidal. But neither do you want to trivialize it by being too arch or clever. I'm not out to shock. I'm just trying to make something appealing but which makes you question what you're hearing. Every song on the album is about a feeling and asks the person listening the question How would you react to this? The opening lyric on the album is How would you like it? and that sets the agenda for the whole album.- Tell us about your recent tour performances ≠ Howís life on the road?
Playing live is rare for me but I really enjoy performing. It's a bit frightening, like getting on a rollercoaster. You're scared while it's happening and then you want to do it again. Portraying things on record, that are a slightly weird emotionally is probably not normal behaviour for a person of my years. Being on stage singing them also requires a certain amount of nerve and cheek, but confers a degree of responsibility on you, to try and put over something in an interesting way, whatever stage demeanour, not to mention microphone technique, you ultimately choose to adopt.
- do you play/compose/record only your own original music? Do you do any other work in music - e.g. teaching, recording session work, hired gun, producing, etc? Does your work appear on recordings of any other artists?
I've only ever released my own songs but I have done some writing and remixing for the singer Billie Ray Martin. I was a big fan from her early days in the band Electribe 101, so it was a strange experience to meet and work with her. How often does that happen to a person? One time you're in the audience dancing around like a maniac, then suddenly you're making them cheese and lentil loaf in your kitchen. I admire Billie's voice a great deal and the fact she is unafraid to experiment or bring diverse styles together to create something new.
- Howís it going with your current & planned musical projects - including any new cds, touring and other promotions?
I was relieved to get Painkiller finished because it took so long to get it right but I already feel a bit twitchy and restless. I think about ideas for music all the time but they take a while to cook in my brain. I make a mental or dictaphone note of them and then leave them unattended awhile so they can ferment. I'd like to do more live work in the future and I would like to work with more people. I don't want to leave so long a gap before the next release.
- What instruments (or computer software/sequence, etc.) do you employ on onstage?
On the albums it's mostly me. On stage I have people to help as well as a certain amount of electronics operated by Lorraine Elektonik who provides fierce glamour. Marlon Banjo and Steve Honest play live guitars and pedal steel respectively, and I sing. The songs are quite demanding because there are very few pauses, a lot of words to get through and some fairly heavy sentiments so I've been told my style of performance is slightly scary and definitely very committed but I don't ever watch playback so I can't tell.
- Tell us about all the multi-faceted, very modern guitar work on Painkiller ≠ How was it achieved?
All the guitars you hear were originally played by Marlon Banjo and all the pedal steel by Steve Honest. For most tracks Mr Honest and Mr Banjo made several takes playing over my early basic tracks from which I selected the pieces and effects I wanted. Both artists also recorded for me a large bank of sounds - from which I've made a library of material for my sampler and for various other effects. I only ever use sounds I've acquired myself in some way. My library of stuff goes back at least 20 years and is very peculiar in parts.
Certain guitar sounds were made by running a DAT recording of long sections of playing, backwards at high speed, recording that and sampling pieces I wanted, slowing them down, turning them backwards, stretching them. The opening track "Die Screaming" is an entire track originally made for someone else, but played backwards. Anything to get a different sound from a familiar source. Some things were just mistakes that sounded good.
When it comes to performing the finished songs live, then Mr Banjo and Mr Honest have to learn what I've created out of their parts by listening to the finished songs. Not always that easy.
- And there you are, at the helm, producing & gathering all the sounds ≠
The album is pretty much recorded and engineered by me with these performers adding their parts at an early stage, but they are heavily processed and fiddled around with over weeks and months until I am happy. I am extremely painstaking, so it would be tiresome for musicians to have to endlessly work over their parts. I prefer to have several rough takes that might spark an idea or take me in a different direction and give a less programmed feel.
I tend to work in this way with guest musicians in general. They do takes of what I want over my basic tracks, but always have a free for all session afterwards, with the recorder running, playing whatever they feel like, so that I've got a big pile of more random stuff to choose from. Some of the best things happen by accident, or you revisit recording sessions some time later and hear things in a different way. Working primarily alone on a computer it is easy to get into certain patterns and prescriptions that stifle new things happening. So this is one technique to try and get a level of randomness and spontaneity and happy accidents. Making purely programmed music bores me, though I enjoy other people's work who are more skilled programmers than I am. I like the combination of real playing and electronic instruments which never entirely fit together giving the music a lot of tension.
- How do you work out the song-lyrics to create such an innovative, stream-of-conscious, almost raga-like style with words?
I spend a lot of time experimenting and creating sounds processed from guitars and other instruments from which to make basic grooves. Once I have some kind of groove I like, I lock the door, turn off the phone and play these things over to myself in private, working out the lyrics into a hand held dictaphone of the most primitve kind, wandering around my flat, listening to the tracks. I write lyrics all the time in a book I carry around but many good ideas seem to come straight out of my mouth into the dictaphone fully formed. Sometimes I have no idea where they come from.
- However did you achieve such fine audio quality in the studio? Painkiller is one of the cleanest, most pleasant-sounding recordings Iíve ever heard. Thereís a certain quiet, gentle, even ambience to the overall fidelity.
The album was recorded with no money whatsoever, on a Mac running Logic Audio with a cheap second hand vocal compressor and a £99 microphone. Having limited resources makes everything take quite a long time, but I was very happy the way the album turned out. A chap called Dick Beetham mastered the album and made it sound very posh without smoothing it out at all. Music should never be just a background that strokes you. It should make you sit up and take notice. - best, Parker
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