ZERO 7 at the Opera House (735 Queen East), Sunday (April 21). $15.50. 416-870-8000.
for a couple of london hiphop DJs, Sam Hardaker and Henry Binns have a lot of soul. So much so, in fact, that their after-hours grooves are helping to redefine soul music in the era of pop-tart R&B.As Zero 7, the duo have created a seamless fusion between electronic production and raw 70s soul jazz. The group's 2001 debut, Simple Things, re-released this spring by EMI, is a 21st-century soul masterpiece, a stirring mix of hiphop, television library music, deep soul and downtempo electronic music.
It's a modern sound, but one defiantly rooted in the past. Songs like I Have Seen, Destiny and the woozy title track blend rolling, dusty grooves with swollen strings and the late-night vocals of a rotating cast of previously unknown singers like Sia Furler and Mozes. Zero 7 were initially dismissed as a British version of the French chill-out band Air, but in less than a year their independently released Simple Things has gone on to sell more than 300,000 copies in Europe alone.
The surprise success of Simple Things has drawn Binns and Hardaker out of their North London bunker.
"We were, like, "We're never, ever, ever going to play live,'" Binns laughs from Miami following a showcase at the Winter Music Festival.
"We were just not interested in the spotlight," Hardaker interjects. "Then people like Gilles Peterson really wanted us to play, so with a healthy paranoia of trying not to sound like an acid jazz band, we gave it a go."
That aversion to the spotlight took hold when Binns and Hardaker began their musical career working as tea boys in the posh London studio RAK. While artists like Chrissie Hynde and Depeche Mode made rock star demands, Binns and Hardaker were plotting how to steal some of their studio time for their own deep beat experiments.
"We were both working in the studio as assistants, and we would just try to emulate things we loved," Hardaker explains. "We'd listen to a lot of old house records, Masters At Work and that, and say, "How the fuck did they do that?'
"It was just messing about and discovering things. Working in the studio was kind of a joke. We were the guys who said, "How do you like your tea?' and "I don't think we can get sushi at 4 in the morning,' but the great thing was that it was a massive place. New Order would be in one section, and then Scott Walker would be in the other room with his orchestra.
"Everyone would go home and we'd sneak in and fuck around. Things finally changed when me, Henry and our friend Nigel quit and Nigel went and built a studio with his bare hands."
The Nigel in question is Nigel Godrich, Radiohead's whiz kid producer, who kick-started Zero 7's career by giving the previously unproven group a Radiohead track to remix.
The radically reworked version of Climbing Up The Walls turned into a surprise downtempo hit, and led Binns and Hardaker to further string-drenched remixes of Lambchop, Terry Callier and, er, Lenny Kravitz.
"It's actually now at the point where people come to us asking specifically for "that thing we did on the Lambchop record,'" Binns howls. "That's so wack, especially when you're trying to go somewhere else."
The remixes also sketched out a template for Zero 7's own tunes. The duo's first track released under their own name was This World, a massive, sweeping soul-pop song that set the tone for Simple Things.
Live vocals and instrumentation collide with programmed beats, and as with their breakthrough Lambchop remix, which saw Zero 7 transform the Nashville alt-country orchestra into a string-drenched gospel choir with beats, Binns and Hardaker's simple production and keen understanding of mood make the song seem bigger than it really is.
"When we completed This World, it felt like we'd stumbled on something undeniably good and as close to what we heard in our heads as possible," Hardaker offers. "Even still, we didn't take it seriously. People had to kick us up the arse before we finally did release it.
"That song set a template for what we would do in the future. There were things we were aspiring to do with music, especially in creating a really natural sound, and we did everything we could to get that on a minimal budget. There are certain things we just dig, whether it's flat-wound strings on an old Fender bass or the sound of an orchestra in a big room."
"We'd never written a single song before, so making that work was as hard as anything," Binns adds. "It's more about feel and the decisions you make than anything else. I think that's what defines soul music."
Soul aside, there's also an unmistakable cinematic influence to the music Zero 7 make, specifically the influence of British library music and television themes (see sidebar).
Simple Things' final track is a cover of the 70s KPM tune End Theme, and the spot-on version, plus Binns and Hardaker's obvious skill at arranging mood music, would suggest that a career scoring films awaits. Not so.
"There's a genuine atmospheric quality to so much library music, and I love the fact that they did it all with real bands," Hardaker enthuses. "There would be these massive orchestras grooving away, and it created a real dirty feel to this music you'd hear every week with the cricket reports.
"We've never been asked to do anything in the soundtrack world. It would be an amazing thing to do, but also a real challenge. It wouldn't take much to fuck someone's movie up.
"So far, the closest we've got is our music turning up in holiday programs and on cooking shows. It's a bit sad, actually," he sniffs. "We've become background ambience."firstname.lastname@example.org