Henry Binns of Zero 7 Shines a Light on the Making of Their ‘Shadows’ EP
With the release of their “Shadows” EP, there’s never been a better time for Zero 7’s uniquely sumptuous, intimate music. Featuring singer-songwriter Lou Stone on vocals, “Shadows” returns to a similar musical territory from the group’s commercial heyday — featuring earnest lyricism, unhurried beats, lush string arrangements and pristine instrumentation. It’s the group’s sixth EP, but like its predecessors, “Shadows” feels like a complete musical statement because it says just enough, and has no filler. Fans of Zero 7’s platinum debut, 2001’s “Simple Things,” will feel a similar low-key chill of excitement listening to it, especially at a moment when their particular sound offers an almost therapeutic alternative to the anxiety-inducing cacophony of the outside world.
In a conversation with Entertainment Voice, Henry Binns, half of the downtempo English duo, reflects not just the moment that their new EP has arrived into that world, but the circumstances that drove its development and recording. Appropriately, but maybe unexpectedly, introspective about their growing body of work, Binns details the creative process that he shares with his longtime partner Sam Hardaker, and the challenges of fine tuning their musical expressions as the two have grown up together — and simultaneously, physically apart. Additionally, Binns looks back on the successes and perceived failures they have shared as a band, and finally, hinted, almost against his own instincts, about Zero 7’s future plans.
To get started, how has your creativity either flourished or maybe been challenged in the last year, and how did that facilitate the development of the “Shadows” EP?
The majority of the heavy lifting was done just before Covid hit, but for me personally, my life hasn’t changed that much. I live in a rural setting. I’m very lucky. I’ve got a big garden. And in a way, life slowing down for me has been something that has encouraged creativity. It comes from a quiet place, and when there’s not all the hustle and bustle, you’re not trying to sandwich it in. You just put your pajamas on and go in the studio — and that works for me a little better. The Zoom thing, Sam and I have had to overcome over the last couple of years anyway in a way, because he lives in London, I live in Somerset. But I have to confess, not being there and seeing the whites of each other’s eyes, I think that’s been the hardest part. The decision making is so much harder; something that will take two seconds in the studio, over an email it takes a while. So you’ve got to iron all out all the creases.
Generally, how reactive is your creativity to what goes on in the world, and how much does it function in a vacuum?
I think there’s this general subconscious feeling anyway that we were ramping up for something, and I think that probably has spilled out into a lot of musicians’ music. But have I sat down and written a tune about lockdown? No. It’s sort of an undercurrent, but it’s definitely there. But with creativity, it’s kind of laborious as well. I mean, you gotta show up, you gotta do it, sometimes you’re rubbish, and you just keep chipping away. And, that kind of slow burning process has had a bit of a stronger vibe recently somehow, for some reason.
You’ve put out almost more EPs than you have full-length albums. Given the complexity of your arrangements and production, what goes into developing each individual track on “Shadows,” and how do you know when you’re done? And, then how do you know when a release is finished?
Sam and I have always relied on collaboration, and we’ve always had very good, strong people. And, I guess waiting around for somebody who you kind of click with takes it a long while — and sometimes it doesn’t happen at all. That’s kind of a problem for me and Sam, but rather boringly my publishers put me onto Lou Stone who’s the singer on the EP. Initially I was working for him, trying to write some tracks, but as sometimes happens with me, it just started sounding like Zero 7 and, of course, we were very happy to call it that. And then comes the present. There is a lot of Lou in this EP — it’s a hybrid of us and him. We had a couple of the songs pretty quickly. “Outlines” took us the longest for some reason. That one had beats on it, and then we took them off. I think in our creative process, because we’ve come from remixing, we can never stop asking huge questions on it, like changing the chords, which is an enormous kind of [change]. But when do we think it’s finished? When you try and change the lyric and it’s not better, or you change a bass sound and it’s not better. You think, hold on, this is finished.
You mentioned Lou, but you’ve also worked with José González, Sia and these other incredible singers. Is there a commonality you’ve identified among the artists you’ve collaborated with that you can point to why they so wonderfully complement your production?
I don’t think there is a commonality. I wish there was! I think that is the enormous Pandora’s box that is Zero 7, and that’s probably why we’re not a band in the conventional way. It’s not that easy if you’re relying on someone. I mean, José is very soulful, but very much a folk artist. Sia is just an enigma in herself — she’s just Sia. So it’s always somebody who just seems to fit, and it’s quite hard to find. A lot of it is what’s clicking in the writing as well.
How difficult or easy is it then to transition from the intuitive aspects of creating music to the technical?
Oh God, it’s as clunky as hell. What happens is, we come up with something, I’ll probably put a beat on it and then we say, “there’s something good about this, but it ain’t right.” And, then 150 revisions later… Normally, with me and Sam, as we get older, we end up taking the beat off. That’s the hardest part, because it sets the genre so distinctly. And, as you get older, I don’t want to sound boring, but you think, well, can I get away with this? So it just feels like a pair of trousers that aren’t fitting right, and you just have to keep working until they do.
When you released your first album, you guys were sort of riding the crest of a wave that included Air, Groove Armada and Thievery Corporation, and all of these other artists. But in recent years, downtempo and ambient styles of music have experienced a real renaissance, and record labels are reissuing Japanese City Pop albums that seem to have a sort of kinship to your music.
To be honest, I don’t keep my ear to the ground, but I’m very pleased that in these times of trouble people have been wanting something a bit gentler on the ear. I used to get afraid of the word ambient. I used to think, what is this vapid nothingness going around? But I started to see the genius in it nowadays. And, Sam and I didn’t start out thinking, “we’re going to be a chill out band,” and in fact that name still slightly makes me shudder. People would say, “what do you think about background music?” And I used to get very offended because I was like, “well, we did actually try and write something profound.” I don’t know if it came out like that, but that’s what we tried. But I’m over that now. And it makes sense to me that people are nostalgic for that sound again.
Is there anything that you listened to in the last year or two as you were making this that was particularly influential or inspirational that people might not expect?
In your kind of dad rock department, your Steely Dans and your Jonis are never far away from my iPod. But I’ve been listening to the band Sault, Sam and I are just like, “Oh God, I give up!” They seem to just knock out brilliant albums for fun, you know what I mean? So quickly. So they’ve been an inspiration for sure.
How much have your experiences remixing other people’s music helped shape the music that you guys make on your own?
Oh, God enormously. I mean, we’ve come from that department. We’re not pro songwriters, we’re remix producers who dreamt of having a studio in our garden — and finally, I got one! The record has always been the Holy Grail. We sort of had this whole live career because the record company wanted to do it, and actually it turned out to be brilliant fun and I’m really glad I did it. But I still think for us, it’s about the album. But in terms of remixes, we still keep doing them. And I’m always glad that we do, because it always gives you another angle on what you’re doing. I don’t want to say it’s easy because it’s not, but when the song’s written and you have to just adorn it with loveliness in another way, there’s a certain hurdle that’s already done for you. So just recontextualizing something, which is what we normally do, is a lot of fun. And that’s kind of what we do with our own songs as well. A little plug: We actually grew up with Nigel Godrich, he’s got a band called Ultraista and we just finished a remix for them that we’re quite happy with. So look out for that one.
How much impatience or eagerness do you feel when you’re ready to release something? Is there a sense of thinking, “well, we did four really good tracks, should we hold back and try to develop this into like a full length?”
My last album had some great moments on it, but I think we both agree it was probably stylistically pulling in two directions. After the record deal was up, we needed to rethink — like everyone, where you’ve gone a lot of places and you’ve gotten bored, with yourself really. So that break was nice. And then we just started putting things out if and when they were ready, and we haven’t really gotten out of that comfort zone (laughs). Actually, this is the first body of work that’s happened since then, and I could not deny that the LP word is kind of hanging about in mine and Sam’s periphery vision. So I don’t want to fate it by [saying it out loud], but certainly I’m ready. I’m not done yet. I definitely want to get another album going.
How does it feel to revisit your work like that, and what does that teach you about collaboration or creativity going forward?
It’s such a personal journey. I can only speak for myself on that one, but the first album was a hit, and it took us completely by surprise. We were slightly enamored with it, but I think everyone’s slightly enamored with what you do first or second, you know what I mean? You’ve got that youthful arrogance. You are then in the throes of thinking, now I’ve got to crank out some more, which is a very new thing to think about, and then you’re on that train. Funnily enough, all of our catalog was just rereleased and they wanted to put nice, new CD artwork out and stuff like that, which is really fun, to go back and have a listen to the albums again. And if I’m honest, I feel similar now that I did then. I was like, that one worked. That other one had its moments. It’s a shame, but they can’t all be “Dark Side of the Moon,” you know what I mean? So I think the thing that we’re all looking for as musicians is our decision-making, and the confidence in it. I know when that’s not there, I am pissing in the wind, and it’s an awful place to be. But when your confidence is up a little bit, your decisions are so easy to go, yeah, that’s rubbish, and that’s good. So hopefully the wind’s blowing in the right direction for us — and sorry to sound stupid — but it’s a cosmic thing, you know what I mean? Like I don’t know how you get that, but once you’ve got it, you keep hold of it, and that’s how you make the good music.
“Shadows” releases Oct. 23 on Apple Music.