Singer/producer Henry Binns is the first to admit Zero 7 isn’t so much a band as it is a group of sound engineers. But then, that’s what makes the experience of listening to the British group so rich and resonant. Together with Sam Hardaker, Binns has honed his skills twisting the knobs for the likes of Pet Shop Boys, Young Disciples, Robert Plant and Radiohead. “Engineering is a fundamental part of what we do,” Binns notes, “Sam will get lost for hours working on a song until he turns a corner with it.”
So, what does the duo’s own music sound like? It’s a rare blend of textures that are lush yet organic, a combination of keyboard and electronic articulations with acoustic guitar and other non-electronic instruments.
Arguably, the secret to their success largely stems from the use of actual singers with nary an Auto-Tuned voice in hearing range.
Zero 7’s albums are highly collaborative, with contributors including British compatriots Tina Dico, Mozez and Sophie Barker elevating the music to, at times, ethereal levels. But their production is always at the forefront, walking a tightrope of subtlety by making the vocal tracks sound more full and pronounced without diluting the natural timbre of the voices.
Their 2001 full-length debut, Simple Things, was highly lauded in England and garnered a Mercury Music Prize and nomination for Best British Newcomer at the Brit Awards 2002.
On Yeah Ghost, Zero 7’s fourth studio album, the pair are aided and abetted by jazz and soul singer Eska Mtungwazi, folk artist Martha Tilston, and Rowdy Superstar. They are missing longtime collaborator and vocalist Sia Furler, who is off working on a solo album as well as a project with Christina Aguilera.
Although the group’s initial release, the self-described EP1 in 1999, came at the apex of the trip-hop movement, Binns avoids the pigeonholing. “The genre ‘trip-hop’ makes me shudder a bit,” he laughs. “It makes me think of really awful break beats. We didn’t sit down and decide to be downbeat; our music just evolved on its own.” Even though Yeah Ghost is markedly upbeat compared to earlier work, he still finds a song like “Medicine Man” “ghostly, and slightly dark.” This music might not be for the “chill-out room,” but it moves with the contemplative gestures of the inner mind.
Zero 7’s previous release, The Garden, was nominated for a Grammy Award in 2007 for Best Electronic/Dance Album, a genre whose tropes the band tries not to linger on too heavily. Yeah Ghost is more listenable than ever, if that’s possible, but also not particularly dancey. It’s a bit of a catch-all for various musical impulses that have been kicking around for a while with them. For a group with such a unified sound that they are able to tap into such an array of vocal talents and still remain pronouncedly “Zero 7,” this album provides the most variety, the most stretching out.
“On the second listen back, maybe we should’ve been a bit bolder,” Binns shrugs. “This album was in frustration with all the questions, about parting with Sia and everything. We wanted to run this thing ourselves, which was ridiculous.” The instrumental sideproject Ingrid Eto shows up on some of this release, and Binns observes, “interspersed with more upbeat stuff, “The Road,” an almost spiritual tune; this album is bonkers.”
“It’s a constant striving for something new and interesting,” Binns says of the live show. “We’re working hard in rehearsal to try to get this to sound like a show. It’s quite a big task, especially with some of the usual suspects missing, but the reviews coming back have been all right.”