Zero 7: From zeroes to heroes

As a revitalised Zero 7 prepare to perform their album The Garden on stage, the duo tell Phil Meadley how José Gonzalez and The Eagles got them back on track
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It's no exaggeration to say that Sam Hardaker and Henry Binns have been surprised by their success. A lucky break (down to dogged hassling) remixing Radiohead's "Climbing Up the Walls" led to the release of their 2001 debut album, Simple Things - and then all hell broke loose.

Everyone wanted a piece of their melodic sun-kissed action, from film and TV soundtracks, to remixes for the likes of Lamb-chop, Lenny Kravitz, Terry Callier and N.E.R.D. But when I meet up with the duo at Binns's airy oak-beamed roundhouse near Glastonbury, it becomes clear that they'd never intended to make an album in the first place.

Simple Things propelled this reluctant production team into the mainstream. "Beth Orton once said to us that we'd be nothing without our singers," Hardaker says, smiling, as we sit around the kitchen table. This is probably an unfair comment, although the duo have indeed been blessed with a fine array of vocal talent, from the Australian soul diva Sia Furler to silky crooner Mozez and, on their most recent (and most assured album) to date, The Garden, José Gonzalez, the hottest male exponent of the velvety double-tracked vocal.

"In America, they've been congratulating us on our trend forecasting because they've been getting 'a lot of heat' about José," Hardaker says. "It's as if we'd employed someone to go out and get some prediction figures."

This kind of acid remark is typical of Hardaker, who seems the more media-wary and cynical of the two. He's been described as the trendy one who lives in London and goes out clubbing. "That's how it's been written in the past: Sam lives in Kilburn and likes hip-hop; Henry sits at home with his slippers on, listening to Joni Mitchell."

The discussion about the origins of the first album comes about when we talk about the lacklustre response to their 2004 second album When It Falls. "Somebody called it When It Fails by mistake when they were interviewing us the other day," Hardaker says. "I thought that was classy. I wish I'd have thought of that myself. The definition we came up with was 'eyes glaze over, voice trails off...'"

Both producers blame second-album blues on external and internal pressures, even though they still believe it was a good, if somewhat linear, record. "We didn't feel particularly confident about it," Hardaker says. "We didn't feel like we'd formed our ideas enough, because the first one came together with all these disparate parts that had been accumulated over a couple of years. We'd never even thought about a record deal until someone offered us one. So when the second one came it all felt quite difficult. At the time, I refused to acknowledge that."

Its comparative failure seems a favourite topic. "I had no idea what the plan was," Hardaker says. "It was never about trying to live up to expectations. I just wanted to try and make a good record and I think I put pressure on myself. It had to be this amazing thing. Now, I just view them as pieces of time, and that one was a particularly confusing and difficult time for me personally."

The boys felt more comfortable recording The Garden, in part due to the serenity of Binns's studio overlooking the Somerset Levels, and also because expectations were lower. "It felt a lot more comfortable, not in terms of the fact that we've got money, but in us being people who muck about and make records," Hardaker says.

Gonzalez was tracked down for vocal duties because the duo liked his album Veneer. "We went to see him at a gig in London and were trying to play him things before he went on stage. First the car stereo wouldn't work, and then the computer broke down, so I couldn't play him anything. It was a bit embarrassing."

But Gonzalez agreed, and the result was three tracks including a juiced-up version of his own "Crosses". "The more we worked on it the more it sounded like a completely different version," Hardaker says. "We put another vocal and some backing vocals on it, and suddenly thought it would sound great on our album because it adds a completely different feel to things."

The most upbeat number is "Throw It All Away". Hardaker, who penned the lyrics, seems a bit embarrassed by its jauntiness. "Part of it relates to a conversation about encouraging someone to sort their life out; to have the courage to change. But then I started imagining that the conversation was taking place in a convertible driving up a freeway. An Eagles spirit emerged, and that's when it started to get a little disturbing."

Another track, "Your Place", features a horn section, which Binns describes as "starting off quite jazzy and end up being a New Orleans marching band". On the last track "Waiting To Die" (jointly sung by Furler and Binns), the influence is The horns were done in London, as was the mixing (by the producer Phill Brown, who made his mark with Brian Eno, Talk Talk and John Martyn). "I think him mixing it made a lot of difference," Hardaker says. "It just sounds a lot better. We both realised quickly that we had a lot of confidence in his judgement."

The pair are about to give The Garden an airing at this year's Jazz Café annual picnic in the grounds of Richmond's Marble Hall. Their previous visit to the event was judged a rapturous success, but Binns claims today: "I think we're as uncomfortable with praise as we are being slated. We feel quite positive [at the moment] because, in a way, 'No one is looking at you, dear,' as my mum used to say."

'The Garden' is out now on Atlantic; Zero 7 play the Jazz Café picnic at Marble Hall, London, on 13 August (020-8892 5115;