Zero 7: Zero hour for chill-out

The Mercury-winning electronica duo Zero 7 are back with a more lyrical, less grandiose new album. Chris Mugan meets them

Sam Hardaker hides his face under a voluminous cardigan, while Henry Binns looks dreamily through the window of a west London pub. Business as usual, then, for pop's most unwilling stars. It was 2001 when these recording-studio tea-boys were dragged out of the back room and into the limelight, thanks to the sumptuous arrangements and mellow grooves of their debut album,
Simple Things. Despite the ensuing acclaim, they failed to understand why anyone would want to talk to them about it. "But we're really boring," they complained. Meanwhile, the easy grace and hazy melancholy of Zero 7's distillation of folk and soul won a gold disc on its way to a Mercury award.

Sam Hardaker hides his face under a voluminous cardigan, while Henry Binns looks dreamily through the window of a west London pub. Business as usual, then, for pop's most unwilling stars. It was 2001 when these recording-studio tea-boys were dragged out of the back room and into the limelight, thanks to the sumptuous arrangements and mellow grooves of their debut album, Simple Things. Despite the ensuing acclaim, they failed to understand why anyone would want to talk to them about it. "But we're really boring," they complained. Meanwhile, the easy grace and hazy melancholy of Zero 7's distillation of folk and soul won a gold disc on its way to a Mercury award.

It also earned a fair amount of opprobrium. "Zero 7" became shorthand for faceless production teams churning out laid-back sounds for the chill-out market. Hardaker grimaces as he emerges from his woollen cocoon.

"We've just done a radio documentary on chill-out," he says, icily.

"There's really not much to say about it, that was the embarrassing thing about doing the radio show," adds Binns. "We've never thought of ourselves as part of any genre."

At least critical ire is now directed not at the slow-beat brigade, but at the current wave of earnest female singer/songwriters following in the wake of Norah Jones, which suits the pair just fine.

"When you first appear, you get a load of people telling you how great you are. And that's such a transient state, it just not cool after a while," says Hardaker. "You just need to nestle in between being hip and being popular. You want people to buy the records, but not take too much notice."

Today's business, though, is to talk about Zero 7's second album. By no means a radical departure, When It Falls's tasteful orchestration will grace many a dining room. But Hardaker and Binns have ditched their former David Axelrod-inspired wide-screen instrumentals in favour of more songs written with their collaborators on Simple Things: Australian soulstress Sia Furler, homegrown folkie Sophie Barker, soul man Mozez, and of Danish singer/songwriter Tina Dico.

The follow-up has taken all of three years,which suggests things have not gone easily. Second album traumas? Apparently not. "Though you wouldn't know it, we didn't finish touring until quite late on," Binns says. "The last thing we did was America, and they kept inviting us back until we had done three tours. We were still there at the end of 2002.

"By the third time it felt pretty bad playing the same songs, playing the set backwards..." adds Hardaker. "We played more gigs in San Francisco than we did in London."

All the while, expectation was growing for what the duo would do next. Simple Things's sound had emerged from their first remixes and many of its tracks were culled from early EPs. Now Hardaker and Binns had to start from scratch. "There was a great degree of uncertainty about what kind of record we were going to make, whether we could actually pull off making an album in the period of time when we were expected to make one. We couldn't write on the road because we didn't have that kind of band," he explains.

Once they had finished touring, the duo locked themselves in a studio in Willesden, north London, and began writing, a departure for the pair that had previously relied on vocal collaborators to come up with lyrics.

"We thought that would be the best place to start, because that was the most challenging part of the first one," says Hardaker. "It took us so long to write tunes we thought were half-decent that we didn't get round to instru- mentals. There were plenty of times I thought it wasn't going to work."

Much of the onus was on Binns, the accomplished musician in the duo. "For ages it was hard to play even the first chord," he says. "You feel that pressure from people who liked the other one. I was trying to work out whether that was an ego thing. But you imagine Frank Zappa in his studio going: 'I don't care what other people think.' That's a real artist. Which maybe I'm not."

Why worry? Some of the best-loved songs of the 1960s were written in the Fordist confines of New York's Brill Building or dashed off in minutes at Detroit's Motown studios. Hardaker looks across slyly at his partner. "I read about you the other day, something about Emma Bunton..." Ah, yes. A Sunday broadsheet review of the former Spice Girl's solo album had mentioned Binns adding "atmospherics" to her current retro vibe. He rolls his eyes and looks very sheepish. "Me and another engineer, Yo Yo, write pop songs together. Emma approached us and said she wanted to write a tune.

"I love your record. I listen to your album all the time," chips in Hardaker, putting on a girly voice. "It was a laugh," continues Binns. "She's a decent singer and knows what her limitations are, and within those parameters she can achieve great things," Binns says.

"Did you make it sound like us?" asks Hardaker, accusingly.

"No. After we finished the chorus and I thought it sounded like some kind of a rave tune, so I did put on the bossa nova beat," he says, before adding, "There is a a nice flute solo on it, though."

In fact, the UK female R&B group Honeyz's first hit was written by him and Yo Yo, though he sees writing for Zero 7 as a different process. "There's a discipline in writing a pop song that is quite pure. Verse, bridge, chorus, middle eight, all that. We're trying to achieve something different. We're constantly listening out for things that sound normal (a word Binns uses to describe musical clichés) and changing them."

The chief difference with Zero 7 is it is a collaborative effort between the production duo and their vocalists, most notably Mozez, who is the voice on the two most personal songs, "Over Our Heads" and "Warm Sounds".

º"We didn't know what we were going to do on the new album, so the most natural way to get on with it was to carry on from where we left off," explains Hardaker. "We weren't trying to make the same record again, but we'd built good relationships with those people and it felt comfortable."

With a batch of half-developed tunes and their trusted singers on board, the album finally began to take shape. When Hardaker and Binns realised that the follow-up would be more lyric-based, they worked hard to give each song a suitable backing. Gone were the big string arrangements.

"It's funny," says Hardaker. 'Last time we were in this tiny studio with a little drum kit in the corner, so we hit upon faking this big orchestral thing. We did do a string session, but generally it was a multi-tracked violin. This time we weren't trying to make it so grand."

Certainly, they have allowed each song to breathe, given the singers more room, and provided much-needed contrast between tracks and within them; shown in the gradual build-up of "Warm Sound" and the blast of horns at the end of current single "Home".

Throughout, though, there is a warmth that is recognisably Zero 7, due in part to the former schoolfriends' Spanish connection. Hardaker's mum has long had a villa in southern Spain and last year Binns took the plunge and bought a ruin without electricity nearby in the Andalusian hills.

"We went there periodically through- out doing the album, so it was inspired by log fires and red wine," Hardaker explains. "If stuff sounded good in that environment, then it made sense to us."

So perhaps critics should stop worrying about Zero 7 sounding too "comfortable". It seems that is what Hardaker and Binns have been trying to achieve all along.

'When It Falls' is out now on Ultimate Dilemma

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