Zane Lowe: Radio's grand optimist
Radio 1's motor-mouthed music man has faced some flak for his over-zealous presenting style over the years. He tells Steve Anderson why his outlook won't be darkening any time soon
“I can be a really grumpy dude at times, man,” Zane Lowe says, drawing his words out slowly with a sense of despair. The radio DJ-come-presenter-come-live-DJ-come-producer-come-general music guru is tackling the often-levelled criticism that he gets just a little bit too excitable about the acts he features on his primetime Radio 1 show.
Known for his fast-paced, frenetic interview style and shameless fawning over artists from every corner of the musical spectrum, the 39-year-old has attracted skepticism from those who find it hard to swallow that an individual could possibly be equally enthusiastic about hip-hop royalty Nas as they are about Swedish post-hardcore pioneers Refused.
He laughs when we approach the subject, and although it’s hard to get on board with his claims about his somber demeanor during our phone call, with his signature laid-back Kiwi-accented rambles often breaking into unintelligible hysterics and high-pitched impersonations, it is easy to see that he’s genuinely offended by the idea that he would ever play music that he didn’t personally enjoy.
“I’m given the opportunity to choose what I play; I have a freedom of choice, which in the media is an incredibly rare privilege,” he says. “So for me to go ahead and hand pick records that I don’t like just so that I can give some sort of breadth of opinion and come across as a ‘well-rounded person’ to other people is just insane.”
“With opinions so freely handed out and so easily accessible, me going on radio and deliberately playing records that are unremarkable is nothing but a waste of time and if I have to wear some criticism for being overly enthusiastic or liking everything, so be it.”
Lowe is quick to point out that he is not a record reviewer, owing to the fact that he can find merit in most music, and that, if he were a reviewer, he’d be “the four-star king”.
His passion, though, still lies in rap, the movement he discovered at around 10-years-old, watching footage of an early Beastie Boys and Run DMC US tour on a news report at his home in Auckland, an occasion he recounts with all the zeal of an excitable child experiencing something amazing for the first time.
“I’ll never forget seeing the shot of the riser with the two technics in the flight cage, with these two weird flashing police siren lights either side and these two guys all dressed in black with these crazy hats and Adidas on stalking the stage, and I thought: 'That looks just about the coolest thing I’ve ever seen.’ And that was it for me.”
It’s the same energy he uses to describe his first few years in the UK during the ‘trip-hop’ boom of the late Nineties – “We were those guys who, with absolutely wide eyes, would walk through London like “this is the coolest shit ever!” – and it’s clear to see that there’s no pretense in Lowe’s approach to music.
Having performed and put out records himself as part of Kiwi hip-hop group Urban Disturbance during the Nineties, Lowe traveled and came to the UK to make a viable living out of talking about, as well as producing music, something that he felt was just not an option in New Zealand.
He initially worked for indie rock radio station XFM and was the face of flagship MTV2 programme Gonzo before landing a job at Radio 1 in 2003, a move that he says was as intimidating as it was exciting.
“I freaked out and was like ‘Argghh, how am I gonna find bands?! [John] Peel and [Steve] LaMacq and Jo Wiley and John Kennedy and all these incredible broadcasters have this legacy of picking these amazing artists, and what if I don’t find any?!’”
But soon, Lowe would join that roll call of Britain’s most recognised and influential DJs, being credited with the discovery of many-a-household name, including the likes of the Arctic Monkeys, Bloc Party and The Killers. He was the first DJ to play ‘Crazy’ by Gnarls Barkley on UK radio, which then went on to be he first ever single to go to number one in this country on downloads alone in 2006.
Not that he’ll happily take too much credit for any of this, eschewing his own status in favour of the artist’s.
“Ultimately, you have to let the musician and the artist do the legwork because it’s their career and you’re just there to facilitate their music and try and put it on a platform where it’s exciting to an audience, and that’s what I try and do.”
Disregarding the notion of any magical “crystal ball” and relying on his own gut feeling has seemed to work for Lowe over the years, but were there ever any times he got it completely wrong?
“I never, ever, saw Skrillex coming,” he says on the three-time Grammy Award-winning dubstep producer. “The first time I heard him I knew it was different and unique, I knew we had to play it, but I didn’t have any idea he was going to go on and become this international treasure of bass culture.”
The super-syncopated, dynamic beats of Skrillex are perhaps indicative of the direction Lowe’s show has taken in the past year or so, as it slowly embraced electronic dance music over its more traditional alternative rock foundations. So has the dance revival killed off rock ‘n’ roll?
“Actually, at the moment I think rock ‘n’ roll is in a really healthy state,” he says. “I’m amazed that UK rock ‘n’ roll hasn’t – I’m going to speak really frankly – had the balls to book arena tours, for bands to follow through from all these amazing records and just rock the fuck out and do something that is going to change the perception of how the audience feel about them.”
Just this week Lowe announced the arrival of Radio 1 Rocks, a week at the end of the month in which the station will be taken over by the biggest names in the game, including UK heavyweights You Me At Six, Twin Atlantic and Biffy Clyro.
His conviction is admirable, but he seems frustrated that no one has taken that leap of faith yet.
“Rock ‘n’ roll is fine, it just needs that extra boost and it’ll be right back where it belongs. And it’s not going to take anything away from anybody else.”
This optimism is one that permeates all areas of his conversation, and not least in his approach to the changing face of the music industry and radio in particular.
Lowe’s current live DJ tour is sponsored by Nokia, which has recently launched its own mobile streaming service Nokia Music, but with such ‘all-you-can-eat’ approaches becoming more and more common, will music radio soon become a redundant concept?
“I choose to believe that radio is super-powerful and has the ability to communicate its message directly to an audience,” he explains fervently. “That sound that you get through that triple band compressor – which is somebody speaking to you, giving you information, sharing something with you, filtering live sound – is actually more important than it’s ever been, because life is full of information that you can freely access yourself more than ever before.”
“For me, when you can go anywhere and get information and be bombarded with input, then you crave a filter, you crave something that’s going to make that process easier for you.”
If this is the case, then it is perhaps more important than ever for broadcasters to offer something more than simply their in-depth meditations on music itself. The success of the recently-departed Radio 1 breakfast host Chris Moyles seems to be a testament to this, but does this, in turn, suggest a demise of the humble music radio DJ? Or are the notions of a radio personality and a music enthusiast not mutually exclusive?
“Dear God, I hope not,” he laughs. “I’ve never wanted to see myself as just being some kind of musicologist or music broadcaster specifically. I’ve never seen a reason why you cant be really into one particular subject and also be entertaining, or at least present it in a way that is acceptable to people, otherwise it just becomes a lecture, it just becomes something that you’re studying for, and no one wants that.”
And how does he think the fresh-faced Nick Grimshaw will fare as the new face of the Breakfast Show, as a younger, more musical replacement to longstanding joker Moyles?
“Chris pulled a fast one there in a way, because people always said ‘Oh Chris never liked music.’ Chris does like music, but it just wasn’t what he wanted to broadcast about. Whereas – I don’t want to put words in his mouth – but I don’t think Nick sees the distinction between giving people an entertaining option during the mornings and also being a music fan, and neither do I.
“Nick has made this situation where he doesn’t see the distinction between liking Drake and wanting to play it, and also having a chat about nothing in the mornings to keep people happy and giving them something to connect to.
“He’s already made the Breakfast Show sound totally unique and like him, and as a music fan that’s great to wake up to.”
Lowe’s seeming inability to say a bad word about anyone would likely wear thin coming from anyone else, but his optimism and sheer love for everything he does is hard to resist and somewhat contagious; it’s not difficult to see why bands return again and again to speak with him on his show.
Even working away from his wife of 13 years Kara and young sons Jackson and Lucius, whom he refers to as his “A-Team,” is not a point he really feels he can moan about.
“They know and respect and love the fact that I work hard, and they also love the fact that I love what I do. There’s people out there that work twice as hard as I do, who dream of doing something else, and we’ve all been there, but I’m in a situation at this point in my life when I can only be grateful.
“I don’t bring grumbles back to the house, and I don’t whinge about what I do at all.”
Again, I’m really struggling to picture this "really grumpy dude" that shows his face every once in a while.
“Well, it’s not as though I walk around my house going ‘wow, look at this bench! Isn’t it amaz… Oh my God look at this chair!’”, he shouts.
I, for one, am not convinced.
To see Zane Lowe play as part of his Electrified Tour connected by Nokia Lumia visit: www.facebook.com/nokiauk
Listen to his collaboration with Naughty Boymusic
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