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Instrumental Duo Return to Studio (and Touring) with "Shape Shift"

Oct 26, 2015 Web Exclusive
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Steve Moore and A.E. Paterra—the instrumental prog rock duo known as Zombi—returned earlier this month with Shape Shift, the band’s first album since 2011. (Each has been prolific during the interim, including a full-length as Majeure from Paterra and multiple film scores—including Adam Wingard’s The Guest and Belgian shocker Cub in 2014—by Moore.) Along with their long-awaited return to the studio, the band ended its lengthy touring hiatus after playing several dates with horror soundtrack legends Goblin, and will embark on a new tour this fall.

We chatted with Moore and Paterra about writing new music, growing up in George Romero country, and the challenges of composing film scores.

Austin Trunick [Under the Radar]: You’re back to recording the music together in the same room, rather than over long-distance, right? How does it feel to face-to-face making music again?

A.E. Paterra: Oh, it was quite wonderful.

Steve Moore: It felt right. It felt natural.

AP: It was cool. It was nice to do that. I’m glad we’re finally living in the same area—I’m not too far from where Steve’s living. It’s actually a nice drive to go up there and visit. So, it was good. The whole process was quite fun.

How much do you feel that live recording element adds to your music?

AP: We recorded it pretty much the same way we’ve recorded over the years, which has been recording a lot of the synths and stuff first, and then the drums are layered in after that. But the process of writing was what we hadn’t been doing.

SM: We weren’t tracking drums and bass and synthesizers live in the studio at the same time, but it was written that way. We’d track demo synth parts with demo bass parts, and then Tony would track drums over that. Then I’d put the finishing touches on the synth parts and we’d record the final bass tracks.

You each also record as solo artists. Where, then, does a Zombi track begin, and how do you separate it out from the music you’d record for one of your own projects?

SM: Well, for this new album, there was maybe only one track that wasn’t written live in my basement. For almost every song on the album, we set up Tony’s drums, and I set up a couple synths and my bass, and we just started playing. We’d set up a digital recorder in the other corner of the room and just play for about an hour, and then we’d go back and listen to it. It was just all improve. We’d listen for the parts that we liked and then we’d sort of piece them together.

AP: Pretty much the only technological advancement we made when recording this album was bumping up from a cassette recorder to a digital recorder. Prior to the last two albums, Escape Velocity and Spirit Animal, everything was written with just the two of us, but then we started some file-sharing and some of those things were just fully-formed ideas that I maybe put some drums on or Steve added little things. So this was like getting back to ho we used to do things.

I’m familiar with at least some of each of your solo output. What do you feel it is each of you brings to the table, that perhaps you wouldn’t be able to pull off without the other?

SM: For me, I’m excited to be playing bass with Tony on drums again. It’s so much fun. That’s what’s been missing, for me, for a while, the live communication between the bass guitar and the drums.

AP: Yeah, it’s the same thing for me. It’s nice to play with Steve, actually playing a physical instrument. For anything I do on my own, I’m just in a studio alone playing synths. It’s kinda fun, but it’s nice to have another person to play with. The way we write songs and the way Steve puts things together, it’s really challenging for me on drums, too. The way things came together worked out really well. There are things we do together that I’d never be able to do on my own.

Your music creates many very distinct atmospheres. When you’re composing a track, what do you think of to tie a song together thematically, since you obviously don’t have lyrics to work from? Are there images, or narratives, that inform the songs?

AP: It’s more just how it feels. I always like to go with a test where if I’m listening to a song in my car, and suddenly I’m going 10 to 15 miles per hour faster, it’s a good tune. I go more by feeling than by imagery, I think.

SM: I’m the same way. It’s like music is the language we’re communicating. It doesn’t have to tie into anything else, really. Maybe I listen more intently to music than the average listener does, but I don’t need visuals or a story to accompany it. The music basically is the story.

From what I understand, it was the opportunity to tour with Goblin that kickstarted you guys toward playing again. What were those shows like? I figured they had to have been one of your top inspirations.

AP: It was life-affirming.

I feel like nowadays there’s probably a more receptive audience for your sound—with the rise of boutique vinyl soundtrack labels and the returns of John Carpenter and Goblin—which have made your sound a little less of a niche thing than it was ten years ago.

SM: Well, the Goblin tour was maybe not the best example, because it was really an audience that was more suited to be open-minded to us than most. Back in the day, we used to tour with a lot of heavier bands and metal bands, and if we did that today I don’t know that we’d go over any better today than we did then. But there are more like-minded bands out there now. We’re going out with Pinkish Black in November, and I’d like to think that they probably share a lot of our musical influences, and that their audiences will be open-minded as well. And hopefully likewise, our audience will be open-minded to them.

AP: The Goblin audience was like they were hand-picked. You couldn’t have found a better crowd. The audiences were totally into what both bands were doing. It was great. And as far as playing together and doing another tour? That was fun. All the venues were great, and Goblin were great. It was a really good time, and I’m glad we were able to do it.

It seems music journalists like me tend to overplay the influence horror composers have had on your music, and you were just as inspired by prog rock and even bands such as Van Halen when you started out. Who is it that’s inspiring you to make music nowadays?

AP: I guess a lot of the stuff that I’ve been writing on my own has been kind of synth, collage, layered stuff, because that’s pretty easy for me to do on my own. The cassette label Steve and I started, VCO Recordings, a lot of those artists I find myself popping in their tapes and listening to. Norm Chambers, and Panabrite—I listen to that stuff quite a lot. The Jonathan Fitoussi stuff that we put out is really good, and I listen to that as well.

I grew up not too far from the Pittsburgh area, and went to one of the Dawn of the Dead zombie reunions they held at the Monroeville Mall. How much did living in the land of George Romero factor into your discovering horror soundtrack composers?

SM: I actually grew up in Monroeville and used to go to the mall every week, and it was like living in that world. It was unavoidable. Inescapable. All the locations from Dawn of the Dead were just within a couple minutes’ drive from my house. It was something that was always on my mind.

AP: I didn’t grow up in the city proper; I grew up maybe 20 minutes outside of the city, so that stuff didn’t really affect me as much. I remember my aunt did hair on the 1990 remake of Night of the Living Dead. So, other than that, I saw Dawn of the Dead when I was 12 or 13 at a midnight Halloween screening, so I was aware of all that, and that it all took place in Pittsburgh. I just knew that I was really into the band that scored Dawn of the Dead, but it wasn’t until I met Steve that I actually found that this band was actually a band, and not just something that was put together for a movie.

SM: It was hard to know that! Because you couldn’t find out about that stuff pre-internet. I don’t think it was until the mid-90s that I found out the same thing: holy cow, this is actually a band. I always just assumed it was a fake name for some composer, but then we got the Cinevox CD reissues of all the old Goblin soundtracks. When they came out, I think that was when I first started actively getting into them.

Steve, you’ve scored several films recently. Was that something you’d always been interested in doing, or did filmmakers start approaching you because your music reminded them so much of those ‘80s-era soundtracks?

SM: It is something I always wanted to do, but it all started with Adam Wingard contacting me. We scored his very first movie, Home Sick, as Zombi, and then we did a couple movies on our own. From there, it’s just been people contacting me. I wouldn’t even know how to market myself as a film composer. I’ve been totally relying on people contacting me.

Typically when you’re scoring a film, you get either scenes or a rough cut to work from. Do you find it easier to compose music with that visual starting point to work from, or is that more restrictive?

SM: It’s about a million times more difficult to write music to a scene. [Laughs] When Tony and I are writing music on our own, it’s really just music. That’s the language. But when you have to take the music and dial it back a few notches so that it’s just mere accompaniment, that’s challenging. And then you get input from the directors and producers, who aren’t always musically-literate and don’t always know the proper terminology, so there are translation issues sometimes. So, yeah, it’s way more difficult.

AP: It’s probably like playing in a band with 15 or 20 people.

SM: Yeah! And everybody has their own ideas about how it should sound, and there’s no way you’re going to nail what they’re thinking, so it’s just a matter of getting as close as you can and hoping that everybody is happy.

AP: Lots of compromise, I’d imagine.

SM: Yeah, and if you think about it, the film composer is probably the least invested person in a movie. Everyone else has been putting in 16 to 20 hour days for months on end, and the entire time they already have things in mind for what they want to hear from the score. And then at the last minute, you have to drop in and have a month to compose a score before they have to submit it to a festival or something.

And they probably don’t have any way of communicating to you exactly what they want from the music.

SM: But sometimes that’s good, too. Like, Adam Wingard is very musical-minded. I think sometimes the way he would describe things to me would actually kind of open my mind to things I wouldn’t have thought of. So, it is a collaboration, and when you do get it right it’s very rewarding. Maybe more so than just writing a song and saying, “Here you go.”

Adam Wingard’s movies are mostly horror films, while The Guest was probably more of an action/sci-fi hybrid. Are there any other film genres you’d like to try your hand at scoring?

AP: I do think a good, futuristic sci-fi thing would be the shit. That would be a lot of fun to do.

SM: I think The Guest was so much fun because it was so action-based. I think a straight-up action movie would be exciting, too.



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