In a career that’s seen them weather the ebbs and flows of modern metalcore since helping to pioneer metallic hardcore in the late 90s, Zao have become a connoisseur’s choice for the style. Their brutal and unforgiving sonic approach combined with emotionally ravaging directness links those roots to where they find themselves now on twelfth record The Crimson Corridor, but also sees itself stretched on their longest and most patient material to date. As we premiere their new video, drummer Jeff Gretz talks us through committing to such a beast.
"The Well-Intentioned Virus" in 2016 was a success for you guys and with it being the first record after a hiatus, how did you approach writing the follow-up to that record? Was it any easier now you’re back on the saddle?
Yeah, actually it was a lot easier. With "The Well-Intentioned Virus", we were still feeling out how we were gonna do everything after we came back. We’re all really scattered, I’m in Brooklyn, some of the guys are in Pittsburgh, Russ at the time was in California, so we were writing and even recording remotely. By the time we were done with that album we had pretty much figured out how to make that process work. "The Crimson Corridor" was way easier because we’d developed our writing language.
That must have put you in quite good stead to work during the pandemic.
Yeah, and there was also too the aspect that when we were working on "The Well-Intentioned Virus" the band had been dormant for a while so there was always that question of if anyone even cared. We were making that album for ourselves first and foremost because no one may even give a shit about Zao at this point. Once it came out and was received as well as it was, we had a lot more confidence, and we felt a little more willing to experiment after re-establishing the band like that.
How much is "The Crimson Corridor" a continuation of those ideas you moved into with that record?
There are actually a few songs on the new record that were written at the time of "The Well-Intentioned Virus". When we made that record our intention was to make a short, concise mission statement record for Zao, so there were songs that were left off because they were a little more ethereal or atmospheric. As we were getting into the new one we decided to expand on that version, it’s a slower, more attention-demanding type of record with stuff that takes longer to spread out. We weren’t in a hurry compositionally with the songs, if something needed a two-minute quiet intro we can go with that. Little moments that happened on "The Well-Intentioned Virus" that were like transition periods in songs, we decided to explode this time and really let them set.
With this being the longest Zao album, is that what went into developing that extra wealth of material for it?
We always record a bunch of stuff. We won’t even start recording till we have too much, "The Well-Intentioned Virus" had like ten songs on it but we had about twenty written before we went into the studio. We’re really good at compartmentalising what stuff is, like “okay, this is the new album, these two songs go on a seven-inch, these five are an EP, these three or four we’ll set aside for the next record cause they don’t sit with this batch”, and so we often let a song sit for a couple of years until it has its proper home. It’s still only eleven songs on "The Crimson Corridor" but they’re longer, and so we thought now we can do that double vinyl. The last time we didn’t know if anyone was gonna buy it, and now we know that okay, people wanna buy Zao records, and we can put out the double.
How much was it a challenge to yourselves to approach this kind of material, and was it important to you for the record to be more dynamic to support that length?
Right, that was the big thing, because for years when people asked why Zao records were so short I always said “Hey, I’m in the band, and I don’t wanna listen to fourty minutes!” It can be a little bit much and I think that led to this one us being able to pull that off with more dynamic material. There is breathing room on it. There’s probably a normal fourty minute Zao record in there, and the other twenty minutes are the parts that people might not expect from us, the quieter, more pastoral and mellow sections. "The Web" is like ten and a half minutes long and I would say probably the first four minutes on it are really quiet and pretty, before all hell breaks loose. We’ve never done anything like that before.
With there being another five year gap between this album and the last, how much of that was the pandemic and how much of that is you guys really taking time to hone your writing for this material?
Well this record was supposed to come out last July, so the pandemic did hold it up a little bit, but the record was done before everything hit. We had all recording done December of 2019, the mixing was going to start in March, and when the pandemic hit the studio that it was being mixed at shut down. That was the biggest hold-up, and then once the record got mixed in I think August, the only reason we held it up was that we just didn’t wanna put a record out at the end of the year again. That was our trend for a little bit, putting stuff out in November or December and then it was just getting lost in the shuffle where if you put a record out then and you’re trying to get interviews or reviews everyone’s already working on their year-end lists. We probably started the recording process for this in 2018. We don’t spend a lot of time in the studio but we spend a lot of time in-between sessions. Even then though between these two records we’ve been putting out little things like seven-inches, split seven-inches, limited edition remix albums, reissues, so we’ve been busy while waiting for the record to be done to our satisfaction.
With Zao at times in the past going through periods of playing with electronics and other sounds, are you still a band who continuously take influence from new and different ideas or is it now about channelling and perfecting something that's been there all along?
We’re always looking for new things to do, whether consciously or not. Every record should be its own universe. On this record we spent a lot of time doing sample manipulation and soundscapes underneath the other stuff that we never really messed around with that much before. We’re not opposed to electronic elements, or making things sound like they’re electronic elements. The drum production on two bars might be totally different to the rest of a song. We did a remix album of "The Well-Intentioned Virus" where we gave tracks to a bunch of different people, and it was really eye-opening for us hearing people completely tear the songs down and rebuilt them up. Moving forward we’re thinking it’s something maybe we can pursue, writing a song and then completely stripping it apart almost the way an electronic remixer would. The first song on the new record wasn’t supposed to be an instrumental but Dan our singer didn’t want to put a vocal part on it, and so we gave it to Chris Dudley from Underoath and he added all the pianos and synths, which inspired us to run with that for the rest of the record.
Do you still gain inspiration from other areas of extreme music, with how brutal Zao has been compared to other metalcore bands?
To a certain extent, yeah. We’re all fans of that stuff but we’re all fans of so many other things. We don’t look at it like we have to do this because that’s what the heavy bands are doing. Russ our guitarist barely listens to metal and instead his things are like 60s folk and vaporwave. Dan is really big into doom and stoner rock stuff. We were driving around when we’ve been playing shows in the last couple of years listening to a lot of the band Om, so that stuff kinda plays in when we’re trying to get a little spacey and ride things for a while.
What lyrical content ideas were floating around and coming to fruition this time in unifying "The Crimson Corridor" as an album?
Dan always writes about whether he’s going through at the time, it’s normally really personal. His general unifying concept and his idea of "The Crimson Corridor" is like a hallway in your mind that’s filled with all these doors that lead to really bad places and dark thoughts, and that even though you’re aware that walking through these doors is bad, you always find yourself drawn into them. Anxiety, depression, panic attacks, all of that, and the material being so much darker and moodier suited that. It’s true that it pre-dates the pandemic but we were talking about it and even though it was written before everything that’s gone on in the past year, a lot of people will have gone through that when you’re in isolation separated from your family and friends and can find yourself going to some real dark places in your mind.
Do you think the open-minded intellectual ethos of Zao, despite being frequently labelled as a Christian band, is more relevant today in a cultural place where many people are willing to distort and invent their facts?
Absolutely. We even run into it where people will take Dan’s lyrics and apply to it to whatever their message is, and we’ve seen some really weird interpretations of what Dan’s writing about. We’ve been doing reissues of the older material so we’ve been talking to Zao’s original singer Shaun and have come up with the idea that the general message of Zao hasn’t changed. Shaun was really into the Christian thing when the band first started, and when Dan joined he was Christian at the time but his approach to it was totally different. Shaun was like “I’m a Christian and I’m going to tell you why this is great”, and Dan was like “I’m a Christian, I’m not gonna try and sell you on anything, I’m just gonna tell you that I’ve gone through some dark stuff and this helped me through it”. No in-between songs extolling the virtues of Jesus Christ to the crowd, and over time Dan’s beliefs kinda shifted, but the basic running theme has always been about presenting a really unfiltered honest take on what someone is going through.
In the few years since this record and the last one, hardcore has had a major explosion in where it sits in the music industry pecking order. How do you feel about bands like Code Orange who take influence from classic metallic hardcore like yourselves being nominated for Grammys, and what that might mean for the genre's health as a whole?
Code Orange are obviously operating in a very different sphere to even a lot of other bands they get lumped in with. They’re really doing their own thing, and it’s weird because I remember back in 2005/2006 when it seemed like all these bands were blowing up. The crowds were getting bigger, more people were buying the records, but it wasn’t ridiculous and for a band like us to sell 50,000 records was incredible. That was the high watermark. Back then when bands like Killswitch Engage and Underoath were no. 1 or no. 2 on the Billboard charts and going gold, a lot of people felt that was good for the scene, but we thought it was bad for the scene in a way because now all of a sudden if you didn’t go gold, you were a failure. We were on tour with Underoath on the "Define the Great Line" album and all the other bands were really bummed out. All the labels were trying to make you as big as Killswitch, and weren’t interested if you weren’t doing the things you were supposed to do to get that big. Five years before bands playing this kind of music didn’t expect to sell any more than 50,000 records or play to more than 600 people a night, but it introduced this idea of the commercial goal that was everyone was trying to get to, and if you didn’t get there then you’d failed. It destroyed a lot of bands that would probably still be around doing totally fine now, and maybe now there are bands in the underground all of a sudden thinking that they’ve gotta get a Grammy, or they’ve gotta do a wrestling theme. That stuff is cool but you shouldn’t expect that.
It's striking compared to some bands who were pioneering similar kinds of music at the same time as Zao how still visceral and extreme you are, while still keeping the same lineup for so long. How much thrill is there for you guys in still just being as horrible as possible?
We sort of set the band up to operate that way, to be as ugly and as difficult as we want, and it’s kinda what keeps us going. That’s kinda why we started our own label, to not have to answer to anybody other than the fans and ourselves. As long as there are enough fans to keep it going we’ll keep doing it, and if it gets to the point where we’re only selling a thousand records we’ll find a way to make it work selling a thousand records. There’s always a way.