Tropically cloudy Zebra IslandLugemisaeg 19 min
Wader talked to Zebra Island and got some answers from their vocalist with a radiant and peal signature-smile, Helina Risti and the multi- instrumentalist responsible for the group’s sonic creation Rasmus Lill, according to whom Zebra Island is surely a fantastic place to where they hope to take their listeners.
It was exactly a year ago, when Zebra Island made their mark on the map of Estonian alternative music with their dream pop opus “Falling Through”. A year later they have in their pocket a record deal with the Latvians’ I Love You Records, behind them a multi national fan base and the recent debut album “Saturnine” rejoicing in their discography. So, it felt just the right time to get more insight into the soul of Zebra Island. Wader’s questions were answered this time by the group’s vocalist with a radiant and peal signature-smile, Helina Risti and the multi instrumentalist responsible for the group’s sonic creation Rasmus Lill.
Zebra Island was originally formed in 2011. What story hides itself behind the group’s birth?
Rasmus Lill: I had vast catalogue of tracks which felt like good pop songs if there were a vocal on them. An acquaintance got me together with Helina. We met, I showed her my ideas which featured melodies sturmed with synths and so we made the first couple tracks together. After that we already started forming the band and this is how Magnus Morel and Lauri Raus ended up in the gang. Together we started to go over my foundations and gather ideas.
Helina Risti: When Magnus had to go and do his service in the army in autumn, Caspar Salo joined our band on drums. Before that we didn’t even have drums. All of that was coming from a backing track. Later Caspar also brought with him Martti Laasik, who played bass, so now there are five of us. Our first gathering of four was in February 2012. Lauri, Rasmus, Magnus and me.
R.L.: A month after our first practice we were already on stage in Latvia at the I Love You bar, and basically after the first live we got the record deal. This was thanks to our manager at that time who brought us together with the guys at I Love You Records. And thanks to them we were also invited to Positivus festival in Latvia.
What kind of changes in your musical tonality has the changing of group members introduced?
R.L.: I think a good group works in such a way that the track has to have a strong idea backing it, but in addition every member brings their own nuances into it and don’t just play the track. With us, everybody has something to say.
H.R.: The fact that we now have a drummer adds some more gravity to the live performances.
R.L.: The bass too. The music isn’t stuck anywhere any more. It can breathe more freely on the stage.
H.R.: There is much more communication and presence on the stage. This is good for our own conscience and I’m sure the listeners can feel it also.
So, stepping onto the stage is not as anxious any more?
R.L.: Well, this is a different feeling of anxiety.
H.R.: Excitement is good. Though it shouldn’t pull the rug from beneath your feet. If it just makes your adrenaline flow, then it’s ace.
R.L.: Can you imagine an artist who just goes on the stage numb, does their thing and leaves?
H.R.: It’s nice to watch a person working. You can see them stretching and giving it all emotionally. Now this is something.
How does your creative process look like? You start jamming together or is just everybody in their corner and later throws their ideas on the table?
R.L.: As I mentioned before, the tracks are written by me. I present them to the group and we go over them together.
H.R.: Some lyrics are written by Rasmus, some by me. And our friend Jonas Taul is the author of some lyrics.
R.L.: But first comes the melody and then the melody and mood is accompanied by the lyrics.
H.R.: There are some tracks though, that feel like the mood is quite different than the lyrics. For example, “Not Alone” is somewhat depressive for the lyrics, but joyous for the melody. We have several tracks like that. Some of my acquaintances who have heard the track have said for them it is a mellow summer surfing track.
R.L.: Basically it’s a break up song, but I like contrasts.
Your music has been compared to M83, School of Seven Bells and Beach House. How do you agree yourselves with these references?
H.R.: It’s of course a very old comparison.
R.L.: And interesting too. You could find Beach House. A little. Some have also mentioned it after live shows. The other ones are good too, but I don’t see such similarities.
H.R.: This presentation was made some time ago when we started doing Zebra Island. I don’t even know who did it, but I feel I wouldn’t compare myself to anyone at all.
Where did the idea to name the group Zebra Island come from?
R.L.: Someone just explained, how things happen subconsciously, that you think an idea is very original, but actually you have heard it from someone else or seen it somewhere. So it appears that I live on the opposite of to bars, one is Zebra and the other one is Island. When we had had this band for quite some time already, someone asked me if I knew that there were bars like that on the opposite of my house. I didn’t know. But if you actually put the pieces together, the night we decided we would name it, Helina was wearing some earrings with zebras.
H.R.: (To Rasmus) You were sure you wanted to name the group something with “island”.
R.L.: When I first said the name, we all laughed.
H.R.: But it did feel cool, because Zebra Island is surely a fantastic place to where we hope to take you. (Laughs)
R.L.: Visually the writing kind of recalls our music. Maybe it’s my problem.
Who has influenced you musically?
H.R.: Since our band is made up of five people, it is very difficult to answer this question. Everyone could tell their own perspective on who’s influenced them.
R.L.: I don’t believe that anyone at all writes music this way, thinking of some well-known group they would like to sound like. Well, certainly some do it like that.
H.R.: These tracks change so immensely throughout their formation that they may in the beginning actually sound like they were inspired by some other band, but the end result might drag it into a completely opposite direction. The tracks on our record are quite different too. With different feels and atmospheres. Anyhow, I think it’s a very exciting record, exciting to listen to.
R.L.: I have recognized for example, Kate Bush and Beach House when listening to the master version. Lauri has got some very Beach Housey parts.
Personally a very xx like guitar part caught my ear in your track “Thank Yourself”.
R.L.: The xx as well as Beach House and School of Seven Bells are groups I discovered after we had released “Glow”. We found some references, that we sounded like Beach House. For me it was even surprising. Let’s say that nothing is intentional.
Your music has been boxed as dream pop, shoegaze and synth pop How would you define it yourself?
H.R.: I think most of our tracks have not even been heard, so any kind of categorisation so far has been unjust. (Laughs)
R.L.: Dream pop sounds pretty, why not. However, we are neither shoegaze nor dream pop directly.
H.R.: I feel now we have melancholy, depth and darker shades added. So it’s not just any kind of willy nilly.
R.L.: Well, dream pop doesn’t mean willy nilly. Suppose you say something about Metallica with one word, would it credit the band at all and do you understand what the band represents whatsoever? Same as if you call a person a hipster or bloke.
H.R.: But sometimes it’s necessary to make it simple.
R.L.: It does make it simple indeed.
H.R.: But we wouldn’t want to categorize ourselves. It’s difficult.
Do all of your members also have a side project?
R.L.: Everyone has.
H.R.: My side-project is my children.
R.L.: I do one hundred percent electronic stuff on the side. Lauri has a dark guitar band. Martti attends Georg Ots Tallinn School of Music and Caspar has a rock group called Liqui Fuzz.
H.R.: Caspar plays in some more groups. I used to do Bad Apples, but I have left it on the shelves.
R.L.: All of these other groups have side projects of their own. That’s the way it goes in Estonia, because you wouldn’t generally survive with one band.
H.R.: With singing it’s a bit different. As a singer I feel I want to stay true to one group, Zebra Island. For me it would be odd to sing in several groups.
Your debut record is called “Saturnine” (translated gloomy, dark, under Saturn’s influence – M.M.). Does it have to do with some group member’s attraction to astrology or does it rather depict the overall tonality of the record?
R.L.: Rather, yes, the moods. This slightly dark atmosphere. Though the music is relatively joyous and colourful. The darkness is rather implied in the messages.
H.R.: But I guess Saturn is a thrilling planet to be under the influence. When asked what our music is like, we can now say, it’s like Saturn. Kind of melancholic and under darker influences.
In Anton Corbijn’s movie “Control” there is a scene where Joy Division uses a spray can to enhance their drum section in the tracks “She’s Lost Control”. Could any similarly cool technical solutions be found on Zebra Island’s record?
R.L.: I couldn’t think of anything interesting in regard to that. Maybe, when I create a track I put many layers on it. So many you feel sick, and then I start removing them one-by-one until it works even better. Throughout the whole process of this record I have learnt that less is more. I wouldn’t want to leave unmentioned Norman Orro, one of Music For Your Plants’ head figures, who guided me with doing this and gave a lot of new ideas.
H.R.: He gave a new dimension to some tracks. Some vision we would have never seen ourselves.
R.L.: “Gotcha” and “Thank Yourself” are mixed and co-produced by him. Two of the darkest tracks. Basically the most dark tracks.
When did you actually finish the record? So that you felt it was ready.
R.L.: Stylistically it was finished one day before sending it over for mastering. I still took one track and remixed it by myself. For me it got better. I’m at ease with it now. I mean, my nerves are at ease now.
H.R.: I think these tracks could be tuned and mixed endlessly. It’s so good, this certain moment when all is finished and period.
So you are completely happy with the record now?
H.R.: (Firmly) Yes.
How will your schedule look like after releasing the record? What are the plans after playing Positivus?
R.L.: We’re going to Latvia and Lithuania, of course. We have a fan base there. Larger in Latvia, smaller in Lithuania. An then the Finland tour.
H.R.: We hope to grow the fan base strongly. Actually this is not a goal in its own right. We would like to give a lot of good and cool concerts to be content with. We have a new manager, Peeter Mikk, so let’s see where he takes us. Anyhow, we are back in the game and i think this train is going to be moving fast. At least we try our best for it to.
R.L.: When in the autumn we were making an effort to have something to say for the future, then now we have the record finished and we look where it’s taking us.
H.R.: The record speaks for itself.
R.L.: The feeling is fine in regard to that. Rather positive. I hope that maybe others will like it too.
You have given quite a lot of concerts in Latvia.
R.L.: Positivus, Summer Sound Festival and at the Piens club and Palladium, too.
H.R.: At the Palladium we performed together with Zola Jesus. That was much fun.
R.L.: And in Ogre. (A small Latvian town, where last year the Cita Vide music festival took place – M.M.)
H.R.: (In a very lively voice) Ogre is just exactly a place like the name says. We performed on some crop field! But it was very exciting at the same time. All performances in Latvia took place last year. As told, in September saw the last concert with the former members, so the February concerts at Genialistide Klubi in Tartu and Sinilind in Tallinn were our first with the new crew. We have had a 6 month break. Not exactly with musically, as we were mostly recording the album.
How has the crowd in Latvia received you?
R.L.: Most warmly.
H.R.: Very warmly, yes. It’s very nice to perform in Latvia.
R.L.: They have a bit more warmth in their blood. The Latvians dance more and say more nice things afterwards.
H.R.: Somehow I always feel better when performing outside of Estonia. I know that Maria Minerva has also said that it’s kind of scarier to perform in front of your own. The Estonians have a different temperament. They rather condemn you first hand and only then start looking for the good things.
R.L.: I personally feel that way, that I rather condemn first. (Here on they proceed briefly and amusingly with the analysis of the temperament of their neighbours.)
H.R.: Me too. I’m an Estonian, can’t do anything about it.
R.L.: I wonder, if it’s even worse in Finland?
H.R.: I don’t know. The more north, the worse it gets. We plan a small tour in Finland in the near future, we’ll see then.
How did you actually get to open for Zola Jesus?
H.R.: This, too was organised by our former manager Natalie Mets.
Did you meet her backstage?
H.R.: Yes! She was splendid. Shortish.
You performed Tallinn Music Week for the second time already. What were your expectations?
R.L.: What all artists expect from TMW.
H.R.: I hoped for a really good concert. Especially this year, because last year it was all so quick. I didn’t really feel we had arrived when it was over already.
R.L.: It was our first gig in Estonia.
H.R.: I was very nervous when going onto the stage. Before that I had been tranquillity itself. This year our tracks were much more complete and fixed. We really do have an amazing band and it’s so nice to be on stage together. For me this is most important, the pleasure of being on stage. This also reflects back to the crowd.
Have you acquired any important contacts from TMW?
H.R.: Tallinn Music Week was when we actually got the confirmation from I Love You Records for a record deal. Maybe it’s possible that through these contacts our music was spread further, but we don’t know if it actually happened through these contacts. Our track was also played in some US radio show in connection to TMW, They played five tracks, and ours was among those. That’s something.
Usually the issue is spreading your music outside Estonia, then how difficult you think it is to highlight it in Estonia? How much promotion and Facebook hype is necessary at all? Or is just good music enough?
H.R.: I think it’s no rocket science. It’s relatively easy to stand out in Estonia, if you wish to.
R.L.: The more contacts you have, the easier it is. It’s more a question of tastes. I feel we don’t make mainstream and radio-friendly music. We have a relatively adequate audience at the moment. It’s not really dance music and it’s not really indie rock.
H.R.: When we released our recent single “Thank Yourself”, we were considering which radio stations to send it to. Well okay, certainly Raadio 2. But what next? Sky Plus? (Laughs) So there’s a couple of possibilities and the other ones you don’t really consider.
You recently finished the video for your track “Everything Might”. Why did you choose this song instead of your new single “Thank Yourself”?
H.R.: The making of the video already started last November and it was a rather lengthy procedure. “Thank Yourself” wasn’t even ready at that time. “Everything Might”, on the other hand was very much present. Our director Janar Aronija listened to it on SoundCloud, it inspired him and he contacted us himself and offered us to do a video for it. So it started rolling slowly.
The idea came from the director?
R.L.: Hundred percent.
H.R.: The idea actually changed several times throughout the process. The initial thoughts were completely different from the end result. We had to flex it a bit, because there were certain parts we did not like at all, and certain parts that felt really exciting that we felt we needed to emphasise. Janar has great imagination and he was generating new ideas like lightning. They were already looking for places and gathering people. We said we didn’t have the money to produce a video this great, like the producer had in mind. He did have great plans – with ice rinks and smoke machines. It was three long days of shooting and we filmed with a RED camera, proper stuff. Only children and animals were missing from the mass scene. It was top-notch action and production. So there are a lot of people we owe a thanks to. (Laughs) I hope they owe a thanks to us too, for inspiring them. For me it was thrilling how ideas Janar generated were in a completely different direction than I would have thought. “Everything Might” is one of our most positive songs, but the video turned out quite grim. Originally it was even darker. Everybody got killed. In the end it unravelled so that I had already been dead and was resurrected and all dead rose with me.
R.L.: Let’s say that this is positive.
H.R.: Yes, death was portrayed positively.
R.L.: Now other tracks can get a video. I hope in the future no song will be without a video.
H.R.: I hope too. Some of our band members are tightly connected to production and video too. Rasmus is an editor himself and I have been a stylist for a number of music videos.
“Falling Through” is made by Rasmus?
R.L.: Yes, more or less. Toomas and Nele (Savi and Aunap – M.M.) shot it and we edited it together.
I have noticed when exploring the background of several groups, how musicians use themes from literature for their creation, and lately I have observed the tendency to use curious personage from history in poetry. Where does Zebra Island take their inspiration?
R.L.: Anywhere. It’s too difficult top point a finger on it. Coarsely said everybody is the product of their environment. It’s connected to all what you hear, see and what you memorise.
H.R.: There’s a lot of information coming from everywhere, so it’s very difficult to point out what has influenced and when.
R.L.: All these love songs… I like to think it’s just words, but still someone gives some kind of a push. If I had a five year old child now for example and I was happily married for the amount of time and lived somewhere in a cottage then maybe I would have written “Silence” about my child.
H.R.: I can somehow fool myself so I start to believe what I say. For example, with “Thank Yourself it was so that when I was writing the lyrics I turned angry and I started to believe that I actually was that angry and enraged. Writing this I wasn’t this mad at someone that I would have written a song like “Mess in me…”. This is why I like this song so much, because I believe it myself. I think that, as a vocalist it’s important in songs that I believe what I sing.. When Jonas was writing the lyrics initially, I used to ask him what he had had in mind with particular lines. Otherwise it would have been very difficult for me to sing them, because his lyrics are so poetic and multi-layered. How could I sing them for others to understand when even I couldn’t understand them? How many of us listen to the lyrics at all, but as a singer I should still pass the song’s message on.
Crew: Rasmus Lill (synths), Helina Risti (vocals), Lauri Raus (guitar), Caspar Salo (drums), Martti Laas (bass)
Genre: dream pop, shoegaze
Discography: “Saturnine” (I Love You Records)
Web page: www.zebraislandmusic.ee