TrackTalk007: Zoo Lake – “Black Gated Mega Dungeon”

TrackTalk is a new feature from the Adafruit music team. In this companion to the MusicMakers Q&A series, we invite artists to take us behind the scenes of a particular track to talk creative process, recording set up, and more.

Image courtesy of Katy Taplin and Brett Rubin

Zoo Lake, the “No-Wave Noise Post-Punk Psychedelica” quartet of Johannesburg, strike me immediately as a very special band. Taken from their spellbinding debut album Zonk, lead single “Black Gated Mega Dungeon“ is a brutal bell ringing behemoth that bristles and burns with sonic catharsis and musical ill will. It’s an intense four minutes that teases a wild cacophony of melody and groove through a dense fog of distortion. Opening line “hell yeah, folklore” is an absolute winner too.

Emotional and exhausting in the best possible way, Zoo Lake aren’t so much “experimental” as they are powerfully unique. Somewhere in the multiverse they may draw loose comparisons to Ataxia, Fantômas, Sonic Youth, Comus, Neu!, The Stooges, The Melvins or even The Pixies but their core connection to these artists is principally the holy trinity of energy, creativity and volume. 

Zoo Lake first came to my attention as a new project of Givan Lötz who has previously released gorgeously sprawling folk records for Miami’s Other Electricities label. But what connects this work is also what separates it: just as no one sounds like Givan Lötz, nothing sounds like Zoo Lake.

I was delighted that Lötz was able to speak to us about “Black Gated Mega Dungeon” in this behind-the-scenes TrackTalk feature. Lötz is someone of vision who is willing to put in the work. It comes across in their solo albums, their artwork and most certainly on Zonk. Take some inspiration from a unique artist who isn’t afraid to work hard and doesn’t hesitate to challenge both themselves and their audience. There are so many ways to make a record nowadays and we believe that to be a truly beautiful thing but what Lötz describes below is hands on, decisive and DIY.

Givan Lötz on Zoo Lake’s “Black Gated Mega Dungeon”:

“BLACK GATED MEGA DUNGEON in content is a psychedelic dungeon crawler. Our hero navigates a labyrinthine environment meeting a host of menacing characters, looking for treasure in all the wrong places. Be careful what you wish for — over ambition will doom you.

ZOO LAKE has never tried to emulate any one thing, artist or genre. Some of the band members are self-taught, offering a range of unconventional expression that when combined with some structured thinking from the more classically trained musicians offers pleasantly surprising results. We mostly write together through improvisation. Almost all the songs start out as a 30 minute free form recording that is then dissected into parts and relearned or embellished. The songs on Zonk have a fair amount of variation but there’s a thread that binds the them that could be described as ‘psychedelic’, albeit our highly personal version thereof. Basically, without making anything from a premeditated plan, we rely on the sound as a product of the somewhat wildly different approaches from each member. This, to be certain, is a risky path. It can easily devolve into dissonant musical self-indulgence. We’ve been refining the sound for 4 or 5 years before we were comfortable to commit anything to tape. Getting to place where a band can intuitively play together is hard-earned — we’ve always been willing to pay our dues.

As a result of certain constraints, we’ve also had to make the most of what we have available. In true DIY style, we soundproofed a tiny outbuilding in our guitarist’s back garden by ourselves — an inner timber skeleton filled with off-cut foam — to create a studio and practice space. All songs are recorded live to 8 channels with minimal overdubbing. Our setup is fairly basic: drums, bass, 2 guitars and vocals. Since drums take up most of the channels, the only things we overdub are the vocals and sometimes keys. BLACK GATED MEGA DUNGEON was our first successful recording done in this manner — we nailed it on what was essentially the first take after a few days of focussed practicing. We wanted a record that bristles with some live energy — where you can feel the size of the room. We couldn’t be bothered to track each instrument coldly with click track. We feel this particular industry standard method sucks the life out of a song real quick and it’s essential for us that the tempo shifts slightly to allow for expression.

Almost all our equipment is entry level, I mixed the album at home having done this before for my own solo works but the challenge this time was mixing drums, a new ingredient for me. For the final layer of polish we enlisted the ever knowledgeable audio engineer and musician Jacob van der Westhuizen to master the album for vinyl output using some impressive analog outboard gear. Again the aim was for the album to be accurate to our live performance while still conforming to the sonic technical aspects required for a good vinyl pressing. The aim is to continue to hone this method as we head into writing album number 2 over the next year.”

Zonk is out now on Permanent Record.

You can follow Zoo Lake on Bandcamp, Instagram, Soundcloud and Facebook.

You can find more music Adafruit is loving right now in our ongoing MusicMakers (feat. Frankie CosmosJeffrey LewisBedbugPom Pom SquadArt Brut and more) and TrackTalk features (with Trust FundShay Spence and Haiku Salut). We also recently debuted our TasteMakers features with Q&As from the likes of Swell ToneThe Grey Estates, Various Small Flames, Alcopop! Records, The Alternative and more and you can read those here.

As always, you can also follow Adafruit on Soundcloud and Hype Machine.

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