Interview: Zu (Massimo Pupillo)

Photo by Danilo Giungato

After the release of their 2009 album Carboniferous, drums/bass/sax trio Zu took a break. The band gained a new drummer in Gabe Serbian (The Locust), while bassist Massimo Pupillo left Rome to spend time in the Himalayas before moving to Peru. The background of our Skype conversation is decorated with the calls of Amazonian birds, and I’m drawn to ask as many questions about Pupillo’s new life studying with indigenous maestros as I am about the group’s new album, Cortar Todo. As it happens, there’s an intrinsic and fascinating link between the two.

It’s morning over in Peru at the moment, right?

Yeah, it’s 9am.

Is that early for you?

No, it’s actually one of the best parts of the day. It’s so hot during the day. The brain really goes into survival mode – it’s difficult to think.

What’s it been like adapting to that climate?

Being Italian I’m used to very hot weather in the summertime, but here there are no seasons. There’s only rain between January and March and then it becomes dry again. It’s like one long day – you really have to think, ‘are we now in April or October?’ When the doors of the aeroplane opened when I first arrived at night, and this hot and humid air came inside the cabin…I was like, “what the fuck. Where am I!” [laughs] I’ve now adjusted more or less.

I understand that there will be some personal reasons you can’t discuss, but what was your driver behind moving out there?

Luca [Mai, saxophone] and I always had a very strong interest and connection with traditional cultures, especially shamanic cultures. We met some Siberian shamans years ago and wanted to go there and visit. We always had this idea about music; we never talked about what we were doing with music in terms of being entertainers. We always thought it was a vehicle for something, and that music – and sound, before music – is a very powerful tool. It’s used like a tool in traditional cultures, and it’s only been considered entertainment in the last 50 or 100 years. There’s a whole history that we forget about, where music is used as a tool to expand your consciousness and make something happen. It can have a profound impact on the way you think and the way you perceive.

Zu were on a break, and I had decided not to live in Rome anymore. I had sold the house I was buying in Rome and first moved to the Himalayas to study with the Tibetans. I was really interested in the Tibetan chanting. Then I went to visit Gabe [Serbian, drums] in San Diego. I had all of this free space and time, and I decided to come here. I was thinking that I’d stay one month in total but it was so incredible and powerful; it was the most interesting discovery of my life since discovering music in my teenager years, you know? There’s so much here, and these shamans know so much about how the mind functions. It’s not knowledge that they get from books someone else wrote either – it’s first-hand knowledge. So I just started to study with one of them and he told me that I should stay longer. As soon as he said that, my return ticket went into the bin.

In April 2014 he said that I could study with him and I pretty much live here now. I come back for tours and recordings. It’s very good for me, because we tour a lot, we record…everything is compact. When I go back to music it’s not a routine. It’s really exciting. I’m starting, very humbly, to put things that I’m learning here into our music and our world.

I understand that you’ve had some pretty amazing experiences with sound since you’ve been with the Tibetans and the shamans. Could you recount any in particular?

Here, the relationship between the indigenous people and sound is only through chanting. They don’t have any musical instruments in their tradition. I don’t know the exact reasons why. Traditionally, the village healers cure people of every kind of disease through singing. And this really happens. I had to witness a lot of stuff before my western sceptical mind had to give up. This was happening with new borns – not only with people that you may think are susceptible to it because it’s their culture. There is a vast, vast array of ways that they sing, and when they sing they channel – they don’t know songs by memory. They have this ability to see the energies.

We consider…well, when I say we, I mean “stupid white men” – we consider the indigenous as uneducated. But you talk with them and they have this cosmology. We don’t have one body – we have four bodies, which are overlaid upon eachother: your physical body, emotional body, astral body and spiritual body. They speak about parallel universes. So they have this very complicated cosmology, and if you think about really fringe modern physics, they’ve now started to talk about parallel universes.

Yeah, that’s a relatively modern idea in terms of western science.

Yeah, exactly. I’m now working with a maestro called Olivia. She’s in her 90s and she started her training when she was 14. My maestro, from when I started my training – he started when he was five. When he was 11, he spent one and a half years alone in the heart of the forest in the darkness, dieting on different plants – some psychotropic plants, and some they call teacher plants. When pharmaceutical companies come over here they can’t get their heads around it, as there are plants you have to take with a particular tool, or some you can only take on a particular day to be effective.

So coming back to your question about sound – you know how everything in quantum physics is in a state of vibration? Sound is essentially vibration, so you can see how sound can effect the vibration of your cells. With Zu we don’t claim to cure people through the band, but it’s always been our idea to summon a level of energy through the music that we needed and that the audience needed. We are all music fans, and there are some bands that can have these effects on your mind. You can go and see a band and not be in a good place with yourself, and then after the show you’re okay, you know?

One thing I’ve noticed with the new record is that, acoustically, it seems incredibly aware of itself. Every section sounds specifically captured and presented for that moment, in terms of how it’s recorded. Is that a result of interacting with sound in a different way since you’ve been over in Peru?

Before, we were more interested in the architecture – how you structure things, how to use the elements to make something different. That was our main focus. Luca has also spent time here and been exposed to this place, and the main focus is now on the sound itself. The main thing for each one of us was bringing an individual sound into the studio that would best express what we each needed to say. Each one of us had his version of his sound, and then when these three sounds got together…it was weird, but there was not so much to do. The structures kind of built themselves. For us, the basic materials were already very strong – all of the information was already in there. When I had my bass sound for example, it was like, ‘this note is what I want to say.’ At that point it’s like cooking with very good ingredients; you don’t have to do so much to invent.

It was also easier to keep it more direct and straight. When we went to tour with Gabe, we wanted to play some songs from Carboniferous. Luca and I listened back and there were a lot of frills. It’s like we’re heading in a straight line, and then all of a sudden we get distracted and detour. And we were like, ‘why did we do that?’ [laughs] We were disappointed with ourselves. So now when we replay those songs, they are much more succinct. We try to be sharp and say this thing only.

Massimo Pupillo

Given that you’ve all been inhabiting such different environments, I did wonder whether there would have to be a process of realignment, where you all have to re-familiarise yourself with the context of Zu. It doesn’t sound like that was the case. 

I think I changed my life in a very radical way, and whatever I do cannot ever be the same. But I think the reason that we are still alive is that Zu is such a good place for experimentation. The idea has always been that anything is possible. There are no limits – it’s not like a band where you can’t come in and bring something that doesn’t pertain to that band’s particular style. That’s why we’ll never be a successful band [laughs], but it’s fun to do it. It’s a very good space for each one of us to bring in whatever we feel. There’s no genre in the back of your mind that would say, ‘I can’t do this because we’re a hardcore band’.

It’s fantastic that you’re able to welcome all ideas into the fold and still say something so concise at the end of it. I imagine a lot of creative people have that moment of almost existential crisis, where the ‘anything is possible’ idea stops them from doing anything at all.

Our influences come from the point where the music is your life. Existential influences, not aesthetic influences. That’s a very important part. The places we throw inspiration from are so varied; they cannot exist inside a single container. This almost happened after Carboniferous; we realised that if we stick to that formula, things could be easier in a sense. There was a formula there. Obviously we didn’t do it because we went on a break instead. That was the first record that was modestly successful on our own terms, and then the band broke up! [laughs] That says a lot.

So I understand that you recorded this album in rural Italy? 

Yes.

How was that experience compared to recording something like Carboniferous?

It was totally, totally different. We practically wrote Cortar Todo in the studio. For Carboniferous we wrote it over two years in between tours. There was a lot of tension in the band and I think this reflects in the album – it has a lot of edges. But with this one, there was this enthusiasm of feeling like beginners again. We have this friend, Stefano Pilia – he’s a great guitar player – and him and his friend had turned this barn into a studio. They live there. I don’t have a house in Italy anymore, so when I go back mostly I stay with him at his place. So it wasn’t even a choice to do it there. With most things they are like this, where we are not even choosing; it’s already there and it’s obvious what we should do.

Also, the thing with living here in this very natural environment is that I can go and tour and enjoy the city, but spending in a studio in a city would be really hard for me in this moment. So it was very nice to be able to be in the countryside and away from all kinds of pollution. When you’re tired, you go out and sit in the countryside – it’s much more recharging than being in a city, and going out to a bar and coming back again. It really helped to focus and keep in a kind of retreat, because we were in a “retreat” sort of mind, not leaving from the place. The assistant would normally go grocery shopping. We would cook our own food and just record during the day. It’s very conducive to doing music, and getting to that point where it can flow into the tape.

Sorry, this is a complete deviation…seeing as you mentioned about cooking food, what’s your diet like at the moment? 

Very, very simple. I’m constantly being trained by these maestros to be receptive to the plants that they use. You cannot eat everything and there are a lot of dietary restrictions. I love fruit and here is like a fruit paradise; you can survive here on fruit. The variety is incredible and there’s stuff we never see in Europe. There are so many kinds of banana: ones that you boil, ones that you roast, ones you eat raw, ones that you crush and make into a kind of smoothie….also, we’re on the river so there are a lot of fish, which I eat. In the village they hunt as well, so sometimes we eat some crazy forest animal. When I arrived here I was vegetarian, but I soon realised that there’s no way to be vegetarian here. They hunt with bow and arrow and it’s a very balanced with nature.

When you come back over this way, does the consumerist disconnection of the west trouble you at all?

No, it doesn’t trouble me. When I was back the last time, I was trying to follow particular regime that my teacher gave me. I was not drinking any alcohol at all. When I’m back in Europe I don’t eat meat, because I don’t know where the meat comes from. It’s for health but it’s also for the animals. I just try to stick on the way I’m living my life here, and just try not to have any kind of bullshit going into my mind. Just play the gig and really be focussed on it, and make it in the most powerful and effective way. I think everyone in the band feels like this.

I understand that the album title Cortar Todo ties into that idea as well?

Yeah, absolutely. The album title comes from a woman that I worked with over here. She’s a vegetalista, which is like a herbalist. But for me she’s a kind of Yoda; she sees so many things. When I started to work with her, she told me that what I needed to do was Cortar Todo. She said, “you think a lot of bullshit – you’re still linked to people you don’t see anymore. You think this person, and that girl…just cut everything. Start from scratch and just keep what is necessary. Keep what you need for survival and nothing else in your life. Then you can start to see things clearly again.”

A lot of this stuff is toxic. You name it: it can be resentment, or sadness that you carry with you. She made me realise that it’s your choice whether you carry this luggage with you. You can drop it and say, “I don’t need it”. So I wanted to restart on a personal level and restart with music. So the first thing is to cut all the bullshit. Everything. Not even in a physical sense, because I was in a very healthy place when I arrived here, but to cut in a mental and emotional way.

And then we started to see that music is actually the same. We want to say one thing. There’s a part of us that wants to put ornaments and frills, and sometimes there is a part that…how can I say it…[pause] you know, I’ll be very honest. We come from Italy. From an international point of view it’s not a great place to come from for music. In the beginning, we were maybe trying too hard to show that we could play our instruments. We wouldn’t admit it, but there was this underground current of showing off, you know? We would play very complicated and crazy stuff because we have to prove ourselves more than an English or American band.

Now there’s no need to prove anything anymore. I don’t need to show off. If you hear the song “Cortar Todo”, it’s really about this. It’s just one part over and over and over. For me, it expresses that sense of cutting, cutting, cutting, cutting. The song is like a machete. It’s that message – I don’t need to embroid it. I’m really in a state where I don’t care about that.

It’s interesting you brought that up, as I wanted to ask you about that song. It’s my favourite section on the whole record, and it’s brilliant to hear that it’s such a strong analogy to the album as a whole.

To tell you the truth we’re having some mixed reactions, especially in Italy. There are a lot of people that are waiting for us to fail.

Really?

Yeah. [laughs] We got some reactions like, “what is that? Why did they become so simple?” For me, that song is kind of a manifesto of this place we are with the band. This is expressing one thing only and that there shouldn’t be more. I shouldn’t mix one message with the other, and I’m glad if you feel it in an emotional sense.

Well personally, I know that I gravitate toward music that burrows into a simple motif. A lot of a drone music, for example, where you’re reducing music to its core components. 

In terms of Western music, I’ve been listening almost only to drone stuff in the last couple of years; drone and very ambient music. It’s very rare that I listen to any kind of rock music.

What artists have you been listening to?

My teenaged obsession came back with Coil; not only on the musical side, but also in terms of personal research. We were talking about the impossibility in applying genre – for me, they are the most incredible example of this. I know people who like this very vast umbrella of electronic music, and I play Coil to them and they don’t know what to do with it. It’s impossible to give a definition to Coil. They have this personal research into art and magic and philosophy…it really shows in the music and you really feel it. I’ve always had this fascination with musicians that don’t draw their inspirations from just a musical perspective, whose personal research shows up in the music. Do you know the drone music of Eliane Radigue?

Yes, I love her music.

My favourite of hers is Trilogie De La Mort. She’s a big influence on me. My musical dream is to meet her.

Phill Niblock is another big one for me. I feel like you could almost draw his music on a piece of paper – it’s so vivid. 

For me, the fascination is where you can no longer use your mind to describe the music. For example, Coil’s Time Machines – if you listen with a distracted mind, you might go, “I could do that”. Then try – go do it. It’s so simple that if it were not nourished with a lot of personal research, it would be nothing. But you can really feel this person talking to you through these pieces. That’s why I’m obsessed with Eliane Radigue as well; she managed to put her essence in those machines, and I don’t know how she does that. I also have a big thing for Arvo Part that I’ll carry with me forever.

I’m this obsessive guy. If I have to choose between a new movie and an old movie that I’ve already seen five times, I’ll choose the old movie. It’s the same with music. I’m drawn back to the same places to find new stuff, new layers. Like with Coil; a track can be just two tracks of synthesisers, but your ears keep finding new elements and new ideas.

Do you hope that there’s an element of that to the music of Zu, as well?

I don’t think about it too much. I feel this with my life as well. When you don’t have plans, it’s so much better and fresher. I never try to do something – I’m really not into conceptual art, for example. I’m not in a conceptual place myself. I don’t go, “I want to express this concept”. The concept presents itself. We make a sound and something comes, and then we carry it. It’s more into the unconscious realm – the stuff you think and are exposed to cannot but express itself.
Zu’s website – www.zuism.net
Ipecac’s website – ipecac.com