Pioneers, by nature, need independence. Like nomads in the Gobi Desert or frontiersmen in the Old American West, originators—musical or otherwise—have to be fearless as they venture out into unknown expanses, trying drastic actions that might alter perception itself. Z'EV—a lean percussionist and noise maker at large, now in his mid-50s and often dressed in black—knows this pothole-ridden, lonely road well.
Speaking as he rolls toward Albuquerque, N.M., in a van, Z'EV doesn't sound weary of the gravel beneath the tires quite yet: "We're about halfway through now, after 41 shows in 46 days. Hardcore." But it's been a transition, he says, touring with his work again after a hiatus. His band hit the road in New York and made the West Coast by week three. Now, they're on their way back.
Over the past three decades, Z'EV has gained notoriety in unpredictable ways. In 1980, he toured the States, and a promoter—impressed with his handcrafted acoustic percussion assemblages—picked him up to open for Bauhaus. Alongside artists like Throbbing Gristle, Cabaret Voltaire and SPK, he was part of the nascent industrial culture scene, later documented in a now cult classic Re/Search reference guide. "Thirty years ago, I was doing cut-up work, both visual and sound poetries," he says. "I was working in the art world in San Francisco."
Z'EV has long studied traditional styles and rituals of percussion, including Balinese Gamelan music and African trance drum patterns. His approach focuses on the known parameters of sound that all humans innately appreciate. The vibrations that intrigue Z'EV are the ones that everybody feels, the ones that have a distinct physical effect. He's interested in exploring them, much like many current drone disciples employ just intonation's full-body massage at high volumes. "The work that I do is more about acoustic phenomena than music," he says.
Given such self-definition, it's no surprise that Z'EV's work often takes him in unexpected directions. Like a nomad, he's much less interested in arriving anew at a known principle or sound as he is finding something incongruent and—most of all—different. He builds his own instruments and applies complex theories of tribal ritual and sound application to aid in his quest. Combined, those techniques and ideas can produce astounding results. Only two of 20 stops on this tour have had a PA system, but people are continuously blown away by the power and diffuse noise he creates. The drum, gongs and giant metal tubes he's constructed produce their own dense layers of resonance. "How can this be done without being electronically processed?" one recent crowd member marveled.
Such performances are dependent on what Z'EV calls a sextet of factors. "There's me, the instruments, the space itself, the acoustics, the time of day and physical location, and the energy of the people. Change any of those, and you have created a different performance situation. It's a complex situation that's happening." To wit, Z'EV often doesn't perform on the stage. Instead, he'll simply set up in the portion of a venue that sounds the best.
So why haven't most people heard of this relentless sound experimenter? After all, he's had commissions from John Zorn and collaborated with heavies like John Cage and contemporaries like Japanese noisemaker KK Null, no-wave composer Glenn Branca and The Hafler Trio. He remains an icon to many interested in methods like cut-ups, phasing and resonating sounds, and he still uses those tried-and-true tape techniques. Still, even in art music's esoteric, incestuous circles, he's been largely out of sight, though he's enjoying a new surge of activity and appreciation. A new generation has been embracing him: He has a new collaboration with Stephen O'Malley of metal droners Sunn O))), he's worked with Peter Rehberg (known as Pita), and he's continued work with one of his longest peers, Chris Watson of Cabaret Voltaire.
Ironically, Z'EV is enjoying his renewal (not often given to avant-garde musicians) in a political and creative climate similar to the one he left America in the '80s to avoid. "Reagan was president, so ... the [avant-rock] group Tuxedomoon and I left San Francisco," he says. "A young artist was 45 then, so I was looking at many long years before I could get a show at all. The punk scene was coming up, and so I gravitated towards that." He had toured Europe by train, so he and Tuxedomoon took off; the group landed in Rotterdam, Germany, while he now lives in London.
Now he's back, after 13 years of expatriate living, and he's finding that a whole generation of musicians and fans, largely unfamiliar with his work, are surprisingly enthusiastic.
"The focus of the shows now is a generation of artists that weren't around. People that know me from back in the day aren't going out to clubs," he says, letting out a small laugh. "Every now and then, there will be a geriatric, a gray hair or something."
This nomad embraces the desert, however he is perceived. But new ears for his work can mean more opportunities for new projects. Or, as a youthful audience member at a Minneapolis show excitedly announced, "Man, you're getting feedback from an acoustic instrument!"
Z'EV plays with traveling mates on the Ex-Patriot tour, Sikhara (who originated in Winston-Salem), and our own Clang Quartet at Nightlight on Tuesday, May 22. The show starts at 10 p.m. and costs $7.