Zoos of Berlin via the zoos of Detroit

Sjimon Gompers

Detroit's illustrious Zoos of Berlin. (courtesy of the band / Time No Place)

Our first correspondence of cables, connections and exchanges with Zoos of Berlin began right around when their single “I Went Too Shapeless in the Night” was turning the heads of music aficionados and press alike. While wrapping up a headliner piece with Detroit’s rogue-dandy-devils some weeks back, the band sent us this cryptic statement on Mephistophelean Michigan:

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“Early attempts at the LP had us writing short, punky songs—and this is a keeper from those sessions. Like many of the characters on Lucifer in the Rain, it’s unclear, here, whether the narrator is a hero or villain. He has unrealistic expectations of the world and is prone to violence and repetitious behavior. The lyrics are phrases he mumbles to himself, walking aimlessly at night.”

But our close listening, correspondence and discussion had only began, as we coordinated the following roundtable gathering with Zoos of Berlin’s Collin Dupuis, Daniel I. Clark, Trevor Naud, and Will Yates in an in-depth exploration of their opus Lucifer in the Rain.

There is something wild how Lucifer in the Rain works like a grandiose concept album, in the sense that the staccato of “Companion Turns” is the prelude that sets up the magnificent, “I Went Too Shapeless in the Night”. How were the concepts for the album put together and met with the song ordering and sequence of matters?

Daniel: The concepts arose of their own accord. I mean that the narrative of a song is often the last thing to emerge while we are recording, and the thing least consciously planned. Typically the lyrics are given their final shape only after much of the arrangement has been tracked. It wouldn’t be exactly right, however, to say that there is no story to the album as a whole; it’s just that we weren’t sure what the story would be until it was already written.

Trevor: Sequencing is one of our favorite phases in the whole finishing-a-record process. We put a lot of care into it, do a lot of discussing over it. Here, we looked at what we'd written and sort of pulled the opposites to each corner. The start of the record is colder and dreamier–maybe even more electronic. The latter half is acoustic, organic–with more emphasis on live playing.

How do you describe the release stair steps from Taxis, and Pallister Chant that have brought the advent and birth of the mighty, Lucifer in the Rain?

Daniel: Giant steps, but in the quasi-literal sense that they felt like very large crumbling stone steps that a giant might use with ease, but that we had to climb with ropes and pulleys.

Trevor: Thinking about Taxis now, we'd been a live band for years before recording it. Truly, we were a different band. All our arrows were on perfection, or, our version of perfection. Pallister Chant was the first jump into “speedy recording”–or accepting home-recorded elements into the final versions. We thought we were writing hits. It was the start of us thinking about the studio–our own studio–and what we could do with it. Collin lightened up a bit, too. We'd slip him alprazolam in caramels. So, Lucifer in the Rain is a band becoming comfortable in its space. Fully operational studio. Fluid mic placement. Room to breathe. We tried a lot of new ideas, and struggled with the quality of all those new ideas. But the ship didn't fall off the edge of the world, it kept sailing. We found land.

“Above the Air” moves into these large amphitheater atmospheres on the wings of wind chimes that ring like affected harp strings-plugged-in. What is it about the fusion of the tribal procession rhythms and your own alchemy that allows a sound to go sky bound?

Trevor: We wanted it to be a big, open, orchestral track. But it's a very simple song, a lullaby if you sing it a cappella. The melody is from 2005, when we first rehearsed as a three piece. It was not a sky-bound song back then. At the base of it all, we have some ascending chords in there–so that automatically helps to elevate things. The harp-like sound is layers of dulcimer.

“Charnel House” too has these wild sky leaning, and then something weird happens with your interludes. It's like those effects that people use these days to indicate a song's break down you use to warp everything like an LP left out in the sun. What is it about the dichotomy between making sounds that both soar or melt into the ground that fascinates you all?

Daniel: I would use another metaphor and compare the varied shapes of the songs to rooms of different kinds. One will have a low ceiling and dark tiles; the next will have bookshelves on every wall; etc.

Trevor: The room metaphor is one we've been using for a long, long time. On the outside, a house or building is a singular structure–you can survey its grounds, get an idea of it. Check the cornerstone, put a date to it. But you have no idea what the individual rooms look like. Maybe The Fool Collective had their way with it. Maybe it's hollow on the inside.

Most of the records we love and return to for inspiration have that commonality… the ones that explore styles and songwriting approach within 30 or 40 minutes. First and foremost: The Beatles' Revolver. Or Tom Waits' Swordfishtrombones, GBV's Alien Lanes, Todd Rundgren's A Wizard, a True Star. A lot of pop or indie music nowadays gets stuck on a “sound” for the duration of a whole record. Sometimes it's a mood and the mood is perfect. You can count on certain artists for that. But so far we've avoided being that way.

With such sweeping airs of romanticism like “On the Dock with Carlita, “Open the Wine”, “Candlewood Fair” and more, how do you bring these kind of pastoral types of balladry in the post-industrial, bankruptcy filing backdrop like Detroit?

Daniel: It may be a little sentimental to sing about docks and fairs, but I think the more dangerous romanticism is the kind that mythologizes urban decay in order to use it as a source of inspiration.

Trevor: This reminded me of something. On his day's off, my friend's father would wake up early and play his classical guitar on the porch. This was in 1990, probably. I was 10 years old. Their Detroit neighborhood was an absolute mess. Dangerous and falling apart. But he'd sit out there and play. People would walk by and listen. In warm months, the neighbors would open their windows and let the music come in. Maybe balladry was invented because of depression, but people love it regardless of the environment.

Will: I hear an undercurrent of sadness in all three of those songs, for example in the loud sighs of “On the Dock with Carlita” or in lines such as “Learn my place and hold the ladder” from “Candlewood Fair”.

Do those dead-zone patches of the city perhaps influence any aspects of the darker cloaks and veneer of the new album?

Daniel: Most of the time I find that emptiness very disheartening, but I am even more disturbed by the creeping return of the roots and vines. It is an unpleasant reminder that the victory over nature which is the city can only ever be temporary. Still there are advantages to all of that empty space, and one is that we’ve had to cultivate our own resources. There are two types of freedom that a city offers to an artist; you might call them the freedom of the crowd and the freedom of the basement. Detroit abounds in the latter; we were able to build our own studio, and we can maintain it now in a way that would be impossible almost anywhere else in the country.

What other types of similar minded artists are still hanging around Detroit these days?

Trevor: Maybe the beauty is in the dissimilar artists? Detroit has variety… its music, its art, its people, its food, its neighborhoods. You can go to a show and see three distinctly different bands–and find each of them amazing. You can go to Hamtramck and eat at a different ethnic restaurant, each night, for a week straight. And the Midwestern charm is hard to beat. People are just nice. But if you want to talk music, there's an insane list, and it all starts with Ed Love.

Dare we ask what kind of late 60s/early 70s artists, records, and influences that have been circulating amongst you all?

Trevor: In '09, Wax Poetics reissued a long lost classic by organist Lyman Woodard (who was also a Detroiter). It's called “Saturday Night Special”. There's the simple perfection of Tucker Zimmerman's “Foot Tap” (which I haven't played the guys yet). We dig Marc Moulin and his Placebo jazz project–and especially his later electropop as Telex. “Neurovision” is a great record by Telex, but it's approaching the 80s. And nothing compares to La D

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