Label Feature: ZamZam Sounds
- Date published
Formed in 2012 by Ezra Ereckson and Tracy Harrison, ZamZam's approach is more artistic than commercial, releasing only on 7 inch vinyl, in limited quantities, with hand printed artwork, retaining total control over art and design. Soundwise ZamZam delivers the freshest and weirdest takes on roots Reggae, steppas, and dub-tech from all around the globe. Each record is packaged with a hand-made customized screen-printed artwork that makes it unique beyond the music, too. The label's name refers to the traditional Muslim story of the Arabian ZamZam wellspring, which saved the lives of Abraham's Lady Hagar and son Ishmael, and whose waters still run today, as part of the Hajj pilgrimage. Ezra and Josh, better known as E3 and Alter Echo, mixed for Carhartt WIP Radio a show with loads of upcoming ZamZams, in celebration of their third release on the label which is out now. Included are also dubplates from ZamZam Sounds’ companion label Khaliphonic, that releases longer format vinyl as 10inch and 12inch. Furthermore you hear stuff from their befriended Brooklyn based label Feel Up Records, totally fresh E3 material that will be released on Boomarm Nation soon, and a Monkeytek VIP. To learn more about the label and his philosophy, we talked to Ezra and his spouse Tracy about their history, their love for music and their highly demanded label.
(Tracy & E3)
Hi Ezra and Tracy, can you introduce your label ZamZam Sounds a bit to our readers? And what do you do for it on a day-to-day basis?
Ezra: Our label is a true partnership, a total collaboration between us. Tracy handles all of the art, design, videos, web design and maintenance, subscribers and much more. While the big-picture A&R is collaborative, I tend to do most of the reaching out to artists and maintaining those communications, the audio, manufacturing and distribution side of things. But we cross over all the time – we are married, after all!
Tracy: Yes, we go over just about everything together before any big moves are made... and we absolutely must agree on A&R and design-related decisions. Ezra is more comfortable with direct communication in general, and I prefer more privacy, so the overall division of labour works well for us.
Any role models, inspirations, or benchmarks for ZamZam Sounds when it was launched in 2012?
Tracy: Dischord Records has always been an inspiration to me. It seems cliché to say, but coming from a punk background, Dischord introduced me to DIY. Punk labels at that time also really followed their own aesthetic rather than market trends, and that kind of uncompromising attitude influenced me deeply.
Ezra: Adrian Sherwood’s On-U Sound really set the bar for me in terms of DIY/punk spirit in the service of incredibly adventurous dubwise music with really no boundaries. It’s still never really been matched in my opinion.
How important is the traditional Muslim story of the Arabian ZamZam wellspring, which saved the lives of Abraham's Lady Hagar and son Ishmael for the label? Why did you choose it as a name?
Ezra: We wanted a name that has gravitas and links to ancient spiritual history - this is part of the history of dub - dub arguably comes from Reggae, and Reggae is steeped in biblical theology and eschatology… I am Muslim and we both love the worlds of Islamic art, music and science, so we chose something from our end of the spectrum.
If you have to describe the sound of ZamZam to somebody who never heard of it, what would you say?
Ezra: All facets of DUB - past, present, and future. Because of the limitation of 7” vinyl, part of our sound is also tunes that are 4.5 minutes or less!
Tracy: If people have never heard of dub (yes there are a few out there) then it's somewhat difficult to clue them in to our sound!! Dub is the foundation of this project.
Before ZamZam Sounds you were involved in BSI records (Bucolic Sound Investigations) [and its sublabel One Drop Recordings] that was active from 1999 to 2003. Were those your first steps in releasing music? How do BSI and ZamZam Sounds differ and what do they have in common? And after your hiatus in label terms is the vision more clearer/focused now?
Ezra: Yes, those were our first steps. BSI was named for Bucolic, a very experimental, improvisational electronics crew in San Francisco that was basically me and a few of my childhood friends. It was all analogue, no midi, just turn on all the machines and go off. So very punk rock in spirit, but sounded maybe like early Cabaret Voltaire in the echo chamber. So BSI started with that - a DIY Bucolic LP and VHS tape… then my dub band Systemwide started working with Alter Echo (called Sound Secretion back then) and Muslimgauze… and suddenly we realized we were about to have a lot of killer material on our hands - enough to turn this semi-fictional Bucolic-centric label into something bigger.
Tracy: BSI started small as Ezra described, but grew into something that involved two other partners - one of them the immensely talented Alter Echo. BSI's scope was much broader than ZamZam's, and it covered vinyl and CD releases. The goals were bigger, the releases were in greater quantity, and we moved a lot more units. And when distributors collapsed in 2003, they took BSI down, too. It took a long time to recover. ZamZam came into being as a very tightly focused project where Ezra and I could be accountable just to each other and we could concentrate on our aesthetic and the medium of 7” vinyl. Within these constraints, there is quite a lot of freedom.
(Alter Echo & E3)
What is your musical background and what was your musical intake when you were younger?
Ezra: I grew up with hippie parents in San Francisco, so I had a steady diet of 60s and 70s US and UK rock, folk, soul. Also lots of Indian, Turkish and Middle Eastern music. I didn’t get into Reggae until I was staying with my cousins in the Paris banlieues - Bob Marley’s Survival at the age of 14 set me on this course, I’m convinced. At the same time I was getting into punk, hip hop and new wave and noise, and the Eno/Hassell/Talking Heads end of things.
Tracy: When I was younger, music subculture was my saviour. I found myself in Punk, New wave, metal, Hip hop... then everything from sound system music to jungle, Oum Kalthoum, Bhangra, Afghani folk music. When there is a deep rhythm or intense sentiment, I can find a way in.
What do you find most challenging about the work you do?
Ezra: Being able to focus on it as completely as I want to!
Tracy: Knowing that I have to create something as compelling as the music for each release. It's a tall order.
What do you want to accomplish with the music you release?
Ezra: We want to curate & share music that we love, and contribute something hopefully meaningful and lasting to the culture of sound system music. And we want it to look beautiful and to feel like a single body of work.
Tracy: Ideally we see this as a cohesive multimedia project that covers a (hopefully) long period of time, lots of geography, and the breadth and depth of dub in all its forms.
ZamZam releases a lot of music from fresh artists around the world. What qualities do you look for as a "curator” of music?
Tracy: Most important is that the artist has a clear vision - that the artist’s voice comes through in the work.
Ezra: In other words, not just another steppers or dubstep or post-dubstep tune. We are drawn to music that really owns its idiom… but it must also be clear in itself about what makes it special. Why must this tune exist?
You stand in the tradition of dub, yet you think forward and evolve instead of sounding retro. It seems like ZamZam has a much wider definition of dub and doesn’t follow the usual patterns of bass music. Can you explain us a bit your definition?
Ezra: We love contemporary sound system music, bass music. We buy lots of it and support it. We are also wary of tunes that sound like “this minute” or “this week.” For example Gantz and LAS are producers that we love for their totally unique musical voices - and now there are a thousand producers who basically sound like knockoffs. We want to say “Gantz is Gantz” - who are you? Ishan Sound is Ishan Sound. Mala is Mala. Who are you? So our concern is much less with what is hot at the moment. We are less concerned with tunes that sound like Right Now than with tunes that we think will sound great and people will still hopefully reach for in years to come. Will it stand the test of time? Will we still be proud that we released it in ten years’ time? In 20? Vinyl will outlive us all!
Tracy: Longevity is key. We look for producers who stand out and stake out their sound, and who don't rely on of-the-moment tricks or flourishes. I have a lot of pet peeve sounds, and if I hear them in a track, it's harder to be interested.
Are you cautious about being put into a box?
Ezra: I think as long as we stay true to just releasing music that A) we love and B) is clearly connected to the aesthetics of dub… there won’t be much of a box because both A and B are very broad!!
Tracy: We're cautious only to release what we fully support. However, if you have a lovely handmade box to hold 7”s, I'll get in that box.
ZamZam only releases 7inch singles. Why and what makes this format special to you?
Ezra: Its importance in Reggae culture - which makes it nostalgic in a way, connecting it to that tradition. But it also feels very contemporary and appropriate for right now. Vinyl has gotten so expensive for the consumer; this is a more affordable format. But of course it's still vinyl and it sounds great. Also the idea that limiting ourselves to this format creates certain containment, a certain aesthetic, it’s a self-imposed limitation that unifies all of our releases, even though as you said, they are quite broad musically.
Tracy: In the beginning, we did not want to risk a lot of money on LP releases. Putting out 7”s was a way to put our energy into finding music that we loved without having to stress so hard about breaking even. But the format is also just loaded with history and resonates for people, us included.
What was the biggest ZamZam hit so far?
Ezra: I guess it depends how you measure “hits”! ZamZam 19, Alter Echo & E3’s Nubian Dub b/w “Warning Dub made quite a splash, has spawned a bunch of remixes that we hope to release at the end of the year, and goes for quite a bit of money now! Others we have noticed people willing to pay quite a bit for are ZamZam 02, Alpha & Omega and ZamZam 03, Strategy. Our first Jah Warrior and Disciples releases are also in big demand still too.
Tracy: We are fortunate that our releases have done well and been distributed widely, and for the most part, equally so. But anecdotally I have heard from a whole lot of people how much they love the El Mahdy Jr 7inch Last Breath” b/w “Last Deal release and the Ishan Sound Forward” b/w “Koma record.
What is coming up on the label?
Ezra: Man… so much! We have test pressings approved through ZamZam 40! You will hear a few of them for the first time in this mix!!
Tracy: Next up in October is a great pair of Dubkasm versions... a double dub! After that, in November, Khaliphonic will release a 12” by Pea Man (also from Bristol), a fantastic tune called “War” that Kahn and Ishan Sound have been playing on dubplate for a year or two. In December, Khaliphonic will release two 10”s of Nubian/Warning remixes by Egoless, Ishan Sound, and DJ Madd. Then we'll curl up from exhaustion and return in February with more ZamZam releases.
For longer formats you started Khaliphonic last year? What will be seen on this extension?
Ezra: Really the same artists and types of material you would expect to hear on ZamZam, only longer.
Monkeytek of pdxindub came up with the name Khaliphonic - what does it stand for?
Ezra: Khaliph as in king or ruler - so we were thinking something like “Ruling Riddims” - Kingly Sounds!
Strictly vinyl, each record you release gets hold in a beautiful designed, screen-printed sleeve. Can you elaborate on the graphic aspect a bit?
Tracy: Just as the 7” format creates limitations, so does the screen-printing process. Using those boundaries, pushing against them, can really add dynamism to a design. I've done a couple of records with hand-applied ink washes or painted areas underneath the screen print to further emphasize that these objects are made with care.
Tracy, you are creating the artwork of the records and therefore defining the label's look. Do you have a design/art background or is it self-taught and you just follow the DIY-ethos?
Tracy: Ezra and I both have degrees in Fine Art, so we have that academic background. I have been in art shows off and on since the early 90's, so making art is just something that I do and will always keep doing. My artistic output has varied over the years, and in keeping with that DIY ethos, when something comes up that I need to learn, I do my best to expand my skillset and get it done!
How works the process of creating the design? Do the artists have an influence on it as well?
Tracy: My process really just involves listening very intently to each pair of tracks and trying to get at the essence of what they are about. Sonically, thematically, narratively - whatever can be pulled out of the track and given form, I'll try and find it. I really don't like to use track titles or vocal samples to create a design that is too literal. Part of the joy for us in doing this is keeping that consistent viewpoint of ours. The artists supply the music and we supply the art. We always show the finished design to the artist first, and if there's an issue we work it out. But we really do insist on creative control in this area.
What is the biggest influence on your work beside music?
Ezra: We love visual art of all kinds, ancient, traditional, folk, modern, and contemporary. And we love people and movements that work for peace, justice, an end to racism, sexism, militarism, exploitation of animals and the environment. We are for change and against cynicism, ironic detachment and cleverness. Looking smart is not the answer. Working for change is the answer.
Tracy: I would also have to say that our daughter informs our decisions in that she inspires us to do our best and to live lives that are led by creativity and passion, rather than profit and what others deem 'successful'.
How do you keep your work fresh and continue to evolve?
Ezra: Artists keep sending us great music, so they make it easy to stay inspired!
Can you give some advice to someone who is interested in starting his or her own label?
Ezra: Do it for the love of doing it. Any other reason, including money, is foolish. You have been warned!
Tracy: For women wanting to get into the label side of the music industry, I would say prepare to be invisible for a while. Men don't like to share space and notoriety with women in this field, so be prepared to work extra hard to be seen and get your due.
Ezra: What Tracy described has been a real eye-opener for me. It's really shocking, as a man, to see how hard she has to fight to get noticed when her contributions are as plain as mine.
Your city Portland, Oregon has a rich and vibrant music scene and heritage. Labels like Mississippi or Sahel Sounds blew fresh air into the global music scene and bands like Dead Moon are legends in their own field. Does this rich diverse scene inspire you and is it important for all you do? And if so: how does the scene work together? What makes it special in your eyes?
Ezra: Portland has always had a lot going on musically, especially for a city on the smaller side. This has been enormously inspiring from day one - I worked in a great underground record store here from about 1990 - 1997… so the richness of the punk, metal, hip hop and indie scenes made a big impression on me and got me playing in bands early-on. We are definitely close with labels like Boomarm Nation, Community Library, Sahel Sounds and Mississippi - we all have our own areas of focus but we appreciate each other deeply.
Besides Portland being a rockcentric city it seems more dub noise is going on there as well by the likes of pdxindub, Boomarm Nation, LoDubs. What about this accumulation, is it just a coincidence?
Ezra: It’s hard to say, because there is very little scene in terms of live dub or dub nights (the excellent Signal PDX being the lone exception right now)… there has been a dub underground here since we started BSI, but it is very marginal compared to the indie/rock/pop/synth/house scenes. All of the dubwise labels you mentioned get vastly more love abroad or in other parts of the US than they do here.
Tracy: It's what I call “the curse of the home town”. This is true for all of us here and for others across the globe... people nearby almost always take you for granted.
Can you tell us some dub music secrets that the world needs to know?
Ezra: Hmmm… it’s about a lot more than echo!
How did you select the tracks for your Carhartt WIP Radio show?
Ezra: We wanted to give you a really strong selection of current and upcoming material that would also hang together well as a mix. Basically I (E3) selected the tracks and Josh (Alter Echo) blended them up in his secret laboratory.
What was the last track that sent shivers up your spine?
Ezra: We have a tune on the way next year from Egoless featuring an amazing young Russian singer called Tenor Youthman that is quite sublime. The youth can really sing!
Tracy: On the Folkways record Classical Music of Iran the first track on the B side is sung by Khatereh Parvaneh. I lost track of the record for a number of years but found it recently, and hearing her voice again was very moving.
What is the most obscure record you have in your collection and why?
Ezra: Hmmm…. We have both been collecting records since the early-mid 80s, so there are many…. Creation Rebel’s Close Encounters of the Third World is a very rare dub gem that comes to mind. Never been reissued, as far as I know.
Tracy: We have a Moroccan 7” from the 70s, labeled only in Arabic, that has one of the most searingly heart-breaking vocals ever. I can only call it obscure because I can't read it... the sleeve is non-descript, no one would ever know what a treasure it is.
What are three albums that you'll absolutely never get tired of listening to?
Twinkle Brothers: Countrymen (Virgin 1980)
John Coltrane: A Love Supreme (Impulse 1965)
Bad Brains: Live (SST 1988)
Yabby You: Jesus Dread Box Set (Blood & Fire 1997)
Collection Musée de l'Homme: Afghanistan et Iran (Disques Vogue 1969)
The Ethiopians: The Original Reggae Hitsound of the Ethiopians (Trojan 1986)
Duke Ellington, Charlie Mingus, Max Roach: Money Jungle (United Artists Jazz 1963)
Anouar Brahem: Le Pas du Chat Noir (ECM 2002)
In your opinion, when it comes to contemporary dub these days, who's at the top of their game?
Ezra: It’s hard to say who’s at their own creative peak, but Alter Echo is a master. We’re old friends and collaborators, but I’m also still a big fan of his - I’m in awe of the totally unique sonic world he has created and inhabits... Regardless of vibe or tempo, original or remix, an AE joint always sounds like an AE joint, and no one really knows how he does it. Also Egoless is certainly killing it right now and seems to have mastered the traditional arts to a rare degree.
What’s something you’ve learned through music that has helped you in life (and vice versa)?
Ezra: That music actually matters, just like other kinds of art - that it can change hearts and minds, and once hearts and minds change anything is possible.
Tracy: That the community that a music subculture provides is real. By and large, the people involved as creators and as supporters (or both) have a genuine and meaningful connection to each other. And like Ezra said, that it actually matters.
Please recommend two or three new artists to our readers, which you feel deserve their attention.
Ezra: We have a number of first-time ZamZam artists coming up that we are really excited about: Gulls, from Portland, owner & operator of Boomarm Nation. Titus 12 outta Bristol (big up Ossia for linking us), and Blind Prophet from New York (thanks to True Nature for the link). All on their own vibes, all golden!
What was your dream job as a child?
Ezra: Comic book artist!
Tracy: Any kind of artist!
You are located in Portland, Oregon. What are your favorite spots and secrets in your hometown that you would recommend to somebody that comes around for a visit?
Ezra: Los Gorditos is not a secret, but if we’ve hosted you for more than an hour or two we’ve probably had Soycurl Fajita Burritos there together.
ZamZam Sounds discography
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