Daniel Warren Hill
Zen Warship has been a living, breathing, and evolving band that entered the Washington D.C. area music scene in 2016. The band revels in the enthusiasm fans show on the dance floor for its captivating live sound that blends various elements of funk, rock, soul, and disco, along with individual influences including pop, punk, and jazz. As 2020 draws to a close, Zen Warship in its current stage of metamorphosis prepares to release their first full-length album aptly titled Anything That Grooves, currently available for pre-order on Bandcamp, and available on all other major music platforms on December 11. Alchemical Records had the pleasure of sitting down with Tyler, Roberto, Alison, and Preethy to dig into the inspiration behind the album and the recording process the band is using to help listeners immediately feel connected to those live elements that are such an important component of the band’s sound.
Q: What is it that brought you all together to create music as one cohesive family?
Tyler Moselle (Guitar): We started in 2016. Roberto and I were founding members. The other founding members have since either moved out of the area or have moved on to work on other things. Preethy joined in 2018 and then Alison joined a little bit after that. From 2017-2019, we were gigging once a month, all over D.C., writing a bunch of original material, until finally a year ago we said, “Let’s sit down and do a full album.” We did an EP (Sonic Butter, 2017) before and a single (“November,” 2020), and the idea was that we like funk, rock, soul, and disco; so let’s tie all that together. To us the cohesive element that ties all those things together is groove music. So anything that kind of has a groove to it, that’s our thesis statement as a band and the unifying principle that attracts us together as band members. We all come from a background of different genres and preferences, but groove music is what unites us.
Q: Is your focus on groove music meant to help people take their minds off of their everyday worries and concerns out on the dance floor?
Roberto Gilbert (Bass): Yes, because personally the main purpose for me is to gig. I like the contact with people. I need to see them, and I like to see them dancing. It’s the best when you play music.
Alison Rogers (Horns): There’s definitely nothing worse than having an audience that only kind of sits and stares back at you. I joined the band because I wanted to gig and have a band that I could play music with a band that my friends could come and enjoy. All the music centering around being able to dance on the dance floor is conducive to that.
Preethy Kolinjivadi (Vocals): Some of our songs topically are just foolish ditties, and some of them are talking about real issues or current events that people are thinking or talking about. No matter what the topic is the song has a danceable, fun, groove element to it, and I think that’s what ties it all together.
Q: It sounds like Anything That Grooves will draw attention to difficult topics lyrically, with a fun groove behind it. Can you talk a little bit about this mix between music and lyrics?
Tyler: Phil Marnell [one of the original Zen Warship members] wrote a lot of the lyrics, and is a very talented writer. He wanted to have substantially engaging ideas, like “Feds Don’t Fail Me Now,” talking about how we want a positive government to succeed, and a song about Marion Barry that discusses myths around his character and exploring historical truths and positive contributions he made to D.C. as a city and as a human and civil rights activist. The lyrics try to explore serious substantive issues, which I think is a nice trojan horse within danceable music because it makes it approachable for people, and then when they hear the lyrics it makes them think as well. We focus on compelling, engaging, thoughtful ideas and it’s not just throwaway concepts that you may hear in your average pop song.
Alison: It might even be fair to say that a lot of our songs are story driven, or character driven. I think Phil was prone to that in his writing. In the way that all of our songs are telling stories that are thoughtful or have more context, it’s a lot like Steely Dan; the songs can be very happy or very sad, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s reflecting what’s going on in the story with the characters. I think a lot of our songs have that kind of thickness of story in them regardless of the vibe of the tune.
Q: Will the artwork and music videos be reflective of this dual nature that is Zen Warship?
Preethy: With some of the singles we hope to release, we’ve picked songs that have a message that might resonate the most with people and seem to be universal. We’ve released a couple of other songs that are not on this album that have a sort of narrative element to it. Hopefully we will continue to do that with our other singles and videos.
Roberto: During the pandemic, because we cannot really gig, video is still something to be explored to [bring us closer to] our fans.
Q: Was the pandemic a blessing in the sense of being able to focus on the recording of this album?
Alison: I don’t think it was a blessing, but in a sense we found new motivation in making the album. We wanted to be able to record at Tyler’s home studio so we could get the same sound. It’s always good to get everyone in the same space for recording, but it was definitely a challenge because the album had different importance for each of us; some of us wanted to gig more; some of us wanted to write new songs. Because of COVID, finishing the album, recording, mixing, I think a lot of artists right now are experiencing this is a great time to be developing and putting out new songs. Because we are primarily a gigging band, the album suddenly became really important because we have fans that wouldn’t be able to hear us during COVID. Now they have this really great album with the most thoughtfully fully-written tunes that they can play at home in their living room or pop into their car, and have Zen Warship with them because we can’t gig right now. It was initially a huge obstacle, but it gave new meaning, dedication, focus, and purpose for this band to actually put our music on a recording that we could actually give to people.
Preethy: We had been planning on putting this out any way. We had been working really hard at the beginning of the year to record while promoting it and performing live, but we are happy we were able to take this opportunity to really focus on the sound of the album and make sure it was exactly what we all wanted and agreed on. That was a good thing.
Tyler: We had a lot of layered horn, vocal, and guitar parts. That just wouldn’t have been possible in a traditional studio setting because we don’t have enough money to be able to pay hours and hours for sitting in a full studio. It’s hard to be able to dedicate the full amount of time for those recordings if you’re also constantly trying to gig and do those other things the other members have already mentioned. It was a blessing to have the time to focus on the album, and to have a positive creative project that comes out at the end of this year, especially in light of all the societal chaos going on in the country. It’s nice to have something that is a hopeful look forward.
Alison: Being a part of a band where everyone said, “We are not going to hit pause on this project; we are going to find ways of continuing to build art and make music,” was really helpful. Having this album and completing this project helped me personally get through COVID, and hope that people who are buying this album or listening to their favorite musicians make new tunes gives them something to feel excited about, and it makes the statement that we don’t have to hit pause; we don’t have to hide in our dark rooms in our beds alone. We can continue to find new ways to live our lives under these new circumstances, and make sure when we can get back out into the world and there is a vaccine, that we can look back on this time and say we’ve been able to maintain relationships, forward our art, and persist.
When you’re in a band as opposed to an artist alone in the studio, other members of the band and your team will hold your feet to the fire until the project gets done.
Q: Being primarily a live band, what was the biggest hurdle in recreating your expectations of what the recording should sound like?
Preethy: I listened to some of our other recordings and live videos to sort of explore how I feel when I sing the song live and to capture that sound as much as possible. When you don’t have an audience to feed off of it’s very hard to create that emotion and that sense of feeling in your voice, and have it come through. So I tried to gauge from the recordings if certain effects would either take away or add to that. I did things in the recording that I never actually did live because there was more space where I could have multiple layered vocals. That was a new and different thing for me.
Alison: I thought Preethy was very brave in trying new things, but still shouting parts that needed to be shouted and capturing that feeling. Also, in the way recorded it we could reach out to Ben, who was the original trumpet player and wrote a lot of the horn licks, to hop on or to pull from the archives for some of his great solos; or to throw some organ on it, which usually we don’t do on stage. Roberto’s solos are just as fun and just as funky and exciting. Preethy’s vocals are just as engaging. Tyler did a great job experimenting with sound effects and organs. It ended up being really interesting because songs will have the same vibe as they do at gigs, but we weren’t afraid to mix the old with the new.
Tyler: It was fun to be recording the album in my home studio and then to send it out to a professional for mixing and mastering. I listened a lot to live James Brown and live Prince albums, to read up on how engineers create a dynamic funky, soulful album. That was very challenging. It’s so difficult to recreate that live tension and live momentum in sound. It was a fun challenge, but it was harder than I expected.
Alison: One song that I think that displays the experimentation and growth is “Grandpa,” a song we often play at concerts as filler. It’s just a kind of short dance break with minimal lyrics. Every time we play it, it’s very moldable like clay. When you hear the track on the album, you’ll hear Tyler really stretching out and learning the bounds of that, leaning us to think deeply about it. This song really benefited from the recording process.
Preethy: I agree. This song was really transformed through the process of trying different things. And an added benefit is that we will be able to go out and gig with these songs that are completely changed for the better and they’ll have been improved through this experience.
Q: Is there any fear that now you’ll have to modify something live to imitate the record?
Preethy: Not really. Sort of, but not really.
Alison: For me, I’m a jazz artist and many of my friends and fans hate my instinct that a song should never go out on stage the same. How boring. Just listen to it on the album. But most people don’t think that way. If they hear a part on the album, when they come to a concert they want it the same. I’m more of an outlier in that sense.
Preethy: I’m with Alison. My background is more improvisational style and a capella. I never sang a song the same way twice before singing in a band.
Roberto: I think I will miss some of the layers, especially the guitar, because they add so much color to the song, and when we play live I will miss that for sure.
Tyler: The issue for me is that now that we have the studio version, I will miss the keyboard parts, the multi-guitar harmonies, the multiple vocal harmonies, and in some songs we mixed twenty-seven horn parts. If you have a big band, James Brown style, you can do something like that [live], but with just four or five of us it sounds like a miniature version of what we created on the album. I appreciate the jazz-improv points that Preethy and Alison made, however when you listen to traditional funk like Chaka Kahn and Parliament Funkadelic,they improvise in some parts of the solos, but the things that are so catchy and hooky that draw people in are the repetitive melodic lines and repetitive harmonies that give that structure. The average person enjoys something that is repetitive and gives them ear candy. We can insert improvisational solos in certain sections, but my songwriting preference is to have something set in its structure so that people can follow along with it.
Preethy: I think you can have both [improv and structure], and we do that, and that’s one of our strong suits. We have solo sections where things can change, and opportunities for me to connect with the audience live because I might be speaking, I might be doing some scat, I might be doing call and response with somebody in the band. Those sections are always present in the band and that’s how we are able to keep things fresh, but merging those concepts into one.
Alison: The album might influence us to think about maybe working in an electronic feed for my trumpet, or bringing in a trombonist or an organist, because some of the songs we think really benefited from the layers, but that’s not really a change for Zen Warship because at the end of the day the bones and the structure and architecture are the same, there are always vamps and solo sections where we can improvise those influences of punk rock or pop roots with those jazz influences. We always try to do something a little bit fresh and new. Maybe the album will inspire us to try new things, but that is Zen Warship.
Tyler: That’s a good point. We want to be a constantly evolving band and not always stuck to something. The discussion as we’ve been wrapping up production of the album and preparing to release it, is also about the future of the band. We are going to be writing new music too. There is constant newness, and ways to evolve. We want to be rooted in something we like but don’t want to be tethered to it.
Alison: We aren’t Phish, we aren’t a jam band. These are well-written songs with great lyrics, but we all have different personalities so we want everyone to have their moment to stretch out, and this album really showed us we can do that.
Preethy: A personal anecdote, I’m thinking about one of the last shows we played, I remember people in the audience singing along with me. The idea of having this album for these people who have come to show after show, and they know the songs so well that they sing along, it’s for them. Of course, it’s for us, but it’s also for them too.
Q: Are there any specific takeaways that you hope a listener will experience while listening to all this work that’s gone into the recording?
Roberto: That they will look forward to when this COVID pandemic will end, so they can get out again and listen to us. I want to give them a kind of teaser, so they will crave coming out again to see us on stage.
Tyler: Intentionality. My intention is to create in listeners a very uplifting and positive emotion. I think that is very important, especially in this time period; with COVID, with winter coming, with the presidential transition, [our album] is a positive journey that people can go through. That’s the power of music. That’s the intentionality behind our music at large and really the whole purpose behind what we are doing.
Alison: We are still here and we want you to dance along to our music.
Preethy: Just dance! These songs are really danceable. Just move, and feel good!
For more Zen Warship than you can dance to in one session, please visit them on the Zen Warship Facebook Page.
Daniel Warren Hill is an American musician, writer, and motivational speaker. He is best known as the frontman for Washington DC area Alternative Rock band YellowTieGuy, as co-founder of Capitol Groove Collective, and increasing the exposure of artists on a global scale through his work with Alchemical Records.
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