We chat with TZU
Shortly after the release of TZU’s highly successful album, Computer Love, four years ago, the band went on hiatus. Some members had children, while others explored the world or - like Joel Ma aka Joelistics - released solo albums, but now they’ve gotten back together. With a new single out, an album on its way, a national tour kicking off very soon and tickets to Prince to arrange, Ma is busy; but it’s a state of affairs he’s enjoying.
“Melbourne is doing that beautiful Melbourne thing it does where it’s just pissing down with rain” Ma starts off, “But it’s been a pretty good day actually. I’ve been rehearsing with TZU like three out of four nights… I wake up every day with the lyrics to new songs in my head.” With rehearsals on, it sounds like the album must be ready to go, but Ma believes there’s still things to finish off. “We’re very close, the end is in sight but we still have a few more vocal takes to go, a bit more music.”
Although fans will have to wait to get their hands on the album itself, they’ll be able to check out a few new songs during the upcoming Beginning Of The End tour. “The rehearsal for this next run of shows,” Ma explains, “we’re splitting the set between old classics, from the TZU canon, and new music which is really ambitious and quite difficult to play. There’s a lot of planning… and we’re potentially starting a whole new pattern of how we play,” says Ma.
“It’s very exciting, but also daunting, because there’s a lot to learn. It’s very easy when you write a record to be sonically ambitious and then when you sit down and try to work out how you’re going to present it live it can totally fuck your life up.”
It’s that threat of danger that TZU thrive on however, and Ma wouldn’t have it any other way. “I think currently the art of realising electronic music live is kind of like the Wild West,” he comments. “There’s so many different methods you can use and there’s no tried-and-true proven way.”
“I don’t think many electronic musicians worth their salt just want to press play… TZU has got a bit of chaos already implanted in the DNA so we wanted to make sure that the way we play live is exciting for us and the audience and has the possibility of fucking up because it’s more exciting and means that you can rise to the occasion. There’s got to be some sense of improvisation. There’s got to be something of the in-the-moment feeling that music is made of.”
A video detailing the creation of their new single “The Beginning of the End” certainly shows how different some of their new music will be; with choirs, a wide array of instruments and an almost rock feel. It feels like TZU are pushing their sound in new directions and that’s something Ma is quick to elaborate on. “First of all, the new record, I wouldn’t call it hip-hop. I would say it’s influenced a lot by hip-hop in the same way that Gorillaz or Santigold are.”
“I think when we started this record,” he continues, “we’d had four years off, we all had life changing experiences and moved in different directions as individuals and we sat down together and decided to take away any barriers towards what style, genre, or scope we made this album. So it’s a very ambitious record and we probably never even thought we’d play it live. I think in some ways we’d all come to a point where we all expected that we might not ever play live again, but with the finishing of the record there was this enthusiasm for the band which made us want to go out and share it and play it on stage.”
Having come from his solo work as Joelistics, returning to the collaborative environment, for Ma, was not without its challenges. He admits he’s notorious for being a control freak “and when it’s a solo project, it’s just so suited to a control freak,” he states. “You come back to a band and you go, ‘oh that’s right. We have to sit around a table and make decisions and everyone has to have their two cents’. But, it means you come up with music that’s far better – more rich and unexpected and unpredictable – than you can do by yourself. I love it.”
“These guys are my brothers,” admits Ma, “beyond music we’re really, really good friends. But it does make getting some of the day-to-day small stuff harder to manage. You’ve got more heads in the pot. How’s that for a mixed metaphor?”
TZUs lyrics have always included pop-culture references and while there may not be any Ferris Bueller quotes on the new record, it sounds like Australia’s own culture and history is playing a part in their music. “A lot of the lyrics from the new record are stories based on old convict tales” explains Ma, “there is a loose theme running throughout the album about time travel. So it sort of puts the personality or the mind of someone who’s alive in modern day, with stories launched… like 150 years ago. There’s characters like Alexander Pearce, the famous Tasmanian cannibal, and just interesting historical characters that sort of pop up in the songs.”
Ma also says he’s particularly looking forward to one of the first shows on the upcoming tour, an appearance at the Wide Open Spaces Festival, in Alice Springs,“It’s my favourite festival in Australia. It’s very small, it’s out in the middle of the desert. So it’s outside, with a great sound system in amongst ancient land.Watching the sunset or sunrise is a really special experience out there.”
“I think there’s a lot of anticipation,” Ma confesses excitedly, “and just a smidge of anxiety amongst TZU because we have had this big break and the music we’re writing now is quite different. But I think for us as a group, we’ve always prided ourselves on being able to do what’s different. Not just the genre that we’re attached to: hip-hop, but to ourselves to reinvent what we are… definitely with this one, we’ve really thrown a massive curve-ball and I think there’s – with all the anticipation and a little anxiety – there’s this massive excitement to get out there and give it to people and sort of go, ‘what do you think of this?’”
- Sky Kirkham