Zero 7: ‘We never set out to make music to accompany Jamie and Nigella whisking eggs’

Helen Brown
·9-min read
Zero 7: ‘We’d love to write an epic pop song. But we also wince at anything that sounds generic' (Ben Ingham)
Zero 7: ‘We’d love to write an epic pop song. But we also wince at anything that sounds generic' (Ben Ingham)

Middle-class cookery programmes? Oh God!” groans Henry Binns, one half of downtempo pop duo Zero 7. “Our songs were on them all. We never set out to make music to accompany Jamie and Nigella whisking eggs. Sam [Hardaker, the other half] and I had agonised over the creation of something profound…”

But, if you look back, it’s hard to separate the ambient grooves of Zero 7 from the hipster kitchens of the early Noughties. The duo’s Mercury-nominated 2001 debut album Simple Things established them as kings of the comedown alongside Air and Morcheeba. And though it was possible to treat their music as hipster wallpaper, the smarter listener could appreciate the thoughtful layers of craftsmanship required to create its sinuous patterns. They also introduced the world to the distinctive vocals of future popstar Sia Furler, the writer of hits such as “Chandelier” and “Elastic Heart”. On the track “Destiny”, she memorably warbled the line: “I lie awake / I've gone to ground / I'm watching porn / In my hotel dressing gown…”

Binns says the duo’s ability to inhabit the bittersweet sensation of such suspended moments found old fans gravitate to their music during lockdown. Songs like “Waiting Line” felt particularly apt: “Do you believe/ In what you see?/ Motionless wheel/ Nothing is real.”

“With so many musicians struggling, it’s a bit embarrassing to admit that we’ve done quite well out of the pandemic,” Binns tells me over the phone from the Somerset home he shares with wife Bo Bruce and their small children. “But it’s been serendipitous because we’ve just re-released all our old stuff on lovely vinyl and put out a new EP, Shadows, which isn’t something we expected to be doing, because by the end of the last album [Yeah Ghost, 2009] we felt we’d gone everywhere we wanted to go and we weren’t singing from the same hymn sheet anymore. I moved to Glastonbury – we’re three fields away from the festival site – while Sam stayed in London and that was a hurdle to overcome.”

Because of their geographical separation, the pair became early adopters of Zoom. But they ran into many of the same problems the rest of us would soon come to understand. “Decision making is so much better in person,” says Binns. “If I play Sam a few chords while he’s standing next to me and he raises an eyebrow and says ‘Really?!’ then we dump it and move on. But disagreement is harder to navigate via email. He would say he didn’t like something, then I would get drunk and annoyed with him. We had to get over all of that.”

Sia (left) and Sophie Barker perform at a Zero 7 gig in 2001Rex Features
Sia (left) and Sophie Barker perform at a Zero 7 gig in 2001Rex Features

These are wrinkles in a long friendship. Binns and Hardaker met as teenagers at school in northwest London. “I was quite enamoured by Sam,” recalls Binns. “He was very cool. He was allowed to smoke weed in his house. At around 18-19, we were both really into jazz.”

Determined to “get into music” but lacking direction, they studied sound engineering together at a college on Holloway Road. “We spent a lot of time giggling and didn’t really learn very much,” says Binns. “But we met Nigel Godrich [the producer best known for his work with Radiohead] through the course and he helped us get jobs making tea at RAK studios. We made tea for Robert Plant, Scott Walker, the Pet Shop Boys… I remember Robert Plant once gave me £500 in cash for Christmas, which was a lot of money in the late 1990s. The Stone Roses came in as well. They were big drinkers. There were bottles of Jack [Daniels] everywhere.” But the most debauched band “by a long way” he says were The Pogues. “We had to prop Shane MacGowan up for at least four or five songs on the session he did with us,” says Binns. “It’s incredible he’s still with us.”

Between offering tea and stability to star turns, Binns and Hardaker built themselves “a little production room under the stairs. We had a keyboard, a primitive sampler and a sequencer.” As big fans of house music, they got their early breaks in remixing, which they did for some big names, including Radiohead, Lenny Kravitz and Lambchop. Though their hearts weren’t solely in dance music. “We were always into chillout music,” says Binns. “We were always trying to outdo each other with the most chilled cassette compilations. When those Cafe Del Mar compilations came along suddenly you had Quincy Jones next to some hip-hop and we loved it. We realised we had been searching for the sound of your first mojito in a nice bar.”

Along with bands like Air and Morcheeba, Zero 7 offered intelligent, introspective downtime tunes, which was characterised by the distinct retro-soul sound of the Fender Rhodes keyboard, an instrument with an unusual/fascinating story. The piano was developed during the Second World War by Harold Rhodes to offer music therapy to wounded soldiers. To make his pianos small enough to fit onto hospital beds, Rhodes reduced the standard keyboard to 2.5 octaves. He used hydraulic aluminium pipes from the wings of the B-17 bombers to produce a “healing” tone when cut to xylophone length. After the war, Rhodes pitched the pianos down using strings from a doorbell manufacturer and later electrified them. But you can still hear the soothing xylophone chime of their original purpose in the sound, which Binns describes as “warm but melancholy. Lost and soulful. It sucks me in like gravity, and adds an extra dimension to folk artists like John Martyn.”

With their music written, Binns and Hardaker assembled folkier singer-songwriter Sophie Barker, Jamaican-born indie artist Mozez and powerhouse Sia Furler at the mic. “We waited a long time for a singer to knit the whole project together,” says Binns. “And my God, Sia was that singer. Sam played football with her manager at the time, one day he came up and said ‘I’ve got this girl...’ Sam kind of rolled his eyes at that point, but she came down to the studio and we knew instantly she had something very special. In fact, that afternoon we wrote two great songs which went on to be ‘Destiny’ and ‘Distractions’. She worked so fast – was so completely in the moment. If you didn’t catch her vocal on the first take you worried it might never happen.”

Sia contributed vocals to Zero 7’s first three albums, becoming known as the group’s “unofficial lead singer” before her solo career took off with the release of her fourth album, Some People Have Real Problems, in 2008. “I’m really glad for her and I always knew she had it in her,” he says. You could always tell, he continues, that she was going to be massive. “She wrote her stuff in five minutes and the talent was self-evident. She’s capable of writing cliched stuff but it’s never dull. I know how special her talent is because I try to write pop songs myself. If I could write a single for Adele I bloody would. We’d love to write an epic pop song. But we also wince at anything that sounds generic. I’m afraid it’s always just more of a tortured affair for us.”

Although he has continued to work with other artists, including his wife (with whom he formed the group Equador), Binns says he was feeling so “bummed out and drained” by the creative process that he took a break last year to work as a painter and decorator. “It was so satisfying to just see physical progress happening. And I needed the money, too!”

Zero 7’s new material arose out of some work Binns was doing with 28-year-old Australian folk singer Lou Stone. “Lou’s quite an old soul,” says Binns. “He’s got a proper bluesy soul voice and an amazing falsetto which makes him sound quite androgynous. Initially we were working on Lou’s stuff but it started sounding like Zero 7 music.”

The folk-soul of the four track Shadows EP sets some fairly dark thoughts to its warm blend of fiddle and Fender Rhodes. The title track finds a man trapped in his bed with a sword above his head, repeating “I don’t think I’m gonna go and venture out”.

“Lou wrote the lyrics to the song ‘Shadows’ before the pandemic,” says Binns. “But they’ve really resonated with people in lockdown.”

The EP’s closing song, “Outline”, washes Stone’s falsetto heartbreak over a warm bed of synths. “A part of you is leaving/ And we both know, we both know,” he sings. “That song is utterly Sam,” says Binns. “He’s offering this nostalgic, almost pained view of life as you zoom out. It’s quite an autobiographical song. There’s a lot of our relationship in that song, too. We’ve been friends and working pals for 30 years now. The song’s about seeing the outline of something new on the horizon and about the anticipation of not knowing how so many aspects of your life will end up.”

Binns tells me there’s a new album in the pipeline. But we might have to wait a while. “Me and Sam… we write stuff then rip it to shreds. Over and over again. Songs take us ages. I read about people like Van Morrison writing stuff on a fag packet on the way to the studio and I wish we could do it that way. Like Sia. But we really can’t.”

On the upside, Binns says the duo are “much more capable of appreciating the process these days, because we were a bit arrogant, a bit flippant in our twenties”. He’s also made his peace with Zero 7’s place in cultural history. “Sam will still shudder at the term ‘trip-hop’, and I still wince at all the Jamie Oliver stuff. But, you know, we did alright out of those cookery shows. So the snobs can do one.”

Shadows is out now

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