J Hacha De Zola | Picaro Obscuro | S/R | Aug. 12th, 2016
J Hacha De Zola has managed to actually “escape from Fat Kat City,” (the title of his early 2016 debut album), leaving Rahway, New Jersey and the shadow of the maximum security prison that literally loomed over him while recording that record, and venturing across the country to practice his “reductive synthesis” in a tiny studio built in an old boiler room in Portland, Oregon. It’s here that he was joined by the rest of the “Fat Kat” band, as well as some legendary players in the form of Ralph Carney and David Coulter, to record Hacha De Zola’s second full-length album of 2016, Picaro Obscuro, arriving on August 12th.
Upon the release of Escape From Fat Kat City, Hacha De Zola was described by UTNE as “the kind of alluring character found in old children’s books,” and now he continues to expand on the songs that CMJ referred to as his “slithery croon tunes,” with Picaro Obscuro, which the artist describes as “an absurdist nightmare of sorts.” Influences on the sound of Picaro Obscuro according to Hacha De Zola include: Perez Prado, Captain Beefheart, Screaming Jay Hawkins, Danil Kharms, Arthur Rimbaud, Frank Zappa, Tom Waits, Nick Cave, and Syd Barrett.
Thematically, Hacha De Zola says that while his debut was more of “a survey of an emotional landscape,” Picaro Obscuro is more about the man himself, “continuing the journey of this guy, ‘our protagonist,’ a man who may exist on the fringes of experience, but whose heart is “chaotically good. Having escaped the confines of ‘Fat Kat City,’ we make our way through a draconian existence, into a state of darkness, chaos and confusion,” Hacha De Zola says.
Indeed, Picaro Obscuro is more of a surrealist nightmare than the admittedly already dark, “urban junkyard” that Hacha De Zola constructed previously. It’s a musical direction that is affirmed by the muscle backing him in the studio this time around, bringing Hacha De Zola’s unique vibe and energy into further focus, and cementing a menacing sort of J Hacha De Zola sound all his own.
“He’s like a codeine cough syrup dream on the train to Zurich,” is how legendary sax man Carney describes Hacha De Zola. Carney, who made his bones with Tom Waits, Elvis Costello, The B-52s, They Might Be Giants, and Frank Black (and who is also the uncle of The Black Keys co-founder, Patrick Carney), makes his tenor and baritone horns an omnipresent force on Picaro Obscuro.
“This is a very sax-heavy record, and how could it not be, with Ralph Carney on nearly every track?” Hacha De Zola exclaims. “I’m delighted!”
Multi-instrumentalist Coulter is everywhere, as well. Coulter, who has recorded, performed and toured with artists as diverse as Damon Albarn, Jarvis Cocker, Laurie Anderson, Kronos Quartet, Yoko Ono, and Beck among many other notables, shares a common compatriot with Carney in Waits. Carney performed on the Waits album The Black Rider, a collection of the songs from the theater piece of the same name for which Coulter served as Associate Musical Director.
“So, there we were, having traveled a few thousand miles to these modest recording accommodations,” Hacha De Zola remembers. “And I’m offering up apologies for bringing them into this situation, when David most graciously replies ‘Relax J, do you really think this is the first boiler room I’ve recorded in?” We laughed and moved on, and I realized that I had somehow managed to get Ralph Carney and David Coulter into the studio together again,” Hacha De Zola says, beaming.
Carney and Coulter’s most recent previous collaboration was on Secret Language, an album they released as a duo in 2012.
“I consider ‘Uncle Ralph’ to be a veritable demigod of weird,” Hacha De Zola says. “A glorious beast that has rocked alongside the strongest of the strange. He’s been essential in furthering our training in the ways of the absurd. I told him to feel free to bring whatever he wanted to the sessions as there’s no need to tell a guy like Ralph Carney what to do – you just get outta of the damn way!”
Other musicians joining the sessions, eventually numbering at more than a dozen players, include members of NYC’s “Psycho-Mambo” group Gato Loco, The Sunnyside Social Club, and Lubomir Smilenov, who Hacha De Zola affectionately calls “The Bulgarian Wolf.”
“He’s is an absolutely brilliant artist who mostly performs on an array Bulgarian folk instruments, all of which have a unique feel and element of primordial rawness,” Hacha De Zola explains. “It’s like liquid darkness.”
As for the actual creative process, Hacha De Zola says, “I hope this doesn’t sound pretentious, but I like to refer to the recording process as ‘reductive synthesis.’ I didn’t have any ‘songs,’ coming into the studio. All I had was a vague direction of where I thought a ‘song’ might be taking us, and I would ask the musicians to go ahead and throw everything they had at it, to be free to play what they felt. We’d capture it all and peel the various layers back until a ‘song’ would reveal itself, kind of like sculptor creates a statue.”
With that, it wasn’t long before Hacha De Zola found himself back home in Rahway, “peeling back the layers,” with many, many takes to sort through. Now on the other side of creation, with Picaro Obscuro scheduled for release, Hacha De Zola has had a moment to reflect, but hasn’t necessarily come up with any conclusions.
“The way I went about making this record was quite different from the Fat Kat sessions,” Hacha De Zola says. “I didn’t go in with songs written, I wrote them in the studio, which can be terrifying. I am still not entirely sure what we ended up with, and I find that fact exciting,” he continues. “I guess making a record is like getting a new haircut. You go in with this idea of what you will look like, but once it’s over, you might be feeling vulnerable and a little unsettled by what you see staring back at you.”
The first single from Picaro Obscuro is “Bubble Gum,” which Hacha De Zola describes as “a song about distractions, escapism, confusion, and detaching from reality in pursuit of confections. The world might be burning while we’re caught up in our trivialities. Ultimately, it’s not a criticism; it’s just an observation, as I’m right in it, too.”
These days, Hacha De Zola is already deep into the creation of his third album, which he is describing as the light to Picaro Obscuro’s darkness, saying, “It’s the ‘light’ album. It will literally be a collection of mirror images of Picaro Obscuro, lyrically, harmonically, and melodically. I just hope I can pull it off.”
And then that may be it?
“I feel that I want every record to be part of a progression of this J Hacha De Zola fellow,” he says. “These records have a direction, a ‘grain’ to them. They are moving towards something, and I feel that once they are complete, I will have grown as a musician, an artist, and above all, as a human being. Maybe three records is all there is? I guess we’ll find out when we get there.”
Picaro Obscuro, the second album (and second of 2016) by J Hacha De Zola arrives on August 12th, 2016. The album’s first single “Bubble Gum” is streaming now.