At the start of March, 2011 I was backstage at the Jazz Cafe prior to ZO! and Sy Smith‘s first solo London show, lucky enough to have scored an interview. The pair had hopped the channel that morning following a successful performance in Paris to come and entertain the crowd at the KEEP THE FAITH ‘NEO SOULWW’ event. How on earth they retained any enthusiasm for an interview with little old SoulCuts is beyond me, but Sy beckoned me into the room with a warm and sweet demeanour before getting on with the ironing. The previous interviewer hung around chatting with them while I stood in the corner, quiet, feeling a bit of a lemon, but that’s cool, it’s not an unusual look for me.
In an uninspiring room at the top of the Jazz Cafe, Zo! was spread out across what I can only describe as a huge slanted wooden donut, possibly the most uncomfortable piece of furniture since the electric chair. ZO! is a pretty big guy – not fat, mind you (that’s my forte!), regardless of how much macaroni cheese he wishes to gobble (quite a lot, apparently!), but he nonetheless carries a strong physical presence. Aligned to that physicality seemed to be a shy nature. This is somebody who clearly speaks honestly through the music (a thought further evidenced by his blistering performance on the Camden stage later that night) without any unnecessary embellishments.
Sy, on the other hand, has unmistakable star quality. Very sweet and engaging, mindful to pay attention but with an aura that denotes talents beyond my ken. Of course, the hair and the make-up and overall style are initially striking. There’s only two reasons for style such as Sy’s. You’re either making up for a lack of personality, or there’s so much going on that it spills out into your look. We all know it’s the latter in Sy‘s case. Watching Sy perform that evening with polish, class, sincerity and humour reminded me of one of my all-time favourite performers, the legendary Marlena Shaw.
ZO! was enamoured by my iPhone recorder app, describing it as ‘crazy’. As I started the questions, I was aware that I had very little time with the guys, having been warned that it could be as little as ten minutes. That being the case, I didn’t want to pussyfoot around and run through the standard set of promo questions, so I launched straight into it:
SoulCuts: Who do you consider to be the greatest duo in soul and jazz?
- Zo!: Greatest duo. Oh man, I’m gonna have to go on my iTunes…
Sy: Marvin and Diana
ZO!: Right, right, right…
SoulCuts: Where’s Tammie?
Sy: (Laughs) Yeah, right…
ZO!: Ashford & Simpson, as songwriters…
Sy: I love Ella and Louis…
ZO!: Yeah, yeah, yeah…
Sy: I listen to Louis and Ella together all the time….
Zo!: I’m going to have to think about this one…
SoulCuts: Ashford & Simpson definitely was the first that came to my mind…
ZO!: Yeah, you know, in terms of songwriting….wow! They don’t have to do anything right now…they could just sit back and gather up a hundred and fifty thousand tweets, you know, just doing nothing…yeah, they killed it…
- Zo!: Nah, nah! He is in a class of his own. We just did it last night, I wasn’t gonna do it, but Sy had to persuade me.
Sy: But he sounded so good. It was My Flame, the end chorus, the reprise, you know the ‘sky is the limit’ part and he sounded so good. It was actually nice.
ZO! (looking a little bashful): I wasn’t gonna do it. You know, I barely sing around the house. I wouldn’t want to hear it.
SoulCuts: So, talking about multi-instrumentalists, vocalists, who for you are the great all-rounders?
- Zo! (in a heartbeat): Stevie.
Sy: Stevie and Sting, George Benson.
ZO!: Stevie Wonder’s unfair, man. I always joke, you know, I say, man, if I meet Stevie, you know, I’m just gonna to hit him in his face.
Sy: Rachelle Ferrell is pretty unfair too.
ZO!: You know (still talking about Stevie), in terms of the talent, it’s hard not to get jealous. But instead of getting jealous, I get motivated. It motivates you to practice more. You can’t get jealous ‘coz that’s what he is, what he has, what he does and what he’s been doing his whole life.
SoulCuts: Hey, you never know, I’m sure you’ll meet him one day (what do I know???!!??).
ZO!: You know, that would just be…amazing…the best.
Sy: I met him one time when I first moved out to California at a cookout in Sacramento. Just something for Labour day and one of my friends was like, Stevie Wonder’s here, you should sing for him and I’m like, why would I do that? It’s a cookout, he’s here to eat some chicken. And then, somebody set up some little keyboard and I just went up into this room, because nobody else was in there and I was just chilling. So, I started playing, Always on My Mind by Brandy and I was just popping out the chords and Stevie Wonder walked in there and he was like, what are you playing? And I said, Always on My Mind, by Brandy and he then put his hands on top of my hands like this and then starts singing it and stops, shaking his head and saying, damn, she should have won a grammy. And I said, yeah she should have and he said, yeah, that’s a bad tune, and I’m there, like, yeah, it is…and the whole time I’m thinking, I’m gonna throw up, oh my god! Stevie Wonder’s hands are on top of mine, feeling what I’m playing. It was awesome. And from that moment on, he asked me my name, where you from and what’s your sign and then he was all like, it was good to meet you. And then fast-forward two or three months and my man Herman Jackson was in Stevie Wonder’s band, and he said I should come to rehearsal and I was like, OK. And I showed up at rehearsal and went up to him and said, Hi Stevie, it’s Sy. Waving, like he can see me. And he’s like, hey Sy, good to see you, laughing at me. And then he says, Sy, you’re an aquarius, you we’re born in February, right?
SoulCuts: And Stevie’s got to meet about a million people a day…
Sy: Right. He has got the memory of an elephant. Because then he sees me again at an Ethiopian restaurant on Fairfax where I used to live, and I went up to him again, saying, Hi Stevie, it’s Sy and he’s all like, yeah, I remember you, you’re an aquarius…
ZO!: Wow! Stevie’s the musical Rainman! Goodness gracious!
SoulCuts: So, from everybody’s musical hero, Stevie, what are your more unusual musical heroes. The ones, perhaps, people would not associate with you. Maybe, secret loves. The pair look puzzled.
- ZO!: Oh man…Sy: Trent Reznor!
SoulCuts (mishearing Sy): No, it’s not a trick question.
Sy: No! Trent Reznor
SoulCuts: Oh, right. Oops.
Sy: Trent Reznor and Kurt Cobain. I love Trent Reznor. Love him. And you said secret loves. Well, everybody knows I love Michael Jackson and I love Diana Ross, but I don’t think everybody knows that I’m a big Nine Inch Nails fan and a big Nirvana head.
Zo! (Who has clearly been deep in thought): You know what, Kenny Loggins early stuff.
Sy: Oh, yes lord!
ZO!: And I didn’t really get on into his stuff until a couple of years ago. But like, the joint, Wait a Little While…that joint is so stupid…and you know, when you grow up in the eighties and the first time that you hear of Kenny Loggins is Footloose and you’ll be like, that’s some pop shit, but Kenny can go! He can sing his ass off, AND songwrite! Like Michael McDonald, he’s another one. All these guys were just so talented and they blew up over this little cornball song but they have a catalogue of just…greatness that you discover when you get older…you know, you almost get mad…like, I wish I’d have known that he’d worked with Bob James and all those guys much earlier…I definitely would have been rocking that as a kid, for sure.
SoulCuts: Isn’t it always nice to discover new but classic material though. You know, you go through a phase when you first get into music and it’s all shivers up the back of your neck and then it’s hard to find that excitement so much in newer releases.
ZO!: Right, right. You have to make it exciting.
SoulCuts: You’re Clive Davis for the day (you know I’m not sure either of these guys could pull off his ‘look’, particularly Sy. Yours truly on the other hand…I’m thinking about launching myself as a Clive Davis lookalike…), what are you going to do?
- ZO!: Wow!
Sy: Clive Davis for a day. That’s a hard one.
ZO!: I’m going to say something selfish.
ZO! (as Clive Davis): I’m putting together a SunStorm tour with everyone who’s on the album.
ZO!: And a full band with every element, by that I mean two keys, guitar, bass, drums, percussion, as well as a trumpet….
SoulCuts: How about some strings?
ZO!: Yeah, why not. We might as well orchestrate it. So, that’s what I’m doing. I’m being super-selfish.
Sy: I suppose mine’s selfish too but I was thinking something along the lines of making all the radio stations have an underground soul week where they can only play stuff that they have never played before.
ZO!: Or a defined a time-slot every day for that, like four ‘til seven.
Sy: The underground soul drive home.
SoulCuts: I like this radio station.
SoulCuts: So, is R&B dead?
- Sy: No
Sy: The genre is not dead. The people are still making the music. People are listening to it, but the radio is dead. Radio only plays this new form of R&B that’s like some techno shit…
SoulCuts: I know, what is that stuff? It’s like back to the nineties Europop.
Sy: The genre will never be dead. And for that matter, there’s no genre that will ever die, you know, from Native American stuff to Hawaiian stuff, there’s always going to be somebody out there who is a purist and who wants to preserve and, you know, for that reason, it will never die. It will evolve.
SoulCuts: But perhaps, the R&B out there now is part of that evolution. If we look back to the nineties and the music being produced then, those artists making R&B twenty or thirty years prior would not have considered that to be R&B. So, I wonder if because we’re a generation that grew up on a certain sound, the stuff that’s around now, as much as we don’t like it, it still is perhaps R&B…
ZO!: But you know what, I have always been the old man since I was 22, you know, I don’t like that shit, that shit sounds terrible. I’ve been that guy for a long time and I don’t care. You know, I like what I like.
SoulCuts: How do you feel about these artists now coming out as having performed for Ghadafi?
- Sy: I feel like you can’t single out artists without singling out companies; the weapons manufacturers, and the tank companies and the software companies, these guys that make all these things that help these dictators stay in power. If you’re going to single out Beyonce, then single out Boeing and Glock and all those folks, you know what I mean because those are the ones that are making billions hand over foot. Single out BP and the oil companies.
SoulCuts: So would either of you have performed, had you been asked?
Sy: I wouldn’t even perform for George Bush!
ZO!: It’s all about being able to sleep at night. You know, you’ll get your cheque, but there’s so many other ways to get a cheque…you know, I wouldn’t perform at a Klan rally!
SoulCuts: My grandfather played the organ and when he died, he played at his own funeral as he’d made a recording of him playing. So, the question is would you play at your own funeral!
- ZO!: Greatest question I’ve ever got! (laughs)
SY: That’s funny.
ZO!: Shit, why not?
Sy: I would play something that has nothing to do with a funeral (starts scatting).
ZO!: I’d play I Want You Back by the Jackson 5. Something super happy, uptempo. I mean, why not play SunStorm.
SoulCuts: Oh yeah. The whole album. Everybody’s got to wait and listen to the whole thing.
ZO!: MAKE THEM WAIT!
Sy: I’m Clive Davis for my funeral!
The gig that followed will burn long into the memories of the lucky peeps that had made it down to the KEEP THE FAITH ‘NEO SOULWW’ event. Much respect to Paul Aaron and the crew for putting on one of the most enjoyable events of 2011. And don’t miss the KEEP THE FAITH ‘UK SOUL JAM’ on Sunday 3rd April.