Interview: Zatopeks

Posted: April 2, 2014 in Small Talk

Zatopeks formed in 2001 and have been consistently been one of the most interesting, creative and bloody catchy pop-punk bands in Europe. Unlike many bands from this scene, they can’t be so easily pigeon-holed as pop-punk, with a variety of influences being evident, including folk and Russian futurist writers. Their latest album About Bloody Time just came out at the tail-end of last year and is fantastic. If you haven’t checked it out already, you really need to. So, I chatted to the now well-dispersed Zatopeks about their time as a band.

Let’s start at the beginning: who is in Zatopeks and how did the band form, way back in 2001? A couple of you guys played together in a band prior to Zatopeks, right?

Sam: Sebby, Spider, Pete, Will and myself make up the band. We all played in a band called 3 1/2 Inch Floppy, apart from Spider who was jumping off things in various stoner/hardcore bands.

Sebby: Most of us met at university in Birmingham, except for Sam – but then Will had known him rather longer! When we started Zatopeks, it was just a bit of a joke side-project from 3 1/2 Inch Floppy which was our main band and had been going for a couple of years. We started off just playing covers and had a short lived idea to only write songs in a made up language, but luckily that didn’t last too long! We had a lot of fun with it though, the songs started getting a bit more serious and people ended up liking it more so it just kind of took over.

Pete: I love that it started as a joke and we’re still having fun doing it! Probably the most valuable lesson I learnt from university!

Next year will be the ten year anniversary of your first album Ain’t Nobody Left But Us. What are your reflections when you look back on it now? What were your aims when you released it?

Will: Ain’t Nobody Left But Us! Our album titles are always defined by Anglicisms. It was exciting to be part of the Stardumb Records scene around then, and I guess I can already look back at it with a kind of rose- (or Heineken-) tinted nostalgia. All the songs are linked to old jokes or personal memories, so it’s difficult to critically assess it, but I think it still sounds really good… youthful exuberance and all that. There were no real aims as I recall, but maybe the others can correct me and I’ve just suppressed the world-dominance aspiration memories through subsequent disappointment. I remember playing a gig in Denmark around that time and somebody we’d never met was singing along to our song while we were playing. I thought ‘we’ve made it!’, and that approach to success hasn’t really changed for any of us.

Sam: Yeah, as far as I remember we never had any aims. Just go out, have fun and give 110% every time. We can only beat ourselves. I think we may have beaten ourselves.

There is a good mix of ‘90s pop punk and ‘50s-style rock ‘n’ roll on that record, does this reflect your influences at the time?

Will: Very broadly, yes. Sam and I are brothers (you’d never have guessed) and grew up with our dad’s rock n’ roll records from an early age, though it was more Sam who turned into the Teddy Boy. In the late 90s when I started writing songs I was heavily influenced by my personal holy trinity of Screeching Weasel/The Queers/The Invalids, the latter being a massively underrated band. I guess the album was an attempt to blend these musical directions and include some tongue-in-cheek nostalgia via the ‘Jimmy’ gang stories, which we found hilarious at the time. But by this stage my main influences were more people like Tom Waits and Aaron Cometbus, both of whom had a big impact on the lyrics. You can already see that somewhat in the lyric book, and in Sam’s weird, grizzly Tom Waits-ish impression on ‘Mary Lou’. We were always terribly subtle.

Pete: Yeah it was all Lookout!, leather jackets, Ramones and fun back then!

Will: … and now it’s all Mayakovsky, corduroy jackets and angst!

Who writes the lyrics in the band? Does it tend to be a collective process, or is it normally one person who writes them?

Will: I write the lyrics and the basic songs on an acoustic guitar, and then play them to the chaps and we arrange them together. It was Seb’s idea to translate the Low German dialect into English for the chorus of ‘Politics’ on the new record, though. Definitely wise advice; I get a bit carried away sometimes.

Sam: That was definitely a good call by Sebby. Although a shame we didn’t record an alternative version with the Low German dialect.

Pete: As a band we have quite a wide range of musical & other influences, so the way we sound and perform seems to come together at the natural cross over of these influences all trying to sneak their way in amongst the framework of Will’s unique stylings.

My favourite song by you guys is “Some Town in Northern France”. Was this inspired by a real-life incident?

Will: Yes. Actually only one person who was there that night knows that there’s a song about it, and one which is still being sung 16 years later. I’d just finished A-Levels in 1998 and some schoolmates called me up asking if I wanted to go to France the next day as they’d found return tickets for 15 quid. We went to Calais, had no idea what we were doing, fled an awful discotheque and ended up walking around the countryside all night armed with several lukewarm stubbies of Export ’33. It was in one of these little villages that we passed these girls sitting at a fountain drinking beer. We all just glanced at each other and then we bottled it and wandered on, and then finally a couple of us decided to go back to the village and say bon soir. After being searched by some suspicious policemen who wondered why scruffy English teenagers were roaming around their otherwise pristine settlement, we finally got to the square and they were gone. To be honest, the girls were probably heavy metal fans, and not the ‘punk rock girls’ I sing about, but I thought that wouldn’t have worked as well in the song. It was an early lesson in both carpe diem and poetic license.

With Damn Fool Music, there were noticeably slower-paced and more experimental songs after the more straightforward pop-punk of your first album. Was this something you were actively looking to do, or did it just happen naturally?

Will: There was no conscious decision, but the lyrics of ‘I don’t want the Airwaves’ function as a kind of accidental manifesto for that album. I didn’t listen to much straightforward pop-punk then anyway, and it was an attempt to reflect our various musical interests whilst still sounding like the Zatopeks. Pete and I are massive jazz fans so this record was the first to try bringing in jazz lyrical and musical references. Damn Fool Music was chosen as a title because it was Sam and my great-grandfather’s dismissive term for jazz, and it was really fun to attack the Daily Mail using syncopation and muted trumpet. I guess it’s quite a transitional album, and you were right in your recent review to say that, taken together, it’s more eclectic but perhaps less effective as a whole than About Bloody Time. Thematically and musically I think it was a step forward, though.

Sam: I think we were also kind of finding our sound. We definitely tried to mix this one up a bit and didn’t want to make a straight up pop punk record. It was fun to play about a bit and we had also improved as musicians. Will was also getting a bit sick of writing songs about chewing bubblegum beside a jukebox, which is understandable. I think if we’d have stayed the same band as on the first record we probably wouldn’t have bothered making a third. I don’t know though, works for Motörhead.

You released “Handclaps and Bottlecaps”, a split 7”, with The Copyrights, in 2006. How did that come about?

Sam: I literally have no idea. I think Adam wanted to do something a bit different for It’s Alive. He asked both bands and we were well up for it. That was a lot of fun to make and I guess it also got us into contact with The Copyrights.

Pete: Those songs were really fun to record acoustic style. It was done by a friend of Sam’s who was getting into sound engineering and had a sweet little home-studio set-up, which meant we had time to mess about with the ridiculous intro on Death and the Hobo and the handclaps!

The 7” came out on It’s Alive Records. You have also released another 7”, as well as co-releasing your latest LP on It’s Alive. How did you get involved with Adam and It’s Alive?

Sebby: I’ve known Adam for a long time, it must be over 10 years by now! We’d been trading records online and talking for quite a while and I remember him telling me he was planning to start a label. Pretty soon afterwards we were working on our first album and we talked to him about It’s Alive doing an LP version but unfortunately the album was too long for the pressing plant he was using at the time to fit onto one record. We had a couple of extra songs that we recorded in the same session though and so It’s Alive put those out those on a 7″ with 2 other songs from the album, so at least some of them would get a vinyl release! When we were working on Damn Fool Music, Adam had the amazing idea of releasing a double gatefold LP of both albums together, but unfortunately that was going to be way too expensive! Then when we came to do this album, we were very keen to work with It’s Alive again, and to make sure that we had an LP version planned from the start.

So, your new album About Bloody Time came out at the tail-end of 2013, after a 6 year gap since the last one. Just where have you been?

Will: Well, it’s a hobby and it’s quite difficult to coordinate since we’re scattered around a bit. Spider, Sam and I moved to Berlin in 2005 and now we only tend to meet up all together for gigs or recording, which means we don’t do so much but we’re always excited to hang out and play together (speaking for myself, at least!) when we have the chance. The Berlin section is also playing in a streetpunk band called Tungsten Tips, with our friend Debby on vocals and me on drums, and that band is more active given that we all live in the same city.

Sebby: I also started another band with some friends in London called Paperjets a couple of years ago so that I could still play in between Zatopeks tours. It’s been strange getting used to having regular band practices again after spending so long in a band that’s spread out across different countries, and where band practice involves at least 2 of us having to take a flight.

Pete: Swinging on moonbeams & singing to the wind!

In the intervening years, were you still gigging much as a band?

Will: We’ve done a few tours for between 2-4 weeks over the years which were lengthy by our standards, but would probably constitute a long weekend to someone like Kepi Ghoulie or The Murderburgers. We try to tour like that at least once a year and then do a few weekends or festivals, though it doesn’t always work out. Luckily we can borrow people from other bands if someone can’t make it, and Matthias and Mikey from the DeeCracks are honorary Zatopeks these days.

Pete: Like Will said before, the lack of regular shows is more than compensated for by the fun we have when we do get together to play!!

I notice that you tend to play shows outside of the UK a lot, including Insubordination Fest in the US. Is this something you want to continue doing if possible?

Will: Since 60% of us live outside the UK it’s often more convenient to play on the continent, and I love how many different cultures you can cross in just a week or two of touring in Europe. We played in Ancona, Italy last year at a brilliant antifascist social centre, and within 10 minutes we were drinking the regional liquor with the organisers and learning about Italian politics, which are a thoroughly depressing topic for them but fascinating for us. Then the next day with we went with the other band (The Dinasyt) to a barbecue at someone’s house in the hills above the city and celebrated the anniversary of Italy’s liberation from fascism with a bunch of really nice and half-cut locals. Experiences like that remind you why you’re in a punk band, and I want to be able to do that for as long as is physically possible.

Sam: Since we started as a band we’ve always tried to play abroad. We’ve met so many good friends from all over and as we don’t play so much it’s nice to go on a proper trip. Although we would all definitely like to play more in the UK.

Going back to the UK, do you think the UK punk/pop-punk scene has changed much since you started as a band?

Will: Unless it was hiding from us, I don’t recall there being any pop-punk scene around 1999 when we met. Crackle! Records in Yorkshire was putting out some native pop-punk stuff, but we never encountered any of those bands at the time. It certainly felt like it was just The Griswalds, Punch Puppet and us, although I’m sure there were things going on elsewhere that we weren’t aware of. Last week I saw the line-up for the Stuck in Springtime festival in Glasgow and it was all UK pop-punk bands. There’s been a boom, for whatever reason. Styles have changed a bit in general, but I’ll sound like an old man if I start trying to figure out or explain what the kids are up to these days. More beards, less fake American accents. That’s my summary.

Sebby: Yes, I think the scene has changed a lot since we started. I remember going to (and playing) so many gigs in nearly empty venues in those days – I particularly remember seeing Sloppy Seconds play in Birmingham in 1999 and being one of only about 10 people there. There have always been great bands around, but I guess it was a lot harder to find out about stuff. It does feel like there’s a lot more going on these days and people seem more interested in UK bands now, whereas before it was always much more about American bands.

Pete: It seems to go in waves a bit depends on who’s about & what venues are going at any given time, but that said, the last few years there have been some fantastic new UK bands and lots of great bands playing that have been going for donkeys years. I’ve probably been particularly lucky being based in Bristol too, as there are some great promoters and there’s been a continuous run of amazing punk shows with some really great local bands, as well as others from across the the uk, europe and the world… and long may that continue!

Well, the new one has definitely been worth the wait. How do you think it turned out? What were you going for with About Bloody Time?

Will: Simon Speechless did a brilliant job on the production and I’m really proud of it all. One thing we wanted to make sure of was that it was an album we could play live, and that seems to have worked well. We were also going for a heavier sound and something that worked as a whole, rather than being a collection of different approaches and styles. Also, touring with The Copyrights taught me that it’s possible to write intelligent songs that still have catchy sing-a-long choruses, and I tried to bear that in mind whilst writing this batch of songs. In the past I used to get a bit bored of choruses and kept tinkering with the lyrics each time they came around, which is a pain for anyone who vaguely knows the tune and might want to shout along after a few beers.

Sam: We’re really happy with the outcome and Simon did a truly amazing job. I guess the next record will be more of a rock opera!

Pete: The whole process of making it was really fun. The conscious effort to get together to create something over a extended period of time, with little bits and pieces falling into place as it went was great. One weekend we’d be down in Ealing eating olives, 6 weeks later in a snowy Berlin hearing a new song then going to watch The Members, a month or so after in Manchester munching scones then somewhere else making 4track demos with headphones in a practice room. It’s probably this time of gestation and relaxed approach that makes it feel more of a piece than the last record.

There are a lot of literary references on the new album. My favourite being your adaptation of the WH Auden poem for the song “One Evening”. What’s the story behind this?

Will: We’ve used literary references or entire poems to a lesser degree on our other albums and 7”s, and increasingly it just happens that most ideas for songs come from a verse of poetry or a book that’s lying around in the flat or in the back of my head. The Auden song in particular came about because I’ve always loved that poem; it’s dark as hell and the imagery is beautiful, and I thought it would work well as a punk song due to its conventional structure and rhymes. That’s the usual pattern. Blending literature with punk music is also nice way of integrating different cultures and time periods… so far we’ve covered about 1500 years, from Tang-Dynasty China via Medieval Persia to South Ealing Station, and I think there are common philosophical threads holding it all together. Occasionally the references become a kind of game, for example trying to structure a personal love song around a series of sideways references to a writer’s back catalogue and ideas, which we do in ‘Acetate’ (Camus) or ‘Amy Tonight’ (Kafka). But more often literature helps to colour and distort the way I describe cities and places, providing a starting point that’s more interesting and dreamlike than personal experience. Lorca’s nightmarish visions of Brooklyn dictate the atmosphere of New York in ‘Alert!’, even though I only quote him in the chorus – I never thought I’d ever write about angels jumping off bridges and poets kissing hangmen, but that’s what Lorca does to you. ‘Mechanised’ is basically inspired by Nikolai Gogol’s 19th century warning that the devil himself lights the streetlamps in St. Petersburg in order to show everything in a false light. That’s still a haunting idea walking around the city in the 21st century, except now the devil is drowning in light pollution, which took the song off on different trains of thought and into later Russian cultural traditions such as Futurism and Symbolism. On a somewhat shallower note, there’s also a childish kick to be had from setting grim philosophical concepts to poppy melodies.

Looking to the future, what do Zatopeks have planned for the rest of 2014?

Sam: We will be touring in July and will also play some shows in UK after that. I think some long weekends in various places will also happen.

Will: Yeah, we play Fonsstock Festival on 11th July in North Germany and will hit the road after that for a little while. It’ll be nice to tour the record finally! In 2014 Sebby will also be defending his title as the best-dressed person on the European punk scene, aided by his new tweed jacket.

Do you think it will be another six years until the next album?

Will: I hope not, but I make no guarantees! I’ve already written several songs for the new record… based on literary references, so I guess that trend will continue.

Sam: Six years sounds very ambitious.

Thanks, Zatopeks! Any final words?

Will: Thanks a lot for the interview and hope to catch you in the UK this year!

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Check it out: http://zatopeks.bandcamp.com/

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