by Jesse Sawyer
Discussed in this article: Fear of Song by (ZAK SALLY) [La Mano]
Zak Sally had made his living playing music for twelve years, but he had never written a song. One day he decided to change that. For better or worse, come insanity or total failure, he locked himself into a room and spent three hours, in his words, “completely freaking out.” But a funny thing happened. After an evening’s worth of failed starts, mumbled lyrics and aborted chords hung in the air and threatened to trap him and choke him to death there in his lonely Minneapolis studio, he began to see songs in the mess. And though the process was torturous and the man shaky in confidence, Zak Sally began to get over his fear of song.
This is the story told between the chords and the feedback of Zak Sally’s debut album. In that dissonant space between soft-strummed guitar and crashing noise, you hear the violent struggle and self-doubt that went into producing the record, a record that features simple but effective songs that at any moment threaten to collapse upon themselves, to fall into the drilling wash of cymbals and guitar that reappear throughout much of the record. It makes the record sound insular, even claustrophobic at times, but also human, the way this noisy dread simmers beneath everything.
It’s not a perfect record, and to an extent, that’s refreshing. There’s something to be said for a record that doesn’t try to shock and awe its listener, and the workmanlike feel of this record, recorded on four-track and ProTools by Sally and producer Ben Durrant (Andrew Bird, Dosh), endears the listener to the performer. It sounds like the record you’d hope to hear from a close friend; it’s damn good, but not so varnished that the friend you know gets lost in it. Much of this comes from Sally having performed the entirety of the music himself, laying guitar, vocals, drums, bass and noise all over itself, an aural multiplication of the sound of one guy. The packaging of the disc follows in this spirit, hand-pressed and assembled by the artist, released by his own press, La Mano. He says he “did everything but milk the squid” for this project, and that kind of attention does not go unappreciated.
Sally is best known in music circles for having spent twelve years as the bassist for Low, the pioneering slowcore band whose principal members are Alan Sparhawk and Mimi Parker, husband and wife. With Low, Sally toured internationally and recorded six full-length albums of achingly pretty music. He split with the band and redirected his focus on art and La Mano, publishing graphic fiction, comics, and music by William Schaff, John Porcellino, Jason T. Miles, and Nate Denver, as well as his own.
Sally never left music completely, though, playing frequent dates with his Wipers cover band, T.O.G.P.T.F.F.S.O.T.W.O.T.E.R.A.T.S.Y.O.A (Three Old Guys Play The First Five Songs Off The Wipers’ Over The Edge Record And The Song Youth Of America). However, when you’ve spent that many years playing other people’s music, how can there not exist some nagging pull, just to see what might happen, if only… So you plug in and you play, and your voice, shaky and unaccustomed to itself, begins to put words to the chords, just nonsense at first, made up to go along, to hold a place for something better, later. And maybe you get frustrated and sick when you hit those plateaus where the song can’t go anywhere else and everything you do sucks and you scream obscenities at yourself, since it isn’t a band and the only one you’ve got is you, for better and for worse.
If you’re Zak Sally you do all of these things. But you also find that the freaking out begins to turn into fun, and that some of the songs sound pretty good, and maybe you aren’t the only one who thinks so. So you ebay the original painting you did for the cover of the last album you played on for Low, and use the money for that first album you record as Zak Sally.
“Fear of Song” is a nine-song collection of Sally’s fears and misgivings, just under forty minutes of quiet paranoia and a clanging sense of menace. The vocals meander song to song, from the top of the mix at times to moments in which the words are in peril of losing themselves in the sonic undertow. It opens up with the driving 4/4 distortion of “St(r)utter,” a sort of anti-rocker whose words pull the rug out from under the song’s steady hard rock. The single, released by Sub Pop, is “Why We Hide,” a paranoiac whisper that curls up from the bunker to ask, “What if they / find us where we hide?” Acoustic guitars, distorted guitars, and the kind of solid low-end we’ve come to expect from Sally keep pounding this song towards its conclusion, that no matter what we do, even if “We go invisible,” we can always be found by that bare bulb glare that Sally seems convinced seeks him out from some unnamed source.
Just when the listener feels ready for an album full of head-banging, Sally pulls up on the reins and lays down one of the simplest, most beautiful songs that this writer has heard all year. “How I Did What I Did When I Did It” begins as quiet acoustic bedroom folk, but builds from there. It‘s the best use of Sally’s vocals on the album; injected with a dose of reverb and unafraid to reach for the falsetto, he sings “I’m / gonna paint / the soles / of my feet / I’m / gonna walk / down every street in the world.” The chorus explains: “And when I’m done / I will look back / to see where I’ve been / Maybe then I will know why / and how and when.” From that verse and chorus spring up a scorching sustained drone guitar that carries us to the ending’s reiteration of that sad and simple thought that, ‘damn, if only we could see clearly how we got here from there.’
I bussed to Northeast Minneapolis, crossing the Mississippi twice in the process, before the sprawling monotone of the area’s mill city industrial quarter swallowed me up. The lofted buildings that once housed industry have been subdivided into a dense concentration of studio spaces, and the same factory diligence which raised the buildings up now catalyzes the mostly anonymous artists who occupy them. It’s in one of these buildings, just another in a line of them, that I met Zak Sally. He invited me down to his studio to talk, and we ducked down some stairs, beyond which stood a sliding-gate freight elevator, large enough for a sedan. Through a couple turns down cement-floored halls, and past a door marked, intriguingly, “Secret Secret,” we arrived at La Mano, the door at the end of the halls.
This was Sally’s “Secret World,” the physical space in which all of La Mano’s output passed, and where Sally recorded much of “Fear of Song.” The room was cluttered with boxes, books and pressing equipment. A few paintings and prints hung on the concrete walls, including the original flower painting that graces “Fear’s” cover. The studio was unpretentious and functional, like the man himself, whose usual dress since the early nineties, whether performing with Low, presenting at book expos, discussing the band Tool on “20/20,” or working the podium as an instructor at the Minneapolis College of Art and Design, has been jeans and a Mike Wattsian button-up shirt with the sleeves rolled up.
We sat beside stacks of prints and drawings to talk about the record. Like so many less-than-famous musicians, especially a bass player who spent the majority of his career on the periphery of the dual spotlights honed in on his two Mormon bandmates, Sally tends to deflect attention. While candid and thoughtful, I got the impression he’d rather be working then talking about the work. After hearing the record, with all its lyrics about doubt and keeping things hidden, the general unease about revealing one’s self through song, I couldn’t help but ask, “Do you like making music?”
“I think when I started making the record, it was totally torturous,” Sally told me. “It sounds like a shtick, but I had never finished a song. I’d contributed to songs; with Low, I had been involved in the creation of songs, but when it came to my own stuff… First of all I didn’t think I had any of my own stuff. I just had a couple parts or a melody or something but anytime it came to sort of finishing a song, I would freak out. I mean, I’d just freak out. I wouldn’t be able to do it.”
Even as the parts became songs and the melodies budded into words, there’s a rich vein of doubt running throughout. The album’s first lines, “Is it just a waste of / the breath in our lungs? / Something we’ve waited for / that just never comes,” reflect this. There’s a recurring sense of self-awareness and moral inquisition in much of Sally’s work, including his art and his tenure with Low. Fans of the group may recall the documentary “Low in Europe (Sebastian Schrade, 2005),” which has a tour-grizzled Sally explaining, “One of the lines of demarcation I make in this life is things that are good for the world at large and things that just add to the pile of crap… and I feel that Low is definitely on the better side of that.”
Of all the arts, music may have the worst reputation for moral intentions. People get into music for all sorts of reasons, but the stereotype of doing it for the sex and the drugs is as relevant now as it has ever been. It was refreshing, then, to hear Sally explain the way parenthood has altered his art, that, “You don’t want to put harmful shit out in the world if you can.” Artists, all too often, have taken their end-product as the ultimate justification for its means (Fitzcarraldo, anyone?), but “Fear of Song” is, in Sally’s estimate, “about trying to figure out what my relationship to music is.” After twelve years in Low, and a long successful run of writing some frequently dark and intriguing comics, Sally recorded the record to “answer the questions ‘Are you done here? If you are, why? Is that a good reason? If you do want to keep doing it, how do you keep doing it? What are your reasons?’” And while so many artists take their occupation as a priori, as something above moral rebuke and questioning, Sally dared to ask out loud, “Do I really have the right to just sit around and draw comics all day? Is that a good thing?”
This is the endearing thing about Zak Sally, an impression that is made with remarkable clarity on his debut album. He’s a guy who doubts himself, who has the same kind of fears that you and I might have. Who approaches an album not as a breakout chance at establishing himself, but as a project whose success hinges perilously on the razor edge chance that it could even be done. Writing a song, or a comic panel, or, in the case of yours truly, a simple music column, is a process by which various insecurities are subjugated by the cool veneer of a beautiful finished object. The great triumph of “Fear of Song” is precisely the way in which the album constantly addresses its own weaknesses and, in the process of addressing them, overcomes them.
The last lines of the album’s closing track, “Corpsegrinder!” refuse to close the circle on the titular fear. “I don’t know / if I would do this again,” Sally signs off. I asked him about this, and he laughed. “I guess it answers the question the first song asks.” He paused and smiled a bit, “But, I guess I would, because I’ve got more songs.”
Or maybe, as Sally sings in the song “Grow Feathers,” with that incongruous mixture of weariness and pleasure that sums up succinctly the relationship of the artist to his art: “You might think that you’re finished, but it’s not done with you yet.”
Visit www.lamano21.com for your copy of “Fear of Song,” as well as all other La Mano releases. Visit www.subpop.com for the 7” single “Why We Hide b/w When I Said I Missed You I Just Meant My Aim Was Of (The Quiet Life).” Zak Sally’s upcoming “Like a Dog” is an omnibus collection of his first two “Recidivist” comics, plus loads of extras. It will be published by Fantagraphics Books.