Feeling It Out: Zula on Their Second Album, 'Grasshopper'
Photo by Alicia Walter
Cousins Henry and Nate Terepka grew up a four-hour drive apart — on the Upper West Side and in Ithaca, New York, respectively — but music always brought them together. During holidays they’d jam on guitar and piano, playing Americana and roots-rock like Creedence Clearwater Revival and Neil Young with their aunts and uncles. One Thanksgiving, as Nate prepared to graduate from college and move on from his long-running teenage band, a seemingly obvious thought occurred to them. “For the first time, we were like, what if we collaborated?” Nate says over coffee at Soho’s Housing Works Cafe. “That would be rad.”
So, in 2010, the Terepka cousins founded Zula. They wanted to explore hypnotic, repetitive music inspired by Kraut-rock, but through a psychedelic lens, a vision they’ve shaped over six years with the eventual help of drummer Pablo Eluchans and bassist Noga Shefi. The quartet releases its second album, Grasshopper, on August 26, with a show the same day at Ridgewood’s Trans-Pecos. It’s an eclectic lineup, also including Sierra Leonean artist Janka Nabay and experimentalists the Ashcan Orchestra. “We don’t do well with metadata, per se,” Henry says. “You can’t ascribe many tags to us and have us show up on a playlist. [So] the plurality of voices at Trans-Pecos is important.”
Though the band's music isn’t easy to classify, Zula’s influences are clear, and the cousins are happy to enumerate them. “We want to make art-rock in the tradition of the Talking Heads or Radiohead, bands that wanted to entertain and also make you think,” Henry says. “If you go too far in the entertainment direction, it’s like apathy. If you go too far in the esoteric direction, then you’re just preaching to the choir and it’s elitist.” So their music is pleasant and fun, but it also often settles into long grooves that stretch traditional pop structures.
It also has an unusually philosophical basis. Nate grew up meditating and going to silent retreats with his mom, who is a lay nun in Thich Nhat Hanh’s school of Zen Buddhism. His worldview, and thus his songwriting, comes directly from his practice. “The idea of mindfulness definitely informs [the music],” he says. “The second track on the record, ‘Be Around,’ that’s what it’s about. Being present.” Both cousins frequently mention “suspension” of awareness as they discuss their music. “I think [mindfulness] is maybe a different way of articulating a lot of what we’re getting at lyrically,” says Nate. “Finding bliss and suspension in the present moment amidst anxiety and darkness.”
The distortion of time on psychedelics also comes into play. “This moment is unlike the moments before it or beyond it,” Henry explains. “That to me is also what makes it psychedelic music. Asking, how do I feel right now?” This focus in Zula’s music is encouraged by repeated, hypnotic figures, like the steady beat under six-minute track “Basketball.” Extended jams allow the listener to relax into the present moment, without expecting the music to suddenly change. They draw the listener’s attention to how things feel now, as Zula’s music holds us in a kind of stasis.
Unsurprisingly, Zula’s lyrics are often abstract. One verse from album opener “Speeding Through the Arctic” goes, “I'll empty my sores so you can sell it for more/I'll piss on my clothes to give you hours/I'll suckle it raw just so you know/I'll make it all safe for the ones I love.” To explain how these seemingly random images are related, Henry points to another influence, Nineties indie-rock outfit Stereolab, referencing the song “Ping Pong” from their 1994 album, Mars Audiac Quintet. The lyrics include the stark pronouncement: “The historical pattern has shown/How the economical cycle tends to revolve/In a round of decades three stages stand out in a loop/A slump and war then peel back to square one and back for more.”
Zula, too, zoom their lyrical lens in and out, focusing at times on the minute details of daily life and at others on vast movements of humanity and nature — sometimes all in the same stanza. Their drawn-out song structures emphasize this pattern of slow transformation, with long periods of meditation occasionally interrupted by moments of action. “It’s cyclical songwriting,” Henry says. “How do I feel in this moment? How do I feel in 2016? How do I feel in the new millennium?” Groovy.
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