A Tourist’s Guide to ZE Records


Oftentimes, the best art is based on the simplest premises. “To me, music is music,” says ZE Records co-founder Michel Esteban. “I don’t make categories. I used to say, when I was younger, that there is good music and bad music; now that I am older, I say that there is music I like and music I don’t.”

Well put. Compulsion is a tricky business, in that it’s not really a business model at all. “ZE was created by two music lovers, and not as a profitable enterprise,” he continues. “We had to love the records that we released and the bands we produced. There was no marketing plan whatsoever.”

Next week, Strut will release ZE 30: ZE Records 1979–2009, a fastidiously sequenced cherry-picking of the ZE sound: a jambalaya of disco, free jazz, punk, funk, calypso, noise, Afrobeat, and TV-show soundtracks, with varying combinations of each, all of them sometimes jammed into the same song. The label’s logo features the checker-cab design of New York City taxis, which breathe in the trashy mess and messy trash of sirens, dance music, guitars, screams, and conversation; the label’s best output breathes it back out.

Most artists, art appreciators, art haters, DJs, record collectors, snobs, slobs, and smart-mouths—in other words, bohemians—are probably familiar with ZE’s output. Six years ago, the revived imprint (still operating, though in a relatively limited capacity) released their greatest blurts in a four-volume set misleadingly labeled Mutant Disco—substituting squelches for strings and goblins for divas doesn’t make disco any more or less mutant, just different. Though it hit almost every ripe nerve in the label’s catalog, it was more completist fetish than succinct encapsulation, and left open the opportunity for a more effective introduction to this sundry collection of inspired weirdos.

And what weirdos they were! Esteban, a French frère of Patti Smith, was introduced to her Horses producer John Cale, who commissioned him as art director for his incipient Spy label. (Around this time, Cale was wearing goalie masks and decapitating chickens onstage.) They befriended Michael Zilkha, a British Voice theater critic with a cushy upbringing, whom they convinced to invest in a new label. Zilkha and Esteban were ostensible opposites, but spiritual kin: Their combined initials thus became the label’s namesake. (It’s not an acronym for “zany energy,” although it probably should be.)

So they released music by their girlfriends, Cristina (Zilkha’s) and Lizzy Mercier Descloux (Esteban’s)—the former created shadowy disco filtered through Looney Tunes, while the latter audibly imagined frenzied globe-trotting and established M.I.A.’s sartorial template. They paid big bucks for James Chance’s borderless, fanged funk and Suicide’s boneless rockabilly romances. Zilkha anointed walking haberdashery August Darnell as in-house producer, bestowing him with creative carte blanche to indulge multiple escapist tropical sing-alongs. And adventurous club music came courtesy of future musical impresarios Was (Not Was) and Material. But, like their musical taste, Zilkha and Esteban were liberal with their finances, and things soon unraveled. Esteban got bored and dropped out in 1981. (He now lives in Brazil.) Zilkha dissembled the label before going into oil, then wind energy. Darnell made hit records. Descloux died of cancer in 2004.

Some trainspotters now romanticize ZE as an artifact of a New York City that supposedly no longer exists, speciously implying that it’s no longer chaotic or miscegenated enough to produce similar levels of creativity. But Esteban insists that timing and location are not what counts: “Anybody who makes music, is proud of it, and enjoys every minute of it, has got the ZE spirit. That is very simple.” Isn’t it?