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Zed: renegade fighters - part two


When a debut album is very successful, recording the follow-up becomes harder, not easier. The music industry term for it is “the sophomore album”. The record company always has a bigger budget and bigger expectations. Zed had to create an album that would please its American label with the added complication of having to re-record the earlier hits. 

While a record label may have a “no expense spared” approach to recording a successful second album, most expenses go on the recording artist’s tab and are recouped from their record sales royalties.

By late 2001 Zed had been touring to promote Silencer for over a year. After the Coldplay tour they headed to Melbourne to record, once again with producer David Nicholas. “We started recording an album,” Nathan King told NZ Musician, “and we got half way through and realised we weren’t really into it. I think we needed time, just to figure out where we wanted to go with the album and not just do the logical next step.” 

In September, while based in Melbourne, Zed won best group award at the Juice TV Video Awards for ‘Renegade Fighter’.

In the same month, Zed toured Australia, playing 19 shows over five weeks as support act for Adelaide band Superjesus. In the final weekends they played 10 shows in Sydney and its suburbs, and the final show of the tour was on October 6 at the Hawkesbury Sports Club. For fans under pub age, the band Zed performed a free concert at the Warringah Shopping Mall in the Sydney suburb of Brookvale.

In the Zedquarters.com newsletter to fans, Palmer wrote: “Well here we are, driving around this country called Australia on tour with The Superjesus – we’ve been churning out some new tracks for album number two, which we’re are looking to release in NZ early next year. Not only are we touring and recording, we’re also becoming proficient chefs and ping pong players – sharing an apartment in Melbourne has really honed our curry making skills. Next week we begin the NSW leg of the tour after which we head up to Byron Bay to lay down some vocals. Tonight we’re playing on Rove Live.”  

Zed was back in Australia in November 2001 to support Robbie Williams on a tour that lasted almost three weeks, including outdoor shows at Wellington’s Westpac Stadium and Auckland’s Mt Smart Stadium.

2002: Start Again 

Zed was not the only New Zealand band seeking to break the American market in 2002: The Datsuns and The D4 were the talk of SXSW in Austin, Texas, and Shihad changed its name to Pacifier for the US. 

Zed had the luxury of being able to abandon the Australian sessions. They restarted the writing process and over the summer they wrote and demoed 16 new songs at The Boatshed, the studio belonging to Andy’s father, Bruce Lynch, in their backyard overlooking the Waitemata harbour.

Trying to chase an American radio production sound, recordings turned out punchy and tight but didn’t really sound like Zed.

Zed next did sessions with Malcolm Welsford. “We also spent time working with Malcolm on pre-production for our second record,” said King, “but didn’t end up using most of the tracks. That was a fascinating recording experience where we tracked the drums, by isolating kick, snare and cymbals then editing it together – trying to chase an American radio production sound. The recordings turned out very punchy and tight but didn’t really sound like Zed anymore.”  

The only song used from those sessions was ‘Starlight’, written by Rivers Cuomo from Weezer; it had only been released in Japan as the B-side of their single ‘Island In The Sun’. “We received the song with instructions from Jimmy Iovine and Martin Kierszenbaum to do ‘our thing’ with it,” recalls King. “So we cranked it up a few BPM and re-arranged it so it cut to the chase a little quicker. It came together really quickly as Weezer had been one of our favourite bands in the 90s. I think their sense of quirk, along with super-strong melody really appealed to both us and Ray Columbus.”

Actor Rob Schneider, best known for his 1999 hit movie Deuce Bigalow, chose ‘Starlight’ as the key song for his new movie Hot Chick. The actor appeared in the song’s video as a high school janitor who changes place with Nathan King when a science experiment goes wrong. The video for ‘Starlight’ was made in Los Angeles and on that trip Powerman 5000 took Zed to a Halloween party at Babyface’s former mansion.

After Los Angeles, Zed did a three-week tour of Australia and then summer gigs in New Zealand including a return to play Haruru Falls in Paihia on New Year’s Eve.

2003: ‘Starlight’

In the race during the 2000s for Kiwis to rock American, The Datsuns gained a lead due to their success in the UK powered by two covers of the magazine NME.

Zed’s future was tied to the high expectations for the Rob Schneider movie The Hot Chick due to the success of his prior films. In December 2002 the movie was released in over 2000 theatres, but the opening weekend gross was $US7 million, less than what was expected. The ‘Starlight’ single “was released out the back door because the movie bombed,” Ben Campbell told NZ Musician in 2003. 

Nearly 15 years later, speaking to AudioCulture, Campbell said “We lost a lot of US momentum at that stage.” Looking back, he viewed the “back door” release of ‘Starlight’ as the band’s “main release” in the US; this was prior to Zed recording its first album for the Interscope label.

In January the ‘Starlight’ single was released in New Zealand, coinciding with the movie’s local release. The track was embraced by radio stations and peaked at No.15 on the singles chart. The video won the People’s Choice Award at the 2003 Juice TV Video Awards.

Zed once again played the Summer Jam concerts of The Edge radio network. The previous year, Silverchair was the headline act; in 2003 The Edge imported Good Charlotte for the concerts. Other locals on the tour were Elemeno P, Nesian Mystik, Carly Binding and Rubicon.

American Management

By early 2003, Interscope Records in Los Angeles made it clear that for Zed to succeed in the US, the band needed an American manager and the label suggested Robert Hayes of Sound Management, who represented Smash Mouth.

“It was a really difficult time for both Ray and the band, as everyone wanted the best for the band,” says King. “Interscope didn’t give us much choice on how things were going to be, going forward, if we wanted to work with them. Stuck between a rock and a hard place, we collectively decided on what looked most promising for the band: we split with Ray and signed with Sound Management. The problem was, we would never find another champion who as passionate about Zed as Ray was – which is something we should have realised – in hindsight.”

“We would never find another champion who as passionate about Zed as Ray [Columbus] was” – Nathan King

Leesa Tilley was a partner in the “Ray Columbus Organisation” management company: “Ray was a bit of a pit bull when it came to taking care of business and keeping expenses down and maximising profits. When you get American management – sometimes $20,000 or $50,000 is nothing – to re-do a song or a video for the American market, it’s seen as an investment. There is nothing wrong with re-doing something for the American market, but if it takes six months or a year – the market may have changed.” 

Weed

After the Summer Jam, the band headed to sunny California to record its second album. The sessions were not in Los Angeles but in the small timber town of Weed, in Northern California, with renowned engineer/producer Sylvia Massy at her RadioStar Studios.

Winters are cold in Weed. “It was snowing and freezing cold for the first few weeks,” King recalls. “It felt like being under ‘house/studio arrest’ as there was nowhere to go but from the apartment to the studio and then back to the apartment – unless you count grabbing snacks from the gas station. Plus Sylvia Massy had hooked up a deal with this great local bakery that any band recording at the studio got free donuts. We took serious advantage of this offer.”

Massy had built her own studio in 2001, in the haunted Palace Theatre in Weed, after years of working in big LA facilities such as Studio City and with producers including Rick Rubin. Her credits included the 1993 Tool album Undertow.

Recording in the middle of nowhere, Zed did not have Interscope knocking on the door daily. “They left us on our own,” said Campbell. “We knew the label wanted a guitar-heavy, polished rock-pop sound, but there was not a lot of direct involvement from the record label during the recording.”

The whereabouts of the studio confused some New Zealand writers: the reviewer for the nzgirl website wrote that Weed was a “crystal-meth infested town near the Alaskan border.”

After completing the Weed sessions it was clear that there was a problem with the recordings and there was no easy fix. “We’re not sure why, but the entire record’s vocals got slammed and ruined on the ‘way in’ by some over-zealous compression,” said King. “It meant the dynamics were lost with loud sections sounding ‘squashed’ and quiet sections sounding too exposed and loud. It was a huge blow. Expensive, time consuming and gutting! There are so many hours put into recording the vocals on an album.”

King had to re-record the vocals in Auckland and the album had to be remixed; it was then mastered by leading mastering engineer George Marino. The gestation of This Little Empire – Zed’s difficult second album – was slow, laborious, painful and expensive, but the album was a creative success and gained good reviews.

However, achieving platinum sales in New Zealand and several hit singles was not going to recoup the massive outlay on producing This Little Empire. While in Weed the band had recorded new versions of ‘Glorafilia’ and ‘Renegade Fighter’ for the international market, and the northern hemisphere international release date was scheduled for August 23. 

Although the Interscope label in Los Angeles was calling the shots, New Zealand was picking up the tab for the recording expenses. Adam Holt, GM of Universal Music in New Zealand, was the man in the middle, between the local artist and the offshore label.

“When Interscope came on board we remained the repertoire owner and we still are today,” said Holt in 2016. “We were responsible for the financial input into the This Little Empire recordings but Martin Kierszenbaum at Interscope was really supportive and put a lot of their money into things like videos which was a real help to us. The flip side of that coin was that while it remained our record, the A&R direction and the driving motivations behind the new record became Interscope’s. However, all of us here in New Zealand were hopeful the band would get that ‘big shot’ in America. Back then those sort of chances were rare, and while we were all aware of the compromises that were made, the reality was there was no option other than jumping at the chance.”

Over the summer holiday season Zed toured with Nesian Mystik. In March 2004 Zed was once again on The Edge’s annual tour, now rebranded as “Edgefest” with a greatly enlarged line-up of locals plus foreigners Alien Ant Farm and Yellowcard. Also on the four-date tour were Shihad – then known as Pacifier – The Feelers, Scribe, Steriogram, Che Fu, Nesian Mystik and Elemeno P. 

Although Zed had been slotted in the “rock” category for the US – and it is commonly accepted that the ground level or base for building a “rock” band is touring – other than their showcase gig at the Viper Room, Zed never did a gig in the States. 

“We would have loved to tour the U.S. more, but Interscope were not interested in us grinding out the small bars and clubs.” – Nathan King

“We would have loved to tour the US more,” said King, “but Interscope were not interested in us grinding out the small bars and clubs. I think they figured it was either big radio hits, or nothing. Bearing in mind it’s fiendishly expensive to tour a foreign band in the US, potentially they made the right call from a financial standpoint.”  

The Third Album

Campbell spoke to Median Strip in June 2003 about recording and producing their third album themselves, locally. “Now that we know how to use the equipment. A lot of creative things have been happening for us and I think we’re really finding our own sound. We’ve been working on demos and getting a lot of enjoyment playing together at the moment.”

Zed now had to navigate between the differing views on what makes a good album. “The US label prefers generic songs, whereas New Zealand wants a mixing pot of music.”

At the time, Zed hoped to do shows in the US and London but plans changed. “We’ve also had some interest from Germany, which is great becaus we haven’t spent much time in Europe,” said Campbell. A few weeks later, they were on a plane to Germany.

Trans Europe Impress

The band relocated to Berlin from July to November in 2004 and lived in an apartment in the Prenzlauer Berg area. They used the city as a base to do media and to tour the Continent.

“We played a lot of shows, touring with Seal, The Calling, Ash and some well-known local bands,” said Campbell. “We played a number of radio station festivals and we did a lot of media at radio, TV and print. The label hired us a tour bus and we went through all the main German cities, Amsterdam and England. We also hired a full-time rehearsal room to work on new material while living in Berlin.” 

King recalls: “We kicked off by doing a bunch of media for the beginning of the Tour de France as our song ‘Hard To Find Her’ had been picked up as the ‘theme’ for the race that year and they were using it under a bunch of race footage. When we landed in Europe, we went straight to Liège, Belgium – where the race started that year on July 3 – and hit the ground running.”

After a flawed television appearance because the interviewer was not hearing the translation of their New Zealand dialect in his earpiece, King encountered a more basic issue. He was denied access to the Tour de France bathrooms when he was desperate to pee. “After I’d finally found a bathroom, I returned to the rest of the guys and the German record execs we’d just met that day and said, ‘this Nazi on the door wouldn’t …’. At that point I realised my social faux pas and I had to hide under a rock for the next 48 hours.”

Zed was booked to do the October 2004 tour with Northern Ireland band Ash, when Ben Campbell had to return urgently to Christchurch, as his father was terminally ill. The band recruited Matt Short (Sola Rosa), so they could do the important tour. “Matt’s a great bass player and he and Andy Lynch had been great friends for years” said King. 

The tour coincided with the October release of their album This Little Empire in Germany and the tour included nine cities in Germany, four in Norway, two in Sweden, three in Austria and the city of Prague in the Czech Republic. 

The globe was briefly a big bouncy ball for Zed – in fact, they were bounced around the globe. The idea to go to Germany came from the American company. When, in August 2004, the NZ Herald asked about London, Lynch replied, “We played some shows there and had a good reaction. But Universal London is waiting for Universal Germany.”

Despite the band’s presence in Europe, ‘Hard To Find Her’ was not a breakout hit. There was now no likelihood of an American “full monty” release of any Zed single or album, as envisioned by Ray Columbus. In fact Interscope’s release of ‘Hard To Find Her’ was very similar to Columbus’s 1965, two-city test-marketing experience.

“There was a bit of ‘test marketing’ of ‘Hard To Find Her’ in the US,” said King. “Where they sent the track to a handful of states and paid a certain amount of money to the stations to get a limited amount of play. We were hearing figures like US$1000 per station and that it needing a good US$100,000 to give a single a good nudge. Interscope may have spent 10 percent of that full amount, but for whatever reason that single didn’t fly. ‘Starlight’ was certainly the one Interscope hung their hopes on, but it was tied to an unsuccessful movie and effectively scuttled.”

Four Years Later

Zed’s massive hits from 2000, ‘Glorafilia’ and ‘Renegade Fighter’, were finally released in the USA in 2004 as mere album tracks on the CD This Little Empire – four years after they were competitive in the New Zealand market place. While music lasts longer than vegetables, there is a sell-by date for most of it.

Speaking 15 years later, Adam Holt of Universal Music New Zealand views 2003 as a different era. “Decisions made then would not make sense today. There was no social media back then, so release strategies could be made on a territorial basis. The US business was also far more insular than they are today. Back then they didn’t really look much further than the UK for foreign repertoire and there was definitely a thinking that music from abroad needed to be reworked or repackaged for the US market. Zed’s huge success in New Zealand with Silencer really grabbed the interest of Universal globally and it was Martin Kierszenbaum who was the band’s biggest champion. As was the way at the time, there was the feeling in Interscope that Silencer wasn’t quite right for the US market – hence the long delay while the new album was recorded. There are always a bunch of reasons records don’t work internationally, but a loss of momentum through this process definitely damaged Zed’s chances. It was incredibly frustrating for everyone.”

“A loss of momentum definitely damaged Zed’s chances. It was incredibly frustrating.” – Adam Holt

“It’s a lot different now because momentum is everything in this business and social media and the internet encourages urgency,” Holt continued. “The US labels have also changed and they are far more open to and accepting of global repertoire than ever before. They’ve realised that the sounds of foreign pop actually stands out in a somewhat homogenous sounding market like the US, and if the record is good enough it will capture the US public’s imagination, which is exactly what happened with Lorde.”

2005: Au Revoir

By 2005 the rock genre had taken a few turns to the left; that year, for example, White Stripes would appear on the cover of Rolling Stone

For Zed, 2005 started with Nathan King playing solo at the Christian Parachute Festival, late January. Doing media for the event King said the third Zed album would differ from This Little Empire, which was “more aimed at America”. 

Ben Campbell told Gareth Shute, author of NZ Rock 1987-2007, “When it became apparent that This Little Empire wasn’t going to do the business offshore we decided to ask Interscope to release us from our contractual commitments. The idea was to independently produce and release a third album focusing on creating something we’re all proud of.”

While Campbell was in Los Angeles, King sent a group email to other band members to say he was quitting the band to work solo. 

“Atlas formed the week that Zed broke up,” said Campbell. “I was in LA working on a release with Robert Lamm from Chicago and recording songs with my little sister Beth. We found a talented LA singer/writer and flew him back to NZ to start Atlas. I had a small label in Christchurch that effectively managed the band and ended up signing a licensing deal with Warners for the release of ‘Crawl’ and the album.”

Since its abrupt demise in 2005, Zed has regrouped for special events such as playing the Christchurch fan zone for the 2011 Rugby World quarterfinal when the All Blacks defeated Argentina 33-10.

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Read Zed: Renegade Fighters - part one

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