Choking On The Chrome – An Interview With Zen Motel
Tonight finds Pure Rawk in a rainy car park in Essex, in search of the elusive Zen Motel. The county’s prime exponents of thought-provoking sleaze and hard rock returned to the live scene early last year, and have just released their first new material since 2012’s We Want Your Blood.
In true Zen Motel style, we found the boys in a slightly hooky BMW, parked round the back of a strip joint in Chelmsford, and this is what happened…
Now, I guess we’d better start at the beginning for Zen Motel, or the most recent beginning at least. After a bit of time away, you reformed the original line-up at the end of 2014. What brought that about?
Lee Wray: Moving back to Essex, being bored, and discovering that everyone was inexplicably still alive. We’d always wanted to play the Pure Rawk Awards again, and when Nix asked us, I couldn’t think of a good reason to say no really.
Jaime Hunwicks: I was doing my own solo stuff, but when Lee came down to see me and said he was getting the band back together, I went for it. I was fed up of playing acoustic guitar, I wanted to play full volume through a distortion pedal again, so I was up for it.
Si Fricker: I was in another band called Storm Child, who took over the venue we’re playing tonight, and as a consequence we only really played gigs there while they put a lot of effort into building the venue. There was an amicable split with them, and I’d left when Lee approached me to get Zen back together.
Lee: And Neil was working in a graveyard! Alex wasn’t available because he lives in Newcastle now.
Alex Green: Yeah, I did rehearse with the guys a few times, but the distance was an issue. I make cameo appearances now and then, I’ve taken on a Pat Smear role where occasionally I’ll turn up and jam. Tonight will be the first time I’ll have played live since we reformed though.
How have things changed for you guys since then?
Si: We’re a pop band now!
Lee: Most people have been married or got divorced….
Jaime: Neil has a couple of kids and is divorced, me, I got divorced. Si got married and has a child, so he’s currently the successful one of the group. Lee… it’s unknown how many children, but he seems to have avoided marriage!
Alex: I seem to have got away without having any children or marriages, at least none that I know about.
Jaime: We’re a lot more sensible now though aren’t we? We’re not doing it for some grand prize of fame and success any more, we’re doing it for the love of music and picking and choosing the gigs we want to play.
Lee: Basically, that’s what’s changed. We no longer have any ambition!
What has the reaction been like for the reunion from the fanbase – are they still there?
Alex: Since I departed the band in 2008, obviously I was concerned about the female fanbase diminishing, and it having a detrimental effect on the bands career. I felt really guilty about that, which is why I still turn up to do these cameo appearances.
Jaime: The original fans have got older with us, and a lot of them have kids and families now, so it’s a lot harder for them to come to the shows.
Lee: They are still there though, I’ve been surprised at the amount of messages we’ve had, especially since we put out the EP. A lot of people are amazed we’re still going, but we’ve had a lot of support.
Alex, what’s it like getting ready to go back on stage with Zen Motel again after all these years?
Alex: It’s been incredible. The guys in the band weren’t just my best friends, they were my family as well. We’ve loved each other, hated each other, punched each other and been through a lot. The fact that we can all still be in the same room and enjoy each other’s company is a triumph on its own frankly.
Lee, you did the last album We Want Your Blood in 2012 with some different musicians after decamping to London for a while. How did the dynamic work with those guys, and what are they doing now?
Lee: It was a very different dynamic. They were very young, very ambitious, and had this bizarre idea that we were going to be a big rock band, and I found it very difficult to work with them. Dario and BJ were from Italy, and they were quite young and naive, they thought that if they moved to London then within six months they’d be rock stars, which just didn’t happen.
Ironically, the guitarist Dario could have been a big rock star, as he got offered a job in Royal Blood, but he decided to join Zen Motel instead. He does dubstep now and he lives in Bristol. The drummer BJ unfortunately had some mental health issues and was deported back to Italy.
There was a definite split in that album, where you could see the songs that you’d written and the songs that they’d written…
Lee: Definitely, they believed in the rock n roll myth more than I did, the big rock show type of songs. I’ve actually revisited that album recently and remixed the whole thing because I was never happy with how it sounded.
I love and hate that record now, some of it I absolutely cringe at. I can’t believe there’s a song on there with the word “motherfucker” in it, it’s devastating. That whole clichéd rock n roll “Yeah motherfucker” aggression was something Zen Motel had always fought against, but I didn’t want to interfere because those two really believed in it.
Which brings us nicely round to the new record, Choking On The Chrome. You’re releasing the new album as three EPs, why go down that route?
Lee: Just to spread it over the year really. When we did the last album, we released it, and a few weeks later the buzz and the interest was gone, it almost seemed a bit of a waste. Plus, this way, we can concentrate on four songs at a time.
Si: It’s almost like recording and releasing 12 singles in a year, as opposed to one album with a couple of great singles and a lot of filler. We can put a lot more into each song.
What’s in the set list for tonight, and how much of it is new material?
Jaime: About half and half.
Lee: We’re playing a song tonight we haven’t played since about 2003, but we’re also playing a song we’ve written in the last two weeks. When you’ve got so much material it’s difficult to know what to put into a set and leave out.
The important thing now though is that we’re playing stuff that we enjoy playing. We were rehearsing a song yesterday that a lot of people really like, but we weren’t enjoying playing it, so we’ve left it out. It’s a set to satisfy us really – fuck everyone else!
Lee, you’re just recently back off the road with CJ Wildheart, touring the Robot album around the UK. I know you and CJ have worked together a lot over the years, how much input did you have on the latest record?
Lee: I had a lot of input on Mable, his record before this. That was a collaboration really, we both wrote for it and I produced it from scratch. On Robot I didn’t do very much, although it does sound a little bit like Zen Motel in places! I think CJ saw a lot of what I wanted to do with Mable, and put that into Robot, which I’m happy about.
How was the tour, and how was it being a band member for a bit, rather than the leader?
Lee: Oh it was nice! Being driven around, proper hotels, riders. It was nice to tour and have a good experience. At one point I never thought I’d tour again, it’s such a hit and miss thing, some of the worst times of my life have been touring, but the Robot tour was great, and the crowds were great.
What’s the plan going forward for Zen Motel?
Lee: Just keep releasing the EPs really. We’re running on a week to week basis at the moment – as long as we’re happy we’ll keep doing it. As soon as it’s shit, we’ll stop.
Si: If it’s not fun why bother?
Lee: Next thing for us is to record the next EP, then we’ll look at doing more shows, maybe even see if we can drag Alex down again.
We’ll just see how it goes really, and hopefully we won’t kill each other in the process!
Zen Motel’s latest EP Choking On The Chrome (Part 1) is available now as pay what you like download over at Corporate Records Webstore.
Pictures courtesy of CM1.co.uk and Alex Green.