“I’ve got vaults of music saved. It’s time to get it out” – In conversation with Zach Witness

Having remixed two tracks for Dua Lipa’s Club Future Nostalgia, as well as having released several of his own productions in the last couple of months, the London-based producer Zach Witness is constantly making his listeners and fans long for more. His music is versatile, diverse and cannot be boxed in, which is exactly what the Dallas-born producer wants. His ethos is to make dance music that he can put his name to; the kind that explores its deeper, more thoughtful cultural meaning.

KALTBLUT caught up with Zach over zoom to discuss his love for Hip Hop, London and new music. Read the interview below.

Photo by Marika Kochiashvili, Styling by Zach Witness

KALTBLUT: You’ve recently released your EP, and some of the tracks are almost five years old. The music industry and scene has changed quite a lot within those five years. Did you ever think about rewriting or changing the songs?

Zach: Those songs definitely changed around those five years and went through many different mixes. Generally, when I make music, I’m thinking about things years from now. I don’t always write music for the “now”, I hardly ever do that. I’m also doing remixes of all the songs. That will allow me to stamp things in the current time. Not every song goes through that though. “Frankie & Levan”, the first song on the project I wrote last year, so it’s more recent and reflects where I’m at the moment. There’s so much to come. I’ve been working on my own music secretly for maybe the past ten years. I’ve got vaults of music saved. I’ve got albums worth of music. It’s time to get it out.

KALTBLUT: If you had to compare the tracks you’ve written before the pandemic to the ones you’ve produced throughout or during the pandemic. The last year has been quite eventful for pretty much everyone, so many people have shifted their way of thinking. Has there been a change of attitude in the way you look at music?

Zach: Has it changed my music? Not really. I would say it’s helped me define my direction a bit more. I’ve been making music since I was 16. I’ve been seriously pursuing music since I was eight years old. I’ve had many different phases of genres that I’ve been obsessed with over the years. I feel at this point, I can pretty much make any style of music. But it’s a matter of defining what it is that is relevant to me in my story and who I am. The blessing and the curse is that I can do everything. And I think people like to categorise. It’s how we make sense of things. Sometimes. When you’re all over the place, people are like, Okay, this is great, but what do we do with it? Lockdown was great for me to define that.

KALTBLUT: And the video to “Love Divine”, it’s incredible. Did you come up with the concept yourself?

Zach: I came up with the idea, directed it and wrote the treatment. My friend Edward Christie, who’s an incredible animator and graphic designer, did the video. It was me and him working on it for like six months. I was trying to get it to really reflect the music. The music is sporadic and so many things are happening within a short time. I really wanted the visuals to reflect that and it took a while to get it right. But, I love it. 

It’s very much my love letter to the UK. I wrote that song whenever I first came to London and was here on a tourist visa. Then went back to Texas and continued working on it there. It was this lifeline for me that connected me back to London. It’s quite close to my heart for that reason because it’s personal and I feel that song is really more of a time capsule for me. It brings together so many moments and memories that I made during that time. It’s sort of through the lens of the UK rave era in the late 80s, early 90s, which was a really big time for the UK. When it comes to raving in general, the UK pretty much kickstarted the whole thing. Whenever we go to an electronic music festival, a lot of the foundation of what that is goes back to that time in England. So pursuing my own path within dance music, I felt it was important to pay respects to that. I’m writing a love letter about it basically.

It’s very much my love letter to the UK. I wrote that song whenever I first came to London and was here on a tourist visa. Then went back to Texas and continued working on it there. It was this lifeline for me that connected me back to London.

KALTBLUT:  How would you compare the US to the British scene?  I’ve never been to an event or a rave in the US, but from what I’ve seen it’s very EDM-focused. What’s the underground scene like in the US?

Zach: I can only answer this question so well because there’s a lot of festivals in America and Britain I have not been to. But my perception so far is that in America, it’s much more branded, it’s much more money-oriented, which, in a lot of ways, kills the originality and the authenticity. Whereas in Britain, you get festivals that are branded, but I find people here really get into the spirit of it. Maybe they just do more drugs? Maybe they drink more? They’re just more up for it. British crowds are just more fun. Britain has a rich history of festivals. 

I think I can’t answer that question. I think if you asked me in three years after I DJ at festivals more, I could probably tell you Britain’s crazy, but actually, this small town in Colorado is the craziest thing I’ve ever done, you know. It’s probably a mix. 

I remember being 18 and going to Electric Daisy Carnival in Dallas. That was life-changing for me. It was a bit branded, but it was also so fun and felt authentic. You can find those spaces in America. It’s not all just like Coachella vibes, where everything is super branded. But if I had to make an assumption, Britain would be the place for festivals.

I think America takes the fact that it’s so potent artistically for granted. Some of the greatest artists in the world come from America, but yet Americans somehow don’t acknowledge that always.

KALTBLUT: I think that’s a very ingrained cultural thing that sets the UK apart from other countries. In the UK, it’s very normal for all ages to listen to some sort of popular music. There’s no generational gap like there is in Germany, for example.

Zach: 100%. That was one of the first big things I noticed when I first came to London. The average person has a better appreciation for music here. I couldn’t believe it, I’d walk into Tesco getting groceries and hear them play James Brown. I thought, fuck, this is where I need to move. I want to be doing a James Brown shuffle while I buy my oranges. 

I think America takes the fact that it’s so potent artistically for granted. Some of the greatest artists in the world come from America, but yet Americans somehow don’t acknowledge that always. I think Britain has been well, they’re this place that archives excavate for better or worse. They’ve excavated the world, but as it relates to music, there is a history of this conversation between them and America. They will find the forgotten gems of America, make them their own, and then sell them back to America. 

In the 60s, you had people like the Beatles, Eric Clapton, Rolling Stones, being inspired by these sort of forgotten blues legends of America. And that influenced what became the British invasion of the 60s and this whole sound that people then called British rock. It’s American blues cranked up and “British-ised”. The same thing happened in the 80s with acid house.

Photo by Marika Kochiashvili, Styling by Zach Witness

KALTBLUT: Is that the reason why you moved to London?

Zach: It was all of it. I think I needed something fresh and different. I lived in LA for a year, and it was cool, but it wasn’t really for me. It felt a little bit too much like Dallas in a way. I spent time in New York, like, I love New York, but musically, it didn’t make sense for me to move there. 

London, it called me. I’ve been quite obsessed with London since I was a kid, it always seemed like this magical place. My best friend and I would always talk about me living in London. So I decided that I’m just gonna do it. I bought a one-way ticket, and I just pulled up in London. I had enough money for two weeks in an Airbnb and I knew two people. 

I just so happened to be in this house, renting out a room with this woman who was familiar with my work. And she kind of adopted me as the son she never had. Her name is Elisa. Elisa took me under her wing. She became like a guardian angel. She said if you want to move to London, you need to be here for much longer than two weeks. She let me stay in her house for free, so I could stay and build my foundation here. 

Within that month, I met more people. Eventually, I met my manager, lawyer and publisher and built the team. By the time I left, which was six months later, I had built a foundation here, and it just made too much sense to move. I always think about London as if we found each other. I think it’s really important to have a relationship with the city you live in, especially if you’re an artist. I think from the moment I set foot in London, it was like open arms and things fell into place. When the flow is there, you just have to follow it, because if it is there, it’s usually for the right reason. I followed it, and here I am, talking to you.

KALTBLUT: I know you don’t want to categorise your music, but there are a lot of hip hop elements in it. What was your first love? Was it hip hop or electronic music?

Zach: Oh, that’s a good question. I feel like they happened at the same time. I grew up listening to a lot of hip hop, classic rock, but I also listened to house stuff. It all happened at the same time. 

An important album that, in a lot of ways, set me on the course that I’m on musically, was the soundtrack to Space Jam. Remember that? That soundtrack was incredible. You had D’Angelo, Salt-N-Pepa, Robin S, Quad City DJ’s. It was my life on a soundtrack, and in a lot of ways, that soundtrack pretty much embodied just about everything I love about music. 

I was maybe five years old when I heard that. So I was impressionable, and very much a sponge. When I heard Robin S’ “Givin’ U All That I’ve Got”, which is a classic 90s house tune, I was blown away. And then when I heard “Hit ‘Em High (Monstars’ Anthem), a more classic hip hop track, I was blown away. Then there’s D’Angelo and Quad City DJs, who made the theme song “Space Jam”, I was blown away by that especially. 

So far, most of my life has been more oriented towards hip hop. When I was eight years old, I began playing drums in punk bands. It was rock and hip hop in the early stages for me. I started DJing when I was eleven, and hip hop became my life at that point. It stayed my main focus until about 18 years old. And through those years, I was DJing at hip hop clubs and on a hip hop radio station in Dallas. I was completely living in this hip hop bubble. But simultaneously indulging in electronic music, and especially my later teens, I caught the bug for it and dove completely into house music and drum and bass. 

There’s a lot of interplay between those two genres, especially if you go back to the 80s. One of my favourite records of all time is Planet Rock by Afrika Bambaataa. That record was re-visioning. Also Kraftwerk’s Trans-Europe Express. 

I think they’ve always been tied together at the hips, and hip hop is also electronic. The majority of it is made on synthesisers, drum machines and computers in the same way you would make electronic music, or what we define as electronic music. To me, they’re the same thing.

There’s an interview with Kanye West where he said that the opposite of hip hop is to be gay. And that statement is true. Even now it holds.

KALTBLUT: You said that that hip hop is, or was, your life back then. What does it feel like as a Queer man that the hip hop scene has many homophobic aspects to it?

Zach: There’s an interview with Kanye West where he said that the opposite of hip hop is to be gay. And that statement is true. Even now it holds.

Hip Hop is historically a homophobic genre, I think. We all pretty much know that. What’s funny to me, though, in the inception of hip hop music, there were queer people involved in that scene. One of the guys who played the synth parts on that record I was just talking about, Planet Rock, his name is John Robie, he is queer. And he played the synths on this monumental hip hop record. There are examples of that repeated throughout history.

The thing is, hip hop tends to be this more macho, kind of ego-oriented thing. And historically, to be gay was to be weak. 

KALTBLUT: I think that’s also why there aren’t that many female rappers.

Zach: Exactly. There’s this real element of needing to be hard, super tough and cool. It’s why females and queer people have often been left out of that conversation because they didn’t line up with those sentiments. 

When I was a teenager and sort of coming to terms with my sexuality, it was a real turmoil. To me, those two things just did not go together. I ake myself, how can I be queer and love hip hop? Those things do not work together. I’ve battled with that for so long. I feel I’ve only just gotten to a place where I feel like I can incorporate both things into my life and feel authentic doing that. 

I guess over the course of maybe the past ten years, thankfully we’ve had examples of people who are breaking away from that macho, tough thing and are a bit more open and know who they are. Tyler, the creator, obviously is a big one. Frank Ocean is a big one. Okay, Drake is not queer as far as I know, but I think he definitely gave people permission and made it cool to be soft and emotional within like hip hop. There are examples now of people who are doing hip hop while being queer, being different. A lot of the fashion and the styles now as well are very queer. 

What’s funny, though, is you have this presentation of queerness, but yet, you still get a bit of the homophobic energy. DaBaby is a recent example. He’s not necessarily the most queer presenting, but it’s just an example of the fact that their homophobia still exists within hip hop culture. I think it could be even more far off than we think. 

It’s easy to think because guys are wearing pearls now that we’re done with homophobia. Okay, this might be making a big stretch here, but it’s almost like when Barack Obama took office in America. Because a black man was president…

I need to be vocal about who I am. And the fact that I love Gucci Mane, I love Three 6 Mafia and I Young Thug, but I’m also queer, and that’s completely okay.

KALTBLUT: … All racism was gone.

Zach: Exactly. The last 400, 500 years of racism are gone now, right? Then when Trump took office, it was like, Oh, actually, yeah, we were totally fooling ourselves, it’s still a massive problem. 

I think you could, you could say that about hip hop in a way. Because we’re presenting in a more queer way doesn’t necessarily mean that homophobia has been erased. If you go to the rough areas in the States, if you go to the ghettos of America, guys aren’t really walking around in tight pants, and pearls. You know what I mean? This is more on the art side of it. 

To be gay in the hood is still a very, very tough thing to be depending on where you’re at in America. What I’m saying is, there’s still a lot of work to be done. And, for me, incorporating hip hop culture into my music is not only second nature, it’s a part of me, but it also feels like I need to be incorporating that because of who I am. Hip hop still lacks a lot of Queer representation. I don’t know if I make archetypal hip hop music, but I feel I am a part of that conversation. I need to be vocal about who I am. And the fact that I love Gucci Mane, I love Three 6 Mafia and I Young Thug, but I’m also queer, and that’s completely okay.

Photo by Marika Kochiashvili, Styling by Zach Witness

Cover photo by @marika_kochiashvili
Styling by @zachwitness

Follow Zach on Instagram @zachwitness