It’s hard to be a dreamer in the city that never sleeps, but for Jeff Zito dreaming is just part of the job. Producing lofi shoegaze-y music under the name Oak Island, Zito strives to let his imagination roam free through his chill beats and waves of electronic melodies. With a sound very reminiscent of Sweden’s Radio Dept., Oak Island takes the listener through a variety of different emotional connections, often drifting through a dream-like soundscape that is sure to sooth and amaze. So if you’re interested in abandoning a humdrum life and allowing your mind to roll freely with your imagination, have a listen to Oak Island and escape for a while. I sat down and did an email interview with Jeff Zito about his passion for music, kitties, and embracing his love for mysteries and legends:
Pick&Pen: How did you get into the chillwave scene?
Jeff Zito (Oak Island): It seems like there’s a whole group of 20-somethings, myself included, pulling from the same well of influences (hip hop, ambient music, 80’s- early 90’s radio pop) and with access to similar technology. Like a lot o the other people doing this stuff, I wasn’t fostered in some kind of local chillwave scene, it’s music I had been making semi-privately for years. When I decided to start actually trying to garner some listeners, it was at a time when a similar sound was starting to bubble up. The comparisons make me a bit nervous, I think any artist is afraid of being lumped in with a larger group, but I can’t deny what people hear in it. Chillwave it is.
P&P: How did you begin making music as Oak Island?
JZ: I had played drums in bands for years and wanted the attention of being the frontman without the responsibility of band leading. Nowadays I’m less interested in the attention but have come to relish the control I have.
P&P: How did you come up with the name “Oak Island”?
JZ: Oak Island is a small island in Nova Scotia with a long history. A couple of teenagers, like 150 years ago, claimed to find some weird hole on this island with wooden platforms and water traps built in. The legend has grown since, with people convinced there is some kind of treasure at the bottom of this pit. People have died, fortunes have been lost all in search of a treasure no one is certain exists. Really, any reasonable interpretation of the facts would indicate it almost certainly does not but people to this day are sinking millions of dollars into this island trying to get at whatever’s down there.
As to the why, I’m a big fan of legends and mysteries like this one and the ultimate futility of the pursuit seemed too delicious to ignore. It struck me as elegant and evocative with a good story behind it. Whether or not that’s the case, it’s too late now.
P&P: Who are you main influences for your music and why?
JZ: I’ll narrow it down to something adolescent and something modern. I was a huge Microphones fan growing up. The way Phil utilized the recording process to convey and prop up his feelings of wonder and isolation, it was nearly astonishing to me. The lyrics were sincere and strong, the music was gorgeous but the way it was presented was what really changed me as a musician and a bit as a person as well.
As for these days, the two groups I have in mind most consistently when making music are probably The Roots and CocoRosie. I think The Roots are only getting better as they age, finding more effective ways to distill their broad interests into pop and hip hop. CocoRosie are almost doing the opposite- they maintain pop constructs and pull from a wide range of influences but they seem disinterested in trying to make the sound cohesive or clean. They’re failing half the time but when a group is capable of writing songs as immediately affecting as “God Has a Voice”, “She Speaks Through Me” or albums as peculiar as Grey Oceans, I’ll give them a pass.
P&P: What is the process in which you make your music?
JZ: I spend some time jamming with myself basically, recording long form instrumental stuff and then going back and sampling portions of it and chopping up the bits I really like. I build a track over it from there. Drums, bass, vocals, more vocals, new drums, different bass lines, extra instruments, even more vocals. It’s a needlessly difficult, time consuming process and one of the many reasons why I am a solo artist.
P&P: What programs do you use to record your songs? Why?
JZ: I’ve settled into a steady diet of Logic. It offers, in my mind, the best fusion of home studio recording and MIDI synthesis capabilities. It is also the program I know the best and it’s really really hard to get into a new recording interface. There might very well be a program that could revolutionize my process but I’ll probably never find out.
P&P: What is the hardest part of the process when making your music?
JZ: I think the hardest part of the process is what happens internally. As an artist just getting on their feet there’s a lot of self-doubt, a lot of feeling like you aren’t good enough. The most difficult thing is to convince yourself/myself/whoeseverself that they are good enough or, at the very least, will one day be “good enough” and to keep putting in the work in the meantime. Since I’m completing a song a month, I’m looking to hear some kind of progression every time. Even if month to month one song might not be as strong as another, I am looking to hear better production or a cleaner vocal performance, for example, things like that. The music itself, making it, is almost exclusively a joy.
P&P: What venue is your favorite to play in? See concerts in?
JZ: I haven’t played shows in a few years but I always prefer live music, performing or watching, in basements, living rooms and houses. The larger the venue, the more isolating the whole thing seems. I’m cheap and I get bored really easily so if the intimacy is lacking in a live performance I’d rather just be at home working on my own music. Silent Barn, which is down the street from where I live, is in a state of flux right now after they were robbed but I always really liked going there.
P&P: What would you classify yourself as?
JZ: Broadly, electronic pop music. Specifically hip hop-informed minimalist gaze pop.
P&P: I realize it’s July but your song “Odd Proclamation (Song for January)” is my favorite. What inspired you to create it?
JZ: Well thank you, I’m glad you like it! I had the guitar samples that ring in the background hanging around for a couple of years and hadn’t found the right context. I was moving to a new city every year for most of the last seven years. I’ve settled in New York since but I was moving around constantly, I think hoping for something movement wasn’t going to solve. I wanted to find a way to convey the searching feeling that comes from considering what might have been and the comfort that comes from having made the right choice or acknowledging that questions about “right choices” get rendered irrelevant by time.
Executing that idea musically, I wanted to try to combine something chilly and thoughtful and xx-like with a brighter Steve Reich-style minimalist workout and I actually got pretty close to achieving my goal.
There are a few nagging problems with the song that I will fix when I have the free time but people seem to like it or aren’t hearing what I am so fair enough, I can leave it alone for now.
P&P: What is your favorite song that you’ve created?
JZ: I’ve been picking up tons of production tips over the past year so it already sounds like a different era to me in the sloppiness of its production but in terms of song writing and executing my ideal concept, I think the song “High Tide Edict” is the strongest. I like that one the most.
P&P: Out of curiosity, why all the cats?
JZ: Well first of all I really like them. But with that, along the lines of my preference for small shows, I’m highly suspicious of some facade or artifice to go along with the music. It all seems kind of silly. I am who I am and I’m not making the music around some campfire in the woods or some isolated beach… I wear glasses and have a bit of a beard so I basically look like everyone else. I’m no visual artist, love drawing cartoons, but that seemed like the wrong aesthetic choice for this music. Most art direction seems arbitrary anyway so I just chose something that I love and would kind of acknowledge how silly the whole thing felt and moved on from there. I don’t want to take myself too seriously. Also, kitties!
P&P: What’s next for Oak Island?
JZ: Live shows! It’s been years since I’ve played live and I’ve been struggling figuring out how to translate this music to a live context without just staring at a laptop screen. I’ve got a concept worked out that I’m starting to practice with now, a different style of live performance, trying to combine the early minimalists approach with tape experiments and looping to a modern pop context. It’s something I’m really excited about but it’s not ready to discuss any further just yet.
P&P: What’s the first album you’ve ever bought?
JZ: The soundtrack to the first live action Flinstones movie, featuring the BC-52s. Very clever, what they did there.
P&P: Where do you go to find new music and why?
JZ: It’s just all around. I spend so much time reading blogs I just try to keep my eye out for the adjectives and genres that tend to suit me and I go from there… one of the big differences for me now, and probably for a lot of people, versus ten, twenty years ago is there’s rarely an attempt on my part to go searching for new music. New music is just there, as part of my daily life, through Google Reader. WIRE Magazine is probably the latest place I go now where I’m actively searching for something new outside of my normal routine.
P&P: What is one thing you can do that’s pretty unique?
JZ: Uh, my tongue is creepily wide and I can spread it out of my mouth beyond the width of my lips. It’s absolutely disgusting looking.
P&P: What is your drink of choice and why?
JZ: A free one… because I can pretensify over classic cocktails or stouts with the best of them but that’s for special occasions. I am a bedroom pop musician in New York, my budget is limited.
P&P: If you could play with a band that’s around or not around anymore, who would you choose and why?
JZ: The Roots. I don’t think anyone is better at corralling a diverse group of collaborators and utilizing them effectively so I can only assume they would take whatever half-baked idea I had and spin it into gold.
EXCLUSIVE: Download Oak Island’s newest track a day in advance here: Dabble In Haunt (To download, right-click and click “save linked file as…”)
Here is the song “Hide Behind” by Oak Island: