Local gem Xela Zaid has long been one of the most innovative musicians working the Miami music scene, from his early career as a singer-songwriter using unique tunings on an acoustic guitar with a microphone shoved into its sound hole to his current experimentation with peddles, radio and abstract noise.
Otherwise known as Alex Diaz, Zaid has been a part of Miami’s alternative music scene since the late ’80s, when he founded the local band Ho Chi Minh. As an independent musician he is well known in the area and continues to create music that challenges its audience — in a good way. He was named “Best Solo Musician” in the Miami New Times’ 2013 “Best Of” special edition. Earlier this year, French indie label Partycul System released his latest album Orange Violet on vinyl, his first ever vinyl release (If you are in Miami, check our local indie shop Sweat Records for stock). Zaid first released a shorter EP version on his bandcamp page, back in 2012. After an on-line release in Europe via the Italian internet label Selva Elettrica in 2013 and a European tour by Xela, the album found a physical home via Partycul.
The album is more than an experimental noise effort. The record takes its time to establish itself and speaks to its quality as a cohesive work by a true music visionary. Zaid played all the instruments on it, which include radio, harmonica, acoustic guitar and bass. He did it live with the assistance of pedals to loop and layer the instruments with effects, most notably extended reverb, giving the album a dream-like quality. In fact, the album’s second track, “Soft Sleep,” with its sporadic honks from a harmonica that echo and diminish among pulsing electronic effects and Zaid’s cooing and groaning voice sounds perfect for a David Lynch film.
“Twelve” features echoing, watery guitar licks that mesh atop each other like superimposed images. It’s no wonder his video for the song looks like that as well:
Across the album, vocals are spare and often unintelligible. It isn’t until the fourth track, “Santa Fe,” that you will finally hear something close to words, albeit evocative ones, like “by the fire she waits.” Again, Zaid mostly sings non-words, punctuating his coos with declarations of “Santa Fe.” The music is mostly rumbling, gravely bass, again giving a sense of spectral, superimposed images.
Speaking via phone, Zaid reveals, “It’s not your typical approach to making a record,” and laughs.
He explains that he wanted to make a spontaneous record, so with no set idea for the songs, he improvised the entire album. He says there were no overdubs and some tracks were recorded in one take. He admits that he edited a few things, but that’s as far from the spontaneity as he got. “I wanted just rough sketches, nothing heavily produced or overworked.”
Even with this raw approach, there are some tracks that could be categorized as songs. The album’s fifth track, “Outward” is the first, recognizable song. It features a throbbing beat and melodic, if sometimes eerie and sparse, guitar and bass parts. It peters out, however, with a few chaotic plucks of guitar. It’s as if Zaid wants to embrace the chaos of creation over something more concrete.
“I write a lot of songs,” he says, “and you rehearse, and you prepare yourself to record. I’ve done all kinds of records like that where you record the songs, do the overdubs. I wanted to do something different. Something that was just like what I just thought, a rough sketch, a blank canvas, so I can go back and kinda like keep it natural, keep it human, not like a heavily, technologically, high-fidelity advanced record.”
Though he admits the record has received mixed reactions, from love to hate, he is personally pleased with the result, as it has allowed him to grow as a musician. “I think artistically it allowed me some major growth because sometimes as artists, we want to control everything. We want to make sure we say the right thing, sound the way we want to sound and everything has got to be perfect. No, I didn’t want to make a perfect record. I wanted to make a record that, yeah, I kept some mistakes in it, some purely human flaws and kept that in there.“
Despite its improvisational beginnings, there is a dynamism to be found. This is not an ambient record to play in the background for mood, nor is it a pop record to swoon over the lyrics and latch on to catchy hooks. This is an album that rewards the close listener. Zaid reveals that he placed three different takes of one track on the record that gives the album a kind of symmetry. “Basically, the first take I put as the first song, and then I put the second take of that in the middle and then the end, a third. They were slightly different, but they were basically three takes of one song.”
It’s an album worth exploring on your own, as before he revealed this fact, this writer noticed that “Whistle” is a more intricate and spirited variation of the echoing voices of opening track “Whitney Whispers,” which is a bit less intelligible. Finally, the closing number, “Pajaro” seems to meld voice and guitar like nothing else prior, it sounds like the word pajaro (Spanish for bird) is repeated via the guitar. The man has fused with instrument like no other moment on Orange Violet. It’s as if the album is Cronenbergian on a musical level. Orange Violet is an odd sonic journey that one must be prepared to be challenged by, but it has vivid, rich rewards.
You can catch Xela Zaid Live this weekend at the following venues:
- Luna Star Café on June 10 in “An Evening with Gold Dust Lounge and Special Guests”
- Churchill’s on June 10 in “Pub & Mr. C Presents: 80’s Fever”
- Churchill’s on June 11 as part of Armada in “Bowie’s in Space at Chulchill’s Pub”
Photos by Carlo Piscicelli from video stills. Photo of vinyl courtesy Partycul System.