Interview by Helena Markos
Zanias is Alison Lewis. She is an artist originally from Australia but has now been based in Berlin since 2013. Zanias is a prolific artist who has collaborated with some of electronic music’s most respected figures. She has also appeared on Dax J’s critically acclaimed ‘Offending Public Morality’ LP, provided vocals on Black Rain’s ‘Dark Pool’ album and ‘Computer Soul’ EP (Blackest Ever Black). She also collaborated with prominent artists such as Ancient Methods and I Hate Models. In 2018 she followed it with her debut album, ‘Into the All’ (Candela Rising), a genre-defying journey of psychospiritual enlightenment formed from extensive recording and experimentation. While her live performances are characterised by a state of catharsis, with an intense vocal performance, her DJ and hybrid sets are filled with evocative melodies intricately woven through industrial beats and EBM basslines. In both cases, the main objective is to move both the body and the mind.
Apart from her brilliant solo career, she is also half of the famous darkwave duo Linea Aspera. Finally, she is the woman behind Berlin’s well-established EBM driving force FLEISCH records. Zanias is one of the few, and her distinctive voice and style make her music a genre itself. This in-depth interview took place a few days after her new double LP ‘Unearthed‘ was released on FLEISCH. In this release, Zanias condenses her post-punk, techno and Italo influences into a collection of simultaneously brooding and uplifting pop songs. ‘Unearthed’ explores the multiplicities of human connections, written at a time when connectedness was a resource more scarce than ever before.
It is heartfelt and profound in a content interview. Among other subjects, Zanias touches on the current status quo, highlighting the importance of the lessons learnt during the challenging times of the pandemic. We are happy to have Zanias and her powerful words, making us want to know her more.
T.O.P: Hi Zanias, welcome to Tales of Psychofonia. First of all, I want to thank you for answering to my questions. How have the pandemic and current status quo affected you, both as a human and as an artist?
I also discovered exactly who those preferred people are, and trimmed away toxic relationships that no longer had any relevance outside the context of the ‘music scene’. As an artist I am more confident, motivated and in tune with my vision. I actually don’t think I could have continued what I do without that long break from it all, even if it was incredibly painful at times – mainly due to being separated from my family. As a human I’ve learned so much that I can’t imagine who I’d be if this pandemic hadn’t happened. I needed the lessons, and I’m also endlessly grateful for the relationships that formed during this time.
T.O.P: Looking back at your earlier releases, what do you think has changed and what has remained consistent?
Zanias: I’ve always just made what I feel, which can be literally anything, and I’ve never wanted to appear too stable or predictable. I’ve certainly become a better producer, but then I also collaborated with so many people who were far better producers than me so that the trajectory of improvement isn’t so clear. I guess the sound of my voice is the one thing that never changes, though I do think I’ve learned how to use it far more dynamically than I did in in the first Linea Aspera album, for example. The themes of loss and renewal that drive me to write have also remained largely consistent, but when listening back to my older material and see what used to bother me I realise how much I’ve grown up since then!
T.O.P: You are also co-founder and curator of Fleisch records, the well-established Berlin – based label, that represents striking Body Music and first-rate dark electronic sounds, counting numerous of releases, by artists such as Imperial Black Unit, Forces, Kontravoid and Reka, to name but a few. Can you tell me few things about your journey into the music and what’s the story behind Fleisch?
Zanias: Fleisch was born from a group of friends with a shared passion for dancing all night to EBM in a filthy concrete basement. I first got a taste for that particular pleasure in London at the Endurance parties, and Fleisch felt like an incidental homage to that, at least on a personal level. The parties turned into a label because we really wanted to release Forces, then when his record was postponed in production we released a few other things first. Then more and more good music came our way and we just didn’t stop. It’s been a very organic process with no specific goals in mind other than sharing things that literally move us.
T.O.P: There is a certain political expression in the musical art represented on Fleisch, some examples are the ‘Avaricia’ EP by Imperial Black Unit & Reka, as well as your recent ‘Extinction’ EP, where you touch the burning subject of climate change. Do you think there is a tendency to make music more political/social again? And why is this important for you?
Especially during the pandemic I felt like I wanted to move away from overt political messages with my work and retreat into the timelessness of raw emotion. Though in a sense, giving emotions a voice is in itself a political statement, because they’re not regarded very highly in the construction of civilisation despite being the core of our lived experience. I truly believe only a better world can arise from a more emotionally intelligent population. I love the thought of playing a role in that! I really hope that’s one of the effects my music can have.
T.O.P: Can you recall any person, moment or experience that have played a significant role for your expression and art?
Zanias: There have been a few instances that changed me irreversibly, in which I’ve explored the boundaries of consciousness beyond anything I can properly described. First with DMT via ayahuasca and more recently through the molecule 5-meo-DMT. These intense experiences led to distinct paradigm shifts in my understanding of my place in the world and solidified the urge to do what I do. It’s not easy to remain committed to something for so many years when much of the journey consists of an uphill battle and endless financial struggles. Being a musician is so strange because you end up somewhat excessively highly regarded by a select few yet simultaneously made to feel totally valueless by society at large, and even by other musicians.
I thought about giving up on it all so many times because it’s pretty disastrous to the mental health to live this way. But the thing is… when I travel to that space beyond comprehension, I always come back so driven to create that I have no choice but to keep going. The sense of purpose diminished by the daily grind is restored, and the examination of my own psychology that takes place in those states leads to no shortage of material to write about. I come back knowing deeply that what I’m doing is important.
T.O.P: How would you describe your creative process?
Zanias: Any kind of emotionally charged experience can inspire me, whether it’s positive or negative. They tend to always be connected to the biological realities of love or death, I guess because there’s little else that properly moves me. I often open Ableton with the intention of just testing out a simple idea, then if a track forms I can’t really stop until the bones of it are laid down. I start with drums and a bassline or melody, and immediately experiment with vocal melodies which I’ll loop and layer to trigger further ideas. The instrumental comes before any idea of what the song will be about – the words that form from my nonsense mumbles guide the theme. While I’m in the process I’m not really conscious of it so it’s hard to describe what happens there other than the practical steps, but it’s always very cathartic.
T.O.P: How do you see the post-virus era?
Zanias: At the beginning I really hoped that we were in for some lasting positive changes, as if the pandemic were a wakeup call. But I fear we’re just in for things to grow a little worse before they get any better. All forms of inequality have only increased, and departures from truth among certain groups have become even more deranged. Our realities are diverging so much I’m not sure if it’s even possible for them to come together again, but I’m still hopeful. I have this inbuilt unfavourable trust that it’s all going to be ok, and that we’re just passing through this so we can learn how to create an infinitely better world. I honestly have no idea what to expect.
T.O.P: What do you feel are the major challenges that artists face today?
Zanias: The devastating devaluation of our work continues to slash our income expectations from recorded music, which remains completely absurd to me. Spotify has an awful lot to answer for, but many musicians themselves seem terribly complacent. There are two small changes I made that I think should become more widespread: 1. I added a note to my Spotify bio that they don’t pay us properly, and direct listeners to my Bandcamp or Patreon if they really want to support me, & 2. I raised my Bandcamp prices to EUR1.50 per track instead of EUR1.00. If you show that you are aware that your work is worth something, more often than not, people who agree are more than willing to pay. We should also be paying attention to the blockchain solutions to streaming that are already beginning to take shape. AUDIUS, for example, is a very promising platform that will allow fans to pay artists directly for streaming.
The technologies for a fair system is here, so we just need both fans and artists to migrate over to using them for a pretty amazing change to take place. It’s no accident that I only started producing the best music I’ve ever made once I crossed that threshold from ‘perpetual financial stress’ to ‘living quite comfortably. The music industry can only gain from more artists reaching this level of self-sufficiency – creativity will explode.
T.O.P: Any upcoming projects/collaborations to announce?
Zanias: Linea Aspera is finally going on tour to promote our ‘new’ album which came out last year, and I’m in the middle of working on the next Zanias album with an amazing collaborator. We’re co-creating both the music and visuals, and they’re going to be pretty wild.
T.O.P: Who is Zanias outside the studio or venues?
Zanias: An idealist who wants to live a meaningful and well-examined life but doesn’t take anything too seriously because she’s seen the edge of all things and knows just how insignificant we really are. Give her a surfboard and some waves, preferably free of other humans, and she’s quite content.
T.O.P: Which piece of music or album would you suggest as a mind/soul healer?
Zanias: Holly Herndon – PROTO