Yumi Zouma explores the mystically paradisaical dream-pop of New Zealand in their recently released LP, Willowbank. The quartet has toured around Europe, Asia, and North America and played alongside other Oceania powerhouses like Lorde and Nick Murphy (aka Chet Faker). We caught up with Yumi Zouma over ramen before their show at Washington D.C.’s U Street Music Hall to discuss their new album, their evolving production process, and some of their favorite bands we think you may not know. Check out the conversation and your next favorite band below.
WTS: Thank you all so much for coming out to DC and making the time to speak with What the Sound! Its quite the privilege to have the entire band here. So first of all, you're coming off the release of your new album, Willowbank, which you recorded and wrote entirely in your hometown of Christchurch. How did being back home affect the sound, lyrics, and overall process on your new project.
Josh: I think it just created a lot more of a relaxed atmosphere, being home, it gave us the ability to take our time and not be distracted by other things. In the past we've had to record in between tours, so comparatively the experience was by in large much less stressful.
Charlie: We were able to record it over a few different periods as well. For example we all went back home for Christmas and record a bit, then come back at the end of April and that was the first time we had that kind of space to work on things then come back and do it again.
Sam: Yeah within that time we were just able to flesh out our ideas so much more.
WTS: I saw somewhere that this was something you all supposedly planned out, you had specifically wanted to go back to NZ for this second album.
Christie: We had some time where we weren't really doing anything after getting off of a long stretch of tours last October, so when we found a little bit of a break, and we were already going back in December to see our respective families, I already live in Christchurch, we were just there chilling, doing our thing. We booked the studio space and dedicated some time around that period to working on stuff. So I suppose it was a conscious decision to do it there, but it was also partially out of connivence since we were all going to be in once place in the same time. So it just made since to do it then.
WTS: Were there any moments during the recording process that left an impact on you?
Christie: There were a lot of moments where we were just sitting, and there are some songs that I can think of on the album that I can think of, such as "Depths", that came completely from scratch. Most of the time Charlie, Josh, or Sam has a previous idea we can work with and then we go from there, whether is a scrap or something more concrete. With "Depths", however, we just sat down, Sam wrote a guitar line and we built it up from there. "Carnation" was like that as well, in the sense that it came from the ground up. We all worked on it together to write melodies and add lyrics, bouncing back and forth in such. There were a lot of nice moments like that, and we certainly set ourselves the challenge to do that, because that is not our normal process.
In the end it was an enjoyable experience to work together and come up with something a lot quicker than we normally do. In the past, one of us writes something and it'll go back and forth over email, maybe I'll take a few days to write some vocals. Willowbank was much more instantaneous. You get more of that spark of creativity, which we did have on Yoncalla, but our most recent efforts felt a lot more organic and less frenzied or forced. Like it all happened because we wanted it to, whereas with Yoncalla we had such limited time to do it that it felt quite hectic.
Charlie: This is also the first time we recorded stuff in a studio, so it was a lot more relaxed and it definitely sounds better as well. This is the first time Christie recorded her vocals in something that wasn’t one of our closets, it was a soundproof room with solid equipment.
WTS: Being in a studio this time, what kind of gear were you able to incorporate into the music?
Josh: The most predominate thing is a laptop, just using virtual instruments, such as virtual synthesizer emulators. That being said, this record has a lot of clarinets and strings on it.
Sam: That Prophet that you bought in Japan was all over the record though.
Josh: You're right! I bought a vintage keyboard in Japan right before we did this record and I was having so much fun using it that it ended up on a lot of the record.
WTS: Do you hunt for different equipment when you are on tour?
Christie: No, not really. But there was this one other time when we were in Japan and Josh was real keen on buying a synth since they are so cheap there. We went around to a bunch of different music shops trying to find the best one, and even though he didn't end up getting one we had a lot of fun browsing. It was a very cool shopping trip over all.
WTS: Isn't that what's important? So, I know you all are a bit mysterious about your band name, but could you explain what "Willowbank" means?
Christie: Ahhhh, Willowbank! Willowbank is a wildlife sanctuary in Christchurch with Kiwis and other local species. It’s a bit of a tourist trap. But anyway Charlie fell in the pond there when he was around four years old. He ran in because he thought that the green moss on top was grass. So we named it after that. That's all there is to it really, but its the kind of place in Christchurch that you'll end up going to on school holiday. So it is very New Zealand.
WTS: You all have lived in very different places; New York, Paris, New Zealand. What was the impact that your surroundings had on you?
Josh: I think that wherever you make music, well at least for me, your surroundings definitely influence it. I can think of a few instances where going to certain shows or living certain experiences that made me want to write something specific. But I don't think it was ever like "we walked down the Avenue des Champs-Élysées and were inspired."
Sam: Its more so whoever you are around. That is who is going to influence you. Since we're all in very different places we're also around very different people, and that influences us in very different ways. But it would be a pretty long winded answer to fully answer that.
Sam: I am definitely a lot more influenced by these guys than the places I've been. When we write music, I have to rely on Josh liking it, Christie liking it, Sam liking it.
Charlie: And that really sculpts what I do. I'm not much of an emotional songwriter in the perspective of getting inspired by my friends.
Christie: There is definitely something to be said when comparing working at home and going to the studio to write. I was in my own space, my own element, surrounded by my usual workplace and usual friends. Because I live in Christchurch it was just my normal average life, at least when I'm not on tour. Otherwise, I live a pretty boring life! Christchurch is often a better place for me, songwriting-wise, it gives me more of a clear head. It gives me the opportunity to come up with something more nuanced as opposed to something I am forcing.
Charlie: The other thing is we have all been quite inspired by New Zealand bands growing up.
WTS: I was actually going to ask you about that. Could you name a couple bands that impacted your musical growth as well as some coming out of New Zealand that we should pay attention to? Was there a special band that took a hold of your part in Willowbank?
Charlie: Well we all have very different music tastes.
Josh: The song "December" I was quite influenced by a Swedish band called The Radio Department. That's the most concrete one I could name. A lot of dance music influences me, I like the tightness it provides.
Charlie: I'm not really sure of it in the context of this new album, but a lot of the music that has always inspired me are the New Zealand bands I went to go see as a teenager. In the late 2000's I'd go see bands like The Mint Chicks, So So Modern, Cut Off Your Hands, and The Ruby Suns.
Josh: I think that The Mint Chicks is probably our biggest collective influence.
Charlie: Yeah but it's funny because none of these bands sound anything like Yumi Zouma. These are all bands that we were into when we were 18 and loved post-punk music.
Josh: We were talking about this the other day actually. Those bands had such a strong live presence, just really high-energy, and people are normally quite surprised that we carry that same presence. It comes from those same bands that we loved.
Charlie: But that's just specific to Josh and I, since we're a bit older than the others.
Christie: I mean, you know what I'm going to say...
Charlie: Fleetwood Mac!
Christie: Yeah, I'm a huge Fleetwood Mac fan. I go through phases with their particular albums or styles they used since they had three different song writers and they each write so differently. Sometimes I am more influenced by the Lindsay Buckingham type sound, but usually it's Stevie Nicks, she's my favorite. On this album I had a bit more of my influences on the songwriting, especially with the more down-tempo songs. Even in the way that I am singing you can hear a bit more depth to my voice. Fleetwood Mac's music, even though its pop music, it always carried serious emotions and drumbeats. So I think that definitely shined through.
There is also a lot of great music coming out of New Zealand right now as well. Aldous Harding is a big influence. There are also a few folk bands over there, Tiny Ruins is one, even though their music is really different to ours. When you are writing a song, I always start in more of a folk song mindset and the build it out from there. If you are trying to write something serious, that's the best way to approach it. Lyrically, Tiny Ruins' style is beautiful.
Sam: For a New Zealand influence on the record, I can't really name a particular band. I mostly play guitar in the band when we were recording, and my friend Jackson is the best guitar player I have ever seen, and to see someone play a guitar like he does, that's probably the biggest inspiration for me.
WTS: You all have toured around the world. Are there any bands you've encountered that our readers should check out.
Josh: There's a band from Nagoya, Japan called Crunch who are really cool.
Charlie: A French band opened for us in Paris once called Juniore.
Sam: Yeah they would be my pick too. They have this noir surf sound that is amazing.
Christie: I really like She-Devils! I'm really excited to finally be touring with them, so I'd say check them out. I also love Chad Valley, who is also on our label, Cascine, with us. We just finished up the West Coast tour with him.
Olivia: His voice is amazing!
Christie: Just an amazing voice. The first time I heard him play live I was blown away by how huge his voice was and when he sings its he has this real dramatic 80's sound.
Interview by Max Goldstein