While the last year has been challenging for many, J Hacha De Zola has continually released material without pause. The Jersey City native has released five albums and a couple of EP releases, that is if you count his Greatest Hits album released this past April. Was it an audacity, his own ego, or the belief in himself to release a recording of his works that could stand on its own? Whatever it was, or what you yourself would like to believe, Zola’s use of his own communal “urban junkyard” of sound is ditched this time around for something a bit more… flavorful. It comes in the form of East Of Eden (Caballo Negro), his latest full-length album. Here, Zola strays slightly from the comparisons to those pop experimentalists he’s shared an affinity for throughout the years, for something with a substantial amount of soul. He casts away the darker imagery – or does he(?) – for brighter lights and vivid colors.
Going through the midweek motions, I dialed up the songwriter to discuss the recently released album during the time of love and coronavirus. The recording throughout East of Eden are quite intriguing, as J Hacha De Zola ditches the assault of instruments of his previous releases, shedding his own skin, as the evolution in sound becomes apparent. As Zola’s music has progressed and evolved, it seems he has as well. I jokingly expressed how his change in wardrobe, it’s something I wouldn’t be able to pull off, instead probably come off looking like a santero, a priest in the Santeria folk religion. He laughs heartedly at my comment and the idea isn’t lost on him. He tells me, “Yeah, someone else said that too saying, ‘Hey what did you do J, did you go full-blown Santero?’” He gets it and our conversation is comfortable enough that I become animated discussing his music, allowing for my worst impression of the chorus to one of his songs. He laughs again but understands the point I attempt to make about his music. The song composition is different but remains familiar. We spoke at length and I dug deep, as our discussion moved from family to politics and inevitably, to music.
Did you grow up in Jersey?
Yeah man born and raised. In Hudson County, Jersey City. I’ve always lived around Hispanics / Latinos is the majority of the population but it’s still really diverse out here, there are all kinds of cultures, there’s a lot of everything. I think that’s a beautiful thing. Can you imagine living in a place where everyone’s the same, thinks the same, dress the same?
God No! So you’re first-generation and your parents migrated here?
I’m first-generation man. My father came from Peru back in the ‘50s believe it or not, and my mom immigrated from Honduras back in the 70s. A lot of people do it that way, first, they’ll get one parent over here, and they kind of establish themselves, and then they’ll get the rest of the family over. The whole immigration story is a wild one, it’s a tough one. The last four years, what’s happening to these kids, that shit fucking kills me. That could have been me! That literally could have been me or members of my family. People from Honduras, they’re locking them up like crazy.
We can just relate to that man. I caught this one video where these two guys jumped off of a train in L.A. and they asked this one guy, “Where are we?” The guy responded, “You’re in L.A., in California.” They put their thumbs up and said, “Somos de Honduras” and the guys filming were, “Well, welcome to America!”
That’s wild man! That transition, that journey; it must be really bad at home for them to really want to make that trip.
Of course, you have to imagine that these are still developing countries – third world countries, whatever they want to call it – and there’s nothing there for people to do if you lack education.
And also with the pandemic and all that…A lot of this was set off by the United States meddling in other governments, particularly in Latin America. They meddled in elections and have helped install these people who don’t really care about the well-being of the population.
Right, they’re only there to get what they can first.
That’s it, and if you’re cool with the imperialist United States, you’re down with them, then shit they install you. Much to the detriment of the actual population. It’s funny because you hear people saying “Oh you know Russia meddled in our elections,” which I’m sure they did but how can we be holier than thou when America has a history of doing the exact same thing?
It’s insanity the way politics filters into everything.
Seriously, it’s inevitable you know.
We can discuss this all day but let’s talk a little bit about your musical background. What was that like initially?
It’s funny, the first thing I ever heard when my dad was drinking his wine in the evening; my first love was Latin music, particularly Perez Prado. A lot of Afro-Cuban music and that was kind of my introduction to it. I was just a little kid and I didn’t even know what it was man but that beat, and that brass, and sounds of all those voices, the percussion just immediately grabbed me as a youngster. But then as I got a little older I kind of not wanted to be like my parents so I got into the heavy metal/punk/hard rock type of thing. The journey kind of took me to a point where I wanted to be like those guys. I wanted to pick up the guitar and learn how to play it because it looked so cool. This was the MTV-era, as it was becoming a thing; I was kind of transfixed by all this music that gave off a sense of rebellion and the nuance of it all. It drove me to learn how to play. As I became a little more proficient at playing the guitar, punk rock really wasn’t doing it for me anymore. Banging out three chords over and over…
At times, there’s only so far a three-chord progression can take you.
Exactly! Or a particular sound or vibe. So I wanted to learn more about the roots of Rock and Roll and all that kind of music was about and it led me to the Blues. I fell in love with the Blues and I kind of became a student of music. Of course, it all started with Rock and Roll and wanting to differ from my parents. I’ve been playing guitar since ’92 and decided I was going to start making records quite later in life and I feel like my earlier years, just being a student and listening intently to all kinds of music, kind of prepared me for this moment. But I feel that I’m well versed in all these different kinds of vibes, sounds, and musical styles that I was able to incorporate into this thing that I’m doing now. I never had any interest in becoming a singer, I don’t really consider myself one; I hardly consider myself a guitar player (he laughs). I can play the guitar, I can play the blues and stuff like that but I’m not particularly great at either one of those things. In a lot of ways, I feel more like I’m a conceptual artist whose medium happens to be music.
It’s weird because after not wanting to be like my parents I feel like I’ve come full circle and now really appreciate the music of my parents. I always try to incorporate some kind of Latin vibe, some Latin sounds. You might hear it throughout the record every now and then, a little cha-cha-cha, a little rhumba, a little Salsita, or algo asi you know? I never thought I would find myself in this place. When I started out wanting to learn how to play and do music, I never thought I would find myself coming full circle and kind of in a way becoming my parents.
What was their reaction when you decided this was the career for you, and when did you come to the realization this is what you wanted to do?
People throw words around like this is your “music career” and I find it kind of funny because I don’t make any money off of this. I do this out of the pure joy of, maybe for lack of a better word, “art,” if you even want to call it that. But I guess earlier on, musicians are the most undependable people in the world, particularly singers. Trying to get everybody together, to sit down and write a song and work together is just impossible. I decided to throw my hat in the ring and said, “You know what? I can’t depend on anyone; I’ll just do it all myself.” I guess the motivation behind making recordings and putting out records is that I just want to leave a legacy or something! I want to leave something behind. I’m not married, I don’t have kids…I think for a lot of people, that legacy embodies itself in having a family. I don’t mind getting a little personal, but I didn’t come from a traditional household. My parents were never married, and my dad wasn’t really around a lot. There was a lot of turmoil too, so I wanted to leave a different kind of legacy. I guess to answer your question that’s what’s got me on this path, of this “becoming a recording artist and embarking on this musical career.” I still don’t get invited to many places to perform, I wish I did (laughs). I don’t know if it’s because they don’t like the music or they don’t like me, but that’s beside the point.
I think it’s probably because you don’t fit “the norm” when it comes to music. I can put you aside groups like Man Man or Firewater, because it’s not the norm, it’s something different.
I appreciate that. I love Man Man by the way. That’s kind of been part of it too you know? I never really wanted to be in a punk, reggae. or a Rock and Roll band. There’s nothing wrong with that but I would rather, as a student of music and a listener & lover of music for so long, I’ve wanted to incorporate some of that experience, that learning and richness I’ve absorbed over the years, and use elements of that. Use elements of things that seem and feel familiar, and hopefully mix them up, recombine those elements into something that feels kind of newish. I tell people too that none of it is really original at all. I do borrow so heavily from all these styles. Whether it’s Latin music, Rock and Roll, R&B, Motown, or Soul, hopefully, it comes off as something that sort of feels unique by using these really familiar elements everyone pretty much knows and has grown up listening to.
What’s that sound in the background? Sounds like you’re in an urban junkyard.
Ha, it’s funny because I was talking about that yesterday. Someone was saying “You know what J, you do stuff that it’s difficult to pigeonhole you, and place you under a particular category.” We came up with that bullshit term, to be honest. Yes, to us it means something but to anyone else I’m not sure it really quite registers. It just happens to be a useful term I found to describe what I do. For anyone that doesn’t know where to place it or categorize it, well… the word kind of paints an image in your mind, you think of a junkyard where there are all these bits and bobs scattered everywhere.
For me, in my own definition, I imagine the sounds of the city, trash cans, discarded pots & pans, empty containers, all being used to formulate and create music. Images of Tom Waits or the early releases by NYC groups like Skeleton Key are what come to mind.
I’ll take it man! That’s what I hoped would come across. You never know what people are going to think or what they’re going to take to, which is why I saw whenever you go after some artistic endeavor, it’s always a lonely thing. You’re trying to express something that’s deeply personal most of the time, and you’re not really sure if anyone really gets it. And that’s why it’s lonely. You give so much of yourself, you offer so much at doing this thing. I have to be honest, a lot of people sometimes don’t get it. They just don’t fucking get it and it makes me nervous. I get this anxiety; I’m pushing middle age here and I question “what am I don’t with my life? What’s wrong with this? What the fuck is wrong with me, why am I doing this?” It seems like sometimes I’m the only one that gets it and that can be a challenge.
Well from the looks of things, you’re not the only one that gets it. I get it. I see that other people are getting it as well. But getting back to the “Urban Junkyard”, there’s been an obvious shift in your music. You’ve even mentioned it directly, eschewing the junkyard for something more direct. Why the significant change?
After putting so many things out, 4 or 5 releases, doing this new thing it seems my effort and the way I approach songwriting, and really the recording process, it’s kind of matured, I’d like to think. It’s a lot more focused and that was the idea behind this new album. Previous albums were kind of over-indulgent and chaotic. I was less interested in typical song structure, and typical songwriting. I was taking cues from artists like Tom Waits; all his stuff is off-the-wall, avant-garde(ish), but at this point with the pandemic & lockdown, I had a lot of time to think about what I wanted to do with this record. Unlike previous records which were completely written in the studio… a lot of bands have the benefits of going out first and playing a repertoire of songs for years before they even hit the studio. I’ve never had that approach, I don’t have a band, it’s just one guy. It’s just me and everyone who plays on the record, they’re all paid to be there. They’re all mercenaries. They’re all great players and they mean really well but essentially, I’m alone on this. The whole process is usually done in the studio and I never know what I’m going to walk away with. On the new album, I was very much focused in the sense that I had a lot of time on my hands to really think about and put this thing together. Even before I got to the studio I had a really concrete idea of what I wanted to do and how I wanted the album to sound & feel. With experience and a lot of pressure, and a lot of fear & anxiety, it really helped me form something that was more to the point and song-oriented.
East Of Eden is the new album and it’s pretty soulful. It feels lighter for one thing, and the songs seem and feel melancholic. But that’s juxtaposed with upbeat tempos. Was that the goal?
Absolutely! I feel very self-conscious about my voice, I don’t like the sound of it most of the time. I wanted to challenge myself with this one by bringing all the vocals upfront and not hide behind a wall of instruments and do what’s best for the song. While I was thinking about this, I was listening to a lot of old-school doo-wop, Motown, a lot of R&B, and Soul. It just dawned on me that I wanted to take that kind of approach. Despite the more bleak lyrical content – I can’t seem to get away from that kind of stuff – I guess that upbeatness is me borrowing heavily from the classic Motown stuff.
That was going to be my next question. With songs like “The Pleading Tone,” the guitar gives that aged sound like it’s coming from another decade, as well as the backing harmonies. It’s great the way it’s blended together. And “Sad Song”(!) has that same feel for a yearning love song. You find yourself lost within the song. It’s great, like I said before, the way you throw in that juxtaposition with the melancholic & upbeat rhythm.
I totally stole that shit and I’m not sure from where. Again that comes from years of listening to all kinds of stuff. It makes its way into your subconscious and you never really know when it’s going to come to the surface. But yeah, I’m sure I stole that from somewhere.
It’s not that obvious theft like that Pharrell/Robin Thicke song where the similarities were so similar to Marvin Gaye. You’re taking from a style and a sound rather than directly taking melodies from an artist.
I tend to agree. There are chord progressions that are part of a musical tradition, and following those formats and that kind of harmony is deeply embedded in the American subconscious, particularly if you’re into American music. I’m sure it came from somewhere but I’m not entirely sure where though. It’s part of that collective American subconsciousness.
I started thinking about the title track to the album. Why is it the title track and what does it mean to you?
“East Of Eden,” obviously it’s a biblical reference. When Adam & Eve were kicked out of Eden they went west, they were cast from the garden, cast out of God’s good graces. Being as I had written this album during the pandemic, being that the last four years under this orange bozo, who will remain nameless, it really felt like America had taken a turn towards chaos and destruction with this political tribalism, this sense of entitlement, and violence against people of violence. Don’t get me wrong, all of that has always existed here in America obviously but never before were we able to see how it was it brought to the forefront and people were comfortable with their racism, discrimination, and privilege in modern society than ever before. The pandemic laid this all really bare, along with the previous administration; it was like a perfect storm of horrible shit. That’s kind of what the title is in reference to, this fall from grace.
For the album, the players that you have here, from the singers to the musicians, all gel really well the way you’ve conceptualized the album.
The selection of the players, that was another thing that came out of this pandemic. I prefer to have the players in the studio with me but being that there was this deadly virus going around, I couldn’t just have everyone down. It limited the selection of players I could have and it actually turned out to be pretty good. I feel like everyone occupied just the right space, no one was violating anyone else’s sonic space and so everything fit in really nicely. I’d like to say it was intentional but it probably wasn’t (he laughs).