It's not often that we get a refreshing taste of classic rock influence in today's rock & roll tunes, so when we get the chance to hear it, we take a minute to appreciate it. Today, we at Anything But Kountry take a minute to pay tribute to "hearts:_[online]", the incredible debut release from Pennsylvania-native singer-songwriter, James Zero. The breakthrough EP is a very nostalgic program, influenced by everything to lo-fi to classic rock elements to last decade's big punk rock sounds. Recorded entirely at the beginning of this year, James Zero used pandemic and COVID-19 "Stay-At-Home" orders to his advantage - bunkering down in the studio with all the time in the world to record a proper album that could set him on the map as a singer. With over a decade of experience as a music producer under his electronic music projects "It Is I", "I Can Fly", and "Spirit Swords", and being classically-trained instrumentalist able to play a variety of musical instruments, it comes as no surprise that Zero would eventually delve into this genre and quite literally, "find his voice".
Opening the autographed, limited-edition physical CD of the album felt incredibly special. The frontside cover, designed by our in-house visual artist, Paresthexia, shined it's beautiful glossy shine. The artwork was complimented by backside artwork, a picture of James Zero with a face of flowers, designed by Indian visual artist Partially Ionized. A handwritten "thank you" note was attached inside personally thanking us for our purchase and for giving him the opportunity to release an album with us. The footer read, "'Together' is a never-ending story." The CD was another gorgeous print of the artwork that was displayed on the cover, and with that, we popped the CD in for a listen.
The program opens with Zero's soothing voice behind soulful guitar chords in the introduction song, "Danny L", which eventually progresses into a thrashing and driving shoegaze/grundge anthem. After the song ends, leaving us feeling nostalgic, the attitude is picked back up with the Blue-Oyster-Cult-influenced groove-rock song, "Hypnotized". The album begins to take a pop-punk turn with "Moonlight" - a short ode to being a worried young adult in love, with a radio-like fidelity and peppy percussive parts. Finally, a climax is reached with the title track, "hearts:_[online]", with a similar driving groove of "Hypnotized", but with the nostalgia of "Danny L" and the innocence of "Moonlight". The album leaves us with "WYAIWYNTB" - (short for what we can only assume is "Where You Are is Where You Need to Be") - which is a curveball of a song considering the others, a complete neo-soul ballad with multiple backing vocal harmonies and smooth Mayer-like guitar solos.
We got the chance to sit down with James Zero to ask him some questions about his new EP.
ABK: "Your new EP is very proficiently produced. What made an EDM producer want to become a singer-songwriter?"
JZ: I'm a 2000's kid, so I grew up listening and looking up to guys in bands that knew how to just come out and throw down. My older brother had an entire library of music on our Limewire, and one day I picked it up to listen to, and it was all just blink-182, Taking Back Sunday, Brand New - bands like that. I learned how to play guitar at 8 years old so I could play a lot of these songs and start writing my own. I kind-of put all of that down in the early 2010s with the explosion of electronic music production. I think I gravitated towards it because dubstep was this new thing that nobody really understood, and it was so accessible to do and it promoted accessible music with the SoundCloud boom, you could start that day - whereas with rock music you had to have all the right gear on top of the talent. Once I got too comfortable with all my mindless electronic music projects, I decided to sing on rock tracks because I felt it was music more from my heart. So in a sense, it's been with me this whole time, the production just enabled me to know what I'd be doing when the time came.
ABK: "In a thematic sense, the album seems to revolve around online relationships. Can you tell us about that?"
JZ: You're 100% on that. Like I was talking about before, this album is inspired sonically and musically by these punk and alternative rock bands that I used to listen to as a kid. So the theme not only reflects online dating, but online dating in this time period - in the early 2000s. There were these certain themes that come with online dating that I wanted to explore. I spent 5 years of my teenage life sitting in Greyhounds and trainseats, just on the way to see a girl I met online. There's a lot of things you experience that a lot of hometown-staying guys don't get to, but the album is moreso a tribute to how it would've been in the early 2000s. It even sounds like it was recorded in 2006! During that time social media was a really small, collective thing - either you were on NewGrounds, MySpace, or you were chatting on AOL Instant Messenger (AIM). The song "hearts:_[online]" is entirely about being excited to talk to a girl you like on AIM messenger. I can still remember not having YouTube and still feeling excited to hear my favorite song on the radio, and I can remember social media was so small that you could just message.
ABK: "You shot a music video for your song, 'Hypnotized'. Are there any plans for music videos for this album?"
JZ: We have some plans for some music videos, but the ones we have immediately planned won't be a traditional music video that features me, like you might expect. Those are coming really soon, maybe at the beginning of next month. I don't want to say much right now but they're coming and they're really, really cool. We released the visualizer videos which were animated by my very good friend and creator Paresthexia, so we have those, too.
ABK: "You mentioned blink-182 and Brand New as some influences, but are there any more that inspired you to make the album?"
JZ: Aside from my favorite childhood punk rock bands, I was especially inspired by LGBTQ artists like Kevin Abstract, Charli XCX, Tegan & Sara, and The Blood Orange.
ABK: "That's all the time we have today. In closing, what would you say is next for James Zero?"
JZ: I want to take a lot of time to appreciate this album for what it's worth and what it represents. After that, I'll be working on my EDM project, Spirit Swords, and eventually I'll get back in the studio to record a full-length album that I'm calling "Oceans".
Listen to hearts:_[online] by James Zero below!
Click Here to Stream on SoundCloud