French trio Zombie Zombie take an unexpected leap of faith on their new album, a “reverberated doom orgy” that fuses Latin and choral arrangements with fizzing analogue synths and vocoders 

The Bagnolet studio where Zombie Zombie make their music is a mere 20-minute walk from Paris’ most famous cemetery, Père Lachaise, the resting place of a subterranean galaxy of departed luminaries. 

“Chopin!” declares Étienne Jaumet from the depths of his musical bunker, and we start to list the many celebrated cadavers buried alongside him – Wilde, Piaf, Géricault, Balzac, Molière, Bizet, Bernhardt, Morrison… the list goes on. 

Should there be an undead uprising in the night, Zombie Zombie might not be the first unfortunates to have their brains eaten, but – taking into account stealth trajectory – the flesh-eaters could be groaning at the studio gates by dawn.

Jaumet’s chief partner-in-crime, Cosmic Neman, might get lucky and miss the reckoning of fleshy horror – he’s late for our interview. While we wait, I suggest Jaumet shows us around the studio. For the last couple of years, journalists have had to deal with the curse of somehow making webcam conversations sound interesting, so artists take note – a live link from the studio is the way to go, especially if you have loads of interesting gear.

What follows over the next five minutes is like an episode of ‘Through The Keyhole’ with added vintage synth porn. Jaumet demonstrates his old ARP and EMS synths with pride, picking up the odd LinnDrum or 808 as he goes. It could be a museum of analogue equipment, except it’s all still very much in use. To assemble such a collection would be nigh-on impossible now, and if one succeeded, it would be eye-wateringly expensive.

“I’m an old musician,” says Jaumet with a smile. “So I’ve had some of it all my life and never sold it. I bought it all back in the 1990s when it was quite cheap and people didn’t really care about this stuff. I never bought anything expensive.” 

He admits that he managed to acquire the EMS as a result of some serendipitous forgetfulness. 

“It’s not really mine, but someone left it here, so I’m lucky.”

The digital dawn prompted plenty of clear-outs, and there was Jaumet, sourcing all his equipment from the brocantes, boutiques d’occasions and bric-a-bracs. Once unfashionable, that retro-futurist aesthetic is an essential component in the sonic universe of Zombie Zombie, with new ideas built on old-world instruments evoking celluloid images of space travel and sci-fi.

The group’s latest release, ‘Vae Vobis’, is one of the most audacious albums of the year. It’s written mostly in Latin and even credits a “Latin muse”, Virginie Leroux, in the credits. Inspired by Northern Renaissance philosopher and theologian Erasmus, it’s full of Jaumet’s synths and polyrhythmic integrity courtesy of two live drummers – Cosmic Neman and Dr Schonberg (aka Jérôme Lorichon).

Then there’s the menacing choir, singing “Woe unto you” in Latin, disinterring arcane pagan rituals through three different vocoders to create the unique ‘Vae Vobis’ sound. And as you might expect, there are no cheap plug-ins or app shortcuts, although they don’t use the Sennheiser VSM-201 vocoder (“Very expensive, and very, very fragile”) first deployed on every track of 1978’s ‘Sunlight’ by Herbie Hancock. Instead, they mix it up between the trio of a Behringer copy (“I’m not a great fan of Behringer, but this one is good”), a Roland VT-4 and a Korg. 

Cosmic Neman arrives and, with my studio tour concluded, I question why so many French musicians, especially of a certain age, enjoy being absorbed in schlocky sci-fi and horror, as per Kavinsky’s zombie backstory or Daft Punk’s robot schtick.

“All these bands are pretty much the same age and we all grew up watching horror movies,” explains Neman. “It was the beginning of a certain freedom when we were teenagers, watching these movies with our friends and listening to the soundtracks, having a beer or a Coke. It really meant something to us.”

It’s no coincidence that Zombie Zombie take their name from a ZX Spectrum video game which would have been all the rage in 1984.

“I loved my childhood,” enthuses Jaumet. “I was a really big fan of music in cartoons and movies.” 

It’s obviously been a natural step for them as adults to mine that same culture. I wonder, what with the new LP being in the language of liturgy, if they also had Catholic guilt to deal with.

“I think it’s more of a pagan thing,” ventures Neman. “Latin is the Catholic language, for sure, and we know it has been sung very well for centuries.”

I tell them how Latin has been weaponised in the UK by the ruling classes – particularly certain politicians – as an ostensible indicator of breeding and intelligence. Perhaps Zombie Zombie are reclaiming it for the (Eucharistic) masses?

“The idea behind the Latin thing was just to have this cryptic language,” says Neman. “When I was younger, I remember listening to metal bands who would reverse their vocals so you couldn’t understand what they meant. Or like Magma, who invented their own language. I was always really interested in that kind of stuff and also liked the idea of singing in this ancient language – I’m fascinated by this sort of thing in music.”

Zombie Zombie assembled their own choir, a core of about five or six singers. Did they each have to learn how to speak in Latin?

“For three or four months, we taught them Latin 12 hours a day,” says Neman, with a straight face. 

“The real difficulty was choosing how to pronounce it, because it’s a dead language,” interjects Jaumet. “Do we pronounce it the French way or the German way? We chose the French.” 

“We worked with an opera singer,” continues Neman, speaking about soprano Angèle Chemin, a prize-winner at the prestigious Concours International de Chant Lyrique de Vivonne in 2020. “She was used to singing in Latin, so she informed us of the different possibilities.” 

‘Vae Vobis’ is the first time Zombie Zombie have really explored lyrics in their music, as neither Jaumet nor Neman consider themselves to be songwriters in the traditional sense. In for a penny, as they say.

“After 15 years of the band, you’re like, ‘OK, we might need to change something so that we aren’t just doing the same Zombie Zombie record,” says Neman. “That was the idea, to try to do something different.” 

That something else is manifested in ‘Nusquam Et Ubique’, a Giallo film-style disco banger that takes orbit when the sequencer kicks in, and ‘Dissolutum’, the catchiest song you’re ever likely to hear – it sounds like a visit from a zombie Jacob Rees-Mogg, leaving a calling card requesting a convocation with your olfactory bulb.

One song that doesn’t get the Latin treatment is ‘War Is Coming’. Arriving during the second half and sung in English, the stark message is effective in its simplicity and feels chillingly prophetic, especially after Russia’s recent invasion of Ukraine, something the band couldn’t have envisaged when making the record.

“Well, you know, there have always been wars,” points out Neman. “So it was an easy guess.” 

Zombie Zombie formed around 15 years ago. At the time, Jaumet was saxophonist for the underrated French alt-pop trio The Married Monk and, more pertinently, he was the soundman for Swedish-French indie rock outfit Herman Dune, who Neman was drumming for. (Neman also goes by the sobriquet Neman Herman Dune, a remnant from those days.)

Jaumet and Neman started jamming in a studio just for fun. Friends who witnessed some of their early sessions suggested they should consider doing something in a more official band-like capacity.

“Then we played one show,” says Neman. “And some people were like, ‘Maybe you should do a record’. I would never have thought that we would still be playing together.”

Doc Schonberg, also known as Lori Sean Berg, joined the band around 10 years ago. Where did he come from?

“Another planet,” says Neman, laughing. “He’s a lunatic but we love him.”

Playing in the same scene as Zombie Zombie in bands like The Berg Sans Nipple, Schonberg went on tour with Herman Dune and the three men struck up a great friendship. 

“He’s a really good fellow and he can play anything,” says Neman. “We did an album with two drum kits and I recorded everything, but we needed two drummers to play it live, so we asked him to come on board and that’s how he joined the band.”

Before Schonberg joined, Zombie Zombie staked out their territory with an extended EP in 2006 and their impressive 2008 full debut, ‘A Land For Renegades’, an album that takes in the widescreen splendour of Ennio Morricone set against a krautrock backdrop of propulsive grooves and savvy synths. The title track in particular could be Morricone and John Carpenter in proverbial flagrante delicto. Then there’s ‘Texas Rangers’, apparently inspired by Peter Watkins’ movie ‘Punishment Park’, which takes off in an enjoyably peculiar left-field direction. Do the samples at the beginning of the track come from the film?

“It’s my voice,” says Neman. 

“We don’t use samples,” states Jaumet. 

“Just fake samples,” adds Neman. 

So why are Zombie Zombie allergic to samples?

“We’re not allergic – it’s just not our way,” explains Neman. “We’ve never had samplers. We’re musicians first. I’m not saying people using samples are not musicians, but Étienne was a sax player and I was playing drums, so we come from a tradition of playing our instruments.”

“It’s why there are mistakes everywhere when we play,” laughs Jaumet. 

“Fuck-ups are great,” adds Neman. “People don’t really do them anymore.”

In 2010, the band followed up ‘A Land For Renegades’ with an EP called ‘Zombie Zombie Plays John Carpenter’, featuring respectful covers of the legendary American auteur’s greatest musical moments, including ‘The Bank Robbery’ from ‘Escape From New York’, plus the themes from ‘Escape From LA’, ‘Assault On Precinct 13’, ‘Halloween’ and ‘The Thing’.

“We had no real plan to cover these songs,” says Jaumet. “After our first album came out, someone in Glasgow said, ‘Your music reminds me of John Carpenter. You should do some covers’.”

The World Of Film International Festival, or WOFF, invited Zombie Zombie to Glasgow to perform some of Carpenter’s scores. They accepted and the EP followed.

“We had a lot of the same equipment – maybe not exactly the same,” says Neman. “And the power of John Carpenter’s music is that it’s very efficient, very simple. You’ll have just a bassline and a melody, with maybe a drum machine. This turned out to be a revolution in soundtrack music history – it’s not Ennio Morricone using a massive orchestra. Carpenter was one of the first to do this really efficient music. And they’re real bangers, too. They sound like hits, like The Supremes or something!”

The trio have ventured into the world of film scoring themselves, particularly with French director Sébastien Marnier, who commissioned them to write music for his feature films ‘Faultless’ (‘Irréprochable’, 2016), and ‘School’s Out’ (‘L’Heure De La Sortie’, 2018).

“Well, actually, he’s just made a new movie, but he wanted classical music this time, so he didn’t end up working with us,” says Neman, sounding disappointed. “It’s a bit of a shame because we made the music for his first two movies. That would have been great to do the first three as a trilogy or something. There’s talk of a TV series, so he might hire us for that again. We’ll see. We’ve been lucky in working with him.”

Before we wrap up the interview, I want to ask them about the Lady Gaga single ‘Venus’, another unlikely collaboration Zombie Zombie found themselves involved in (although it sounds more like a hostile takeover). 

In 2012, Lady Gaga’s management company approached them in pursuit of their single, ‘Rocket Number 9’, which just so happens to be a Sun Ra cover. 

First things first, though… were they out of their minds trying to interpret Herman “Sonny” Blount, certified space cadet, founder of Afrofuturism and sonic alien from Saturn by way of Birmingham, Alabama?

“I’m a saxophonist, but I don’t feel like a jazz player,” asserts Jaumet. “But in some ways, there is something direct and very simple about Sun Ra, even if it’s super-free at the same time. For me, it was logical to do a cover because the theme is strong and uncomplicated, but we just tried not to play jazz. We let our imaginations go. So yeah, it’s not as difficult as you might think to cover Sun Ra, because it’s very open.”

As for Gaga, Neman picks up the story.

“Jean-Baptiste Guillot, the head of our label, contacted us and said, ‘Guys, can you come to the office this morning?’ So we traipsed in and he played us the song. He’s like, ‘It’s Lady Gaga sampling you, is that okay?’. We had all these exchanges with her label because they didn’t know it was a Sun Ra cover – they thought it was by us. 

“Eventually, we had to say, ‘It’s not our song, so you’ll have to speak with us and with Sun Ra’s people’. That was a funny thing. And then even funnier were the comments on YouTube saying things like, ‘Zombie Zombie never worked with Lady Gaga – she worked with Sun Ra directly’.”

 ‘Venus’ limped to Number 76 in the UK singles chart. While Zombie Zombie weren’t paid for publishing, they did pick up something for the sample.

“I don’t think it really worked,” says Neman, shaking his head.

Zombie Zombie might not be “Little Monsters”, but you’ll be able to witness the big monsters live when they play in the UK in November. And remember, if things go bump in the night and the undead come smashing through the door, remove the head and destroy the brain…

‘Vae Vobis’ is out on Born Bad

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