Five years after being described by Rolling Stone as "Air without irony," Zero 7's Henry Binns and Sam Hardaker are still amazed by the persistence of comparisons to the French electronica duo.
"Journalists always need to compare, it seems to me," says Binns. "I mean, Paul McCartney — he sounds a bit like the Rolling Stones, don't you think?"
But even Binns admits that, back when Zero 7 released their atmospheric 2001 debut album, Simple Things, there was a shared sensibility among the musicians who were variously labeled as trip-hop, chill-out and trance artists.
"At the time, we were very impressed with bands like Portishead, and with how Air's music had this kind of beautiful melody to it, in their own Parisian way. And I can see the similarities. Subsequently, of course, we've gone in very different directions. You know, it would be funny to meet up with those guys and talk about chill-out. What a boring conversation that would be!"
Zero 7's co-founders started out their careers as studio engineers for the likes of Pet Shop Boys, Simply Red and Robert Plant, none of whom Binns found particularly appealing at the time: "We do embrace electronica, there's no doubt, but I can't really get on with the Pet Shop Boys' music at all. I mean, I was just the oily rag at the time, although I did make a good cup of tea. And I also got to work with Robert Plant, which was obviously a long time after Led Zeppelin, in the pretty bad days, but still, he was an extremely nice man."
To hear Binns tell it, his decision to enter the music industry was almost a matter of happenstance.
"I think education failed our generation dismally," he says. "In fact, Sam had more of a notion what to do than I did. He said, 'I'm probably gonna start this sound engineering course,' and I was like, 'Yeah, I'll probably do that, too.'"
So what were Binns' other options at the time?
"Oh, you know, glue-sniffing, maybe. I don't know. It wasn't that grim, but there wasn't much else. My dad's an architect, you know, so I was doing bits and bobs there."
The success of Simple Things, which included signature songs like "Destiny" and "In the Waiting Line," elevated Zero 7 into the realm of major labels and international touring. Yet the duo remains something of a marketing nightmare: Two or three vocalists come and go with each album, and shifts in musical styles are nearly as frequent.
Unlike Air's albums, which have stayed close to the electronics-and-vocoder formula, Zero 7's latest, Yeah Ghost, is all over the map, with brilliant vocal contributions from avant-R&B singer Eska and the more folk-inclined Martha Tilston. But Binns and Hardaker have already recruited new singers for the American tour.
"We have another girl called Abimara, who's very young, actually, but she's got a beautiful tone in her voice. And to my left is a girl called Olivia Chaney, who sounds like a quintessentially English Joni Mitchell. I've got Tina Turner on my right and Joni Mitchell on my left, so I'm very happy, really."