Zane Lowe - Years Ago
Zane Lowe is co-head of artist relations at Apple Music and host of the flagship show on the Apple Music platform. From 2003 to 2015, he was the host of BBC Radio 1‘s evening show, Monday to Thursday - where he championed new music to a nationwide UK audience.
This 2010 interview focuses on Zane’s journey from a promising rap career in New Zealand in the early 1990s to becoming one of the world’s most influential tastemakers in music. It was originally recorded for Sam Coley‘s Radio NZ documentary Urban Disturbance in Broadcasting House.
Dubber Hi, I’m Andrew Dubber. I’m the director of Music Tech Fest, and this is the MTF Podcast. Now, I found myself chatting on Twitter last week to a New Zealand hip-hop DJ and collector, talking about classic and lost recordings, local rap groups and DJs, and along the way we got to talking about Zane Lowe. Now, these days Zane is top brass at Apple Music, and he’s the Beats 1 host whose interviews with musicians led to his recent description in The New York Times as “pop’s unofficial therapist”. If you know Zane, you know him as a music fan. You may know him, for instance, from his time championing new music on BBC Radio 1, and he’s basically broadcasting royalty. He’s almost certainly New Zealand’s most successful broadcaster of all time.
Now, what you might not know is that Zane is also a musician, record producer, and rapper himself, and a pretty great one at that. There are those who maintain that one of the albums he produced is New Zealand’s greatest hip-hop record ever. These days I’d put it somewhere in the top two. His band Breaks Co-op had the distinction of most played radio single in New Zealand, and they made it onto Top of the Pops in the UK, though without Zane for reasons of possible perceived conflict, I guess, since he was also a BBC host at the time.
But that conversation I had with DJ Substance reminded me of this interview I’d recorded with Zane about ten years ago, and it’s one that was used in part for a radio documentary but which was never, at least to my knowledge, aired in full. And so I thought it might be of interest, I tracked it down, dusted it off, and here it is. Now, I have a bit of history with Zane, and this was something of a reunion. It’d probably been a decade since I’d last spoken to him, and it’s been another decade since we had this conversation, so I hope we get to do this again sometime soon. Here’s Zane Lowe, years ago. Enjoy.
Dubber I’m sitting in a radio studio. It’s BBC Radio 1 in central London, and I’m talking with Zane Lowe. And I’m trying to remember when we first met, because I was working for your dad, nearly 20 years ago, and he said “My son is a rapper, would you mind staying after work tonight and recording some stuff for him?”. Do you remember it like that?
Zane Oh yeah, definitely. I remember the first time that I went into the radio production studio that you were doing, or the stuff for Radio Pacific, and… Dad just reached out because he knew I had these ideas and these beats and these rhymes, and I think he saw I was at a bit of a loose end and said “Well, listen, why don’t you use the studio?”. I’m pretty sure it was his suggestion. And I remember going up and meeting you, and just… You were very enthusiastic, and you wanted to help, you wanted to make music with me. And it wasn’t just like “I’m doing a favour for your dad.”, you got straight into it, and that was a big turning point in my life, really, because it proved to me that I could finish a record. Or at least to some level or standard.
Dubber Your dad’s a bit of a legend in radio in New Zealand…
Zane Okay, this interview’s over. It’s good to talk with you. Thank you very much, okay. It took you three seconds to bring my dad… I’m joking, I’m just…
Dubber I was just going to say “What was it like growing up around that?”.
Zane Well, the thing is, it’s always good to hear people talk highly of my father. And for the longest time I was “Derek Lowe’s son”, and that’s the way I… That’s who I am. That’s a big part… Yeah, that’s what I am. I’m Derek Lowe’s son, and I’m very proud to be that. He’s left an indelible imprint on my life in many different ways, and obviously, professionally I’ve ended up in an area that he has had a huge amount of life experience in and great success in, so I guess it doesn’t take a genius to make the connection.
Growing up around that, at the time, radio to me was different because it was my dad’s life, and so I saw the impact it had on my father. Both the successes and the things that he considered failures, the ups and the downs. And so for me, it was just a… It was what my dad did. I remember a conversation that I had with him when we started to hang out more as mates when I was in my teenage years and the age gap narrowed. Beer, basically. So we started drinking beer together and he said to me “Do you ever see yourself in radio?”, and I said “Flat out, no.”. It wasn’t for me. I wanted to be a musician, I wanted to be a record producer, I wanted to make the songs that he ended up getting played on radio, and I didn’t want to follow in my dad’s footsteps, as is the term. But I guess some things you just can’t deny.
Dubber You would have been around a lot of broadcasters at the time, too. I imagine that classic, heroic broadcasters coming through your house all the time.
Zane Fred Botica, Kevin Black… Yeah, a lot of those guys used to hang about.
Dubber You learned at their feet.
Zane Well, I ended up at their feet a few times just because I’d be fast asleep at the various parties that would be being had, and it was like, I just crash out wherever I crash out. I have fond memories of those times, and they were just family friends to me. And obviously, looking back on it now, they were big stars in a golden age for New Zealand radio, when it was all new and exciting, and rock and roll was on radio, and Radio Hauraki was the only place to get it. And it’s like the movie The Boat That Rocked, that Richard Curtis movie that came out recently which isn’t particularly good, but it did have memories for me. And the whole pirate radio thing in it, it did resonate for me for that reason. And, yeah, I’ve got good memories of that time but I was really too young to take it all in, and it was only when I started to get into radio myself… Or actually TV, initially, which in some weird twist of fate also involved Kevin Black because he had a hand in… He was on the board of Max TV, and that brought everything full circle for me.
Dubber What were the big tunes for you at the time? Do you remember yourself as a kid that was really into music?
Zane Yeah. As far back as I can remember, music was the only thing that really motivated me. I was really into sports, and I went through a football phase and basketball phase, and all these sorts of things, but for me it’s always been music. It’s always been my number one passion outside of family and friendship. And I think for me, growing up… I think as the story goes, and I don’t really remember this, or I do vaguely remember it, being in a situation… I vaguely remember it, being with my cousin Garth and listening to Deep Purple. And that’s one of my earliest memories, was listening to Smoke on the Water with my cousin. So music’s always been a massive part of my life, and there’s songs that could soundtrack my entire life. How long you got?
Dubber Somebody told me that U2’s ‘War’ was the first record you bought. Is that right?
Zane Yeah. That album was the first album that my mother gave me some money and said “You can go and buy a record of your choice, that you want. You can get a tape.”, and that was what I chose. And I don’t know, I can’t remember if it was… Maybe it was ‘New Year’s Day’, I can’t remember what was on the record. I think ‘New Year’s Day’ is on that record. There were songs that I remember hearing on the radio at the time that probably propelled me to do that. But U2 were definitely one of the first bands that I ever really fell in love with.
Dubber And yet, when you hear you talking to Bono now it’s like you’re old mates. It feels… What’s that like, actually… These formative experiences becoming part of your daily life?
Zane It has its weird moments. There are times when as a fan of a band for that length of time and you find yourself in a situation where, as you put it, you have some kind of relationship with members of that band, and there’s a recognition there, it’s fulfilling, it’s rewarding, it’s good. It’s nice to know that you can meet your heroes and they don’t disappoint you, first and foremost. And it also… I guess, in a way, if you want to look at it a little deeper, it just… I think everything that you do in life informs something. You’re building your journey as you’re going. And that seems like an obvious thing to say, but I mean with advanced knowledge. You’re doing things, and you don’t see any impact for years to come, maybe decades. And I guess the wheels were set in motion for all of that when I bought their tape, in a strange way. So it’s nice. And I’ve had that with people like Eddie Vedder and people who have had a huge impact on my life, and to be in a situation whereby I’m talking about our kids and what’s going on, just life, with this guy is… Yeah, you pinch yourself.
Dubber We’ve got to talk about hip-hop.
Dubber There’s a story I heard. I did some work with Mark de Clive-Lowe a long while back, and you guys went to school together, and I hear stories about you guys’ tape battles.
Zane Yeah. Well, yeah, that’s true. Mark was the only guy in school that was making music anywhere near the kind of interests that I had. Mark’s interests at the time leaned more towards new jack swing, and he was doing the Semi MCs. He was very much in the R&B/pop world. Very, very good. But we would have little battles, because I was trying to make this more heavy hardcore rap music, and he’d be making this [swinging hi-hat rhythm], that kind of swing thing.
So he didn’t really get where I was coming from and I didn’t really get where he was coming from, but we respected the fact that both of us wanted to have a life in music. Which at that age was rare unless you were in the school band or you were studying in the music room, and we didn’t… Mark may have been doing that as well, but when we were hanging out we would literally go up the top of one of the towers of the big Grammar hall and we’d sit there over lunch and we’d play each other’s beats. And the only other guy who was actually involved in that was a guy called Andy Morton, who’s gone on to have great success in New Zealand as Submariner and is one of my favourite producers and DJs in the world, hands down. So the three of us came up together in an around and about way.
Dubber What tipped you off to hip-hop?
Zane Well, for hip-hop, I never… I can clearly remember the first time I ever fell in love with rap, which led to hip-hop culture. I was watching an afternoon report, I believe it was on Video Dispatch, and it was a report on a rap tour that was going on around America with Run-DMC. I think the Beasties were involved somewhere along the line, so it must have been about ’84 and ’85. And maybe even a little earlier because I remember I was into rap music when Live Aid hit at ’85, so it must have been earlier than that. And I was just blown away by the energy of it and just how cool they looked, and how amazing the stage set looked with the turntables on the riser with the black drape and the red siren lights going off, and just how exciting the whole thing seemed. And I remember just watching that and thinking “Yeah, that’s for me.”.
Because I’d been really following my brother’s record collection up to that point, discovering Led Zeppelin and The Smiths and Violent Femmes, Hoodoo Gurus, and all that stuff, and that was the first time that I went “That’s what I want to listen to, that’s my music. And no one’s going to really get that.”. I didn’t realise that it would be a long time before anybody got that. There wasn’t even categories in the record store. Kirk Harding, who works in America now up at Universal, he’s done very well for himself, will tell you. At 256 Records, I used to go in there, he remembers, we’d be all in school uniform rolling down there looking for rap records. They’d be in the Blues and Soul category, and all you could get was the odd Grandmaster Flash or Grandmaster Melle Mel record or those StreetSounds compilations that I think Morgan Khan used to put together that had all the electro records at the time, and that was the only things that were out, and it just… For the longest time it felt like we were in the smallest niche of music fans in the entire country, and we were. No one got it, no one even imported it. Maybe me, Kirk, Phil Bell aka Sir-Vere, and Rob Salmon were the only ones that were into it, that I knew.
Dubber And you started making it. You were producing beats on your… I remember your Akai sampler that you had, but you were also rapping. Was there a conscious choice to do both, or…?
Zane I just didn’t know anyone who rapped and I didn’t know anyone who made beats, so I just thought “I’ll do both.”. And that was just it. I didn’t know… I didn’t have anyone to collaborate with. And I struck up a friendship with Rob Salmon not long after I started making music. And also, the music I made initially wasn’t on my own kit. It was… I used to work in a studio with a guy called Graham who went on to have enormous success writing the incidental music and the theme music for Shortland Street, so that guy is paid. But that aside, he was a good man, and he was generous with his time. And we used to make songs, and a lot of the early demos were made up in the attic of his house. And he had the most amazing studio.
So eventually, because it was just harder to nail down time with him because he was so busy doing all the Shortland Street stuff and various ad music and stuff, he was getting into syncs, that I had to reach out and make my own music and get my own kit. And so that’s how I ended up making my own studio and taking it really seriously, because I would just direct. I’d bring in loops and samples and go “Loop that, try that, do this.”. He’d offer a little bit here and there and we’d collaborate, and we’d end up with something that was good. And it was only until I started making it in my own bedroom that I really started to, I suppose, develop my skills as a producer. Before that I was very much about the rapping.
Dubber I remember a lot of sample-based stuff that you were doing at the time. And actually, I heard a Nextmen track this morning that samples The Meters, and I remember you getting into The Meters and stuff. But there was also a Doobie Brothers track that I remember you put together, and you had difficulty with that.
Zane Yeah. That was the weirdest thing, because we were on a label called Deepgrooves at the time and they wanted a follow up to this No Flint, No Flame song that we’d done which had gone in at number 56 with a bullet or something. So they wanted a big smash hit, and we were just mucking around at Graham’s place, I think it was at Graham’s house for that one, with the ‘What A Fool Believes’ sample. And it was the easiest thing to put together, and everyone we played it to was like “That is a smash hit. A number one smash hit.”. And then came the wrestling between me and Oli and Rob, Oli was the other rapper in the band, as to whether or not we wanted to do it. What it would mean to us. Because we’d took, and still do take, rap very seriously, and hip-hop culture very seriously, and success was nice if it came but we were very much about making the most exciting sounding rap music and really following our heroes at the time, which were Pete Rock & CL Smooth, Leaders of the New School, A Tribe Called Quest, De La Soul, Eric B. & Rakim, Public Enemy. These were the bands that we wanted to sound like and be as good as, and so we had this Doobie Brothers sample which didn’t really fit into any of that.
And we recorded a demo version of it up at The School of Audio Engineering as an exercise one night for Rob’s course he was doing up there, and everyone loved it. So we’re like “Cool, we’re sitting on this huge record. That’s awesome.”, and we signed off on it as a band and went “Yeah, let’s just do it.”. And then they came back and went “Look, we’ve got real problems with the sample.”. And I just remember sitting there thinking, in this meeting, “It’s New Zealand, man. Who gives a fuck? Who cares? Are the Doobie Brothers really going to bust our ass over putting that out in New Zealand? What, we sell like 5,000 copies and have a number one for two weeks and we get on Ready to Roll. Who gives a shit?”. And the label bottled it, and that’s when I knew “This is fucked.”. So what? Nothing would have happened.
But in a way it was a total blessing because I don’t know if we would have actually gone on to make albums and tour like we did if we’d put that record out, because songs like that can kill you as an artist. You get known for that one song, and you try to come out with something different and… And we were called Leaders of Style at the time, so that’s when we decided to change our name. That was the turning point for us to go “You know what? We’re not this kind of band that’s going to have dancers up there and all that stuff. We want to be MCs, and the DJing we want to go hard.”, and so we changed it to Urban Disturbance.
Dubber What were you most proud of at the time?
Zane I like the whole album. At that time, the song that I was most proud of was the second song on the No Flint, No Flame EP, which was… I can’t even remember the name of it now. [raps]. It was… I don’t know. It was the beat that got Dam Native involved with me in the first place. He loved that beat, and that’s how I ended up producing a lot of his debut records. I love that song, but I’m proud of the whole album.
I think 37º Lattitude still stands up for me in terms of some of the production. Of its time, they used the samples, some of the ideas. Like the song ‘Love’, which went in all sorts of different time signatures, which was inspired by a documentary I saw about The Beatles one Sunday and then went upstairs and said “Why can’t you do that with rap?”. The rhymes are really good. And there’s moments that date, but overall I think the whole record… The only thing I would say is I would love to do another mix of it, and that’s no disrespect to Chris Sinclair who did an incredible job on that album. Maybe it just takes another master, but I’d love to make it all sound a little more vibrant. But, god, no one’s got time for that.
Dubber I got in touch with Simon Grigg looking for information, particularly around the Freebass/Cause Celebre time, and he didn’t have any recordings that he could dig out of his boxes.
Zane Thank god for that.
Dubber But apparently there’s a photo of you working the lights at The Box.
Zane Well, that’s how I got in. The thing is that we were underage, or near enough. And Rob was such a good DJ that they agreed to let him do the first slot before Jon Davis or Roger, or whoever was DJing. They would let Rob do the first hour or hour and a half because he was so good, and they recognised his talent. And my in was that I would go and do lights for Rob, and then inevitably do them for the night because someone couldn’t come in or whatever. And that’s how I got into that club.
Yeah, the whole Box era, the Cause Celebre era. Whether we were doing the Freebass thing in Cause Celebre or… We did a showdown there as Urban Disturbance or Leaders of Style back in the day. It was our clubbing… It was our time, it was our club, it was our era, it was our generation. It’s where all our favourite DJs used to play, whether it was Manuel or Rob or whatever. Do either that, or down at De Brett’s at the Shortland Bar. That’s where we heard the best records, that’s where we had the best time. And I think everyone, if they’re social and they like music and they like going out and doing both together, then you have that club or that bar that is that moment in your life, and high street. Those were the places to go.
Dubber What was Freebass?
Zane Well, that was Benny Harrop and Nathan Haines, Joel Haines, and a bunch of characters all coming together in basically what was effectively an acid funk jazz band that wasn’t as bad as that sounds. They were really good, and they used to really try things out. And they were pretty hardy souls, real warriors for music. All characters in their own right. Just a real ragtag bunch of dudes. And somehow I ended up doing some freestyling for them for a while, and then Oli came and took my gig, and then we would split our time between each other. And they’d use Oli sometimes and use me sometimes, and it was fun at the time. And they put a few things out here and there, probably some tapes floating around somewhere. It was cool. For us, it was just a way to stay sharp and earn a bit of cash. It was like “Cool, I can rap. I’m a rapper. I’m not recording, I’m not on tour. I need some pocket money. I’ll go jump down to Brett’s, jump down to Cause Celebre, get on a couple of sessions with Freebass, make a bit of dough. Happy days.”.
Dubber Because people now talk about that time like that was a movement. Jazz and hip-hop coming together in Auckland. That was a revolution for a lot of people.
Zane It was a bowel movement at times, but there were definitely some good jams that came out of that. Some good times, some good moments. Diamond is a… I think there was a song called ‘Diamond in the Rough’. Had this weird build that went [rising melody] “I’m a diamond…”, and the way it would jump in… I’d have to count every time before it came in because it was Ben and Nathan’s private joke that they would have an eight and a half count, or a seven and a half count, so it would go one, two, three, four, five, six, sev… “I’m a diamond in the…”, and it would come in on the half. It was very… I can’t even do it to this day, but they used to think it was hilarious. It was just a private joke for them to see if I’d mess it up.
The whole thing at that time is… It’s good to hear that people have this fond memory of it, and maybe it influenced some people. I don’t… I’ve never met anyone. But we were just having a laugh, we were just having a laugh. Rehearsals were just non-existent.
Dubber Was it around about that time you got…?
Zane See, that’s not true. There were rehearsals but they would descend into chaos within about ten minutes, from memory.
Dubber Was it about that time you hooked up with Manuel Bundy?
Zane No, I’d known Manuel a lot longer before that. I met Manuel through Rob. Manuel has been part of Rob’s family for a long, long time, and… What can I say about Manuel? The guy’s probably the single most important musical influence on my life, at a crucial point when I needed somebody to look up to. Someone who understood my interests, and me and Rob’s interests, and what we were into. Someone who we respected. He wasn’t a peer, he was more of a big brother, and guided us, got us into De Brett’s, got me kneeling down rapping behind… Because he knew no one would take me seriously if I stood behind the decks, because I just didn’t look like a rapper that was around at the time. But he still put me on the mic and said “Kneel down.”, and he’s the one who said “Do it. Not because I’m embarrassed or anything, but do it because you’ll then get an honest reaction.”.
He’s just a remarkably smart guy, and he’s without a doubt one of the most musically talented people I’ve ever had the pleasure of working with or knowing. And I don’t say that lightly because I’ve been doing this a long time. So he’s a natural ability. And music, it’s his god’s gift, apart from just being a really decent bloke. Massive influence on me, and to this day I can’t… I shudder to think how many records I ‘borrowed’, in inverted commas, of his and never gave back. So on the record, I’m sorry Manuel. I probably owe you a few hundred dollars somewhere along the line.
Dubber The Dam Native record gets… Well, gets acclaim as New Zealand’s best hip-hop record, still.
Zane Yeah, I know. Some people say that still. I don’t know. I couldn’t say that. That’s for other people who listen to a lot of records over time to make that decision. It’s certainly the record I think I did the best work on as a rap producer. It was a really magic time because you had Danny who was, and I mean this in a creative sense as well as in a stylistic sense, this unkempt talent. He just rolled in, just rudeboy. And when he opened his mouth and he rapped, it wasn’t so much what he was saying because that was obviously well ahead of its time and crucial, but what really got me immediately was how he did it. He had just…
Anyone who produces rap records will tell you that what you’re really looking for isn’t just rhyme skill and ability, because anyone can put a rhyme together and make it clever, it’s that almost indefinable quality in the voice that makes you want to listen to that person. Biggie Smalls had it, Tupac had it, Jay-Z has it, Nas has it, Snoop has it, Em has it, Roots Manuva has it. The greats, when they get on the mic, whether it’s Dizzy or whatever, and they rap, you want to listen to what they’re saying. Danny has that. When he opens his mouth he had this almost sing-songy menace to him where he would sing various parts of it but he’d be saying the heaviest stuff. So he’d lull you in with these little pop hooks, very clever, but he’d be saying this crazy stuff that he was very passionate about.
So I recognised it, pushed him really hard, pushed him really hard to make an album. We had a few blips along the way, a few credit issues along the way which got resolved with some straight-up talk, which was the only way we could handle it because there was no business involved at the time, there was no money being made, and we got down to business. And it was a really… It was such hard work, and it was just sleepless nights and constant 24 hour days. And absolute massive respect to Chris Sinclair, who was the engineer I worked with throughout all the New Zealand era of making music. That guy is a fantastic guy and great engineer, and I’ve never, ever seen him work so hard. And we all did. And in the end, I think the record stands up for that. Because of what Danny brought, what his crew brought, what we all brought. It was just this labour of love to try and make this timeless New Zealand rap record that, no disrespect, just felt like it hadn’t been done before. Not to a level that we wanted to hear. And I’m glad people still feel that way. I’m really proud of that album, and I’m proud of Andy’s contributions and Hamish’s contributions. It just felt like it was a good moment, and, yeah. And people like Scribe, P-Money, they always say good things.
Dubber Listening to the production on that record, do you think some of the jazz snuck in?
Zane Oh yeah, definitely, but it wasn’t because of Freebass or any of that. It’s because of A Tribe Called Quest, because what Quest proved is that you can make jazz sound heavy and gangster, and just tough, and not make it sound all twee and… Don’t get me wrong, I love Digable Planets, but… On that first Digable Planets album, not so much the second one. They went heavier on that. On the first Digable Planets album it was all very floaty, and what I wanted to do is…
The thing about the jazz records, as well, is you can manipulate them much easier because there was a lot of separates on there. With funk records, everything’s mixed and mastered and it’s all there, so you’re taking it lock, stock. With jazz, you get double bass sounds on their own, you get horn sounds on their own, you get drums on their own, which at that point when we were all learning how to make beats out of separates, that was the goldmine. No one had really hit them up just yet, so there was just this endless amount of breaks around that you could just tap into.
And we worked out by sometime after the Doobie Brothers fiasco that you could just sample whatever you wanted because no one’s going to mess with you in New Zealand. And if you have huge success and somehow it gets picked up, well you cross that bridge when you come to it. So we just went for it and just made whatever we wanted to make, and at last we had the technology to do it to a standard. And we just had fun. We just had fun just going through and ripping these records, and trying to make them sound fresh.
Dubber Where did Breaks Co-op come from originally?
Zane Breaks Co-op was a reaction to the indefinite hiatus, which continues, for Urban Disturbance, where we just decided to take a break. We demoed a lot of the second record and we really liked it, but we just decided for one reason or another we need to go and pursue our own things for a while. Oli wanted to go and get stuck into advertising and try something else and be creative in other fields, and I wasn’t mad about that. I had a whole lot of beats I’d been making that didn’t seem to suit an Urban Disturbance thing. And Shadow was just coming out, Mo’ Wax was happening, DJ Krush. A lot of instrumental hip-hop was happening, and I thought “I’ll try my hand at that. I can make beats, and it might be nice to not have to deal with rap and all that sort of stuff.”. So I just went ahead and did that.
Spoke to Kane, said “Look, I’m off. I’m going travelling for a while. I don’t know how long I’m going to be. I’ve really got nothing to do, I’m bored out of my brain.”, and he was like “Cool, I’ll just book you some studio time. You can take a storeroom over there and make your beats there because I don’t have a place to put you in my studio.”. Started making this record, finishing off these beats. And Hamish got involved quite early on, and he just said “Here, look, I’m coming to Auckland to hang out. I’m going to go travelling as well. Why don’t we meet in the UK, and why don’t we spend the next six weeks making this record?”. I said “Cool, sounds fun.”. He came up, we set the studio up in a place up in his parents’ spot in Parnell overlooking the harbour, which was amazing. That’s where the title Roofers came from, because we were sitting out on the balcony one time just looking at all the roofs that were below us, and just thought “This would be a nice way to live your life, wouldn’t it? Just going from roof to roof and just watching the world from on high.”. And we just made this record. And again it was one of those magic moments where we did it. And once we had the basic beats done that we’d work on during the day, get them to a standard, go in that night, record, whatever we wanted to do. Embellish them musically or vocally with Chris, again, and ideally mix them that day. So really, it only took a couple of weeks and that record was done. Great moments making that.
‘Sound Advice’ was just one of the great creative moments of my life. Watching that come together, watching Hame just own that track. And that record was done. And then just literally finished it, finished the artwork, signed off on it. And I think 48 hours later I was on a plane, with my life, travelling, and that was the big departure. And I forgot about it. And then it came out, as records do. Deepgrooves, true to their word, they put it out. It did what it did, didn’t really hear much about it. And then, again, over time it took on this life of its own, and the few people that bought it told a few more people that bought it. It just started to steady do its job, and it just became a record that people would talk about when I’d go home. They wouldn’t say “How’s MTV?” or whatever, they’d go “Hey, when’s the next Breaks Co-op record?”. I’d go “What? Are you serious?”, they’d go “Yeah, yeah. We loved that album.”. And I’d think “Strangest thing to not have been a part of the life of that record. It’s kind of had a life of its own.”. And that’s how Breaks Co-op came about.
Dubber There’s a few other things going on. We’re almost doing a chronology, but there’s other stuff that throw themselves in there. One is broadcasting school, that you went to for a little while, and one is Max TV, and I’m trying to get the sense of what order things happened in. The travel, the study, the… What was the story with that?
Zane That’s easy. What happened was, I was at a loose end after school. Was making beats in the Urban Disturbance era, wasn’t making any living, working in bars. I was doing all right but didn’t really do anything at that point. Decided that I needed to go and do the education thing, for lack of anything else to do. University wasn’t working out for me. I went to the Auckland Institute of Technology, I guess it’s called, or Technological Institute, they were quite precise about that. Started doing this media degree, for lack of a better term. Got one full-time year into it. At the same time I was working at Max TV. I’d got this gig just being a tape op at Max TV. Not in front of the camera, just playing tapes, which was a godsend because I needed money. It paid actually really well compared to what I’d been getting before, and it got me out of trouble. I’d been unemployed for about six months, just sitting around twiddling my thumbs making beats, and it wasn’t making my parents very happy.
So got into that, and it was all happening around the same time, and then I got offered this gig doing… What was the big Sunday show that had Nathan and Petra and…? The big Sunday on Ice TV. Yeah, I went through that whole process and, I don’t know if this has ever been made official, but got offered a gig for Ice TV. And I turned it down because Max TV… I’d been doing some presenting work, Max TV offered me a full-time evening gig. And, yeah, I don’t even know the reasons why I turned it down. It was ridiculous. On paper, it was the most ludicrous thing in the world because I was turning down this nationwide terrestrial TV afternoon, massive, big, hype show. There was nothing like it in the country. The money was really good for someone my age, it was really good for now. I just decided to stay in music. I just wanted to be in that field, dealing with artists and interviewing artists, and I wanted to be true to that so I turned it down.
And part of the deal with me turning it down was Max TV gave me enough money to leave my jobs, and I decided to… I tried to do the part-time tech thing for a while, but I just thought “I’m getting the experience I need.”, and I weighed it up and made the decision that I would put education on ice. So I did. Went full-time Max TV, did Serious Fun Show for a few years. Ended up making a lot of shows, getting production skills and learning how to make TV. Did that for four or five years and then decided I was ready to go, for various reasons. Nothing sinister, just had learned all I needed to learn at that point, wanted to travel, and felt like the media was changing in New Zealand. There was a lot of people out there with big chequebooks who wanted to do the whole youth TV thing, and I didn’t know how Max TV was going to survive that. Whispers of MTV coming through, all that sort of stuff, and I just thought… I didn’t want to make it look like I jumped ship, but I jumped ship.
Dubber Am I right in saying you never did radio in New Zealand?
Zane No. You are right, I never did radio in New Zealand. I never did radio in Britain for the first two or three years. That came after I moved to Britain and got my foot in the door at MTV. Did some work at MTV on the Up 4 It show, which New Zealand saw, doing all sorts of ludicrous things to justify my place. But I got to meet some great people. We had Temple-Morris, family friend to this day. Still got a lot of friends from that, good experiences from that. Got a gig at MTV News, just whatever I could turn my hand to, and then eventually…
You’ve got to remember, at this time there’s a real pop revolution going on. It’s not dissimilar to how it is now, the cycle of trends had turned towards pop music. There really wasn’t anything resembling good music on radio or television, on mass, but they still had to satisfy that style of music on MTV, so they said “Look, you can… You and this guy Paul can go away and make this show, for next to nothing. And you can come up with whatever you want, just do it within the budget. Choose your videos and we’ll put it out.”. We did, we called it Brand:New. If you talk to a lot of bands around that time, that really was the only outlet for music videos for them. And it was a place where a lot of people used to go to see decent music, because everything else was just straight-up pop. And that’s how I came to the attention, to wrap it up, of Andrew Phillips at XFM. Who, I believe, his son told him about me from what I can gather.
Dubber Before you got to Britain there was a road trip across the States. Can you tell us a little bit about that and… The Kerouac experience.
Zane It really wasn’t that vivid or interesting. It was just an opportunity for me to do something that was fun before I resettled somewhere else. Anyone who’s relocated will tell you it’s unsettling and expensive and tiring and nerve-wracking and scary. And I knew all those things were coming, so I just decided “You know what I’ll do? I’ll jump in a car with a friend of mine Jax.”, who’d done some video directing for us, and he’d worked at Max TV. He’s a friend of mine and he’s a director. And we just jumped in a car, in a grey Buick, and we just drove from LA to New York over the course of what turned out to be about three weeks. Had some great experiences. Did see the American dream, for what it was worth, and had some real time to reflect too because not every day is going to be, like you say, the Kerouac experience. You can have days where you’re on a beach somewhere in New Mexico, or in Florida bored out of your box with nothing to do. Everyone’s tired, you’ve been driving all day. What are you going to do? So you go for a run on the beach or you sit there and you think. So it was a really precious time for me. And it got me to New York, and that’s where I settled for another two months, two and a half months, until I had to travel to get legally out of the country.
And then I went to England, but I really dragged myself to England. I didn’t want to go. I wanted to stay in New York, I wanted to stay in America. I decided that that was where I was going to pursue my dreams, and that was where I was going to have success. I talked to everyone who could help me. I spoke to Phil Keoghan, who is a wonderful guy. Gave me a good long chat on the phone one time when he was stuck in traffic in LA, on his speakerphone telling me through the… And it’s him that told me to go to Britain. He just said “Don’t do it the way I did it. It’s a really long, hard road. Big legal process to get your passport and all that kind of stuff, because it’s tough when you have to do it that way. In my opinion, you should go to Britain. That’s where you’ve got a visa, that’s residency potential, and you’ve got Brent Hansen. And you should follow those leads.”. And that was the time. That’s when I decided to go to Britain, because of Phil.
Dubber So you say Brent Hansen, was there a kiwi network that you tapped into that was waiting for you?
Zane No, not at all. In fact, it was through Roger Sheppard at Flying Nun that Brent got my tape. Somehow Roger had got my audition tape, my showreel. Which was ridiculous, it was 25 minutes long, and it was just obscene. I had a 30-page resume. It was just stupid, but I didn’t know the rules. So he got it, really liked it, sent me an email completely unprovoked saying “Hey, what’s up?”. Just really short, “Hi, my name’s Brent, I work at MTV.”. And I’d just literally seen a thing on 60 Minutes about how Brent Hansen was spearheading this new MTV UK thing and it was going to be this big thing, and I just remember thinking “God, I’d love to work there.”. And he reached out a couple of weeks later, a week later, just by chance, and said “If you’re ever in Britain look me up.”, and I went back to him and that’s why I decided to go travelling.
I did a little three week run around Britain and America. I went to London and New York for three weeks on a holiday and came and saw Brent, and he was amazing first time I met him. I met him at the Q Awards. He got me a ticket to the Q Awards. And so I show up at the Q Awards, don’t know anybody, and he’s like “Hi, I’m Brent Hansen.”. I’m like “Wow.”, and there’s Johnny Marr. So it was quite a moment. I’ll never forget, I went out because they had these cameras on the table, these little disposable cameras that you used to be able to go and take photos of everyone, and I went and had my photo taken with Johnny Marr. And I came back and he shook his head at me like “You fanboy.”, and it was great, it was just… I felt so uncool, but fuck it, I’ve still got that photo somewhere.
Dubber What was your big break? If you had to name a moment that you thought “You know what, this is going to work out pretty well.”.
Zane I’ve been lucky. I would say I’ve had more than one break in life to get where I got. I’m totally aware that I’ve been fortunate in this. And I’ve worked hard, but I’ve only worked hard at making the most of the opportunities that have been presented to me. In terms of creating my own opportunities, I think that’s something that, personally, I’ve done later in life when I’ve been able to build on what I’ve already got. But early on, the Wrightsons getting me into Max TV was a huge moment, and I’ll always be grateful to Daniel and Katie and Dale and the whole family for getting me in. From there, Brent Hansen. From there, Christine Boar at MTV and Eddy Temple-Morris, and a guy called Jim Parsons who convinced the big boss man at the time to let me fill in for Eddy for two weeks, and they’d upped for it in the afternoon. I had no experience in Britain. There was no reason for them to say yes to that, but they did, and that was huge. Andrew Phillips… Anyone who’s taken me on and employed me has gone beyond the process, I’ve always felt, of just employing me, and they’ve really believed in me, and they’ve continually given me a platform to do what I love to do. And I’m really grateful for that.
But I would say, really, the crucial moment as to why we’re here right now having this conversation is probably the Max TV thing. That really was the start of it all. Before that, I was a struggling rap producer making rap records. Loving it, but working in bars, doing a degree I wasn’t 100% into. Don’t get me wrong, I thought the criteria was great. Awesome format, lots to learn, but I was just done with education at that point. I wanted to get out there. Max gave me that chance. And there’s people here at Radio 1 who I’m grateful to as well. Joe Harland and Rhys Hughes, Andy Parfitt. I’m really lucky, man. I genuinely feel fortunate to be able to talk about music and immerse myself in something I’m into deeply, and I don’t want it to end. I want to just keep doing it. I love it.
Dubber It sounds like that’s the summary of what you do, is you’re a music fan who gets to enthuse about it.
Zane In a nutshell, yeah. I get to get as close to music in every way as I possibly can, whether it’s playing it out, playing it on radio, making it whenever I can, talking to musicians. The whole thing about the interviews and why people always say “Oh, you’re good at interviews.”, it’s because I love musicians. I love being around them, I love talking about music. Now I do an interview with a band, it might take ten minutes to get what we need to get across on Gonzo. Back in the day when we used to do Serious Fun Show, if I got time with k.d. lang, I’d spend an hour. I can’t even imagine how boring it must have been for the people to watch this on Max TV on a Friday or Thursday evening. There’s me “Oh, it’s Zane and k. d. lang again. Oh, they’re still going, wow. He spent nine minutes talking about producers. Wow, that is fucking boring.”.
But somehow they let me do it, and that’s how I learned, and because I just wanted to know everything there was to know about music. How to make it, how you put it out, this, that. And the really great thing is that a lot of years later, I still don’t really know how it’s done. I know how I like to do it, and I know what I like. I know what seems to work in the record industry in terms of making records relatively successful, I’ve seen it happen enough, but that’s all just mechanics and math. I still don’t really know… I haven’t got anywhere closer towards understanding the actual essence of music, and that’s a very good thing.
Dubber And yet, one of the biggest, or certainly in New Zealand, one of the biggest radio singles of all time is something that you were very closely involved with.
Zane Well, that second Breaks Co-op album was just… Again, that was really a case of us just following the album. It was a very different thing when we were making it in the bedroom, me and Hamish. It was a pretty schizophrenic beast. There was rap tunes on there, and there was instrumental hip-hop, and there was up-tempo stuff, and then there were these folky things, and it was really weird. And we really didn’t have any idea about… We were just going to mix a few things and see where it came until we teamed up with Andy Lovegrove, who was one half of The Away Team, who engineered the demos and made them sound fresh. And we gave him ‘The Otherside’. We gave him a bunch of records because I’d heard him sing on The Away Team stuff and just was like “This guy’s insane.”.
And much like it happened with Oli where I said to Rob in the early days of Leaders of Style “Wouldn’t it be great if Oli came back from America and joined our band?”, and then the next day he called up like “I’ve decided to move home. Can I dance with you for your band?”, and I was like “No, you can rap in our band.”. And the same thing happened with Andy. I said to Hamish “Wouldn’t it be amazing if we could get Andy to sing on our stuff?”, and so we sent him some of the demos. And we actually wanted him to sing on the song that ended up being ‘Duet’. He chose ‘The Otherside’ as the first thing to sing on, and then he sent the demo over and was like “I think it might be a bit cheesy for you guys. I’m concerned that it might be a bit commercial, and you might not be into it. But, whatever.”, and I was like “No, no, no, cheesy’s good. Let’s just check it out, it’s fine.”. And when I heard it, I was… That is just easily, along with I would say ‘Sound Advice’, the most instant thing I’d ever been involved in. I was “Let’s do it.”.
Went and recorded it, and then we said to Andy “Would you be interested in singing on a few other things?”, and he’s like “Yeah, yeah, cool. Go get some money, we’ll meet and we’ll finish the record.”. Went to EMI in New Zealand. Morgan, Chris Caddick, good people, “Yeah, here’s some dough, go finish it.”. In fact, they didn’t even give me… In fact, you know what, scrap that. They didn’t say “Here’s some dough.”, they just said “Yeah. If you can deliver a record, we’ll put it out.”. So I self-financed the whole record, I paid for all that, and it was one of the best investments I’ve ever made.
Dubber When that record came out in the UK, I was already living here. And I went and saw Breaks Co-op live, and the one thing that really stood out to me is, you weren’t in the room. Was it weird for you to be in a position where you could actually promote the hell out of a record that you were involved in, and was there a conscious decision not to do that?
Zane Yes, yes, yes, is the short answer to those questions. It was weird. It was a conscious decision at the time. And I regret it now in a way because, I swear, I feel like we did all this work on the record and then I walked away. But it was partly because I couldn’t logistically do it because of my jobs here. And then when the record got picked up internationally and there was talk “Okay, can you tour in Britain? Parlophone are going to put it out, la la la.”, we just decided as a group that there was… Well, I was decided. The guys would probably say they never agreed to it, and they didn’t, but I thought that it would just be a distraction to have me on a record like this and touring it. And then we got the best news in the world. We found out we were going to become parents, my wife and I, and just logistically, again, it just became way too difficult around that time to tour. So there was no question that I was ever going to tour, or not.
It was weird, and I look back on it now and I’ve got no regrets, I suppose, because it just was the way it had to happen. But part of me wishes I’d had a chance to spend a little more time on the road with those guys if the timing had been different, because I never got a chance to see those songs develop and breathe in front of an audience. But there’s something pretty strange and weird about watching your band play Top of the Pops without you. It’s quite a surreal experience. It really was quite a strange thing. They did good.
Dubber And Breaks Co-op have played large music festivals. As a DJ you’ve played to big, big crowds. How do you…? Standing in a room with the lights dimmed down and talking into a microphone is one thing, but being confronted with that many people, what’s that like?
Zane Well, it’s experience. You just… You do enough of them and you get a handle on different environments and different moods, different crowds, whether… Yeah, playing Wembley Stadium is bizarre, I’m not going to lie to you. It’s the weirdest thing to do. You might only reach 5,000 people on the floor, everyone else is drinking soda and having a conversation. But still, standing in the middle of that arena playing records for the day is a very surreal thing. But then you get to play small clubs or you play academies, whatever, it’s just… You do enough of them and over time, hopefully, you get better, more confident, and you just develop your own technique and your own style.
I love DJing, I love playing records out. For me, it’s been a very useful way to satisfy the performing side of me. Which I do a little bit on my radio show, the way that I interact with the music and my energy in it, but it’s been really good for me to… Because I didn’t get to tour with Breaks Co-op, it’s been a long time since I really felt like a performer, and the DJing gives me a chance to do that. And at the same time I’m self-sufficient, apart from the crew I roll with, the guys who tour with me on a production and tour management level. I can do it myself. I’m in charge of what I do, and I love it. It’s only really at the end of this year I’ve been thinking about “Okay, do I want to do something collaborative again?”, because the last two years since the Breaks Co-op project has been really enjoyable for me, just to go out there and… I can sit there on my laptop or at home in the studio and I can just make an edit of something or do something original and go “I’ll try that out tonight.”. It’s not mixed and mastered to release quality, but it’s good enough for a sound system. I’ll go in there, I’ll play it, and you get that immediate response to something that you’ve made and it’s great, and…
I’ve been lucky, again, in the sense that the last two or three years, I guess through a lot of gigs, and the right gigs, that as a DJ I’ve reached a certain level where it’s not just about “Oh, he’s the guy from TV and radio.”, it’s like “Okay, he can do it.”. It’s always been very important to me that I’m not cashing in on something, and that’s on every level. Even when I was doing Max TV and stuff, I never wanted that to be a conflict with my music career. It was really important that it was separate. I think in a way that comes from my mum and my dad, and they’ve always been like “You should pick your moment. You should identify what it is you want to do and you should be as pure to that as you can.”.
Dubber And you’ve gone from somebody who’s a fan to somebody who has fans. We interviewed some people outside your gig, and they were just “We love Zane Lowe.”, and I’m sure you get that all the time. How do you keep your ego in check, or do you?
Zane Well, I don’t get that all the time because I’m not around that. I don’t go looking for that, and I don’t surround myself with it at gigs. I don’t hang about afterwards to get a pat on the back. We get in, we get out, we do our job. It’s fine to say hello to some people but we don’t hang about. So it’s good that people enjoy it but I really do think of myself as a conduit between music and fan. And whether it’s on radio or whether it’s in clubs or gigs or whatever, if I’m DJing or interviewing a band to try and reach their audience, I’m just a connector. I’m a recommender and a connector, and I do it my own way, and that’s enabled me to make a really good life out of it and enjoy myself. But when people say “I’m a real big fan of what you do.”, I sometimes want to say “What is it you think I do?”, because I just play records, and if it’s enjoyable for you to hear me do that then great.
But I think what people really mean is they’re fans of the music. They’re fans of what we all share together which is that real interest in new music and music as a whole. And I’m just doing my best to do a little bit in the great tradition of people like Steve Lamacq and John Peel and Tommy Vance, great DJs from throughout my life that have done great things for music, and I just want to be held in that kind of regard. But the way I do it will also provoke reaction. You’ll get a lot of people who don’t like what I do, and I guess that’s just… That’s also the way of the modern media too. There’s opinion formers and opinion makers and opinion holders everywhere, so if you immerse yourself too much in what people say about you, you will go crazy. So you just… Just better left alone, really.
Dubber You’ve championed lots of bands throughout your career. Lots of bands that have made it because you’ve championed them. And to an extent, there’s a… The odd kiwi ones filtered through. Has that been done deliberately? Is there any championing of your roots, or…?
Zane Honestly, it’s never done because of where I’m from. It’s never done because I feel I need to give something back. It’s done because the music’s great. It doesn’t mean it doesn’t taste sweeter, it doesn’t mean that it doesn’t feel better for me to play records that do all right and to have some contributing factor towards the success of local artists, but it’s definitely not why I do it. I don’t go on with a quota of “I really want to…”. It’s got to be genuine, decent, and amazing, and I don’t want to ever be in a situation whereby I’m doing it because I’m from somewhere, but it does feel good. It feels good to play a record on radio and it come from New Zealand and it sounds good next to a record from America or Britain or Europe or Asia, or wherever, Africa. Feels good.
Dubber You do a thing, Hottest Record of the Week. You’ve got to get a lot of records. How do you choose that?
Zane Well, Hottest Record in the World Today was just our way of putting a stamp on something and putting a record above the others and giving it some kind of platform beyond all the great records that we play. And the way it’s worked out is that that part of the show is now… It, as a feature, feeds itself. Because if you call something as ridiculous as The Hottest Record in the World Today… We genuinely mean it. When we hear it we’re like “That is the biggest record we’ve got in our set.”. Then it, as titles go, demands a certain amount of attention, and that’s what the record label and the band and the artists who get it, that’s what they want. They want to go “Cool, we got that.”. So everyone wins. We win, the audience win, something stands out. It’s just either the biggest return or the most exciting new record. It’s really easy. That decision’s really easy.
The only tricky thing is if you have a light week and so you’ve got to be creative. But that’s good too because we love those weeks because we get to go “Okay. Well, we like Volcano Choir. No one knows them, but the song’s so great that it deserves its position.”. But sometimes you have weeks where you’re just spoiled for choice. You get all these big exclusive returns, Foo Fighters here or Prodigy there or whatever, and you’re like “Cool, excellent.”. I love being able to play them first. It’s not a competition, but it’s nice. It’s good for the show because we have nothing else. It’s not like I’m particularly entertaining or… I’m not a breakfast show host, I’m not the funniest guy in the world by any stretch. So really, music is our currency and so if we can have these big returns and have worldwide exclusives, it’s part of what, I think, gets people excited about the show.
Dubber So you’re on Radio 1. It’s a station designed for 15 to 29 year olds. You’ve just turned 36. How much longer are you going to be doing this?
Zane That’s a really good question. I can’t answer it. For me, I get as much enjoyment, and hopefully that comes across, as I did the first day I started. And what I’m trying to do is create an exciting sounding radio show that plays all sorts of different types of music, so as long as we continue to push that excitement through and find the most exciting music, I’d like to think that there’s time. But for me, those decisions get made by somebody else normally. And from my point of view, I haven’t reached a point where I think I’m ever going to… I haven’t reached a point where I feel like I know the answer to that question, and I think if I do before they do it’ll be quick, because if you’re ever lucky enough to get to a situation where you pull time on something that you enjoy before the audience does, or your employer, that’s magic. That’s the kind of stuff that preserves it for you and for everybody else. But I can’t say that I’m smart enough or confident enough to be able to do that because I love what I do so much. I might just get pulled in like everybody else and then find out that time’s up before I even saw it coming. All I can do is focus on the show at hand and go on air tonight in half an hour and smash records as fast and as hard as I possibly can and leave people with a sense of enjoyment for new music. And that’s all I can focus on, one show at a time, and at the moment I love working here as much as I did the first day I started.
Dubber New Zealand’s most successful broadcaster ever.
Zane No, surely not.
Dubber On the numbers. Would you ever go back?
Zane Yeah, of course. Never say never, never say never. I love New Zealand. It’s my home, it’s where my family is, it’s where a lot of my friends are. A lot of memories there. We very much enjoy going home every year and spending time with friends and family, and our kids love it. But it’s certainly not on the horizon right now. This is… Our children were born here, they’re being raised here. We love Britain, we love London. I love the energy of the place. I love the fact that there’s music that can be invented here that seems to be able to come from nowhere else, like dubstep or drum and bass or whatever. It just seems to be this is where the music is made, for me, and I love it. But, man, we’re never that far away from home, ever.
Dubber Finally, given the choice, play records for the rest of your life or make records for the rest of your life?
Zane Oh. Can’t I do both? Can’t I do both? Isn’t there time to do both? Maybe that’s an answer to your question. Maybe at some point, for whatever reason, I might not be broadcasting as long. I’d like to think that there’ll be time for me to go in there and use my experience another way. And maybe there’s still time for me to go back and do what I originally wanted to do, which is make records and help people make records. It’s part of my future, I’ll say that. And it’s something that I’m in no hurry to jump into, because I’m very happy where I am, but it’s certainly something I would like to do. And if I found myself without the best radio show in the world to do, the best slot, the pleasure of doing that and the privilege and honour of being a part of that, then maybe I could spend a little time making some records and contributing in a different way. So both is the answer.
Dubber That’s a younger but no more or less passionate Zane Lowe, recorded about ten years ago at a time when we all thought “Gosh, hasn’t he done well?”. And of course, since then… Well, the link to The New York Times feature article about him is in the show notes. And believe it or not, that timing is a complete coincidence. I saw the article the day after I scheduled this episode. Maybe something about the universe aligning, who knows.
But that’s the MTF Podcast. I’m Dubber, you can find me @dubber on Twitter, and Music Tech Fest is @MusicTechFest basically everywhere. The MTF Podcast is out every Friday, and you can of course share, like, rate, and review, and do subscribe wherever you prefer to listen. Hope you enjoyed, have a great week, and we’ll talk soon. Cheers.