Interview: Zak Sally
Most people leave their normal day jobs to pursue their passion for music. For former Low bassist Zak Sally, it was the other way around. See, Zak Sally was always a musician first, putting his life as a comic artist on hold for endless years of touring with his band mates. Then, somewhere along the way, he decided to make a change, leaving Low to start La Mano, a small press publishing company that he runs out of his home in Minnesota.
And now he’s returned to music. Yeah, comics are still his driving passion. But with years worth of album material crowding his brain, Zak had little choice but to vent some of it out into the world. The result is Fear of Song, a deeply personal deconstruction of Zak’s relationships with music and life. It’s an album with something to prove, if not to the world, then to Zak himself.
In talking about your comics, you said in an interview, “Working with [a] person on [a] project…is really great…[but] after the project is gone, it take[s] a long while to admit my interest drops.” I assume the same thing happened with music, which is why you returned to the comic world. Ultimately, why did you decide back to music?
Well, to be honest, I think that quote is pertaining to something almost entirely unrelated. What I was referring to there is more that after the [La Mano] project is done, my interest drops in terms of the “business” end of things (which, as a publisher, should be a big part of the job): marketing, promotion, getting people interested in this wonderful thing you’ve helped shepherd out into the world. It’s important and necessary, but I’m kind of shitty at that stuff — however much I try to avoid it, my energy goes into making — or helping to make — this awesome thing, and I’m always really interested, [almost] to a fault, in that end of it. But after that it feels out of my control. Sort of, “Damn, this thing is great. We’ve done our job, and now people need to find out about it, somehow, and when they do that’ll be great.”
I would say that I was burnt out on certain aspects of being a full-time musician, but…that’s not necessarily applicable to the specifics of why I left Low: I felt like Destroyer was a huge step for us, and gave us a new lease on life, creatively. It just didn’t really pan out that way, in terms of my tenure in the band. And I guess I did miss making music.
While in Low you helped pioneer their signature sparse slow tempo style before taking Low’s sound in a different direction with The Great Destroyer. Do you consider your new solo record a natural evolution from your days in Low, or did you consciously set out to make something different?
The only thing I consciously set out to do was to see if I could finish one song. I really had some…let’s call them “issues” with my relationship towards creating music. I don’t want to sound too pop-psych here, but I’d had bits and pieces of songs banging around for over a decade, and any time I’d start to finish anything, I’d go into this total panic and have to drink a 9-pack.
And at a certain point I realized that that was pretty ridiculous. So, I figured, you gotta stop being such a chicken and finish one of these, so you can decide if it actually sucks, rather than wondering for the rest of your life whether or not it would suck, if you ever finished it, which you won’t because you are a chicken, and you’re (at the time) 35 years old, so let’s go here.
So I had to figure that out. And after a week or so of cold sweats, I found that when I got far enough into the process that I forgot to be terrified, [and] I was really enjoying it. So I kept going. And here we are.
Was selling the painting from Low’s The Great Destroyer really necessary to fund Fear of Song?
I’m not sure. There is, or was, definitely a part of me that drew a line saying, “You cannot risk this family’s money on this project.” The whole thing freaked me out, to be honest.
Much has been made of the fact that you played all parts of the album Fear of Song by yourself. But we hear less about why you would choose to do that that. Was recording this album alone a reaction to your long collaborative career?
Maybe. I’d like to think I actually enjoy collaborations…but with this, I just decided really early that if I was going to do it, then for better or worse I should do all of it; partly, I think, to be 100 percent accountable for the thing, but also just to prove to myself that…hell, I don’t know. Something.
Also, I don’t think of myself as a “songwriter” — or a singer or guitar player, or drummer or bass player, really, for that matter — and so getting together a band to play songs that I was still in the process of working out — never mind that just the idea of finishing the songs eclipsed any sort of notion of how, when, or why I’d ever actually play the stuff out in a live setting — it seemed goofy.
There’s probably some kind of perverse “I’ll show them” thing going on, too, but I honestly have very little idea of who “them” would be, or are, or…
You said in an interview that being in a band for so long, you get used to checking your individuality at the door, specifically when it comes to discussing the music with press. You tend to spread the praise around. Do you find that going solo is more satisfying to your artistic sensibilities and your ego?
It’s hard. I’m much more comfortable being part of something than being…something.
I’m really, really proud of my record, and how it came out — and, speaking of spreading praise: Ben Durrant, my old pal who stepped in and recorded a bunch of the record helped me immeasurably in the process of getting this thing wrangled into shape.
But it’s a tricky line between being proud of what you’ve done and wanting people to hear the stuff and…being a jackass. I’ve just found that the ego strokes and fucking nonsense that go along with music can be way out of line and out of proportion, kind of dangerous, and to be avoided to the extent that you can. I mean, come on.
Any other musical collaborations coming or have you closed that chapter of your career?
Heck no. Turns out I like music.
DIY culture has evolved into an Internet culture as online tools open up distribution opportunities. Where do your sensibilities fall in the culture war between cut-and-paste “handmade” culture and the do-it-yourself Internet culture? Do you find yourself favoring print zines over webzines?
It hasn’t gone the way I thought it would, I’ll tell you that. Is a webzine the same as a blog? I’ll admit to being a “computers are the enemy” guy in terms of how I thought it would play out in our culture and those handmade, personal things that, uh, I’ve devoted so much of my life to. I thought computers would destroy that culture, and that idea.
But I’ve found that i was totally wrong: it has made people even more appreciative of those things that do have care and personality to them, and in certain ways made the distribution line that much more direct in finding those people who do value that stuff. The La Mano site is not the most active in the world, but I’m consistently amazed at how people find it, and what kind of stuff they order from what parts of the country — and the world.
La Mano’s first “real” books were professionally printed and so on. With each new release — I seem to be at about one a year — I feel like the La Mano “aesthetic” gets more specific, just by developing organically, mostly out of necessity. It’s somewhere between all these things, which is where I’m happiest — it’s not some snooty, $150 art book with a print run of 20 or whatever, but it’s also not some mass-produced, soulless piece of garbage — or, for that matter, a mass-produced great piece of popular art. it’s a…sort of mass-produced (usually 500 at least, but these days a thousand at most) thing where you can tell, in every inch of it, that there was a human being who used their hands, their time, and effort to make this thing for you. It’s not faceless, it’s not product. It is but it isn’t. I like that. I like it a lot.
I don’t see it as a war anymore, but, obviously, I still care very deeply for print and objects. But the two are getting a nice symbiotic sort of relationship — at least, from my limited perspective. I hope they don’t get a divorce.
Fact is, I did not want to put this record out myself, on La Mano, and I tried like hell to not have that happen. But now that it did, I can’t think of a better way for this record to come out. I’m really happy I did it myself. If someone would’ve picked it it up, it never would’ve taken this form and I cannot tell you how fucking happy I am, hand-assembling and signing each one of these things. I’m not kidding.
You’ve said that since creating the dark comic The Recidivist you’ve been more focused on finding a sense of humor in your comic work. Do you find that this outlook informs the tone of new album as well?
I wish! There are parts of the record that I think are kind of funny, but in general it’s way more close to the bone and personal than I’d like it to be. I played some of these songs acoustically in bookstores on a short tour with my pal Nate Denver, and it was — again — more of a fight test than an urge: do you have the guts to play this stuff for people in that naked setting? And every night I had to fight the urge to sprint away screaming, but I did it. So I passed that test — I guess — but at the end I realized that…it wasn’t necessarily fun. I’m not that into that experience, per se: I don’t really get a rush out of baring my soul in public in that way.
Any and all lyrics were just solely trying to find 30 words I could not be totally embarrassed by; just to try and come up with okay lyrics. I remember saying to Ben, “Jesus! Why can’t all my songs be about how much I like cake and pie?”
But it is what it is. As much as the tail led the dog in this thing, the record is “about” some stuff; not because I tried to do that, just because.
Ah well. Maybe next record, more laffs.
You expressed an admiration of Sub Pop, even going so far as say that you’d like to partially model your comic publisher, La Mano, on its example. What about the business model of Sub Pop is so appealing to you?
Well, Sub Pop was — along with a lot of other great labels and bands — one of my entry points into the world that I’m still deeply invested in, to this very day, and informs the way I look at the world…but I wouldn’t say I model La Mano after Sub Pop any more than I model it off of King-Cat or Dischord or Destijl or whatever. It’s all part of this…culture that, uh…I’m part of. I do have a lot of respect for them though because they were always stand-up with me, both during my time in Low and after I left — and I still have some good pals who work there.
And [regarding] the above question about Internet culture: why is Sub Pop (and a lot of other “smaller” indies) doing pretty damn well when the music industry and the major label system is collapsing? Because, in an age when everything is available at all times to everyone, what becomes valued? Well, you want someone you can trust to say, “This — this is good. I’m telling you this because I believe it to be true.”
Sub Pop had a couple dark years — preceded by some completely insane years — but by and large, there is an earned level of trust and respect, and there’s 20 years of it — and they really have their shit together in a business sense, which I admire. It’s like talking to a pal whose taste you respect. You might not like the same stuff all the time, but you know he or she isn’t blowing smoke up your ass, and that’s no small thing.
So yeah — La Mano is on release number six, on an infinitely smaller level than Sub Pop, but I’m batting a thousand. Every La Mano release is something I am intensely proud of, and stand behind 110 percent. I aspire to people trusting La Mano.
I know you’re very busy with other projects but might there be a Zak Sally tour in the works?
Maybe someday. It’s “in the works” in the sense that if I can get enough songs together, and a couple pals to play the stuff, and some time when it all makes sense with everybody’s lives to go out and play it for people in a manner that avoids as many of the soul-destroying aspects of a “normal” rock tour — i.e., 90 percent of rock clubs — as possible, and I can find a way to enjoy playing these songs as much as I enjoy playing Wipers songs in a cover band, while still getting comics done and trying to be a good dad and husband and all that, then yeah — look out world!