Tête à Tête with Michel Esteban
Labels We Love
Early ZE’s music was visceral at the same time that it was manufactured. That’s not to say the music wasn’t genuine. It was the primal scream of artifice. Acts like Suicide were the decrepit corpse ghost of Elvis playing over a desolate, Motor City version of Kraftwerk’s Autobahn — haunting, otherworldly inversions of pop. Kid Creole and the Coconuts, on the other hand, were bright colors and island flavors, but they also dabbled in cheeky lyrics that reflected right side vs. wrong side of the track politics and realities. At that time, there was such a NY. It’s easy to glamorize the rot, decay, and waste of the Lower East Side, reducing the squalor to an aesthetic. However, the decay meant chemical reactions were happening, unexpected life — a vibrant society was creeping up from the filth. While punk was a full-fledged rejection of the bourgeoisie, the ZE artists were class mulattoes with one foot on each side of the divide.
When it was founded in 1978, ZE Records was a place for co-conspirators Michel Esteban and Michael Zilkha to express their love of all kinds of music. Esteban was friends with Patti Smith and Richard Hell, but had a love for disco and the club music that fired up the Danceteria and Studio 54. Punk’s nihilism and disco’s hedonism were twin voids pulling at the same string from opposite sides. Uniting the two was not entirely unique, but it was still uncommon at the time. ZE was a forerunner in what would later be called dance-punk, and served as a precursor to labels like DFA and artists like the Rapture and LCD Soundsystem.
As the inaugural feature in Ink 19‘s Labels We Love series, S D Green talks to founder Michel Esteban just after the release of ZE 30, a compilation of classic era ZE records celebrating 30 years of ZE, and discusses the magical era of 1970s New York and the evolution of ZE records then to now.
You were about 27 at the time you started ZE Records with Michael Zilkha in New York City. New York is a vibrant subject in many artists’ music and is a muse for a lot of musicians, especially NY in the 1970s. Can you describe what it was like living in New York at that time?
In fact all became with the Velvet Underground which was my favorite band in the early ’70s. New York at that time was “ZE” place to be. I was 23 when I first came to NY in 1974; I was living at the Chelsea Hotel. I became friends with Patti Smith and Richard Hell, Andy Warhol was hanging out with his gang at Max’s, Lou Reed and William Burroughs at CBGB’s. I started a magazine called Rock News in 1975, which ran until the end of ’76. In 1977 I produced my first single with John Cale (“Marie & les Garçons”). I was sharing a loft in Soho with Patti Smith!
NY at that time was not the Disneyland for Yuppies it became in the ’90s, but the film set of Martin Scorsese films, Mean Street or Taxi Driver….
I mean, for me it was a dream come true!
What was the impetus for starting ZE?
Just a big fan of music. I was an art student, but most of the musicians are, too.
You were responsible for the art direction at ZE, and the iconic checker cab logo. What role do you think art plays in music? What do visuals add to the sonic experience that is music?
To me, music, graphic art, movies, and to a certain extent literature or even painting are the same. My English is not good enough to explain exactly what I am trying to say but, to me, a record of Miles Davis, a painting by Jean Michel Basquiat, a film by Martin Scorsese, or a book by Nick Toshes are talking about the same thing.
As an art student I was of course very interested and concerned in the graphic image of the label. But graphic with an attitude!
What was your role as co-founder of ZE? Did you seek out talent? Any artists you had a challenging time signing? Any interesting stories to tell regarding artists who got away?
I equally shared responsibility with Michael, seeking and choosing artists or producing them, except for the visual which was more my department.
I personally wanted to sign the B-52s and Devo when I saw them playing at CBGB’s or Max’s. They both ended up with Island Records which was obviously a bigger label than us.
What was your primary responsibility at ZE back then? How is it different now?
We were very naïve and very fortunate, we had total freedom about what we wanted to produce, no strategy except having a good time.
The difference between back then and now was like we were writing books with a goose feather, then a guy named Gutenberg came and invent printing… if you see what I mean.
What was your relationship to the artists? Was it a familial one or was the relationship more business?
Not familial, neither business, I guess respectful. We tried to give them freedom to do what they wanted to do, as long we had chosen them it was trust! Some of them were friends.
A lot is made of how much New York has changed since the ’70s. Many artists don’t believe it was for the better. What, if anything, do you think was lost that has changed art in the city?
I am not a nostalgic person, but of course NY was a very creative environment at that period. I believe art movements work by cycles, anyway.
Can you define what ZE stands for (and stood for in the ’70s and ’80s) as a label? What would you say were your goals, musically, for the label?
Total freedom and the personality of two foreigners with a certain vision of what music should have been at that time in that city we loved. Right time, right place! We were lucky enough to have the money to produce music we wanted to hear. We did not care about what people said and tried to enjoy ourselves.
The ZE 30 disc includes many of your classic artists: James White & the Blacks, Suicide, Lydia Lunch, and Kid Creole & the Coconuts (to name a few). Thirty years on, are there any songs that have surprised you in their ability to stand the test of time? Any missteps — material you thought was great at the time that just doesn’t stand up?
Of course there are some production or songs that aged differently, you cannot be 100% right. But I am amazed that most of our productions are considered today as classic. And I think if we had to produce them today we will not change anything. So I guess we must have done the right thing back then!
ZE has gone from being a label on the cutting edge of New York’s No Wave and post-punk scene to being a boutique re-issue label. No doubt, ZE was far ahead of its time, and much of the music is still being copied today. What was your motivation to sign Michael Dracula and start releasing new material again?
I like to quote Edgard Varèse’s words: “An artist is never ahead of his time, but most people are far behind theirs.” I met Emily McLaren, the girl behind Michael Dracula, through the guys of OPTIMO. She was a big fan of ZE, and she is a brilliant songwriter, she sings, plays almost every instrument on the album, wrote the music and lyrics. I could have produced this album a little bit better but I always tried to please the artist first…
What is your relationship with the original ZE artists today? Do you still keep in touch with them?
With some yes, I have a couple of projects with some of them but as I said before I am not nostalgic and I don’t like revival.
What is the most difficult challenge in running a record label?
Find the money to make your dream possible.
What do you think an anthology of ZE’s groundbreaking catalog means to music in 2009?
I hope the same thing the first album of the Velvet Underground did in 1967. Like Brian Eno said, maybe not so much people bought it but most of them who did, started a band. And I could add, or started a records label.
Are there any artists of the last ten or so years who you would have signed to ZE back in 1978? Why or why not?
Bjork: because she is Bjork!
Why did the label close down in 1986?
I personally left ZE and NY in ’81/’82, mainly ’cause I had a strategical difference of view with Michael Zilkha, specially around the delicate subject of his then wife Cristina. Not that I did not like her or her albums. She was/is a brilliant girl but as far I was concerned they had a sick relationship which interfered with the image of the label. In terms of business, Michael had Daddy’s money to spend. For me it was my money, obviously not the same income.
Also I thought that by 1982 the golden years of NY creativity were fading and I wanted to travel more. That is what I did by producing Lizzy Mercier Descloux’s next two albums in south Africa and Brasil. I also produced French artists during the ’80s, like French pop icon LIO, with whom I had my first gold records.
When I left ZE, Michael continued for a couple of years, lost interest in music business, divorced Cristina, left NY to move to Texas and went into the oil business with his father…
Now I live in Salvador de Bahia, Brasil since three years, and I have been developing a project of a Cultural Art Center, called A FABRICA, sort of the Sundance film institute, but for all arts.
ZE had a distribution relationship with Island Records. During the original run of ZE (1978-1986) Island was an independent record label. That changed in 1989 when Chris Blackwell sold Island to Polygram. How do you view the decline of the traditional record label (Sony BMG, Virgin, etc.)? Is this a case of “good riddance to old rubbish,” or is this a frightening trend in music that will lead to a drop-off in quality of recorded music in the future? What impact will the fracturing of the market and the rise of self-produced music have on independent labels?
Island was one of the best indie labels of the ’70s and Chris Blackwell a great producer. The decline of the record label came when the heads of these labels or majors came from business school and not from the music world (including fans). Then some guys invented the mp3 and digital music and it was the same like when Gutenberg invented printing. Books were never the same again…
In an interesting role reversal, U2 loaned money to Island when they were in financial trouble. As pay back, Chris Blackwell gave them control of their masters. Several artists are taking a more active role in generating financing for their albums (Patrick Wolf is selling shares in his latest album). What are some viable models for “record labels” in the future?
Knowing Chris Blackwell, I am not worried about his finances; in stories there are always three versions: mine, yours and the real one!
Talking about viable economic models for record labels, if anybody has a brilliant idea I am interested in (smiles).
More seriously I am very optimistic for the music because people “use” more music than ever, but since a couple of years kids think that music is free. We are in the middle of a revolution. But one thing is sure, that you need talented people to write, play, and produce music, and that no machine or industrial revolution like the digitization of music, film, or books can replace.
ZE Records: www.zerecords.com