Simplicity Is Sincerity: Cremation Lily Talks
Zen Zsigo has notched up dozens of releases both under his own name and through the medium of numerous other pseudonyms, yet its under the guise of Cremation Lily that the Hastings-based outlier has produced his most extensive body of work, an ever multiplying and ever mutable succession of cassettes, records and CDRs that are as likely to dole out grievous maelstroms of noise as they are to soar obliquely into plaintive, half-degraded synth elegies, intermittently contrasting, exchanging and fusing industrial degradation with evanescent romanticism.
As well as distributing myriad forms of output courtesy of his own label – Strange Rules – Zsigo has found favour with the likes of Harbinger Sound (original home of Sleaford Mods), Helm’s ALTER imprint and more recently with Opal Tapes, arguably the most renowned DIY operation that has played host to the thrashing rupture and dim close-of-day radiance of his work.
A transition in the character of his sound has coincided with the growing recognition he has received from select peers and certain quarters. Yet it’s not as if – in attaining greater exposure – Zsigo has been slavish to external factors. Granted, his earlier work is assuredly devastated by harsh accumulations of gnarled tones and dire distortion whereas recent explorations are more prone to open out into expansive, atmospheric tracts of synth minimalism and crystalline drone. But if the predominant focalization of before was fissure and discord – often invoking a sense of monumental landfall and incinerated transmission – then the vestiges of that damaged vision is still ingrained within the newfound clemency and vulnerable sweep of his latest productions.
To an extent it fits with Zsigo’s background, or at least the impressions that such a background elicits Although Hastings isn’t the first place to spring to mind where art and noise are concerned, Zsigo’s work nevertheless betrays a certain sense of impact wrought by such a coastal location. It’s almost as if the exposure to turbulence and extreme fronts within his music reflects the mercurial weather of seaside towns, much like the one he currently calls home. Not only that, such a base seems to accord with Zsigo’s position in relation to others. Some would probably find similarities in the cataclysmic properties of his sound with that of Dominic Fernow’s Prurient project, where others might also cite Croatian Amor and Jefre-Cantu Ledesma when attempting to map out the more emotive facets of his explorations; with all those tumultuous frequencies seeping into expressive highs. Yet despite choice commonalities, Zsigo’s work is fundamentally marked by his own hand and just as he seems relatively isolated in terms of place – in comparison with an artist who might base themselves in Berlin or London – sound wise he’s similarly solitary and shaped by individuality.
Zsigo has made music as far back as he can remember. His first recordings were the product of a ‘rudimentary setup’ consisting of a boombox and a home hi-fi ‘to record, playback and re-record layers of keyboard-preset drums and melody’. But there’s less certainty as to why he began making music. It seems it was and remains more of an involuntary compulsion, a creative everyday reflex that comes naturally: ‘I think I figured out why I do this a few years ago, but I’ve forgotten again, all I can say is that I do it because it’s part of my life – like taking a shower or eating or reading a book. I can’t go a moment without writing down some words or capturing a sound I’ve overheard.’
First loves and early discoveries came through the usual channels – local gigs, magazines and mail order – yet Zsigo’s formative inspirations are less predictable in their contrastive range. Bjork’s ‘Debut’ and Sade’s ‘Deluxe’ were in his mum’s CD collection, records Zsigo grew significantly attached to before finding punk, electronic music and experiencing the revelatory impact of Aphex Twin.
With these tools and influences Zsigo eventually incepted the Cremation Lily project yet the fundamental motivating force for doing so was rooted in events which were entirely more profound and personal: ‘It was a reaction to being with my great grandmother as she was close to death. I sat with her and held her hand and kissed her forehead and said goodbye and felt it all slipping away. I’ve always been terrified of death, living a useless life, it feels like a pit in my stomach just thinking about it now. The realisation that death can be this aware and slow escape was, for some reason, shocking. Being there made my mind race with light and sound. It felt like a near-death experience in that moment and over the course of the next year I relived and rediscovered similar experiences in my past.’
This epiphanic flashpoint – of realising the nearness, inevitability and intensified perception at the moment of death – is one that Zsigo has arrived at through the combined experience of his great grandmother’s passing and his own later near death contention, an event which elicited the same cognitive disorientation and which continues to hold a similar sense of existential significance: ‘Years later [after the death of Zsgio’s great grandmother] I almost drowned [in Summer 2015] and the feeling was identical. I was swimming in the sea when the tide was high and an undercurrent dragged me underneath the water. I was being washed further away from the coast and eventually would have become weak and drowned. For the first time in my adult life I felt like this may actually be how I died. Light and sound, all around me. Luckily I was smashed against some rocks underwater and used them to claw my way back to shore. I had cuts all over my body. For weeks afterwards I had that light and sound surrounding me. It's a very distinct sensation, not unpleasant, but completely alien.’
That elemental submersion, a tsunami of static and whiteout, is present within much of Zsigo’s work as Cremation Lily, and the heightened states of mind that have recurred in his confrontations with mortality are given voice in the moods that shape his work and the aesthetics that visualise it (often crepuscular or monochromatic backgrounds of empty seas, landscapes and uniform washes of dark oceanic tones) It’s clear that Cremation Lily has become an outlet for exploring the heavy circumstances of extraordinary experiences. Eventually Zsigo even went as far to recreate the sound he had heard when he was pulled underwater, a recreation that subsequently became ‘Sea Spray Perfumes’. Yet it’s a journey that Zsigo has embarked on with routine fixation rather than repressive reluctance. In fact ‘the first recordings were done very quickly with a microphone, a guitar amplifier, a Casio keyboard and an Alesis drum machine.’ Since those beginnings the supply of equipment has been bolstered but the preference for an understated setup has remained a determining factor. Recording overlooking the sea, any time of the day or night, Zsigo keeps it simple: ‘I use as few pieces of equipment as possible – walkmans, tapes, laptop. I have a couple of synthesisers and drum machines but to be honest I’ve had them since I was a teenager and never properly figured out how they work. A typical starting point is usually to record a phrase or motif that I’ve had in my head that day to a tape, physically cut up and reassemble it and go from there.’
The potency of those earlier realisations of mortality and extreme states of mind seem to be kept at the forefront of Zsigo’s creative endeavour, partly on account of the surroundings that characterise his aforementioned current home, a place which has continued to stir similarly evocative feelings of isolation, reflection and vulnerability: ‘We’ve only been here for 2 years, but it’s already one of the places I’ve spent the most time consecutively. It can be isolating. I live directly between the cliffs and the sea, with my wife and exactly one fish that has lived a very long time. It’s made me reflect on everything I do a lot more; looking back on older recordings, trying to expand my vocabulary within the context of using music as a language. I hear the sea every day and often have dreams about it breaking down the door and forcefully dragging me away. When I’m here I am very aware of my fragility.’
There is a coastal texture to his work yet Zsigo sees such volatile organic flux less as an effect wrought by a particular place than a consequence of years of moving around, and years of fascination with the diverse environments he’s found himself in: ‘I’ve moved a lot in the last several years, sometimes big jumps and sometimes small, but every city I’ve occupied, before or after Cremation Lily started, has changed my music. For some time all I could imagine were church bells and hymnal passages. Then, when I moved down south to Brighton, my life became much more technicolour. At the same time I began travelling the world performing concerts. Recordings of the sea interspersed with overheard conversations, seagulls mourning, an angry taxi driver in Moscow, I was trying to capture the collage that my life felt like it was.’
Although there’s a lot of experience and a worldly, developed sense of place poured into Zsigo’s work, he emphasizes that there is a limitation to how these encounters can be aurally transmuted whilst highlighting how settling in Hastings has allowed for a more fixed yet still liberated appetite for exploration: ‘After a little while, though, you become numb to that non-stop stimuli. It became meaningless, I had said all I could say using that language. Hastings, it’s hidden beaches and isolation, became a place where I could indulge and experiment with natural sound and it’s instability much more readily.’
Instability is the core attribute of Cremation Lily’s sound but there are structures within, even if they sound as if they’re in the process of falling apart. There’s a process too. Alongside a self-prescribed straightforward set up, Zsigo utilizes a diaristic and vérité approach, a method whereby everyday sounds are often fragmented and recontextualized and the urge to seclude oneself is readily indulged: ‘I don’t know what it’s like for most people, but when I tour and have to slot into a new group of friends and promoters and artists every day I find it somewhat exhausting. Those are the moments in which I hide, and for some reason I’ve taken to recording my hiding places. These recordings are almost always used in my music, in fragments or in whole. They are pure vérité, nothing more than observations, I personally find that the most interesting.’
Authenticity of sound, sensation and introversion is the key yet there’s no great mystery to Zsigo’s process. He signals one particular work as a demonstration of how it’s more incrementally transformative than a case of sudden inspiration: ‘When I worked on the ‘Journal’ tape for Monorail Trespassing last year it was a literal diary, simply recording loops and sounds I heard throughout a set period of time and then using the recording devices/diaries themselves as loopers, effects, editors. It’s not a case of choosing to work this way, it’s more that Cremation Lily wouldn’t work any other way. I’ve tried it and it fails to capture my interest.’
Zsigo is keen to highlight, not just the everyday aural observation that informs the project, but the lack of separation between himself and his predominant alias, a contiguity that extends to his label Strange Rules and the community surrounding it: ‘Cremation Lily could easily be called Zen Zsigo, it’s the sound I want to record at any given time with no emotional basis in expectations. Same with Strange Rules to a certain extent. I just ask my friends if they want to do something together and then, when the moment is right, we do it. Separate projects often have a different thought or theme that brought them into existence, but they are all documents of a certain moment or timespan. They overlap and recontextualise each other all the time.’
Turning back to the nuances of Cremation Lily’s sound I point out that there’s a vacillation between quite fierce and abrasive longform noise and other pieces which are aerated and atmospheric and, as Zsigo suggests, this fluctuation only serves to support the notion of an intimate proximity between himself and his assumed musical identity. Without much conscious reflection the former inevitably effects the trajectory of the latter: ‘As my own outlet Cremation Lily has naturally changed as my life and mental state have changed. I’ve already talked about differences that locations make but it also doesn’t feel genuine to create the same music now that I did when I was 20 years old. “Negative” traits such as doubt, jealousy and ego-fragility will always be part of me and I’m just learning to accept those traits and control them. The only contrast between my older and newer work that is entirely conscious is that now I always tell myself "leave space, leave space, leave space, leave space, leave space.”
The mantra Zsigo mentions is working. ‘Radiance and Instability’ is faintly luminescent, minimalist and haunting where before ‘Funeral Home’ was visceral, amorphous and heat-damaged. Similarly, there’s a raw anthemic ache to recent output (‘Lovers On The Rocks’ and ‘The Currents Mislead’ especially) that conveys an aura as bare, bruised and candid as it is eroded, cracked and tempestuous.
For all of the clear definitions Zsigo relates to his work and the powerful visions and evocations it elicits, he assigns an explicit distinction between his recorded material and his live performances. The live show is liable to change, predicated more on context than prepared presentation to the point where the venue becomes, in some cases, like a resonator, another instrument: ‘CL live has typically been completely separate from the recorded material. Source tapes do cross over, and nowadays I’m more prone to perform expansions or meditations on pre-existing tracks, but the setting is so crucial. A basement in Berlin with water dripping from overhead pipes and a hundred people crammed in will never be the same as a sparsely populated warehouse in Kiev. I react to what is around me, how the sound interacts with the walls. The recent shows have been a little bit of a push back against performance art as a crutch. Barring myself to the audience, just a sampler or laptop, two walkmans, one light and often one image presented throughout the duration.’
There’s a phrase Zsigo uses to conclude his thoughts on what his live performance resembles but it’s one that could just as well be applied to the Cremation Lily project as a whole, the idea that ‘simplicity is sincerity’. Natural sound, understated methods, allowing life and reality free reign in art and expression all seem accordant with such a philosophy.
Although Zsigo’s location and his preferred way of working suggest that this philosophy is sustained by individual commitment and personal inspiration, he’s aware of the wider networks that encourage him to keep on doing what he’s doing, whether that’s artists like Basic House and WANDA GROUP (who he recently embarked on a French tour with) or whether that’s closer to home, namely the like-minded factions that have sprung up around Strange Rules: ‘You know, the overwhelming positive that really comes from doing Strange Rules now, aside from the obvious benefits of being able to quickly release my own music, is working with friends and making new ones. I played a concert in New York at the end of 2016 and it felt like I already knew 50% of the people in the room, in a city that I’ve only been to a couple of times. The connections forged through this outlet are not always based on friendship, or on artistic respect, but a vital combination of both.’
There are caveats to the optimism that this venture has encouraged in that Zsigo would like to cut down on the impact physical releases have on the environment, in terms of the plastic used in production and the mileage accrued in distributing them, but this consideration does little to dampen his conviction that there is a place for Strange Rules amongst an ‘often oblique little network [of small run / tape labels] that isn’t afraid of being clear and open above anything else.’
Such forthright openness runs counter to the prevailing antagonisms of the moment. Inevitably the repugnancy of current events comes up in our conversation and what function music can fulfil in this climate, a question that Zsigo responds to with both uncertainty and honesty: ‘I think it’s too soon to really say what function this music will hold in the years going forward but selfishly, it will always be my escape pod from reality. Along with reading science fiction and watching the waves outside my window, it’s something that is sacred to me.’ That just leaves immediate plans, the final projections for the near future. As with much of what Zsigo does the answer is simple and sincere: ‘Make sure my friends know they’re loved, keep educating myself, write an LP, leave space.’
Leisure Scars, a new Cremation Lily tape, was released February 2017 on Strange Rules.