ZOUJ: "Electronic music always felt extremely static to me - I'm trying to have all these synths sound like an ensemble"

(Image credit: Danny Koetter)

Adam Abdelkader Lenox started making music, like most teenagers, out of boredom. “I had my Mum's computer, full of torrented music software, and a Line 6 Pocket Pod. That ugly thing that looks like a bean.” 

Inspired by the extremities and obscurities of internet culture, he soaked up a miscellany of influences - math-rock, vaporwave, Japanese grindcore, UK bass and Toto’s “Africa” - that laid the foundations for the scintillatingly strange outsider pop he records today as ZOUJ.

Lenox’s new album, METAL, might at first seem to namecheck hardcore guitar music, but this winking reference belies the glitched-out future-funk that makes up its eight exhilarating tracks. 

Dripping in effects processing, his offbeat constructions veer between mutant hyperpop, head-nodding club music and trippy, Brainfeeder-esque beats that recall City Slang labelmates Caribou and Gold Panda, rendering a portrait of an artist unafraid to reimagine all manner of sounds and styles in his own bizarro image. 

We caught up with Lenox to hear more about the synths, software and studio techniques behind his latest release.

Tell us about your studio/set-up.

“I actually mainly work at home. I go to studios when I have a super clear vision of what I’d want to record  - usually acoustic instruments like drums etc. I have a huge bedroom of 40 square metres where all my gear is set up, and honestly I prefer that. If I had a studio elsewhere I would virtually never be home. I use whatever is needed to translate what I have in mind. 

When I don’t feel like plugging cables in, I just open Splice and forget any type of gear

“I try to have a wide array of the latest tech and synths coexisting with old forgotten beasts: from a Mac M1 with those top-notch granular synths and effects, modular racks with analog and digital modules, to cassette recorders, broken instruments, guitar pedals, and vintage synths. Mainly I like the hardware for their workflow and bass (I very rarely use plugin bass). 

“Honestly sometimes when I don’t feel like plugging cables in and want to do something quick and fun, I just open Splice and forget any type of gear. I have no rules and no morals in terms of what I use. Except for those Arcade things, I feel like I’d spend my day trying to make their samples not generic and unexpected, if you know what I mean.”

What DAW (or DAWs) do you use, and why did you choose it?

“In the studio I use Cubase, simply because when I was a kid and couldn’t afford anything  and it was the only crackware that worked on my Mum’s Windows 7. I wish I would have started with Ableton because I end up using it more and more, but I’m happy and very fluent on Cubase. Live, I use Ableton.”

What one piece of gear in your studio could you not do without, and why? 

“I’m gonna get crucified by the synth community, but the Moog Matriarch, just because I like to sit down and play it, and it’s the piece of gear I have the most fun with when I’m on my own. See, if I quit music to become a dentist or accountant - [laughs] - then I’ll go home after work and put the kids to bed, I’ll sit down and play that synthesiser for an hour, just for myself. 

“Oh and the Moog DFAM, everyone uses it as a boring and overpriced drum machine but it will output the meanest and most diverse modern 808 bass sounds I have created. Probably because of its FM thingy, that just hits the spot.”

What's the latest addition to your studio? 

“A USB hub as a rack. That really is the best investment I’ve made in a while as I hadn’t really invested in new equipment in ages. I’ve been on tour a lot the past months so I wasn’t home too much, so somehow I feel like I don’t even need anything new!”

What dream bit of gear would you love to have in your studio?

“I’d like a small drum kit with those Sunhouse sensors. Man, that’s gonna open a whole new world. I’d also love an Oriental Korg Workstation.”

When approaching a new track or project, where do you start?

“At best I’d already have half the track in my head and a clear idea, then it’s just about translating that in the real world. Or I’d draw inspiration from things that aren’t music, I find dark memes and cursed images incredibly inspiring these days. You can look at them and interpret how they sound very easily, as if they were album covers. 

I tend to play everything with my hands as much as possible and rarely use MIDI or quantisation

“If not it’s usually a pretty cool sound or a patch, something really abstract I can start sculpting around. Or if I’m really uninspired I'll go to my dump file where I'll find some old ideas. Sometimes I listen to a thing I did five years ago and find one element or one idea that really knocks me off my socks . The last one I used was “garbagesong979final.wav”.”

What other artists do you look to for inspiration?

“Ian Chang seems to have an understanding of rhythm and sounds which I find to be exceptionally transcendent. Somehow the guy can bend time and curate sounds that evoke something in me, it’s hard to pinpoint and maybe I’m the only one feeling his approach this way. Generally I am fascinated by drummers who can transcend emotions without using melodic elements: Brian Chippendale, Philo Tsoungui, Greg Saunier. I steal a lot from their ideas and study their unique approach.”

If you had to pick one song/album that’s been most influential on your work, what would it be?

“Africa by Toto.”

What do you think makes you unique as a producer and musician?

“Without throwing myself flowers, many things. First, I tend to operate in genres where I don’t really “come from,” which allows me to have a fresh perspective or an edge. I can maintain a certain amount of humour within musical pieces, and I can teleport in a zone, similar to when I was a teenager working on my mom’s computer, a zone where I have the feeling that what I do doesn’t matter to anyone and that no-one will even listen to it, which I find gives great results, artistically at least. I can stick with an idea for a long time, even if it’s a bad idea, and turn it into something unique. 

Electronic music always felt extremely static to me

“I also have the skill of letting go, developing, learning and doing better next time, which is not to underestimate. A lot of my friends are excellent musicians, going into production and they have whole records laying in their computer but they just can’t let them go into the world, as they judge them to be imperfect. Letting music be and letting music go is a skill on its own.”

What are you currently working on?

“A rap album with a new rapper, I am rather secretive about it but it’s absolutely great. You’ll hear of it very very soon. I’m going to tour METAL all over Europe and UK, and in the meantime I'm also starting with my debut album. I'm a hired gun for a rap group here in Germany, Antilopen Gang, where I play bass and 808s on a Moog.”

You've mentioned that you try to make your machines sound human by "emulating errors, randomness and tempo ups-and-downs" - could you elaborate on some of the techniques behind this process?

“Those are fancy words to be found on press kits, but frankly, electronic music always felt extremely static to me, coming from playing in “rock” bands. I’m trying to have all these synths sound like an ensemble that plays together live in a room. A trick, for example, is to automate the entire tempo up and down slightly, creating a ramp. Just like a human drummer without a click track would play 134.57 bpm on a bar and the 135.02 on the next. 

Playing with the tempos gives all those machine some realness

“I tend to play everything with my hands as much as possible and rarely use MIDI or quantisation or work on the grid. Modular also offers a lot of random possibilities which are accessible with the twist of two knobs, but I feel like playing with the tempos and even making a fill in the whole song to be completely off-grid, as if the drummer fucked up and the entire band is struggling to land on the one, gives all those machine some realness.”

Three music-making tips...

1. Don't listen to me

“As a matter of fact listen to no-one, just sit down and do that thing, however you do it. You know what at best, don’t even listen to music. If you don’t listen to this tip and are still going to listen to music (you fool!), here’s tip two…”

2. Be a great thief

“Your favourite artists are great thieves, but who did they steal from? I find it to be a fascinating exercise to find who a producer or an artist has stolen from, so I research their inspirations and favourite artists. Then I steal from them all. But because of my perspectives, my own approaches, knowledge and certain esoteric things that are living within me, it won’t come across as the same.”

3. Know your priorities

“Bass and vocals is the meal, the rest is hot sauce. I know, I know, every top producer tells me it has to be sung around a campfire with a guitar or some BS, but remember tip number one: listen to no-one. Hear me out, I’m not saying the bass and vocals are the most important. I mean, if you have a good meal and someone comes and puts some really shitty, old ranch with no spice, your meal is ruined.

“On a more technical level, the overtones of the bass will make it sit nicely or not, not the EQ. Look at the PWM or FM and try to fiddle around with it so that it fits exactly where it should be. On a synthesised bass, the EQ should only be there to save your ass at the mixing session.”

METAL by ZOUJ is out September 23rd on City Slang.

Matt Mullen
Tech Editor

I'm the Tech Editor for MusicRadar, working across everything from artist interviews to product news to tech tutorials. I love electronic music and I'm endlessly fascinated by the tools we use to make it. When I'm not behind my laptop keyboard, you'll find me behind a MIDI keyboard, carefully crafting the beginnings of another project that I'll ultimately abandon to the creative graveyard that is my overstuffed hard drive.

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