ZHR's Sonic Journey: “I felt empowered to go forth and really dedicate myself to this music”

ZHR's Sonic Journey: “I felt empowered to go forth and really dedicate myself to this music”

After fronting Northeast Party House for over a decade, Zachary Hamilton-Reeves introduces us to his intimate new solo project, ZHR

Zachary Hamilton-Reeves (to his family when he’s in trouble, simply Zach to everyone else) is about as busy as he is talented (very - the answer is very). Since breaking through with Northeast Party House way back when in 2010, Zach has been a permanent fixture on the Australian music scene ever since.

With over a decade of the highs and lows that playing in a successful band can bring, Zach decided the time was right to draw on his industry knowledge and, alongside business partner John Halstead, founded the label and management agency Seven Seven, which has also coincided with the launch of his new solo project, ZHR

Debuting with the catchy, feel-good, summery hip-hop and r&b influenced vibes that is Something Ain’t Right, we caught up with Zach to hear all about it, Seven Seven and his plans for ZHR.

I want to hear all about the new single soon - loving that G Funk style synth in there - but I wanted to start off by asking about your solo alias, ZHR. I’m no sleuth mastermind, but I’m assuming that’s derived from your name, Zacharay Hamilton-Reeves… this says a lot about me, but was that ever like a tag of yours, or something you scribbled in school books or something? I can just see it in big bubble letters…

I had like the really, very, very, very briefest career as a tagger, and mine was “Loser Oner”, lol. “So sick…”. But like, I've never been a visually artistic person in that, like, I've never been able to draw, or paint or do anything. So it very quickly became apparent that my poor scribble wasn't as cool as the others. And also, I just like, didn't have the same appetite for risk and potentially destruction. I think it just was like I very quickly learned. It wasn't my wasn't my lane, but I thought it was cool for a second. So, “Loser Oner”, if you want to call me that, go for it. *laughs*

Loser Oner it is! So was “ZHR” a prominent thing at all in your life growing up?

Never, no. I mean, like, of course, I'd used my initials in the past. But no, never like, it really came more about me trying to find a name, something that was kind of short, succinct. I wanted to get away from a long name like Northeast Party House. And I also wanted to get something that felt like me - in an ideal world, I would have gone with Zachary. Because nobody calls me Zachary. Everybody just calls me, Zach, unless it's my mom. And I'm getting in trouble. So it's yeah, I was, I guess I was kind of searching for something that felt maybe a little bit more intimate. Felt a little bit more like myself stepping away. Or I tried to, you know, tried to step away from Northeast in that way. So kind of yeah, I felt like having a longer name kind of still would have been different, but in some ways, it defeated the purpose. So yeah, trying to get something short that was me and succinct, and that not too many other people had.

I believe the idea for ZHR has been bubbling away for the last three odd years, but I’m thinking surely you’ve been thinking about a solo project for longer than that?

Definitely, this is like, yeah, I guess I’m gonna start. Being in a band with six people, particularly in our band where the focus has always been about bringing a party, you know, and creating an environment that people can have fun. And so it's always been about trying to create a living room dance floor energy in the crowd. It's not been as much about us and trying to be “show people” or anything like that. It's about curating the energy. And with that it becomes, you know, a lot of having to share what you write. So I'll write a song. I bring it in, and then it kind of gets torn apart and kind of pieced back together with other people's parts, and we'll do that for everybody. So yeah, you definitely start to crave going with your gut more and you crave wanting to explore and also, you know, upskill, as a musician, as a producer, as a writer, you want to just see what you can do.

And I guess like, I would say, probably from the very early days, I started wanting to do it, but I definitely didn't have the skills at that point. And then, you know, then skills versus means - I was really lucky to come into an opportunity to start a JV label with Sony, and put it out that way as well, which meant that it was more independent, I had more ownership, more flexibility. And just, I guess, in a lot of ways, it's also about empowerment, you know, I felt empowered to go forth and really dedicate myself to this music and, and work on it. So, you know, probably a multitude of factors that makes it really feel really special to me to be able to like, do this stuff solo, but it's also a part of it, it's just like, I just wanted to rebel and be independent from it.

The stars have aligned, dude! My brain’s gone off in a few different directions based on what you’ve just said to be honest, but let’s talk about going from writing and performing with six people to just one - how are ZHR live shows going to work, a bit different from Northeast?

I have no idea, I started talking about this today. I think the idea is to have it stripped back, we'll see what it actually looks like, but I love the concept of it. I think my thought was probably along the lines of me, maybe two people or me and a DJ, and seeing if we can kind of make the show maybe a little bit more, yeah, that's more focused would be the right word, you know? And kind of, how do you? How do you make the most of space? How do you make the most of moments on stage that can be intimate? How can you have moments where it's still fun and has energy? But no, it wouldn't need to be kind of really more like, peaking, you know, like hitting peaks to kind of be a successful show. It's much more about like, yeah, I guess exploring other things to make the show special, which can be just as amazing and special as well. I said special a lot now *laughs9. But yeah, basically,long story short, we'll see what it looks like. I haven't made any final plans, but definitely thinking about it. And yes, it will be a thing, which will be really exciting.

Is how you could play ZHR tracks live a consideration in the writing process at all?

I mean, I always think about it, I find it really difficult not to think about people when I'm writing or like, you know, thinking about who's going to be listening to it. But also, I'm not so stressed about how to recreate that live. I feel like you know, there are so many ways to make a song sound great. And there are also so many different ways in which you can hear a song that you love, like different versions that can also bring out different sides sometimes, you know, someone singing with an acoustic guitar is even better than what the song was. I’m also a believer of how live music should be able to be live music, it doesn't always have to be you know, exactly like what you've heard recorded. So, yeah, look out for me singing on guitar with a G funk synth in the back. *laughs*

What more do you need?! Moving on to the new single, Something Ain’t Right - it was written in February 2020 and I couldn’t help but notice that timing, a month before we hit full blown COVID mode - clearly the song is not about the pandemic, but had you noticed that timing?!

Honestly, like, I'm gonna be totally honest, and I wish I could say otherwise, but no, not at all. And we were still I mean, this was kind of written around the same time as [Northeast Party House album] Shelf Life. So yeah, I guess in a lot of ways, it was just, we were in writing mode. And my guess is that it was one of those moments where like, you sit down to write a song that's 124 to 128 to 130 BPM [Beats Per Minute], and instead of wanting to do that, just not really feeling like that, so I just kind of did something that's more… I think this one's 80 BPM, and which is a massive difference, different genre instantly. And so it's just a much easier song. And, you know, it was probably, in some ways, a nice way of kind of creating space and just resetting, not having the pressure of trying to build on that, specifically, somewhere, right? I think at the time, I was single, I think, and just like trying to talk about those feelings, where like, maybe you're dating people, or yeah, really sad to get that feeling that something isn't feeling good, more, I guess it was more of a relationship thing.

And then also, with music a lot, I've realized that I'm quite attracted to things that have duality and contrast. So I had these beautiful chords that were kind of like oscillating. There's like an LFO [Low Frequency Oscillator] on it. So it feels like it's waving then having like the kind of boom bap drums and it kind of gave this really chill kind of, you know, feeling it instantly made me think of more that G funk kind of cruising with the windows down, you know, type of vibe. So it was kind of fun to riff with that with something isn't right. Because it was like, well, we've got this thing that feels good, that feels chill and cruisey. Like, almost like everything is going right, but then you can play with a concept that is kind of a little bit more serious, but still have fun with it and play. It was a really fun song to write, you know?

But where you sipping on gin & juice when you wrote it?

*Laughs* I wish I was sipping on gin and juice, laid back.

*Laughs* Speaking of duality and contrast, you’ve got a dope music video to go alongside the single, and there’s plenty of duality and contrast going on with the visuals there, tell us about that?

I often feel like video clips are really tricky, in that you've got to be a really good actor, or you have to have an amazing concept, and then even when you have the amazing concept, you need to have amazing people. And you know, often these really big budgeted things have so many people and you know, people are trained actors or dancers or whatever, and I basically didn't really feel like that was me… and I definitely didn't have the budget. But what I did have some super talented friends in a guy called Joel Fenton, Jordan K, and Liam Harrington, and a concept that was basically like, let's try and do something that is pretty visually stimulating that can have movement in it, whilst staying kind of true to my personality, which is probably a balance of goofball, silly and fun and serious. And so like, how do we mix those two, without me being an actor, without me trying to tell a story when I’m not that. Also with Northeast, I think my energy is often probably a little bit more stoic, a little bit more like, I'm not really smiling that much, particularly in any press or videos. So just like, you know, how do I show more of who I am without it being corny as well?

So the concept was, basically keep something moving at every point. You know, the contrast is really nice, the colour was really nice and yeah, I guess play with those. So you know, I'm either standing still, and it's kind of zooming in or like standing still, and you'll have a small shot of me just with something moving - wind, water, whatever it is. Or it's me, clapping, dancing, kind of trying to keep the movement going as well. And I think that those parts often kind of bring a little bit more of the personality and fun. I think through the video clip, you can kind of see, at least I hope you can see that, you know, yeah, we were having a really great time. And there are a few moments where we started getting sillier and sillier, and I was really happy that they got to come into it. I think yeah, basically, I think they just crushed it, and I'm just super lucky to have talented friends and I feel like it got done well, in the end.

It’s dope, and like you say, the colour grading and contrast just pops. Speaking of collaborating, the track was co-produced by Dave Hammer, a producer who has worked with the likes of Lime Cordiale, Washington, Baker Boy and a stack more. What was it like working with Dave - I believe when it comes to studio work he knows his stuff, pretty clinical?

Yeah, I mean, he's an interesting guy in the sense that he's a genius, his understanding of music is phenomenal. His passion and love for music is phenomenal. And I think that on a personal level, we got along really, really well. And on a passionate level, we got along really well for music, although we definitely had different ideologies, I think, when it comes to how to, like, finish it - clinical is, I guess, maybe I wouldn't say clinical, because he's, he's definitely like, professionally sound, his knowledge of what he's doing. You can say clinical, but he just knows it, think of a sound he can make it, you can give him any description bright, dull - you could say what ever the fuck you want, and he will understand it and be able to execute that. 

But he's also a lot about bringing in life and keeping that energy and, and letting things have mistakes in some ways to give it feeling, whereas I think in some ways, I was probably pushing for it to be more, more kind of, maybe more clinical in some ways. And I think that the balance of what we were pushing against each other was really great. And, yeah, he was kind of the first, or he's the only person I've really collaborated with on this project. So far. It's been awesome. I love Dave. He's amazing to work with and really happy to co-produce it with him. Yeah, he's as good as everybody says.

As an audio engineer who’s followed Dave’s work, that’s exactly what I was hoping to hear! So you mentioned before about starting a JV with Sony - tell us all about Seven Seven?

Ahhh, here’s the pitch! *Laughs* Seven Seven - we’re a joint venture with Sony. We were incredibly blessed, my and my business partner John Halstead, just incredibly lucky to be given the opportunity to kind of start this JV label. It kind of started around this solo music. Our upline was via Marietta, who's Senior Director there who's just like, lovely, warm, intelligent, smart, boss, great mentor. Yeah, she's, awesome. I guess, like our goal was really just to try and work with artists that we thought were talented, who had something different, a diverse cast of people who kind of, you know, are in the beginning stages of stuff - we feel like we're best in development. So as a songwriter and now co-producer or whatever, like, being able to bring those skills to our artists if they need them. We've got someone like Kanada The Loop who we don't have to touch HIS songs at all. He's just so brilliant and smart with songwriting, it's really crazy.

So we wanted to try and find people from the very beginning, helping them to grow, and it's been really exciting and really fun and really informative, bringing it back to back to the solo career as well, and you can start to see how these other artists operate. It's been really cool getting to share more information about the industry side of things and give that to artists and kind of I hope reach them on their own level still and kind of explain, it's been really rewarding. Seeing all the hard work that people do that I think you don't quite see, as an artist, you really get to see, like the care and the compassion that comes in from a team behind your music. We get to manage artists as well, so it bleeds into that - we've basically built a really big family. And, you know, the kind of main goals being transparency, honesty, warmth, and kind of trying to create a safe space for people to be able to thrive with it. So, yeah, it's been really awesome getting to release music via it. It's been really exciting getting to work with other artists and not just feel like the luckiest motherfucker in the world.

That’s beautiful bro, and while you say lucky, no doubt extremely hard work and passion have something to do with it too… Something that stood out to me was you saying about reaching artists on their own level, I think that’s so important because as you'd probably know better than most, artists can often have a healthy distrust of labels/management/the “business” side of music?

Yeah, I mean, it's like, it's a problem. And to be honest, I didn't even have the solutions to it, either, you know, and you still come up to the moments where you like, you have to remember that the artist has never done something before, you have to remember that the artist isn't, you know, in every conversation, you have to remember that it's still the artist’s project. And so even if you are giving information to them, they might still want to do something, even if it isn't, like, you know, what you perceived to be the best thing. But hopefully, and I think it's true, like knowledge is power, and so being able to share knowledge and kind of explain and not just tell someone, but give examples and and, you know, prove it with like track record or be able to introduce them to someone else who's been through a similar situation who you trust. I think with me being around for 12 years, I feel like we've made heaps of mistakes, and there's been lots of successes and lots of right steps as well, and so being able to turn those into positives, and share them with people has been super rewarding. And I hope I get to continue to do that and hope that it is as beneficial as I believe it's been for the others that we work with as well. So you know, I guess time will tell - it might go up in a ball of flames, but I don't think so.

*Laughs* I’d put money that it won’t go up in flames dude. So finally, you’ve got your debut single as ZHR out to the world - is there any other ZHR-related news you can share at this stage?

More singles coming through to the end of the year! I can say at least one more video clip coming through, maybe more? I reckon we'll have that  elusive live show that we were poking around, we should be up and running by that point as well. I think that's kind of the plan. Yeah. Which will be really exciting and really daunting because I've never performed without the guys. But yeah, I'm really ready to kind of push into that and see what we make. It's going to be really exciting.

Follow ZHR: Instagram