Alan Dearling catches up with the extended family of musical dub mayhem.
Has a virtual chat along the waysides, whilst imagining a drink or three, and some magic, special cakes…Brain Food!
Alan: There are often too many labels in music. Back in the day, I was living in Lyme Regis, down on the Dorset coast, having just cast my moorings, moved off from living full-time on a narrow boat on the River Severn and the canal system. That would be 1991. But still heavily involved with the Travellers in the fight against the Criminal Justice Bill, the road protests, working with the Skool Bus and the Travellers’ School Charity. My earliest memories of Zion Train are of a melting pot. A whole collision of dance – reggae – dub – djs – mixing – brass bottom-line. What were the origins?
Zion Train: The musical origins of Zion Train is that we are Dub soundsystem lovers who also have a deep appreciation for electronic music (EDM), for the energy and politics in Punk and hardcore, and for the vibes and improvisation in mixing live instruments with DJs and live mixing techniques plus the non-conformity of all of the above.
You’re right we are a melting pot, musically and culturally and better for it.
Alan: I’ve actually forgotten quite when I first met members of Zion Train and witnessed a performance…Early 1990s definitely, my first album was ‘Passage to Indica’ Deep Dub Conscious Toots Music. …probably in the Green Fields area at Glastonbury, but it could also have been at one of the new Traveller festies. It was actually in the early days of the Internet, and I was given the link to the Wibbly-Wobbly World and the Universal Egg label! The band members were political, but it was more an eco-consciousness thing. Does that make any sense at all?
Zion Train: Your recollection absolutely makes sense in space and time. ZT started in 1988 but became better known and started to release our own music on Zion Records and then later Universal Egg in the early ‘90s when we also founded our first studio (the Wibbly Wobbly World Of Music). The band/collective members were all political but with a focus on Gaia and her constituents that continues to this day.
Alan: I’d been a close friend of the many of the members of Gong, through Daevid Allen, and so had experienced the idea of a floating anarchy of a loose art-music-collective. Bands like Captain Beefheart were experimenting like mad, and later in punk, the taking on of ‘identities’, whether it was Captain Beefheart or Captain Sensible set the template… So, Zion Train with members’ fish names, Neil Perch, Colin Cod and David Tench et al. were different, but seemed familiar… how did this come about?
Zion Train: Hakim Bey’s TAZ (Temporary Autonomous Zone) is a concept that is powerful both in society and the arts.
Collectivism with an anarchic approach is by far the best way to harness everyone’s talents in a group dynamic.
With Zion Train we were particularly influenced by stories of one of the great reggae bands (who also happened to be comprised of three brothers), squabbling over royalty splits on their group works and therefore decided that all were contributors to the ZT project. So, they would be required to choose a fish name to use in place of their surname whilst contributing to the project – hopefully reducing the role of ego in the creative and post-creative spaces and therefore the probability of soft arguments about ownership.
We also really like fish (not to eat), just to watch.
Alan: My original work was as a youth worker, much of it in London and then Scotland. I was lucky and privileged to be around West London as Misty in Roots in the ‘70s evolved from being a youth club sound system into a major musical force. For me, one of the most authentic and unique of the UK reggae world. I was also a huge fan of Ernest Ranglin then. Do you guys rate them, and who else are in your musical roots? Did the name for the band come from the Bob Marley song of the same name?
Zion Train: Misty in Roots and People Unite Records are without doubt, a cornerstone of British black activism in the musical sphere and are totally under-rated as such.
Equally Ernest Ranglin is a musician, who if he was born in the USA rather than post-colonial Jamaica would be recognised by Jazz fans the world over, rather than being seen as a bit part player in the story of Reggae as he is.
Our musical influences are many and diverse from King Tubby to Stockhausen, from Merzbow to Fela Kuti, from Aboriginal creation chants to sea shanties. If it is done with a community purpose and is musical in some way it can easily serve to inspire ZT.
Alan : ‘Zion Train’ have always struck me as a collective state of mind. Almost a ‘hive’ mind but without the Queen Bee. Does that make any sense at all?
Zion Train: Yes it does. We firmly believe that collective consciousness serves human existence much more positively than individualisation in almost all cases.
Alan: Neil Perch and the Zion Train were really kind to come to play at the Coombe Street Party in Lyme Regis. It was a real sense of dance, high energy, freedom and One Love. Some of you guys played on a roof-top scaffolding. A fine mix of the vocals, especially Molar, electronic, instrumentation, DJs, bass line and the brass section… ‘One Love’! Do you remember that gig?
Zion Train: Yes I remember it reasonably well, on the ‘balcony’ improvised stage with the room in the house as the backstage area. It seemed that lots of local people had turned out for the event – perfect situation to play music really – free event, not age limited, in a central location in a small town. Good weather – rarely gets better than that in reality. We are big fans of community events they provide a much warmer scenario than commercial events in general.
Alan: ‘Siren’ and ‘Home Grown Fantasy’ were major albums. It was a cross-over sound. It was a collision, a fusion with the free party music. Sounds across into to the major festivals…How did you feel at that time?
Zion Train: I guess we felt like we were on the crest of a wave, we had just started touring worldwide and were getting lots of attention in the mainstream but we also were pretty militant still in our progressive positions.
We had shows cancelled by the Catholic authorities in Poland due to our overt promotion of hemp and managed to publish an anarchist archive using the money of our then record label (Warner Brothers) unbeknownst to them.
We were introduced to a global network of free-thinkers, anarchists and progressives in art, politics and life and we are the better for it.
It also felt like a time when real change was possible – especially in the UK and EU there was a general vibes of positive possibility, of expectation.
Alan: You were hailed as the Dub Love Revolutionaries. But, you have always stuck to the roots, of dance, reggae and dub. Often playing at small, more alternative festivals. I remember a lovely set at the Endorse-it festival, sirens blaring… but there were many… What memories have you of festies?
Zion Train: A festival is a celebration of life.
The big festivals, worldwide seem to suck the life OUT of everything.
They are bright, loud and very, very famous and they can yield amazing experiences BUT the real wealth of the festival world is to be found in the smaller (under 10k capacity) events where you can smell and taste and see and hear and feel the love and positive vibrations that have gone into every millimetre of the thing.
Endorse-it was a great example – there are many others and none of them cost 100 quid a ticket…
Our favourite festivals are all culturally mixed, fun for all ages, volunteer-run, politically motivated and absolutely pumped full of positive human energy.
Alan: I’ve followed the band through many twists and musical turns. In fact I’ve just found eight of your albums, maybe there’s more. The Zion Train members have come and gone, musical styles have changed. You do like a catchy, ear-worm, tune. Especially Live!
Can you tell me some of your tales…, pretty please?
That sounds like you are asking me to write a book J
Suffice to say we have been incredibly fortunate, touring the world for 30 years, bringing a message of peace, love, respect and social engagement and learning about our planet and its inhabitants along the way. We have seen the highs and lows of life in general and the beauties and dark depths of the music business along the way. We have encountered many, many bright souls and shared energy with so many of them and continue to do so into the distant future!!
Let someone else write the book if anyone should see fit to!
Alan: You had a lot of popular records that made it onto ‘Single Minded and Alive’. Real crowd pleasers…anthemic tracks, like ‘Dance of Life’ and ‘Rise’… Were Zion Train a different posse in the 2000s?
Zion Train: Zion Train is a different posse every 5 years or so, and I like to think we are better for it. The tunes we make however don’t just represent the preferences of the members of the collective at any one time, but also the cultural context of the time. ‘Single Minded and Alive’ was a collection of ZT singles produced during the ‘90s in a time when Dub (especially UK Dub) was seriously underground and had relatively little political traction.
Dance music, however, was on the frontline in a much bigger way politically speaking, due to its mass appeal and I think that is the biggest reason it was at the forefront of our output in the ‘90s and yielded the anthemic tunes you mention.
Alan: In the 2000s, I met up at quite a lot of gigs with Johnno ‘Dubdadda’ as the Zion Train vocalist (and Lua). With Johnno it seemed more of a Two-Tone, Specials, Madness sort of vibe? Is that making any sense? Was it a different ‘State of Mind’ around 2011?
Zion Train: Any ‘State Of Mind’ that lives and breathes must be in constant evolution – so yes it was different around 2011.
Dubdadda brought urban UK to the ZT sound in a different, more masculine way, than we had really had it before his advent (actually from ‘Original Sounds Of The Zion’ in 2002 onwards). He is one of the best UK based reggae MCs of his generation.
Maybe elements of a white Englishman being a Dub music MC reminds you of the rock against racism/ multicultural UK vibe of the two tone scene? For ZT, Dubdadda was the best man for the job in his time – simple as that – we choose on vibes and energy and nothing else is considered.
Alan: Did you guys feel especially close to other musicians and sounds? I always kind of felt like you were on a similar wavelength to Radical Dance Faction, Inner Terrestials, Eatstatic, Lee Scratch Perry, Dub Pistols, Tofu Love Frogs, Chumbawamba….
Love RDF, Scratch, TLF, Chumbawumba and many others of course…
As far as wavelengths go…
We are closest to…
Jah Shaka (in terms of dedication to the Dub cause and autonomous soundsystem culture),
Chicago & Detroit house (the black underground-type in terms of dedication to hardcore dance music),
Fela Kuti (in terms of political expression in music and the colonialized global hivemind),
SunRA (in terms of his beliefs that music contains higher societal forces that can be used for good) and
Jimi Hendrix (in terms of the ability to paint musical visions by mastery of the art).
Alan: ‘Land of the Blind’ was billed as ‘Players of Instruments’. Quite a slice of deep, dub ‘n’ bass and some rap/hip, hop influences, such from Fitta Warri and Jazzmin Tutum. Lots of dance riddims too…and rich jazz sounds…and new-to-you sounds…
Before the Covid lockdown I was performing in 2019 at the OZORA festival over in Hungary. It was great to catch up with a Zion Train in full flow. A very much, crowd-pleasing set live. Great Fun too… What was your experience of OZORA?
Zion Train: We played at the first festival on the OZORA site (then known as Solipse) on the occasion of a full solar eclipse in 1996 and have had the pleasure to return to OZORA several times over the intervening years, and it is always an amazing, warm human experience.
Alan: Did you catch up there with Youth and Gaudi’s set? Some magnificent bass sounds…
Zion Train: Excellent artists and a great collaboration!
Alan: I was able to the review the recent new Zion Train album ‘Illuminate’ album Zion Train with lots of vocals from Lua and Cara (and friends). It seems to add some extra textures and sounds. What do you think about the new music?
Zion Train: The music we make is like a diary of the lives we lead, both individually and collectively, as members of society and as empathic humans. I think at all stages in ZT’s musical output that has been true and nothing changes with ‘Illuminate’.
The collective shifts, the collective mood and expressions shift, the whole Zeitgeist shifts.
From a compositional and technical point of view we attempt to continually challenge ourselves and so it’s gratifying when each new release heralds evolution in sounds, thought and collaboration.
Any art should be a reflection of the artist’s life and we hope we remain true to that.
Alan: I’m much looking forward to catching up with you guys again – Live and Direct – at the Electric Brixton in August, there on August 2021, along with Chris Tofu and lots of our friends…
Let’s make it a Celebration of The Universal Egg!
Zion Train: Indeed – a celebration of life – as we should every day!
On a side note Alan – maybe we’ll have a chance to chat in Brixton and there may be a couple of anecdotes worthy of reproduction – we’ll be travelling with the full crew then.
Which will definitely help the memories flow.