Zulu marries authenticity and aggression as hardcore's unbridled hope
Few things can be as profoundly motivating as fear. For veteran Los Angeles musician Anaiah Lei, emerging from behind the drum kit to front a band was something he always felt was in him, but remained a daunting task nonetheless.
At the helm of ZULU, Lei transitioned from providing the backbeat for aggressors like Culture Abuse and DARE, to delivering his own message on the mic, front and center. A role that, despite his concerns, Lei has proven to be a natural for.
First kicking a hole in the space of modern hardcore in 2019 with the EP, Our Day Will Come, only to follow the introduction up with My People… Hold On in 2020 - ZULU quickly established their footing as proficient practitioners of powerviolence. The music was caustic - combining swift bursts of metallic heft with Lei's menacing bark over arrangements that flouted the traditional verse/chorus, verse/chorus, breakdown, chorus formula - likely a testament to Lei's tenure as a player and songwriter himself - despite a little uncertainty at times.
Aside from the structural differences, there was a stylistic tangent that ZULU led from the jump that presented a different take on the requisite aggression of the genre. They wove in samples from Nina Simone, Buju Banton, Ruby and the Romantics and Eddie Kendricks on minute-long molotov-like tracks and did so seamlessly. Less interludes and more the fabric of these tracks, the samples not only showcased the band's musical pedigree, but spoke to a unique authenticity that remained part of the creative and personal identity of ZULU.
It's there that the crux of the band comes into play. While hardcore often serves well in identifying who or what isn't, ZULU was started with the clear intention of reaffirming who the band is. Defiant in their stance as participants, the common denominator that reverberates in ZULU's music resides at the intersection of pride and authenticity. Far from spectators, Lei leads ZULU as a thriving affront to the status quo of hardcore - one that celebrates diversity, inclusivity and creates a space for all walks of life to find the same musical release.
En route to the band's debut full length A New Tomorrow, due out March 3rd on Flatspot Records, Anaiah Lei detailed the evolution of the band that started as a side project and has since become a source of unity for a new generation. Lei explained how his motivation to overcome his creative fear eventually segued into a greater personal hope - one that has proven to be more motivating than he ever thought possible.
Making the transition to front a band presents a whole new different set of expectations. How does that relate to the songwriting process in ZULU? What is it like seeing a song idea from concept to execution?
Lei - Since the band began, I wrote pretty much the majority of the first EPs. Even on this record, I wrote the majority of it and some of the guys helped with writing, which is great. When it comes to the song structuring, I end up being the one to do that. It’s because I have such a specific view on what I want the songs to sound like. I have this vision.
Everyone in the band, they are all amazing musicians. They are all amazing at what they do. They also understand because this project is my baby, I have a very specific view on what comes out.
There were a lot of times where I had songs where, I had the majority of it written but I didn’t have one part. For example with ‘Fakin’ Tha Funk’, I had the first half of the song written. I remember, we were jamming out just trying to work on some riffs at my house and Braxton (Marcellous/guitar) played the end riff and I was like, ‘whoa, hold on! Play that again.’ I recorded it and I was like, ‘we can use this’ for what eventually became ‘Fakin’ Tha Funk’. I tweaked it. I added some parts to it. I was like, ‘this is exactly what I was looking for’. There were a lot of moments like that on this record. Which is great because I was like, I can do this alone, but I’d rather not.
Your ability as a songwriter isn’t indicative of your age. You have the advantage of both youth and experience as you have been performing for years. Do you think your musical foundation set you up for success when it came time to steer the overall direction for ZULU?
Lei - If I had to be completely truthful, because I've been doing this so long, there were many time where I felt like I couldn’t song write. There were times where I was made to feel like this wasn’t something I could excel in or that I was only as good as being the drummer. Playing drums in other bands, where I wasn’t the sole songwriter, I was scared to attempt to do that. I knew I had it in me but I was just like, ‘I don’t think I can do this’. So when I started ZULU, I wanted to start a project that was my own. I played in other people’s bands, I’ve done that for so long and I have this experience but let me try to do something that is pretty much 100% me.
It was scary because when I decided this was the style of music I was gonna write, I was like, ‘ok, I guess there really are no rules when it comes to it’.
Did that creative freedom play a role in your decision to stick with such an aggressive style?
Lei - I suppose when I started ZULU I didn’t even know what I wanted to do, I just wanted to do it. I went with that mentality because to me it was a fun side project. I had never sang in a band so whatever. I’m just to make something chaotic and wild and random and see where it goes. I was thinking about bands that I really liked that I wanted to emulate and Trash Talk was one of my favorite hardcore punk bands. Bands like Mind Eraser, Charles Bronson and early Ceremony - obviously we don’t sound like that but there’s influence from all that. I really digged that and I wanted to try and do something in that realm.
Given how different all those bands are stylistically, what was the common denominator that inspired you to take some of that and offer your own interpretation with ZULU?
Lei - I think it was the energy that those bands had. There was something about watching a live set - it’s so intense and airy at the same time. Maybe not Trash Talk, but like with a band like Ceremony, there are these parts where you can breathe. Something about that, that feeling when it’s just like a kick drum - boom, boom - it’s a lot of the 'less is more mentality' and I know in ZULU that isn’t the case but I wanted to capture that feeling without completely ripping off those bands, without completely trying to be another Ceremony or another Weekend Nachos. I take influence from it, I want to capture that same feeling and also try something different.
ZULU very tastefully uses samples in a way that goes well beyond style points. Is that your way of showcasing the full range of your influences?
Lei - Precisely, actually. On the EPs and when people hear this new record, a lot of the sample we use have a correlation to what I am talking about on the song. It might just be a reference but for the most part, it has something to do with what I am talking about. That’s bigger than just music, that’s bigger than just some lyrics - I’m talking about some real life things and in a way, getting spiritual with it.
If anything, I’m showing people what influences ZULU. It is creating this window for people to look into but also paying respect to artists that came before us. An important part for me is honoring our ancestors and artists from various genres that I listen to. When we use hip hop or jazz or reggae, these are artists that have paved the way for us to do what we do. It’s all part of our culture and I am celebrating that. Which goes back to the idea of authenticity.
How crucial was “Fakin' Tha Funk” in terms of introducing A New Tomorrow and how is it indicative of what’s to come with the album?
Lei - The first single is always so important because that really does set the tone for what’s to come. People don’t know this yet, but this record is very diverse, musically. And people will hear exactly what we’re talking about when it comes out. I'm very excited to share that. They’re gonna be surprised because it doesn’t all sound like “Fakin Tha Funk” and that the best part.
The most important thing to me is what we are talking about, but on top of that, we’re still a band and the music is still an important part. So we wanted to present an updated version of us. This needed to be the first time you heard it, you were gonna be like, ‘oh snap’ and “Fakin The Funk” was that. It comes right out the gate. It shows what we are about and it shows it in such a short amount of time. It’s an example of what ZULU has represented and what ZULU will eventually do.
Given how you value the substance of what you are discussing in your music, it is tough to get people to listen and pay attention with music that really compels people to slam and stage dive?
Lei - I’m making it very clear what we are talking about for the most part. There’s no room for misinterpretation, I would think. So when it does go over people’s heads, hopefully they will come around. If not, at least they are a fan of the music and they are supporting us one way or another. I will say this, most people that learn what ZULU is about and are fans, it doesn’t go over their heads. Most people get it and really do understand what we are saying. They get it and they acknowledge it. It’s really such a sweet thing when people come up to me or they message me and they talk about what the band and the songs mean to them. And it’s cool to see that it reaches out to places I never that I didn’t intend on it to reach when I first started writing about some of this stuff.
For example, I’ve had a lot of people from the LGBTQ+ community talk about what ZULU means to them and I’m like, ‘that’s amazing’. That community means a lot, we have members in our band that are queer. When I’m writing these songs, I’m writing it from a different place. To see how people come up and talk about that and how it connects with them, I’m just like, ‘wow’. We open up a space for all these people to come in and that is cool.
Our goal as a band is to break that white societal norm that exists, especially in hardcore and it has for a long time. It’s so crazy to see how it effects other people’s communities and how they feel included through our music. I didn’t even intend on that, but the fact that it is doing that, means even more to me. And it shows there is a lot of unifying that has been happening because of it. They connect through ZULU, somehow. There is a space for all of y’all with ZULU.
For as hostile as ZULU sounds, there is a subtext of hope that permeates in the songs and in the message of the music. What is your hope in the next few years? How do you see ZULU making the kind of impact that would make you fold your arms and acknowledge, ‘yeah, we did that’.
Lei - II’ll preface this a little bit. When I stared the band, I was in a bunch of other bands at the time. Starting ZULU was a side thing. I just wanted to front a band. I wanted to have a band that offered more representation of folks like me than I had seen. I don’t want to be tokenized and that’s all that’s ever happened. It still happens. ZULU was a way of combating that.
It’s funny you talk about hope because that’s one of the biggest themes of this record. It’s hope for a new generation of people to come in and do what we are doing. My goal, years down the line, I want to be able to see as many bands doing exactly what we did and look like how we look doing it. I can only speak for my folks, but there are a lot of black individuals that aren’t privy to hardcore or rock or even think that is an avenue we can go down. There’s a lot of people growing up that I could recall where it was like, ‘that’s white people music’, ‘we don’t do that’ ‘we don’t mosh’ - I’ve argued with so many people about that. All you need to do is look back historically a couple of decades and you’ll see exactly where it started and it started with us.
It’s this big misconception. It’s not even a misconception, people just don’t know. Black individuals do not know that aspect of their history and have been wired to believe that this is purely for these sort of people and anyone else or any black individual that does get into that lane is white-washed or whatever. It’s something that a lot of different ethnic groups can identify with that same sentiment. Which is why I understand a lot of people relate to ZULU because they come from that same experience. It’s just a matter of educating.
I’m hoping that our existence as a band and what we are able to do throughout our career is in support of that. This is a message to the youth, the next generation. I could tell the old heads for days what’s up but that’s not who is going to shape the future of our scene. The goal is, years from now, if I can see bands with a bunch of black youth, touring the globe, creating their own scene apart from whatever this hardcore scene is and really actually not having to conform to anything or having to feel like how we felt growing up - if I could see that in my lifetime and ZULU had any influence for the generation of people that do that, I would be so happy. I don’t care to take the credit for that but if my band is even remotely a part of that, I would be very proud.
At least steering things towards ‘A New Tomorrow’…
Lei - Which is precisely why that’s the name of the record. That’s what we want to see. That’s what I want. The album cover, with the sun set or the sun rise, depending on how you look at it, - to me, I look at it like the sun is setting on all the stuff in the past, all the nonsense that we have had to deal with and the sun is rising for the next generation to come and we are celebrating both.
A New Tomorrow is available for pre-order now through Flatspot Records - HERE
ZULU is set to embark on a North American tour next month with Show Me The Body, Jesus Piece, Scowl and TRiPP JONES in support of the March 3rd arrival of their Flatspot Records full length debut, A New Tomorrow. A full list of dates can be found below.
The band recently debuted their homage to A Tribe Called Quest, taking visual cues from the classic, "Scenario" from the seminal 1992 essential, The Low End Theory - another stylistic assertion of the band's unique pedigree. Shot, directed, and edited by guitarist Dez Yusuf, the visual features a cameo from comedian Eric Andre, in addition to appearances from Soul Glo’s Pierce Jordan and Playytime’s Obioma Ugonna. Stream the video below.
ZULU Tour Dates
1/28 - Baltimore, MD @ Disturbin’ The Peace Fest
w/ Show Me The Body + Jesus Piece + Scowl + TRiPP JONES
2/9 - Philadelphia, PA @ Union Transfer
2/10 - Richmond, VA @ Richmond Music Hall
2/11 - Durham, NC @ Motorco
2/13 - Atlanta, GA @ Terminal West
2/14 - Tampa, FL @ The Orpheum
2/15 - Miami, FL @ Gramps
2/16 - Gainesville, FL @ The Wooly
2/17 - Baton Rouge, LA @ Chelsea's Live
2/18 - Dallas, TX @ The Studio at The Factory
2/19 - Houston, TX @ Warehouse Live
2/21 - San Antonio, TX @ Paper Tiger
2/22 - Austin, TX @ The Mohawk
2/24 - El Paso, TX @ Lowbrow Palace
2/25 - Tucson, AZ @ 191 Toole
2/26 - San Diego, CA @ Brick By Brick
2/28 - Orange County, CA @ The Observatory
3/1 - Los Angeles, CA @ The Regent
3/3 - Santa Cruz, CA Santa Cruz @ Vets Hall
3/4 - Berkeley, CA @ UC Theatre
3/5 - Sacramento, CA @ Harlow's
3/7 - Seattle, WA @ Neumos
3/8 - Vancouver, BC @ Rickshaw Theatre
3/9 - Portland, OR @ Revolution Hall
3/10 - Boise, ID @ Knitting Factory
3/11 - Salt Lake City, UT @ Soundwell
3/12 - Denver, CO @ Gothic Theatre
3/14 - Omaha, NE @ Slowdown
3/15 - Minneapolis, MN @ Underground Music Venue
3/16 - Chicago, IL @ Metro
3/17 - Detroit, MI @ Tangent Gallery
3/18 - Toronto, ON @ The Opera House
3/19 - Montreal, QC @ Corona
3/21 - Boston, MA @ Paradise Rock Club
3/22 - Albany, NY @ Fuze Box
3/23 - Baltimore, MD @ Ottobar
3/24 - Brooklyn, NY @ Brooklyn Steel
5/27 + 5/28 - Atlantic City, NJ @ Adjacent Festival
6/22-24 - Ysselsteyn, NL @ Jera on Air
6/23-25 - Manchester, UK @ Outbreak Fest
6/23-25 - Ferropolis, GER @ Full Force Fest