Recording artist, jazz musician and producer Zack Sekoff ’18 is one of the hottest names in contemporary music. His work has been featured on some of the most acclaimed albums of recent years, including the Kendrick Lamar opus “To Pimp a Butterfly” and the Thundercat release “Drunk.” He’s currently working on Vince Staples’s upcoming album “Big Fish Theory.”
Also, he’s a junior in Davenport. WKND met with Sekoff on Cross Campus to discuss his music, his close relationship with Thundercat and his college experience. He was witty, genial and compulsively interesting throughout:
Q: Do you see yourself as having a particular production style, and if so, how would you characterize that style?
A: Well, that’s something I’m always trying to find out. I try and follow my gut instincts about sound — my taste in rhythms and how things interlock. I think polyrhythms are at the core of my production style. Drums and bass and just how every sound lives in its own world and can interlock. But I don’t think that I have a particular drum sound that’s my own sound. Or maybe I do, and I just don’t know about it.
Q: Do you remember the first album that really resonated with you?
A: I’m gonna say Stevie Wonder’s “Innervisions,” and all those early ’70s records. Stevie’s left hand playing synth bass locking in with those drums. … I’ll always love Stevie.
Q: Is there something that you can hear in the record recently that you couldn’t have heard when you were first getting into it?
A: I think I’ve gotten a better grasp of where he’s pulling his influences from. I think you can trace it to a lot of things coming together in one moment. You know, James Brown with funk crystallizing with Jimi Hendrix and stuff coming out of Africa at the time and free jazz. There’s a lot of stuff going on at the same time. He’s just such a beautiful songwriter, but he was also able to incorporate all that knowledge that was going around.
Q: How has the city of Los Angeles influenced the way you approach music?
A: Coming from LA, you’re always around someplace that used to be something but never really was that. I’m endlessly fascinated by where I come from and trying to understand it. It’s a real hub for recorded music in the world, and I think it influenced me, especially in the time when I was growing up. Technically, I’m involved with the LA beats scene, but I don’t think it should be called that. I don’t think it should have a name.
A: Well, it’s the same way I feel about the word jazz. I think the need to put a name to something often makes it self-conscious. It makes it feel like it needs to reproduce itself. That’s one of the traps I often find myself in. I think it’s important to always remind yourself that you’re creating music from scratch at the end of the day. You’re not trying to fulfill a sort of archetype that’ll hit the spot for people.
Q: So, how did you start getting involved in the LA beats scene, for lack of a better term? Any particular venue you’d go to a lot?
A: A lot of my musical exploration really happened with me, myself and the room to be honest. It’s a solitary journey in the beginning. I met Thundercat at a show when I was 14. I was practicing the bass a lot, so I just went up to him and asked him for lessons. I knew who he was, because as a bass player, I was always reading liner notes. It allows you to sort this vast world of recorded sound. I realized that Thundercat was the genius that he was when he was playing all over Flying Lotus’ “Cosmogramma” record. I realized, holy shit, all those melodic structures … I’d never heard the bass being played like that. He had a sound that connected instantly with me. It was angular but it was fluid. It pushed and pulled over the beat like a synth bass could. He could play Dilla like nobody’s business but he could also play out and crazy and fast. I was obsessed already.
Q: So what was that first meeting like?
A: It was awkward. It was weird. I mean, he’d just played this amazing show, and I asked him if he could give me bass lessons, and he was like, “I’ve never given a bass lesson in my life.” But he gave me his number, and the first year, we’d text every once in a while. I practiced a lot because I thought to myself, “one day I’m gonna really sit down and play bass with Thundercat, and he’s gonna tell me whether I’m good or not.”
Then he started settling back into LA. And it was really just about being a loyal fan — going to all the shows, whether it was at a block party somewhere or the Getty. And then we started hanging out. He came over to my house, and we wrote this song the first night we ever got together outside of a show. It was called “Lotus and the Jondy,” and it’s a song that’s on his “Apocalypse” record. That was the first night I thought to myself, “Maybe I’m a producer.”
Q: I don’t wanna turn this into a catalogue of all the people you’ve worked with, but I have to ask about “Hood Politics” and Kendrick Lamar. How did that feel to participate in the making of “To Pimp a Butterfly?”
A: That felt crazy. I always knew that Kendrick had his ear to what was going on at the ground level in LA, even though his star was growing bigger and bigger. He kinda always kept to himself; he’s a really intense guy. But I knew he was working with Thundercat and Anna Wise and Sonnymoon, different people from around the city.
I came over one day, and Thundercat was like, “I want ’80s drums on this track.” So, I pulled up some drums that sounded like the ’80s to me. I had no idea it was actually gonna be on “To Pimp A Butterfly.” It was just a little intro, and Kendrick didn’t rap on it, so I sometimes hesitate to mention my involvement. But I love that record so much, to even have been a small part of it is a real honor. It was just fantastic that the same sound I’d been experiencing all over the city happened to become the soundtrack to one of the most genius rappers of all time.
Q: Was it difficult moving to Yale after having been so plugged into Los Angeles?
A: It was like having all your context taken away. In a good way, I think. But in the moment it didn’t feel good. It’s almost like you’re in Photoshop and someone erases all the background around you. At the time, I really hadn’t done too much thinking about who I was as an individual because I was always defining myself through interaction with community and collaboration. It’s been an important journey for me to be like, “Okay, I’m gonna be me wherever where I go.” I don’t know, it’s part of growing up.
Q: I remember reading a write-up about “Remnants of a Winter Sun” where you said that it was inspired by feelings of alienation you’d been experiencing during the move.
A: Yeah. That was the first time I really felt depressed. I had a lot of the normal city kid mental illnesses. Like an anxiety thing, where things would make me very anxious and I felt like my whole life was at a high tempo. I’d never felt that lack of charge, that lack of energy, and it really scared the shit out of me. I felt like I was coming off some really exciting stuff, meeting a lot of great people and absorbing a lot of music that made me feel really alive. And I was just worried that I’d made the choice to come out here and kill that excitement. When we’re coming to a place like Yale, it’s in search of something, and I wasn’t sure I wanted that thing.
Q: Have you come to grips with those feelings?
A: Yeah. I think that the more you know about the world around you and the more you can engage with things that are totally unlike what you’re comfortable with, the better off your music is gonna be.
Q: And was that where your record came out of? Those feelings of distance?
A: Yeah. For the first time I wasn’t in a sunny place. And that really changes the way the music sounds in my head. I wanted to experiment with grayscale. To tell the truth, I don’t listen to that record that much. I feel like it was very much expressive of that particular perspective.
Q: Does it feel painful to listen to?
A: No, not painful. It just doesn’t resonate with me right now. And I think it can resonate with other people, and that’s what’s cool about making a record in general. It’s a Polaroid snapshot of that moment, and then you’ve gotta move on.
Right now, when I make music, I’m looking for the social experience. I like to be around a lot of people while I’m working.
Q: You’ve recently started playing with a new band on campus called “Sun Shadow.” How is that going?
A: It’s been really fun to start playing bass again. Ashtan [Towles ’19] is an incredible singer. You’ve probably seen her in Shades, if you’re reading this. Colum’s [O’Connor ’18] got this amazing sense of Afro-Cuban rhythms that he’s been working on really seriously. Playing with a drummer really committed to a polyrhythmic tradition is really fun as a bass player. And Jack Lawrence ’18 on guitar is incredibly inspiring to play with.
Q: Can I ask you to talk a little about the new Vince Staples album?
A: I don’t think I can talk a lot about it. It’s called “Big Fish Theory.” Kilo Kish is around in the studio, and she’s on a lot of the tracks. There’s some amazing other production on there that I can’t really talk about.
I went to London last semester and was inspired by a lot of the music I heard while I was there — Burial, Zombie, some crazy electronic musicians. I was sending beats off to Vince the whole time, and we got together when I got back.
Q: How did you guys meet?
A: I’ve known Vince for a long time. His DJ is Westside Ty. Ty is my neighbor and one of my dearest friends. We both grew up on the west side of LA. Vince and I are both manic minds, and we’re both always talking a little too much, whereas Ty is a really calm, spiritual dude. I really love spending time with Vince, and he’s a great friend, and a phenomenal fucking rapper. He’s got a biting perspective on this world that we really need right now. But I’d also say that he has a lot of hope in his view of things. He’s a realist who’s willing to say some stuff that other people aren’t willing to say.