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Max Zaska, under the band name of Zaska, is releasing one of the most exciting Irish albums in recent years. It Takes A Village delivers a funk-filled look into our country’s soulful music scene as Max’s creations are brought to life with the help of his band and guest vocals and instrumentals from some of the hottest property in Irish music; BARQ, Wyvern Lingo, Loah, Emma Garnett (Fehdah), Little Green Cars, Super Silly, Come On Live Long and more.
Bavarian born Max Zaska arrived to the shores of Ireland at the age of one, but it was far from krautrock he was raised. Travelling a lot as a kid, as his photographer father worked touring around Europe for months at a time, it was the constant playing of classic “dad-rock” that made the travel playlist; “Deep Purple, Santana and Eric Clapton, and not much else” Zaska explains.
When at home Max was always fascinated with his brother’s musical endeavours; he didn’t know many covers but was “always playing in the room, he had hundreds of his own songs”. It was after his brother returned home from Australia, when Max was 12, that he realised what he had been missing. “The guitar is home, I didn’t realise I had missed it until then. I grabbed it in the back of the car and started messing around on it.”
From that moment forward music became a staple in his life. Moving from Bray to Westport, down to Waterford for boarding school and up to Dublin for college – one aspect of Zaska’s life remained constant; his passion for guitar and making music. “[It] kept my identity moving throughout all these spots” be it finding like-minded students in his new smaller school or while at boarding school, where the abundance of musical camaraderie wasn’t the same, he’d just lock himself away with his guitar “to keep my sanity.”
A familiar face from the beginnings of the Zaska era was Karen Cowley, best known as one third of the gifted Wyvern Lingo. I reached out to Karen for the goss and dirt I mightn’t have pulled from Max myself.
“Max skated (literally, on a skateboard) into my life when I was almost 14. He had grown up in Bray and had just become friends with my big brother. His hair was longer than mine, he liked Jimi Hendrix as much as I did, and I thought he was extremely cool. Once I got over the burning crush I had on him, I realised that he was an insane guitarist and that our union must be exclusively musical. (I also don’t think the burning crush was reciprocated- definitely have a song about that somewhere in the back catalogue)”
Max, Karen and her brother started playing music together as Murphy’s Law. “We had a weekly gig in a pub in Blackrock and we would have so much craic banging out everything from Paul Simon to Led Zeppelin to Etta James. We would go on elaborate guitar/vocal solo battle tangents (he always won, what was I thinking) with all the bravado and self-indulgence of teenagers who OBSESS over music. It was such a great opportunity to practise performance and improvisation.”
In 2010 Karen headed off to college and Max was studying in Newpark, but their musical paths were to cross once again when the first incarnation of the band we now know as Zaska came to be.
“Zaska was actually called Grooove (yes, 3 Os) back then, and they are some of the best memories I have from those years. We played gigs every week and all cut our teeth performing and creating in that school of funk that was Max’s imagination. Max was and still is writing tunes that are utterly original and addictive.”
Karen joined Max, drummer Dylan Lynch (Little Green Cars), bassist Kevin Higgins and sax player Sam Comerford along with the now global sensation that is Andrew Hozier-Byrne. “The only person I thought I knew previously was Dylan Lynch – we had met the summer previously as we’d both been lucky ducks who’d gone to Berklee in Boston for the summer performance programme. However, upon meeting Andrew Hozier-Byrne, he twigged that we had in fact met the year previous at an inter-schools Model European Parliament, because, eh, we were MASSIVE NERDS. Bassist “Gandalf-the-Grey” Kevin Higgins and Sax extraordinaire Sam Comerford were new to me that day, but we’ve all remained close friends ever since. Max could not have picked a sounder bunch. We had a few rehearsals, learned a few songs and let the good times roll.”
“I think the 5 of us would all agree on the influence Zaska had in shaping how we all are today as musicians and performers, and the fact that we are still very good friends is a testament to the insanely good vibes that Mr. Max Zaska radiates every where he goes.”
They practiced out of aptly named “jazz house” – “There has been many versions of “The Jazz House”, it’s gas, because it keeps going up in status. Newpark students who were studying jazz got a house together, four real jazzy guys, and they started Jazz House 1 and the second one, The Jazz House 2 was really nice near Blackrock/Monkstown. Jazz House 2 turned into “The Jazz Mansion” in Bray…and there’s a Jazz House 4 in Bray somewhere now too.”
In all of its forms the “Jazz House” was a place full of music. “Tonnes off rehearsals, jams, parties – it was a cool place to be”. After two years studying in Newpark, Max ran out of money and couldn’t continue on the regular path of the four year course. Thankfully anyone can audition to enter the course in any year, depending on their playing ability and experience thus far, and Max took the third year off to study in his own time and auditioned to go straight into the final year.
“My memories of the house [that year] are really intense – it was a bit of a mad year. I was getting all my friends I was living with to fill me in on the curriculum and took some private lessons from some of the teachers for arrangements. There were still plenty of parties but, looking back, I was no craic. But I kinda needed to be”
Since 2014 Zaska has worked mainly with over 20 fine musical specimens, with the count over 60 when it comes to live shows, many of whom have been around from the beginning. He has released two EP’s, one single, recorded over 100 demos and played countless shows. After raising over €14,500 on FundIt for a debut album, the wheels were set in motion for It Takes A Village to become a reality.
As if starting a project of this size and scope wasn’t daunting enough, Max also started a family along the way. With the birth of his daughter and a move out to the country happening in the latter stages of the album production, time became even more precious.
“It definitely makes you more productive in those little slots of time, if I have an hour now while Iza’s asleep or something..”, cue Max furiously typing, “it’s mad what I’m able to get done in an hour. I’m more driven now than I ever was. I like to keep to a nine to five working week. You’re tempted to work until eight, nine, ten o clock at night but now I can’t so it makes you really go for it while you can.”
Although the album was written in a tiny box room in Phibsborough, Max can now usually be found (during working hours only) in his man-cave, home-studio, log cabin out the back of his house in Kildare. Ironically, he’s had to finish off It Takes A Village away from the very village that made it possible.
“I need a lot of people to make my music happen basically. I need a big band, I can’t sing so I’ll need singers. Some people call it almost a burden because it’s so big. So many people to organise, it’s kind of become the thing I’m known for now – this communal thing. Years of having so many people involved, it made sense to make the whole album about that.”
The idea of “the village” might not have been something that was consciously on his mind while in Dublin but now in the isolation of the pale, it is something that now hits home. Karen echoed Max’s feelings on the scene here in Dublin.
“”The Village” that is the Irish music scene is so important. As I said before, playing with those guys in the early years was pivotal to my development as a musician. As the years went by, being in Zaska introduced me to a wealth of musicians that I have learned a lot from (Johnny Taylor, Luke Dunford, Cote Calmet, Jess Kavanagh, Sallay Garnett, Tommy Gray…the list goes on) Everyone on this scene continues to support each other in their creative endeavours. I scarcely encounter begrudgery, rather a ‘rising tides lifts all boats’ attitude. Max’s incredible record really demonstrates the collaborative and supportive nature of this scene. It’s a rare and beautiful thing we have on this island!”
Bringing the village together cohesively falls into the hands of Max himself, executive producer James Smith (who also lends his voice to the stunning ‘Swan’ on the album), Joe McGrath, Graham Byrne and Come On Live Long’s Ken McCabe who was somewhat bewildered with Max’s drive and ambition:
“It’s refreshing to be presented with such a fully formed concept. Not only were the songs fully arranged and demoed exactly as he wanted them, but he also knew how he wanted everything to be recorded and how he wanted the mixes to sound. His preparatory notes were detailed almost to the point of absurdity; he blew my mind every time he came in to the studio.”
Although the musical prowess of Zaska is what makes the headlines, his lyrics are also a major standout throughout the album.
“Rarely in the past have I discussed what the lyrics are about with said singers just because – I’m not sure why, but I probably should. They are quite personal. I record them myself, really terribly singing wise, and then [the vocalists] need to listen to these awful demos, basically match it and then they can put their own spin on things to bring it to life. It is such a huge part of the process for me. It’s something I spend such a long time on but not really known for and I’m hoping this album will bring a little bit of light to that. They are very personal songs and I’ve spent a lot of time with the lyrics.”
“I’m definitely inspired by Andrew (Hozier) a lot lyrically. I’ve never heard anyone write lyrics like him. As soon as I heard his, I thought “I gotta up my game!””.
It Takes A Village is dropping on February 1st and it couldn’t come at a better time. The Irish masses are devouring funk and soul music like never before. Republic of Loose were the lone soldiers for many years, flying the flag. RSAG has always attracted crowds at both festivals and gigs alike. More recently we have seen a resurgence to bring soul back to the heart of the Irish music scene – Loah, Fehdah, Wyvern Lingo, Rusangano Family, Farah Elle, Jafaris, Soulé, the list goes on.
Irish fans are putting their money where their mouth is too. In the last 4 months not only have Vulfpeck sold out The Olympia twice but funk-improv internet star Marc Rebillet sold out the Tivoli in one of its last ever gigs. Funk is alive in Dublin and Zaska is set to bring it home.
On Friday, February 8th Zaska is bringing The Village to the Button Factory to launch this stellar album. Twenty two musicians are set to grace the stage with the majority of featured vocalists from the album coming out on the night, including Wyvern Lingo, Loah, BARQ and more. Plus, from a man with this level of connection you never know who might show up on the day.