Imagine an urban, mythical figure by the name of J Hacha De Zola traveling from New Jersey to Los Angeles where he locks himself in a hotel room to ponder “tasty phrases” of classic masters torn from the pages of various books of poetry. The cut-up technique is his favorite—a method perfected by William S. Burroughs—and his preferred process for building the narratives of his songs. J Hacha pulls tiny slivers of paper from boxes that he shakes, shuffles, and then tosses into the air so they randomize themselves, allowing the slivers to create their own story.
This technique is how J Hacha conceives and crafts all of his work, including the latest LP “Greatest Hits,” a polished rendering of previous releases; and his upcoming album, “East of Eden.” A poetic triumph whose musical transition from circus hellfire echoes the musical transition made by Nick Cave from The Birthday Party to The Bad seeds—with a dash of John Denver, the smokey haze of The Gun Club, Kid Congo Powers & the Pink Monkey Birds. And of course, Nick himself. Particularly on “Green and Golden,” where the Nick Cave influence is alive and well. J Hacha de Zola has turned himself inside out, purging himself of anxiety, and with “East of Eden,” has come out rhythmically refined.
Where “Greatest Hits” is proof of his polished sheen of genius, “East of Eden” is J Hacha’s masterpiece (so far). I knew J Hacha De Zola was an artist, but “East of Eden” is his firm, effective shout to be taken seriously. And you should be taking J Hacha seriously. With all those rants, raves, and cabaret trickster shrieks of yesteryear, he’s damned serious about doing musical time. Tear up any preconceived notions you might have had about J Hacha De Zola not being a committed musician. His work ethic is a grindstone, and you might learn a thing or two. One April afternoon, we came together with coffee in tow to speak about the weighty business of creative work, the demanding lifestyle, and everything and anything but the weather.
How long have you been performing and creating music? What got you started?
I’ve been writing and performing songs for the last 15 years. My older sisters were critical in influencing me in the power of music. They listened to everything—stuff in English, Spanish, and full-blown mariachi. I see the value in everything, there’s always a lesson to be learned. I’m very open about different styles. A lot of that has to do with my older sisters and having their records around the house. I didn’t come from a musical family. In my house, you were supposed to be a doctor, lawyer, or engineer. So going into music was very taboo. If it wasn’t for the influence of my sisters, I wouldn’t have gone down this road.
How did you create the persona of what became J Hacha De Zola?
You know what, I don’t know that guy. It’s a dangerous business, he’s kinda not a great dude. He’s not a bad guy, just sad. Recently, somebody came up to me and asked, ‘Why all this dark stuff?’ and this J Hacha De Zola guy, he’s been through some stuff. He’s a victim of trauma, it’s shaped him. J Hacha is a conversation about trauma, loneliness, and isolation. But there’s a trickster in there too, he likes to have fun!
For me, the whole process of making music and writing, bringing the shadow [J Hacha De Zola], and giving it form is the only way you can come to grasp trauma. Just sort of wrestling that beast to the ground and giving it shape. It’s all about union, like Carl Jung, you’re not a complete person unless you acknowledge your own shadow. When you don’t acknowledge that side of you, the shadow grows and will make itself known to you, whether you like it or not. So really there’s a lot of honesty in J Hacha De Zola’s character.
Let’s talk about “East of Eden.” First of all, is that a Steinbeck reference?
I like that, yes! “East of Eden” was probably one of my favorite Steinbeck books. But according to the Bible, what was east of Eden was sort of the ‘land of Nod.’ I’m not a religious person whatsoever, but I do know my Bible a little bit. It’s a good reference, there are good stories in there whether you believe it or not. But the reference was really to this past year that we had, which was just exceptionally hard.
What was the initial catalyst for the conception of the album?
The pandemic and lockdown were a big catalyst for this record. The horror, uncertainty, and loads of free time allowed me to concentrate and write focused songs before going into the studio. Previously I’ve done these chaotic, multi-instrumental type things with a very different vibe, and [they] were produced in a very different way; written entirely in the studio. [Before] I’d just show up [at the studio] with ideas and go ‘hey guys, let’s do this, let’s just see what happens.’
I let everybody be themselves, I never tell anybody what to play. I have such a great cast of players. Horn, guitar, drummers, you name it. I’ve got a guy with an inflatable goat, my boy Lubomir Smilenov. He plays a bunch of Bulgarian folk instruments that have been a mainstay across my records. One being the inflatable goat…it’s like a bagpipe. [A Gaida, a Bulgarian folk instrument.]
There’s a conventional element to both “Greatest Hits” and “East of Eden.” There’s still a twist of hellish cabaret, however!
The last couple of records I made were kinda all over the place. I didn’t know what I was doing, I never approach songwriting going: ‘I’m going to write a love song, or a rock song, or a punk song,’ I just set up a vibe. I never really know how it’s gonna turn out. But “East of Eden” is a good dip in this regard. It was written under duress; [with] the whole COVID pandemic. When I came into the studio, I already had this concept in my head. I wanted to make this record a little bit more palatable, more accessible, cleaner.
I took on more somber tones, I wanted a more thoughtful, directed approach with this album. So I took special attention to keep songs a certain length to keep the preservation and arrangements tight. I paid extra attention to how effective a song, composition, or phrase was and how they jive together. I’m very proud of this new record, and I hope folks will vibe out to it. It’s more accessible and that was intentional.
You achieved that! It sounds like it was organic and yet purposeful.
That’s very perceptive. I’m glad you picked up on that! And I was hoping that would come across so you telling me that is reassuring, thank you!
“East of Eden” is very poetic. For me, it felt like a broken-hearted, aching open love letter. Very hazy, hurt, but in a good way!
A lot of it was born out of isolation and retrospection. I’ve chosen a certain path in my life and as I realize that, so certain anxieties set in…it makes you wonder. There’s always a little bit of fear with my music; anxiety. It goes back to acknowledging the shadow.
Someone asked me ‘why all the anxiety?’ and my answer will always be that this is me working through it. [What I call] the “shadow work” in terms of making the shadow real so that I can acknowledge it and see it in myself. More importantly, so I can see it in others.
Speaking of dark, your imagery reminds me a lot of old German expressionist films. Do you have an affinity for silent horror?
I love art. I’m very inspired by the whole surrealist movement, by a lot of the principles behind that whole idea. I love Dada, expressionism, I’m a student of all those things. They’re a huge influence on me. Those films from the ’20s were true works of art, and I found a kinship with that kind of imagery and found a place for my music within it. Not so much on “East of Eden,” but previous work, like “Black Sparrow.” They sound like they could populate the sound space in some of those old films. Old school, surrealist, cult films; I love them all! I would love for my stuff to end up in a David Lynch, “Twin Peaks” kinda production.
Musically, you’ve been compared to Screamin’ Jay Hawkins, Tom Waits, Captain Beefheart. But you’ve cut a place for yourself in music. What are some musical influences of yours?
Leonard Cohen is a huge influence. Lots of Latin influences too, [like] Javier Jaramillo, Lucha Reyes…I love Herb Alpert & the Tijuana Brass. Lyrically I look to the literary greats like William S. Burroughs, Charles Baudelaire, lots of French poetry. I like to craft my own off of the shoulders of greats, as they say. I prefer the cut-up technique, I like to cut out “tasty phrases,” phrases I like, randomize them, and put them in boxes. I just chop up their art with scissors, just chop it up! [laughs]
[That way] the song eventually tells me what it’s about. I don’t impose my sense of being on the song. I just let the song be as it constructs itself. [Until] it takes on a life of its own. That’s where “East of Eden” comes out. I really polished the hell out of it because I had so much time during the pandemic.
You were quoted by “GhettoBlaster” as being ‘so far out of the box, there’s no one left to hit him with any sort of healthy competition,’ and I couldn’t agree more, there’s no one like you!
I appreciate that. Honestly, to me, art is never a competition. I don’t even think about that stuff and I’m not worried about pleasing everybody. I know that what I do is a niche thing, and I’m happy to occupy that space. Those who get it, get it. And those who don’t, that’s fine too. Ultimately it’s not about anybody, it’s about me having this conversation with myself and creating this landscape of this…character guy [J Hacha De Zola]. I don’t know who he is!
I know what you mean. I’ve watched people go into things with the wrong intentions, with delusions of grandeur, and they fail miserably.
Yeah, you gotta put the work in! It’s like love, your mind is like ‘I gotta get this thing!’ It’s gonna evade you even more. You got to keep walking down the road, and the work is never done! That’s all that exists, the work. Show up every day, and work!
Yes! I totally agree! Just keep going, doing your thing. Even when you don’t feel like it.
Exactly! Like, with me, I don’t even think I’m a great singer. I mean, I play guitar and hum until I hammer out a song. But I don’t necessarily think I’m good at either of those things. But it doesn’t discourage me from making music.
To me, it’s more important to have your own voice. You don’t have to be great, just do your thing and evolve from there. Start with what you’ve got, do what you have the heart to do, and do it! I would never discourage anyone from expressing themselves and doing what they, in their heart, want to do. Ultimately, that’s what I feel like I’ve done.
Well, I disagree. I think you’re very talented. Your vocals remind me of Jeffery Lee Pierce from The Gun Club and you’ve also done some amazing pop covers!
That’s a huge compliment, thank you! I absolutely love him! I went into those covers knowing they’d be challenging and that it would be utterly ridiculous for someone like me to cover an Ariana Grande song. That’s exactly why I did it. I think she’s incredibly talented, all those pop stars are. You don’t get that far without being amazing! So [in doing those covers] I’m not trying to bring them down at all. Pop music is NOT easy! The way those ladies can sing, they can turn on a dime. But yeah, I always like to challenge myself with stuff like that, because through it I can grow and become a better artist.
What’s next? I know there’s the album release, and live shows are sort of defunct still…
The single “Lost Space” drops April 30th, and soon after that, we’ll have another single released before the album is available on June 11th. But ultimately what I really want to do is leave a legacy of music and, dare I say, art. Hopefully, it inspires people to do the same, because it’s just a satisfying thing. A blessing to be alive and create these wonderful things.
“East of Eden” will be available on all streaming platforms on June 11th, 2021. Listen to the latest single “Lost Space” out now on Youtube, Spotify, and Apple Music. “Which Way,” the next single off “East of Eden” drops May 21st. Find J Hacha De Zola for updates on Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, & TikTok. Read more about J Hacha De Zola at Fanaticpromotion.com.
Cover image courtesy of Fanatic Promotion, by Christine Samaroo.