DEEP JIMI AND THE ZEP CREAMS
Better When We’re Dead
by TK Smith
Seventeen years ago we reviewed Funky Dinosaur, the debut album from Deep Jimi and The Zep Creams. Since then they seemed to have dropped off the map until our paths cross this year (2010) at the Reykjavik airport. Their new album was playing in the local record store and instantly the familiar sound of classic seventies rock drew us like a moth to the flame. The band’s influences are in their name. Contrived, maybe, but you know what you get when you lay your money down. With the band’s new release Better When We’re Dead they take those same influences and turn them on end. Yes, the spirit is still there but their sound has matured, opening up a much wider musical landscape. Amazingly their lineup is still the same with Sigurdur Eyberg (vocals), Thor Sigurdsson (guitars), Bjorn Arnason (bass) and Julius Gudmundsson (drums).
The force of opening track “Teenage Dreams” is a key indicator that the group is well in control of their musical direction. Crashing drums, a surging riff and pulsating bass are a welcome to the ears as singer Sig unleashes a vocal performance that stands toe-to-toe with Rush’s Geddy Lee and Budgie’s Burke Shelly. Though there is a shadow of seventies rock cast over the recording, the four-piece have found their own unique voice. “Let It Roll” and “Don’t Let Your Dreams Go” are a strong case in point as they benefit from a rollickin’ riff, a bass-drum swagger and a barroom boogie piano. Flashes of UFO and early Stones creep in to the texture of the songs while guitarist Thor keeps his solos, distinct, precise and melodic. Even in the slower acoustic moments of “Easy” and “Only Days” the band reflect a moody prowess that builds around the arrangement then strikes with an urgent electrical charge.
“Going Up The Mountain” is a must hear! The staccato riff and heavy drums wash over the song in a tribute to all things Zeppelin, Mountain and Budgie. Sig’s voice rings with purity and a wail of intensity. The organ fills are chilling as they lead into a hook-fill chorus where the guitar carves a permanent place into the cerebral cortex. In “Let The Games Begin” you can almost smell the exhaust fumes as it rumbles with thumping bass and driving guitars making it the record’s perfect road song. “Ego Trippin” appropriately follows with the highway salute immortalized in the lyrics, “See me finger flippin’ - I’m ego trippin.” The tribal drums of “Nothing Can Go Wrong” create a simple almost ethereal beat lending an ancient, ghostly quality to the song. Thor’s guitar takes on a U2-Edge tone keeping it nomadic and mystic. That same ringing flows into the record’s title track “Better When We’re Dead” giving it a modern sound with a tip of the hat to nineties alt-rock.
We contacted the band, specifically drummer Julius Gudmundsson and vocalist Sigurdur Eyberg, who were more than generous in answereing our questions concerning life with Deep Jimi and The Zep Creams.
The Cutting Edge: I know this is a loaded question, but since we last heard from the band (Funky Dinosaur 1993) what has happened? Did the band break up, take time off, and get desk jobs?
Sig: Well, we got out of our contract with Atco (they were dragging their feet with coughing up the tour support - we were young and rather impatient so we left...). At this point we had been working very hard - and very closely - for a few years so it was all taking its toll, so we went back to Iceland. But rather than taking a long break and recharging the batteries, we put out a second record Seibie Sunsick's Rock'n'Roll Circus (1995) a couple years later. This proved too much for the collaboration so the band pretty much split up and we went our separate ways, each member doing his own thing, musically and otherwise. Years passed quickly, as they have a tendency to do, but finally the old itch took over and we reunited. In 2005 we put out a self-titled album. This project was slightly troubled by the fact that Thor, the guitarist, was still living in another country from the rest of us. When Thor returned, we started work on what has now become our latest: Better When We're Dead.
TCE: Were you signed to a onerecord-deal with Atco? How did that come about? How did the record sell?
Sig: No, we were signed to a two album guarantee with an option for another five. How it came about... well, we played in Iceland until we had enough funds to last us three months in New York. Went there, got a flat and played anywhere we possibly could for three months. In that time we were approached by Peter Ciaccia, who was a manager at the time, and he started getting labels down to see us. So before we went back home at the end of the three months (it turned out to be two and a half since we had the deal by then - if I remember it correctly) our lawyer was speaking to their lawyers. We were determined and really applied ourselves that made the difference I think, we gave everything into every performance - regardless of how many (or in most cases how few) audience members we had. How the record sold? I have no idea. Would be nice to know really.
TCE: What were your impression being signed to a major label? Did you move to the US to record the record? Did you tour the States? If so what was that like?
Sig: Being signed to a major was good. We had all the control and no one was trying to meddle in the creative stuff or anything like that. In fact, I think people trusted us a bit too much, we probably could have done with a bit firmer hand or better guidance really. We were quite young and thought we knew more than we did. We did move to the US, first with the aim to get signed and then to record etc. We never ended up touring unfortunately since that was, and still is; a particular strength of ours (UPS, as the marketing department would call it) and the whole idea was to break us through extensive touring.
TCE: Who was Kramer (the producer of Funky Dinosaur) and what did he and Steve Watson add you your sound?
Sig: Kramer was a bit of an underground guru at the time. An ultra-cool NY type. A nice guy and Steve too, we had a good laugh with them. As to what they added to our sound, I'd say not as much as they could have because we simply didn't let them. In the end we pretty much produced the album ourselves. Funky Dinosaur is probably a pretty good representation of how we sounded live at the time. After we left for Iceland later, I think they mixed a song on their own - or maybe it was just Steve - and it came out quite different. It sounded better in my opinion, although I like Funky very much the way it is.
TCE: How does it compare to working with your current producer Porvaldsson?
Sig: Well we definitely gave <THORN>orvaldson much more slack and let him take care of the sound. He also brought in some interesting production ideas and some of them worked great and added a lot to the album. So I think, in a way, this was the first time we worked with a producer and a sound engineer in any real way. For this reason it’s hard to compare the two situations.
TCE: In 1995 your released Seybie Sunsicks Rock ‘n’ Roll Circus. Was this a European release only?
TCE: There was a ten-year gap between Seybie and your 2005 self-titled Deep Jimi and the Zep Creams. Can you please fill in the blanks?
Sig: Well, as for the band there is little to tell as there was no Deep Jimi action going on. Members were working on other projects. Lots of good stuff there but all quite unrelated to this band.
TCE: In 2010 we get the amazing Better When We’re Dead. Nice one guys! This record seems much less contrived and more honest than what I remember hearing in Funky Dinosaur. There are still an abundance of influences that you wear on your sleeve, but I like the texture of the record a lot.
Sig: Thank you very much. It is always very hard to be objective about an album when you are too close to it in time but I really think this is a good one. We gave ourselves time to develop the material and tried to avoid putting something on there we would later regret. So I think we, in some ways, applied ourselves more with the songwriting and we were determined to get the album sounding good, which I think we managed to do. As for the honesty - you are probably very right. Although we were always very sincere about what we were doing, we were so wrapped up in our influences back in the day that we perhaps blocked some parts of our selves that didn't fit into that mold.
Now, I think we are more relaxed about those things and that probably shows like everything else you are going through when recording - it’s hard to hide anything. When we were writing for this album, it did feel like we were moving away from our seventies sound but it is still there though. It seems to be such a strong part of the band's identity that it will probably always be there to some extent, which is fine, but we don’t make any kind of effort to get it now. Like you say, its probably less contrived now, if it’s there it’s there, if not it’s not.
TCE: “Teenage Dreams” does go straight for that seventies groove. Your vocals remind me of a mixture between Geddy Lee and Burke Shelly (Budgie). The riff has this nice feeding progression that merges into the circus-like chorus. Very clever. Can you tell us how you crafted the song? Was it always going to be the first track on the record?
Sig: The song is crafted in a very similar way to most of our songs as a mixture of pre-written riffs and words that merge with something that then comes spontaneously as we try the stuff out. Sometimes little happens and it’s a slow uphill climb. With this one, things fell into place very quickly and I think we more or less had it on the first go. That's how I remember it, but I have come to realize it is very different how people remember these things, the writing process that is, maybe the boys tell a different story...As for being the first song on the record that came about quite late. We sort of had it positioned as the final song but then we were having some problems making the tracking order work for us until we turned it on its head and started with this one.
TCE: Rarely does a personal favorite come so early into album mix. I must say I’m addicted to “Going Up The Mountain.” For me this is a modern classic - big chugging riff with a thunderous bottom end. The fact that you add the keyboard frill tells me how comfortable you guys are with your own compositions. There is a sense of reckless power, yet within an almost pop texture. The guitar solo is fierce giving it a nice contrast. Also the surging drum has real presence.
Sig: I agree with you, when we wrote this song I instantly loved it. Like “Teenage Dreams” it was also very easy to write. Started with the riff and some words and the rest came “on our feet” so to speak. This one I think we pretty much finished in one go - all except the bridge. There was much discussion and negotiations between the string instrumentalists about the chord structure there. I think it was settled out of court in the end. As for influences, it’s funny you should ask that ‘cuz when we came up with the chorus I thought of Kings of Leon. I don't know if that was an influence or an observation on a similarity I thought I detected - but I may be the only one in the world to think that. I can’t say I get that when I hear the song now but at the time it crossed my mind.
TCE: How long had you worked on these songs before recording them?
Sig: Good question. If we are talking actual hours of work, probably not very long but if you mean over how many months, then quite a few.
TCE: How different is it recording in Iceland than in America?
Sig: I don't think there is one for me, once you are in the studio it’s the same thing really and just depends on the people you are working with - the producer, the vibe etc. I guess the studios we worked with in the US were generally better equipped than the ones in Iceland.
TCE: “Let It Roll” and the title track “Better When We’re Dead” remind me a lot of your earlier work. I hear Led Zeppelin, Foghat, Deep Purple mostly. The piano/organ (played by bassist Bjorn Arnason) has a strong presence here and gives it this nice pub rock boogie. “Ego Trippin” also makes great use of the piano with a swelling build to the song. How did the piano/organ become such a big part of the band?
Sig: Well many, many moons ago Björn was a pianist and not a bass player. In fact, when we started playing together as kids, Björn was a pianist. He then swapped over to the bass and quickly become so proficient that he pretty much left the piano behind. But we have always tried to use his talent to some extent on our albums. It can really create a new feel for a song and, like you rightly point out, he does some brilliant stuff with the keys.
TCE: “See me finger flippin’ I’m ego trippin’ That’s an clever line. I’ll remember it every time I “fly the bird.” Where did the lyrics “You say you’re pregnant with worry / and bloated with anxiety” come from?
Sig: He,he... in all honesty I’d rather not say. It would probably be much more interesting to hear what you get from the words than to hear me rattling on about it...
TCE: Who writes most of the lyrics in the band? Where does the lyric inspiration come from?
Sig: On this one I wrote most of the lyrics and relinquished most of the music writing to the others. There is a real fight to write within the band and everyone likes their stuff best of course. But I think we all produce really good stuff and when we’re clever we take the best from all members. I think we did that quite well on this album.
TCE: Julius’ drumming on “Nothing Can Go Wrong” has this ancient almost tribal beat. How did he sculpt his playing to fit within the song? The song is very moody, almost ethereal. Was that the intention - to give it a mystic feel?
Julius: When Thor, the guitar player, started playing his thing I just thought a simple big sounding beat would be the best way to go. I’m more of a groove drummer than a fill drummer, so I usually try to come up with a new groove or something that isn’t too basic. In this case, a very basic beat sounded great to me.
TCE: For me, the record has this universal wisdom to it. It’s almost like you’re coming to an understanding of where you are as both musicians and as a band. “Hold On” has the lines “Lay down your hammer / You’ve been banging on so long …and sing your own song.” There is the caution in “Don’t Let Your Dreams Go You’re gonna lose your soul,” and in the album’s closing track are the words “Our lives have been written / they wait to be read / they’ll read much better / when we’re dead.” Can you please tell us about the under current or philosophy surrounding this record?
Sig: In general, I wanted a positive feel to the lyrics. I think maybe the words on this are less focused inward and more focused on all of us, how we are in this messy thing called life together, struggling with the same issues the world over. So maybe this is a: “Hey, keep your head up, we're all in it together” - to anyone who'll listen. You are probably bang on with your analysis there, there’s definitely a kind of a musical coming of age thing going on.
TCE: When the band slow down on “Easy” and “Only Days” I hear a desert/stoner groove like Black Sabbath or Kyuss. It there a conscious element of that in your music?
Sig: Not at all. Not a conscious one. Not on my part anyway. But I know what you mean.
TCE: “Let The Games Begin” has this killer biker edge and almost sounds like it was written for NASCAR. I hear The Cult a lot in this song. Can you please tell us more about how this song came about? Was it written with sports TV in mind?
Sig: Yes, it is a bit of a road trip kinda song. There was never any mention of sports TV though, but I know what you mean by The Cult. Writing this one was a bit harder than the two we talked about earlier. We had to piece this one together bit by bit. For a while, we only had the beginning and the verse. We tried out quite a few choruses before we were happy.
TCE: Do you feel isolated in Iceland? Does the band get over to Europe or the US for tour dates? What does the future hold for Deep Jimi and the Zep Creams?
Sig: Yes, Iceland is isolated but we are gearing ourselves up to break the silence across the waves - the Deep Jimi silence that is. What the future holds... well, next on the agenda is to get this album heard. As we’re on an indie label we have no big marketing budgets to dive into so it’s a matter of finding the audience. Thanks for helping us spread the word!
*A special thanks the vocalist Sigurdur Eyberg and drummer Julius Gudmundsson. Please check this band out!
Website: Deep Jimi and the Zep Creams