What Do You Hear? : An Interview With Zekarias Thompson

Photo by Eric Ruby

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At the conclusion of this interview, Zekarias Thompson turned the tables on me and put a question to me about his incredible debut, Goodnight Shiva. “My question is, as you engage with Goodnight Shiva, what do you hear when listening to yourself?” I still owe him an answer and so here it is: I keep returning to two phrases spoken on the album. “Who’s life is this?” and “Don’t be afraid.” It’s like a call and response in some way, a question I found myself asking a lot in the past year. Thompson’s music pushes me beyond the question, though, and “Don’t be afraid” becomes a mantra. I know the answer is somewhere deep, perhaps hidden, but it’s there if I can admit it. I am grateful for the space to hear these things from within. “Don’t be afraid.” 

Goodnight Shiva is incredible in the way it invites listeners not just into its sonic world, but deeper into our own worlds and our own thoughts. Thompson becomes a conduit directing this vibrational flow, eyes always ahead. We just have to listen. Don’t be afraid.

Zekarias Thompson’s Goodnight Shiva is out now on Atlantic Rhythms and he can be reached via his website.  

So what are some of your earliest memories and experiences with music and sound? Were there any songs or albums that really stuck out and grabbed you when you were younger that were formative?

When I was growing up my parents were always listening. The sounds that stick out the most to me were the 60s and 70s era R&B, Funk, and Soul. My dad would practice his bass by playing along with his favorite recordings. I remember him playing along to Expansions by Lonnie Liston Smith and the Cosmic Echoes vividly. I also remember being quite fond of the acapella gospel sextet Take 6. My parents, my brother, and I listened to their eponymous album a whole lot, I am fairly certain that was the first concert we went to. I cried when they didn’t play my favorite song (“David & Goliath”).

Where did your interest in playing and creating music come from?

The word on the street is that when music class started in the 4th grade I was immediately excited and the only question to answer was what do I instrument did I want to play. Unfortunately, I don’t recall much of my thought process at that time and what prompted my excitement.

What was the first instrument you learned to play and what was the impetus there?

The alto saxophone. That was the instrument I chose back in 4th grade. There was something about the shape and brass that was appealing and it won out over the clarinet at the time.

Let’s get into the record because it’s been eating away at me for the last few weeks in the best possible way. There’s so much to hear and explore, but first, how did the idea for Goodnight Shiva begin?

There are a number of origins to this work that had to coagulate over a long period of time and I hope I can synthesize them here without too many words in responding to all your questions! I realized that I was making Goodnight Shiva one day in late April 2019. In that era, a few friends and I would bring our instruments to the warehouse at the place I worked and have these ‘cosmic jam’ sessions. The space was vast and the reverb is a thing unto itself and sometimes I would just practice and see what came out after work and record it on my voice memos. I had been bouncing around the idea of doing a project that I hoped would be a dialogue between friends, that started with a very simple prompt. Make something, words, sounds, a picture, fragments, or something that might be considered a whole, and share that something with someone else who will then respond with whatever feels right to them. I was interested in how we respond and translate the information that comes in a form other than strictly language, maybe hoping that by creating this chain of responses there would be a way to understand what the elusive nature of what was contained in the messages of such an energy exchange. I ran this idea by my friend Erik [Anderson] and I sent him a saxophone recording that I had made to try and start the process. When I asked him for his response he said something along the lines that he felt that my playing could be more practiced. I remember feeling frustrated and initially thinking that he didn’t ‘get’ the project until I realized that he did exactly what I asked. He gave a response, even if it didn’t fit into the equation that I had envisioned initially, this was his response. It was then that I recognized that this dialogue I wanted to have first had to be amongst my own selves. A few days later I took out my saxophone and recorded again, I began to hear these rhythms in my head in response when I played it back, went home, and began messing around in Logic to find what I was hearing and I kept hearing more. This is the recording that became known as Signs of Reasonable Decay.

As I continued making saxophone recordings and responding to them a narrative was beginning to emerge and I realized I was making the ‘album’ that I had said I would make years prior when I started writing ‘songs’ on the guitar in the early 2010s. I had made what’s left of the rust with Erik in October 2018 and shorts. while I was laid up in bed with debilitating back and pelvis dysfunction in January of that year and I brought those recordings into the fold. a kind of Militance followed soon after. And then there was Goodnight Shiva (if you listen closely).

Is there a particular story behind the name?

Yes! There are in fact two particular stories that brought the name about.

My first introduction to Shiva (completely decontextualized from the breadth and depth of his importance to Hindu tradition) came when I was like 9 in a Wolverine comic book that my friend had. In the comic, Wolverine came up against this program/robot that called itself Shiva. The line, “I am Shiva, I am the destroyer” has been implanted in my memory ever since. Probably in part because from a very young age, I wrestled with a narrative that I was a destructive force. shorts. tells the story of an event that occurred that served to solidify that narrative in my young being as true. I was about 6 and got into a fight (probably the only physical altercation I have been in) with a kid that lived in my neighborhood. I think both of us were probably fed up with the unsolicited abuse that we had been receiving from our classmates, and decided to work it out on each other. We rolled around a bit on a little hill pulling and tearing at each other and eventually separated as they walked up the inclined street that they lived on, and I started proceeding towards mine. But I was so upset that I picked up a rock I remember being about the size of my fist and hurled it. I still can picture its arc and the kid turning around right as it came down right above their eye. As I recall I must have been about 100 feet away and I just knew that I had made that such accuracy had much more than luck attached. And with that, I was Shiva, I was the destroyer. Through the course of making this work, I became curious about the real Shiva, a deity that is represented in a few ways but particularly as a supremely divine being responsible for creation, preservation, and destruction.

In August 2018, after the attack and murder of Nia Wilson on the MacArthur Bart platform two and a half blocks from my house, I began making field recordings anytime I was on the platform. I was troubled by what seemed like a contradiction between the experience of the image of this place that had gone back to its prior normality, in contrast with the all too familiar historically linked violence that had occurred. It had to still be there, somewhere in the sound. I didn’t listen to them until almost a year later when Erik was curious about what was contained in the sound and what images would translate from them. I shared some of the recordings with him and he put ink into a bowl above a canvas stretched out over speakers raised the volume on the playback until the ink danced onto the fabric. I have only seen the images in photographs, but I could feel them through my phone. At that time I realized that to finish the record, I would need to dialogue with one of those recordings. Goodnight Shiva (if you listen closely) is the result.

The name is both a proclamation of a death to the destructive narratives that haunt our existence and an acceptance of the full being of Shiva; in a sense that recognizes creation and destruction as part of an inevitable process of being. A lullaby to form with the intensity to dissolve the unreal narratives that have been created through humans attempting to dehumanize other humans. A recognition of what I endured and transformed towards healing. A declaration of the intent and the acknowledgment that I am only going to engage in the truth of the matter, and that the time unreal creations of disintegrated humanity is over.

In the description of Goodnight Shiva, the first thing you talk about is how the album came about from the impetus to listen. How do you hope listeners approach this work?

One of my favorite things to do is to listen to albums in their entirety, to attempt to follow the threads. To pick up on ones that I lost or was not hearing before. I have been with these pieces in various iterations for a few years now and am still learning from them. I hope that those that listen, listen closely. I hope that people give the sounds space to enter and roll around and let themselves be moved. And I hope that if they are moved in any way they share their experience to keep the dialogue moving and because everyone’s contribution helps me continue learning about this work.

You wear a lot of hats on the record – from guitar and vocals to saxophone, production duties, and more. I keep finding my attention focusing on your saxophone playing and how much weight and emotion it carries, and then connecting that to another part of your words on the album, “It is an attempt to reunite with my body. A body that I have never known how to define nor been of want, yet has been identified for me so frequently.” There’s a real physicality to your playing and so I wonder how that approach and this idea of reuniting with your body are connected?

The breath is a critical function to use to engage and regulate the responses of the sympathetic nervous system, and the saxophone provides such fertile ground to explore the breath. It requires power and control and allows you a range that couldn’t be reached in the same way with just the voice. I began to understand the connection between the saxophone as a polyvalent voice back in 2016 while creating the score to a performance video piece by my friend (the painter, sculptor, performer) Kyrae Dawaun. As I responded to the gestures of his body with my saxophone I was able to understand what he was doing more completely.

One of the central challenges to growing up in a ‘black’ body in this country (and in this world) is that there is an underlying somatic response within our culture that defaults to attempting to control your actions, and to pathologize your very existence if you are perceived to be uncontrollable, or out of your place. I often found myself out of my place when making choices that did not immediately bring comfort to the ‘white’ bodied people in my life. In my experience, this manifested, not infrequently, over the course of my life with verbal attacks that were either completely unfounded and violent, or reasonably could be considered outsized for the actual or perceived affront. These attacks have come from my most intimate relationships, to friends, peers, colleagues, and institutions, and it is very easy to mistake them for holding truth about your own deficiencies when so many of your relations, and the larger world responds to you in this way. By the beginning of 2018, the physical and emotional toll my body had undergone from carrying such a weight left me in a state where I could barely walk at all. I wrote shorts. while in this state laying in my bed.

Integral to my recovery was building practices to locate and reconnect to the pain living within my body, drawing upon the knowledge I had gained when translating Kyrae’s body. The saxophone was approached by simply allowing myself to respond to all of these affronts. It is my cry to myself for assistance, as well as a response from all of the parts that make me, my forebears, the earth, the galaxy, that I have the strength to move through and dissipate the aforementioned violence. As the project began to take its current form, I began recognizing Goodnight Shiva as an interrogation of the duality of being and the inception of fragmented narratives about our bodies; my body specifically, and the collective human body, as well as an attempt to recognize those fragments as a part of my whole and the collective whole. Situating my body within those dichotomies and asking myself (and us) to integrate them through listening and examining where they actually live. And hopefully, creating space for healing ourselves and our relationship to each other in the process.

Photo by Eric Ruby

Related perhaps, but more general – how do you approach these songs and figure out what various instruments you’re going to use or how certain instruments can better express the feelings and ideas the pieces are about?

By relinquishing control. I approached the arrangement by not allowing the impulse to be prescriptive towards any previous ideas that I might have had about what sounds should go where. This process started with a source material, a saxophone improvisation, a field recording, and listening to it until I heard something else. Often times the first thing I would hear when responding was some type of underlying rhythmic structure. The sounds also held some important parts of a history of listening and of my heritage within the African diaspora, the 808s ingrained in me from hip hop. The polyrhythmic, repetitive mantras that I understood as the foundation of the ritual, myself creating a space to witness myself. The voice as griot. The synthetic sounds as a perceived foil to be integrated.

How does creating and playing music and art (and writing) help you process the world around you?

Making provides me with the opportunity to engage in an embodied practice of working with the materials, thoughts, frequencies, and cultural ideas that I am constantly coming into contact with as I move about the world. I am particularly sensitive to thought and feeling patterns on a personal and cultural level, and so much of my work deals with attempting to understand and translate that information. Writing and image-making help me work with physical materials in a way that is more solid. Creating and playing music allows me to process those patterns almost simultaneously, and it is just so joyous to do!

You’ve got a host of fantastic collaborators on the record. Could you talk a little bit about how you came to work with them and their importance in making Goodnight Shiva what it is? I especially love the dual nature of your vocal performance and gin hart’s on the last track…

They really are fantastic! My collaborators on the record are literally and figuratively my family members. I met Erik and Jeff around 2010 when we were all living in DC. I had recently met Jeff and connected with him over our love for Tinariwen and started playing music together. One day I went over to his house to play and Erik was there and we all just immediately clicked. We started a little ‘band’ which fizzled out pretty quickly but we remained close friends and would collaborate on little projects here and there. Anytime I worked on something I would send it to Erik for his impeccable ears. When I made the first demo of shorts. he was the first one to hear it and give a new mix back in 2018 and I had always imagined collaborating with him to produce my first collection of sounds and he was the first person I thought of when it was time to make the final mixes. That initial “shorts. demo doesn’t have drums and when we started re-working it we, of course, asked Jeff to play. When we shared the new version my dad (Dr. Tim) volunteered to make a bass line and it was just exactly it. gin is one of the most brilliant and generous people I know. We came into each other’s orbit around the time I moved to Oakland and immediately felt a resonance. They have an ability to condense so much information across dimensions in their writing and performance practice. Their voice is distinctly powerful and should be heard. When I realized that the narratives that were being weaved required a voice distinct from mine, I heard gin’s voice. I am honored by their presence. All of these people have witnessed me through the journey of reclaiming my self and have always been there to be in dialogue, to support, and be supported. So it felt extremely fitting to realize this work with them.

What were the biggest challenges you dealt with in making Goodnight Shiva?

Examining, recognizing, and letting go of sets of belief that I held around what validates myself and whatever I make. Which, in the case of making ‘music’ was wrapped up in a belief that there is a right or a wrong structure or way of creating. That there was a specific technical ability that I needed that I did not possess in order to make a complete work. Once I established the process that would help to dissolve those narratives, patiently allowing that process to unfold when I didn’t always know the next step. And then claiming that the work was worthy of sharing. These thought patterns were built around an insidious set of narratives that are difficult to extricate oneself from when so many of the messages you receive from a world are attempting to tell you that you are always insufficient. Also, just the patience required to make a record happen.

What’s next for you for the rest of 2022 and beyond?

I love it! At the beginning of the year, I started saying, “All positive vibes, all love, all expansion.” 2022 and beyond. So we will definitely keep that going!

Also continuing to share Goodnight Shiva, to dialogue about it, and to continue learning from other people’s experiences of it! I am hoping to do a few performances as well as to create some type of repository of the responses and dialogue that come from that!

Continuing to work on the ongoing collaborative projects Agnes Martian, and the Musele Project. Agnes Martian is releasing our first album The Future Light Cone on cassette and vinyl and we have started to play shows here and there. The Musele Project, a collaborative sound, image, performance, and facilitation practice just started streaming our spontaneous composition sessions community internet radio station Jongleur Radio every Sunday at 8 pm PST. Hoping to facilitate more in-person opportunities for people to engage with the practice as well. As well as organizing Working Name Studios, a collaborative rights, production, and publishing studio.

With my solo practice, this year I am hoping to find a home for and resources to create an exhibition around a long-running project exploring that includes a ‘triptych’ of works involving a multi-channel sound installation, photographic work, more saxophone meditations, writing, facilitation, and performance that contemplates our penchant for psychological projection and its impact on the cultural, ecological, and personal landscape. As well as a photographic series on bathrooms.

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