AN INTERVIEW WITH ZACH WEBBER, A.K.A PAPERGHOST

Paperghost‘s new album, Signal Fingers, is another compelling sonic adventure through the idiosyncratic mind of Wellington producer, Zach Webber. Intrigued as to how one comes to produce such intricate, imaginative work I spoke with Zach about his art, influences and creative process.

Zach Webber, a.k.a Paperghost
Zach in his home studio in Newtown, Wellington


What was it like growing up in Plimmerton? (a small, beach-side settlement north of Wellington)

ZW: It’s a bit more gentrified now which kind of sucks, though its still a cool little town even with lots of big glass box houses and stuff. My family house is still old and original though, really old now actually, but it’s still cooler than the other houses…. it was a sweet place to grow up.

Did you tell me once that your parents are hoarders?
No, I had a phase when I was a total hoarder. I’d get super upset and I’d take heaps of stuff out of public rubbish bins – all kinds of shit, probably real gross crap – I’d try to save everything. One time I saw another kid’s art in the bin at school and I totally freaked out because my parents never throw out any of my art, like it was real precious. And so since I was a kid I couldn’t throw out anything for ages.

What was your art style like when you were a kid?
When I look back it was super violent. So many swords and guns and in every picture there’s people getting blown up and stabbed and shit all over the place. I was influenced by my brothers. We always had heaps of that fantasy art crap where there’s just big muscly dudes with swords and guns and shit.

How did you get into music?
I can’t ever remember not drawing and making art but I didn’t really like music at all until I was about 15. I listened to music my brothers listened to – grungey stuff like Nirvana and Soundgarden… and Spice Girls & random stuff – and then I discovered Radiohead and I was like ‘Oh my god, this is amazing!’ It was when Kid A came out and they had these little 10-second animation loopy things that would come on TV that were really cool. So the advertising totally worked! Portishead were another big influence with their combination of electronics, samples and live sounds, all those different sound worlds sitting on top of eachother.

Kid A Cover
A turning point

And you studied music, right?
Yeah, for some reason my parents made me study music in high school, which really pissed me off at the time because I was so into drawing… But then as it happened the best facility at our high school was heaps of computers with Sibelius (music notation software), so for someone geeky like me it totally made sense, it was awesome.

I did study art for a bit but the art teacher wanted to do stuff in a crazy specific way, she wanted everyone to do the exact same thing and I always got marked down for including too many non-real-life details, just crap I’d make up. So it didn’t work out too well.

You went on to tertiary study through the New Zealand School of Music in Wellington, how was that?
I liked it. It was way better than highschool music. I kinda wish I’d known what was going on a bit more, the resources and the people there that could teach you shit. But it was awesome. I did instrumental composition for the first three years and for the honours year I did Sonic Arts with lecturers like Dugal McKinnon, John Psathas, and Jack Body who were awesome.

Drawings by Zach Webber
Drawings by Zach Webber

Your visual art seems to cohabit the world of your music. Do you see a relationship between them?
I suppose there’s a shared philosophy between them. I love detail.

How do your song names come about?

Sometimes I come up with a name and then a piece of music to suit it, sometimes the other way around. Lots of those have really ridiculous names don’t they.. Often instead of an idea I come up with a different environment. Often it’s these different designs of cities. They’re often quite architectural. I love abstract architectural stuff. I’ve been getting into Lebbeus Woods, he did scifi architecture stuff. And the Brodsky & Utkin stuff which is awesome. It’s big conceptual architecture, so not real architecture.

Abstract architecture by Brodsky & Utkin
Brodsky & Utkin

Maryland Goatman is a cryptid, which is an urban myth of this goatman that lives underneath the bridge. There are heaps of different theories around that one, of whether it was this natural creature or something a scientist created and murdered these people and they even tried to link it in with real murders I think. But I guess I do have ridiculous, stupid, wide-reaching concepts that go through (the album) coz for this one I had a story of a city (influenced by) the Tacoma Bridge that got destroyed by the transverse wave, and the story was these people were trying to build a city and every time they reached a point it set up this transverse wave that would cause the city to be destroyed. And it was the bridge that set it off, and the Maryland Goatman is said to live under the bridge and then he kind of linked into the mythology of that for me. So yeah, I guess I have heaps of ridiculous crap that I make up when I’m making music… it’s pretty nerdy stuff but I like that kinda shit.

What’s your creative process with music?
I normally muck around until I get a sound or find a sample that really interests me. Then I get a crazily complex plan in my head, and then I try to follow that through and fail in some way, and then it ends up being something else in the end. I always get really grandiose ideas in terms of texture and structure and sound that I wanna make. It always turns out different than I envision.

Where do you find sounds?
I take heaps of stuff off record, mostly just out of opshops. Normally I just look for something that may have a cool instrument or something I haven’t heard, just anything with an odd premise or sound to it pretty much.

Golf record

I’ve been doing a bit more field recording recently too. I got Heather to help me out doing heaps of close-miced recordings of everyday objects – a pair of secateurs, paper, water, all kinds of stuff. I have a recording on the album of a crazy cat that comes round our place, I recorded Heather consoling it after it was going on one of it’s fits.

You’re fortunate in that you have a day job which complements your interests, could you talk a bit about this?
I do audiovisual conservation at the National Library which is for the most part copying of oral records and music off cassettes and open reel tapes and records which is really cool coz I get to hear heaps of crazy old histories and things. It’s all NZ content. Heaps is history of war. Heaps is super interesting, but lots is under strict privacy control coz it’s really personal, but there’s lots of interesting stuff.

Has the job influenced your music at all?
I think the music I’ve made more recently has been cleaner and of higher production because I’ve been obsessed for so long with the sound of crackley, glitchy, analogue stuff, but then at work since I’m hearing so much of that, actually the music that I’m making is getting to be a bit cleaner at last.

Paperghost live at Homies Cosy Teahouse, Wellington
Paperghost live at Homies Cosy Teahouse, Wellington

With so much detail and complexity it was always hard to fathom how Paperghost could ever be played live, but it’s clear from recent solo performances you’ve had some break-throughs on this front?
Only recently, with that last gig that I played, have I got to the point where I feel like I’m doing an honest adaptation of what I’ve done a bit more. Because previously I’ve been playing a keyboard the whole time and then had friends backing me up and stuff, which is cool but it’s not how I work in the studio. It doesn’t feel like I’m sitting down singing along to a keyboardy song.

With the latest adaptation I’ve got something where I can create an entire piece with MIDI and kind of do a reverse sampler thing, so instead of triggering samples, it’s triggering a space of recording which I can throw sounds into. So I can have a really complex piece but then I’m kind of throwing sounds and altering those sounds into it. (For example) if I’m singing it can capture a tiny part of my voice and then put it in other parts of the piece as it’s going, stuff like that… it’s like a complex looper… Which feels alot more honest because I’m working with digital sounds, live sounds and sampled sounds and it’s all being created then. The process feels better to me. I’m still using some prerecorded samples but it just feels more like what I do in the studio.

What are your future plans?
Playing a bit more live, coz I’m enjoying it a bit more with this set up now. Gonna record another EP real soon I think, coz I’ve got a bunch of stuff sitting around that I wanna do stuff with. And with art, I’ve started doing some hand-drawn animation, I think I’ll get into that more in a big way which’ll be fun. And I want to do more stuff with paints aswell. I just borrowed some acrylic paints. And you know coz I always have really detailed little bits of art and I was thinking of putting them in an environment even if it’s an abstract colour wash or some shit, I dunno.