After releasing its first single last November, Zulu Winter has quickly gathered attention throughout Britain with its indie pop-rock sound. The five-piece band’s debut album, Language, exhibits a maturity that can take bands years to achieve. Then again, the band has a bit of a head start with members having played in bands together for the better part of a decade. Although it sounds like a no-brainer, Will Daunt, frontman for the new project, has discovered a pretty simple formula for success: write good music. Daunt and company make it look easy with catchy pop riffs and inspired breakdowns with ambiguous lyricism threaded throughout.
Daunt was able to speak with us while on tour with Keane in Bristol, U.K. in support of the band’s new album, which releases June 19 in the U.S. The singer was excited to speak about his aspirations and how only a year ago, touring and playing music was the stuff of daydreams.
So before we get to the music, I have to ask. Is there a story behind the name?
Will Daunt: I’ve been asked this question a dozen times because it’s a slightly unusual name. I’d love to be able to give some long, interesting story. The truth is that we were coming up with names for the project, and we ended up getting very frustrated because there wasn’t anything we could agree upon. There is actually a picture of a Zulu in our rehearsal studio. We liked the name “Winter.” We all agreed that was a word we all enjoyed. Eventually I just got frustrated, and I was like “what about fucking Zulu Winter? How stupid is that?” and everyone thought that worked. When starting a band, the name is the least of your worries.
So if the name is the least of your worries, what comes first when trying to start a band?
Daunt: The first thing that any band has to worry about is writing some good material. You can be an amazing live band, and it can be really entertaining but at the end of the day, if the songs aren’t there, it’s just this amazing spectacle. You still need good songs and good material. Having strong material is the best thing a band can do. You want to write eight or nine tracks you’re really happy with and only then start playing shows. The mistake that I’ve made in previous projects is you get together with friends, form a band and write six or seven tracks, which your relatively happy with. You have three or four unfinished songs and then suddenly you’re playing gigs. You’re just not ready to do that. You must be willing to take the time to get everything right before you step out into the limelight and play any shows. Another difficult thing in the U.K. at the moment is that there are so many different bands around, so getting noticed is hard. Our approach to that was to spend as much time as we could writing really good material and making sure we could play really well live before we even did a show. I don’t think it’s fair for people to pay to come and see you and you’re not ready, you know?
You mention it’s hard to get noticed in the U.K., but less than a year after releasing your first single, British magazines are describing Zulu Winter as up-and-comers and you’re touring with Keane. Has this reaction surprised you at all?
Daunt: Yes. It has been surprising. We definitely didn’t write this album expecting this to happen. I don’t think anybody expects it. It’s such a risky thing. With that said, we’ve only just released the album and now the real work starts. We haven’t done that much as a band yet and we need to just tour and tour and tour now. If we go to New York and play a club with 500 people, and people are actually buying tickets to our show, and it feels like there’s something actually there, then that’s really exciting. There’s definitely no counting chickens. We’re not sitting back on our laurels and after getting good reviews. That doesn’t help anybody. This is just the beginning for us.
Listening to your debut album, I was impressed with our comfortable you guys seem in your sound. Were there some kinks to work out when you guys first formed?
Daunt: It came together pretty naturally really. We had all been playing on and off in various different guises and projects. Three of us had played together and the other two hadn’t, then two us went off and played for a while so we’ve kind of been in a musical relationship for ten years. When we decided to sit down and form a proper band, it wasn’t like starting a new band because we all knew what one another’s capabilities were and what our strengths and weaknesses were. We wrote 24 or 25 songs and 11 made it onto the record. Like any writing process, you have to write and then cut down to the ones you love. The writing process was pretty easy. The songs just came out. The last song off the record, “People That You Must Remember,” was supposed to be a big rock track, when we first wrote it. After we recorded it we didn’t like the way it sounded. That was sort of an eight-month process of leaving it alone for a few and coming back to it. It literally came together when we were mixing. There were a few tracks like that on the record that took a long time, but other songs like “Words That I Wield” came out in a day. It just appeared. It’s a varying process.
Any chance we’ll see those songs that didn’t quite make it on Language?
Daunt: Yeah, one of the B-sides to “Silver Tongue” was called “Young Lovers,” and we were really fond of that song. It didn’t quite make the record because it didn’t fit the tone, it’s much more upbeat. There’s another track that will be released on the B-side of our next single, which we really love but it just didn’t fit the mood as well. And there’s definitely other songs which were trying to look into again. But we’re also writing again and there are some new songs that should be sneaking into the set in the next month or so.
I read an interview that described your process behind creating the album as very “monk like.” Can you describe that?
Daunt: Well, we were all working day jobs and having to try to fit in writing around an everyday, normal life, which all musicians have to do at the beginning. The reason why it was quite serious in the rehearsal studio is because time was quite precious. We would rehearse after work from six until 11. There wasn’t much point in us being there if we were going to sit around, drink and chat. We were all old friends, we’ve done enough drinking and chatting as it is. We were there to work, to try to craft something that we were proud of. Our rehearsal studio was a pretty miserable place to be because it had no windows and it was very cold. We would just go in, do as much music as we could in five hours and then leave. It was hugely enjoyable really. I kind of love those times because it was music at its purest sense. We were there to do music and that was it.
So what were some of the former day jobs for Zulu Winter?
Daunt: All sorts. I was working as an environmental journalist. Our guitarist was working as a grand manager at an international development charity and our bassist was a primary school teacher. I really enjoyed my job, but it was one of those things where I would go in and enjoy for half the day. Then I’d start listening to music, and then I’d suddenly have an idea for a song. Then you find yourself during your lunch hour going to a café, drinking coffee and writing lyrics. We didn’t mind what we were doing, but we would all spend time daydreaming at our desks, thinking about rehearsal and trying to get our band off the ground.
Some people describe the lyrics on the albums as being sexual and usually reference “Silver Tongue” and “Move From Front To Back.” What were some themes you were working with on this album?
Daunt: Well, the sexual thing. I’m married, and I’m a young man and you’ll find that young men have an interest in sex, but it’s definitely not a dirty record, like a Queens of the Stone Age sexy, dirty record. It’s more about the anxieties that come with thinking your in love and trying to get into bed with somebody and all the difficulties that come with that. I really enjoy this poet who sort of writes ambiguous poetry. I’m not going to mention his name because I always end up talking about him. I like that this poet, and other songwriters like Dylan and Cohen, are asking for interpretation from the listener. It’s not didactic or that I’m singing about a particular thing. It’s asking for the listener to interpret your lyrics. That was definitely something I wanted to do was to leave some amount of meaning unclear in my lyrics.
So what’s next for you guys?
Daunt: There’s talk of releasing an EP at the end of the year or a new single. Whenever we have any time, we’re writing and trying to get the songs up to scratch. The last thing any new band wants is for the debut to do well and then you come to the end of that cycle and you only have three months to write any songs, but it took us a year to write the first one. I think it’s also important to continue to write and to continue to create because when you play the same songs over and over again it can get a bit stale. You need to continue to challenge yourself.
Is the first album the hardest to get through?
Daunt: So far, I pretty much would agree with that. I think the confidence that comes with having toured a bit, played a bunch of shows and written, recorded and mixed an album makes the whole process when you do it again a lot easier. There’s a lot of second guessing yourself when you do it the first time around saying “Is this really good enough?”, “Do I know what I’m doing?” or “are people really going to like this?” Now that we’ve had a certain amount of appreciation, just enough to keep us going, it means you can believe in yourself a bit more and have more conviction in the decisions you make.