Introducing Yoko-Zuna

As Auckland based group Yoko-Zuna start to narrow in on the finished product of what will be their debut self-titled album, I met up with the boys in their Kingsland studio. With the release to be expected this summer, I had an awesome time listening to and discussing some of the material chosen to be on their record and where they’re going to go with it.


Yoko-Zuna met at the start of the year in that once awesome haunt on High Street, Rakinos (RIP). There was a hip-hop collective promoting improvisation called the Free Peace Collective where Swap and Cam (the producer) met JY, Kenji and Frank. I tried deciphering who does what but the results were combined. Generally, Swap sits behind the drums, JY plays an assortment of wind instruments, Kenji lays down the guitar and I guess that leaves Frank on bass or keys.

They describe themselves as a melting pot of influences and genres. There’s a bit of jazz, hip-hop and funk in there, with a hearty dose of electronica and something called neo-soul. Their sound is layered and diverse, actively searching for the boundaries of conventional genres and pushing them further. One great example of their sound, I thought, was a track called JY Jelly (all the songs have working titles I was warned). It starts with deep percussion and bass then cuts open with this sharp saxophone. It’s beautiful but edgy. They spoke of the processes and how everything is born primarily as an instrumental, while vocals are added on select tracks later. The album will appear with four or five tracks with vocals and five instrumental tracks. After we met they were meeting up with Bailey Wiley to record some vocals, they spoke of Bronson from Third 3ye recording for them as well as Team Dynamite. So not only do they have a diverse array of genre influences, but first hand artistic impressions from various collaborators. In terms of external influences they spoke of people like Robert Glasper, J Dilla and had a consensus of, “Yeah, yeah, definitely,” for Flying Lotus.

Yoko-Zuna’s sound is a refreshing approach to experimental music. The way their songs are developed immediately broke away from my preconceptions of such a genre of ‘progressive’ anything. The way they write and produce music feels so organic and ‘team’-oriented that there’s no way you can walk away from these guys without a bit of swag in your step and a grin on your face.

The album started with 2-3 weeks of jamming until they happened upon sounds and layers they liked. I was told this album started as an EP, but it grew exponentially as members brought in new ideas for interludes, and when the quantity of those interludes rivalled a pre-808s Kanye album they developed the worthy ones into songs that eventually tied into the album. The band is essentially growing an album between three or four key songs; creating a really diverse but tightly bound record where the sounds and moods flowed and fluctuate really easily. Like Kenji said, all the songs, “Are there because we like them”. Everything is necessary because there’s no expectation to expand. The pressure to create a full length LP just didn't exist so the avenues for artistic creation and experimentalism were vast.

From this they create a sort of journey through their album. Cam, the producer, who confesses to spending countless hours over the last five months picking through the separate songs described the process of writing a song called M Audio. JY played a couple keys on this retro M Audio keyboard and started a jam, got it recorded, fleshed it out a bit. Fast forward a bit and a cheeky snare sample is added and you look at the track in “a whole new way”. The intimate knowledge they have of their songs, grown from building it from a casual jamming session, gives them the ability to deconstruct their sound and add levels that change the dynamic of the entirety.

In case you were unsure, I’m pretty excited for the results. Tell all your mates to look out for the album that should be showing up some time before the New Year. They mentioned the difficulty in booking shows with no music out yet but, hopefully, gigs over summer shouldn't be too difficult to come by after this album is released.

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