By Bob Gourley | Originally published in 1993
With virtually every major industrial band somehow interconnected with one another through side projects, it was only natural for the burgeoning electronic scene in Boston to also take on this incestuous nature. In Boston, Elaine Walker has proven to be one of those highly prolific individuals involved in several projects at the same time. In addition to being in D.D.T. and Sleep Chamber, Walker has her own project, ZIA.
ZIA is not actually new, but it was put on the back burner when Walker got involved with D.D.T. Once D.D.T. got established, Walker began playing out as ZIA and released a cassette. To flesh out the project into a live band, Walker is assisted by D.D.T. bandmate Lisa Sirois and You Shriek’s Marq Free.
ZIA’s music tends to be very fast and aggressive, and Walker shifts between distorted yells and more traditional singing. Walker does occasionally break out of this mold, most notably on “Stick Men,” a slow, haunting song with powerful vocals. Like most of Walker’s music, “Stick Men” is written entirely in microtuning, and the technique is particlaulry effective in the song. Walker admits that “Stick Men” does not really fit in with the rest of ZIA’s material, but she says this is the type of music she wants to explore in the future.
“I didn’t even really have the notion that what I wanted to in my life was be a rock star and get a band together,” says Walker. “What I was serious about when I first graduated, and still now, is to just explore and research microtonality”
Microtonal composition breaks away from the standard 12-tone piano tuning. Walker uses 19 note per octave tuning, as well as the octave-less Pierce Scale. Walker was first exposed to it at Berklee School of Music and says it has changed the way she looks at music. “Ever since I was in first grade, I remember asking my mom ‘what about the notes in between?’,” she says.”So I’ve always known there were other notes, but I was so young I hadn’t even explored this [12 tone] tuning. Well know I have and I’m sick of it.”
“It’s a beautiful tuning, and it’s worked for hundred of years,” says Walker of the traditional tuning system. “I still think it’s a great tuning, but my god, we’ve been using it for so long, and isn’t anyone getting sick of it? Doesn’t anyone really think about that?”
But since keyboards and sequencers were designed to play the 12-tone system, traditional musical theory and technique must be thrown out the window. For instance, the note displayed on the computer screen does not necessarily correspond with what it’s making a micro-tuned synthesizer play, so much of the composition must be done by ear.
“It can be kind of confusing to play,” says Walker. “I really hate the fact that keyboards are this hardware thing that always stays the same. I can’t wait until the day that there’s a really good controller that doesn’t just conform to one tuning.”
While many electronic bands have racks and racks of gear, ZIA’s music is created on a relatively small set up. Walker uses a Wavestation keyboard, a Roland D-110 and Alesis ESQ-M. “That’s my favorite thing,” says Walker of the ESQ-M. “It’s so archaic, but I love it.”
Sampling is not a big part of the ZIA sound, as Walker prefers to just program new sounds on the synths. But in the live shows, Sirois plays samples using another piece of “archaic” equipment – the Ensoniq Mirage.
“I think that’s hilarious because it’s this 8-bit horrible sampler and we all love it because it sounds garbley,” says Walker. “That’s our signature sound in D.D.T. We don’t even have a crystal clear, 16-bit sampler.”
Although much of ZIA’s music doesn’t really make use of it, Walker has a great voice, which is showcased best on the song “Stick Men.” Though she majored in music synthesis, all Berklee students are required to have a principal instrument they would train in, and Walker choose vocals.
Walker’s involvement with Sleep Chamber came about when she appeared in their “Synthetic Woman” video. Walker had been working with visual artist Norm Francoeur on her previous project, Blue Cartoon, and Francoeur was working with Sleep Chamber. She hadn’t actually heard of the band at the time. “It was funny. John Zewizz thought ‘oh, another fan that wants to be in my video’ and Norm was like ‘no, she’s a musician that I’ve worked with, she has a project Blue Cartoon.'”
At one time, there was talk of Zewizz managing Walker, but that never happened. The two did start writing together, and Walker is responsible for most of the music on the new Sleep Chamber LP, Siamese Succubi. Walker composed all of the keyboard and percussion parts, and then Zewizz took it into the studio to add guitar, saxophone and other instruments on top.
Originally from New Mexico, Walker’s first band, Blue Cartoon, was an outfit with more of a Berlin/New Order sound. While Walker was into this kind of music, she also listened to hardcore and even played synthesizer for a hardcore band at one point. Upon moving to Boston and going to clubs, Walker discovered bands like Front Line Assembly and Skinny Puppy and realized that these two styles could be brought together.
Walker took the name ZIA from the New Mexico state symbol, which is a Navaho Indian sun symbol. She first started up ZIA when she graduated from Berklee in 1991. Walker had all the music arranged and recorded on digitally and was looking for musicians to make up a live band, preferably to take on the role that she handles in D.D.T. – triggering melodic notes with drumsticks. But it proved difficult finding a drummer who thought about playing notes, or finding a keyboardist who would use sticks. Ultimately, Walker got to know Sirois and D.D.T. vocalist Noel McKenna and joined that band, putting ZIA on the backburner.
D.D.T. are known for their strong live shows, due to both their success in adapting the music to the live setting and the interesting visuals. The group uses elaborate props built for them by Francoeur as well as futuristic outfits and effects to add excitement to the concerts. Videos often are running on stage, and Walker says that watching them has prompted her to become a vegetarian.
‘They’re pretty gory – little white bunny rabbits with their skin getting peeled off, animals being tested and chickens, which get the least respect of any animal in the world, besides maybe cockroaches get a little less respect,” she says. “I realized, what the heck. I thought I was almost a vegetarian, but I ate chicken. I just couldn’t stand it anymore.”
Walker said that joining D.D.T. taught her a lot about the music business and made her feel more comfortable with her life in general. But Walker wanted to do more and eventually got the chance. “Finally Lisa and a couple of other friends from other bands got excited about the ZIA thing and they could tell I was getting frustrated because I had kind of left my solo thing behind,” she explains.
Right now, Walker is responsible for all of ZIA’a music. While she has no desire to collaborate with anyone on the melodic aspect of songwriting, she would like to eventually get people to help come up with the drum patterns samples and sound programming.
“To tell the truth, I wish you didn’t even have to hear music. I wish it could be like telepathy, sensing the pitches somehow,” says Walker. “All I really want to do it compose the different arrangements and figure out the pitches and harmonic movements, and it would be nice to work with a great percussionist and a great sound designer. I would rather deal with music in a more mathematical way as virtual pitches, although I realize that the pitch and actual sound or timbre interact in many ways.”
One thing Walker would like to pursue in the future is film scoring. She has already done one local project, Steve Bennett’s “Free Soul.” The film is set in a not-too-distant future where phones have commercials instead of dial tones and every room has a TV set constantly bombarding its inhabitants with images. Someone had recommended that Bennett use D.D.T. for the soundtrack, but Walker stuck in a ZIA tape with the samples and the film maker ended up asking her to score the whole film.See all interviews →