Hailing from Belfast, Cathal Cully recently came in the guise of Group Zero for his electronic debut, the amazing “Structures and Light” released in a very limited edition by Touch Sensitive Records. Let’s dig into it to understand the fascination with its content (secretly built over four years), which blends influences of proto-techno, Suicide, Cluster and Malaria!, as well as the outputs of many excellent contemporary electronic music labels such as PAN, Optimo Music and LIES, according to Cathal’s own admission.
Chain D.L.K.: Hi, Cathal! How are you?
Group Zero: I am good, thank you.
Chain D.L.K.: As you’re relatively new to the scene, some first questions…why Group Zero? A sort of subtle reminder of the fact a ‘group zero’ equals a solo project?
Group Zero: Yeah, I suppose it is, and a reference to the mid 20th-century art movement established in Dusseldorf. It’s also a nod to wiping the slate clean and starting with a clean palette of sounds. When I was starting to make this music, there was no agenda to put it out, and I didn’t know where it would lead. I didn’t have any rules or regulations, and I’m still not trying to impose that. So in a way, it’s the idea that anything is possible.
Chain D.L.K.: Before Group Zero, you were active as a singer and guitarist in a group called Girls Names… first of all, can you tell us something about that experience?
Artist Name: I still am; we’ve just been finishing off our 4th LP. We’ve been keeping that band going for eight years now pretty steadily and have gotten to experience some amazing times and played all over the world. It’s nice at the minute to just be chilling out for the time being, and taking some extended time off from touring for most of this year until we put the next record out and do it all over again.
Chain D.L.K.: It’s somehow unusual for a singer/guitarist to migrate to synth-driven stuff…why such a stylistic change?
Group Zero: Like I was saying, we’ve been touring a lot on and off the last four years, and it can be quite intense. I was just starting to get bored with playing the guitar all the time. It was getting to the stage of not wanting even to play it once I got home from a tour – or even to sing. I’m not a natural singer. So as I was getting into a much broader spectrum of music the last few years and more into the production side of things, I thought it would be best to use myself as the guinea pig for some new sonic explorations.
Chain D.L.K.: You made your tracks over a period of four years…do they sound so different from when you first made them? What are the tracks that got more heavily edited over this time period?
Group Zero: They didn’t get heavily edited after the initial recording sessions, to be honest. In reality, each track came together really quickly in intense bursts, but just staggered over a few years. I would bounce things down, think I’d go back and finish it off, and then re-find it 6 months to a year down the line and think this is ok, it’s done.
Chain D.L.K.: You said your home recording setup is ‘modest.’ What did you mean?
Group Zero: I mean, at the time there wasn’t a whole lot of hardware – just a little cheap mono synth and an old Wersi organ (that blew up one day – smoke everywhere!) going through lots of pedals and an even older beat up Crumar string machine. I went through a phase of coveting string machines, and now I love mellotrons and voice pads. I didn’t and still don’t have any outboard compressions, limiters, etc., or even a mixing desk, but little by little I’ll get there.
Chain D.L.K.: Most of the tracks in “Structures and Light” could resemble proto-techno outputs… how did you deal with primitive forms of techno?
Group Zero: I think there’s a massive crossover between the punk to post-punk and proto-techno worlds. There’s a blur between where one starts and ends and, as I just said, with limited gear, in my head, I was coming from a Suicide type angle at the start, but that just naturally evolved into whatever the album ended up sounding like. And I had no intentions to build a track up to stick to some sort of techno dance-floor etiquette. In a way, tracks like I Dream Unwired and Saturnine Adorations are tracks you could dance to, but not necessarily dance tracks.
Chain D.L.K.: Are there some tracks that are somehow collaborative?
Group Zero: No, I did it all by myself and didn’t really tell anyone for years.
Chain D.L.K.: How does your record mirror Belfast?
Group Zero: It’s murky – thick and syrupy. Parts are forgotten about, but there’s hope. It took me until recently to realize that in all the art I make, there’s the constant idea that the gold is lurking underneath the surface of the shit and you just need to sometimes fumble through it, and sometimes you fail, but you get those moments of sublime revelations when the gold peaks through and glitters in all its beauty. So a sense of melancholy, but the optimism of hope. That to me is life in Belfast.
Chain D.L.K.: Some interesting exceptions to the above-mentioned proto-techno hooks are the guitar-driven “Love and the Presence” or the little tune “Pyramid Light” (is there a sample of a train in it?)… How do they relate to the other items on your album?
Group Zero: No train, unfortunately, just a noise generator running through a tremolo and other modulation effects, possibly a gate too. When you’re thinking about putting an album or body of work together, it’s good to take things down a touch every now and again and change it up. Pyramid of Light/Love and the Presence are up there with my favorite pieces on the record, and probably one of my best things I’ve made ever. And even though I’ve said I was bored with guitars, I still wasn’t going to impose any strict rules on anything. I could hear a guitar on the track – it needed a guitar, so I picked it up and played it.
Chain D.L.K.: I was astonished by the long-lasting final “Zero Symphony”…what’s its source for inspiration?
Group Zero: Feedback and accident. I’ve got an old, rare hollow body Fender Coronado that I affectionately call the feedback machine. When you stick it through a fuzz and wah (in that order) it will feedback infinitely. It’s an entirely different instrument in itself in that context – depending on where you stand/point the pickups, bend the neck, open and close the filter, play with the tone knobs – all produce these wonderful wafts of feedback and tones that are of a moment never to ever be precisely recreated ever again. That was the spine of the track. Then by accident, I triggered a pre-recorded sequence, but without realizing it was a double speed, and ran with it. It’s definitely good to embrace the accidents every now and again. That’s why you have to stick with it, because if I’d gone into my studio and said, “today I’m going to make ‘Zero Symphony,'” it would never have happened at all in that way.
Chain D.L.K.: Have you had any chance to perform it on a live stage? If yes, any interesting feedback?
Group Zero: No, not yet. I told Mark from Touch Sensitive that I’d no interest in playing live for the foreseeable future as a) I was up to my neck trying to get the new Girls Names record completed and b) I had a hard-drive crash a year or two back and lost all the stems from the tracks. What’s left is just the master bounces. But in saying all this, I’ve been asked by David Holmes to play at his club God’s Waiting Room in this amazing old social club in East Belfast at the end of the month, so I couldn’t say no and I’m currently getting a live set together, which is keeping me pretty busy and has been fun to see where I can go with it. I reckon there’ll be a lot of room for some live improvisation on the night, so we’ll just have to see how it works out. I’m excited about it, but also a bit daunted, too.
Chain D.L.K.: Can you recommend to our readers 2 or 3 albums or tracks to listen to before and after “Structures and Light”?
Group Zero: Marc Barreca – Music works for Industry
William Basinski – The Deluge
HTRK – Psychic 9-5 Club
Chain D.L.K.: I forgot one of the most obvious questions an interviewer normally does while focusing on an album… Why “Structures and
Group Zero: Again, it comes from the Group Zero movement, who were interested in using light as both a medium and source of expression, and in that same way that an object can appear definitely from different angles depending on how the light is either reflected or obscured by it. I feel if you take the time to sit down with this record, little subtle nuances will become more apparent with each listen.
Chain D.L.K.: Any follow-up to your debut album?
Group Zero: I’ve just finished a long-form ambient piece as a collaborative response with my dear friend Dawn, who has created these wonderful abstract expressionist type paintings of block colors, which were an absolute joy and thrill to do. We’ll see what comes of that. I’m also wading through loads of half finished and forgotten about sketches and planning to get them documented soon. It’ll also be interesting to see how the live set goes, as it might influence my next step. When I was younger, I was always in a massive rush to get things out, but until I have a deadline put in front of me, I’m in no massive rush. I’m going to be happy to keep banging on the doors of a chance until those sublime accidents emanate from beyond. That could be today, tomorrow or maybe next year.