INTERVIEW: New York producers Zach & Roger revel in strangeness

Zach & Roger, Zach and Roger

Zach & Roger, courtesy.

Zach & Roger, the Brooklyn-based production duo, have had a career so exciting that it borders on the bizarre.

“We’ve been doing this for so long that so many strange things have happened to us,” Zach Seman says. “Traveling around the world, working with different musicians, it’s sort of just a hazard of our job.”

Most recently, their joint career led them to co-write and produce “Connexion” for Zayn Malik’s third studio album, Nobody is Listening. But Seman and Roger Kleinman have humbler, less unconventional beginnings.

Before they were globe-trotting producers, they were both students at Bard University, meeting when Seman was a senior and Kleinman a freshman. They began their nearly decade-long career together playing in bands around New York, but after signing with Warner Music in 2013, they’ve worked with the likes of Fabolous, 2 Chainz and A$AP Rocky

“We spent like … 48 hours straight with the A$AP Mob,” Kleinman says. “He had just gotten … the iPhone 5. It was the first one that had a thumbprint. He gave everyone his phone, and one by one, tried to make everyone unlock his phone with their thumb to prove that we couldn’t.”

“It was a very 2014 way to flex,” Seman says.

While Zach & Roger have grown accustomed to traveling to artists around the world to work with them, their relationship with Zayn is a true 2020 love story. The pandemic made meeting with Zayn impossible during the collaboration, so the juicy details about the former One Directioner are at a minimum. With “Connexion,” the duo provided Zayn with a demo and he expanded on it. All of the ideas were passed back and forth online.

“Unfortunately, over Zoom and email and WeTransfer, there’s no insight into what cologne he was wearing,” Kleinman says with a shrug. 

Their experience with Zayn has in some ways been indicative of music-making during the pandemic on the whole. The first couple months of COVID-19 left the two producers “shell-shocked,” but by summer, the pandemic had turned into a great opportunity to work with artists who hadn’t previously been on their radar. They even had the opportunity to produce at COVID-safe locations like the famed Electric Lady Studios, which has been a hectic addition to Zach & Roger’s already unorthodox journey.

“Every time we needed help with the technology, the assistant would have to run in and we’d all put our masks on,” Kleinman says, describing his and Seman’s two-week stint producing singer-songwriter Claud’s debut album, Super Monster, set to be released on Feb. 21.

As opposed to the more casual nature of production before COVID, an artist now blocks out time with them for a couple weeks. Artist Isaac Dunbar, who the pair worked with not too long ago, went so far as to rent a cabin in upstate New York for a two-week retreat befitting of Zach & Roger’s adventures. 

This lifestyle extends from Kleinman’s and Seman’s habits to their current sound, and lately, Zach & Roger have found themselves in a period of experimentation, with a less-is-more approach to instrumentation.

“I think we kind of just got lucky that that resonated with Zayn,” Seman says. He describes the track as the perfect example of what that experiment manifests, with as few sounds as possible. Zayn’s falsetto is the centerpiece of a minimalistic accompaniment, which from a production standpoint, is harder to do than you’d expect, Kleinman adds.

“If we had just put in a bunch of tracks, ornaments here and there, it would have taken away from that,” Kleinman says. “Zayn kind of carries it.” 

Though Zayn’s innovative approach was an unexpected surprise, Zach & Roger’s love of the bizarre leads them to work with more than just skilled vocalists. Last year they found themselves at an abandoned radio station in Budapest, Hungary, where they recorded comedian and voice actor Jon Benjamin (“Bob’s Burgers,” “Archer”), who was accompanying an orchestra on a synth that they’d shipped in from the U.S.

“Imagine walking into an 80-, 90-piece orchestra knowing that your main soloist can’t even play his instrument,” Seman says. “And you’re in a foreign country, these are all very serious people … Also, Jon was dressed in an orange space suit with a space helmet that said ‘jazz’ on it.”

Benjamin’s partnership with Zach & Roger isn’t just a one-off; the production team has long been fond of both film and TV scoring. Set to come out in 2021 are two movies they’ve scored: “So Late So Soon” and “When Worlds Collide.” The latter is a documentary about prolific East Village painter Kenny Scharf.

Zach & Roger continue to focus on film and TV work, which Seman says allows the duo to bend many of the rules of conventional pop music.

“You’re able to make music that is much stranger than music in any other context,” he says. “You can write a modernist, classical, insane piece of music, and you can have it in a movie, playing in a movie theater, and millions of people are going to take that music in. I think we got pretty close to it with ‘Connexion,’ ‘Connexion’ is a pretty strange song.”

After several years of traveling to make music, Zach & Roger find themselves in a new strange situation: spending most of their time at home. Kleinman has taken up fostering dogs. His two boxer mix puppies enjoyed spending time at Electric Lady last summer, helping to finish the duo’s work on the Claud.

“We have all these pictures of Claud in the studio holding the puppies, recording vocals,” Kleinman says as his new lab-dachshund foster pup sleeps on the couch behind him.

“I’m sure if we listen closely, we can hear some of the dogs barking,” Seman adds.

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