︎ COOL BOY TAKES ON TATE
Quirky, charismatic and warm-hearted, 19-year-old Zach Zono, aka COOL BOY, is as loveable as he looks. Promoting the recent release of his debut EP 'Midnight Gentleman', Cortex linked up with the happy-go-lucky, bedroom-pop musician to take pictures around Tate Modern... with a twist.
Veering away from your typical editorial, Zach scoured the Tate asking the general public to take pictures of him on a disposable camera; giving total responsibility of the shoot to complete strangers.
Wooing the cultured visitors with his South African accent, trademark smart-casual, hoodie/suit attire, and phrases like, "For the article", most people accepted the challenge and allowed us to take a portrait of them on an iPhone to juxtapose with the film camera. You may notice a few people were understandably reluctant to have their picture taken, thus we took photos of random spaces/objects to compensate.
Enjoy our conversation and see the faces behind the lens below. The results are surprisingly delightful.
Describe to me your background and how you got into music.
So, I grew up in the West Coast of South Africa, so, it’s like, you either surf or skate. Music’s not really that big. But then you know in school your friends start something and you’re like, “Ayy, I gonna start it!” Everyone started guitar so I was like, “Let me try it” and found out that I got good, and then just started developing playing other instruments like piano and drums. Then I started writing songs when I was like 15. Played in a few bands - still play in a band - and then when I moved to London I found the Cool Boy sound, then I developed it more and now I released the EP and we’re going from there.
What were you trying convey in the EP, ‘Midnight Gentleman’? Describe the vision.
It’s kind of like a long love song, in a way. Where all the song’s meanings connect. Like with art connecting. So the concept for each song I would say follows through with a meaning to me. But I kind of wanted the audience to find their own meaning in it, so I’m not gonna say what it means. Because everyone can find their own meaning in something - I don’t wanna spoil it, what’s the fun?
With the ‘London Room’ video you dropped, is it imperative for you to parallel the art with the music?
The meaning of the video corresponds to the meaning of the song, like 100%. And I worked with two artists and a production team from the lyrics of the track and what I thought they meant to me. And then we came up with the idea of being stuck as a statue… then we went from there. I was always going to be stuck and the voice is there to tease. We thought that’s the way it’s going to be, we put the sheet over at the end and that’s the ending.
Describe to me your creative process when making music.
It always starts with the instruments, never lyrics first. Melody always comes last. I’d say it mostly starts with guitar and build from there; add the drums, get some synths going, scrap it start again, then get the melody going. Try lay down some lyrics. So, yeah, then just filter it until I appreciate it as a whole.
I want to move back to talking about your background for a second. How was it growing up in South Africa?
It’s definitely way different than London. Like you have to be educated in culture and what’s going on around you. Crime - where to go and where not to go. Like, you drive everywhere, you don’t walk. There’s only, like, one public transport and it’s just super small like Cape Town - everyone knows everyone, all the hipsters know the hipsters. And it’s like if you do anything everyone knows and it makes the music there seem extremely small. There’s only a few acts that have actually made it that have come from Cape Town, like Die Antwoord’s probably the biggest one. It’s because they moved to America and have got the whole South African culture, like the Afrikaans too.
Who are your favourite artists who have come from South Africa?
Who have come from South Africa? *Laughs* There’s none, there’s definitely not many. There’s an artist called Alice Phoebe Lou, she’s super sick, she’s from South Africa, Cape Town, but she moved to Berlin I think three years ago and now she’s based out in Berlin.
So, why did you move to London in the end?
It’s a good question. Because the opportunity was there, like my Mum’s from England. So, I got a British passport so it was easier to move over and the music scene here is like super big - it’s either London, New York or LA, you pick one of them and try your hand at one. If it works it works. I’ve been here for, like, six months now - it took me a while to sort everything out, like meet people, make connections but I feel like this year it’s gonna go up.
Is that how you met Alex your manager?
Alex? He’s actually my brother. He moved here after me.
What’s that like having your brother for a manager?
It’s works, then doesn’t work, then we have to make it work. I guess I can say what I mean, then he can interpret it ‘cause he knows what I mean. When some people don’t really know you won’t really know what you mean and then you have to build the connection. And of course the connection’s there ‘cause he’s my brother. And then we started a production, music, art company called Zonosphere. We’re gonna run all the stuff we do through that. So, we started releasing other artist’s music, I’m producing them, there’s a lot of new stuff coming. Like, doing shoots for brands. He works and has started working in the fashion houses, he’s going to New York fashion week next week. So, it’s like, everything’s going to be under there and build it as a team.
Who are your inspirations musically and generally?
I would say for like music I listen to everything. From, like, r&b to country. But if I had to pick top artists… it’s a difficult one. It’s, like, you could go the cheesy way and be, like, “Pink Floyd”, but I listen to a lot of Matt Corby, he’s an Australian artist. He’s a singer/songwriter, just released a new album - super sick. But then I’d go and I listen to BB King’s and Blues, its super different; when I was younger I was into the ACDC, Black Keys, like, super rocky but new age rock. But now it’s more old school music and like the whole bedroom pop scene that’s happening, like Clara and Gus Dapperton, Boy Pablo and all of them, yeah. It’s growing super big and it’s super sick that they’re all working together and the whole movement’s coming as a whole. They’re kind of branching out of the movement now. Like Cucko - he’s going more into rap and Beats and stuff. It’s super sick because they’ve opened the opportunity for themselves to do that.
But I’d say my biggest inspiration is my Dad. Because when he was young he always wanted to be a pilot and his parents made him study dentistry and, like, two semesters in he was like, “Nah”. He joined the military and became a pilot. Now he flies those big commercial planes overseas and all that cool shit.
When we were younger my brother and I… Dad always wanted us to be, like, formula one drivers or fly planes. And I just got all this super creative genes and I was like, “I have no interest in this.” He was like, “Fine, fine, whatever you want to do your mother and I support you.”
So, you were talking about the mini-genre bedroom-pop. I’m curious to know how you’d describe your sound.
It’s a tough question because I’ve just finished recording a second EP. It’s busy in the works, I’m going in. Probably going to go back to Cape Town for like a week or two next month to re-record some tracks and instruments and stuff. But, like, the Cool Boy sound’s developed more into guitar driven, basy synths. If I had to decide what genre to put it under, it’ probably be an indie fan listening to bedroom pop on an old school vinyl with their curtains closed or something.
You’re always referring to ‘Cool Boy’ in third person and an entity, what’s the difference/contrast between Zach and Cool Boy?
The contrasts and differences kind of keep him as, like, a character in a way. And, like, keeping the theme of having 50% Cool Boy as a persona: the orange circle, the suits, like same personality as me, it’s just the look. The aesthetic of Cool Boy… we try to keep it super prime, super there, always there. I also play in a band called ‘Youth Gallery’ that has a new EP coming out soon and I wanted to make Cool Boy different from that. ‘Cause I sing in the band too, I didn’t want people to think it’s similar, so I was like, I gotta make sure that the project has an aesthetic, has a look. And also I’m planning when I’m older to release an album under my own name, then those two will be different because of how I’ve built them.
Why did you choose the name Cool Boy and the suits to go with it?
I’ll tell you the story of the name. I can then move into the suits. So, basically, I moved to London with a guy called Aaron Page, he plays in Youth Gallery. The place we were staying at when we moved here was with some family friends. London was going through a heatwave, so they went in an attic and took down a fan and it said on the fan ‘Cool Boy’. After we finished tracking with Youth Gallery the second EP, I started working on the Cool Boy because I had all these leftover songs that I really wanted to develop. Then I didn’t have a name for it and looked at the fan, I was like, “Might as well call it ‘Cool Boy’”. People could think it’s extremely arrogant but I think it’s super sick. Then I legit got a piece of paper and was like, “What would a cool boy do?” I think a cool boy would wear suits and he would have a colour theme. I was like, “Well, I like oranges, let’s give him an orange circle.” Easy. Suits, orange circle, done.
I’m surprised it wasn't trademarked already.
So, I started doing research into it and there was a lot of people who had ‘Cool Boyz’ with a Z or like, one O. Weirdly, no one just wants ‘Cool Boy’. Like, everyone thought it was either already taken and just named it something else. I did find this one band with no space between the ‘cool’ and the ‘boy’ from like 10 years ago they uploaded a YouTube video. It was the funniest track I’ve ever heard because they just spoke about being a cool boy. If anyone has time listen to that.
I want to move onto more broader things. So, you said you’ve got a new EP coming up…
I’m not saying when because it’s kind of like in the works. My part’s done, for now.
Is that the only thing we can expect from you in the near future?
I have the name for the new EP too. So, I’m gonna release the second EP which will be five tracks, I can tell you that. And there will be an album after that. When the second EP comes out there will be gigs and shows. We’ll try play as many places as possible - the rehearsals start quite soon, it was just hard to get people together. You have to get the practising done and the logistics. But I can say when the second EP comes up there will be a little tour.
Is that a headline or supporting tour?
Planning to be headline, yes.
What are your overall goals for the future?
I would say the goal for this year is to finish the album. Be a big weight off the shoulders. First album under the name ‘Cool Boy’. While doing that, Youth Gallery’s got a second EP coming out and we’re in some talks with German labels who want to do a third EP. Then I’ll like, ride that wave for a bit, then just see what happens. I actually want to get into producing a little more; working with other artists, helping them grow, helping the music and stuff like that… see what happens with that. I feel like the next step would be to go New York for like 4 months, making some connections there, you know America - stuff of gold.
Are you sure going down the label route nowadays is still a good idea?
It can go 50/50, ‘cause there’s so many labels that you have to filter out with the bad deals. But nowadays you can make it without a label. You don’t need a label if you put it the effort, if you put in the work you’re gonna make it. There’s no shortcut to making it nowadays ‘cause everyone’s so good at everything that if you’re bad you’re going to get filtered out and if you’re good you’re gonna stay. So, it’s just like, work hard. But I’m only 19 I’ve still got a few years up my sleeve.
This is kind of a deep one, but we ask it to everyone… what is your definition of creativity?
I would say creativity is up to the person who’s doing it. Like, your self-expression. If YOU are making some artwork but no one else likes it but you do, that’s all that matters. At the end of the day, it’s your creativity, it’s not for the people, it’s not to be played around with and stuff. And if people do enjoy it and you like the fact that people enjoy it then carry on with it. But don’t fake it just to make it. That’s the quote *laughs*
Interview by BENJI REEVES
Photography by the general public.