Zen BambooZen Bamboo is a quartet from Saint-Lambert, on Montréal’s South Shore, that still rehearses in someone’s basement. Léo Leblanc, Simon Larose, Charles-Antoine Olivier and Xavier Touikan are tracing their own path as the proverbial and cliché “band from the ‘burbs” who dreams big; they feed the myth, and build their identities around it.

Their core audience, mainly young adults, frenetically consumes everything the band releases. “Some people are convinced we’re uber-cool, and that’s what surprises us the most,” says Simon Larose, Zen Bamboo’s lyricist and singer. Despite the fact that critics already foresee a future where big-name comparisons abound, the band members refuse any kind of pigeonholing, something they find “boring and unimaginative.”

After recording shoestring-budget demos last summer, the boys broke their piggy banks and cut 16 tracks with the help of producer Thomas Augustin (of Malajube fame), which they’ve since been releasing slowly. The four-song EP Volume 1: Juvénile, released last July, was followed last November, by the six-song Volume 2: plus mature, plus assumé – this time on the Simone Records imprint. “All the songs are from that one recording session,” says Larose. “So when we use the term ‘mature,’ it has more to do with the song selection than any kind of evolution between the two EPs.”

Maturity isn’t the first thing that comes to mind when you first meet the boys. All four are quite dissipated, and so deep in derision that you might think they’re making fun of you. To wit, they’ve all been saying for years that they’re all 19 years old, a claim which a quick Facebook search completely invalidates.

“If we’re going to argue about our maturity, I’d offer the fact that we drink less and three of us now attend university full-time, while Léo just got his Cégep diploma. Wouldn’t you call that wisdom?” asks Larose. “Plus, Volume 2 has a lot more reverb,” adds Charles-Antoine Olivier. “Normally, the more the reverb, the more the mature.” That’s not true of Mario Pelchat, we retort. They consult, not all entirely aware of who we’re talking about. (Mario Pelchat is a Québec crooner whose audience is mainly middle-aged women).

While a conversation with Zen Bamboo is more often than not chaotic, and frequently interrupted by buffoonery, their stage presence is seriously killer. The four members are clearly motivated by a desire to truly perform, so far convincing everyone that they have a bright future – to which they respond with laughter, convinced that their material is excellent, but that a wide audience is still not yet on the eve of materializing. “It’s that 10,000-hour thing,” says Simon. “If you do any task for 10,000 hours, you become expert at it. So, obviously, we’re getting better at it. If we kick ass onstage, it’s because we rehearse a lot.”

To them, “the switch is off” when they’re onstage. According to Simon, it’s the right place to think outside the box. If, for example, it’s not recommended to jump around and flail one’s arms on the bus, Zen Bamboo believes that it should be the opposite onstage. “I’m not about to start following any kind of etiquette onstage,” says Simon. “I’m not taking drugs, I’m not bungee-jumping. The stage is where I totally let go.” Their magic stems from such spontaneity. “The only time we tried to plan things was in Granby [at the Festival International de la chanson, in 2015]. We wore costumes, CAO [Charles-Antoine] wore a safari hat, and it was our worst show ever.”

Simon’s singing voice, at times nonchalant, at others high-pitched, but always unique, is at the centre of the band’s very precise arrangements – which reflect the amount of time spent rehearsing them. “I write the music and lyrics as a dialogue,” he says. “They’re mutually influential. Often, I’ll just spew words into my phone’s notepad, and later I’ll sit down and make sense of it all. It always takes a while before anything good comes out of it. I rarely like what I do. When I’m mulling over a song, I just get anxious.”

The band feels a need to come at topics from off the beaten path. “On ‘Si c’est correct,’ I like the fact that we talk about fucking from the angle of not doing it, in the end,” says Simon. “I like that fact that we’ve captured a sentiment that we rarely hear about. The one-night stand that doesn’t happen, people don’t talk about that.”

Releasing an EP every now and then is a curious approach, although it’s not uncommon to feel like releasing an album has no true meaning anymore. “We’re constantly recording,” Simon says. “I hate the classic Québécois circuit. I write two songs a week, I have 95 in the bank, making me neurotic. I have to get it out.” Zen Bamboo’s next goal is to play at every possible festival during the summer of 2018. “The festival of canned pork, of potatoes, of beets. We’re gonna play them all,” says Simon. “And we’re going to release music. A lot of music. Too much music. Very often.”

This is the first in a new series for Words & Music, called “How did the song happen?” The idea is to look not only at how a hit song was written, but to also go behind the scenes to reveal all of the music-industry activity – like music publishing – that led to its writing, and that brought it from finished demo recording to commercial, critical or artistic success.

For the first one, we fittingly examine “First Time,” a song co-written by SOCAN member Jenson Vaughan (who’s co-written for Madonna and Britney Spears, among others), along with Shy Martin and Fanny Hultman, and production team Hitimpulse. “First Time” is also co-published by his publisher Ultra Music Media.  Written at a song camp in Stockholm, the song found its way to huge commercial juggernaut Kygo, and now it’s gone Platinum in Canada and Australia; Gold in France, Italy and Denmark; and Silver in the U.K.  “First Time” reached the Top 10 on the Billboard U.S. Dance Club Songs and U.S. Hot Dance/Electronic Songs charts. It has earned 250 million streams on Spotify, 58 million views on YouTube, and 22 million on Vevo. Here’s how it got there…

SOCAN member co-writer Jenson Vaughan discusses how he co-wrote “First Time”:

Shy Martin

Shy Martin

When I was a young, we used to sneak booze from my friends’ parents liquor cabinets, and go drinking by the train tracks that ran parallel to Windmill Road in Dartmouth, where I grew up.  There was one park in particular, by my house, that we used to go to. We called it Three Bump Hill, because it had a hill with three bumps (how original, I know).  It’s a nostalgic place for me, so much so that I named my music publishing company Three Bump Hill.

Fast forward 20 years, and it’s day one at an Ultra Music Media/Ten Music songwriting camp in Stockholm, Sweden.  I’m paired up with production team Hitimpulse from Germany, and local songwriters Shy Martin and Fanny Hultman.  We got off to a great start, finishing our first song in just a couple hours, and decided to write another, Thank God).  Hitimpulse starts with some cool chords, and Fanny and Shy start right away with some interesting melodies.  It becomes clear pretty quickly that the song has a nostalgic feel, and we decide to write about our youth; love, loss, sowing our wild oats.

It was one of those “dream” sessions, everything flowing effortlessly, and all the pieces quickly fitting.  Lyrically, I drew on some of my own experience such as “getting drunk on the train tracks” with my friends, and “your dad’s black Honda was our Maybach,” which is really how we felt whenever we got the keys to my friend’s car.  It was just really cool to be able to include personal lines like this, and give Dartmouth, of all places, props in the song.

Once the camp was over, we all went our separate ways.  But we all felt we had something special with the song, and in tandem we all started shopping it.  Hitimpulse especially loved it, and had actually planned to release it as their own single, feat Shy Martin.  But it wasn’t long after that Shy e-mailed us saying her management sent it to Kygo’s people and he loved it.  However, a few months went by, and we weren’t getting any confirmation from Kygo that he would release it. I kinda lost hope, when out of the blue, I got a call from Patrick Moxey [Founder & President of Ultra Music Media] that went exactly like this: ‘Hey Patrick, what’s up?’ ‘Hey Jenson, so, it looks like your song “First Time” will be Kygo’s next single, and it’s going to feature Ellie Goulding.’”

Patrick Moxey, founder and President of Ultra Music Media, discusses the behind-the-scenes work that fostered the writing of “First Time,” and placed it into Kygo’s hands:

Patrick Moxey

Patrick Moxey

Ultra were having our Stockholm songwriting camp, and we were thinking very much about getting the right writers together. Ultra was sending Jenson there for the camp, and I had met Shy Martin’s manager Anna Cornelia, and her producers. So I said, “Anna, let’s get Jenson and Shy Martin in together.” Then it was co-ordinated by our U.K. A&R team, Tracy Fox and Paul Arnold… [Producers] Hitimpulse were there, who are our artists on Ultra Records…

The original impetus bringing it together was the idea of, “Jenson, great writer, who in Sweden would understand his vibe?” I thought, Shy Martin. And then we had Hitimpulse coming up from Germany, as great producers. That gave us the chemistry, and that chemistry came up with “First Time.”

It was actually Shy Martin’s camp that sent the demo to Helen [McLaughlin, then head of A&R] at Sony Sweden, who was working with [both] me and Kygo. He heard the record, loved it, and it got placed. Hitimpulse liked the idea of Kygo cutting it, with them being involved as writers on the song. It was created, it ping-ponged back and forth a little bit – “Is it going to come out with Hitimpulse?” – but then the Kygo possibility presented itself, and Hitimpulse thought that was a good idea. So it just flowed very naturally, to become a great single, which has done over 250 million streams on Spotify. It’s been an absolutely huge record, and a huge hit for Jenson Vaughan.

It’s tremendous teamwork, and that fundamental statement is true: by creating chances, you create luck. If we hadn’t sent Jenson to Stockholm, if he hadn’t gone in with Shy Martin, if Hitimpulse hadn’t been there from Germany… Each one of these things took a little effort, [and together] you create the chance for that to happen.

Keith KounaIn October of 2017, Keith Kouna launched Bonsoir Shérif, a scathing affair that sees the songwriter being more corrosive than ever before, echoing the vibe of his recent stint with Les Goules (and their album Coma, released the previous year). His latest proudly stands out as a witness to troubled times, the story of a man experiencing the apparent loss of control of his society and community. “I mostly believe I did the album I needed to do at the moment I did it,” says Kouna.

Written mostly in the period between the French and American presidential elections in 2016, Kouna admitted, in Montréal daily Le Devoir, to being intoxicated by social media and the commentaries disseminated in various news sources. “It pisses me off, but I still tune in from time to time, because I need to remind myself that these people really exist.”

How does he feel now, a few months after the album’s release? “I’ve relaxed about it,” says Kouna. “I like to take a break from their existence.” Which isn’t to say he’s no longer lucid about the state of affairs. “I think we’ve just embarked on a long, bad dream,” he says. “I feel there’s a gaping social fracture, a kind of soft and hypocritical totalitarianism. And general indifference. These are complex and difficult times to gauge with any kind of precision, but let’s just say impressions and instinct are quite somber…”

Flirting with an immoderate temper, Kouna approached this social climate with an all-or-nothing approach. “I can get hyper-absorbed by current affairs, by songwriting – just as I also have long periods of fluttering, and complete disconnect,” he says. “I don’t know if it’s a survival instinct, but it surely is a counterweight to my lack of moderation.”

This is reflected in Kouna’s many incarnations: songwriter, Goules frontman, or re-visiting Schubert in 2013’s Le voyage d’hiver. Ambition clearly isn’t an issue for him, and he masterfully manages his various, overlapping creative threads. “I know quite quickly what my direction will be with this or that project and, in the case of Bonsoir Shérif, although it’s not a personal or emotional album, it remains a personal position statement. Les Goules is more abstract, you could almost say more narrative. Keith could not have sung “Coat de cuir.” Just as “Poupée” would’ve sounded weird played by Les Goules. After that, there’s the state of mind… But there’s never anything definitive. This time around, with the release by Les Goules the previous year, I felt like sticking to this direction. That’s why there are similarities.”

Yet, he still feels a need to add some nuance. “I’m really not the type of guy who’s permanently in a writing phase,” says Kouna. “I can be quite lazy, at times. I still surprise myself! I work in periods of rushes, under pressure, and somewhat last-minute. Right now, I haven’t written anything in awhile, and I don’t feel too bad about it… But when I’m in the middle of it, I become just as excessive and obsessed – so much so that I can barely sleep. Plus, one thing for sure: I don’t like repeating myself.”

That’s why he challenges himself: to stay alert, and as far away from any kind of comfort zone afforded by success. “If I get into a project, whatever it may be, it’s because I feel like it,” he says. “And part of it is something like a desire for an anti-career. Taking side roads, pauses – it keeps the whole journey dynamic. There’s something anti-corporate in there that suits me. I think it’s beneficial for me to explore, and force myself to take different approaches: Composing with the Goules or Schubert in mind, or whatever the next project will be.”

And although he’ll hit the road in a few days in Shérif mode – and spend better part of 2018 there – he’s already started working on the next project. He’s discreet about it, since it’s all still embryonic, but what’s becoming clear is that it will share the same lofty ambitions as Voyage d’hiver… “Right now, I’m having ideas that are not unlike that ambitious, obnoxious project,” Kouna says. “It’s exciting to embark on such major projects. The Voyage experience was such an enriching journey. I’d embark on a project like that in a heartbeat.”

The most ambitious journeys: that’s all we can wish for him – and ourselves, for music yet to come.