Los Angeles native Zak Waters has always straddled musical stylings. In high school, it was a struggle to balance his funk leanings and his hardcore rock band, and now as a solo artist, he continues to straddle two worlds (given his exceedingly tight skinny jeans, that fact that he’s able to straddle anything is a sheer wonder in and of itself). This time, however, it’s between his soulful influences and the expansive EDM world.
If you’ve hit the LA club scene in the last year, you’ve likely caught a glimpse of Water’s brand of infectious neo-funk, or if you’ve been wolfpacking it in Vegas of late, you may have caught one of his residencies at the Cosmopolitan (this weekend being the latest installment). Now with another SXSW under his belt, a forthcoming album release in September, and a tour in the works, Waters took time out to chat with me over a cup of coffee about the LA music scene and his upcoming plans.
What was your childhood like growing up in LA? Did you set your sights on a music career early on?
I’ve been doing this seriously for about eight years or so. I’ve always sung since I was really little, and it was always something that was a passion of mine. In high school, I was really into sports, and no one knew I sang because I was kind of embarrassed about it. I started messing around with making tracks when I was about 16, then senior year I got hurt and couldn’t play sports, so I joined this hardcore band. I wanted to do something a lot more soulful — that’s more true to me — so I was always trying to incorporate that into the band stuff, but there was way too big of a gap.
Having grown up in the LA music scene, do you think the flood of musicians to the city is more clutter to break through or is it a bevy of resources to collaborate with?
I feel like it’s actually tough. There are a lot of bands that break out of smaller markets. Like Denver has a really big folk scene — The Fray broke out of there, The Lumineers broke out of there. I feel like it is a little bit harder to break out in LA, but at the same time, there is a greater chance that you’re going to get a lucky sort of break.
You’ve announced a full-length debut album. What details can you share?
It’s done! We’ll be trickling it out.
Do you think there’s been a tipping point for you?
I get little doses of that, and then it goes back to normal. The residency at Central SAPC back in December that was a great experience — it grew every night — and on things like Twitter, when somebody in South America says, “I love Zak Waters,” that’s hard for me to wrap my head around. It’s a steady climb.
This March was your second time at SXSW. How did that differ from the first time around?
This year’s was definitely better. We played the Doritos Bold stage, which had a lot of really big bands. We definitely played more recognized showcases. It’s always amazing, though. It’s crazy. You play like eight shows in three days.
Did you meet any bands at SXSW that you were a big fan of?
You’ve been playing Las Vegas a lot lately, doing residencies at The Cosmopolitan. What has that been like?
It’s been awesome. You can play every night and have a different crowd because of all the tourists. They really are trying to curate a great lineup of music. It’s a good steady flow of music for people who are visiting.
Having done both DJ residencies and full band residencies there, which do you prefer?
I’d say I love doing full band a little bit more. I love playing live. DJ-ing is a whole, cool other thing. The guys in my band, though, are all my best friends. I love hanging with them.
And you also have a show coming up at The Viper Room, right?
I do. With my friends X Ambassadors.
The Viper Room comes with a whole lot of LA history…
Is that intimidating?
The Viper Room is an incredible venue. It’s totally awesome, and the sound there is pretty incredible. I’m stoked about it. And X Ambassadors are really good.
What are you listening to right now?
Speaking of house, you’ve been working with Benny Benassi recently, correct?
Yeah, I just did a song with him for his record. I’m really excited about that song.
What’s your songwriting process like? Being a DJ, do you find a beat first and then everything else comes together?
No, usually not. It’s usually like a lyric-melody thing. Then we’ll start building a track around that melody idea.
You do a lot of covers. Your last was Brenton Wood’s 1967 “Gimme Little Sign”. What makes an excellent candidate for a cover song?
I like to do covers that people know deep in their brains, but that make them go, “Oh my god, I forgot about this song!” “Gimme Little Sign” is a song that everybody knows subconsciously, and I think it’s a timeless hit.
Is there a particular cover or remix you haven’t done yet but would want to?
Oh man. I would love to do a lot of Michael Jackson, but I can’t touch that.
Your style is a mix of neo-funk and crooner. What do you personally identify as?
I get the crooner thing a lot. Is it the hair? People say, “Oh, he’s an electro-Jamiroquai” or “He’s an electro-Earth Wind and Fire.” Yeah! When I sit down to write or produce a song, I’ll pull up Michael Jackson, Tower of Power — these great funky soul bands — and then right after that, I’ll pull up Justice or Daft Punk. At the end of the day, the whole goal of all of the music I do is to make people feel really, really good. I want people to dance and have fun.
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