Interview: Stereo Naked’s Julie Zeck and Pierce Black on their Celtic Connections

The UK audience is more receptive than German audiences to innovative folk and bluegrass.

The band name Stereo Naked isn’t the only thing that can be said to be a little off-kilter about folk bluegrass duo Julie Zeck and Pierce Black. There is also the fact that the instrumental mix of Julie Zeck’s banjo with Pierce Black’s acoustic bass is not your usual line-up. Then there is the fact that they got together thanks to the Cologne bluegrass scene and that while Julie is from Cologne, Pierce is originally from New Zealand. Finally, there is the fact that the duo are sometimes a five-piece. Stereo Naked certainly caused some ripples when they toured recently. They are back in the UK to play Celtic Connections and a short tour, and they will be using their Celtic Connections appearance to launch their third album, ‘Upside Down’. Americana UK’s Martin Johnson caught up with Julie Zeck and Pierce Black in Germany over Zoom to discuss their background and their new album which they recorded with the Rain Of Animals’ Pepita Emmariches and Theodore Barnard. They also explain the idea behind their band name. They both share their appreciation of UK audiences, and how the UK is more open to new musical ideas in the folk and bluegrass genres than those in Germany. Finally, they share how much they are looking forward to playing Celtic Connections while doing their best not to fan any flames of English and Scottish rivalry.

Pierce, what attracted you to Germany after being born in New Zealand?

Pierce Black (PB): It just happened. I did an exchange here in Germany after school. I suppose I didn’t know what to do with myself, and my dad suggested I leave the island and see something of the world. I played a little bit of bass in New Zealand, and when I came over here my first guest family  I stayed with, the guest father was actually a classical bass player with a very famous classical orchestra here. I enjoyed my year here, I probably drank quite a lot, freedom away from parents in every sense. My parents had moved up north from Wellington to a more rural part of the country, and I thought I’d like to come back to Germany and try and get into the Conservatory.

I came back and spent a year practising, and I got into the Conservatory, and not that I was good enough I was just very lucky, and I started studying classical bass. At the end of my studies, I realised I didn’t want to be an orchestral bass player, after all, it’s not my goal, and I started branching out and playing in other directions and I started looking at jazz. The bluegrass and folk scene here in Cologne is a small scene, but it is a very young scene, and a friend of mine brought me in and I found it very sociable. You get together and just play music, it doesn’t matter whether you are just starting out on your instrument or you know your instrument well. I liked that aspect of it, and I don’t know, the years fly by quicker than you expect and you are just caught up in the scene.

I was in Cologne four years ago and I hadn’t realised there was a bluegrass scene there.

PB: It is fairly new, and I have to be careful because in Germany there are groups of older folkies, but in Cologne, the jam session we started is now eleven years old. It took a while to get going, and now we have a festival, the Green Parrot Festival, here in Cologne which I organise, and next year will be our fifth festival. I wouldn’t say it is a big scene but people travel, and you know how folkies are, they are really into it. It’s small but like a family, and the community is quite special here. This year I was at the Moniaive Folk Festival and that also had a special family feel.

Cologne isn’t necessarily a very pretty city but it is quite well positioned, you are pretty close to Holland and France and within Europe itself, there are quite a lot of places. As a freelancer I found I couldn’t do the job I do here in New Zealand, it would be impossible. I don’t how things will be in the future, but I’ve been very lucky to be able to freelance here in Europe, and I think that is mainly due to the location of the city.

Julie, how did you get together with Pierce?

Julie Zeck (JZ): It was through the bluegrass scene, we have common friends in the scene, and we realised we were both writing songs in our own corner and we shyly showed each other our songs. That’s how it began.

PB: Back in those days I didn’t really have enough songs to do much, and Julie was the same, but together we had enough to start something. There was a little bit of that, and then there were our similar tastes in music.

Julie, you were in Fierce Flowers at the time?

JZ: Yes, that was a trio in Paris, and I was dividing my time between Cologne and Paris. There was a lot of travelling.

An obvious question, where did the band name come from?

PB: Yes, Stereo Naked. The idea was that Stereo came from having two people in the band, and Naked was because when we play with just the instrumentation of the bass and the banjo it leaves a lot of room, and the pieces can sound quite empty and naked. You certainly feel that when you are on stage, and probably every duo feels like that, and it leaves more space for the voices in some ways. It was just describing the sound and the feeling of being exposed when playing music on stage.

Julie, why banjo as your instrument?

JZ: There was an old-time scene here in Cologne at first, and I met some fiddlers from the US who got me into old-time music and I travelled to The States and did some fiddle camps there. Then, somehow, I got into clawhammer banjo.

You also play guitar as well.

JZ: Yeah, I also play guitar. My initial instrument was piano, and I studied jazz singing here at the university in Cologne.

When you formed the band was there a big vision, or was it that you simply wanted to play together?

JZ: The instrumentation helps us be creative, how do you get around working with banjo and bass, and that influenced our songwriting in the beginning, what can you do with those two instruments?

What are the songwriting dynamics within the band?

PB: Sometimes I come up with an idea on the bass with some text. Text wise we haven’t written a great deal together, though there are some things we’ve co-worked on, but usually text is Julie’s or mine, but musically I would say we work on it together. It is a slow process.

Are you looking forward to Celtic connections and your UK tour?

PB: Our last tour was just fantastic, I had so much fun. I was a little bit nervous because although I’m from New Zealand, I’ve spent so much time in Germany that most of our audiences haven’t been in my native tongue. So for me, it was a case of we are playing these songs and I just hope they’re good, which may be sounds a bit strange. We met some amazing people on the last tour, and the audiences were so warm and the locations were so good. On this next tour, Loudon of Bloody Great PR has done an amazing job because Celtic Connections is such a prestigious festival that we are over the moon to have the opportunity. We can hopefully see some other shows, and I think on the same night we are playing Edgar Meyers is playing and I was like I’d be happy just to go and see Edgar Meyer play. We feel really honoured to be a part of that festival, it is great.

How would you feel if Edgar Meyer just happened to watch your set?

PB: I don’t want to start thinking that way, particularly now before the concert starts.

Your English is very good Julie, what is it like singing to an English-speaking audience?

JZ: Yeah, sometimes I do feel self-conscious especially about my lyrics because in Germany people tend to concentrate on the music, and with an English audience, I think more about my text. People have been really kind to me and I haven’t had much criticism.

PB: We were just saying the other day, that some people in Germany don’t think she is German.

JZ: It is weird, when I speak I keep my German accent because it would be weird to speak with an American accent, but when I sing I sing with a neutral or an American accent.

Tell me about your new album which you will launch at Celtic Connections.

JZ: Yes, we have our third album coming out, ‘Upside Down’, and we recorded it with Pepita and Theo from Rain Of Animals, and they are playing with us on the tour and we are really looking forward to being able to play as a five-piece again.

What will that mean for the music?

JZ: It will certainly make us less naked.

PB: I was thinking that a few of these songs on the new album we can play as a duo, but for most of them we need other players to play, there are some fiddle tune things going on and other things as well.

Your 2022 album ‘Unseen Course’ was popular, how did you approach ‘Upside Down’?

 PB: I think we both fell in love with Rain Of Animals as a duo when we saw them, and we both thought that we wanted to record something with them as soon as possible. There were some timeframes when they were in Germany, three times I think, and those were the times when we could record. This motivated us to write songs for each of those times. We had a lot more time to write with the first two albums, and we’ve written the new album faster and I quite liked that because it kept things fresh, you can overdo things, you know.

Who are your prime musical influences?

JZ: It changes all the time. At the moment it is Taylor Ashton, he is a clawhammer banjo player from Brooklyn and various women in americana.

PB: When I was younger I listened to a wide variety of music, and this project with Julie was the first time I started writing lyrics, and before that, I didn’t listen to a lot of lyrics. It was stuff like Radiohead and pop, and music from different directions, and I’ve only recently got into this folk and roots music. I like Lou Reed and Randy Newman, people who write interesting text, and that’s been a big thing for this project. On the bass side of things, I obviously love Edgar Meyer and Paul Kowert, and all this new-age double bass stuff that is happening that is phenomenal and fantastic, as well as being very inspiring.

What would you say to a roots music fan who hasn’t yet seen Stereo Naked, what can they expect at your live shows?

PB: I would say good honest music.

JZ: It will depend on whether they see us as a duo or a five-piece, and they can expect a lot of good picking from Pepita and Theo. We always do our best and we always make humour part of the show.

PB: Yeah, a bit tongue in cheek, and with dark humour in some ways. There’s a lot of that running through our work. A good point Julie.

How does the humour aspect translate between Germany and the UK?

PB: Are you asking if Germans can actually be funny? Quite a lot of my text is quite ridiculous at times. On the last tour, we certainly got some laughs. We did bring out a German EP, and I didn’t write any German songs, but Julie wrote some songs and she has this humour in German and that works for the German audiences when we play for them. I’ve found a lot of the younger Germans have surprisingly good English, and I think a lot of German audiences get us as well.

JZ: It depends on where you are in Germany. In the North, they don’t laugh in general. They have a humour, but they keep it much more to themselves and you have to hit them to get something out of them.

PB: For Germany, I think the people of Cologne are pretty open, If you go to a pub you are bound to get into a conversation with people, but there are areas in Germany where it can be pretty tough. That doesn’t mean they are not good folk, it is just the way they are. Also, the German language is a bit more abrupt, and when I came over here I took it the wrong way. Germans can be too direct for those of us with English accents, but it is not normally meant in a harsh way, it is just the way it is.

We like to share new music with our readers, so currently, what are your top three tracks, artists or albums on your playlist?

JZ: I really like the Ye Vagabonds, the Irish duo, very touching music.

PB: I’ve just been listening to so much old stuff, and today I’ve been listening to a lot of Nick Drake. Maybe it is the winter mood going on, but ‘Pink Moon’ is such a great album. I then listened to ‘Solid Air’ after that, which is in a similar vein but also a really great album. That was today, and tomorrow will be different.

JZ: I listened to Andy Shauf today. He is a Canadian musician who likes to feature clarinet pieces in his music. Very nice music.

Is there anything you want to say to Americana UK readers?

PB: Listen to our music.

JZ: We don’t want to sound too much like a marketing department. Keep going to americana concerts, it is really great to see the scene in the UK compared to Germany because in Germany they think more in boxes. You have to do traditional stuff, and it is harder for bands like us in Germany, but in the UK I think you have such a big folk scene that you can find a little space for bands like us.

PB: I tend to agree. I know I’m generalising, but quite a few folk festivals in Germany tend to be old-style and set in their ways and don’t think outside of the box. So, we don’t fit everywhere if you know what I mean, and it is cool when new things are given a chance in the folk and americana world, and listeners support acts. Also, make sure the heating is turned up for us when we come over. Also, each time we come over driving is a nightmare because I grew up on the correct side of the street in New Zealand, and then I got my license in Germany on the wrong side of the street. Every time I come over I spend half my time praying, and I keep telling myself left, left. We’ll have fun though.

JZ: I will be seven months pregnant when we come over, and I’m excited about my first tour with a pregnancy.

Congratulations.

JK: And I’m really hoping it won’t be a Scottish baby.

PB: You can’t say that, you have to say I would prefer a Scottish baby to an English baby as far as Celtic Connections goes. We getting into dangerous territory now. Every time we have a UK tour we get excited, even though this is only our second tour.

As long as Julie doesn’t get too excited.

PB: We’ll calm her down, no problem.

Stereo Naked’s ‘Upside Down’ is released independently on 20th January

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UK Tour

19.01.2024 Celtic Connections.

20.01.2024 Celtic Connections.

24.01.2024 Eastgate Theatre, Peebles.

25.01.2024 Acoustic Music Club, Kirkcaldy.

26.01.2024 Catwick Village Hall, Catwick.

27.01.2024 Fishery Wharf Café, Boxmoor.

28.01.2024 Green Note, Camden, (London).

 

About Martin Johnson 389 Articles
I've been a music obsessive for more years than I care to admit to. Part of my enjoyment from music comes from discovering new sounds and artists while continuing to explore the roots of American 20th century music that has impacted the whole of world culture.
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