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Zak Olsen talks ORB, The Frowning Clouds & MF Doom

Dan Webb
Zak Olsen is a prolific singer, songwriter and guitarist from Geelong, Australia. He releases material under the solo moniker Traffik Island and performs in numerous bands, such as new wave collective Hierophants and ’60s psych rock revivalists The Frowning Clouds. His fuzz-driven heavy rock outfit ORB returns to live performance on March 20th at Melbourne’s Forum Theatre.

You and I actually share something in common, in that we both grew up in Geelong. Which suburb do you originate from and what are some of your fondest memories of the place?
Well, I grew up in East Geelong near Geelong High School, on Ryrie Street. And then I moved to St. Albans Park and spent the rest of my time there. And then just before I moved up to Melbourne, I lived in Newtown. But fond memories – too many to choose from. I spent my youth there, really, like 15 years, from about 10 to 25. I couldn’t even – I don’t even know where I’d begin with fond memories from that place. But definitely, probably around 18 years old, when there was this pub that everyone went to, The Nash, which I’m sure you’re aware of. You knew it was good at the time, but looking back on it now, it’s like, I wish we – you always wish you could appreciate what you have a bit more or something. I remember being 18 and just going to the pub and there being hundreds of people same age as us, and we all played music. Yeah, it was a real fun, thriving scene, I suppose, of young people. The whole thing was great.

What’s your earliest musical memory?
Probably my dad. We grew up on a farm in New Zealand, and my dad played in heavy metal bands when I was growing up. Just being really young, just watching dad have band practice. From, I guess I would have been four or something like that. I was originally really obsessed with the drums when I was really young, so just watching dad drum all the time was the first thing I can remember, I think. Also, dad had a Megadeth VHS that had all these crazy video clips of skeletons and that kind of shit. So, when I was a kid, that was the coolest thing ever.

Would you say your dad had much of an influence on the development of ORB and the sound that you guys possess?
Yes, in the sense that Black Sabbath was definitely a band that dad and I both can agree on. And Pink Floyd, that’s my dad’s favourite band ever. So those two bands, obviously a huge influence on us. So yeah, in that sense, yes. But at the same time, I wanted to listen to different music to my dad. I got way more into ‘60s music and stuff like that, which my dad wasn’t as into. And then we got into ORB through that side rather than more the heavy metal side.

I’ve never seen a single band in my life or heard anyone that doesn’t sound like something else anyway.

Sure. And you mentioned Black Sabbath there. There’s obviously some similarities in the style of music that you play. What you would say to critics who might dismiss ORB as simply imitating Black Sabbath?
I don’t know. I guess I just wouldn’t really say anything. I don’t really mind. At this stage, with music and stuff, that sort of critique in itself is just a played out thing. I don’t know, it doesn’t bother me. I’ve never seen a single band in my life or heard anyone that doesn’t sound like something else anyway. Especially at the most, someone might be imitating a less popular band or something. I guess because Sabbath is so huge, and their influence is pretty monstrous on ORB’s music, so it’s pretty obvious when you’re taking cues from them. But yeah, we’re not trying to hide behind it. That’s 100% why we started the band, was because we played ‘60s pop in the garage and that kind of thing. The three of us lived together and got really into Sabbath again for one summer. We just thought that, wouldn’t it be real fun to do this kind of shit? And we just gave it a go. Yeah, typical old story. There was really no intention to do much. I think we maybe thought we’d do a tape, which we did. But then yeah, just kept going from there and… yeah.

Now I’m curious about The Frowning Clouds, which the three original members of ORB are also members of. The Frowning Clouds haven’t put out any new music for some time now, many years. But you have performed some shows in recent years. Are you able to clarify – is the project’s dead or is it on hiatus?
It’s not dead, it’s just clocked off and sitting there. We were talking about doing another one this year, but then all these other ones came along, but… Yeah, we might do a show again. I don’t know about recording again, but yeah. That’s the other thing too, essentially, we’re still just writing the same songs, but we just maybe stretch it out or make one bit fuzzier or something. But in my ears, all our music is essentially the same on paper, it’s just treated differently. We’ll stretch something out or maybe play it way slower or put fuzz on. But they’re all songs I could totally redo in a Frowning Clouds style and vice versa as well. With songs it’s like, you can just take them a million different ways over time anyway, so yeah.

In my ears, all our music is essentially the same on paper, it’s just treated differently.

You obviously play in numerous bands and you’re doing your own solo stuff as well. So, are you suggesting that your approach to songwriting and music making is the same across all projects?
Yeah. More or less, although generally, say with ORB, yeah, it’ll start with – I’d be playing a riff or something. It’s more riff driven than songwriting or lyrical. Whereas with Traffik Island, that tends to be more lyrical and I’ll write on acoustic guitar and that kind of thing. More melody driven. But there is no real set approach either, though. I just jump all over the place. Sometimes with ORB, a song could just be something that we’ve been jamming or we’ll just jam for 20 minutes, then land on a bit and be like, “That sounds like it could be a song,” and then just go from there. It’s kind of the only band where we make songs up from just jamming, or make songs all together.

What’s something that you’ve bought or acquired in the past five years that’s changed the way you make music?
Nice. That would be – in the last five years? Yeah, I don’t know. I’ve been trying to simplify with all my music stuff now. It’d be a MIDI keyboard. There you go. I didn’t do it for ages, for some reason. And then I got one last year and it changed the game. That, and a Strat. That changed my way I play guitar a bit.

Do you use VST plugins with the MIDI keyboard?
No. I just use Logic, so whatever comes with that are the ones I use. I’ve got the cracked Waves plugins and stuff. But I’m not too picky or I can’t really tell the difference with whatever are supposed to be bad plugins and what are supposed to be good ones. To me, I’m not very fussy with that kind of thing.

What’s been the most challenging aspect of the pandemic and the lockdown for you, besides not being able to perform live?
I guess I wouldn’t necessarily say anything musical, because it didn’t have much effect on my recording personally. I have a studio really close to my house, so I just spent the whole year going back and forth from there, really, and making lots of music. The main thing about, as many times as we’ve locked down, just not being able to see my family very much, really. That was the only thing. I was okay with it, because I wasn’t expecting there to be an end anytime soon, which helps me not get disappointed every time it didn’t end. I could just go to the studio and record all the time, so I was blessed in that sense.

Do you feel like you’ve learned any lessons over the past 12 months or so?
Learned any new lessons? Yes. I’d say trying to eat healthy is one, for sure. And getting out of bed as soon as I open my eyes. Those are two lessons I’ve tried to learn or have learned.

What’s the advantage of getting out of bed when you first open your eyes?
Well, first, to not sit on my phone in bed for an hour or two or whatever, and just have so much more day. I’m loving getting up. The morning’s a real good time for creative time and stuff, I feel like. It gives me the time to grab the guitar and noodle around or try and write lyrics.

I’m loving getting up. The morning’s a real good time for creative time.

I understand you used to read a lot of sci-fi. Is that something you’re still into these days?
Yes. Actually, I’ve read sci-fi for a little bit. I’ve been just getting into Lord of the Rings because I haven’t actually ever done it. I’m in Middle Earth at the moment. But most of my reading’s actually just been short stories and poetry and verse and stuff lately. I just like being able to get like a whole scenario or a whole story in one sitting. I’m pretty into that at the moment, my short attention span likes it.

I saw on The Frowning Clouds Facebook page last year that you posted William S. Burroughs track.
Ah, yes.

Would you consider him a very big literary influence?
Not hugely, but his books is one of the first books I ever read, really, besides Harry Potter. It was like the first dangerous book that I read that my parents didn’t buy me, was Junkie. I must’ve been 14 or 15 or something. I’ve never really read them ever again or followed him that much or anything, but yeah, I did enjoy that book lots when I was a kid. It was fun to read a book that felt dangerous or something. But yeah, I do. I haven’t read the book a long time, though. I think I still like it.

If you could collaborate with any artist in any medium, who would it be and what would you create?
In any medium, huh? That’s a hard one. You’ve really stumped me there. Maybe a movie. Maybe I’d like making a movie with… Let me see. I can’t actually – I can’t think of – The “any medium” has opened it way up. I can’t even.

We ask this question in every interview we do. We get some interesting responses.
Yeah, crap. God, now I feel like I’m going to fall short.

Don’t overthink it.
Okay, if it was, I guess, music, I can give you one. I’ll just be cliché and say MF Doom. I’d like to try and make music with MF Doom. Just because to me, it was just such a massive, massive influence. Not particularly musically, because he raps, but he just has this creative spirit, I think, that – yeah, I feel like there’s this real playfulness, in terms of he has this huge creative energy that never seems to turn off or something. And that felt like, just really, a real big influence.

It was a big loss to the industry.
Yeah. Yeah, it sucks. It’s a shame. I was hoping, just had a glimmer of hope that I’d be able to see him one day or there’d be a new album soon. I guess there still could be. Apparently, there’s lots of unrecorded stuff and unreleased stuff.

Fingers crossed.
Yeah, fingers crossed indeed.