Hello, and welcome to Hurt Records. This is the first in a multi-part interview with Benn about his musical, YouTube, and gaming ventures. The interviewer was Hurt media contributor Jacob Evans.
Part 1 is all about the past, present, and future of the Z project. Enjoy.
[NB: ZombIes (I), ZombIIes (II), or ZombIIIes (III) = original, pre-reboot Z albums. Z.1, Z.2, Z.3 etc. = post-reboot Z albums]
The origin of the Z project was a viral campaign surrounding the release of 2010’s Call of Duty: Black Ops. What were your motivations behind doing this campaign?
I think that from an outside point of view it looked very different from how we saw it at the time. My friend Alex and I were drafting a gaming advertising campaign and we were essentially using a general gaming fanbase as a test audience to try and gauge an immersion response. It turned out to be far more immersive than we were anticipating, and we ended up changing the campaign entirely. It would have worked with any game and any fanbase, but it just so happened that some of our colleagues at the time worked for Activision and Ubisoft and, so we have always had a constant outpouring of information surrounding releases of both publishers. This was something like eight years ago and was before I was directly involved with either publisher, and before I was financially vested in their creations.
For those of us who didn’t follow it at the time, what was the campaign about? How was it presented?
Before I started writing the book, I went back to a series of twenty-two videos that we created for the campaign and tried my hardest to maintain a grasp on the storyline. At the time we spent days quite literally drawing plots and sub-plots on huge whiteboards and by the end of the campaign our office looked like something that a psychopath would have created. It was beautiful.
In its simplest form the story’s main motif is the concept of loss and how it affects those in the fray. Beyond that it was a complicated web of deceit and inhumane research that had never previously been illuminated. The protagonist is an older gentleman who loses his family early in the story. He is a journalist who is tasked with infiltrating a very large and very domineering organisation, to hopefully present their darkest secrets to the wider population.
It was presented (at the time) through a series of videos, direct viewer interaction, and most importantly, a selection of eight deeply rooted fans; whom we set against each other in various tasks. We wanted the campaign to genuinely become a personal affliction and I think we managed to just about create that sense with the test audience. We flew to Alaska and to Tampa, Florida to film a few scenes for it, all in the hope that it would in some way sway the opinions of those whom we were trying to impress. When we did finally present it to the ad company they thought that the campaign was ‘too extreme and abhorrent’; two words that I have taken to the bitter end in the modern variant.
Later, in 2012, during the summer before Black Ops II’s release, you would release your first Call of Duty Zombies album, ZombIes, which would progress the story started in your viral campaign. Why did you decide to start making music related to COD Zombies?
I didn’t. The first Zombies album was never meant to be ‘inspired by Call of Duty’ or anything even remotely close. This purely came down to circumstance and pressure at the time. I had those songs for a good year before I’d even heard of the upcoming game. I remember sending the demos of some of those songs to a few friends of mine (one of whom is now at the very top of Activision) to see if they thought the songs had traction. Then, I received an e-mail detaining everything I could ever want to know about the next game (I still love receiving those emails; they are a lot of fun), and he essentially motivated me to work the songs into some form of ‘Zombies-centric’ release, and so I did. It was that simple. He then granted me permission to release without prejudice and it’s been amazing ever since. I think that the music personnel at two of the three Call of Duty developers really have a brilliant work ethic, and are really talented; I just felt like it would be interesting to have an alternative (and in most cases, far more accurate) take on the musical side of their games. I was lucky that I made the decision to start writing gaming music; my life wouldn’t have been the same without it.
In 2013, you would release the sequel to ZombIes, questionably named ZombIIIes, which would further progress the story started with the campaign and the previous album. You’ve since voiced discontent concerning this release. Why were you dissatisfied with it?
There are a few reasons that I don’t like the record. In fact, I’m listening to it for the first time in years while I’m writing this paragraph. In terms of the chronology of the releases, it was always meant to be ZombIes, ZombIIes, ZombIIIes, and the moment that the order changed was the moment that I lost interest in it completely. It was more than that though, I had spent months and months working up something like eighty songs for II, and then literally in three weeks I was forced to abandon what I had created in order to quickly throw out a record for the next Call of Duty release.
I often find it hard to look back at albums. I very rarely listen to them because I’m always looking to the future and the songs that come next. Sometimes though, I feel like I don’t want to look back because there are moments of embarrassment that I can’t bear to listen to. I feel that in far larger quantities with III than with anything else, and this is coming from someone who made a novelty album about a disabled owl in the early 90’s (Don’t ask). It’s just a bit too corny and I don’t enjoy listening to it. There are a few more reasons that I can think of that repulsed me with the project, but those reasons are gone now, and so I don’t think it’s worth discussing anything beyond the issues that still exist. On the whole it isn’t a project I associate with my name, and definitely isn’t a project that I associate with the quality at Hurt.
A third album, ZombIIes, was originally supposed to follow ZombIIIes, but it never saw the light of day, and eventually, you decided to (at least somewhat) reboot the Z albums altogether. What were the reasons for the original ZombIIes’ lack of release, and for the reboot?
I can’t even begin to detail the amount of times that I’ve been asked about II. It was dropped originally because I went from being a fan of Call of Duty games to someone who earns money every time a copy of the game is bought, and every time someone promotes the games online. This left me feeling awkward in my mind, like there was a conflict of interest (which there wasn’t), and so I ended up drafting the record and then placing it on one of our hard drives in a form of stasis. At the end of last year, I opened the files up and knew that I wasn’t finished with the series. In fact, I hadn’t even begun.
The decision to write the albums was barely a decision at all. The story of Z had been on my mind every day for years, and every day it grew deeper and more formed in my head. I knew that I had to get it out of myself (I think I would have gone mad if I hadn’t), and so I decided to go to night classes and some advanced classes in California to try and pick up some strategic tips for writing. Then I just started writing and haven’t stopped since; I write every day.
When I started re-working the original albums I didn’t go back and listen to them. Instead, I took the memory of them in my mind (of which some memories were more complete than others), and I started recording new versions of the songs. It was different this time, as before I’d even started recording Z.1, I had a complete storyline on paper, and so there was a structure and an inevitable conclusion that I had never had before. This meant that I could re-evaluate the songs that already existed and try to cut out the elements of the songs that I didn’t think fit with the new regime, and at the same time, try to install more cerebral and emotional value into the music.
Definitively, what will the rebooted Z project contain, and when will everything release/happen?
As of right now there are four albums (all named Z.#), and an acoustic/demos album titled Z.5 that will come out with the final album. This doesn’t necessarily mean that I am finished with the series, but I don’t really want to talk about that right now. There will be four Z:events in total (two of which have already been and gone), and there are quite a few music videos en route for the first three albums.
Tell me about the story of the albums, how will it flow throughout them (as well as whatever other media)? Is the story a continuation of the story of ZombIes/ZombIIIes, or a complete reboot?
The story is a complete reboot. I do not equate the pre-reboot narrative with anything that I have been working on recently. When I wrote the original story, I didn’t know how to write a story. I didn’t know the pitfalls, the passage you must take when creating a character’s personality/history. I didn’t even realise that the first story completely lacked any and all jeopardy; the protagonist never really voiced his desires or even his objectives. This has all changed now, and the characters now feel alive. I feel like there is reason behind the story, and I hate it when people say this, but I feel like I genuinely have something to say now, something important that I feel would benefit the readership/listenership.
While the inspiration for the original Zombies albums was presented quite clearly (with ‘Black Ops II’ even being on the front cover of ZombIes), the new Z albums aren’t so much. Are they still largely inspired by Treyarch’s Zombies mode, or have they become their own, different beast?
The story in the new albums is absolutely nothing to do with any video game. In truth, it never really was; I was just adapting my lyrics to fit with their games, and doing that never made much sense to me. There were moments where I couldn’t help myself though, and so I’ve added a few bits and pieces of future in there just to keep myself entertained.
What is the plan for the Z:events? What happened at the Z.1 and Z.2 events, and what will the future events comprise of?
The Z:events are really important to me. For me, they go hand in hand with both the book and the records. I always knew that I was going to create events for each album, but I never quite realised just how far I was willing to go to fuck with my listeners. The Z.1 event was purely a test, to gauge how alert and attentive the invitees were (They failed miserably). It was also a chance for them to meet someone whose face they had never previously seen. They will be seeing a lot more of him in the future. The Z.1 event also had ramifications to another project of mine which is coming out next year. The attendees didn’t know exactly how much we were affecting them, but they will soon. That’s for sure.
As the invitees failed their task at the Z.1 event, the Z.2 event was turned into a punishment, and so we found some dingy fucking place in the middle of London and sat them in uncomfortable chairs, with homeless people talking loudly throughout the record, and we even used additives in their drinks to depress them. The event was designed to be miserable and dank; I think we succeeded. It was also the first time I’d had access to an ‘eye-in-the-sky’ and we followed them for about fifteen minutes from a control room nearby. This was practice for the Z.3 event.
How do the events relate to the albums? What is their purpose?
With the exception of the Z.2 event, the locations of the Z:events have been carefully chosen, purely as they feature in certain parts of the upcoming book. The one thing I realised fairly early on, when I was writing the book, was that I desperately craved the detail of specific locations. In fact, the saying ‘the devil is in the details’ has never been more true than it is in my book.
So, I contacted a film location scout friend of mine who scouts for Thrones, Peaky, and both Walking Deads, and he took me to six locations around the UK that he thought would be suitable for my book. There are a couple of locations that were prerequisites (Carlisle, Thread Room), which have been locked down for a few years now.
How can people sign up to go to future events?
I believe that the only event that can be signed up for is the upcoming Z.3 event. Emails can be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org and we will be selecting attendees from the list. The attendees for the Z.4 event have already been selected, and we are excited to invite people from all over Earth to take part in the challenges. Only one person can win the prize at the end of the Z.4 event. I look forward to finding out who it is.
What can you tell me about the Z novel?
I haven’t mentioned much about the Z novel in the public sphere yet. I’m really excited by it; it’s my first foray into authoring anything other than lyrics and boring emails. I’m definitely not a confident writer and I end up revising everything I’m writing ten times over because I’m scared to fail this opportunity.
I think it’s obvious that I have a unique story to tell and while it makes perfect sense in my mind, there were moments where some of my proof readers were finding it tricky to stay invested in the story. I ended up changing the layout of the book, and it now starts by dropping the reader straight into the action of the story. It is at the end of the book that we find the backstory that underpins the characters. It has immediately become a far more interesting read.
I’m also very conscious that one of my proofreaders is one of the most successful thriller writers of our time. His opinions are invaluable to me, and he has been kind enough to read the story three times (in its different iterations), and appears to be relatively enthralled by the plot.
While the book isn’t quite finished, I’m desperate to get it out there. The music compliments the book really well, and the narrative in all four albums has been directly lifted from various pages of the book.
You’ve talked of a ‘Z Live’ concert, when/where will this be happening? Will it contain music from all the Z albums?
Z:Live is something we have been working on for just over a year now. Obviously, we are awaiting the releases of all four records, after which the live event will take place. We have had four rehearsals now for songs from Z.1, Z.2, and Z.3, and we have been working with a dance group that we call ‘The Widows’, who genuinely scare the shit out of me every time I see them. We are also filming and recording the event in RAW Red 8K with 42 microphones. It’s a huge endeavour and I really can’t wait to get on stage and blast everyone with these songs. They mean so much to me and I think the experience will be extremely memorable. There are elements of acting and narrative in the event as well. I’m also extremely interested in changing the reality of those who attend; this is something that will be highlighted dramatically at the Z.4 event.
Will the Z albums be released on vinyl? If so, when?
I’m in the process of having the first Quiet One album pressed into Vinyl right now, but I had quite specific ideas for it that I couldn’t find a way to source in the UK. They are now being created in Germany and I look forward to them making their way to Hurt. If there is a large enough call for it, then we will definitely look into a Z vinyl bundle.
Have Treyarch/Activision ever reached out to you in any way because of your Z music/projects? How so (are they fans)?
Yes, they have, although it’s only been quite recently that I’ve had serious contact with them about the music. I’ve always had acknowledgement and emails saying how much they like it, but for some reason this year has evolved the conversation more. I won’t say too much because I’m not quite sure how to phrase it appropriately, but it feels great that they like the records. With each record that gets made, 200 copies are auto-sent to Treyarch piecemeal. I’m a fan of their games and they are fans of my music. We have had our ups and downs (both of us acting like cunts at various times), but in the end, it’s turned into a very respectful, very creative relationship. My people also happen to pay their people to make games, so that probably helps smooth things out too. That was a joke, kind of… I do love them though, they are incredibly talented in their various fields.
Interview by Jacob Evans 2017