JEFF Zagers' "The Double" embodies the feel of those movies in which the protagonist enters a room and suddenly is swept back several decades. Modern décor falls away. The dust of many, many years unsettles under the feet of slow-dancing spirits. All the viewer can do is observe, entranced.
“And I want you so bad/it’s killing me inside,” multiple Zagerses croon in unison.
The opener of his fourth and latest album, Still / Alive, it’s show-stoppingly gorgeous and forlorn, the kind of song that makes you pull your car off the road and just listen. As it bubbles over into the second track, you’re locked in; this isn’t an album you can just pop in on. Once it has you, you belong to it.
He’s an old soul, Zagers; a music maker and fan who will book a DIY show for an innovative sound collage artist, go home, and listen to doo-wop CDs. It shows in his own music. Still / Alive is an incredibly ambitious album, and Zagers has the acute ability to hearken back to velvet-draped ballrooms, hazy in eerie ambience, cracking open pop melodies and progressions, laying all the parts across the floor, and rebuilding them with an everchanging array of tools.
Synths bubble. Saxophones groan and drone. The timelessness of Zagers’ voice makes the entire album difficult to place. Experimental? Certainly. But it’ll also get stuck in your head for days on end.
You’ll often hear his work described as “cinematic,” a term Zagers is wary of (the idea of creating modern music for a 70-year-old silent film is daunting to him). Perhaps it’s more the images his sounds conjure, the vivid intensity of tone that allows a listener’s head to create its own vision. The songs are built for introspection, possessing a clear trajectory that also allows the listener to slow down and take it all in, observe the lushness, feel the hair prick up on the back of their neck.
Zagers began writing the songs that would become Still / Alive in 2009. The record was finished around the end of 2013. In order to get in the right headspace to work on new material, he immerses himself in playing, spending hours with his instruments until he’s steeped in his own world. Over the years, the final tracks on Still / Alive have grown from skeletal bones of songs into densely layered explorations in sound and structure.
“Sometimes it’s like pulling out of the ether something you did—you heard something in it and continue to do it,” he explains. “Some people write a song and work on it every day; I feel like my memory is filled with so many different kinds of music, it can often be lost. Using the studio as an instrument and recording things is sort of my memory.”
It’s a process he’s used since he was just six years old, recording over and over again to tape. These days, he composes with whichever instruments and equipment happen to be around the house. If something’s broken, he’ll move on.
“It really revolves around what’s working at the time,” he laughs. “Sometimes, things just don’t work, and a year later, they do. I feel like a lot of the instruments have come to me more than me seeking them out. There's a lot of gear fetishists out there that really seek what they want to work with; I try to work with what I have and what’s available.”
Tape works like a canvas with Zagers; he puts great thought into using tone as color, manipulating it like a brush to fill in existing structures.
“Painting is definitely so much an analog to what I do,” he says. “Start with a sound, build from there. It usually happens like that: more of a drawing or a painting than so much like a ‘there’s something that I want to convey’ attitude.”
While Still / Alive has its amblings, its slow peerings into the mechanics of song, Zagers takes his craft beyond experimentation. For all his trial-and-error time with tape and keys, there’s a deliberateness to the tracks that encapsulate the art of process.
“I feel an experiment is an intention, and exploring is a little more freely walking around and taking things in,” he offers. “I feel like a lot of stuff is a little more intuitive than intentional with me. I kind of throw it and make it happen, see what bounces back—which I guess is an experiment, too. That word can be pretty vague; experimental music can be so many different things.”
Zagers was encouraged to look into Wharf Cat Records by friend Carson Cox of Tampa band Merchandise. The label released Still / Alive on Saint Patrick’s Day.
The digital release was mastered by Peter Mavrogeorgis at Dollhouse Productions.
“There’s a common bond there,” Zagers says. “We’re similar in that...his approach to recording, he’s always kind of reinventing himself in the studio, and using the studio as an instrument.”
Zagers is currently on the road for the first time in a while; it’s been a kind of endurance test for the new material as he plays venues ranging from DIY spaces to dive bars (a few nights before our conversation, he dedicated a cover of “Wichita Lineman” to the older folks at a bar he describes as “Nashville’s Pinkie’s”).
Constantly working on new material, we’re sure to see something new from Zagers soon, be it onstage or on tape. Whether it's a collection of covers or a collaboration, he lets it happen organically, on his own time, in his own terms.
“You try and enjoy your life,” he says, “and I believe that’s what the underground is: sort of being able to do what you want and enjoy it, and not having to kind of live up to it.”