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Obituary: Z’EV (1951-2017)

Fellow musician and music writer Frans de Waard shares his personal memories of Stefan Weisser, better known as Z’EV, who passed away earlier this week.

Late last year Dutch journalist Arne van Terphoven published a book on DJ Dano, the founding father of hardcore techno, aka ‘gabber’ music. While I am not necessarily a fan of the genre, I wondered if he would write anything about Z’EV. To some that may sound like a surprising inclusion, but Z’EV told me ages ago ‘when those industrial musicians started doing techno lame and wrong, I was out with Dano playing Thunderdome for 35,000 people in the Gelredome in Arnhem’. I wrote to Z’EV about the Dano book, saying I could buy a copy, read it and forward to him, and while he was interested, his Dutch was too rusty (‘too roestig, jongen’, he wrote) to read a whole book in language he no longer used on a daily basis. Z’EV is mentioned in the book as the person who got Dano his first foreign gigs (with Monoton in Vienna as it turned out) but not much else beyond that.

Renaissance man
Sometimes musicians and artists are described as renaissance men, an accolade most do not deserve, but Z’EV is certainly an exception. When I learned of his death yesterday I looked at all the shared memories and all the YouTube clips and saw and heard his music with ensembles, with Merzbow, Luc van Acker, Glenn Branca and The Cutman. He was, so it seemed, someone who always played. After the Dano book I suggested doing one on his life and work via a series of long interviews and he agreed, providing he didn’t have to read the result. We never got Skype working properly and after one session we decided to shelve the project until we met again, either in America or Europe, and sit down for a week for a dedicated and extensive interview.

Punk spirit
Z’EV was born in 1951 in Los Angeles as Stefan Weisser as the youngest of two children, with a loving mum and a violent father (‘There was always blood at the dinner table’, he said in that first and only interview), and he started learning to play the drums at the age of 8. In the 1960s he was influenced and inspired by abstract art, jazz, The Doors (before they had their first record out) and started a band with Carl Stone and James Stewart. In 1969 he studied visual poetry with Emmett Williams, and his work included sound poetry, made with an array of cassette recorders.
After moving to San Francisco he started playing the percussion music he is best known for, and in good punk spirit he used the name Z’EV which means ‘wolf’ in Hebrew, but is also derived from his Jewish name, Sh’aul Z’ev bn Yakov bn Moshe bn Sha’ul. He found his percussion instruments at junkyards: stainless steel, titanium and PVC plastic objects that he hurled about on stage in very physical performances. He toured the America in his own truck and became quite famous with his concerts. Towards the end of the 1970s, living in New York, he received a phone call from the managers of Rolling Stones, asking if he’d be interested in being the support act for their upcoming world tour. But Z’EV was still drunk from the night before and he told them ‘I have no idea who you are, so fuck off’. In 1980 he made the jump and started touring in Europe, supporting UK post-punk band Bauhaus after a legendary event in London with Throbbing Gristle and Clock DVA that placed him at the foreground of what was called Industrial Music.

Z’EV also played drums for Glenn Branca in the early 1980s, including a very riotous appearance on Dutch television in 1983, with the orchestra walking out due to the Branca’s volume (but according to Z’EV it was all more complicated than that). In the 1980s Z’EV stayed in the Netherlands, first with Remko Scha and Paul Panhuysen at Het Apollohuis in Eindhoven and later on in Amsterdam, until the late 1990s. He found touring Europe so much easier than the USA as the distances were so much shorter. He worked with Andrew McKenzie and Doro Franck as Mother Tongue, which also showed his interest in ritual and language, and he taught at the Theatre School for New Dance Development in Amsterdam, initially composition and improvisation. Shortly after this his work with Dano and his involvement with gabber began.
In the early 2000s he took time out to care for his mother and when she passed away he returned to music, playing lots and lots of collaborations (Peter Rehberg, Jason Kahn, KK Null, Charlemagne Palestine, Luc van Acker, Organum, but the list is endless), preferring electronic drums over metal objects, ‘otherwise I have difficulties hearing myself’. The acoustic metal percussion was reserved for his solo concerts. He had moved to London by that time, but was stopped when he returned to the UK after one show abroad and was deported to the US due to visa problems. After that he lived in France and Italy. A few years ago he started working with video again, combining it with his drumming into a live audiovisual concert.

Z’EV studied the Kabbalah, ethnic percussion (African, Indonesian, Indian, Afro-Caribbean) and published ‘Rhythmajik’ a book on numerology and music in 1992. Besides his work with percussion he also made pure electronic works, using primitive computer technology.
On 14 March 2016 Z’EV was a passenger on the Amtrak train that derailed just west of Dodge City in Kansas. Three of the 28 people who were injured were hospitalised; two were critical and airlifted to Amarillo, Texas. Z’EV was one of them. He had to stay in the US to (slowly) recover and receive compensation, while also suffering from COPD, a lung disease that is quite common with heavy smokers. He spent time with Blake Edwards in Chicago and with Boyd Rice in Colorado and was slowly getting back on his feet again. Z’EV died on 16 December 2017 in Chicago.
Anyone who ever met Z’EV will speak highly of his open mind, his intellect, his creative soul, and the restlessness inside. And he was the best company you could imagine.

Text by Frans de Waard
Picture by © Jolanda Kempers cleOrganised
Thanks to Mark