Absorbing The Chameleonic Sounds of Zak Olsen
Back in the fall of '21, the prolific Naarm/Melbourne multi-instrumentalist Zak Olsen returned with his third album under the Traffik Island moniker, A Shrug of The Shoulders — a charming and delightful scrapbook of stripped-down psychedelic folk songs that exhibits Olsen's sonic cleverness and distinctive nature. There's a lot to be explored with Olsen's music and luckily we had the chance to speak with him to gain insight into his mixture of stylistic jumps, the creative spirit behind it, and working with acid-folk raconteur Howard Eynon.
The prolific, shape-shifting and sometimes beat-collecting wizard of fusion Zak Olsen is always up to recording something. While best known for playing in doomy psych-rock in ORB, oddball punk in Hierophants, and '60s-inspired garage rock in The Frowning Clouds, Olsen has released and worked behind-the-scenes on plenty of material that's been scattered around the Naarm/Melbourne scene the last several years. Back in the fall of '21, Olsen returned with his third album under the Traffik Island moniker, A Shrug of The Shoulders — a charming and delightful scrapbook of stripped-down psychedelic folk songs that exhibits Olsen's sonic cleverness and distinctive nature. It also shows off some of Olsen's best Donovan and Ray Davies impressions like with the dazzling power pop of "Looking Around" or the glittery stomp of "Lady Driver." Recorded alongside his band that comprises of lead guitarist Jesse Williams (Girlatones), drummer Jack Kong (The Prize, Beans, Gonzo), and, bassist Myles Cody (Gonzo, U-Bahn), the new album has a bit of a loungey and baroque bent with its laconic strums that bleed through the mystic madness. This is definitely in the wheelhouse where Olsen seems most comfortable especially when compared to his previous releases — the fully-instrumental, electronic detour of Sweet Kollecta's Peanut Butter Traffik Jam, the sunny swath of hazy psychedelia on Nature Strip, and the electronic tape-hiss and rare artifacts of Maximal Electronics and the All Aboard EP. Back in March '22, Olsen contributed the Traffik Island love song, "Communication," to Flightless Records' Love Hurts compilation, which showed a return to the project's crate digger's ear for dusty grooves. He's also done some recent remixes for Donny Love and Sunfruits tracks. There's a lot to be explored with Olsen's music and luckily we had the chance to speak with him to gain insight into his mixture of stylistic jumps, the creative spirit behind it, and working with acid-folk raconteur Howard Eynon.
Paperface Zine: What music have you been listening to lately?
Zak Olsen: Sparks' Kimono My House, Mothers of Invention's Mothermania, Can's The Singles and lots of Amon Düül II. Also, always pumping Magic 1278 on AM radio in the car, lots '50s and '60s oldies.
PZ: What's your earliest musical memory?
ZO: I'd say it was this dubbed videotape my dad had of Megadeth video clips [laughing]. I remember that was the first time I took any kind of notice to music. I was pretty young, about four or five years old I think, definitely before I started school. Around that same time, we moved to an old homestead with a farm and my dad had a metal band that would rehearse most weekends. I'd usually watch those as well.
PZ: I can see you doing a Traffik Island metal album [laughing]. ORB is already sorta leaning there!
ZO: [Laughing]. You know the first band I was in was Frowning Clouds which was this '60s garage type band. We were like, "how come no one does this '60s music anymore?" Of course we were just living in a bubble and there were a lot of people doing it, although not to the real specificness that we wanted to be. As we got older we realized why no one did that [laughing]. Some members of Frowning Clouds at one point had a project going with Cookie of King Gizzard.
PZ: You know from your music, I get a mixture of Syd Barrett, Kevin Ayers, Skip Spence, The Peanut Butter Conspiracy, and MF Doom. Lay on me some of your biggest influences?
ZO: My main squeeze has always really been '60s music. You can trace everything back to there and it was all I really listened to from age 14 to my early 20s. It's just the sound and melody I like about it, which probably takes up at least 50% of my listening to be honest. I'll like any genre if it caters to my taste in melody, rhythm or fidelity, but if were to reel off a list of artists that have had a specific influence on me I'd say: Pink Floyd, Faust, late-era Can, Captain Beefheart, Split Enz, Devo, MF Doom, The Kinks, The Jam, R. Stevie Moore and Stereolab.
PZ: From Hierophants to ORB, how have you balanced the numerous musical projects you've been part of over the years?
ZO: Usually just keep it to one thing at a time. Like if ORB has a tour or a recording to do, I'll just do that only for three months or whatever. I can do Traffik Island things all the time. If the band can't get together, I'm able to just do things alone. Plus I'm always down to play on other people's projects if I like the music and of course if they'll have me, so I do a bit of that as well, but only if it's not getting in the way of what I wanna do.
PZ: Does the approach to your songwriting and creativity change across the various projects you're part of or do you just let it happen?
ZO: It's all over the place. With ORB, usually we all make music together, bring riffs or parts and work it out together. Traffik Island is whatever, sometimes improv, mini things turn into songs or sometimes it's all written on acoustic with pen and paper and then I'll teach it to the band, but they usually bring a flavor which makes it better and more concise.
PZ: What was your vision when starting Traffik Island?
ZO: There truly wasn't a vision, it was just more of a necessity. My friend Danny Wild was starting a record label called Moontown Records and he wanted me to do a cassette with Nick Van Bakel of Bananagun. Nick made music at the time under the name Sleepyhead and suggested that I might have some demos that he could put on the other side of the tape, so I agreed, but I didn't have any so I just took a couple of weeks and made it. Then I saw this sign in front of my house that read, "Traffic Island" so it really started from there.
PZ: I had this assumption that you wanted to blend beat collecting and sampedelia sorta of music with also being a singer-songwriter type which totally stands out on the first two Traffik Island LPs. Did you always want to experiment with incorporating more electronics into your music?
ZO: Yeah I have always loved odd synthesizers that are in a lot of the '60s shit I dig. I am also just a contrarian to myself so whatever I am doing I want to do the opposite right after. But I'd say Nature Strip is like the main part of my sound or maybe how I would like people to judge me for now. Traffik Island doesn't really have any focus in that sense, it's a bit loose and that's how I want to keep it. There's sort of two different bands within Traffik Island too — there's the full live band and that kind of sound but then there's also just whatever I record without the band too.
PZ: Your latest album A Shrug of The Shoulders is quite amiably ramshackle with its folk-flecked pop and natural nuance. Take me through the recording of it.
ZO: Yeah it's definitely a strange one and I think the title speaks for itself. It took a long time to record and is the first album I made in a decade that doesn't have a synthesizer on it. I definitely wanted it to be more rough around the edges compared to the previous Traffik Island releases. Like I said earlier, all the stuff with Traffik Island is out of necessity. I brought Jesse, Myles, and Jack along to record since they backed me for a gig previously. Then it's funny because I moved in with Jesse a year later and asked him if he wanted to sit in on piano at a practice. Everything I do with Traffik Island is very casual, which is really the nature of the project.
PZ: You recorded and played on a bunch of records in 2020. How did the hip-hop project SUGGS come about? ZO: That came right after the Peanut Butter album in 2020. I met Sheldon Suggs at an ORB show and he had messaged me saying he wanted to rap over one of the Peanut Butter tracks and it just grew from there. We did a couple of songs and then did nothing for ages. Then we just decided to go for a whole album. Lockdown happened here in Melbourne for about six months and we just did that the whole time back-and-forth over the internet while he lived in Atlanta. We plan to release it on vinyl one of these days.
PZ: We were lucky to have interviewed Howard Eynon last summer for a special print issue we're working on and we heard you were working on music together. Were you a fan of his music before you met him and did you ever think you'd cross paths?
ZO: I never thought working with him would be a possibility like it wasn't even an idea. I stumbled across him on YouTube a few years ago maybe and I thought it was just kind of this homemade album that was made in the '70s. I couldn't believe I hadn't heard this Tasmanian weirdo on acoustic 12-string before. And in a strange turn of events, we ended up meeting each other and are trying to write some stuff together now. We live a long way away from each other so it's been difficult, but we did spend two weeks together just writing. There's a lot of stuff, but not a lot of things finished yet.
PZ: Excited to hear it! During the early stages of the pandemic, you performed a live session for Button Pusher, which I believe was the only live performance of any track off Peanut Butter right?
ZO: Yeah that's correct. You know I didn't really have any intention of playing Peanut Butter live, but the Button Pusher setting was good for it. Daff Gravolin and I were doing some live shows as Traff & Daff, where we'd do a similar kind of electronic/beat approach before the lockdown started, but we never did anything from the Traffik Island albums.
PZ: Back in the winter of '21, you shared a demo collection that features the cover art on blotter paper printed by Ken Kesey's son, Zane Kesey. That must've been exciting for you so how did that happen?
ZO: Not sure about how those blotters really happened [laughing]. They're made by my good friend and photographer Jamie Wdziekonski. He somehow got in touch with Kesey when he was in San Francisco one time, I think.
PZ: What does the near future look like for Traffik Island and your other projects?
ZO: I live out in the country now so I've been busy working on a lot of new stuff. I have some rough demos from another Traffik Island release that's kind of Peanut Butter-style. There's going to be vocals over it this time. I did release three seven-inches last May under Traffik Island's Shadow Band that included performances from artist Bjenny Montero and Pedrum Siadatian who plays in Allah-Las and his new project Paint. I was going to keep going with those, but there was too much wait time. Also got a new ORB album coming and hopefully another SUGGS one. Maybe even a one of a kind early lost album with Hierophants. Who knows!
PZ: Lastly, what is one word that you would use to describe the mood of Traffik Island?
ZO: I would say playful. Not everything you make needs to be this big genius release that everyone loves, but with Traffik Island I just let myself play.
A Shrug of The Shoulders is out now through Flightless Records.