By Jacob Katel
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The phrase "singer-songwriter" usually conjures up images of blandly dressed young men with acoustic guitars intoning personal songs in an overwrought voice, not noise artist Xela Zaid.
Zaid comes from an alternate universe. He has developed his own method of tuning and plucking a guitar that allows him to produce bass lines as well as melodious guitar hooks, creating the illusion that he is accompanied by a spectral bassist. When he plays acoustic guitar, he shoves a microphone into its sound hole, creating an eerie, vibrating echo. Sometimes he'll strum an electric bass instead of a guitar, tuning it so that it rumbles out of the amplifier. He also augments his songs with the white noise of a small reconfigured radio device.
Zaid sings in a hushed tone; his lyrics conjure up cryptic, surreal images, and the words can be difficult to discern. On "Smile," his vocals pop and stutter like an audiophile's nightmare as he sings, "How the river winds/Up and down your spine/On a razor's edge." His music isn't all gloom, though. "Surprise Surprise" opens with a perky, though melancholy acoustic rhythm, and he rattles: "Surprise, surprise, surprise/Before your eyes/Before you wake up," as a wave of squeaky scratchy distortion oscillates to and fro.
Alex Diaz has been pushing the boundaries of the traditional singer-songwriter role for more than fifteen years as a soloist and as the leader of the power trio Ho Chi Minh. He has only recently discovered a personal Bizarro world, though, through the alter ego Xela Zaid. Diaz says that Zaid helps him color outside the lines of audience expectations. "Sometimes bands get themselves pigeonholed into a sound, then they repeat what they've done in the past," he says during a recent telephone conversation. "Xela Zaid allows me to at least break from that."
Stripped down to guitar, vocals, and effects, Zaid's music is simpler than the luscious hard rock of Ho Chi Minh. Yet it is also more intricate and chaotic. The atmospheric noise of the radio device he uses give his songs an amorphous quality, turning each listen into a different experience. In this persona, he even has the confidence to make up songs, on the spot, in front of a live audience.
Diaz has released two EPs so far as Zaid: Surprise Surprise in 2002 and Beloved last November. Both of them feature another local veteran -- Frank Falestra, better known as Rat Bastard -- manipulating the radio. Diaz credits Rat, who has played shows in Japan and counts Sonic Youth's Thurston Moore among his admirers, for introducing him to the radio's sonic possibilities. "He played an AM/FM transistor radio plugged into an effect pitch shifter," explains Diaz. Rat accompanies Zaid by reacting to specific cues in the songs, controlling the pitch and volume of the radio like a theremin operator. Diaz describes the results as "sonic waves that sound like jets, sometimes oceans. I hear animal sounds sometimes."
Rat says he made the device because "I needed an instrument that would offer a miscellany of rapidly changing sounds." He adds that the radio element is an important aspect of Zaid's music. "It takes the music out of a conventional sort of arrangement," he explains.
In addition to the radio rig he built to play on Zaid's releases, Rat reconstructed a volume pedal with a radio inside it for Zaid to use on his solo, a cappella numbers. "It allows me to switch stations and I have control over the volume," says Diaz.
Zaid likes to put on a visual spectacle that mirrors his musical experiments. With a portable spotlight placed at his feet that casts a red glow on his face and highlights his pointed facial features, he performs in white makeup and black lipstick, black fingernail polish, fancy shirts, and sensible shoes. "The true Xela character does the makeup on his face and sometimes scares some people like that, but it's all out of fun. It's nothing that I take, or anyone else should take too seriously," he says with a laugh. For him it all contributes to an environment that helps his creative juices flow.
"It's a fun outlet, really," he says. "It allows me to expand and do different things musically, so people don't say, 'Oh, he's just a singer-songwriter.' I'm not just that, I like to do different things."