Anyone who wants to know how the music world works should check out how The Zombie Kids produced their first hit. The video for their song “Face,” which was first uploaded to YouTube in May 2011, opens with shots of a line of girls, then a band with a synth player prominent. A catchy, repetitive beat, possibly a sample, keeps time. Then the focus shifts to the vocalist, a black man with a shaved head and silver teeth. He’s shirtless with a leather jacket on that has big black feathers adorning the back; from the front, they look like a pair of wings.
At this point, you’re thinking, “Hmm.” The music kicks in after 16 seconds, and by second 19, you’re thinking that this sounds a lot like a hit.
The Zombie Kids provide the musical foundation: Cumhur Jay, known as Jay, on synthesizer and Edgar Candel Kerri on bass. There are then various shots of beautiful young people. The women are dancing; the shirtless, tattooed men are shadow boxing. The video tells you much of what you need to know about the band’s taste.
“We shot it in Jay’s living room,” says Edgar.
And who is that flamboyant vocalist? “He’s called Aqeel, and he was a total unknown in 2011. We liked the clothes he was wearing, so we got him behind the mic.”
“Face” made The Zombie Kids stars, got them a record deal with Universal, an advertising deal with Mexico’s largest brewery and an MTV Europe award. If you want to book the duo, be prepared to provide two five-star hotel rooms and vegetarian menus. They won’t fly discount airlines.
“We followed an old punk adage,” says Edgar, explaining their success. “Just do everything yourself.”
BACK FROM THE DEAD
It is a hot August evening in Barcelona. Edgar and Jay are lolling around on the couch in Edgar’s loft apartment with its white walls, high ceilings and huge flat-screen TV. The Zombie Kids are just a little bit tired. They’ve basically spent the last three years touring. They’ve played festivals in Abu Dhabi and shot music videos in Guatemala. They’ve done 26 club concerts in the last 30 days alone. But they’re also a little bit tense. Tonight they’re playing Razzmatazz, a popular Barcelona venue. “A home game,” says Edgar.
The 35-year-old has eyebrows groomed so they point up in the middle and is wearing a pair of surf shorts. His body is covered in tattoos, including the letters P-U-N–K on the knuckles of his right hand. He played guitar in a hardcore band as a kid. He has toured Europe in ramshackle old buses.
Jay, 34, has a full black beard and is wearing a baseball cap backwards. He studied economics in London but almost bankrupted himself spending all his money on records. Jay is the band’s sound nerd. Like Edgar, he also has tattoos on his arms and legs, but he wears long-sleeved shirts when he’s negotiating contracts—when, he says, “a discreet look helps.”
Edgar and Jay are known for the flamboyant excesses of their live shows. They spray a lot of champagne into the crowd and dress up their singers in weird costumes. In Madrid, they threw 6,000 U.S. dollar bills into the crowd. “They didn’t believe it was real money,” says Jay. “They just carried on dancing.”
Their music is a rebellion against genre barriers. “We produce music for the Spotify generation,” explains Edgar. “Young people now listen to a crazy mix of house, rock and rap. We’re DJs who mix our musical styles. Or we bring old styles back to life. Like zombies coming back from the dead.”
On the pair’s albums you will find wild party anthems like “Spanish Sauce Mafia” and hard-hitting rap numbers like “Broke.” In their videos you’ll see hipsters in pink leggings and rappers with dreads and pit bulls.
It’s 1 a.m. Edgar and Jay are in a taxi heading for Razzmatazz, in Barcelona’s former industrial area, Poblenou, which is dominated by brick buildings and covered in graffiti. The club, which opened in 1986, is housed in a former cotton mill. Backstage it smells like a basement party room. There are tiled walls, a worn-out red sofa and cans of beer in a battered fridge.
“There’s no better springboard to an international career than Barcelona,” explains Jay, not least because of the agenda-setting electronic music festivals Sonar and Primavera, which bring high- profile names to the city every year. A large number of them also play at Razzmatazz. “A-Track, Fatboy Slim and Diplo will all play here on a good week. People are used to top-level acts. The crowd is critical. You’ve got to whip them up at the high point of the night, between 3 and 4 in the morning.”
At 2:30 a.m., Jay puts a 32GB memory stick into the DJ decks on the stage. On it are 929 songs, more than enough ammunition for a two-and-a-half-hour set; Edgar and Jay create playlists on the fly. At the edge of the stage, roadies are bringing up equipment: confetti cannons, smoke machines, two bottles of Moët.
The lights go out. The first song comes thumping out of the speakers—a DJ Assault cover amplified with 13,000 watts. It’s called “Suck My Motherf*cking Dick.” About 2,000 people, almost all under 30, move closer to the decks. Next, Edgar and Jay do a remix of “Billie Jean,” treating Michael Jackson’s vocal as beats—slowing it down, doubling the speed. The Zombie Kids are getting the place warmed up.
For the all-important 3 to 4 a.m. hour, they change the tempo. At 3 a.m. on the dot, they raise the bpm from 100 to 128. It’s party time. The crowd is a maelstrom of arms and smartphones raised aloft. Edgar stands at the turntables with his legs apart, a gunslinger ready for a duel.
The highlight of the night comes at 3:30. Jay and Edgar play another one of their songs featuring Aqeel, called “Fire.” The crowd sings along to the chorus: “Got me burning inside like fire.”
The confetti machines spew out gold glitter. Edgar sprays champagne into the crowd. The DJs and the audience are one. Young women are dancing on the stage. Yet the most awestruck fan in the place doesn’t cast a sideways glance.
Curly-haired 30-year-old Pallis Lyons has traveled from Sydney, Australia, to see The Zombie Kids. Jay got him a backstage pass. Lyons is next to the decks, taking photos on his phone. “The Zombies wanted to play Australia,” he roars,“but it didn’t work out. So I thought, ‘F*ck it. I’ll go to them.’ ” A second shower of glitter rains down. The fun goes on till 5 a.m.
Fifteen minutes later, Edgar and Jay are sitting backstage. The Barcelona show was a home victory. Jay says you can only make it big if you do a lot of gigs. Edgar says sometimes he doesn’t know which city he’s woken up in, but he manages a laugh as he says goodbye. The Zombie Kids will play 200 club gigs in all in 2014. In eight hours’ time, they’ll be on a plane heading for Madrid.