Interview: Queen Zee

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Neither aggressive, snarling punk nor glam indie-rock, but with elements of both; DIY with tongue-in-cheek wit, yet flamboyant and dramatic – such is the task of trying to describe a band which so far seems to have evaded labelling, or indeed categorisation of any sort. I caught up with Zee, the lead vocalist of Queen Zee, to see if our chat could help me give the Scouse quintet a bit more of a succinct description.

2019’s been a whirlwind year for the band; their eponymous debut record was released in February and they’ve spent the summer so far jumping around many of the big-name festivals such as Glastonbury, Kendall Calling and Latitude (they were also due to play Boardmasters before its cancellation last week). According to Zee, however, one in particular stood out: ‘Glasto’s the best by a mile because it makes all other festivals not really look like festivals – it was a life-changing experience’. While they enthuses that festivals are great because ‘I just like being out and there’s loads going on and it’s a bit more of a party atmosphere’, they do also acknowledge that from a performer’s point of view ‘they’re awful, because the sound’s terrible, you can’t control anything …. There’s too much going on – as a performer, even though [festivals] are fun and everyone’s up for it, I think I’d take a gig, so I can control it a little bit more’.

Queen Zee gigs are quite a sight to behold too; having made a name for themselves gigging in their hometown Liverpool and beyond, they’ve acquired a bit of a cult following, of which Zee says: ‘I don’t really know where that came from, but it definitely exists. We headlined the Old Blue Last in London for Dork Mag last week and there’s a lot of t-shirts out there… I’m always quite grateful we’re one of those bands who are really involved with their fanbase’. Such an assertion might be considered a slight overstatement coming from another artist, but I’d have to agree – I was one of a group who went along to chat to trio Dream Wife and Queen Zee (who were supporting) about the local music scene ahead of the former’s Rescue Rooms show last October, which The Mic reported on here.

According to Zee, the event occurred because ‘there’s a real human element to Dream Wife where they’re trying to connect with young fans who aren’t being heard as much – young female and non-binary fans who are really looking for role models at the moment.’ Both bands seem to try their hardest to extend the values of their music – respect, self-confidence, inclusivity – to their offstage lives as well. ‘I think meeting people and having those moments… [fans] then take that positive experience out into the world [which is] really important for me’. Having heard them talk with such passion about the experiences they’ve had with fans, I’m not convinced the mystery of where Queen Zee’s avid following originates is such a mystery after all.

'[we're] trying to connect with young fans who aren't being heard as much - young female and non-binary fans who are really looking for role models at the moment.'

Part of the band’s vitality and importance, not only to individuals but to society more broadly, is their unashamed embracing of the ‘queer band’ label some commentators have bestowed upon them. Zee recalls: ‘I remember having this chat with someone saying that you know, I shouldn’t be shy of my queer identity because that has influenced me, that has affected how I view culture, affected where I’ve been and the shows I’ve seen and the life I’ve had, which has then influenced the music of Queen Zee. So, without the queer aspect of my identity, Queen Zee wouldn’t exist how it does’.

In addition to the name of the band collectively, ‘Queen Zee’ is also who Zee becomes when they perform on stage. When I asked about parallels between Queen Zee and David Bowie’s ‘Ziggy Stardust’ persona, Zee agreed that ‘I’m fascinated by Ziggy, I’m fascinated by Bowie in general, and what I found really interesting is how he acknowledged that they were personas and he was creating it and it was artistic… but also how it was still him. At the end of the day it was still going on in his mind, it wasn’t entirely a character. And for Queen Zee yes, it is obviously an enhanced personality; I don’t go around screaming dressed in drag all day, but at the same time it has still come from my mind’.

Alongside Bowie, the band’s influences appear to be many and varied, predominantly because ‘I don’t think there’s many [artists] we all collectively like. I personally love a lot of older music like Dick Dale and rockabilly stuff. Jay and Dave are proper metalheads, Frank’s into hip-hop and Ash just really likes pop music. There’s a lot of the club kids, drag and stuff as well, all those kinds of artists. None of us really listen to the music that Queen Zee makes voluntarily; when we get together we kind of meet in the middle, and that’s Queen Zee’. One area of common ground is a collective admiration for Iggy Pop, who himself endorsed Queen Zee as “strange people from Liverpool. I don't wanna say they're dirty, they look a little weird, but they rock like crazy". When I mention this, Zee speaks about Iggy with the reverence of a young child talking about their favourite TV character, describing the latter as ‘an absolute monster- you see him on stage at 70-odd just going for it and I just think “how is that not an influence on anyone?” To just have so much… lust for life man, Lust for Life! It’s there in the song!’.

'None of us really listen to the music that Queen Zee makes voluntarily; when we get together we kind of meet in the middle'

Such vitality is something which they certainly find slightly lacking in contemporary music – in reference to the numerous Catfish-copycat guitar bands around at the moment, Zee comments: ‘yeah, there’s a lot of stuff out there that’s just really boring. That’s what wrecks my head – a lot of it’s very good, and a lot of these people are very talented musicians, but the imagination just doesn’t seem to be there… it’s all so bleak. And I’m not sure if that’s because it’s mirroring culturally what’s happening with Brexit and Trump; everyone just seems a bit defeated and the music has sort of reflected that’. That being said, they do acknowledge that there seems to have been a shift more recently, with ‘brilliant bands doing really great stuff’ such as black midi, Viagra Boys and Dream Wife bringing ‘a bit of hope’ back to the scene.

With regards to the current social climate, some artists – most notably Stormzy for his headline set at Glastonbury this year – have been criticised for making their music too political, however for Zee, that’s precisely why it was such a success. ‘I was there… being stood there watching that Stormzy set was the most incredible thing in the universe at that moment. It was like the rest of the world stopped. And it’s what we needed, we need people to wake the fuck up – with Brexit, and Boris Johnson becoming the second unelected prime minister…. I think there will be a lot of flack for people who have that political edge to what they do because people don’t really want you to talk about it.’

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Are Queen Zee talking about it? ‘I don’t intentionally have a political edge to what I do, I just write about what’s on my mind, but a lot of the time that is political because we’re surrounded by it. We see horrendous stuff every day; we read newspapers and they’re just true-life horror stories; the news is just a list of bad things that have happened, and then it’s like “okay, go and make some songs!”. Of course it’s on my mind. And I’m not out there trying to be Rage Against the Machine, but it’s just on my mind because I can’t escape it. We’re just out here trying to be as human as possible, but I think sometimes to do that you’ve almost got to be an alien. People think we’re weird but maybe actually we’re just the normal ones’.

'We’re just out here trying to be as human as possible, but I think sometimes to do that you’ve almost got to be an alien. People think we’re weird but maybe actually we’re just the normal ones’.

Music has always been a good indicator of the public mood in times of political and social upheaval due to its immediacy and high engagement levels, and the past few years appear to have been no different. With the separate spheres of politics and popular culture becoming ever more interlinked, increasing numbers of artists are using their music as mediums through which they explore social issues. One such band Zee mentions is IDLES: ‘You look at them and the energy they constantly have, and you can relate to it and enjoy it; that’s what we’ve needed, bands like that. Not even just bands, whether that’s a DJ or a rapper – someone like Stormzy doing that on the main stage at Glasto. We’re waiting for those moments in culture and those artists which really speak of the times’.

So, having enjoyed a packed schedule and festival season since the debut album came out, what does the future hold for Queen Zee? ‘We’ve got a massive tour kicking off next week with Skunk Anansie, and that’ll be the biggest tour we’ve ever done. And that just wraps up this massive year for us, so we’re actually gonna take some time after that to recoup ourselves and get our brains in gear for the second record. We’ve been demoing, we’ve been writing – we’ve been writing since before that first album came out – so it’s just a process of getting everything together, really getting into it and making everything that makes Queen Zee… more Queen Zee’. As for that succinct description I promised: I’m still not convinced I could slap a label on this band that seems to defy categorisation, but one phrase I think I could confidently use in the same sentence as ‘Queen Zee’ is ‘relevant’ – a perfect storm of 2019’s culture of politics, protest and partying.

Queen Zee play Rock City on 3rd September 2019.