The big review: Reading Festival 2023
Don Broco, Sleep Token, Hot Milk and more fly the flag for rock at Reading & Leeds 2023.
Before they were the new face of alternative music with their self-branded ‘ugly pop’ – and one of the most refreshing and fiercely independent artists of 2023 – ZAND had some lofty career goals.
We’re talking movie star, marine biologist, artist (of the painting variety), author, poet and musician. All at once. The days off would have been sparse, but the pension sizeable.
“I had stars in my eyes; I wanted to do it all and the world seemed full of boundless opportunities,” says the London-based singer, full name Zander Sweeney (pronouns they/them).
In the end, it didn’t make sense for ZAND to become anything other than a musician, offering in their Lancashire lilt that “nothing else gives my existence purpose."
Entranced by the performances of their idols – an eclectic list longer than their neon green talons, featuring Imogen Heap, Paramore, Rob Zombie, Fightstar, Hans Zimmer, Britney and Nicki Minaj to name but a few – they wanted in on the act.
Smoke Is In My Eyes was the first song they ever wrote. “It was My Chemical Romance-inspired and the premise was that I had smokey eye make-up on and was joking that my eyes were on fire, and that’s why they were smokey,” ZAND laughs, looking back at the efforts of their 12-year-old self.
By 16, though, they were taking their craft more seriously, penning a “beautiful albeit sad” track named Platelets, written as if speaking to a girl who was dying of leukemia, and at 17 a song for their late grandad named Windows. “It [went] like, ‘All I have to do is look up at the stars from the window at my grandma’s to see him’. From there I didn’t stop writing songs...”
Aged 18, ZAND pursued a line of work that was not in the original plan.
“Sex work or modelling... that’s what I was doing before I got ‘noticed’ musically for the first time, from a YouTube cover,” they note, explaining that they were writing and releasing music on the side (under a different pseudonym) for a period.
“I was camming, selling ‘content’ on a website I won’t name and glamour modelling where there was nought glamour; I actually put myself in quite dodgy situations,” they explain. “I remember always worrying that some sort of leak of my past work would pop up and ‘hurt my image’ at the start; I was ashamed of it for a while, [but I] genuinely do not give two fucks about it [now]. Mainly because it’s happened already and my nudes have actually been leaked multiple times. Fuck it.
"If [music] wasn’t to work out, sex work is something I would probably return to,” they add. “But I would like to leave those resources to those who really need it to survive. It’s a privilege that I’m able to openly say that, and talk about it without shame, to such a big publication like yourselves.”
ZAND wears Anders Zip-Up Hoodie, Grave Digger Skull Handbag, Zoey Long Socks, Panic Platform Shoe by KILLSTAR
When ZAND (the person) finally figured out a musical project that felt true to who they were in 2018, ZAND (the artist) was born, and they channeled their sex work experience into the song Slut Money. A track on their 2020 EP Ugly Pop, it has become their most-streamed song to date, boasting more than three million listens on Spotify.
Three years on and ZAND is gearing up to unleash new EP, SEWERSTAR in the summer, the concept of which they describe as “unhinged horny gremlin running around a sewer... People are always like, ‘You’re a goblin bimbo, gremlin person!’ and I’m just taking that by the horns and running with it.”
While three songs from the EP have dropped already (Battery Acid, Religion and I Spit On Your Grave), there’s some fun ones still to come, including DTF, “an unhinged song about wanking”.
The title is ironic (“I’m not down to fuck, I’m just down to fuck myself,” says ZAND) and the music was produced using not one, but two vibrators – a clit sucker and a lipstick bullet.
"With the sucker, I moved it back and forth from the microphone to create the illusion that it’s being used,” explains ZAND, promising they weren’t actually using them while recording. “And I did that with my bullet too, as a constant rhythm. The sucker is what you hear being turned on with the button clicks...”
Unorthodox instrumentation aside, the seven-track release showcases everything that makes ZAND special: their effortlessly cool, neon green, hard-bastard aesthetic; dark lyrical matter that comes neatly wrapped in lolz; a true talent for songwriting; and them acting as a voice for marginalised communities, offering up empowerment anthems for everyone but sleazy cis males and abusers.
Then there’s the chef’s kiss-worthy genre-bending that’s seen them make a name for themselves. See, ZAND fucks with genre harder than Liz Truss and Kwasi Kwarteng fucked with the UK economy – going from honey-dripped cooing on the hauntingly beautiful Battery Acid, to wretched pterodactyl screams on I Spit On Your Grave. And they take great pleasure in keeping the listener on their toes.
"I get a lot of, ‘I don’t know what genre this is...’ comments about my music and I love it!” they say. “I really enjoyed fucking with that and the idea of rejecting cohesiveness on this EP.”
It's an EP designed for people who aren't bothered by scenes or genres, “the underdogs and weirdos that feel like they don’t belong,” and can find some belonging in “the weird-ass music that gremlins like me create,” says ZAND.
"Because we all have that one thing in common,” they add, “and that’s where community comes in. I love the fact that queer kids can find a home in music like mine, it’s very comforting to see.”
ZAND has been called ugly their entire life. Their first experience of bullying came at the age of four, when their parents moved them and their brother from England to rural Ireland. ZAND in particular was targeted for their “nerdy” interests (Pokémon and Digimon) and being sensitive towards animals. “I remember my bully stamping on a frog I’d found in the playground – the same with a little baby bird that had fallen out of its nest that I was trying to look after,” the singer remembers.
It was when they returned back to Blackpool aged 12, and was parachuted into secondary school at Year 8, that they saw how ugly the world – and kids in particular – can be.
“That was a different type of brutal,” they recall. “Kids [were] more mercilessly mean than they were over in Ireland and I would get picked on for my appearance a lot, called ugly or a nerd... I did not feel as strong, or like I could push back, like I did when I was younger. It felt different [in the UK]. More big and scary. I struggled with self-harm and depression from an early age and would get picked on for that, too... ‘Fucking emo blah blah,' it’s all a blur, to be honest.”
Things got all the more confusing when ZAND sang Christina Aguilera’s Beautiful in the school talent show in Year 10, something they describe as a “weird and hilarious blossoming high school movie" moment.
“Some popular guy from the year above started texting me like, “Wow you looked so amazing up there! You are so talented!” they say. “It was a really jarring juxtaposition, going from feeling grotesque and being made to feel beneath everyone all my school life, to people suddenly finding me attractive and ‘worthy’ because they saw my talent.”
Struggling with their gender identity at the time, ZAND saw how people reacted to them presenting themselves as more feminine and felt pressure to be more like that in order to be accepted.
“It wasn’t until my late-teens and even early 20s, [when] the penny finally dropped and I had the vocabulary to realise I was trans,” they explain.
They describe the moment they shaved their head – the look you see ZAND sport today – as liberating. “[I was] finally able to let go of all the prejudice and judgement I’d held towards myself projected by other people,” says the singer.
The bullying didn’t stop when high school ended, unfortunately, and when ZAND came out as trans in 2015 they were subject to transphobic abuse. “It was harrowing,” they say today. “A really scary time that definitely has had a lasting impact on me, but all of this just gave – and still gives – me the push to be my authentic self. I feel and look my most powerful as a baldie.”
And that’s how ‘ugly pop’ came to be – the artist reclaiming the words that have been used against them for so many years in a positive light (‘ugly pop’ also represents the dark subject matter that ZAND sings about, which some might consider ‘ugly’).
“I like looking different, I like expressing myself and feeling good about myself,” they explain. “Even when people fucking harass me, I'm like, ‘Well you’re gonna remember what I look like but I’m gonna forget your face in like five seconds...’”
Harassment due to their appearance is a regular occurrence for ZAND and they are often subjected to having their photo taken, or being filmed without permission, while just going about their day.
“I get filmed a lot – and it’s usually by men,” they explain. “Just a few weeks ago I was stood at the train station with my hood up, minding my business and someone was sending Snapchats of me. I’m just existing and people laugh at me and use me as a spectacle... I will never understand that. Why do you treat people who just look different to you like they’re shit on your shoe? Because they don’t fit your idea of beauty standards? It's just fucking weird to me.”
It’s experiences like this – and worse – that lead artists to use music as an outlet, which was ZAND’s primary motivation when starting their ugly pop project.
“I wanted to empower everyone and [speak] up against oppressors in whatever format they take – whether it’s abusers or transphobes or homophobes, or anything,” they explain. “I've got a couple of songs that are hitting back at predatory behaviour and misogyny and creepy fucking men abusing their power.”
They are referring to three tracks that fantasise about causing harm to your abuser: Deliverance, I Spit On Your Grave, and Kill All Predators (a song by ‘fairy metal’ artist Banshee upon which ZAND features).
While this often-triggering topic has been written about in a tongue-in-cheek manner (‘These boys they don't know how to act / That's why I got a baseball bat / I fantasise about their brains exploding on my welcome mat,’ they sing on I Spit On Your Grave), working with such heavy subject matter has inevitably taken its toll.
“It’s very draining to write about negative shit all the time,” ZAND explains. “And it’s draining to have to constantly be putting on this persona in your songs where it’s like, ‘I’m gonna fucking fight you!’ Even though it feels good and it’s good to get it out, and you feel strong, it is draining. So that’s why I’ve been enjoying breaking it up by telling silly stories, or just silly wanky songs like DTF, or even sad ones. My main thing in my songwriting is just telling stories, and making music that I would like to make.”
Looking at ZAND – who is as bold as they are bald, more than comfortable posing in their birthday suit, and writes songs about murdering sexual predators – you'd think they don’t give a shit what anyone thinks. And you’d be right... to an extent.
“I find it funny when people say that, because I feel like I give a fuck so much,” they confess. “But I’m selective about what I give a fuck about. If my friend, or someone I care about, talks to me in the wrong tone, I will have a fucking breakdown, like, ‘Do you hate me?!’ I care very much about the opinions of people that I care about...”
That level of overthinking isn’t just reserved for ZAND's nearest and dearest – it spills into their music career, too.
Playing to a crowd who isn’t particularly receptive (something every new artist encounters in a support slot) will do it – “I hate talking onstage, I never know what to say and always overthink. I just chat shit and I’m like, ‘Shut up Zander!’ – as will face-to-face interviews with journalists. Like this one.
"I will just overthink everything and be constantly like... what’s the word... uhhh,” they pause, unintentionally illustrating their point “...aware of the fact that I may not be coming across how I want to. I struggle a lot with articulating myself and I’m very hard on myself.”
Incidentally our interview ends early due to the singer getting frustrated with themselves, and perhaps a little overwhelmed, and we finish it off over email; with some time to sit and untangle their thoughts, ZAND is able to eloquently and self-assuredly get their point across.
And the reason for the cogs in ZAND's brain not quite turning as instructed by its owner? Autism, ADHD and OCD. The trifecta diagnosis, the artist says, is both a blessing and a curse when it comes to making music, and is the reason why their forthcoming EP took a whole year to finish.
“I try to think of it like: if I wasn’t born this way and didn’t have these things...” they pause to consider their words, “...not these things wrong with me, but if my brain wasn’t wired the way it was, then I wouldn’t want to make music the way I do. It's just a fact that neurodivergent people make art differently. So that’s something I’m thankful for.”
The obsessing and hyper-fixating can quickly lead to burn out, though, and just trying to finish one song in good time can become “the biggest feat in the world” and ZAND can become "exhausted at the mere prospect of doing it”.
"It feels shitty because I’m a musician and love making music,” they add. “You feel guilty because it’s like, ‘This is what I wanna do... why don’t I love it?’ I dread that I won’t meet my full potential because of the difficulties that I face with my brain.”
While still incredibly independent – self-releasing and self-producing their music – getting a proper team around them has helped. Agent Christina, whom ZAND describes as “my rock and accidental therapist” came on board three years ago, and it was the recruitment of manager Rosie that saw ZAND get organised. But even with extra hands on deck, the singer says it’s hard to shake the feeling that they are “just trying to get through every day... If I feel I’ve not done enough on a song or whatever, I feel very guilty.”
So what would be enough? How would ZAND know when that full potential has dutifully been sought?
“It is woefully ironic trying to think about what my full potential looks like, because it is constantly changing,” they say. “And maybe I will never reach it because capitalism fucks us so hard and no matter what achievements and milestones we reach, it never seems to be enough. We are always constantly having to prove ourselves to ourselves and other people. It’s hard not to get caught up in the rat race of comparing yourself constantly...”
“I used to think my full potential was taking over the world and selling out tours. Now I'm like, is my full potential just having one person hear my music and not feel alone? Is my full potential notoriety? Or being able to pay my family’s bills comfortably? I don’t know...” they ponder. “What I would like to do, though, is release what I feel is enough of my music to the world before I die. There’s a lot more I still want to do as an artist.
“It is cliché,” they say summing up our chat contemplatively. “But perhaps the journey to finding yourself is reaching your full potential along the way, and [it’s about] the things you do to get there and not the end goal.”
Whatever the destination, ZAND's career is set to be one hell of a journey. Strap in.
ZAND's new EP SEWERSTAR will be released later this year. They play Slam Dunk Festival in Hatfield and Leeds on May 27 – 28.
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