Inspirations: Paramore Drummer Zac Farro Finds His Psych-Rock Groove With Halfnoise's 'Natural Disguise'
By Chris Payne
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By Chris Payne
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Inspirations is a Billboard interview franchise that examines the process behind new standout releases.
Who is Zac Farro anyway?
If you're at least a casual fan of Paramore, you probably know him as the band's amicable drummer. Perhaps you know a little about his tumultuous exit in 2010 and subsequent reunion with Hayley Williams and company in time for their standout 2017 album After Laughter. If you're a Paramore diehard, you remember all the messy details from when Zac and his brother, songwriter-guitarist Josh Farro, quit the band, along with how elated you felt upon learning Zac was rejoining. If you've scarcely even heard of Paramore, perhaps you're wondering about this guy who looks like Jason Schwartzman playing improv in whatever was lying around Wes Anderson's closet.
Farro is trying to figure himself out, too. "One of my old friends told me, 'Zac, I think you're a really awesome guy but sometimes I see that you wanna be the people that you're around,'" Farro tells Billboard on a call from his new Los Angeles pad -- he had packed up and moved to Echo Park after 27 years in Nashville just days earlier. "I heard a quote a long time ago: 'If you're trying to be like everyone in the room, no one's gonna know who you are.' That stuck with me. Then I started to believe in myself and thought, 'Well, what do I have to offer in music?'"
Outside Paramore, Farro has been making music under the Halfnoise moniker since 2010. On third LP Natural Disguise, his groove-heavy psych-rock sounds like it's finally arrived. Farro admits the polished, studio-catered sound of previous albums (2014's Volcano Crowe and2016's Sudden Feeling) lost much of the zany, dance-friendly, smash-the-fourth-wall spontaneity of Halfnoise's live shows -- a sweet spot where Natural Disguise delivers many times over. "We'd play one or two Halfnoise songs in the Paramore set each night [touring behind After Laughter]," Farro remembers. "I was really feeling the energy of playing live and wanted to make it translate to this album. We played the last show of the record cycle in Nashville on Sept. 2  and the very next day, I locked myself in my studio and spent the rest of the month finishing the Halfnoise record."
When Farro and his older brother quit Paramore, their departure wasn't exactly amicable, with a public letter penned by Josh detailing how he'd felt left on the sidelines of a band centered on Williams' star power. When both sides reconciled and Zac rejoined, Paramore had plans to expand its live sound; Farro introduced a pair of Halfnoise members into its new touring lineup -- guitarist-keyboardist Logan MacKenzie and percussionist Joe Mullen -- alongside Halfnoise bassist Joey Howard, who'd already been playing in Paramore (guitarist Daniel Kadawatha and percussionist Gavin McDonald round out Halfnoise). "Everybody's so close, it's just a family," Farro says. "We didn't skip a beat."
Farro's charisma shines throughout Natural Disguise. Below, he guides us through the inspirations behind Halfnoise's strongest statement yet.
A change of scenery. "I'm a very feelings-based musician, so if it's sunny and beautiful out I tend to have a clearer mind to go create," Farro says. With Nashville cold and bleak last January, he decamped to L.A. to mix Natural Disguise; he liked the effects so much, he decided to make the move permanent last month.
"I started dating my girlfriend Kayla and she'd been in New York for 10 years and I'd been in Nashville for 27, so we wanted to start something new. I'm gonna be 30 next year and it's a really cool stamp on my life to move somewhere and make my own decision while my whole family is still in Nashville doing its thing."
A new studio. After Paramore's After Laughter tour wrapped, Farro ditched his makeshift bedroom recording setup ("I'd wake up and trip over guitar cords") and built himself a proper studio in his old Nashville apartment. "I would play drums on a song, start a guitar riff, then jump back on the drums, then add bass… it was really cool to have enough inputs and channels, with everything right there," he says, mentioning an old Juno synthesizer as one of his favorite pieces of gear. Natural Disguise is the first album that Farro produced and engineered completely on his own. Shortly after the album's completion, he welcomed Nashville folk artist Becca Mancari to his studio to collaborate towards one of her upcoming projects.
Palling around with Matt Shultz. Farro met the Cage the Elephant singer at Bonnaroo 2018, while he was working on Natural Disguise and Shultz was still fine-tuning his band's 2019 LP Social Cues. "We hit it off, instant friends," Farro says excitedly. Many post-Roo hangs ensued. "He'd plug in these big Sonos [speakers] at his house and be like, 'Play me another one!' Okay cool, wanna hear one of ours? 'Hell yeah!'" Shultz's encouragement helped Farro through the album process' requisite moments of indecision. "It was this feeling of, oh cool I'm not crazy, this band's going through the same things, having good and bad days."
A late '60s and '70s record collection. Farro lists The Kinks, The Rolling Stones, and The Beatles as key influences across Natural Disguise. "The Kinks' 'You Really Got Me' is so direct -- a toddler could sing that guitar part because it's so simple and effective," he says. For the album's rhythmic side, Farro set out to merge that retro rock sensibility with Afrobeat artists like Fela Kuti, William Onyeabor, and the Lijadu Sisters.
"Then I was like, well we live in 2019... I love old records and vintage clothing but at the same time, I take all these [analog] film photos and post them on Instagram with my iPhone, you know? That's why we made the vertical video for 'Boogie Juice' (see below), because people are gonna watch it on their smartphones."
Feeling like an outcast. "I had a great childhood and a really loving family, but when you're the middle child, there's this feeling you're the black sheep," says Farro, one of five children. "Growing up in Nashville, it's a very conservative place -- in church, you're kinda taught to judge a book by its cover, which is the exact opposite of what I think the Christian religion should be."
He poured all of this into "Boogie Juice," where he croons lines like "I'm not your bad apple!" and "there's more than meets the eye" over funk that sounds straight out of the Napoleon Dynamite soundtrack.
Question marks. The theme of unmasking oneself is central to Natural Disguise and it’s at the core of several key tracks. “At the time I was single, going on dates, seeing how I’d act differently around some people and how others disguise who they are to impress some people,” Farro says of the lyric writing process. The jaunty title track came was inspired by one such meeting: “You’re saying all these things and it’s like I know less about you the more you talk,” he remembers.
“If I had to show a person one song on the album, I’d play them ‘Guess,’ -- the album really came together when I wrote that one,” he says. “Lyrically, it opened the door to a lot of other possibilities. A lot of the lyrical content is me looking back at myself.”
And that brings us to the album cover. “A question mark is kinda the biggest disguise there is, right? The designer had this really cool lettering with Natural Disguise on the cover and a big question mark on the back. I was like, dude, this is so cool -- we need to put that one the front.”