Chris Zaldua (photo: Robert Alleyne)
Chris Zaldua (also known as DJ CZ) is a founding member of record label Left Hand Path. The label, started with his partner Nihar Bhatt, is shaping up to play an important role to play in the Bay Area Music scene. In the aftermath of the tragic events of the Ghost Ship fire, in Oakland, Chris rose up like a beacon to many. He lost a lot of friends and worked tirelessly to ensure people remembered those lost with the love and the respect they brought to so many others in the Bay Area and beyond.
During 2017 the label is hoping to honor some of the artists who were lost with posthumous releases. It is a great responsibility, and Chris talks about these projects passionately. As he speaks you can feel the emotional challenge releasing this music will be; these were his friends.
The label had already been working with Johnny Igaz before the fire. Johnny had been making music his entire life; psychedelic hip-hop funk and soul under the name Ill Mando and more recently house music under the name Nackt. Johnny and Chris would consistently share their passion for music. “As we became friends over the years he would start sending me music and be like ‘hey what do you think about this?’ Chris says as he recalls their friendship. “Consistently, the music he would send me was jaw-droppingly good, and I'd be like Johnny this is fucking amazing, why don’t you have records out, why aren’t people paying attention to you?”
Chris recalls how Johnny was always very humble about the music he made, and how he understood what Left Hand Path was all about. Johnny had been sending Chris tracks over the course of two or three months to create an EP very much in keeping with the Left Hand Path style, “it jumps around,” he tells me as he excitedly talks about the record, “there’s almost like a disco song on it. There’s a crazy like hard acid techno song, there’s a beautiful melodic cerebral techno track on it, and then there’s like a very gritty electro song on it, so it jumps around in sound, but it all feels like Johnny.” Just before the fire, they were talking about artwork. “I'm sad that he’s not going to be around to see it. But I know that he was so excited about it.”
The label is also hoping to honor the memory of Joey Casio, aka Obsidian Blade. He had blown both Nihar and Chris away after playing a DJ set at their club night, Surface Tension, in 2015. “He’s a genius!” exclaims Chris as we talk about his music. Joey had already been working with Left Hand Path since Nihar had reached out to him in 2016. At a memorial for Joey, Nihar met Joey’s family who told him they found a 2017 to do list in his room. At the top was 'finishing the record with Left Hand Path.'
The label also hopes to work with the back-catalog of Chelsea Faith, aka Cherushii, who was another of Chris’ friends who passed in the fire. “She started sending me more experimental tracks, more ambient music, strange kind of stuff she was working on and I was like oh my god this is so good we need to get something together.” Chris plans to work with her partner, David Last, to go through her archives to get her music out too.
Chris Zaldua and his partner Nihar Bhatt started Left Hand Path at the end of 2015. It seems like a high-risk venture, especially at a time when the recording industry is still figuring out its role in a world where streaming is the main way people listen to music. Chris is very conscious of this, “on the face of it; it is a foolish proposition” he says, “the odds are stacked against you if you start a record label in the world that we’re living in.” But start a record label they did. “What really interests me is discovering really talented musicians and working to build a platform for their art,” shares Chris Zaldua.
Launching Left Hand Path was the realization of a teenage dream. Chris grew up in San Rafael around the industrial and experimental Bay Area dance scene. Record labels were the fulcrum for how he learned about and explored music. “Record labels were the axis on which everything seemed to revolve around. Good labels were the cornerstones of music scenes. So that's how I started discovering music when I was young.” Nihar came of age amidst the Hardcore and Punk scenes of the East Coast in Washington, DC and Baltimore. Their complementary musical histories are key to the sound they are curating for the label. “What we’re trying to present with Left Hand Path is liminal music, music that exists in between scenes,” hey says. He thinks of this liminal music as, “music that is accessible, that is that [it] carries with it all the history of these scenes but looks to broaden horizons.”
Left Hand Path’s first release, in June 2016, was CUBE’s album, My Cube, an experimental electronic project from Oakland’s Adam Keith. The record boldly mixes styles; it has the intensity of punk with a hard, and aggressive, yet sometimes hypnotic edge. It is hard to place in a category, each time you think you can it switches and changes into something fresh and compelling.
“It's harder than ever for record labels to thrive," Chris reflects as he discusses the label’s first release. "Whereas 15, 20 years ago you could sell 5,000 copies of an underground niche album and that would be pretty easy. Now selling 50 is a huge challenge.” The goals and expectations need to be different, and Chris does not shy away from these realities. “If we break even I'd be super happy on each record. I’m not really looking at it as a money-making venture.” He says they are looking to use Left Hand Path to “raise the profile of the artists we’re working with and the profile of the label,” and this they hope will lead to bookings, DJ sets and open up other revenue streams. “I don’t see the records as income generators, I see them as statements that we’re making, that we’re using to get our voice out there and just build all of us up as a scene.”
We talk about the challenges facing San Francisco music scene, and the notion of liminality pops up again. "The really challenging thing about San Francisco is that it has always been a “liminal city,” it's not big enough that people consider it in the same caliber as New York or London or Tokyo," he says. "I think there’s always been a challenge for musicians from San Francisco because it's like once you reach a certain point of success or recognition, I feel like, a lot of musicians in San Francisco feel like they outgrow San Francisco."
Chris hopes Left Hand Path can play a role in this familiar story for Bay Area musicians. "...It will continue to be the case, and what I am hoping for Left Hand Path is that it can be a platform for those kinds of artists to put their work out and to gain recognition while they’re here, so that there doesn’t have to be such a horrifying tragedy for people to pay attention."
Alongside the releases from those lost in the Ghost Ship fire, Left Hand Path also have music from a Taiwanese band called Forests, as well as Solient from Toronto planned. The latter impressed Chris when playing in 2011 and the two became friends. They are working to release an unusual dubstep record he performed that night but as yet, has not been unreleased. “I asked him about that track, and he's like ‘oh yeah I’ve just been sitting on that for ages,’ so we’re gonna end up putting that one out, which I’m very excited about."
Talking to Chris about Left Hand Path is both a beautiful and inspiring experience. He knows the insanity of launching a label and daring to dream that it can make a difference. By honoring some of those we lost, the label will help the spirit of musicians, who were instrumental to the Bay Area scene, live on. His love for what he is doing, and his passion for the scene in which he operates in, gives me confidence he is going to succeed.