Art & Soul: An interview with AZP cofounders Ishma Valenti and Zach Watkins

Interview and photos by Patrick Wright  | Seeds Entertainment

Through talking with Ishma Valenti and Zach Watkins, founders of Lincoln band AZP, it’s easy to see how passionate they are about what they do. Seamlessly mixing jazz, hip-hop, rock, and soul into a sound that can fill a room with energy is what they live for, and you can see it in the smiles on their faces as they perform. I had the chance to sit down with them and learn more about their creative process and the message behind their music.

Seeds: How did you guys form AZP?

Zach: AZP at first was actually a collection of artists and producers and musicians all in one who started back in high school as an idea, and it actually stood for A to Z Productions. It was like a collaboration of rappers, singers, producers, people from different bands, all that kind of stuff. It was like a group of collection people, and everybody was from different parts. We have friends in Chicago, we have people from New York, and from Nebraska. That’s basically how it started and then Ishma and I were the people at the beginning of it that all started it. What happened that sound that was built at the beginning was basically narrowed down to a band.

Seeds: So you combined all these different groups, and you guys have a ton of different genres–funk and jazz and soul and rock. How do you guys mix that all together into a cohesive sound?

Ishma: Zach’s a genius.

Zach: [Laughs]

Ishma: For real. I’ll be real. When it comes to mixing that sound together, I think Zach was even telling me the other day, it’s hard to get everyone on track with one man’s vision, and especially to see one man’s vision. I have the luxury of trusting his vision, but, when you think about these sounds, even if it’s something that somebody else can produce, that Zach can come in and put all of what AZP is into it, and then of course, he produces 99% of the material that you’re gonna hear, and he arranges it all into this amazing, intricate, perfect thing. And it’s a perfect thing. That’s what I’m always so impressed with.

Zach: On the other side of that I think a lot of it starts with the kind of people we are. We don’t stop at just hip-hop. We don’t stop at just funk. We don’t stop at just blues, we don’t stop at just soul. Everything has been built because of the things we’ve been in and the music we listen to and things like that. A lot of it, too, is playing in orchestra and playing in jazz band all in the same semester and all those things. You can’t leave that stuff behind. As much as you can like one music and things like that, real musicians or real artists they take those things and they hold onto them no matter what. Even if you think you don’t, you still have orchestra music inside of your songs still, just because you were a part of that. It’s easy. It’s not like we try. I think that’s the thing too. It’s not like we sit there and try to say, “Man, how many genres can we put into one song for everybody to love it?” It’s just who we are.

Seeds: It just all comes together naturally.

Zach: Exactly.

Zach Watkins, member and co-founder of AZP, performs at Vega.

Seeds: Speaking of the songs, you guys get into some really deep and sometimes controversial topics. What do you really focus on when you’re writing for the songs?

Zach: To be honest, I’ve gotta give a lot of credit to Ishma on that one. I think where Ishma and I have this good balance, it’s almost like taking a song and narrowing it down to something broad. As in like “Anchors Aweigh,” something like overcoming something. And when Ishma first came on, he literally explained the deeper thoughts about society, or politics, those type of things, and brought that into something that you don’t have to look upon yourself.

Ishma: Yeah, definitely. See we get into this vision, and most of the time the song will start [with] Zach on the keys, and then he has this vision of what this whole thing can be. And then I get to hear it and translate it into something, and it’s just fun and natural. Like [with] “Black Jesus.” When we were making “Black Jesus,” Zach came up with this amazing instrumental, with this beat, and with the bass line that’s just infectious. Then if I give him an idea, he’ll like full-force it into what it can be narrowed down to, and then go at it the full way. Cause sometimes, I come and try to complicate things too much. I’ll be like, “Okay, I wanna write it about this and this and this,” and he’ll be like, “If you wanna write about this, then get it and go! Get it and go at that! Just that first level of it and really get at it!” That really brings out the song writing: when two people can click and trust each other so much on it. I can trust it, like, “Yeah, okay, I’m gonna go with it.”

Seeds: So he kinda helps you simplify it down to something so you can really hit that point home.

Ishma: It makes it more natural. It really does. Like Zach and I will have a conversation about these topics, these exact topics, so it makes it more natural. We have conversations about these songs. These songs are our life. These songs aren’t songs that we say, “Hey, let’s make a song with these things,” these songs are inspiration from our daily lives. The things we talk about, the things that we want to see.

Zach: We want to see change, those type of things. A lot of our songs, it’s just literally a journal.

Seeds: In the bio for AZP, you say that you create, “popular music with a message.” What is that message?

Ishma: Well the first message, always, to us… [Holds up a peace sign]. We always like to build it to peace. Peace–it means so much. A lot of times we talk about a higher power. Because we’re the men that we are, and with the lives that we lead, [and] we believe in this higher power. I don’t think anything personally can describe a higher power too much more than seeing some real peace happen. You have some real peace happening… I don’t know what’s better than that.

Zach: A lot of times, too, it’s one of those things where as much as we have that message, we also want to bring ourselves down to that level, because we live life, too. We’re here, too. We’re normal, too. We make mistakes, we do the same thing, and that’s the reason why we can talk about those things, though. It’s not like we’re trying to be preachers on stage in that type of sense. We only talk about these things, we only look for changes because we’ve seen these things and we’ve done these things and we’ve been through these things. We want to see a progression; we want to see a change.

Seeds: Something you really seem to have is a strong connection with your fans, especially at concerts. At Lincoln Exposed, everybody was throwing out the peace signs and chanting “AZP.” How did you go about getting that connection?

Zach: I think it’s who we are. I think that’s naturally who we are. Being on stage in front of a lot of people that you feel like are part of your world anyway, that’s an easy connection. I think us throwing out the peace signs and getting everybody to say “AZP”… it’s bringing you into what we believe, and on the other side, it’s entertaining. But I think really it just comes down to who we are. I mean literally we walk off the street, that’s the type of people we are. We love shaking your hand and asking what your name is.

Ishma: Yeah, we have fun with that. Like, we literally have fun on stage. We enjoy this stuff. It’s the thing that I love to get up and do. I’m excited if I have to do anything with music in the day, which is every day. That’s why I get up so excited. And so when we’re at a show, it’s exciting to get to meet people that are into this.

Ishma Valenti, member and cofounder of AZP, performs at The Bourbon during Lincoln Exposed.
Ishma Valenti, member and cofounder of AZP, performs at The Bourbon during Lincoln Exposed.

Seeds: You do all live instrumentation for your live shows instead of using digital techniques like you do in recordings. Why is that? 

Zach: Playing live, with all live instruments, it’s the obvious. When we play it live, we give you so much more energy. We can bounce off what the crowd does, we can bounce off what we want to do, we can slow it down, we can speed it up; our dynamics are easier. Whereas…on an album, going digital is perfection. A lot of it goes into how we started. We started in producing music, taking tracks from nothing into a whole bunch of different instruments. So, going live is a totally different energy. It’s the energy that you need when you’re on stage. That energy that we present on stage, that’s how we want to be seen. And that’s how we want to be heard, too. I’ve noticed a lot of times, too, even our newer music is going more into the fact of matching both of those, whereas a lot of times it was more of a sense of going straight digital and then presenting it to the band. [Now], we’re balancing them both ways. But I don’t think we’ll ever get rid of the digital because of perfectionism. Perfectionism in music–it’s huge to us. Making sound exactly how we want it–that’s how we create.

Seeds: Speaking of creating, what was it like making the EP, Early Sunday Morning?

Zach: It was tough. The biggest thing about it though–it changed. It molded from what it was at first, into something else. What started two years ago was a little bit different than it is now because in that two-year span, we evolved, we matured, we grew up, just in those two years. So it changed into something a little more different than what it was at first. But in the sense of literally going in and doing it, some of those songs that we even had created two years ago were molded a bit differently, and turned into what we’re going to do now, the things we believe in now, the things that we want to see changed, and [it] became part of the album. The other songs were just created as in a sense of today and what’s going on today.

Seeds: It’s constantly changing in a way.

Zach: Exactly. A lot of times, too, even when we talk about doing a new EP, it’s hard to narrow down what we want to do necessarily because we already know it’s a changing process. It’s always moving, it’s always going.

Seeds: I’m sure your plans for the future are constantly changing as well, but right now, where do you see all this going?

Ishma: We want to bring this art to the whole world.

Zach: Exactly. When you can take your music and gain that same belief that you had at Lincoln Exposed–that same energy, that same power, and the same love for your message–you want to take it as far as you can. So if I can go to every 50 states in the U.S., why not? There’s no limit to where we want to take it, because of what we believe in. This is who we are. This is literally who we are.

Ishma: I know Zach and I both, when we say take it to the sky, that’s in every sense, in every sense of how good we can get at our craft. How much more can we progress and satisfy ourselves in this music, as well? But part of satisfying yourself in music is letting others have joy in it as well. I know Zach and I have the perfectionism there, and I don’t think we’ll be satisfied until it hits the whole world. If I’m not doing a 50,000 fan show, then I feel like maybe I didn’t get all the way to the sky. People might think that’s ambitious, but I want to see 100,000 people holding up that peace sign.

Listen to AZP’s EP Early Sunday Morning: