To many in Calgary’s live music scene Chris Zajko is known as a notable post-punk crooner, even being described as a “visionary” of the genre by some media outlets.
His first band The Ostrich formed a decade ago, and since then he’s fronted Sharp Ends, The Soft Option, and now Melted Mirror.
Zajko’s name is equally recognizable in the city’s visual arts underground. His work combines classical elements with surrealism, fantasy, and expressionism.
Last year the Calgary Herald featured him in an article about local artists “hitting their stride,” praising his eclectic portfolio.
If it appears that visual arts has landed Zajko the most media acclaim, it’s because it’s been the central focus for most of his life, something that he says came naturally.
“With visual art I’ve been drawing since before I can remember, so it wasn’t really a conscious choice of mine,” he says.
“The music was definitely a conscious choice because before I was about 18 I had no real idea that I would ever be in a band or do things like that, I just thought I would always be some sort of a visual artist.”
This all changed in his late teens and early 20’s when Zajko began discovering post-punk, the genre that would forever impact Zajko’s future creations as a musician.
“That’s something I find I can’t really get away from, it’s kind of in my blood,” he says.
“It’s like something I can’t really fight, so I’m just embracing it and rolling with it.”
What appealed to Zajko about post-punk was that it mirrored his memories of growing up in the Soviet Bloc.
“I spent my early childhood in the 80’s in Poland and it was a very kind of dreary, the post-punk sound really reminds me of my childhood,” he says.
“I feel a lot of the aesthetic, and sonically what those post-punk bands in England were trying to do actually, it’s like they were getting a certain vibe from Eastern Europe, maybe not consciously.
“There’s kind of that dreary urban desolation that was really present in my childhood, I felt. So, when I listen to bands like Joy Division it kind of reminded me of that.
“It’s kind of ironic because when Joy division started off, their first name they called themselves was Warsaw, which was my hometown. I felt like they were on the same wavelength without being conscious of it.
“There was definitely certain things in my childhood that I remember that drew me to that whole post-punk thing. That’s what I mean, it’s in my blood because the sound and the aesthetic is so familiar to me and it feels really natural, so I’m just rolling with it.”
The stylings of post-punk gave Zajko a way to articulate many of the feelings he was already expressing visually.
“There’s definitely something that ties it all together with that dark urban desolate kind of vibe,” he says.
This discovery also began an obsession with the idea of starting a band and performing, something that Zajko then spent most of his 20’s working towards.
“My first experiences were just banging on pans in my friend’s garage,” he says.
“We didn’t have any instruments and we would just make noise. Before I had any technique, musical technique, I really started from zero.”
In addition to developing technical skills, the social aspects of music also presented a challenge.
“I was really shy as well, so it was very difficult for me to find people to be in a band with,” says Zajko.
“Because I have mild cerebral palsy I can’t play guitar, and I can’t play instruments except for a bit of keyboard. So usually when you’re just a singer or a vocalist frontman, and you’re trying to start a band, you really have to rely on other people because you can’t really generate songs on your own.
“It was very difficult because I was still learning how to sing, it took many, many different tries before I found people who were willing to give me a shot essentially, to start a band.
“At the old King Eddie, before it closed down, they had a blues jam every Sunday and in my early 20’s I would go and sing, improvise the blues on a Sunday night in front of all these bikers.
“That was the formative experience, that gave me a lot of courage because I realized that if I can do that without getting beat up by all these guys then I’m on the right track.”
Zajko was 27 when The Ostrich, his first band, finally began. It’s a relatively late start in the world of music, but he’s made up for lost time by fronting eight releases in the span of his career, and sharing the stage with some of the most storied Calgary bands from the past decade.
Now, with Melted Mirror, Zajko is taking his music down a dancier avenue that draws on synth wave and indie dance. The project actually began with demos that Zajko made on his computer that were inspired by the movie Drive and 80’s pop.
Once his friends Cian Haley and Jeebs Nabil were brought on board, they continued building on those ideas.
“Theres still definitely a lot of that retro wave stuff, but I feel like these days we’re trying to, I don’t want to say get more contemporary, but get a bit beyond that and try to find a more unique approach, something a bit harder, slightly heavier,” says Zajko.
“Live we tend to be a lot more energetic, and so we’re trying to bring a little bit more of a punk dance thing I think into the new stuff.”
Melted Mirror just finished recording new material in Edmonton, and their next goal is to begin shopping it around to labels to see how far they can go.
“Ideally with the band I'd love to tour Europe and see how far we can take it,” says Zajko.