Q&A: Ted Lee And Steve D'Agostino Of ZEBU! On Naked Shows, Germany, And The Brilliance Of Nick Nolte
The ZEBU! song "Your Band Is Nothing"from Hookers In Sweatpants (Feeding Tube, 2006)is pretty hard to argue with. Guitar-slinger Steve D'Agostino pinches off mammoth riffs that somehow conflate hair metal, Molly Hatchet, bubblegum bliss, and peevish Peavy blare while scrappy singer/drummer Ted Lee bleats along dementedly, his psych-ward caterwaul by turns Scooby-Doo ghoulish and frat-mascot gleeful. (Check's in the mail, Marble Valley.) The kookiness of the accompanying videogrown men preening in throw blankets, furry animal headgear, bongos, and banjos, feather ejaculations, angled spy-cam footage, no-nonsense beardsalmost distracts from the degree of untamed, unshorn oomph this Western Massachusetts duo pack into every note they mash.
Almost mercilessly daft and cynical lyrically"So radical, so controversial/Then you realize it's just another fucking commercial," Lee smirks over the buzzsaw punk whoop of "Constipation"ZEBU! doesn't handcuff itself to a single sound or genre. The duo's first ten years of existence encompass everything from the experimental-noise killing floors of Bag of Sand to the cracked-rock survey course Cheerleaders & Chainsaws ("Sorry I Robbed You" rips off Pavement's "I Love Perth" and the Juicy Fruit jingle; "Arp!" is their rabid, ripcord Hella/Lightning Bolt nod) to Things We Found: Bell & Broken Watch, which explores speaker-panning exercises, Eastern-flavored meditation suites, and red-eyed death drones; the pair advertise forthcoming disc Chill Wave as a surf record. (All ZEBU! albums are available from Feeding Tube Records, which Lee founded and operates.) What ties it all together is an almost contagious degree of enthusiasm and adventure, the thrill of witnessing two eager, excited musicians laying into rock'n'roll as if they're inventing it, remaking in their own sardonic, hirsute image a genre whose stock hasn't had much to celebrate in recent years.
Sound of the City emailed with Lee and D'Agostino about how ZEBU! came to be, stripping to skivvies in concert, and why you should add North Dallas Forty to your Netflix queue.ZEBU! at Hillstock, June 2011
Massachusetts seems to be this breeding ground for a lot of musical experimentation, a lot of rewarding daring. Is there something special about the state, the topology, the psychic archeology, that brings out the gnarliest in its residents?
Ted Lee: I love Western Massachusetts! We've got all kind of bands, acts, and freaks here in the valley. Folks who aren't afraid to take risks, and it's a nice group of musicians and non-musicians who can meet up here and share thoughts, exchange brains. Is there something special about here? I'm a New England boyborn and raised in Providence, Rhode Island. I knew once I found out about these local artists doing their thing here that I had to stay and be a part of it. I grew up among Fort Thunder, and there at FT were some of the best shows I ever saw: they changed me forever. Seeing Lightning Bolt before they were Lightning Bolt. Barkley's Barnyard Critters, Landed, and many others who I can't recall nowbut the art that was happening there was life-changing; I was in high school, so it seemed out of reach for me.
One of the most exciting things about Zebu! songs is that it's often hard to tell in a given song"Hey Hey A Go Go" is a really good examplewhether you guys are hot on the tail of a wicked riff, are locked into the frenzy of the moment, or just really need to vent some spleen. Regardless of whether you're in noise mode, classic rock mode, jam mode, bluegrass mode, or whatever, it's clear that you mean it; you're throwing yourselves into these songs, even when the subject matter is funny. Is there a special moment, in practice, when the band just knows that a new ZEBU! song is done, is ready, some intangible or cathartic element?
Lee: The song is done for us when Steve or I write some lyrics, or a riff, or the structure. Then he or I hand it off to the other, and the other gives to the song what is needed. Boom: the song is done. When my heart beats with the drone of a thousand hearts, I know the song has reached its moment of done. Lately, when ZEBU! plays, I like to get lost, to get naked, to be completely free of all the bullshit that is the world and let the air take me there.
Steve D'Agostino: Well, I definitely structure our music in the fashion of what makes the most sense at the time. Sometimes that will just be a song that is very straight-forward, or a noise-y, crazy thing that defies even what Ted or I think it will sound like. I feel completely free in ZEBU! I feel like the songs that we make are what I would want to hear a rock band play: not serious at all, but totally shred-tastic. We have songs that are just rock songs with jam-y sections in the middle, but I like to condense all of that into the span of one to three minutesunlike some other bullshit that you'll hear boring bands do where they'll just play the same thing over and over again. When Ted and I get together, it's always the most magical feeling, and even though we haven't really practiced in five years or so, I think the music we're making now is the best it's ever been.
There's almost two Zebu!s, I've found: the on-disc, studio-as-instrument experimental Zebu! and the verse-chorus-verse-with-a-serrated-edge Zebu! The two Zebu!s can sometimes co-exist on albums, but the live recordings I've heard tend to emphasize your more traditional rock songs, cut with noise and punk rampages and great stage banter. Do you guys have a preference, between the studio and the stage?
Lee: I love recording with Steve in the studio, but there's nothing like getting somewhat nude to completely nude on stage and letting the folks have it. I just wanna give it my all on the stage; the same thing goes for studio recording, though my clothes stay on for that process. Studio recording is always a little more sterile, or it can be because sometimes you can just the hear money flying out the door as you work things out. That's why I always prefer to self-record without deadlines or financial heads watching over us.
D'Agostino: Not like anyone really wants the records anyway, but I love playing live. That's when we can be complete assholes and insult our audience, friends, and each other. Ted and I are always trying to trick each other into fucking up live, which is incredibly fun, and sounds crazy and dynamic. This band manages to improvise and change our sound at the drop of a hat, and just do whatever we want on stage; that just makes the whole thing way more fun and crazy.
Lee: We've been working on this surf album for a while now by ourselves and with Justin Pizzoferrato. Working with Justin is easy and painless, always a pleasure. The surf album will come out sometime next year.
Have you come up with an album title yet? Are there any surf rock icons that you're drawing inspiration from?
D'Agostino: I'm trying to have a mental breakdown over the record a la Brian Wilson; I think that'll be constructive and make the record better. But I'm really proud of it; we're taking a '70s Contortions proto-punk sound on the record and there are singy songs as well as ripping instrumental cuts. We're calling it Chill Wave.
How does performing nude change or augment the live experience for you? Do you ever find yourself playing venues where that's off limits?
Lee: Because I get hot and sticky real quick, and stripping is more about cooling off and much less about flesh. Haven't played at a venue where it's been off-limits yet, but maybe that's why we never get invited back, or get invited back to more and more.
D'Agostino: It can be really traumatizing for me to have to see Ted's shrunken wiener behind the drums; not like anybody else cares, but this is the life I chose.
There's a long, proud tradition of musicians who've played nude, or semi-nude in live situations: David Yow from the Jesus Lizard, Iggy Pop, Henry Rollins. So I'd say you're in good company, definitely, and the results are fairly convulsive.
Lee: I'm honored to be in such good company, truly. I love playing naked or semi-nakedgetting that sweat out. I smell good in the worst way. Like pure sex, or something like that.
Tell me a bit about how you met, how the band formed initially, what kinds of bands you were performing with, and what you were going for sonically.
D'Agostino: We met at Hampshire College in Western Massachusetts; everyone was playing jam-band music and I wanted us to play noise-y, crazy free rock and roll.
It was an immediate musical connection. A lot of ZEBU! material developed in those initial two or three years, when we really had no clue what we were doing and things were slow-moving. I pine for those old days often; I wish that I could actualize some of that youthful optimism these days, but my method's much more logical these days, for better or worse.
We seem to always be a bit unknown, but we're lucky to be able to keep good company and play shows where people are receptive, and hopefully downright confrontational with us.
Lee: I just wanna play loudwithout playing loudand have sonic tones come out of my drums that float in the air long after we've stopped.
One of the things that's great about your albums is that even when they lean towards one extreme or another, there's always a slightly random, jigsaw feel to the sequencing. When you put together an album, is it whatever songs you've got perfected and ready to go, or is it more curative; does a lot of planning and plotting go into determining a track list, as a listening experience?
Lee: I know Steve tries not to have songs that start in the same key next to each other, so that factors in. But also it's about flow, and making them all work with each otheryet sometimes music that doesn't work together somehow does.
When you guys write, record, or perform, do you ever sort of pretend that you're a band you grew up admiring?
Lee: I pretend I'm a real drummer. But I think about Keith Moon, who always seems to hit really hard, but I always like drummers who barely hit their drums yet have a sound that is so present. Like Neel Young from Fat Worm of Error; he plays with mallets, and yet he's still louder than the other amplified members.
What was the concept behind last year's Another 48 Hours cassette? Are you guys big Nick Nolte fans?
Lee: We both love Nolte; he couldn't be Han Solo! We're working on an LP with all of the old Nolte tapes as one side, and a fresh Nolte jam on the other.
D'Agostino: Nolte is the brashest, craziest motherfucker from the 1980s, and people that don't get it, like ZEBU!, just aren't cool enough to be involved in the first place.
You should try to make his mug shot the cover art. That's some iconic shit. What are your favorite Nolte performances, and why?
Lee: The mug shot is a great idea, but I think we're gonna go with the still of him in bed, waking up after a game, from the film North Dallas Forty. I love that movie! Nolte is good in everything he does; you cast Nick and you can't go wrong. Jefferson in Paris is one of his later ones but one of his best, and not that well known. The 48 Hours films are amazing as well. He's such a drunkbut a classy drunk.
I never really thought about it much until now, but Nolte's kind of the ultimate smash-mouth rock band mascot, isn't he? Like could gnaw through a sequoia in a minute flat and it wouldn't be a surprise to anybody.
Lee: He's a beast of a man, or maybe that's his whole act. But he has demons, and it seems he works them out on screen, TV, stage, what-have-you. He uses it all; he puts his scars right up front. I like that.
Do you feel like maybe ZEBU! is for the two of you what acting is for Nolte: a way to display your scars?
Lee: Exactly! I'm not afraid when I'm on stage like I am in my life; no fear to show it all. On a stagewhich I always hate playing on, I like floors just finesomehow, when you perform, there is no need to hide.
Of all of your releases, which has been the most popular?
Lee: Popular? We sold out of pretty much all of the Bag Of Sand LP. Also Hagenwerder-C, which we recorded on July 12th, 2009, in Germany at an old factory which had beautiful natural decay of sound. But folks respond to different albums, because each album is very different from every other one. Some love Hookers In Sweatpants and hail it as the best album we've ever done, while others love the art-rock album that is Chainsaws and Cheerleaders. Bag of Sand and Hagenwerder-C are for a completely different person who likes a deep listen, sitting down and paying attention to just the recording.
D'Agostino: I'm working really hard on getting our new website into something not abysmally shitty, and then you should be able to hear all of the audio from all of our releases on there. I don't know if we will put these albums out again, so people should grab them while they still exist! I believe that our next record will definitely be our most popular.
Steve, you're an incredibly nimble and versatile guitarist. How did you come to play the instrument, and were you in a lot of other bands before this?
D'Agostino: Thanks; that means a lot to me. I try to play my guts out. I started playing guitar at the age of 15 or so. I was kind of a latecomer, but I didn't really get to be a musician until my early 20s, when I was practicing all the time and shit. Now I'm an elementary school music teacher, so go figure; everyday it sucks my soul out of me and I wish I could be playing with ZEBU! every day. Hopefully that day will come.ZEBU! in Germany, 2008
Tell me more about the love affair between ZEBU! and Germany, and what you savor there. Do German audiences have a better intuitive understanding of what you do then American ones?
Lee: Maybe Steve can shed more light on this, but I think Germany just loves to watch Americans do what we do best: play rock n roll music! Plain and simple. It's weird, 'cause we watch all these bands from Germany who try and play rock, but it just doesn't come off quite right. I don't know why.
D'Agostino: The whole thing about Germany was that it was completely random that we were able to go. Ted took a picture of himself right before falling into a swimming pool, and our friends at the La Pampa Festival decided to make it the logo of their festival. So we went over there, and it was totally nuts: a really special time. So now, every year, we shamble together some kind of schedule and fly out, live in Berlin for a bit, and enjoy being away from everythingright in the middle of a country of people just begging, and I mean fucking begging to have their faces completely shredded off by ZEBU!. They never know what's coming; it's truly, truly awesome.
So can we expect a German-language ZEBU! album?
D'Agostino: I think that'd be ruining the mystique, if we started singing in German. Kind of an intense language, although on YouTube you can see videos of me and Ted driving around in my old-ass Mercedes and me butchering the language. We're planning on doing a record of all Bach, although that's probably a long ways away.
ZEBU! plays Europa tonight with the Timeshares, Spraynard, and Luther.
Get the Music Newsletter
Keep your thumb on the local music scene each week with music news, trends, artist interviews and concert listings. We'll also send you special ticket offers and music deals.