“You know, getting ready to play a gig is like getting ready for a game,” says Pete Zamboni (a/k/a Peter Katis) as he and his three bandmates prepare to take the stage at Brownies on Avenue A. He tugs a Rangers shirt over his head and continues, “This afternoon, I stopped myself from running up and down the stairs at home because I didn’t want to tire my legs out, and then I remembered that we were playing music tonight, not hockey.”
Meet the Zambonis—the world’s fastest rising hockey rock band. With a repertoire comprised exclusively of hockey songs, you’d think they are destined for a short run—a cult band singing about a cult sport.
But their cult is getting noticed. It’s not just the in-venue airplay in cities like Dallas, performances in NHL arenas, or the fact that the Rangers have asked them to write a few tunes; it’s the colorful caricature in The New Yorker, the segment on CNN’s “Showbiz Today,” and a photo in the forthcoming issue of Rolling Stone. You wonder if these guys are merely enjoying their 15 minutes or are about to stickhandle through the pack of costumed indie bands and break away into some sort of new hit musical genre.
Like all sports, hockey has had its novelty records. Toronto goalie Johnny Bower warmed the hearts of Canadians with his rendition of “Honky The Christmas Goose” in 1962. Broad Street’s biggest bully, Dave Schultz, had a local hit single in Philly by croaking “Baby, c’mon/ Won’t you meet me in the penalty box” in his mid-’70s heyday, while Buffalo’s Jim Schoenfeld sang (awfully) Beatles, Dylan, and other rock tunes for an entire LP. Twenty years ago, Rangers Phil Esposito, John Davidson, Pat Hickey, Ron Duguay, and Dave Maloney cut the immortal “Hockey Sock Rock” for charity. And who could forget the uncharitable 1985 underground smash “Potvin Sucks” by Bobby Nyse and the Scrotums?
The Zambonis, however, are more legitimate artists, even if they are just four guys who’ve tapped the keg of recreational and pro hockey life as their sole lyrical inspiration. Why hockey? They’re happy to give you the deep explanation: “We feel that all life experience and the essence of the human condition can be communicated through the hockey metaphor.” But, confidentially, they’ve grown bored with that response. So now, Dave Zamboni (a/k/a David Schneider, who sported the minor league jersey of New Haven’s defunct Nighthawks at Brownies) trims it to, “We love hockey and we completely love music also.”
Judging by their latest CD, More Songs About Hockey . . . and buildings and food (Tarquin Records), they love an impressive range of musical styles. The disc starts with “Hextall,” a triumph of artistic ambiguity that leaves you guessing whether it’s a song of praise or derision for the retired Flyers goalie. Then they achieve an inspired rock and roll lunacy with “Hockey Monkey,” which they opened with at the Brownie’s show last Friday, complete with a gorilla-suited friend jumping around the stage waving a hockey stick.
Each succeeding song shifts the mood again, like a new forward line jumping over the boards. They draw on influences as far-flung as new wave (“Andy Moog Meets Robert Moog” and “Zamboni Drivers’ Local Union”), hardcore (“Lost My Teeth”), classic ska (“The Breakaway”) and country (“Great Zamboni of Devotion”). You can hear echoes of the Ramones, the Cars, the Clash, Devo, and, especially, Jonathan Richman throughout.
“That’s the beauty of the band,” says Dave. “If people want to say we’re a novelty band, then we’ll take it and do what we want with it—play a rock song, a country song, a waltz, right into a Devo tribute.”
They come by their hockey cred honestly. Dave played goalie as a kid, although it’s unclear if he still dons the big pads. But he admits he’s hooked on Sega hockey. Pete and his bassist brother Tarquin skate a few times a week. Pete remains amazed at the skills of ex-Ranger Alexei Kovalev, with whom he skated a few summers ago, while Tarquin (a former youth hockey teammate of Phoenix star Jeremy Roenick) actually made the Yale team as a walk-on—only to suffer Ivy League disqualification because he had previously attended a four year art school. He holds no grudge, wearing a Yale practice jersey on stage at Brownies, and confesses, “If I had to do it over again, I wouldn’t have gone to art school.”
Jon Zamboni (a/k/a Jon Aley) mysteriously says, “I don’t know anything about hockey,” which is hard to fathom since he counts “Lost My Teeth” (a damn good song about sacrificing for your team) among his writing credits.
Maybe Jon’s just showing off the band’s trademark sense of humor, which comes thru in songs like “Johnny Got Suspended,” the story of a kid who was kicked out of high school for wearing an “Islanders Suck” T-shirt. Because of that kind of creativity and because they keep growing, musically and lyrically, the Zambonis just might have a future. They already have devoted fans, like those at Brownies, who were singing along with every song, cheering the Hockey Monkey, calling for requests, and wearing Bruins shirts and Rangers hats. What more does a cult band need?