Photo by Allix Johnson
The music world was recently gifted with the devastatingly killer new album from Zao, The Well-Intentioned Virus. Fans waited years for the record to be released and are not disappointed. Its angst-filled, brooding songs are carried along by intricate and spot-on playing that capture every moment of emotions that the band wanted to get across.
SkullsnBones were lucky enough to speak with Jeff Gretz of Zao via the “interweb” about the new album.
So, for starters … seven years between albums. Was this intentional or just how it played out with getting songs written and recorded, and the album released?
Not really intentional in that it wasn’t a planned hiatus. After we put out our last album, Awake?, in 2009, almost immediately demos started floating around for songs. We knew we wanted to try a different release tactic, whether it was a different label or our own, but there was no concrete plan. A lot of the early stages were just kind of collecting the material. Then we had to figure out how to fund the recording, so we went into storage and rounded up old tour merch to sell. Then it was just a matter of doing little bits and pieces of recording when we had time or the funds. The official recording began in the late summer/fall of 2014. All in, I don’t think we spent any more time in the studio itself than we did on any other record, it was just spread out a lot more, three hours here, a day here, etc. Overall, we keep the pressure low, both with the recording and playing live. It keeps it honest. We’re never there when we don’t want to be. We had the completed masters, maybe in March of 2016, (and) it was just a matter of finding a home for it. Once we realized we wanted to do it ourselves, things moved really fast. A lot of the dead time was just trying to figure out the logistics and the overall game plan.
Fans and critics have been heaping major kudos on the new album so definite congratulations are in order. How do you and the other members feel about the finished result?
It feels good that people are getting it. You can never tell, but it also doesn’t determine what we do either. We knew people would dig a lot of aspects of it, and there were also some real x-factors on this one, to us at least, but we never really go out of our way to do what we think people want to hear from us. We just follow our gut. As far as the finished result, it turned out pretty much how we envisioned, every aspect. The music, recording, artwork, the packaging. After that much time off, we knew it needed to be some kind of statement record. But to go back to the reception from the public, you always hope people get it. We also thought The Fear Is What Keeps Us Here was very much a concrete statement at the time as well, and it has taken people a long time to catch up to that one. So that one in particular was a case of us really, really believing in a record and not getting the kudos. You never know.
For a band that was initially pegged as a Christian band and has gone through some major personnel changes in the past 20 years, do you feel the original spirit and “mission statement” of Zao is still intact?
From a musical standpoint, it was a natural progression, even the original lineup … it really did blur the lines between metal and the hardcore influences, but the hardcore stuff gradually left. As far as lyrically, keeping the mission statement, no way, and I mainly say that because the original mission of the band was no secret. The original guys were very open about the point of the band. It was “Christ-centered hardcore.” And it was a real thing, it was a very outspoken thing. Once that original lineup left after the second album and Jesse brought in the core of what was the new Zao – basically when Russ (Cogdell) and Dan (Weyandt) joined and shortly after Scott (Mellinger) – the whole game plan changed. Dan was never going to do the altar-call, praise stuff. It’s just not part of who he is. From the first record Dan was on, Where Blood And Fire Bring Rest, the whole lyrical theme of the band changed. It became a much more introspective, personal thing. Even when it did touch on his beliefs, it was a much more personal/inward thing. Dan Weyandt lyrics have never been preachy, even at the height of his beliefs. So from that angle alone between record two and record three, clear back to the late ’90s, the game changed drastically. In no way, shape or form do we consider ourselves a Christian band … most of the members don’t really personally even identify as Christians at this point. To us it’s a long dead issue.
The Well-Intentioned Virus covers some very dark and personal themes for the members of the band. Do you find it cathartic to vent these emotions and experiences both in the album recorded and then playing these songs live?
Yeah, I mean, that’s kind of been the thing all along. Dan has free reign to do what he needs to do. The music is always conceived without a lyrical idea in mind. He comes along later and matches words he has up with the music based on the mood he gets from what we’ve done. If the song comes out as a more angry or confrontational, that is what bases his decision on what words to match up to it. Same thing if it takes a more emotional or sad vibe. Once we know what he’s doing, it definitely puts more weight on certain songs. So in the studio, for instance, when I’m laying down drum parts, I have no idea what Dan is going to be singing about. I just try to get into the headspace of what is there musically, and we’ve all been doing this so long, we know that the end product will fit together. Live, it’s definitely an emotional release, I don’t know that I ever get into his lyrical headspace though when I’m playing. I can’t speak for the other guys, but I definitely go into different headspaces when certain songs come up in the set, but I don’t think about the lyrics so much. The key to Zao material, to me, is to go into auto-pilot as much as possible and let the song happen naturally, for better or for worse. You can’t overthink it. For a lot of the stuff, it really is a personal release for all of us. I occasionally here live recordings, and I think “what on earth is happening on the guitar there,” and then I realize Russ is probably lying on the ground in a heap after doing some weird acrobatic moment that he probably hurt himself on, but, you can’t stop him. He will tell you himself he probably shouldn’t do some of the stuff he does, but it just comes out. I know I personally don’t even know what the crowd is doing, the world is what is happening on the stage, (and) I know for a lot of the set Dan is the same way. I’ll briefly break out of whatever zone I’m in and look up, and he is in a ball in front of the kick drum singing at me, not the crowd. We never really analyzed it, but I’m sure a lot of it has to do with these personal things and trying to find your personal space to let that out in. It’s kind of hard to be singing about death of friends and really dark personal stuff and be calling for circle pits. We don’t treat Zao shows as parties. It’s more about venting this stuff out through the music. I guess it sounds weird to say it out loud, but it’s what we are. No point in trying to force some act of theater into it.
You, personally, have the reputation of being one of the most hard-hitting drummers in metal today. Who were your influences when you were starting out, and who do you like and appreciate playing live today?
When I was first playing when I was really young, it was just kind of whatever I was coming across as I was discovering music either through friends or my dad’s record collection. I guess the standards – stuff like Ringo (Starr), (John) Bonham, Keith Moon, etc. When I started getting into punk and metal, I was drawn to (Dave) Lombardo, in particular, on the metal side of things. But I also was really into stuff like Bill Stevenson’s drumming with Black Flag and the Descendants. I was also really influenced by the more tom-tom heavy approach that people like Mike Bordin from Faith No More and Budgie from Siouxsie and the Banshees were doing. Right now guys that are currently out there that I get a kick out of watching … it’s weird. Very little in the metal side of things. I could watch Glenn Kotche from Wilco play all day, (I’m) really into his incorporation of different percussion elements into his kit. Dale Crover from the Melvins (that is an older and current one, again, could watch him all day). There is a band out of Brooklyn right now called Tiny Hazard. Really abstract pop stuff (I use the word pop loosely), and they are one of my favorite bands playing around New York right now. But their drummer Ron Stockwell … mind-blowing, very unique phrasing and his dynamic control is insane. You’ll be watching them for the first 15 minutes of the set, and he’s just really relaxed, playing this really out there shit that still kind of grooves, but very restrained, and all of a sudden he lets loose for maybe three or four bars, and you’re just standing there with your hair blown back. Great stuff.
You have a ridiculous resume when it comes to the bands you have played for and been involved with in the past. Any of them still memorable to you that you really enjoyed?
As much as I think he’s a despicable person, and I think, overall, the project is dumb, I had a lot of fun with Tim Lambesis working on the Austrian Death Machine covers thing, which I think was on that “double brutal” record he put out. That was just fun because we got done recording the Zao drums really early (this was for the last record, Awake?), and he had the studio booked and we had a day left. So it was really low pressure and fun to come up with songs and see how fast I could learn them and be a “cover band” for a day. Being able to lay down Megadeth, Metallica, Motorhead songs with no real pressure. There were some good ones that didn’t get used, either. I think “Altering the Future” by Death and “Madhouse” by Anthrax. I got to be in a thrash cover band for a day. Playing a bunch of drum solos for a movie starring Ally Sheedy and Barbara Crampton (of Re-Animator fame) was surreal. The movie is called Little Sister and is actually on Netflix right now. I did a record with a friend of mine a few years ago for his dance/pop band Leverage Models (which I still play with occasionally). We drove up to a cabin in Woodstock. And it was me on kit and sitting across from me was Trevor Dunn from Mr. Bungle, popping and slapping. That was definitely a “bucket list” kind of recording. And a little nerve-wracking. I was sitting there thinking, “This guy helped get me through high school and now I’m sitting here playing with him cranking out roto-tom fills.”
Would love to hear about your connection to two of my favorite bands, IKILLYA out of New York
City and the Dillinger Escape Plan from Morris Plains, New Jersey, about five minutes from my home in New Jersey before I moved to New Orleans?
IKILLYA … I have been playing with off and on for, jeez, five years now? Maybe more? I met them after I filled in for drums with Sam Roon’s band Hung while they were in between drummers. IKILLYA were heading into the studio to record their first record and parted ways with their drummer, so they asked me to record and play some shows while they found another drummer. So I did. Then they found a drummer … then when they went to record their second record, that didn’t work out, so they called me in again. Then they found a new drummer that I thought was the keeper. They toured with him, he was in for a bit, I thought I was in the clear. Sure enough, they went to do their third album and I got the call again. So I have played on three IKILLYA records without ever having been officially in the band. They have asked, but I always politely decline. It’s nothing personal. I love those dudes and have fun playing with them and help them as much as I can, but my days of slogging it out in the van the way those guys want to are way behind me, and I think they need someone that wants to do that. It wouldn’t be fair to them as busy as I am.
The Dillinger thing, Zao has toured with them several times. We have always kept in touch. They are honestly some of our favorite people to tour with, both as people and musically. I got a random phone call from Greg Puciato in probably 2007 that Chris Pennie was leaving, and he asked me if I could learn some songs to try out. This was when they were getting ready to record Ire Works. I had just committed to filling in with From Autumn To Ashes for a 10-week U.S. tour and some European festivals, I was like, “I would love to, but I need to woodshed this stuff and I’m on the road” and I passed. There was no way I could get it together in time. I ran into Ben (Weinman) and Liam (Wilson) a few years later, and they told me Gil Sharone was leaving, and I jumped at the opportunity to throw my name in the hat that time. It started with me filming myself playing three songs: “Lurch,” “When Good Dogs Do Bad Things” and “Panasonic Youth.” I passed that phase. Ben came out to my rehearsal space in Brooklyn, and we jammed together on those and some random things. Then stuff got nuts. They were trying to weed out people and also had a tour rearing it’s head, so it was a “how much can you learn and how much different stuff/eras.” So over the next, I think, four months, it was just sending videos, making adjustments based on their notes. It was the most intense process I have been a part of. I think when all was said and done, I learned 12 or 13 songs in their entirety and some of those were not easy, especially the Ire Works stuff. I learned “Sugar Coated Sour” and “Mullet Burden” in a day. It took me three weeks to figure out what was happening in “Lurch.” It was the little details, every single note counts with them, and you aren’t faking your way through an accent pattern with Ben, he’ll catch it. I did get to the final phase of playing with everyone. Needless to say I didn’t get it. I think myself, Billy Rymer (who got it) and one other guy were in the final batch. No regrets. I was shocked I got that far, honestly. I learned a lot. I use some of the techniques I had to woodshed (in much slower/simplified versions) with Zao to this day. I remember when I finally heard Billy with them he just blew me away. There was a song on Option Paralysis, I think it’s called “I Wouldn’t If You Didn’t.” I heard that and just started cracking up and thought “thank fucking god I didn’t have to play that”
What does 2017 hold in store for Zao?
Some sporadic shows. Going to try to hit some regions we didn’t get to last year. We don’t play a lot (by choice), maybe two or three shows every two months or so. We have some songs left over from the album that we are finishing up for an EP that I would like to have out this year, and we are already compiling stuff for the next full-length that I am shooting to get out in 2018. So we’re going to keep busy and strike while the creative iron is hot.
The Well-Intentioned Virus is out now on ZAO Music and Observed/Observer Recording. Buy it here!