Q&A: Ted Lee And Steve D'Agostino Of ZEBU! On Naked Shows, Germany, And The Brilliance Of Nick Nolte

Categories: Interviews, ZEBU!

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 video—grown men preening in throw blankets, furry animal headgear, bongos, and banjos, feather ejaculations, angled spy-cam footage, no-nonsense beards—almost 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 boy—born 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 now—but 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 example—whether 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 minutes—unlike 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.

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