Reflections on a decade enjoying the heavy and hateful Madison band.
There was a period in the late aughts where I saw the band Zebras a somewhat crazy amount of times. For whatever reason, I probably ended up seeing them live more than almost any other band in town. It's not that I'm especially nostalgic about that time but, as Zebras prepare to play what might be their final show on July 28 at the High Noon Saloon, I can't help thinking about how much I've enjoyed the band's evolution.
Zebras in their most recent incarnation, captured on 2015's The City Of Sun, are decidedly a metal band. Guitarist Vincent Presley has developed a sludge-y, thrash-informed style, and Lacey Smith adds an extra layer of gunky low end with her synth. Presley's vocals are an urgent, baying scream with a deep growl underneath. Drummer Shane Hochstetler, also of Milwaukee's Call Me Lightning, structures it all with a menacing rumble.
But when Zebras got started 10 years ago, they paired the heaviness with a twitchy post-punk sensibility. Presley would play these weird, flickery guitar figures and his vocals were harsh, but in a high and yipping way. Original drummer Shawn Pierce (who's gone on to play in very different bands, including Heavy Looks, Mori Mente, and until recently Building On Buildings) was an important part of that sound, and for a time the band even had a bass player, Jacob Rust. What they play now is abrasive, but in comparison it's a bit more accessible.
Then there was a transitional phase, where Presley and Smith joined up with DJ Hostettler and Josh Davis of Milwaukee noise-punk outfit IfIHadAHiFi. That's the one incarnation of the band I haven't seen (I moved away from Madison for a brief spell), and it's the one that will be playing at the July 28 maybe-farewell show, digging back into spazzy tunes Zebras haven't played for years.
What hasn't changed is the caustic worldview Zebras project. Their songs reflect an obsession with pestilence, plague, and the arcane. The best way I can sum it up is to share this exchange from my 2015 interview with the band:
Tone Madison: On the last song, “Filled With Fire,” the chorus says, “deep inside we are all filled with fire,” and I feel like that’s almost a weirdly life-affirming line. I wouldn’t want to accuse you of being all positive and stuff because I kind of know your deal, but I was just wondering about that.
Vincent Presley: That one's about spontaneous human combustion. [Everyone laughs.]
But above all things, here's the real reason Zebras have a place in my heart: They are the only band that I have seen clear the Memorial Union Terrace. Yes, there was also that time they opened for reunited punk legends Die Kreuzen, but let's rank our feats correctly, OK? Back in June 2008, they played as part of an early-evening weeknight series where the folks at WUD Music asked me to recommend some local bands. I wasn't about to let notions of venue-appropriateness hold me back, so of course Zebras were on my list. They did indeed play, and in their earlier spazzy, shrieky mode, mind you.
And there, at Madison's favorite location to spend the evening drinking beer and enjoying Lake Mendota, people got up en masse and left. A couple of little kids remained, dancing in front of the stage—it just isn't a Terrace show without that. When I checked with the band recently to make sure I was remembering things correctly, Presley pointed out that there wasn't a huge crowd in the first place, but confirmed that said crowd indeed vanished during the set. The band will no doubt be pleased to know that the lake is now afflicted with a scourge of invasive zebra mussels.
Both Presley and Smith say they plan to get some new musical projects going, though details haven't firmed up for anything yet. "I would love to keep playing heavier stuff, weirder and heavier," Smith says. "It would also be fun to be in a catchy punk band, like The Wipers is one of my favorite bands." Smith has also been doing a lot of excellent graphic design work over the past few years. Presley has also spent more time lately on reissue projects through his Secret Records label, including for cult band The Residents and oddball electronic outfit Renaldo And The Loaf. He also plays in the touring version of gothic country outfit Those Poor Bastards.
I'm glad that Zebras are giving themselves a proper (maybe-) farewell. They are loud and spiteful and all but dare you to hate them, yet over time they've earned our love.