Zebras grow heavier and go deeper into the arcane
The Madison thrash outfit celebrates a new vinyl release on September 23 at The Frequency.
Madison band Zebras formed in 2007 and has since traveled quite a distance from its musical starting point. The band’s early live sets and recordings feature frantic, squiggly guitar riffs and high-pitched vocals from Vincent Presley, fractious synth noise from Lacey Smith, and taught, post-punk-informed drumming from Shawn Pierce. Over the past few years, Presley’s guitars and vocals have taken on more and more of a burly thrash-metal flavor, Smith has refocused her Moog playing on grimy low-end parts, and Pierce has left the band (he’s since played with bands including Building On Buildings, Surgeons In Heat and Pioneer), replaced on drums by longtime Zebras friend and recording engineer Shane Hochstettler, best known for running the respected Milwaukee recording studio Howl Street and drumming for the powerful Milwaukee band Call Me Lightning.
Over the course of that transformation, Zebras have shared some enviable company in the metal, punk, and noise-rock worlds, opening shows for bands including Melt-Banana, Sumac, Old Man Gloom, and a briefly reunited Die Kreuzen. That streak continues this fall, as Zebras play this Wednesday, September 23 at The Frequency with DRI, October 25 at the High Noon Saloon with Pelican and Jon Mueller, and November 4 at the Dragonfly with KEN Mode. This Wednesday’s show also celebrates the vinyl edition of the band’s recently released album, The City Of Sun. Another new Zebras song, "Books Of Gold," is included on the new Mesmerized In Madison compilation. Presley and Smith talked with me recently about how the album captures the band’s sonic shift, and the band’s unchanging devotion to weird subject matter and snide misanthropy.
Tone Madison: The self-titled album you put out three years ago began a transition into a metal-leaning sound, and on The City Of Sun you’re basically just there. Was that kind of a natural progression for you? [Editor's note: The self-titled LP is divided into two sides with different titles, Impending Doom and A World Plagued By Soulless Shits.]
Vincent Presley: Yeah, it wasn’t on purpose at all. I don’t know. It just ended up that way. I think it was probably because of Shane. Shane pushed the new amps and the new gear and that was a lot of him. But yeah, we didn’t really try to write all songs like that. It’s just how they all came out I guess.
Lacey Smith: Yeah, I agree. I think the new gear really motivated that. Me personally, I’ve been listening to more of that kind of music as well, so that was maybe kind of an influence.
Tone Madison: Right, these enormous amp cabinets bring more of a full metallic sound—“metallic” is such a stupid word for a guitar sound—but a fatter sound to the guitar, and the synth has more of sludgy bass sound. Was it a matter of writing things that would work with that setup?
Vincent Presley: Yeah, I think so. That’s what I’m mostly influenced by, is whatever gear I have. “This sounds like this! OK!” But the Moog, there’s always problem where people still can’t hear it, no matter what. We had this janky stack of generic cabs before and still people couldn’t hear it. But now, you can at least feel it. It definitely shakes your bowels.
Lacey Smith: Mm-hmm. Although people still don’t know what’s happening with my keyboards, I think. They still think they can’t hear me, but they just don’t realize what I’m doing.
Vincent Presley: Some people see a keyboard and they automatically think it’s a piano or organ sound, so they’re like, “I can’t hear what she’s doing at all. I just think there’s magic bass in the sky and I can’t hear her!"
Tone Madison: And on a lot of songs on the new album, the Moog plays really prominent bass role.
Vincent Presley: There’s a little bit of weird organ sounds but mostly it’s just really low frequencies.
Lacey Smith: Yeah, I used to do more weird laser noises and stuff and I’m not really doing that anymore.
Tone Madison: Any reason why?
Lacey Smith: I don’t know, just to fill in the low end, I guess. I don’t know, it seems silly right now to me.
Tone Madison: Right, there seem to be more songs now where the Moog is doubling the guitar riff and so forth.
Lacey Smith: And trying to keep up with Shane and his crazy drumming.
Vincent Presley: That’s how the songs are written. I just make a riff and email it to Shane, we have no idea what he’s gonna do on drums, and then we record, and that’s the first time we hear drums. There’s no time to really play off each other. He told me he tries to play my guitar riffs on his drums. And then Lacey has to follow him, so yeah, we’re all just playing the same thing, basically. I still have people ask me what time signature songs are, like people that I know are great musicians will be like, “Oh, that one part, what time signature”—and they’re all 4/4, I think. I don’t think anything is in a weird time signature anymore, that I know of, but I’m an idiot. I don’t really know anything about music.
Tone Madison: I wanted to ask about some of the lyrical things on this album. In the past we’ve talked about how you have a lot of bleak lyrical themes, like all the oxygen evaporating from the sea and all this stuff—
Vincent Presley: Good times. Party talk.
Tone Madison: But the first song on City Of Sun is “Hollow Earth.” Does that refer to all the crazy conspiracy theories about the earth being hollow?
Vincent Presley: Oh, Operation High Jump. It was a military operation after WWII that was supposedly just exploring the North Pole, but for some reason it’s all military gear. It was all fighter jets, and really it was us trying to find all the Nazis that had disappeared. [Laughs.] Uh huh, lots of Nazis disappeared after the war. They weren’t there! Read the lyrics and look it up.
There’s some nutty [hollow earth theories]. I kind of think that people put out the nutty ones on purpose to kind of discredit the weird truth-y ones. You know what I mean?
Tone Madison: I was reading that there’s one variation on the hollow earth theory that the earth is hollow, but we’re living on the inside of it?
Vincent Presley: Yeah, I think that one started in the 1800s or something. It was a real serious thing for a while. But, I mean, we can go into space now, so that one’s kinda ruined, isn’t it? [Laughs.] It’s just SO big! Look at that! We can just keep going towards the center! There’s all these other planets and suns.
Lacey Smith: It’s really deep.
Tone Madison: And you’ve got songs like “Baalbek,” which is named for these mysterious ruins in Lebanon, and “Turning Of The Bones.” Did you really set out to write a bunch of songs about arcane, esoteric subjects?
Vincent Presley: I think all my songs got bleaker and to the point where now I’m not interested in humans at all, so I’d rather think about mysterious rocks and mysterious places.
Lacey Smith: That involves humans, though.
Vincent Presley: It does, but not modern ones. Yeah, I don’t know. Day-to-day life stuff is boring.
Lacey Smith: You don’t want to write a song about, like, an app or something?
Vincent Presley: Apps and love, no. Apps and love?
Tone Madison: Do you have a favorite set of lyrics on this one, or a subject you found to be particularly interesting to write about?
Vincent Presley: Uh, they’re all interesting, otherwise I wouldn’t have written—“what do you mean? They’re all the most interesting songs you ever heard!” [Laughs.]
Lacey Smith: I like “The Turning Of The Bones.” It’s about a weird burial ritual that’s really gross.
Vincent Presley: A couple ancient burial rituals. It mentions what the Buddhist monks do where they self-mummify. They go and sit in a cave and drink poison tea that makes them vomit until they’re totally dried up, and then they end up dying and they’ve puked up all their fluids so they end up mummifying. That’s a good way to go. It’s funny, ‘cause it’s all in the lyrics and when I sing it, I know them, but when I try to think back to this stuff, it’s all mush. The main one was about famidahana, where they bury their loved ones for seven years, I think, and then they dig them up after seven years and take them out and dance with the rotted corpse. I think that’s in Madagascar.
Tone Madison: Sometimes something pops out in the songs about aliens or whatever.
Vincent Presley: Yeah. Well, I never say “aliens,” though. I never say “aliens” or “UFO.” That’s going too far. I’ll use quotes and facts and dates. You can get what you want from it. That’s all I’m doing. It’s a very easy way to write lyrics. There’s very little writing involved. It’s more just cut-and-paste. “Hey, that rhymes with that!” There you go. Two lines done!
Tone Madison: You could just sit up and listen to Coast To Coast and put things together.
Vincent Presley: Exactly.
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.]
Tone Madison: So I totally missed the point!
Vincent Presley: And it’s also, that part is just referring to the “we’re all made of stars” thing, because we’re all made of stardust, so, yeah. Blowing your mind here.
Tone Madison: I totally thought, “Oh, maybe this song is Vincent’s grudging tribute to the human spirit,” but it’s about spontaneous combustion.
Vincent Presley: It’s about us blowing up. Blowing ourselves up real good. No, it's about my love for Lacey. No, it’s just about setting on fire. Sorry.
Tone Madison: How do you think Shane’s role in the band has changed? Is he becoming more involved in the actual writing of the songs?
Vincent Presley: Yeah. If he doesn’t like a part or thinks something should be different, he for sure puts his opinion in there. He’ll rearrange songs and stuff. He’ll sit there and be like, “It doesn’t flow!"
Lacey Smith: I think he kind of has a better ear for a melody and just good flow than we do. We would probably just go with the first initial thing we came up and be like, “It’s awesome!"
Vincent Presley: “Throw a drumbeat on there! Done! Who cares?”
Lacey Smith: I think since maybe Shane’s a recording engineer and he’s just listening to stuff all the time, he’s got a better ear for what’s just terrible or not, I guess. And his drumming, we’ll re-write around it sometimes if he comes up with something that’s awesome.
Tone Madison: His drumming comes out a lot more on this record than on the half of the self-titled one that he’s on. I just hear more of the stuff that I like about his drumming from Call Me Lightning, where his parts have a melodic quality and are conversational in a way that drums often are not.
Vincent Presley: He hates just straightforward drum beats for sure. He has little interest in that stuff. And that first album, he wasn’t even really going to be in the band. He was more of a session drummer. He did awesome stuff, but I don’t think he really was really thinking about—like now, he’s just trying to do the craziest, most awesome thing he can to every part, whereas then it was like, “Alright, cool, I’m gonna do drums for you on this side for some reason!"
Lacey Smith: And I don’t think he’s ever really been in as heavy of a band as us, so it’s kind of a good outlet for that part of him.
Vincent Presley: As long as he doesn’t die doing it.
Lacey Smith: Yeah, he does almost die a lot.
Tone Madison: Vincent, do you feel like you’ve gotten better as a metal vocalist? The way you sing in this band has changed a lot since it started. It’s gotten a lot more growly and deep.
Vincent Presley: I listened to that first one the other day while taking a bath. And yeah, I thought it was pretty funny.
Lacey Smith: Did you sing along to yourself in the bathtub?
Vincent Presley: Yeah, and I sounded terrible. No. Yeah, I dunno. I think I used to just sing however it came out, but now it’s more just trying to give it the most wicked screams I can on every line, which is pretty exhausting. A lot of times when we record I have to chop it all up because every line has to be as loud as humanly possible, so I almost die a lot.
Tone Madison: Lacey, we kind of touched on this a bit earlier, but how do you think your synth playing has improved or changed?
Lacey Smith: I don’t know if it has gotten better. [Laughs.] I think it’s a lot different, and just trying to be heavier and deeper and more gnarly-sounding. My ultimate goal is to sound like a piece of industrial machinery.