Sun, half-naked bunnies and a second chance

"Synergy" is the word used by Zebrahead's record label to describe what's going on between Playboy Enterprises and the band. Playmate of the Year, the follow-up to 1998's Waste of Mind, features actual Playmate of the Year Jodi Ann Benson on its cover, and the CD insert features five other Playmates. Though the CD hits stores on Aug. 22, one million copies of the single will be included in the November issue of Playboy mailed to subscribers. The Playmates will adorn all promotional materials—including cardboard cutouts of Jodi holding CDs, which will be used as the display in stores. Two versions of the video are being shot, one for MTV in which the girls wear tops, and one, for the Playboy Channel, in which they don't. (Apparently some kind of mild kerfuffle went down earlier in the day when, during the shooting of the topless version, a certain Playmate's breast touched a certain band member's arm, causing a certain band member's girlfriend to feel "overwhelmed.")

"The biggest selling point to Playboy was our demographic, somewhere between 15 and 25," says Zebrahead's manager, Alex Guerrero. "They're looking to get new blood, and I believe two or three bands, including Barenaked Ladies, had tried to do some cross-promotion with Playboy, and Playboy passed, and all of those bands went on to blow up."

Hopes are high that Zebrahead will "blow up," too. "Playmate of the Year" could be just the song to do it for them. As with No Doubt's "Just a Girl" and Lit's "My Own Worst Enemy," the first time you hear "Playmate of the Year," you just know—just know—that it's going to be one of those songs that gets played on the radio, in movies, in promos for movies and TV, possibly in sports arenas, and in the bedrooms of girls 16 and under. It's bouncy, catchy, hummable, summery, carefree, self-effacing and, above all, sweet, which is surprising, considering it's a song about masturbation.

"There's this girl I don't know/ Comes by every year or so/And if I get the mail before my mom/Then I will stay out of trouble," sings Mauriello, of the exquisite joy of receiving the Playmate of the Year issue of Playboy magazine. "Hello, how are you/It's great to see you, too/Let's grab a sock/It's time to rock/ And afterwards/You never want to talk," he later sings. The song is charming and goofy and a little gross ("I'm gonna make this milky clear"), which, judging from the success of movies like American Pie, is just what America wants right now.

There's no question that Zebrahead are poised for big things, but they've been in a similar position before, and they learned the hard way the lesson about getting their hopes up. A couple of years ago, when radio started playing "Get Back," the first single from Waste of Mind, it looked like the band was going to break in a big way. With their blend of amalgamated pop, metal and hip-hop (which has evolved into something a little more straight-ahead pop rock), they were thought to be Orange County's Next Big Thing. The attention started almost instantly.

"Here's a funny story," says producer Howard Benson, who has been involved with the band since the beginning. "I was going down to Orange County to see another band called Suction; I was in the car with the attorney for Suction, and we're driving in the car and we're talking about Suction, and I throw in the Zebrahead tape, which someone had given me, and hear the first 30 seconds of the song, and I almost screech to a halt. I said, 'This shit is incredible! It's just incredible!' That song—it was 'Check'—just blew me away. Anybody who could write that kind of song, you knew right away they were going to come up with more stuff, and that's how it happened. We got involved with shopping the deal, and we got a great deal with Columbia," he recalls.

"They were one of the first bands combining the rap and rock trend that has turned into such a phenomenon," says their A&R man, Tim Devine, who, before coming to Columbia, worked with such bands as Blind Melon, Mazzy Star and the Beastie Boys at Capitol Records. "They were very unique in that Ali rapped all the verses and Justin came in with the big hooky choruses, and it really gave them their unique point of view."

Though Columbia was already involved, the plan was that the band would release its debut album on indie label Dr. Dream (owned by Benson) to build credibility among the fans, and then re-release the album on Columbia. In a comedy of errors —which aren't really errors but just the way things go in the industry but which are still too tedious to go into the actual details here—KROQ began playing "Get Back" seven months before the album was to be released on Columbia, causing the label to, according to the band's manager, "play catch-up to radio."

"When 'Get Back' started getting played on the radio, we really got excited and were going, 'Wow, this is amazing, hearing yourself on the radio,'" says Mauriello. "It turns out the video flops. It was a piece of poop—it got spun twice on MTV, I think. All of a sudden, the radio stopped playing the song, and we were like, 'What the hell happened here?'

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