The last time we checked in with Zebrahead, they were shooting a video for "Playmate of the Year," the first single from their same-titled second album, at no less than the Playboy Mansion. It was a big-moneyed Playmate-festooned production. Even Hef made an appearance. Two versions of the video were made–one, featuring topless girls, was to be shown on the Playboy channel; the other, featuring bikini-clad girls, to be shown on MTV. There was much talk of "synergy" between the band and the Playboy Entertainment Group. Copies of the single were to go out in the November, 2000 issue of the magazine. Cardboard cutouts of Playmates would serve as CD displays in retail stores. Everyone would benefit. Big things were predicted for the metal-tinged rap-rock quintet who, that day at the mansion, seemed too dazed and tired from their grueling tour schedule to really delight at all the largesse.
Strangely enough, it was the second time big things had been predicted for the band. The first was a couple of years previous when radio picked up a single off their not-yet-released debut album for Columbia, Waste of Mind, which made the major-label suits rush-release the album, which flopped. And so it seemed even more important that their second shot at stardom took, since it's rare that small bands on major labels even get second shots. But then nothing happened–again. The video never got spun on MTV. Playmate of the Year got little radio play. The band, it seemed, had fallen off the radar. We assumed they'd been dropped by Columbia, consigned to the scrap heap of Orange County bands who should've been mega.
When OC Weekly wrote about Zebrahead in our June music issue, we didn't know whether to use past or present tense because we didn't know whether they were still together. They seemed destined to play the Orange County Fair, which is not a euphemism, but should be–it's the place once-famous bands go when they die.
But now, Zebrahead–all original members intact–are about to release their third album, MFZB (it stands for Motherfucking Zebrahead, they tell us), and it's their best one yet, which is just unfucking believable, but no less unfucking believable than the fact they're still on a major label. This band is invincible! I think they're stalking you!
"We never broke up," explains lead rapper Ali Tabatabaee. "We toured for a year and a half after Playmate of the Year was released and then went right back in and started writing songs." The songwriting process took a little longer than was expected, though–about two and a half years–and resulted in 90 songs, from which the 15 that made the cut were picked.
"We really wanted to make sure this was an album we were all happy with," says Tabatabaee. "In the past, we always felt rushed. This time, we really took our time and wrote a bunch of songs and went through them over and over again until we were happy." The band recorded and re-recorded as well, ultimately finishing most of the tracks with local producer Cameron Webb, who had recorded many of Zebrahead's previous demos. "We realized that we had always been happier with the demos than with the finished product," says Tabatabaee of their decision to use Webb.
In the downtime, three of the band's five members got married (drummer Ed Udhus, guitarist/vocalist Justin Mauriello and bassist Ben Osmundson; Osmundson and his wife have a five-month-old baby), leaving Tabatabaee and guitarist Greg Bergdorf as the band's two swinging singles. So perhaps that–songwriting and personal milestones–accounts for the way it appears the band disappeared for a chunk of time there, but it just seems something more must have happened. There must have been more fighting and more dissention and more consternation and more hand-wringing. There must have been some, at least. If nothing else, getting their label not to drop them must have occasioned some sort of struggle.
Tabatabaee (who was diagnosed with lymphoma in 2000; it has been in remission since treatment) remains frustratingly placid: "Our A&R guy Tim Devine has always had confidence in us, and he's the one who fought for us to stay. We're lucky to have him. He's always supported us." Still, it's not as if Zebrahead are feeling the big green push. "We're the low man on the totem pole. When it comes time to allocate funds, it goes to the bigger bands, but it's cool because if this album hits, then at the end of the day, it means more because we did it ourselves."
Where past Zebrahead albums jumped around stylistically, incorporating big '70s hooks with pop-punk guitars, metal flourishes and hip-hop vocal stylings, MFZB feels powerfully lean and stripped-down. Gone is the self-deprecating goofiness that, while endearing, probably hobbled the band, and in its place is anger–a sense that Someone Got Fucked Over. It's at the core of nearly every song. "Get up, the house is on fire/Get up, I want to get higher/Get up, you motherfucking liar/You make me feel alone," Tabatabaee yells on the tightly coiled powder keg "Alone," one of the album's most affecting tracks. He's loathe to really discuss what the song's about, stopping, starting, asking me not to print what he just said. "How about if you say that the song is about feeling like the people who are closest to you don't understand you?" he finally says.
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The song itself places him in Japan on tour. "I broke down on a Japanese street/Words unsaid they scar so deep," it begins. It goes on to tell the story of a hellish night on tour when the narrator, fueled by a mixture of too many substances, does a bunch of stupid isolating stuff that he, to this day, feels stupid about. But Tabatabaee won't say just what it is that went down. Maybe he just took a bunch of drugs and morphed into a total asshole. Maybe he was being an asshole about the drugs. Maybe he didn't take these drugs, but instead the drugs are metaphorical. Something about drugs, it seems. "You know how you just let things go for awhile, and then they build up and build up, and you get drunk, and it all comes to a head?" he asks, trying to explain the song.
Elsewhere on the album, he vents his frustrations over the end of a destructive relationship. "And I swear you drive me crazy mad/'Cause you get high every time that I try to get out/And you cry every time that I try to get out/And I die every time that I try to get out/So goodbye 'cause this time I got to get out," he raps at the end of "Over the Edge."
Zebrahead are full of piss and vinegar and ready to punch your fucking lights out. And it's a welcome return.
ZEBRAHEAD PERFORM WITH THE MATCHES AND JOHNNY WAS AT THE HOUSE OF BLUES, 1530 S. DISNEYLAND DR., ANAHEIM, (714) 778-2583. TUES., 7:30 P.M. $15. ALL AGES; 16 AND UNDER MUST BE ACCOMPANIED BY GUARDIAN.