It is unbelievably hot today at the Playboy Mansion. The sun is blazing, beating, boring down upon the estate's sprawling, manicured lawns, grand walkways, imposing arches and stately fountains, leaping off the sparkling pool, making the hefty oiled wood of the poolhouse glisten, heating the metal rims of the patio tables to an untouchable degree, and threatening to melt the plastic of a large black binder, which belonging to the production company and features notes on today's video shoot, that sits atop one of the tables. The sun is relentless, bouncing off the bright concrete underfoot to the thick stone walls of Hef's Victorian estate and back again, trapping any creature unfortunate enough to be left outside in its infinite regress of light and heat. Today's the kind of day when you'd be smart to stay inside—apparently, Playboy Enterprises king Hugh Hefner has secluded himself somewhere in the hushed interior of the house—but it's also the day that La Habra band Zebrahead is filming their video for "Playmate of the Year," the first single from their upcoming album, also called Playmate of the Year, and so, despite the grueling weather, despite the fact that they had to cancel three shows on their tour with the Kottonmouth Kings to come back to LA to do this video, despite the fact that their first flight was canceled and a second one delayed and they ended up getting about two hours of sleep last night, here they are.
There's Ben Osmundson, the bass player and "business" mind of the band, a guarded guy who graduated from Cal State Fullerton with a degree in marketing and who, according to the other guys, is always thinking about the band's direction. Right now, Osmundson is scratching the mosquito bites on his hand and watching intently as his girlfriend shows him how she digs her fingernail in an X formation into her own mosquito bite, and then offers to score his as well. There's Justin Mauriello, the charming singer/guitarist who's an eternal ham, always joking, always goofy, always silly, sometimes frustratingly so, who tells you his parents give plasma as a career and then tells you they actually raise cockatiels, neither of which is true. Mauriello is described by his girlfriend as "a big 4-year-old, but also the most genuine, real person I've ever met." Right now, Mauriello is trying to convince a group of Playboy Playmates (who were talking loudly about how there should be aerobics classes—and manicures and pedicures—at the Mansion because they never work out anymore) that he and Hefner just got finished working out together. There's Ed Udhus, the sweet, thoughtful teddy bear of a drummer, and Greg Bergdorf, the soft-spoken, keenly aware guitarist.
And then there's Ali Tabatabaee, the handsome rapper who graduated from UC Irvine with a degree in biology who was supposed to go to the University of Chicago Medical School, was accepted and everything, and then decided to do the band instead. Last year, Tabatabaee went through the kind of tough shit you pray you never experience. He's the only band member not in a relationship, and so, for most of the morning, he's been talking to and transfixed by Miss September.
"Yo, yo, yo," Mauriello whispers into your tape recorder, "check out my dawg Ali trying to hit that shit. This is funny. It's like a fly on shit, you know what I mean?"
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"Like white on rice?" his girlfriend offers.
You chime in with, "Shit and stink?"
"Right," says Mauriello. "Like a dart and a dartboard —no, wait, damn it, that wasn't good. It's like a booger on a finger! Try to flick it off but it just doesn't move."
"All right," the young director yells to a group of Bodacious Dream Girls, eight of them actual Playboy Playmates and the rest dancers from local clubs. "We need more 'Woo-yay, they're here! Those guys are here!'" he shouts, giving them their, uh, motivation. Some speaker somewhere begins blasting for the zillionth time the summery, bouncy "Playmate of the Year," and the girls—their glistening flesh wrapped tightly in the hottest of hot pants, tops bound just barely by tiny bikini tops, managing to balance, somehow, atop unbelievably stacked fuck-me shoes—begin for the zillionth time to bounce around and look the epitome of woo-yay as the five Zebrahead members, each dressed to resemble a miniature Hefner, walk through the crowd.
"It's the fat, dorky white guy's version of Jay-Z's video for the song 'Big Pimpin','" says Osmundson. "It's a 'we're dorks, we don't belong here' kind of thing. This whole video is a dream—us dreaming or wishing that we could have something like this happen to us, which will never happen."
But it is happening to them. I mean, here they are at the Mansion, bouncing around with a bunch of hot, nearly naked women who are making a fuss over them. Of course, the women have been instructed to make this fuss, but does that make it any less real?
Zebrahead's girlfriends, sticking together, making little snippy comments about the Playmates, and sporting looks ranging from mildly amused to shocked and exasperated, seem to think not.
"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?'
"It was really strange, it was really weird, and it was really quick, too," says Mauriello.
"You know, I think people say a band has to sell a million records to be successful, but this band did 150,000 albums and they built a great, great, great base. People everywhere know who this band is," says Benson.
"Who is this band?" asks a production assistant who has asked not to be identified. Across the way, over by the pool, near the lawn where crew men are constructing gigantic white dice for Zebrahead to stand on while they pretend to play their instruments, where Hefner has agreed to make a cameo, where two huge beach balls tied together bob along the surface of the swimming pool looking like two, well, you can imagine what they look like, a PA has a different take on everything. He seems a bit put off by the extravagance of the video shoot. "You get a band that's never been heard of—I mean, probably in small circles they're known—but they come to the Playboy Mansion, get very good-looking women on camera, Hefner makes a cameo, and the next thing you know, they're superstars," he says. "I mean, the guys are cool, and I have nothing against them, but I'm just saying: when it comes to new bands with videos, there's no harm, no foul in making a really cool-looking video, but it seems that the environment and the property is different than maybe what it should reflect."
The question is why would Hefner go for it? What's in it for him? "Well, he has a self-interest, in my opinion," says the PA. "He's got his girls in there, and it gives him a name and gives him more exposure, end of story—as well as he's an aging man and wants to go out with a bang."
As many theories as there are about Zebrahead, there are myriad more about Hefner, about what he looks like and what he acts like and whether he's really at the Mansion and what he's wearing and, well, you get the idea. As is fitting, he is the undeniable star, the elusive celebrity of his own mansion.
For much of the morning, there has been speculation about whether Hefner is here. Early in the day, Mauriello claims he saw him "peeking out of the window with his shirt off."
"Oh, my God, he's real," says Devine with a laugh as you both approach the area where the members of Zebrahead, still dressed in Hefneresque pajamas, are riding scooters in big graceful circles around the fountain. A ripple of twittering and nudging goes through the crowd, and you can feel the interest suddenly shift and congeal from whatever miscellany everyone might have been thinking about to what's happening right now, right this minute: Hugh Hefner (oh, my God!) is actually making an appearance. What's more, he's dressed just like Zebrahead, who are dressed just like him in black silk pajamas with a red silk robe. When Hefner is around, there's no longer anything special about the Zebrahead guys; they become just like everyone else, for the crowd becomes electrified into only two important categories: Hefner and Not Hefner. And the Not Hefners, which includes everyone who's not Hefner, are transfixed. The Not Hefners begin, one by one and then in groups, to approach him to shake his hand and ask to get pictures with him. He's a good sport about it, posing for innumerable shots, speaking in sound bites ("typical day at the Mansion") and, surprisingly, primping before each shot, nervously patting the back of his hair and his oddly taut, possibly nipped and tucked (but I'm not sure) cheeks and pursing his lips.
When the last group of picturemongers seems to have trickled away and people are less focused on talking to Hefner than on talking to one another about their experience of talking to Hefner, the geriatric sex symbol approaches one of the scooters laying on its side near the fountain. He lifts it up and gets on. Suddenly, all eyes are riveted back on the man who's teetering on the scooter, trying to balance without wobbling, puttering along at a fraction of the speed at which those Zebrahead kids were traveling. There is an odd tension in the air as everyone becomes quietly aware that Mr. Sex here is also a fragile 74-year-old man. A breath of relief is collectively taken when Hefner abandons the scooter. From there, he walks down the path to the tennis courts, and all eyes follow his silken back until he is no longer visible.
Over by the Mansion's tennis courts there is a plush, carpeted clubhouse with pool tables, video games and pinball machines, including a Playboy pinball machine that groans and moans. Zebrahead has turned the clubhouse into their "backstage" area, which really means it's crammed with duffel bags and garment bags and various other pieces of luggage that the guys have brought. "Hey, Ben?" Tabatabaee asks, walking through the sliding glass doors and out onto the modestly decorated patio where Osmundson is sitting. It seems Tabatabaee has a dilemma:
Tabatabaee: Girls are asking if I want to go out. Playmate girls are.
Osmundson: So why aren't you going?
Tabatabaee: So I can go out with my mom and dad.
Osmundson: You can hang out with your mom and dad every night. Don't be an idiot.
Tabatabaee: I can't, because we're never home anymore, man.
Osmundson: Well, there's tomorrow night.
Tabatabaee: No, there's not. We're leaving.
Osmundson: Oh, yeah. Well, your mom and dad will understand.
Tabatabaee: Dude, they're throwing a big barbecue tonight.
And this is how it is for Zebrahead and most members of major-label touring bands, who must constantly choose which priority to neglect, since something important must always go neglected, and who, when it really comes down to it, if really forced to choose between fun on the one hand and family on the other, would rather choose sleep.
"The never-getting-to-sleep thing is really upsetting to me," says Mauriello. "I see little green men running around and I'm completely sober."
"As much as you want to say it sucks, we're here at the Mansion, and how horrible is that?" asks Osmundson.
Nearly every member of the band will say something like this to you at some point in the day, as if constantly reminding themselves—or even trying to convince themselves—that they should be happy and grateful.
In fact, you're trying to remind yourself. It's been a long, hot, monotonous day. There's something really horrible and stilted about watching band members lip-sync to themselves over and over, something disquieting about watching so much manpower (the crew, the equipment, the entourage, the wardrobe tents, the catering, the shuttles, the walkie-talkies, the air of importance, etc.) going into something so minute, something that is really only a blip on the screen. You could leave—you'd like to leave—but you still need to interview Tabatabaee. Plus, you may as well wait out traffic. At the same time, though, here you are at the Mansion, a place people would kill to visit, so what the hell's wrong with you? How can you really be itching to go?
If you follow one of the paths away from the pool, past the manicured lawns with the gigantic dice and the flamingoes and peacocks that roam the grounds freely, you will notice that you are suddenly surrounded by dense foliage, and unlike the other neatly tailored areas of the Mansion that offer sweeping vistas, you no longer know quite where you're going. The uneven dirt trail goes off in a few different directions, and any which way you look, all you see are trees up above and the light shining through. If you keep going, you will find the huge zoo-like cages in which Hefner keeps exotic animals, including any number of birds—like toucans and parrots—and, perhaps showing he has a sense of humor, cute, fat bunnies. And then there's the cage with more than a dozen tiny squirrel monkeys. They're amazingly agile, jumping from the walls of the cage to the ropes hanging in the middle of the cage and swinging around the ropes and then springing off the netting halfway up near one side of the cage that acts like a monkey trampoline. Throughout it all, they squeak and chirp, moving suddenly, their small furless faces darting around nervously. You really could watch the monkeys forever—in fact, you have been—and it's time to head back to the other side of the bars, where the cameras are trained on a group of Playmates as they frolic, topless, in front of a huge reflective surface, bumping, grinding and being hit with streams of water.
"It's nice here, huh?" Tabatabaee asks matter-of-factly as the sun begins setting over the pool area. There is a purplish mark on the left side of his neck, near where his neck meets his chest, sort of near the collarbone. You assume it's a hickey, though it doesn't look exactly like one, but after all, he's young, handsome, single and in a rock band.
When Tabatabaee was a bio major at UCI, he noticed something really strange about some of the other people in the program. "They couldn't talk to you. They were smart, but they couldn't talk to you, and that really tripped me out, and I tried as hard as I could to make sure I was never like that," he says.
He wasn't. At UCI, Tabatabaee minored in theater, and he says he's always been drawn toward the arts. "I always wanted to do music—I just never thought I could," he says. He intended to take one year off after graduation to take the MCAT and apply for med school. He began playing with Zebrahead for fun, just to fuck around. Suddenly, things started happening. "I didn't expect music to go anywhere. I thought I'd do it for a year and then I'd leave, and in a week's period, I got an acceptance to med school and we were supposed to do a showcase and the label was going to fly us to New York and I had to tell the school; they wanted to know. So I deferred for a year and then decided that I didn't want to go back after a year."
His friends told him he was making "the dumbest mistake of my life, but it wasn't. . . . I'm happy that I chose this. I have a lot of respect for artists now, any kind of artist—whether it's someone who's a musician or an actor or a writer or a painter or anything. I think that's the ultimate way to express culture. To do that for a living? Everybody should aspire to do that."
When Tabatabaee talks about the new album, he mentions that certain songs are really special to him because he went through some shit in the past year and blah, blah, blah. You almost don't ask what kind of shit because you're sure it's the usual shit, but for some reason, you make yourself ask, and the answer is nothing like what you expected.
"Um, well, uh," Tabatabaee stammers. "Actually, I was really sick this past year. I found out I had cancer, so I went through six months of chemo and a month of radiation while we were writing, and, you know, that put a whole new perspective on things. I had Hodgkin's disease, and just dealing with that and dealing with everyday life—it was a real growing experience."
The Hodgkin's was discovered when Tabatabaee had X-rays taken of his back, which he injured on the Warped Tour. "I did the X-rays as a checkup," he recalls. "I got home, changed to go to the show—we were playing that night—and got a call from the doctor. He said, 'You need to cancel your tour. I think you have Hodgkin's disease.' And so, like, three weeks later, I started chemo, and just got done about two or three months ago. It was really, really hard, but I handled it well. They caught it early, and it has a pretty good cure rate. It's been in remission for about six-and-a-half months. It went into remission really fast, like, after two treatments."
You ask where it was located, fairly certain and a little embarrassed that what you thought was a hickey is something else. "It's a lymphoma, so it started out in my neck, and it went into the lymph node around my lungs. They caught it really early. It hadn't spread. I was really lucky."
He looks at you calmly, earnestly, patiently. You look down for a minute and then back up at him.
"It's nice here, huh?" he asks again.
In the car on the way home, you begin crying while listening to the song "Wasted," which you'd never really paid attention to before. "Feel how does it feel/ To crush the world in two/One last time/ And I/Am wasted. Feel how does it feel/ To scream without a sound/One more time/And I'm/Still wasted. . . . What I don't want to know/Is what I'm not going to see."
Hell, you don't even know what it's really about, but suddenly, through the prism of death, everything seems to mean more.
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