The first thing you need to know about Zebrahead — an Orange County pop/rock/punk/hip-hop hybrid formed in 1996 — is that emcee Ali Tabatabaee, guitarist Dan Palmer, drummer Ed Udhus, singer/guitarist Matty Lewis and bassist Ben Osmundson — are the nicest musicians you'd ever want to meet. The second thing you need to know is if you don't like the band's recently released The Early Years — Revisited, a 13-song sort-of greatest hits featuring 12 new versions of material from 1996-2003 and one new song ("Devil on My Shoulder"), then you don't like Zebrahead.
By that, I mean this record exemplifies everything the quintet is about. The album begins with "Check," originally heard on the 1998 self-titled disc and 1998's Waste of Mind, and features loud guitars and Tabatabaee sounding eerily similar to Zack de la Rocha while "Get Back" is the sort of song you need to hear only once before singing the chorus ("get back/get back/get back") in your head like you've heard it a million times before.
Zebrahead's strength lies in its diversity, which is featured on the Sublime-groove "Jagoff" and "Someday," the third United States single released from Waste of Mind. How the latter didn't become a hit is beyond me, but I'm an idiot. "Someday" also features a really cool bass line during the bridge that almost no one but me will notice because I'm a bass player but you already knew that because I mentioned I'm an idiot.
Fifth track "Playmate of the Year" is often described as a "party anthem" probably because it is while "Wasted" incorporates a slightly somber aesthetic that still is catchy as an STD. My personal favorite is "Hello Tomorrow," which opens with Lewis singing before Tabatabaee rhymes, "You bring me down when I'm getting high/You turn me on/I amplify."
That's right — I wrote "Lewis singing" because, you see, the songs on The Early Years — Revisited are re-recordings of material the band released with original singer Justin Mauriello. So now you have to buy it.
We talked to Udhus and Lewis to find out why they re-recorded old songs and what exactly a Zebrahead party looks like.
OC Weekly (Ryan Ritchie): How did the idea to re-record old songs come about? Was there any hesitation from you or any other member or members of the band?
Matty Lewis: Well, I think it was in our heads for a while. We just had to find the time and it made sense to do it approaching the 20th year of the existence of the band. There was definitely no hesitation from anyone.
Ed Udhus: We had been wanting to do the re-recording of these songs for years. We have had a new singer in the band for 11 years and he always sounded great live on those songs. We have been this current line-up for so long we thought it would be really cool to hear them with him and Dan on the songs. Everyone was really into the idea. And with the concept of a greatest hits being thrown around by some of the labels overseas, we thought it would be way cooler for the fans if we tried to re-do the originals with the new lineup. We wanted to give them something new rather than a re-packaged product. Dan and Matty love playing music. And they, like the rest of us, cannot believe we get to do this for a living. We are just happy people still care and want to hear what we are doing. And, they also know that Zebrahead is not a group of guys so much as it is a thing in itself. We are all happy and feel lucky to be a part of this silly fun thing that has really helped us see the world and meet a lot of awesome people. Not to mention more free beer than anyone should be given in a lifetime.
Did any of the songs turn out better than the originals?
EU: To be totally honest, I have not listened to them since we mixed and mastered it. I think some stuff sounds better and some stuff sounds new-ish. We are not the same players we were back then — new gear, new studios, new technology, new mixing. Everything was different. We decided in pre-production that we were going to make these sound as close to the originals as possible. Sometimes that was easy and sometimes it was really hard.
Matty, Were you concerned about singing Justin's parts?
ML: I wasn't concerned one bit. I've been singing the older songs everyday on tour and it came easy.
EU: We were not worried. Justin has a distinct voice, but so does Matty. They do, however, sing in a similar register. That being the case, we wanted Matty to be Matty doing his versions of those songs.
How did you decide what songs to use? Were there any songs not recorded that you would have like to have done?
ML: We tried to pick singles and fan favorites. There were a lot of songs that I would have loved to re-record. Maybe we'll save that for another record.
EU: It was pretty quick and easy compared to a regular full-length record. Maybe because we have been playing the songs for years. I think we put everything we recorded on the record. No stragglers left behind.
Tell me about the recording itself — where did you record, when, how many songs, etc.
ML: We recorded the songs with our producer, Cameron Webb, in November and December of 2014.
What about Dan? Is he playing new parts or duplicating what's on the previous records?
ML: We re-recorded each song from the ground up. Dan played guitar parts, I played guitar parts, and we tried to keep the songs true to their original tone and feel as much as we could. There wasn't a lot of improvization with the parts, but I'm sure there are people that can tell what parts are exact and what parts have a little leeway in creativity. It was really cool and interesting, trying to get all the parts to sound as close as possible. It was fun and different in that respect.
EU: We had wanted to keep it as close to the original as possible. So, while it might be a new player on new gear in a new studio, we still tried to play everything as close to the original as possible. So, we were literally covering them.
Tell me about your relationship with Rude Records.
ML: We are currently dating (and it's serious), and hopefully they will pop the question sometime soon. Fingers crossed!
Are you planning on record release show locally?
ML: We aren't planning on a specific release show because we are trying to finish another album. It would be cool to have one for this record, but I'm sure we will in the future.
Speaking of locally, why don't you play here often?
ML: Good question. We get asked that a lot. I'm not sure why we don't.
EU: I get asked that a lot by my local friends. Honestly, it just comes down to time. We spend a lot more time overseas than most bands. By the time we get home, between wanting to see your kids and spending time with your wives, girlfriends and family, there really isn't much time left. Add writing new records to that mix and you are downright busier than ever. We did do an eastern U.S. tour last October and it was awesome. First time in a lot of those cities since 2007.
"The Early Years — Revisited" has one new song. Do you have more? Is there a new record in the works?
ML: Yes. We are working on a new record and hopefully will be recording it in June.
EU: Yes, we have a lot more. We have been writing robots trapped in that room for what seems like a year now. We have a lot of new material. We have to work the giant pile of songs down to 12 and get that recorded. We will be doing that between going back and forth between Asia and Europe for the next few months.
In revisiting old songs, were you surprised by anything? Did you learn anything about the songs you hadn't already known?
EU: For me personally, on the drums there was a lot of that. First was, "Wow, I really sucked," and then, "Wow, I play these really fast now." I was surprised by how much I liked those old songs. For me they captured a moment in time and maybe for some of the fans as well. That kind of helped with the decision to leave these songs as close to the original as possible.To preserve those memories.
ML: I wasn't really surprised by anything in particular, mainly because we've played them all before, but it was cool to actually play them to the same tempo as the records because when we've played them live, they're always twice the speed. It was cool to figure out certain recorded parts that were in the background of the original recordings that you might not hear, but are there. That was cool.
Your press release mentions this record having "party anthems." What are your go-tos when throwing a party?
ML: Every Van Halen record from 1978-1984.
EU: Beer, whiskey, Twister, deli tray, Mexican wrestler masks, frequent flyer miles, ice cream scoop, tacos, bucket of Crisco, alarm clock, various currencies in the single denomination (one dollar, one Euro, one pound, one hundred yen), loud music, cheese, toaster oven, lip stick, trash bags, scented candles, peanut butter, hot sauce, black curtains and fun people.