“You tell me this town ain’t got no heart / Well, well, well, you can never tell
The sunny side of the street is dark / Well, well, well, you can never tell
Maybe that’s cause it’s midnight, in the dark of the moon besides
Maybe the darkness is from your eyes
You know you got such dark eyes!”
Grateful Dead, “Shakedown Street”
Let’s be honest here — “jamband” can be a bit of a dirty phrase. It may conjure images of spun-out wooks, trustafarians and endless noodling. Of course, this is by and large bullshit, just like pretty much every genre stereotype. In the same way that every of Montreal show isn’t filled with guys in skinny jeans smoking American Spirit lights, every jam audience isn’t made up of wooks. So how did a guy who loves Broken Social Scene and the Strokes (and who writes for Smile Politely, for god’s sake) get into jam bands? By going to Zmick shows. Despite the fact that their core fanbase certainly falls in the hippie demographic (please note the considerable difference between a hippie and a wook), their shows tend to be wook and trustafarian-free zones. Simply put, I’m yet to encounter a Zmick fan who isn’t kind, considerate and ultimately in it due to their love for the music. The community of like-minded people that Zmick fostered during their three-year tenure in Champaign-Urbana is unlike anything I’ve ever seen a local band do. Their weekly performances at Canopy Club’s Monday Night Rage gave the band an incredible word of mouth and they were (and still are) able to fill any room in town — I fully expect the main room at Canopy to be packed for this one, despite the band’s relocation to Chicago nearly a year ago. I could wax on endlessly about Zmick’s unique ability to whip a crowd into a frenzy at the peak of a jam or the shows I’ve seen them play — the two-set, midnight to five A.M. Cinco de Mayo extravaganza at the Red Herring back in ’07 and their most recent show at Canopy this past February stand out the most to me, but I figured that bassist and founding member Dan Wonsover could explain the band far better than I’m able to — so I interviewed him on the group’s move, setlists, and what exactly “jam” means..
SP: About a year ago, you relocated to Chicago. How have you found the jam scene there to be different from the one in Champaign?
Dan: It’s more spread out, not as centrally located like how Chambana is (with the Canopy and all). The jam scene in Chicago — and probably all over — is more of a sub-culture of the greater electronica scene at this point. Its not so much about the improvisational element anymore as it is the rave element (sadly enough) so it means more DJ’s and less instruments. Bands in Chicago gig all across the city, so the scene a bit less unified.
SP: With the exception of Umphrey’s McGee, Chicago isn’t terribly well known for jam bands. Has it been difficult to establish a new base in a town better known for indie rock and hip-hop?
Dan: We actually haven’t been gigging out too much since we started with our new keyboard player (Donny) back in January. We’ve been prepping like crazy and getting ready to record instead. It’s been over 3 years since Kris [Ahrens] and I started Zmick and we still don’t have an album! Once we do start booking shows in Chicago, however, I think that the big difference will be that in Chambana we were a big fish in a small pond, where in Chicago it’s the other way around.
SP: Is it weird coming back down to play in C-U since you’ve relocated?
Dan: We’re excited about it. Unfortunately, a lot of our friends have moved out of Chambana, but we’re stoked to see the ones that have stuck around. We’re definitely stoked to see the Canopy Club as well. We love that venue. It defined my college experience.
SP: You guys are unique in that you utilize “pockets” in your jamming. Can you talk a little about how that concept came about and how it’s executed?
Dan: We kinda stole this idea from Umphrey’s McGee’s “Jimmy Stewarts”. When we played every Monday at the Canopy, we needed ways to keep things interesting since we only had so many original tunes — one way we did that was by learning cover songs — The other way was by rewriting the songs we had and changing the ways we improvised around them. We would do this to keep the material new and interesting and in turn, keeping people coming back to see us. There are two ways we create hot pockets — we either write some parts to improvise around or just use signals to keep the jams interesting and see what happens. With the written pockets, we often write a melody to peak an improvisation with, or a cool heavy metal riff you can head bang to, mixed in with some chord changes Brad can solo over. We also might pick the style we want ahead of time, usually based on what’s missing in the setlist. For example, if a set doesn’t have enough electronica in it, we might throw in a techno pocket or a drum & bass pocket with a melody Brad would write before the show. The pocket could go between songs or smack dab in the middle of them — whatever flows. With the straight improvisational pockets, we use signals to switch keys, clean up the business that might occur during the improv, or even single out a particular persons part and have everyone follow that part (if they came up with something interesting on the spot). What happens kinda just happens, and as long as everyone is listening first, playing second, and not trying to get too busy or flashy, it usually works out that we end up making something really awesome, end up impressing each other, and having a great time in the process. It’s rare that we listen back on an improvisation and regret it — it’s also often the case that those moments are when the crowd gets the most rowdy cause our music is naturally building up and getting rowdy itself. Both types of hot pockets make the improvisation fun and interesting for both us and the crowd.
SP: Can you describe how a hypothetical jam might progress?
Dan: A jam can work a couple of different ways. There are the hot pockets, which I describe above, and then there are solo sections in our songs. If it is written in a song, the solo section works like any other band would have a solo, except we might stretch the music out a bit. We pretty much leave it up to Brad and Kris to take the lead on anything improvised. While I might provide the platform, and Donny might fill up and texture the groove, It’s really Brad and Kris giving the music a forward climbing motion. In a lot of our songs, Brad will have a melody at the end of his solo that is written out that he will build up into and will signal the end of the “jam”. So from the bottom of the jam, Brad will improvise his way up into that melody with Kris carrying and building the dynamics up from beneath him. Donny and I will comp the solo and hold the section or style together, but what really makes it Zmick, in my opinion, is the way Kris and Brad interact and build the energy with each other. A lot of jambands just have extended solos with a drummer that builds it regardless of the soloist — Kris, on the other hand, really listens and pulls from jazz roots while interacting with Brad’s soloing motifs, rhythm and general dynamics. I think its what separates us from a lot of the improvisational bands out there. Hopefully people still appreciate it. When we do hot pockets, its a whole different story. That sort of thing happens, but the ending usually isn’t as defined — rather it would be the beginning of the next song — so however we decide to get there, we’ll get there. We just try to listen to each other and create the most tasteful way of getting ourselves and the audience from point A to point B. I feel really fortunate to play with musicians that have such great ears, so in the hot pockets, I’ll create new sets of chord changes as we go, and Brad and Donny will follow. It’s just a lot of fun, and i think we’re really tasteful about it. A lot of bands over do it, but I don’t think we ever milk it too long — and im judging that not only based on how I feel, but based on how I see the crowd interacting and responding to what we’re doing.
SP: Do you work out a setlist in advance of a show, or is what you end up playing more based on jams, transitions, and how you’re feeling onstage?
Dan: We try to always work out setlists out before shows. This is huge in my opinion. Changing things up for us and the crowd is so important to keep things interesting. I’m usually the person driving the setlist ideas, and i’ll often think of them even a week before the show, but every member contributes and shares their opinion. We try to make setlists that make everyone in the group happy (in addition to the crowd). The upcoming Canopy show won’t have a lot of the tunes that we played last time we were down there — gotta keep it fresh so people want to come out and see more, or see what we’ll do next so to speak.
SP: Do you have a favorite show or set that you’ve played?
Dan: Man — Good question. In my most recent memory, I would have to say Mike D’s last show at the Canopy, specifically when we played “Jessica”, an Allman Brothers cover, on Halloween ’09 or Donny’s first show in February ’10 at the Canopy, where 300 something people showed up and showed us that people not only still care about improvisational music, but care about Zmick. God, what an amazing feeling!
SP: You’re also well known for your wide selection of covers, which range from songs that pop up fairly often in setlists — [Grateful Dead classic] Shakedown Street, [Flaming Lips/Talking Heads medley] Psycho Killer > Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots Pt. 1 — to songs that are more of one-offs in setlist like Kodachrome [Paul Simon] and Billie Jean [Michael Jackson]. How do you go about putting together a cover, and what determines if it becomes a fixture in setlists?
Dan: We try to put in a cover or two every show. Its fun for us to live out our rock fantasies by playing our favorite tunes, and its good for an audience — especially people that are hearing us for a first time and don’t know our tunes — to hear songs they know and can relate to. In terms of choosing what to play, we’re constantly learning new songs, and depending on the crowd or the setlist, we’ll determine what to play. For example, if the setlist has a raging techno song, a prog/metal/reggae song, and a really long jammy song, and we dont want to play “Sexy Crazy” but still want to play a short, sweet, sing along for the ladies, we might throw in Elvis’ “I Can’t Help Falling in Love with You”. Make sense? Or if we have a set with three short, sexy, poppy, Kris tunes, we might throw Slayer’s “Reign in Blood” in the middle. It all kinda depends.
SP: Any last words of advice for people coming to the show on the third?
Dan: Bring an open mind and an open ear. Don’t be scared of the word jamband. There’s such a stigma around that word. Every great classic rock band improvised when they played live — Hendrix, Zeppelin, the Doors, Frampton, Santana, the list goes on and on. Jamband only represents the approach to the music, it isn’t a genre. We play a lot of different types of music from folk, to jazz, to metal, to reggae. We play the music we do because we’re huge fans of so many different genres of music and we love to improvise with each other and create new and unique experiences. If all the different genres of music we were influenced by were each a different color, we try to use as many of those colors as we can to make a colorful painting of our own. We try to offer as many of those colors to your ears as possible, all the while, making you sing and dance. Our music is not static, it reacts to your attitude and energy, and while we hope you’re enjoying the gravity, the more bounce you bring us, the more funk we’ll throw back at ya. Thank you for supporting musicians that play instruments.
To get the full picture, one really needs to hear the band live. For an excellent recent performance by the band, check out this soundboard recording (full disclosure — I taped it) of their show at the Canopy Club this past February. The jam out of Cob into the Nedwick Hot Pocket, Crad Rock and the entire Shakedown Street > vocal jam > Interrogation > Bring it Back > Interrogation segment come highly recommened. Their Live Music Archive section contains roughly a dozen other recordings, including two sampler discs put together by the band, as well as collections from nearly every major jam band, both past and present.
Zmick perform on Friday night (September 3rd) at the Canopy Club with opening acts Wompstars, Good Luck Tarzan, Robbie Gold, Fifth World and Mathien. The show begins at 8:00 p.m. and carries a $7 cover charge.