Snakeskins and Ex-Girlfriends:
Zoners Suck It Before the Venom Can Reach the Heart

On a street with no name, I could hear a band practice in progress. Maybe this is where I’m supposed to meet up with local punksters Zoners – if not, I’m tempted to interview whatever band is creating this ruckus!

Fortunately, my sense of direction is intact, and in the alley by-way next to their practice space, we talked about their musical influences, the forthcoming split single with the band Onchi and recent personnel lineup changes.

Started as a way for playing new songs, after the dissolution of Mermaids Matt McCalvin began demoing everything while the band came together last April. “I just wanted to play in another band. I took eight months off, not wanting to make it like the same band, and I started coming up with this stuff,” says Matt.

The first time I saw the band they played a cover by The Dickies, “You Drive Me Ape (You Big Gorilla),” a song title derived from an old Leave It To Beaver episode where the Beav sends off for two hit records but receives the 45 “You Drive Me Ape” in their place!

“I thought it must’ve come from the Grape Ape,” offers guitarist Chad LeBlanc, the women’s pet of the group.

As a conglomeration of everything they’ve ever listened to, Zoners bring together five local guys who’ve all played in other bands, amounting to one hell of a resume. Matt, lead vocalist and guitarist, was in the aforementioned Mermaids, Gringo Star, Blame Game and briefly played drums for Dinos Boys. Chad plays in Vegan Coke, Skin Jobs and was in Horny Dinosores with Stephanie Luke (The Coathangers). Bassist Wes Duvall is from Nashville where he was in the band Psychic Hotline with Jessica from Heavy Cream. Ryan Davis, providing synth, guitar and vocals, was a member of The Constellations for three years, during their brief stint on Virgin Records. And the most recent addition to Zoners is the drummer, Phillip Jagger.

When I first saw them, I was blown away by the drummer, a woman named Erin Santini, easy to remember if you’ve seen the movie The Great Santini, which applies in this case as well. “She wasn’t always available for shows, so we asked Phillip to sit in – he’d been in the bands Ralph and Ghost Bikini,” says Matt. “Erin is starting a band with Anela Terzic from Ghost Bikini.” So in other words, the bands just swapped drummers!

The first decision a band makes that has repercussions throughout their lifespan is their choice of a name. “Zoners just came up and Adrian Barrera from Barreracudas said it was what Jesse’s house is called, so it stuck,” is the explanation, and it’s obtuse enough to end any and all further discussion. Within two days of their first show at 97 Estoria after last July 4th’s fireworks in Cabbagetown, the band played the EARL with The Coathangers. That’s the entry level for any band, being able to open for fellow locals. The next hurdle is releasing some of your songs to vinyl to expand your presence outside the local area.

Long after a band has evolved and tightened, it’s that initial 45 that captures and contains the band’s primal essence. With their single hopefully arriving from the pressing plant in time, the band is set to play their release party at the Star Bar on April 12th. “Things were delayed, and with our show approaching, we may have to pass out IOUs,” warns the band. But with Gotta Groove out of Cleveland in charge of the 500-copy pressing, Zoners are confident it’ll be worth it. If it’s any indication, “they called up saying, ‘there’s something in there, we’re gonna have to remaster it, OK?’” Matt told them, “as long as it doesn’t sound fucked up!” So once they sent the test pressing, he stresses, “it’s obvious (Gotta Groove) are on their shit!” Also on the plus side, their friend Waylon Pouncy of No Way Entertainment is helping put out the record along with Matt’s Destroy Music label, so it’s in the bag!

With their pals Onchi contributing “Tonight We Ride” and “Don’t Talk About,” the Zoners songs featured on the single (recorded with Santini prior to her departure) are “X2Vision” and “Take It Back.” And no, one isn’t a cover of Foreigner’s “Double Vision,” and the other isn’t a reworked cover of The Dickies’ “Give It Back”! But the band does like to spill their influences. “Early on we covered ‘It’s Alive’ by 999 and Death’s ‘Freakin’ Out,’ because they were fun to do, but you want to do your own songs, so I’m trying to get away from covers,” acknowledges McCalvin. Zoners’ three-prong gravel-truck guitars resurface these relics with high-speed punctuation during the band’s live shows. “There are those who say, ‘Three guitars? That’s one damn guitar too many,’ but we try not to jump over each other. Besides, Ryan switches between guitar and keys depending on the song,” stresses Matt.

The band also looks to Devo, Gang of Four, Rikk Agnew, The Wipers, Mind Spiders, ‘80s Euro-synth punk, The Clean and other bands on the Flying Nun record label out of New Zealand and Jay Reatard as their forebearers and precursors. Coupled with a unified vision, “we thought about touring with the likes of The Coathangers or Nightmare Boyzzz, but first we have to save up for a van,” admits Ryan, and the entire band sees “playing out of town” as their immediate goal.

Though the path to shrink-wrap splendor can be twitchy, spotted with sinkholes, Zoners have an advantage over other bands at this point in their development because McCalvin has his own do-it-yourself studio in his posh lean-to called Sofa City. Even though there’s no sofa in sight, it’s where the split 7-inch was recorded with Onchi (Ian McDonald of Turf War mixed).

And as Ryan puts it, “Bands nowadays are so intertwined, sharing members. This way we have control over the art, having it sound the way you want it to sound. The important thing is not losing who you are because of someone else!”

Chad adds, “People tend to get lost and forget why they started playing music, and start doing it for all the wrong reasons.”

But according to Phillip, the good news is, “with labels like Suicide Squeeze, and Slovenly, and Burger Records, it seems as if the bands are getting to do what they wanna do.”

It helps tremendously too if bands are good and stable, able to move a crowd beyond expectations with jungle pratfalls, not guitar pitfalls. Zoners have that resonance and eruption. Live onstage, Zoners are elemental, automatic, like they know the place.

“Graphic-wise,” says Matt, “I wanted to project a hybrid of Mr. T and GG Allin for our record cover. And I wanted to do it by hand, so I just scratched everything out.”

Sitting amongst shed snakeskins, gifts from an over-eager protective cat, I had to ask, “So what led to such a weird inspiration?”

Chad replies, “We did mushrooms last night.”

“Oh, and I suppose you want that mentioned in this article?” I queried.

“Sure. Our only mistake was going out in public.”

Photo by Jenny Thomas.