Angels Without Wings
CoC chats with Scott Mellinger of Zao
by: Jackie Smit
It should take only one listen to Zao's latest epic, _The Fear Is What Keeps Us Here_, to erase any preconceived notions about the Greensburg quartet being just another god-bothering gospel rock disaster. True, they're widely regarded as pioneers in the field of Christian metal, but those days are behind them and there's a dark, pernicious quality to their recent material that's a far cry from the hipster choirboys usually associated with this genre. In fact, ask Zao guitarist Scott Mellinger and he'd be the first to tell you that it really isn't about religion at all; it's about making good music -- which regardless of anyone's personal convictions is something I'm sure we can all toast to.

CoC: Your new album has had a fantastic response –- certainly among the best that I can remember you having in your career thus far. Were you surprised by this at all, especially given that it's probably your most non-commercial and brutal offering thus far?

Scott Mellinger: I'm surprised when any of our records do anything, to be honest. <laughs> When we go into the studio and write and record our stuff, we go in there liking it ourselves, but we never really expect it to be accepted by anyone else. I think that the weirdest thing about this album and the success that we've had with it -- we didn't go in there with a plan to do something that would fall into place with everything else that's happening in the metal scene right now. We just wanted to make something that was a little different and represented us as a band a little. To have that so well received is amazing, because you're really putting yourself on the line with something like that.

CoC: Well, the feeling that I get from this record is that after creating something as complex as _The Funeral of God_, this was almost a natural reaction in a way; simplifying and doing something straightforward. Is that assessment about right?

SM: Definitely. Anytime you try and take on what we did with the last record, you realise that when Zao started out we were known for shorter songs that were very much right in your face. We definitely wanted to get back to that, and given how much we change our style and change our approach with each album, it was almost logical to do that. We wanted something more in your face and more aggressive than people were used to.

CoC: So, reading into what you're saying, there's no concept running through this record, but I am very interested to know what's meant behind the title: _The Fear Is What Keeps Us Here_.

SM: Actually that came up at the last minute. On the last track of the album, the band all repeat it like a mantra, and when we listened back to it, that line just stood out to all of us because it had a ring to it. What I take from it is that it's a summary of what a lot of people do. The way a lot of people run their lives, they're very afraid to take risks to change themselves or better their situation. So the fear of change, or the fear of risk, keeps people doing what they do every day and not changing and not taking risks and not making their situations any better. I'm sure it will mean different things to a lot of people, but to us as a band that's pretty much the statement: don't be afraid to try new things or make changes and keep yourself from being stuck in a rut.

CoC: Using Steve Albini to produce, who's known for stuff like Nirvana or The Pixies, rather than metal -– what was your reason for that, and how did his involvement affect the outcome of this record?

SM: The cool thing about that was that he got in touch with us about three years ago when we'd just done _The Funeral of God_. His girlfriend was filming a documentary at the time and she'd videotaped Zao playing a show. He saw that and told us that he was hooked on it and wanted to work with us. So when we went to Chicago, we went to meet him and took a tour of his studio and stuff. For the album, we're all fans of more natural sounding music. I mean, my favourite metal records are the ones from the mid-Eighties, before computers and Pro Tools washed out all the emotion. We've never wanted to do anything other than work with a two-inch tape and work with someone who knew what music needs to sound like. Steve's the best at that, in our opinion, and he's worked on a lot of amazing records from Jesus Lizard to The Pixies. It was a no-brainer to us and when he said he wanted to work with us we definitely all went for it.

CoC: I think that the surprise really was getting such a raw sound and something so aggressive and heavy from a producer who, as we've both mentioned, came from a background where he was well known for delivering more accessible and commercial records.

SM: Yeah, and the great thing about Steve is that he doesn't really put his personality into the music to the point where it becomes overpowering. He has a distinctive sound that he gets, but it's not something that he pushes on you. It's just the sound that you get when you record in a natural way and it isn't over-processed. With us, he just wanted us to come in and do what we wanted to do, and he said that he wasn't going to impose anything on us. There were never any problems, we never butted heads on anything -– everything we wanted to do, he was just on track with. He just let us be ourselves.

CoC: You also happened to have two new members [Martin Lunn on guitars and Jeff Gretz on drums] join the line-up. How did having half the line-up replaced affect the way that _The Fear Is What Keeps Us Here_ ended up sounding?

SM: The big difference for us was with Jeff, because his level of technicality and his raw ability let us do things that we weren't able to do previously. We could do some more spastic things and some more crazy stuff with him on board, whereas Martin really just brings that steadiness that a rhythm section is. In the past, I don't think that Zao had such a strong rhythm section and now there's a far more solid bass backbone and it just makes us sound that much better.

CoC: In terms of atmosphere, _The Fear Is What Keeps Us Here_ is easily the darkest material that Zao has recorded since _Liberate Ex Infernus_. Certainly, I could see a number of more conservative types finding it very hard to believe that this is coming from a band whose roots lie in the Christian hardcore scene.

SM: <laughs> For us, the music that we play lends itself to an angrier and darker place. The way in which all of us have grown up and where we are now in our lives, it's not really that awesome of a world. It's not a very happy place. Personally, I'm not a particularly unhappy person, but there's a lot in the world to get upset about, and that's something that Dan Weyandt [vocals] likes talking about and likes getting people thinking about. Definitely, what he sings about doesn't lend itself to music that would sound happy. I think that with the lyrics and the way that the music sounds –- for us it's a nice escape from ordinary life. It's giving vent to that part of us that has the anger and the frustration with the state of the world and all the things going on.

CoC: With that in mind, do you feel that Zao is still pegged by some as being just another Christian hardcore band?

SM: Oh, definitely. I don't understand that at all. As a band, Zao hasn't been outwardly Christian for years. I think that _Where Blood & Fire Bring Rest_ was probably the closest that we got to that. When I came in to do _Liberate Ex Infernus_, that was much pretty done and over with. You'll see traces of it from time to time, because it's a part of how Dan writes, but it feels unfair to be pigeonholed into that scene completely when there are other bands whose focus is entirely Christianity and you never see that happening to them. The real problem is that with Zao it's become a slightly negative connotation, which is unfortunate, and it seems to remain there despite the fact that we play for a more general audience now. We don't shy away from it: some us are, some of us aren't. But we're never going to be up there preaching, and we want people to come to us because of our music and not for anything else. If you don't like our music or if you like our music –- that's all we want to know.

CoC: So, what are your thoughts on hardcore in general then? It's certainly the scene that spawned Zao, and despite your leanings toward metal, I don't want to insult you by referring to you as a metalcore band. Do you think that the hardcore scene is stronger now than what it was when bands like Agnostic Front and Sick of It All were making headway?

SM: It's definitely not a stronger scene. The unity that was involved in it when it was starting isn't as strong as it used to be. In some cases, I think what hardcore is, is just another style of music that a couple of people thought would be good to jump on and exploit. I definitely think that's what happened to the metalcore scene too. It got so washed out and garbaged out that even the term is like Eighties hair metal to me. There are a lot of bands that still keep the scene alive though, but for me hardcore is about attitude and state of mind as much as it is about the music. That was just a term for the underground DIY punk scene. The bands all played harder punk, and so they were labelled as hardcore. We're similar in many ways, I think because even though we have a label, we're still just doing this by ourselves. We get advances and stuff like that, but we all put in a lot of our own money as well, and at the end of the day we're just here for the fans and because we enjoy doing it. We're not rock stars; we just got lucky to be able to play music that we like and we're just the same everyone else. But metalcore, hardcore, whatever -– it's like a lot of things. Once people have consumed it, they'll spit it out and then the real bands will stay standing. The real deal will always stay and the bands that jumped on to the bandwagon will disappear. Hardcore specifically will always exist in some way, shape or form as far as I'm concerned.

CoC: Zao has been plagued by a lot of line-up instability over the years. With things looking as positive as they are at the moment, what's the general feeling like internally? Does it feel like this line-up is perhaps slightly more long-term and focused?

SM: Yeah, definitely. I think that if one of us were to leave now, it would definitely be over with. I think that this is a stable line-up and it will be around for the rest of however long this band keeps going. It's the best we've ever been with members and sound, as far as I'm concerned.

CoC: What are your plans for the next six to twelve months?

SM: We're going to finish the tour that we're busy with right now and then we're going to take a little break, because we've been busting our asses touring for _The Funeral of God_ and for this new record. So we'll take a short break and then we're back on the road. I don't know if it will be as a headlining act, or whether we'll just keep doing support tours. As far as I'm concerned, I'd love to do a co-headliner with someone, but we'll see what happens.

CoC: Thanks very much for your time, Scott. Anything you want to add?

SM: Well, I'm sure that other people have said the same thing, but I say this with the utmost sincerity: we really know how important our fans are, and for us the fact that anybody would think that it's worth their time to listen to a Zao album or come out to a show, is just a huge honour. So, I just want to thank all those people, and I hope that they'll come out when we play in their town.

(article submitted 14/10/2006)


ALBUMS
6/27/2006 J Smit 8 Zao - The Fear Is What Keeps Us Here
6/3/2003 X Hoose 7 Zao - All Else Failed
3/31/2003 A McKay 7 Zao - Parade of Chaos
3/13/2001 A McKay 8.5 ZAO - ZAO
12/9/1999 A Cantwell 9 Zao - Liberate Te Ex Inferis
10/1/1998 A Cantwell 9 Zao - Where Blood and Fire Bring Rest
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