‘Rath on Record: Destruction and Creation with Holy City Zoo

jason kundrath’s 13th column is a masterful look at the New Brunswick band …

File Under: nuclear-powered post-hardcore emo reconstructionists
Homebase: New Brunswick, N.J.
Players: Joe Lanza — guitar/vocals; Frank DeFranco — guitar/vocals; AJ Russo — bass/vocals; Brian “Dreads” DePhillis — drums

Holy City Zoo comes on like a bomb. There is the distinct feeling of shattered glass, smoke billowing out of windows, scorching heat, and rebels clashing with police in riot gear. The heart pounds. It’s a revolution. But even though this New Brunswick four-piece packs enough firepower to bring the regime to its knees, there is much more going on here than brute force. The sound is also triumphant, hopeful and — more often than not — pure adrenaline-fueled bliss. Perhaps the correct Holy City Zoo ratio is one part destruction to three parts creation.

Picture this: From the smoldering ashes of the most promising guitar-based noise of the mid-to-late ’90s and early Aughts, Holy City Zoo is building a new, space-age metropolis, frightening in size and scope, architecturally perfect, and rumbling from a bombastic fireworks display that is almost constantly exploding overhead. It’s an awe-inspiring sight.

So many of the great bands from that aforementioned era were marked by a certain “looseness” in their execution — as if the players were perhaps too overcome by their emotions to play in time with each other. To many, this was the sound of integrity. To others, it was the sound of imperfection. To the members of Holy City Zoo, however, it all made up the beautiful and complex groundwork for their own sound, which pushes the grid to maximum capacity.

With the all the raw energy and unhinged creativity the band dials into every song, most bands would come apart at the seams trying to hold it all together. The miracle of Holy City Zoo, however, is how they all lock in like a machine, delivering every hit, every rhythm, and every change with pinpoint precision, without losing a shred of emotional impact. In fact, it seems everyone in the band is essentially holding on for dear life as the voltron they together create careens through space at the speed of sound.

Thankfully, the band has been diligently documenting their music and making it digitally available to their fans since releasing (EP) in March of 2011. “Retrograding the Masses” from that release is a absolutely epic slice of sonic perfection, seamlessly bringing together elements of post-hardcore, dance-punk, and progressive rock to devastating effect. They followed that up in June with These Cheers & Messenger’s — an instrumental two-song release that crams more excitement in under five minutes that most bands can muster over an entire album with vocals.

Now, the band is gearing up to release their new four-song EP, Nobody Sells For Less, with a show at Maxwell’s in Hoboken on May 5th [with Pop-Break’s very own The Clydes]. The single “WW5” is available for download from their bandcamp page and is proof positive that the band is growing, getting better and smarter. Their sound is more focused and confident but also more dangerous than ever. “Afterburner” is pummeling at breakneck speeds with some downright lovely interludes. “Paper Beats Rock” takes some classic emo tones and updates them for the 22nd century. And “Meadowlarke Lemon” is a roller coaster ride taking you from the seedy underbelly of their metropolis, high up above the fireworks and back down again. You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, and you may very well break stuff. This is a powerful band. Holy City Zoo is still performing without a net, boiling over with unbridled energy and killer sounds.

The band recently spoke to Pop-Break about short attention spans, their love of Nirvana, and the creative process behind their own unique sound.

‘Rath on Record: How did the band come together?

Joe Lanza: Holy City Zoo is a winding road that is a product of us staying true to our vision. Frank [DeFranco] and I started this as a project in late 2007, and we just wanted to not care about anything but creating music. We did not want to be a typical band who took cool pictures, play shows etc. We simply just wanted to play weirdo alternative music and mosh around in our garage. It eventually became a bit more ambitious as we realized how much fun we were having, and eventually seeked out others who felt the same. AJ [Russo]is the original bassist that has been with us and we changed drummers once. We tried out about five singers with varying styles, from emo, indie, operatic etc. We decided our own shitty voices were the only ones that could properly convey our weird, geeky alternative music.

ROR: The band seems to be driven by many ideas at once, and all the players are so distinctive. Can you describe the creative process behind a HCZ song?

JL: The egg of the song comes from either Frank or myself. Either we each write a complete song separately, or we pretty much go half and half. The songs that we split are probably our most interesting, to me at least, because it amazes me how the other parts I didn’t write could fit so well. I’ll sometimes just write half songs just to have Frank give a crack at it. It works all the time. AJ [Russo] and Dreads [Brian DePhillis] then add their rhythmic/dynamic flavors to their liking, which totally adds to the personality of the song. We try and comprise as much as we can in order to create a song that everyone has a say in, which in turn makes it that much more fun to play. Team efforts are a bit more of a bonding accomplishment.

ROR: I’m sure all of you are influenced by many different bands and artists, but are there a few key influences that you all share?

Frank DeFranco: Joe, AJ, and I for the longest time have had an obsession with Nirvana. They’re the reason we picked up guitars in the first place. Dreads comes from more of a Reggae and Ska background. Though we all have specifics to our individual tastes, all four of us love all kinds of music regardless of genre or time period. Collectively we’re heavily influenced by bands like Bear vs. Shark, The Fall of Troy, At The Drive-In, Braid, Smashing Pumpkins, Fugazi, Tera Melos, Foo Fighters, …And You Will Know Us By The Trail Of Dead etc. Many of these bands have influenced us not only by the way they sound, but also by their “no fear” attitude of exploring genre boundaries, as well as their work ethic.

ROR: What’s the state of the music scene in New Jersey?

FD: Right now, the music scene in New Jersey is downright awesome. There are pockets of scenes throughout the state featuring incredibly talented and original sounding bands. Many bands, through being members of the Tiny Giant Artist Collective, have been networking with other bands across the state, integrating the scenes within the state. It’s sweet to see something like this going on, and even cooler to be a part of it.

ROR: The way the band had digitally released it’s music — in shorter formats vs. the traditional album — seems very progressive. Is this the new model for bands in the digital age?

JL: The traditional album is pretty much a double album, as an EP is now the new “album.” It comes down to economics. Recording five songs is so much cheaper than 11. The short attention span is a by-product of complete saturation. There is too much out there, so smaller releases really make a band’s statement a bit more digestible.

ROR: For those of us who like to hold a record in our hands, Nobody Sells For Less is coming out on vinyl. Why did you choose vinyl as a physical format? Will it be 45 or 33 RPM? Can I reserve a copy?

FD: All of us love vinyl records. In modern times, CDs have become obsolete. If we’re going to release a physical product, why not give it to people in an analog format with a digital download card? It’s the best of both worlds! Plus records are physically larger, meaning you get larger artwork that can be appreciated more when you don’t have to squint at it with a magnifying glass to see the details. The record will be a 33 1/3RPM, small hole vinyl (none of us like the big holes, they’re inconvenient) and a copy will be sent your way as soon as they come in.

ROR: Score!

JL: The cool thing about vinyl nowadays is the download card. We want to load it up with cool stuff not on the vinyl and only available if you buy it. It’s a sign of appreciation really. We want it to be special. Plus, in a weird way, it brings back the “b-sides” side of music. We want bust out a deep cut every once in a while that only a certain amount of people know about, and hopefully will encourage trade of our music.

ROR: What your plans for the Summer? More music? A tour? Television appearances?

FD: This summer we will be playing a bunch of shows throughout New Jersey, as well as making weekend trips to different states in promotion of Nobody Sells For Less. We also will continue to write our first full-length album, which we hope to begin recording by the end of the year. As far as TV appearances, if you know anyone who might be interested, get us in contact!

ROR: What can fans expect at the Maxwell’s show on May 5?

FD: Initially we wanted to film a live DVD, but because of circumstances out of our control, we will instead have the audio of the performance recorded, which will be bonus material in the digital download that comes with the vinyl record.

JL: New songs! And a great time. Waking Lights, Nikki Sue & The Bad News, and The Clydes are terrific bands that we have the fortune to be playing with. So stoked!

Holy City Zoo plays with Waking Lights, Nikki Sue & The Bad News, and The Clydes at Maxwell’s in Hoboken tomorrow night. Doors: 8:30 p.m. Tickets: $8. For more info, visit Maxwell’s website or Facebook.