Artist Spotlight: The Zells

    Hailing from Pittsburgh, the Zells are an indie rock five-piece consisting of guitarists Frank DiNardo, Jackson Rogers and Phil Kenbok, bassist Roman Benty, and drummer Tyler Gallagher. Most of the group’s members have been friends since high school, playing in different bands as they found themselves gravitating to the same kinds of music. This iteration of the Zells has been active for nearly a decade, with their debut album, Failure to Slide, arriving in September 2018 via Crafted Sounds. They continued honing their brand of hooky yet idiosyncratic garage rock, dipped in elements of shoegaze and hardcore with a distinctly lo-fi bent, on 2019’s No More Heroes EP, which was mastered by RJ Gordon of Baked. Gordon ended up producing the band’s sophomore LP, Ant Farm, their best and most ambitious effort yet, which is out tomorrow and also features contributions from Adam Reich (Titus Andronicus), Jordyn Blakely (Smile Machine), and Davey Jones (Lost Boy ?).

    With all five members contributing original songs, the Zells’ approach to sound and lyricism is naturally eclectic, but Ant Farm showcases their expansive capabilities with sturdier production and a more dynamic set of tracks that vary in intensity but never drag themselves down. “Nothing in life is free/ You suffer and toil until you die/ That’s how it’s always been,” DiNardo concludes on ‘Suffer and Toil’, “What? Do you think you’re better than history?” It’s a hard truth to stomach, but there’s a real freedom in channeling all that anger and frustration into something worthwhile – and if this record is anything to go by, the Zells are nowhere near giving up the fight.

    We caught up with The Zells’ Frank DiNardo, Jackson Rogers, and Roman Benty for this edition of our Artist Spotlight interview series to talk about the band’s early days, their collaborative process, the ideas behind their sophomore album, and more.

    Could you talk about how the band first came together? What were your impressions of each other at the time?

    Frank DiNardo: The funny thing is, of this five-piece band, the four people you have on this call right now [Phil was with Frank but did not participate in the interview] – we all grew up with each other. We’ve been making music with each other since we were like 14 years old in various different bands in high school, different lineups. This formation of the Zells with Roman, Phil, and Jackson coming together under one unit and making music started in August 2013, so we’re coming on nine years now as a creative unit. We had a different drummer to start, then in 2016 that drummer had moved to DC and that’s when we pulled Tyler into the mix, our current drummer and other band member. And the rest is history. But as far as first impressions of these guys, I mean, these are my three best friends, so I’m trying to think…

    Roman Benty: I could individually go down the line of every moment of every first impression I have of every Zell. Jackson was the best player on our baseball team; Phil was skateboarding down the main street in our neighbourhood smoking a cigarette and riding a skateboard wearing Prada glasses at age 12; Frank and I met in the pizza shop in our neighbourhood and we locked eyes when a Nirvana song came on. [laughs] At least that’s how I remember it. It’s very romantic. But that was when we realized we both loved rock music, and that’s how him and I started playing together.

    And then Tyler, our drummer – Tyler’s from Delaware County just outside of Philadelphia, and for all intents and purposes, he just really understood where we were coming from right from the beginning. He played in a great band called Trash Bag. We all sort of came up around the University of Pittsburgh’s DIY music scene in a neighbourhood called Oakland, so we were all just chilling in Oakland and we started playing with Tyler’s band Trash Bag a lot. We just hung out, we started becoming closer friends. Trash Bag was more of a hardcore/metalcore kind of vibe, but Tyler had told us he always really wanted to be in more of a Replacements-esque powerpop/garage rock kind of thing. So when the opportunity came and we needed a drummer – I feel almost kind of rude, because literally within five minutes of our original drummer telling me that he was leaving the band, we already had Tyler on deck.

    Jackson Rogers: My first impression of Frank and Ronan is, I kind of knew they were gonna get me in trouble, but I had to take that leap anyways. [all laugh] With them, and with Phil too, because they were in a band together and me and Phil were in a band together when we were younger, it was just a match made in heaven. So I think we really came together naturally.

    RB: It’s funny that we’ve just matured with the same influences, you know? Talking to other friends and musicians and even playing in different projects or jam sessions, it’s always interesting because there’s a baseline courting process that kind of has to happen when you start playing with new people. But we literally just skipped that. We learned how to play together. I never took music lessons or anything, so I’ve literally learned how to play music through these guys and with these guys, and learned who we are and what we want to write about. We always say, too, we’re basically just a friend group, and then we have this project, this thing that we all come back to and that really is like a life force for all of us.

    I wonder if this changed at all with this album since you’ve been playing together for so long, but when you get together in a room, do you tend to jam and see what happens, or do you come in with a strong idea of what you want to achieve?

    JR: I think when we first started, definitely, if the spectrum is jamming and stuff coming out of the void to more intentionality, we were definitely more centered around just figuring things out and seeing what happens. This latest record was definitely more intentional, and we thought intentionally about the songwriting and the arrangement. But throughout our entire run, everybody in the band is their own songwriter, so anytime we start with a new idea, usually it starts with one of us coming with a hook or lyrics or whatever, and then we all start writing around that.

    FD: It’s a very collective thing. Everybody is responsible for their own parts and a lot of it is, like, you have the authority to interpret what is happening in the song, obviously with the guidance of the original author. But I don’t think anything we have would sound the way it does if only one of us was taking on the full responsibilities of composition and arrangement. I think that’s one of the very special things about this band, is that we all do keep each other’s egos in check, while at the same time supporting and encouraging our most out-there creative drives and sparks. Because we’re all just best friends who love each other.

    But I would say this album is definitely our most intentional, and I think a lot of that has to do with the time afforded by the shutdown and the pandemic. Because for the longest time, we’ve always fancied ourselves a live band; all of our practices had always been geared towards getting ready for the next tour or performance, and when all of that was taken away from us, we were just like, well, let’s focus on writing. Let’s focus on jamming and craft something. And once we started seeing the beginning fruits of like, oh shit, these are some of the best songs we’ve ever written, I think it just inspired and encouraged us to go harder and harder.

    RB: Yeah. The whole collaborative aspect of the Zells is really special to me. I mean, I love Alex G, I’m not blaming Alex G for this, but I think since the advent of artists like Alex G, this whole idea of the the prolific songwriter, it’s like every band is just one person’s project and you get this cast of musicians – that’s really great, but what we do is way different. Everybody has an equal stake in it. It’s way more egalitarian, it’s way more community-focused within ourselves. But to speak on the intentionality piece, it always kind of felt like we’ve been playing catch-up – a lot of our contemporaries had a lot more time and space, maybe during their college years or something like that, just had to go to  a class and then could hang out and write songs. But we’ve always been hustling a lot, working full-time since we were 19 and people taking on school. And I think that having the time to slow down, it really made us be more trusting of one another. That exchange between [the live audience] and you has been important part of the writing process for us, so this time that was completely inverted, and we just had to trust each other and trust what we thought.

    While your first album, Failure to Slide, blended garage rock with elements of shoegaze and dream pop, Ant Farm ventures further into new terriroty – from heavier moments like ‘Payday’ and ‘Hell Car’ to acoustic tracks like ‘The Upside’ and ‘Call It Early’. Would you say that variety is a result of your collective influences more into the fold and your collaborative process becoming more open? Or do you think that had already been achieved, and you were just able to dive in more freely?

    FD: I think we’d always been trying to interweave this broad plethora of different sounds into what is the sound of the Zells. I know none of us really think about genre when it comes the writing part of this band, we just kind of try to write and service the idea we’re trying to communicate before we stylize it and make it present itself in any one way or the other. But I think a lot of what we achieved with this album was due to the fact that this was the first time we’d ever as a band gone into a proper studio situation and recorded the right proper way. We did I think seven days straight – before, any other recording situation has always been like, we’ll track a little bit here, then we all gotta go work for a couple of weeks and we’ll come back and sizzle out a little bit. And I think because we were able to fully immerse ourselves in the recording process as well as have all of the instruments and tools around us to bring these different ideas to life, we felt confident to take risks.

    RB: I think the scene that we found ourselves situated in both here in Pittsburgh and more broadly in the Mid Atlantic and Midwest and East Coast, we’ve just been so fortunate to  become really close with so many really talented artists working in so many different genres. In Pittsburgh right now, there’s no one defined sound, but there’s so many bands – there’s great shoegaze bands, hardcore bands, garage rock, psych rock, you name it. So I think being in proximity to all these different sorts of influences – and hanging out, you know, having the balance of maintaining what we have here as the Zells within our friendship and our band, but also putting ourselves in positions where we’re hanging out with a lot of other musicians and jamming with other musicians and learning more from everybody. I feel like we’ve just become a part of a real community here. And to me, songwriting is a process of synthesis, so I think we’ve had a lot of influences to bring together here.

    JR: RJ Gordon, who produced the album, he was in the band Baked, and I remember specifically him telling me about their first album being like a little indie record, and then they came in the studio to record their second album and they wanted to do a big rock record. And I remember being inundated with that idea when we were recording it, of: This isn’t a little project. We’re making a big rock record. I think some of the variety and the styles of the songs, it was somewhat intentional in that we were trying to create this big world, we wanted to create the dips and valleys. Like Frank said, the way that we went into recording the album was really conducive to creating this giant sound spectrum.

    You talked about the importance of community within your own band and also outside of the group with various local scenes, but did it ever feel daunting to bring other people into the process for this record?

    JR: I felt so natural about it. When when we went to record this in New York, I think there was nerves about this initially, but all of the people on the record are just so similar to our friends. They fit right into our group immediately. The spirit of collaboration just grew increasingly as the week went on, and I felt like it was only additive. I didn’t ever feel pressure from that.

    FD: Yeah, I definitely agree. I feel like all the people we’ve had on this record, like RJ, Jordan, Davey, Adam Reich, we were friends with them for a good bit and had played shows with these guys before we had even conceived of being able to go into Second Base studios and record this album, or even conceived of these songs. But these guys are  honestly the people that inspired me to think about ways to create sounds and to be a performer and a musician and a writer. It just felt really cool that when we initially asked all these people to be a part of this whole recording process, everybody was very enthusiastic about coming on board.

    It sounds like a very positive and exciting atmosphere to be a part of, which kind of comes into contrast with one thing I wanted to ask about the album thematically. I feel like there’s an undercurrent of nihilism running throughout, even though there’s always some sort of release coming through the arrangements that brings a different energy to it. But I was wondering, since you do have some distance from the material now, has your perspective changed at all? Is there something that makes you feel more hopeful about the world or yourselves? 

    RB: I think for us, this whole album is really an active process. And that’s not just in terms of the music we’re recording, but also the thoughts, feelings and emotions that we’ve been processing over the last three years. So I think that a lot of that nihilism and some of the anger and confusion and frustration that comes out in a lot of these songs, that’s just kind of what we were going through. We were writing these right as the pandemic started happening, at a time where things just felt so unbelievably uncertain and so ill-defined. And I think that a lot of these songs really try to drive at that feeling of ennui. Like, when you actually step back for a moment and you’re like, “Holy shit, what am I doing here?” [laughs] Like, “What is all of this?” I don’t think that feeling has left, quite frankly. I think in some ways, at least for me personally, that’s a backbeat to what makes me yearn to continue to create and write and tell stories and listen to stories.

    But I think we did try to structure the album in such a way where it serves as a process of self-discovery, and learning that trying to play the victim or trying to play the martyr in any situation is never gonna get you where you want to be. You know, you need to own up to your situation. You need to be ready to ask for help, be ready to step up, be ready to step back – do whatever it is that you need to do to work your own process. I always felt like the defining moment of the album is in ‘Suffer and Toil’ when Frank’s like, “Grew a spine so I can chase what’s right.” Like, I can process this weird complexity and still learn to live within it, and know that, even though it’s going to be challenging and I feel like it’s really in my face a lot of the time, I have what I need – I have the support system that I need, I have the coping skills I need, and the resilience.

    JR: Yeah, I feel like that is the conclusion to the album, too. Specifically with ‘Hard Reset’, it’s like, if I derive hopefulness from this, it’s kind of at the end – all of this stuff is going on and I’m depressed or feeling whatever, but at the end of the day, it’s my own responsibility. It’s my own cross to bear to do these things. I feel hope in that sentiment that, no matter what negativity you’re feeling about the world, if you finally hunker down to what that is and take it on, there is hope to be derived from that. So, as much as the negative is touched on in this album, I do feel hopeful about it in some weird sense. It’s harder to quantify than I thought. 

    FD: I don’t know if I necessarily agree with the idea of nihilism. I’d say more of an honest accounting of the world around us. I would hope that our art doesn’t necessarily have the impression that there’s nothing to be done about it or there’s to care about. I feel like it’s a lot of just taking an honest account of this sunken, deeply damaged world that we all find ourselves existing in.

    RB: Which is nihilistic in a way, but yeah.

    FD: But trying to find a way to move forward in spite of these things that are making me emotionally react in the way that these songs are describing. And honestly, as far as have things changed, my honest estimation is that the world has kind of gone a lot worse. [laughs] I don’t think that any of these problems have been alleviated or fixed in anyway whatsoever. But it’s still our duty as humans, people, creators, communicators, to just keep interpreting what is going on in the world and still looking for a way to move forward and not accepting this giant plate of bullshit that we’ve been given and told is just the baseline for modern living.

    Is there anything that we didn’t talk about that you’d like to add?

    RB: I just wanted to shoutout and thank both Eric Bennett, our publicist, and Connor Murray from Crafted Sounds. They’re both really good friends of ours. Eric has only entered this publicist role recently for us, but they’ve been a part of our community and our friend group. And Connor as well, they’ve just done so much to really help expand the scene. I’m just really grateful to everybody beyond the five of us who helped make this happen.

    FD: Shoutout to RJ Gordon at that, too. This album wouldn’t sound the way it does without his ability to create a permissible atmosphere for us to completely explore our creativity. A lot of credit needs to go to that man for this album.

    This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.

    The Zells’ Ant Farm is out June 3 via Crafted Sounds.

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