Zoners Keep It Personal: A Brief History


Matt McCalvin has been at this long enough to know what he wants. I mean this in terms of his band’s sound and overall musical direction (more on that in a minute), but what he really wants right now are steak tacos at Elmyr. The scruffy-beared frontman of Zoners is feeling the effects of a long night and too much drinking, but he’s in good spirits. CMJ has just agreed to premiere “Take It Back,” a track from the band’s new split 7-inch with fellow punks Onchi, and it feels like a bit of validation for some of the decisions he’s made in the past. After all, there’s knowing what you want and then there’s the actual reality of going after it.

If McCalvin wanted a steadier gig or easier access to accolades, he would’ve remained with Gringo Star, the band he helped form in 2008 and with whom he achieved a good deal of success. Not only did the group’s self-released debut, All Y’all, earn them considerable critical acclaim, but it also led to tours of the U.S. and Europe with the likes of …And You Will Know Us By the Trail of Dead and the Black Lips. But after nearly four years of grinding it out with the local psych-rockers, McCalvin had had enough. “It’s was getting kind of repetitive,” he confesses while sipping on a bottle of Miller High Life. “And it really wasn’t my band. I mean, I played a big part and we were all in it together, but it wasn’t for me.”

So McCalvin left the group and focused his attention on Mermaids, a musically ambitious but short-lived group that managed to temporarily reinvigorate Atlanta’s waning garage rock scene by injecting it with traces of ’60s pop and doo-wop. But while the band wrote some solid tunes, they couldn’t survive their own internal conflicts. “People break up. People get in fights,” McCalvin explains with a shrug. “We were young and drunk stupid kids. Mermaids were losing people left and right, so I ended it.”

Next came a short stint playing drums in Dinos Boys. Playing in the band was fun, but the group rarely practiced and drums weren’t exactly his instrument of choice (“I’m really a bass player at heart,” McCalvin confides). It wasn’t long before he began to feel stagnant and decided to break away in order to work on his own songs. It during this time that he first began to sketch out the musical framework for Zoners. What he wanted was something loud, bold and intricate — a raw mix of slashing, garage-infused rock and Euro synth-punk with some psychedelic overtones thrown in for good measure. Working from his home studio, McCalvin put together several rough demos and shared the songs with his friend Ryan Davis, who eagerly jumped aboard.

The band struggled early to get its footing, stumbling through two or three lineup changes while McCalvin searched for the right vibe. On July 4, 2013, Zoners made their live debut and quickly developed a reputation as a killer live act leading to opening slots for the likes of Speedy Ortiz, Diarrhea Planet and the Coathangers. But despite their fast ascension through the local ranks, it wasn’t until the group settled into its current incarnation — Matt McCalvin (vocals/guitar/synths), Ryan Davis (vocals/synths/guitar), Phillip Jagger (drums), Wes Duvall (bass) and Chad LeBlanc (guitar) — that McCalvin felt like he had found exactly what he wanted in the band.

”It’s the strongest lineup I could possibly ask for. They’re all my buddies and everyone is musically proficient. It was important to me that I didn’t just recreate a band that I had already been in. I bring in a lot of my influences, but they help me flesh it out. They add a lot of layers and color to it. It wouldn’t be Zoners without them.”

Davis, who has just gotten off work and joined us mid-interview, chimes in: “You never want to be in a box, but it’s important that you have a vibe. There’s a general sense of what’s right for us and you can just hear it when it clicks.”

And while the group’s debut split with Onchi, released this Tuesday, isn’t the work of that exact lineup (the tracks were recorded before Jagger joined the band), the record does offer the mix of raw aggression and catchy accessibility that McCalvin has been searching for. Of the two tracks, “Take It Back” is the more infectious while “X2 Vision” is more abrasive and chaotic. Together they provide a rough spectrum of what the band is capable of, delivered with something close to their live intensity. This is no accident.

“We spent $1200 dollars in the studio, and it sounded good,” Davis reveals, “but it wasn’t raw enough. It wasn’t the sound we wanted the record to have.”

Zoners quoteSo McCalvin decided to take over the recording process and do everything on their own. This included not handling production duties, but also releasing it on their own imprint, Destroy Music. According to McCalvin, taking over the life of the record was critical to the band’s development.

“Music is represented by a particular sound,” he says. “That’s why it’s important that I record all of our own music. So I know it’s coming from me. The details need to be right and I think that a lot of studio people are afraid to push things further. There’s just something about recording it on your own, at your house. It’s much more personal, and I think people, when they listen to it, they can understand that. They can feel that.”

With their lineup solidified and a new record in tow, Zoners are set to make some significant forward strides. Plans for the future include touring as much as possible while continuing work on their upcoming full length, Chill ‘Em All, due out later this year. The title and cover art are an obvious play on Metallica’s classic debut, Kill ‘Em All, but it’s also a reminder to never take themselves too seriously.

“If you can’t laugh at yourself,” McCalvin argues, “then you can’t laugh at the world. And the world is absurd.”

For his part, Davis agrees. “Performing is about putting yourself out there in front of a ton of people. If you take yourself too seriously, you’re going to be disappointed.”

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