When Zao emerged in 1995 it’s fair to say that they sounded like no-one else. Combining the complexities, extreme vocal style and guitar brutality of death metal with the attitude and aggression of hardcore punk, their “metalcore” sound was truly trailblazing. Over the years Zao released many albums, continually adding genre-bending elements to their sound.
However, it is only in the past couple of years that their influence on the currently in vogue metalcore scene has begun to be acknowledged.
musicOMH caught up with guitarist Scott Mellinger on one of the band’s rare trips to London to learn why people are only just beginning to find out who Zao are…
Most bands suffer the upheaval of a line-up change at some point in their lives. In Zao’s case, their line-up history reads more like a soap opera. To date they’ve had four different vocalists, six guitarists (for two slots), four bassists and two drummers! In fact when drummer Jesse Smith left in 2003, it meant that Zao had no original members left.
Sitting in what seems like the cloakroom of a small London club, I put to guitarist Scott Mellinger (a relative old-hand, having joined early in 1999) the not-exactly-esoteric theory that one of the reasons they may not be household names is due to their historical lack of stability. Unsurprisingly, he agrees:
“Yeah, that would definitely be a big part of it… Jesse Smith would kind of lose heart every two years. Once we started to get momentum he would be like, ‘I don’t want to do this,’ and then we’d slow down and not tour for a long time. I think that hurt the band a lot and I think that if we had been – for the last four years – strong and on the road, it would have been a lot better for us.”
“I think that if we had been – for the last four years – strong and on the road, it would have been a lot better for us.” – Zao guitarist Scott Mellinger on how continual line-up changes have kept them a cult entity.
Scott is gracious about Smith (“he was married with children and when you do this lifestyle I can understand why you would get discouraged”) but goes on to admit that after the threat of Smith walking away for the umpteenth time, he, Dan Weyandt (vocals; first joined 1997) and Russ Cogdell (guitar; first joined 1997) decided to call his bluff:
“We finally got sick of it and we just got to a point where we were, like, if we’re going to do this, the only way it’s really going to work is if we get people in it who are as heartfelt about it as us. It was almost a mutual thing ‘cos Jessie was saying, ‘I don’t want to do it any more,’ and we were saying, ‘This is the last time we are going to play this game with you.'”
With Smith leaving, the remaining trio recruited Shawn Koschik on bass and Stephen Peck on drums. Scott is adamant that they’ll be no more musician-swapping:
“This line-up’s it! Yeah, it’s definite, straight, no more messing around.”
This will come as a relief to most fans, particularly as The Funeral Of God – their first for respected hardcore label Ferret after many years on the independent Solid State – is being hailed by many as a masterpiece. Scott explains that being on a higher profile record label is another key factor in helping Zao progress from anonymity:
“With the band changing, we wanted everything new and just wanted to have that new breath. Going on Ferret definitely gave us that. No words can describe how happy we are with it. They are really hands-on. We have been friends with the President for a long time, so it’s almost like we just joined another family and we’re in this big group and everybody is working together… We’re really, really, really excited!”
“This line-up’s it! Yeah, it’s definite, straight, no more messing around.” – Scott Mellinger is adamant that Zao finally have a stable cast.
If a revolving cast of musicians and being on an indie label with limited resources didn’t help Zao, then the fact that they were perceived as a “Christian band” probably crucified them, with people of all spiritual persuasions ready to bang in the nails:
“We got more scrutiny on the Christian side, in the US especially… There are Christians who say you’re not Christian ‘enough’ for them and then there are people who are completely anti-Christian and might not give you a chance… It does put you in a rough place.”
As with other Zao releases, The Funeral Of God deals with what people might see as “religious” subject matter, since it based around the hypothetical concept of God turning His back on the world in response to the world having turned its back on Him. However, Scott is keen to stress that the lyrical theme is broader than people might think:
“When you read into it a little more I think it can pertain to anybody and I’m hoping people finally grasp the fact that it doesn’t have to be a Christian thing – it’s for anybody in general. There’s a quote on the record where it says about people taking everything for granted. I think THAT’S the bigger message of the record. You know, whether you believe in God or not, there is always a hope that even when you are close to death there might be something there… I mean, I know people who have never ever believed in God and they have something tragically happen to them and they go, ‘Please God, if You are there, help me.’ What would it feel like if even THAT was gone?”
“That’s what hardcore is all about – that ethic that you’re doing it yourself and you’re killing yourself to do it because you love it.” – Scott Mellinger on Zao’s heavy metal music but hardcore punk philosophy.
Despite this, if you log on to certain hardcore message boards, it won’t take long for you to find abuse aimed at Zao simply because of their spiritual connections, usually from hardcore followers displaying at least as much dogma, intolerance and fanaticism as any of the “religious” people they rail against. Scott is not especially bothered, as he expands:
“When I was 18 or 19 that was my life – I mean I loved hardcore and I went to every hardcore show I could and you live it, breathe it and eat it. But now, growing up and stuff… It’s kind of weird – I, personally, don’t see any hardcore in us musically. I see more metal than hardcore. But I do see the hardcore ethic in us because we are playing smaller clubs and we’re doing it in vans, and that’s what hardcore is all about – that ethic that you’re doing it yourself and you’re killing yourself to do it because you love it.”
It turns out that Scott’s definition of “loving it” covers more than just playing music, for as our time ends and Zao’s press lady outlines other appointments that day, he practically begs to do the interviews declaring that he “loves talking to people!”
Believe me when I tell you that for a rock musician, that’s refreshingly keen. But then Zao simply aren’t like other bands…