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ZOX - Interview

  by Lisa Torem

published: 20 / 3 / 2011

ZOX - Interview


Currently in hiatus Rhode Island quartet Zox were renowned for their unique brand of classical music, rock, reggae and ska, and played supportslots to the Black Eyed Peas, Gogol Bordello and Flogging Molly. Lisa Torem speaks to them about their three albums and exuberant live shows

John Zox (drums), Eli Miller (guitar, vocals), Spencer Swain (violin, vocals) and Dan Edinberg (bass, vocals) make up the Rhode Island quartet Zox. Initially, the energetic college students (two had met at Brown University) set forth on an ambitious 300-show-a-year tour across the U.S. and Europe in 2003 after their debut 'Take Me Home' was released. Their inimitable style, which draws from classical, rock, reggae and ska have allowed them to open for diverse headliners such as the Black Eyed Peas, Gogol Bordello, Flogging Molly, Medeski, Martin and Wood and even, Chicago rapper Lupe Fiasco. Their ambitious touring continued throughout 2008 resulting in sales of 50,000 albums. Their follow-up, 'The Wait' (2005), appeared in the Billboard Magazine Internet Album Charts, wedged between the Black Eyed Peas and Coldplay at number seven. The single, ‘Can’t Look Down’ found its way to MTV’s 'The Real World: Key West', and in the ski film 'Snow Gods'. 'The Wait' was re-released on SideOneDummy Records in 2006. That year they also headlined at Austin, Texas for the annual South by Southwest Festival Extensive touring continued that summer and included performances at the Warped Tour, Reading and Leeds, Italy’s Rock the Week and Switzerland’s Greenfield Fest. Their third album, 'Line in the Sand', released two years later was produced by John Goodmanson (Death Cab for Cutie); ‘Goodnight’, a single from that project, receives consistent national airplay. The chief songwriter and vocalist, Eli Miller, approaches lyricism without a net; the stories dissolve deeply below the surface. The band fills in thrilling harmonies, and with each album a great deal of growth is illustrated. A You Tube video shows a live crowd enjoying their homegrown interpretations, cushioned by the sweltering, electric violin of Spencer Swain. The arrangements are so complex, yet palpable, that you absolutely feel that you are there… Luckily, not one, but three Zox band members jumped into this Pennyblackmusic interview. PB: Spencer Swain’s electric violin and the primal songwriting sets Zox apart from many other contemporary American bands. How did the band form, and build its sound, given that so many other bands use a standard guitar, bass drums combination? EM: My college roommate was a classical violin player and we got to jamming around the dorm. People just reacted so strongly to the sound of a violin incorporated into rock music that we decided to look for another violinist when we finished school and tried to make a go of it. Spencer answered an ad in the paper that said: "Violinist wanted. Must love punk and reggae music." PB: On your debut album, 'Take Me Home', Zox engaged in jagged instrumentals, such as in ‘Butterfly.’ How do you keep the songwriting solid even when the arrangements often have a mind of their own? EM: I always wrote the songs - or at least the lyrics and basic chord structure - on an acoustic guitar before the band got together to develop the instrumentals. I think this meant that we had to feel good about the songwriting in addition to whatever we were exploring instrumentally - a song that can't hold up if it's just played on a guitar by a campfire probably isn't a very good song. PB: The lyrics in ‘I Am Only Waiting’ begin with “Every day’s an endless dream, traffic lights and gasoline.” Finally, we hear, “I am only waiting for someone to break my heart.” By the time, 'The Wait', the album on which it appeared, was released, the feelings articulated are pretty raw. Are these feelings ever difficult to write about? EM: They can be difficult to write about, but mostly I've found writing about raw, honest emotion very cathartic. There's little more satisfying than writing a song you think genuinely captures the way you are feeling - it's like you get to take all that baggage and leave it behind you. For me, a song like 'I Am Only Waiting' still seems to get at the way I felt on the day I wrote it - and I can remember the whole experience very vividly because we were staying at a friend's house in Burlington, Vermont and I was playing this old, tuneless piano and it was snowing outside and the song came out pretty naturally, like all the best ones do - so it remains a kind of snapshot for me that I really treasure, even if the feelings expressed are sad. PB: ‘Better If It’s Worse’illustrates more hitting rock bottom; the percussion goes crazy, the strings reach a fever pitch and there is the lyric of “This is the place where hearts get undone…” ‘Fallen’ has throaty bass, Dan, and, Eli; you are left to pick up the pieces, even though the sweeping harmonies are shared by all. What was going on with the band at this point? EM: Both of those songs went through probably five or six different iterations before we settled on the versions that made it onto the record. In a way, I think they were the two best instrumentals we recorded, because we decided the earlier arrangements didn't reflect the feeling in the lyrics, but we kept on trucking until we landed on something that seemed more complete. If at once you don't succeed... PB: ‘Line in the Sand’ was produced by John Goodmanson. His CV includes a diverse range of artists such as Wu-Tang Clan, the Posies and Death Cab for Cutie. Goodmanson, also a musician, is known for pushing his clients artistically. What was the production experience like? Did you all participate in the process? DE: We all definitely participated in the process. John is great to work with that way, he was very open to us all trying out ideas, and helping us bring them to life. It was a great learning experience for us. Now a few members of Zox are great producers in their own right. PB: Also, around that time, film director/writer Michael Moore used your songs, ‘Carolyn’ and ‘I’m not Gonna Save You’ for his documentary 'Slacker'. What do you think attracted Moore to these songs and, given that he is a controversial character, did you have mixed feelings about licensing your music to him for his work? Do your politics match up and do you feel these songs helped move the story along? DE: Moore and us have a mutual friend, the director Jason Pollock, who made this possible. We were thrilled to have our music in this film. Whether or not you agree with him politically, it's undeniable that Moore is an excellent filmmaker, and that fact is what really made us perk at the possibility of having our music associated with him. PB: Zox has played a number of European fests; The Reading and Leeds Festival, Italy’s Rock the Week, and Switzerland’s Greenfield. Where was audience response the greatest and how do these fests compare to the homegrown experience? DE: We don't want to be too harsh to our home continent, but European festivals blow USA festivals out of the water. Audiences in Europe are more open to hearing new things in general, and we felt an immediate connection everywhere we played. We have to give the German festivals a particular props for keeping things so well organized. Festivals can get quite chaotic! But if we had to pick one performance to put above the rest it'd have to be Reading Festival. That took place on our first trip to Europe and we were pleasantly surprised at the turnout for our set there. PB: Zox plays a riveting version of the classic, ‘Pachelbel’s Canon.’ Your tune, ‘Thirsty’ also relies on a virtuosic violin introduction. What is Spencer’s training? Why did you choose ‘Pachelbel’s Canon’ as a showpiece and would you consider arranging other classical pieces? Do you think your audiences were familiar with the piece before hearing your version? J): Spencer was always the band’s secret weapon – a conservatory-trained classical violinist, and natural performer, who’s into Iron Maiden and Faith No More. Unsurprisingly, his style and aesthetic tended to bring the eclecticism of our songwriting to a new level. ‘Pachelbel’s Canon’ was really the first song that led us to this realization. We were playing simple songs like this when the band first started--simply to fill up time in our set--a survival tactic for a young band that only had a handful of originals but had to play for two hours. It was an instant crowd-pleaser, as any good cover song usually is, and Spencer managed to turn it from a light-hearted tune to a rocking anthem. Once we began adding more original material to our repertoire, this and other classical pieces—essentially cover songs—became less important to us artistically. PB: The band has explored reggae, ska, classical and rock. Which composers or bands originally influenced the Zox sound? Have the influences changed since the onset of the band’s formation? DE: When Zox first formed a lot of the primary influences were west coast punk and ska. Bands like Sublime and Operation Ivy were crucial. Also, the Old 97s for sure. Then we started incorporating a wider array- The Cure, the Pixies, and the Police became paramount in our sound as we progressed. PB: The video for ‘Line in the Sand’ is very natural and light-hearted, while so many videos are sensationalistic. What’s the back-story on this video and will you create more? JZ: The band was in L.A. for a few days to shoot the video for 'Goodnight', when we became aware that an old friend at USC film school was interested and available in helping create a video for the album’s second single 'Line in the Sand'. He’d get university credit, we’d get a free video, how could one resist? Literally a day before the shoot, myself and the director brainstormed concepts and ultimately decided upon the band-as-mice idea; truthfully, the determining factor was that the band’s minimal presence in the video, critical considering we only had one day to shoot. The 75% of the video we are not in, thus, could be shot without the band, long gone back on the East Coast. We currently have no plan to create more videos, since no tour or new album is in the pipeline. But you never know… PB: What’s in the future for Zox? DE: Zox is on hiatus for the foreseeable future. It was a very amicable decision- we still do the occasional reunion show. A few of the band members wanted to pursue non-music-related interests- Eli is getting his law degree, John, his business degree. Spencer and Dan have continued their musical careers- Spencer plays guitar and violin in two great Providence RI bands: Denomvenom and Brown Bird. Dan's new group the Stepkids just signed a record deal with Stones Throw Records, and will be releasing their debut self-titled LP worldwide in September. PB: Thank you.

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ZOX - Interview

ZOX - Interview

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