Had things gone smoothly for Zebras, the band's new, self-titled album just wouldn't be the same.
Since starting the Madison band in 2007, guitarist-vocalist Vincent Presley and synth player Lacey Smith have lost one fine drummer and gained another. In between, they recruited members of Milwaukee's IfIHadAHiFi for a 2011 tour and recorded a cover of a song by their Madison spaz-rock ancestors Transformer Lootbag.
Zebras' second side, recorded in 2009 with former drummer Shawn Pierce, bears the post-punk rhythms and squiggly guitar riffs of Zebras' original sound. The first side, recorded last fall, finds Presley and Smith tilting more toward metal. On drums is Shane Hochstetler of the great Milwaukee band Call Me Lighting. Hochstetler also records Zebras at his Howl Street Studios and plays his first show with the band on June 16 at Mickey's Tavern.
During this erratic process, Presley heard from several labels that liked the album but wouldn't release it for one reason or another. Zebras' merch table once included a sign quoting a flattering rejection from Jello Biafra, of Dead Kennedys and the Alternative Tentacles label: "I like it quite a bit."
What didn't change is Zebras' acerbic pessimism and sneering humor. On vinyl, the sides of Zebras have subtitles: The Fate of a World Plagued By Soulless Shits (the 2009 sessions) and Impending Doom (the 2011 recordings).
"I feel like the earlier side of the recording is kind of how shit's getting bad, and the latest one is kind of like, 'We're fucked,'" Smith says, with a shy laugh. On opening track "The Dying Sea," Presley says he's singing about "actual stuff," like oxygen depletion in polluted oceans.
"As opposed to your paranoid delusions," says Smith.
The foreboding is more fun when Smith's Moog challenges Presley's guitar, firing angry noise streaks across "Mighty Bayonet" and "Black Cancer."
"I used to try to do more weird noises," Smith says. "Now I'm just into having it be as sludgy and thick-sounding as possible." That complements another big change for the better, Presley's heavier and fuller guitar tone.
There's even some change in Zebras' most striking element, Presley's voice. A deeper edge comes into his usual high-pitched, frantic chattering. When he howls "oh, good God!" on the chorus of "Black Cancer," there's almost a note of triumph, as if a scrawny, angry kid finally landed his first real punch.
"I never thought my singing was that weird," Presley says. "Apparently everyone else did."
The change in drummers has changed Zebras' sound. "[Pierce] is a great drummer," Presley says of his former bandmate. "He really likes doing prog-y stuff, but I don't know about the more metal-y songs." Since leaving Zebras, Pierce has played cheeky soul with Surgeons in Heat and folk with Pioneer.
When Hochstetler took over drums, he refused to listen to demos of drum parts Presley had recorded. As a member of Call Me Lightning, Hochstetler never holds straightforward beats. On that band's When I Am Gone My Blood Will Be Free (2010), it's hard to imagine the songs' vocal melodies or guitar parts without the drums, because Hochstetler plays up alongside them, not just supporting them from behind.
Which isn't to discredit Pierce. He gave Zebras' first incarnation a lot of its tension. On the new album's "The Dirty Dice," he balances post-punk's hostile twitch with happy-go-lucky, nearly straightforward punk. It's one of the album's more confrontational songs. Presley says it's about an unnamed person who tried to slip date-rape drugs to his friend at the Paradise Lounge.
Then there's "Queeny Doom Gloom," on which Presley directs his irascible mockery toward himself, and his tendency to air his frustrations about music and everything else.
"I'm just sort of known around town as a negative Nelly," he says.