Perfectly Weird

Happily, Zmrzlina's members aren't sure what their own music sounds like

At a pair of shows the last weekend in January, local quintet Zmrzlina demonstrated an unusual -- some might say downright weird -- versatility that few bands can convincingly pull off. At a punk-oriented show at the Mission's Tip Top Inn -- sandwiched between 50 Million and Me First & the Gimme Gimmes -- the band played appropriately loud, fast, and somewhat out of control, and fit right in. The next night, at Polk Street's Kimo's, they dabbed on a little eyeliner, rearranged their set list, and headlined a dreamy glam-pop evening with Troll and Warm Wires. They were playing the same songs, but streamlined and slightly toned down, and once again, they fit right in.

Given the band members' eclectic tastes, with a little tweaking they could play an improv jazz show; stripped down to basics, lead singer and guitarist Jeff Ray's quirky, personal songs would be appreciated by the singer/songwriter set for their simple beauty. Though the band has only one self-titled album out and another set for release in March, it's been compared to everyone from the Velvet Underground to X to Sonic Youth. And while all of those sounds are in there, in conversation band members do nothing to narrow the scope of their influences, both apparent and otherwise. In fact, they only broaden.

"When we first started," says Ray, "I put up a flier that said our influences were the Fall, Mekons, Sebadoh, stuff like that. And I was really into Elliot Sharp and Shockabilly, Eugene Chadbourne, Fred Frith, and all those people that really got caffeinated and played, but were still kind of acoustic and countryish to a degree." That was in 1993, when the core of the band consisted of Ray, guitarist/keyboardist Mark Frischman, and violinist/guitarist Tracy Hankins, all of whom shared an affinity for the musically weird. Other musicians and singers filtered through, among them local movement artist Dominique Zeltzman, who stayed long enough to give the band its name, which means "ice cream" in Czech. Drummer Heather Snider and bassist/keyboardist Sean Dorn joined in 1995, bringing a host of new influences to the already varied mix.

"When I started playing with these guys," says Dorn, "I had just stopped playing in a band called Bakamono, a high-volume kind of Sonic Youth-y, alternative guitar tunings, but definitely loud, rock band. And I could tell these guys had more of an affinity for country and new pop songs, but I knew you guys felt more like ... an off-kilter, post-punk kind of thing, like Beefheart." Snider, meanwhile, nearly leaps out of her seat when Elephant 6 bands Apples in Stereo and Olivia Tremor Control are mentioned. "I'm a huge Olivia Tremor Control fan," she says. "If it weren't for them I might be more discouraged as a musician. But when I see a band like that -- if Olivia Tremor Control can make it as far as they are, which is just that people nationally can somehow come across their music, and it's so whacked, that's just an inspiration to me. If those guys can do it, I think we can do it.

"A lot of it, too," she continues, "is we have very different -- not very different, in the bigger world of music we probably have very similar tastes -- but in certain fundamental ways we have very different styles, so there is this weird tension."

Joe Goldring, who plays in Touched by a Janitor and who produced most of Zmrzlina's first album and all of its new one at his Pigs Head Studio in the Mission, agrees with that assessment. "Those guys have a lot of ideas," he says. "There's five of them -- they all have very different ideas about what the band is about. They all come from very different places musically." It was just this sort of playfulness that attracted saxophonist Ralph Carney, frequent Tom Waits collaborator, to the band. Carney met Hankins because their children went to the same preschool, and she gave him a record. "Everybody gives me records and I hate them all," he says. "But I didn't hate [this]. It had an original sound, and it had that Beefheartian spirit that I like." Carney liked it so much, in fact, he wound up sitting in with the band at a couple of gigs, and will appear on at least one track on its new album.

"It was very loose," Carney says of playing with the band. "I mean, they had their stuff down. That's what I liked about it, they have their own logic to it, you know? It's like, wow! How do they rehearse this stuff? That's kind of my feeling on it, like, God, there's actual parts, but they sound totally crazy. And I dug that. It was a real rush."

The band rehearses in a dank, subdivided warehouse in the Mission that it shares with two other groups. Twice a week Zmrzlina gathers in a tiny, boarded-up room to work out the members' musical differences -- mostly by not trying too hard to reconcile them. "Basically," says Hankins, "Jeff will come in with this chord progression that he's written, some lyric ideas, and we all just come up with whatever we come up with. It's all trial and error. Sometimes it works perfectly, sometimes it doesn't work, sometimes it needs some fine-tuning. But because we have these different sensibilities and we all have freedom to write our own parts, it comes in whacked."

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