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."

Nowhere is this more evident than in a new song the band is practicing called "Supermarket Radio." Rich and densely layered with grooves, the song is liable to remind one of a dozen different groups or genres of music, without really sounding quite like anything you've heard before.

Listening to the band describe the song is almost as much fun as hearing them play it -- and certainly, it's just as challenging to keep up. "It's basically about the music you hear on the supermarket radio," begins Ray, who works at Rainbow Grocery. "It's about an old star who ends up in Vegas. I went to Community Thrift and got all these Engelbert Humperdinck albums, all this cheesy stuff, and then I went over to Sean's, and we sampled the stuff and got it on the keyboard. So then Sean hops on the bass, while Mark is on the keyboard, the Chaos Pad, he's coming up with where to put it -- "

"Then Tracy jumps on guitar," adds Frischman.

"No -- I'm on violin," says Hankins, "but I'm on your rig with a delay."

"See," says Snider, "since he was on the keyboard, she went and plugged her violin into his guitar effects."

"I had a whole new set of pedals to work with," says Hankins, "and it actually opened up a whole new set of sounds on the violin."

"Sean puts in this rippin', Black Sabbath kind of bass part," says Ray, "and they go off each other, and then we have a long jam and I put on the wah-wah thing, and so it turns into a disco groove -- "

"And the idea," concludes Frischman, "is that it would not quite be right, but it would have this reference to kind of like Muzak and to bad '80s disco. But at the same time, no one who hears the song is ever going to recognize it as Muzak samples."

"Let's hope not," says Snider.

The product of this sort of open collaboration is a song that starts out, true to form, with a Curtis Mayfield-like groove, spurred by Dorn's bass and Snider snapping on the high-hat cymbal; Ray introduces an atmospheric guitar riff, and suddenly the song explodes into a dense, vintage Pavement-like cacophony, as Ray belts out the lyrics in his distinct, nasal voice.

The collaboration also produced a debut album that, despite being recorded in bits and pieces over two-plus years by Goldring in San Francisco and Myles Boisen in the East Bay, sounds remarkably cohesive, even as it ranges from the quirky, pretty ballad "Fantasy" to the high-powered country rawk of "Wonderland" and "Hiptown" to the utterly indescribable "Psychedelic Bluegrass." Ray says the band has had some indie label interest, but remains unsigned for now.

Asked how he deals with Zmrzlina's unique approach as a producer, Goldring says, "First thing is to try and stop everybody talking at once, so I can actually find out what they're going on about. They're excitable but everybody in that band has something they're really good at. You know, Sean is brilliant -- you could put some weird analog synthesizer in front of him, and in a matter of seconds he's come up with some brilliant part. And everybody has their roles.

"I like dealing with them," he adds, "'cause their music's quite skewed. I can't use my regular aesthetic for dealing with rock music that I'm used to dealing with in the studio. It's exciting, it's definitely not like any other band I've had to deal with. It's a wrestling match, you know? But not an unpleasant one."

The open, collaborative spirit of Zmrzlina extends to the music community as a whole. Not only does the group delight in writing songs about its favorite local bands, like Fantasy and 50 Million, but it also frequently works with members of other bands and organizes thematic shows. When Ray read about the impending eviction of the St. John Will-I-Am Coltrane African Orthodox Church in SF Weekly, he immediately set about organizing a benefit concert, which will be held March 15 at Bimbo's, featuring the Broun Fellinis and the Coltrane church band.

While he laments the closing of clubs such as Star Cleaners and the Chameleon, and admits that the current situation in the Mission is "disheartening," Ray says, "At least we're trying. There's something I started called the Mission Creek Music Festival, and it happens every year at El Rio." The festival, which will be in June this year depending on the band's tour schedule, pulls in musicians of every sort, most of whom live in the Mission, like Carney, Beth Lisick, Virginia Dare, and Tom Armstrong. "The festival has become a big annual event for musicians in the Mission," says Frischman. "It unifies the community. It's like a music community event."

That's rare enough in a town that increasingly seems more likely to host a Web designers' convention than a music festival. But that's the kind of band Zmrzlina is -- sincere, optimistic, and, as Carney says, mixing the ice cream metaphor somewhat, "like Almond Joy -- indescribably delicious."

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