interview by Michael McCarthy
Although they’ve never been a household name like Blink-182 or Good Charlotte here in the States, Zebrahead, who’ve released a massive 12 albums during their 20 year career, are still a band that most fans of rap rock or punk rock would cite among their favorites. In Japan, however, they are indeed a household name. In fact, they’re one of the biggest American bands ever there. They’re also very popular in Europe. In the following interview, I chat with Ali Tabatabaee – the group’s rapper – about Zebrahead’s new album, Walk the Plank, the band’s Japanese popularity, and many other things. I also asked him a large number of random questions, since our readers keep telling us they like those best of all. If you’re reading this then chances are you’re already a Zebrahead fan, but if you aren’t please listen to their songs below and I’m sure they’ll win you over.
MM: I understand that with the new album you found the cover art before you were done making the album and shaped it around that. Can you give me some examples of things that you did to make the two fit together?
AT: How that went down was we had an artist that was designing different things from like possible poster ideas to t-shirt ideas and stuff like that and we were in the studio at the time and we were like halfway done with the album. So, half the songs were kind of done and the other half were still in the works where some lyrics and song ideas weren’t finalized yet. When we saw the artwork everybody really liked it and thought it was a cool direction. So, what we did was we incorporated the artwork throughout some of the songs. Like we have an instrumental song [“Under the Deep Blue Sea”] that we thought also felt like you were sinking into the bottom of the ocean and then we kind of named that song after that idea. And then some of the other songs still weren’t completely done with yet, so we incorporated some lyrics to tie in with the idea of Walk the Plank and the artwork.
MM: Walk the Plank was produced by Paul Miner and mixed by Kyle Black. Was this your first time working with them?
AT: Yeah. I mean, Paul, we had worked with him on a song called “Lock Jaw,” which we put on a split EP with a [Japanese] band called Man With A Mission. That was our first time working with Paul. Everything went so smoothly and we enjoyed not only working with him but he had great ideas. He’s a great musician. So, for me, a lot of producers that I work with have a hard time with my rap parts because they don’t listen to a lot of hip-hop or it’s out of their comfort zone maybe. And Paul is just great with everybody. He helped me out with some of my rap rhythms when he thought they could be stronger and he made suggestions. Very creative. He did that with everybody. So, we were so happy with the way the songs sounded and when we gave it to Kyle we felt like he stepped it up even more. It went from a 7 to a 9 with how the songs sounded. It was our first time for a full album with Paul and with Kyle it was our first time.
MM: Walk the Plank is your 12th album. Do you guys ever get writer’s block or has that just never been an issue for you?
AT: Oh, man, yeah, definitely. I feel like everybody who’s creative at some point gets blocked up. Fortunately, for us, because all five of us write the songs together, if one of us has writer’s block somebody else kind of takes initiative and pushes through and comes up with an idea until the other person is inspired or gets through the writer’s block. We’re fortunate. I don’t think it’s ever happened that all five of us had writer’s block at the same time.
MM: Are you always writing songs, like when you’re out on the road, or do you just write when it comes time to make an album?
AT: Usually, we write at home. We’ve always tried – I don’t remember the last song we wrote on the road – usually, often times, if I have a lyric idea while we’re traveling I’ll just jot it down and then when I get home we kind of work on the songs when we’re all at home. Everybody’s got Pro-Tools rigs at their houses and we bounce ideas off of each other even if we’re not together in the same spot.
MM: So, you guys all have home studios now? Did you record the album at one of them?
AT: No, you know, we do demos at home. We send each other demos and then once we feel like the songs are ready to work on together then we meet. We have a studio in Orange County in Fullerton where we kind of go through the songs until we feel like we can show them to Paul or whoever we’re working with. They come in and take notes and stuff and then we tweak the songs as much as we can until we actually go into the recording studio, which was Paul’s studio this time.
MM: What was the vibe like there?
AT: It was great, man. Like I said, he’s such a like creative person that he always makes you want to work harder and come up with, you know, different ideas and get out of your comfort zone. It was a very creative environment. It was good. Like you said, we’ve been doing this for quite a long time. It’s always great when someone comes in and gets you excited and inspires you to try something different.
MM: You just did two shows at Brooklyn’s Knitting Factory, one night billed as “the early years” and one night billed as “the later years.” What are some of the songs you did during the early years that you hadn’t done in a long time?
AT: We did songs like off the first album like “Check.” “Someday.” We did songs like “Get Back” – we hadn’t done in a while – “Now or Never” – we hadn’t done in a while. “Rated U for Ugly.” A lot of the songs actually. For us, the first night was pretty much all we practiced for because [with] most of the songs we had to remind ourselves how to play them.
MM: How did the show go?
AT: It was really cool, man. We didn’t know how it was gonna be. Obviously, the first night the crowd was a little bit older because the crowd has been around with us for a long time. They still went crazy. I wasn’t sure if they were gonna mosh and stuff. It was really fun, man. It was surprisingly fun. We’re gonna possibly do it again in, hopefully, Japan. We’re gonna try and set that up and then Europe and hopefully some places in the U.S. we can do it as well.
MM: I know you guys have done a lot of touring in Japan, and had top 10 albums, and released exclusive EPs there and stuff – are you more popular in Japan than here in the U.S.?
AT: Yeah, definitely. We’ve just been going there and touring there consistently for the last 20 years and we’ve been very fortunate. They play our videos on TV and put our songs on the radio and stuff and that helps tremendously. In the States, unfortunately, we haven’t been touring as much. Once you don’t tour as much people kind of forget about you. I think that’s what’s unfortunately happened in the U.S. but we would love to play more. We just have to make an effort to find tours that we can afford to do and try to get out there more.
MM: Have you ever done Warped Tour?
AT: Yeah. We’ve done Warped Tour I think two or three times. We did it initially when we started the band. Eminem was on there. Blink was on there. Kid Rock was on there. That was back in the day. And then we did it, I don’t know, ten years ago as well. But it’s been a while.
MM: Have you ever done any of those really crazy Japanese talk shows?
AT: Um, yeah, man. [Laughs] The ones that we’ve done – for whatever reason – it involves drinking and crazy like games, I guess they call them, they make us arm wrestle and, weird to me, Japanese games they explain to us and half the time I can’t tell if they’re fucking around with us or if these are real games. We had one we did this last time where we showed up on set for a TV thing and they had this house they had built and every room or wall was one album. Memorabilia from one album. It was Japanese style and we were sitting on this floor and the host was this pretty girl and she was going through all the questions and stuff. It’s just different. Every time we go there, I think, because we’ve been there so many times, they try to come up with different ideas and things to ask us.
MM: Do you think you guys will attempt to re-create that house here in the States?
AT: I don’t want to live there, you know? I’d just go visit there for a while.
MM: I know you used Pledge Music for your DVD Way More Beer not too long ago. Did you crowd fund the new album?
AT: No, we didn’t. The thing was, Pledge Music was a really great experience and we had talked about doing the crowd funding for Walk the Plank and we just fell behind on making the time table for that to happen. So, I wouldn’t deter anybody from doing it. It was a great experience. We just kind of slacked off on getting everything done in time to be able to do that this time.
MM: One of the things people could buy was a camera with photos taken by the band. Have you filled all those orders yet and what were some of the odd things you photographed?
AT: Yeah, we sent everything out. What was cool was we took the cameras with us on tour and we would throw them on the table so people could just grab them and take pictures of whatever they wanted to. Whoever was on the bus could grab one and do whatever on that day. To be honest with you, I don’t know what the weirdest thing was. I was pretty normal with mine because I always felt like if I got too weird some little girl was gonna order it and be like, what the hell. [Both laugh] I was pretty G-Rated with mine.
MM: Do you guys still live in the Orange County area of California or are you spread out over the country now?
AT: Um, we’re a little bit spread out. Matty. Matty Lewis. He lives in Nashville now. And I moved up to Pasadena, which isn’t far from Orange County. And then Dan lives in Whittier and then Ben and Ed still live in the Fullerton/Orange County area.
MM: I’m jealous of you now because I lived in Glendale for a few years and I loved Pasadena.
AT: You were right next door.
MM: It was cool because we’re I was in Glendale I could walk outside my apartment and literally take a bus in one direction and go to Pasadena down to Colorado Boulevard and Old Town and everything or take it in the other direction and go to Los Feliz or go further and go to Hollywood. So, it was really a nice central location.
AT: I was actually in Old Town like an hour ago.
MM: Sweet. I moved back to Massachusetts after living in Glendale for a few years due to health problems but things aren’t quite as bad now so I hope to move back out there.
AT: Oh, man, I’m glad you’re feeling better. You can’t beat the weather here. It’s so nice today.
MM: So, what are some of your favorite things to do in the Los Angeles area?
AT: You know, to be honest with you, we tour so much. Back in the day I’d always go down to Hollywood and check out bands and stuff playing. But lately when I’m at home I kind of just chill out, you know? If I’m home and a friend of mine has Laker tickets or something I love to go watch the Lakers play. That’s one of my favorite things to do. But, as boring as it sounds, we’ve been traveling so much lately that I just kind of chill out, man.
MM: You guys did an album of covers a while back that found you re-envisioning songs that were originally done by females. Whose idea was that concept?
AT: We had been discussing doing a covers album for a long time but we kind of felt like everything had been done before. We didn’t want to copy the same ideas. We’d always meet and someone would say I have an idea for a covers album and someone would say no, this person already did it. I think it was our drummer, Ed, who was like why don’t we just cover like girl pop songs. We have a rapper – that would be so weird to have a rapper and a guy singer. To be honest with you, we didn’t think we could pull it off. We thought we’d record a couple songs and it would sound really bad or whatever and we were gonna scrap it. We worked with our friend Jason Freese, who also plays keyboards in Green Day, who produced the album. We knew if we played him something and it sucked he would tell us so. So, we would go to his house and record all these songs and that’s how that came about.
MM: Were you generally fans of the songs you did or were some of them just being done ironically or to be funny?
AT: I mean, half of it was which ones we thought we could actually pull off, and the other half were songs that people would recognize and were popular, and then in between there was some that we were actually like I love this song. Like “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun.” That was a great song. So, yeah, it was kind of a mix of all three things.
MM: Have you talked about doing another album of covers?
AT: Again, we do talk about it. But we haven’t come up with an idea where everyone’s like that’s unique. We spitball but nothing’s concrete yet. Nothing like we feel like we believe in.
MM: The other day I saw a video on Youtube where you guys were talking about having a bar on stage. Is that true?
AT: Yeah, yeah. We’ve had a bar on stage for a few years now. We have bartender who also sings backing vocals. [Both laugh]
MM: In that interview you were also talking about playing Paris the week of the terrorist shootings. How did you muster up the courage to do that?
AT: Well, you know. We were supposed to go into Paris the day after the shootings happened. They did a state of emergency where they shut down any and all shows. So, we kind of hung around and took a day off and just kind of talked about it. Ultimately, what we discussed was, if I was a kid, living in Paris and this just happened probably the best thing to happen would be to kind of give it some normalcy again and not constantly worry about something like that happening again. And we thought if we go play the show, as a band there’s only so many ways you can help. We thought if we could play the show and give the kids the sense that somebody’s coming back to play a show so soon, they’re not scared, you know? What was really inspiring more than anything was that the place where we played was run by the same people that ran the Bataclan, so the people that were working there had lost a lot of their friends. So, they were all there and they were ready to work. And another thing was parents drove their kids to the show and stayed and just hung out by the wall. So, we had a wall of parents who drove their kids in to show them that they shouldn’t be scared. They should go on with their lives and have a sense of normalcy. And we had this kid at the very end – he was only 15 or something – and he asked if he could come up and sing the [French] national anthem and we had him come up and when he started singing there were people tearing up. It was such a unique experience and that’s one of the shows I’ll never forget. That’s a high, high of the ones that we’ve played the last twenty years.
MM: What do you think are the five best songs you’ve ever written? Or some of your favorites?
AT: Um, that’s a good question. I would have to say “Check” was the first song we ever wrote so that one will always be special to me. There’s a song called “Falling Apart” that we wrote when I was personally going through a hard time. Like personal-themed. That’s kind of like what songs do, right? You hear a song and you’re going through something and you have an attachment to that song because it relates to you in some way. So, I can only speak to that. So, for me, “Check,” “Falling Apart,” “Anthem” was another one. A song we did called “Type A” is another one. And, geez, one right now that we play live that I like a lot is “Who Brings A Knife To A Gun Fight” – we just actually released a video for that. So, right now, those would be my top five, but they vary every once in a while.
MM: What is your favorite alcoholic beverage?
AT: I’m a big fan of Jack Daniel’s, I would have to say. Jack and Coke.
MM: What is your favorite holiday and why?
AT: You know, I would have to say, probably, Halloween. It’s the least pressure holiday. It’s just a fun holiday. You spend time with your friends and you get to kind of be goofy and have a good time so I’d say Halloween.
MM: Who is your favorite Star Wars character?
AT: My favorite? I’d have to say Han Solo because he’s bad ass, you know?
MM: What song is stuck in your head right now?
AT: There’s a band called The National that I like. I’ve been listening to a lot. They have so many.
MM: I like them.
AT: I’m actually flying up to San Francisco to see them play this weekend.
MM: I saw them at the Boston Calling Music Festival. The singer is on the board of directors or whatever for that and helps them choose the artists all the time and everything.
AT: I just saw this – the song that I really like by them is “Bloodbuzz Ohio.”
MM: I think the one I like the most is called “I Need My Girl.”
AT: That is a great one. That’s a cool video, too, that one.
MM: What is your biggest pet peeve?
AT: I used to always be late. To the point where the band would leave, especially when we were first starting out, and I’d have to call them and be like, please come back and pick me up. Now, for me, when people are late I get pretty bummed out. They explained it to me – why is your time more valuable than mine?
MM: Who is your all-time favorite music producer? It doesn’t have to be somebody you worked with.
AT: The person I guess would have to be Dr. Dre because N.W.A kind of got me into music. Hip-hop music. And throughout the years he got it right with so many great artists. I think he’s pretty amazing.
MM: Name three artists from your parents’ record collection who you actually like.
AT: So, I was born in Iran. My parents are Iranian. So, most of the stuff they listen to, especially like growing up, was Persian music. And there’s one artist called Googoosh. She’s like the Madonna of Iran. [Laughs] And so I always remember when I’m at their house and hear her songs I have fond memories of that. And then, of course, they had Rolling Stones and Led Zeppelin. Those three.
MM: What’s the first album you ever bought with your own money?
AT: It was the Michael Jackson Thriller album and I got so pissed off at my cousin because I had just bought it and he spilled a coke all over the artwork. He ruined it and we got in a huge fight over that.
MM: Can you name the five Spice Girls without looking it up?
AT: OK, Scary, Sporty, Baby, Posh and Sneezy. Is that it?
MM: The last one you said wasn’t right.
AT: Is it Sleepy?
AT: It’s Grumpy?
MM: Nope. It’s Ginger.
AT: I should know that because we go to England a lot.
MM: Well, you got four of them right.
AT: Thanks, Mike. I’ll take that, four out of five.
MM: Who’s the coolest musician you’ve ever met?
AT: Dave Grohl, hands down. And it’s not just me. Anybody who’s ever met him will say that. I’ll take that back – Dave Grohl and Lemmy. Both of those guys were down to earth people who were so talented and it’s rare that you meet people who are humble and as famous as they are.
MM: What’s the best advice you’ve ever been given and who gave it to you?
AT: Best advice I’ve ever been given? I guess it was – I played basketball in high school and I’m not very tall – I’m like 5’10” – and I have asthma and my coach always told me, just to not give up and keep pushing yourself. And I’ve always remembered that. Keep yourself out of your comfort zone. Keep pushing yourself.
MM: One last one. What’s the most awkward exchange you’ve ever had with a fellow musician?
AT: OK, so, well, there’s two. One was I saw this guy. We played shows with them since we started. And once they opened for us. The other time we played a festival or something. And I talked to him both times. And I saw him again recently when Slash was playing in LA and I have a friend who knows Slash and he was backstage so he knows Slash, too, or something. I walked over to him and was like, hey, dude! And then he kind of looked at me like he didn’t have any idea who I was and I was like, remember we played at that one festival – I can’t remember the name of the festival. And he was like bro, if you can’t remember the name of the festival, how am I supposed to know who you are? And he walked away. And I was like, oh… [Laughs]
MM: What’s the other one?
AT: Well, I told a guy we were doing this tour – it was like one of those Warped Tour kind of stuff, festival things where you travel together. And I’d see this dude every day and after our second show together I was like, hey man, like you’d normally say, hey man, good show. That’s literally all I said. He turns around and he goes “dude, let’s just not do that, alright?” I was like what the fuck does that mean, I was just saying you had a good show. Maybe he was just having a bad day.
MM: My most awkward one was when Motley Crue wasn’t so popular in the ’90’s I was writing for Livewire and they were announcing their tour at the Hard Rock Cafe in Boston. And the publicist was like do you want to interview the band after and I didn’t have any questions prepared because I didn’t know that was on the table but I said yeah and I did the interview with Mick, Vince and Nikki – Tommy had Pamela Anderson or Pamela Lee or whatever her name was at that point there – and afterward I’m walking out of the building with the band because the Hard Rock security told me to go that way and there’s like a car that’s in the way and in front of me happens to be Tommy Lee and I don’t know if he thought I was gonna push him or something but he turned around and the look he gave me, I know he was like two seconds away from hitting me. So, that’s mine.
AT: He’s kind of a tall dude. He’s like 6’3” or 6’4” isn’t he?
MM: Yeah, he’s a big guy. And he has a temper. He’s hit people before, so it wasn’t out of the realm of possibility.
AT: That would kind of be a cool story though. I got punched by Tommy Lee.
To stay up-to-date go to http://www.zebrahead.com.
Band Twitter: @Zebrahead
Ali’s personal Twitter: @alimfzh