Good Questions for Zanders

In my book (or blog), the first great record of 2020 was courtesy of Connecticut indie pop trio Zanders — Alex Saraceno (keys and lead vocals), Kevin O’Donnell (bass and production) and John Rule III (drums and guitar) — who released Concentration Sixty-Four in January via Funnybone Records.

It is Zanders’ third LP, preceded by 2015’s Buried Men and 2014’s Been Better. Although if I’m being honest, I didn’t discover the band until recently.

My entry point to Zanders is Queen Moo — O’Donnell and Rule’s other great band, which has factored heavily into two SOMETHINGGOOD album of the year lists (for 2017’s Mean Well and Faint Sounds of Us Hanging Out, released last year).

So, you know how some “side” projects sound exactly like the “main” project? That’s not at all the case with Queen Moo and Zanders (or Zanders and Queen Moo, whatever). The latter is more of a jazz combo than indie rock band, with this magnetic energy and unique theatrical quality that no one else has. Simply put: they’re fucking fantastic. 

On Concentration Sixty-Four, Saraceno stands out in particular for her infectious vocals and for her waggish, eminently relatable lyrics — which run the gamut from biting (“Hand me the scissors I’m hung up on you/maybe from below I’ll have a better view”), to devastating (“It could be worse, but it hurts/What once was our thing is now yours and hers”) to French (“Et oui je voudrais toucher votre main”).

But what puts Zanders over the top is the originality and amazing musicianship of Saraceno, O’Donnell and Rule, who sound completely in sync over the course of Concentration Sixty-Four‘s 12 stellar tracks. The trio also were kind enough to answer some questions about their music, the album and more, below.

Front to back: John Rule III, Kevin O’Donnell and Alex Saraceno

There’s a unique, theatrical quality to your new record. Is it safe to assume you enjoy musicals/show tunes? (If so, what do you like?; if not, who doesn’t like musicals?)

O’Donnell: You said it, who doesn’t like musicals. I listen to as much Jerome Kern and Gershwin as anyone else who’s twenty-six years old; which I assume is a lot. I’ve seen a lot of musicals, but I’m not a musical fanatic.

Saraceno: It is safe to assume we enjoy a good tune, but this enjoyment is born of an interest in the great American songbook and jazz music more than attending musicals. Although, I definitely have a soft spot for those early (pre-golden age or golden age) musicals. The main connection to musicals is storytelling. Along with the lyrics, the music is also telling the story. Changes in harmony, mode, and texture accentuate or contradict the lyrical content, a little like word-painting in some Renaissance madrigals.

It’s been five years since your previous album (2015’s Buried Men). How long were the songs on Concentration Sixty-Four in the works? When/how did you know it was time to make another Zanders album?

Saraceno: Some songs were written right after Buried Men in early 2016, the latest song was finished in October 2018. There were situations that called for songs and opportunities to then write them. Gradually the vague idea of the next album became clearer. I feel it’s an organic and ongoing process.

Rule: There isn’t necessarily a definitive moment where we say “This is our album.” We just work until we feel we have adequately captured a moment in time for the group. In this case, the length of time it took us to create this album allowed us to fine-tune the structures of the songs more and do a lot of experimenting with different textures. These are the perks of running on our own time table.

Did you approach the new album any differently compared to your previous records?

Saraceno: A lot of the music was written in university practice rooms. Paranoid someone might be listening, I sang less and focused more on the piano. Many songs on previous albums were written while driving in the car (lots of singing, no piano). In terms of recording the album, we tracked piano and drums together on one day. We took our time with vocals, bass, guitar, and everything else you hear on the album (accordion, synths, upright bass, and more) thanks to Kevin, his expertise, and his in-home studio set up. I love the sound Kevin has created; we recorded a lot of material, which he managed to arrange with detail and depth absent from our previous records.

Rule: As previously stated, working in such an open-ended way allowed us a lot of freedom to experiment. There wasn’t much of a sense of urgency about it, we just wanted to get it right.

Do you remember what you were listening to around the time of writing/making the album? Were there any particular influences?

Saraceno: Very often the repertoire I’m working on as a pianist will bleed over into Zanders, whether it’s Bach, Beethoven, or Messiaen. In general, these artists were in my rotation: Blossom Dearie, Margaret Glaspy, St. Vincent, ALA.NI, Sufjan Stevens, and Serge Gainsbourg. Kevin and Jason tend to deep dive into discographies of different artists, some of which included Harry Nilsson, Scott Walker, Thin Lizzy, and other various 70’s soft/hard rock.

O’Donnell: For me, I would add Randy Newman’s Good Old Boys album for its story-driven piano-based sound, which simultaneously fits in the realm of rock-and-roll and features strings and orchestration.

For a small state, there’s a lot of great music coming out of Connecticut. How do you feel about the scene? Who do you like?

Saraceno: Yes, what Connecticut lacks in size it makes up for in sound! We feel good about the scene and enjoy so much of the music coming from it. Zanders would not exist without the robust local music scene that raised us; from Hartford basements to New Haven bars and everything in between.

Rule: We owe a lot of our beginnings as a band to groups that no longer exist. Connecticut’s music community is constantly changing and does not adhere to a single sound or ideology. As long as we can remember we have operated in a similar manner. We have never wanted to sound like anything but ourselves, nor have we ever hoped to fit in anywhere. We find many of Connecticut’s bands operate this way-always searching for a sound that is honest and 100% their own.

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