by Jason Staniszewski
Hot Day At The Zoo is a New England based Bluegrass unit from Lowell, MA. This four-piece musical ensemble has created their own genre that they and their fans like to call “ZooGrass.” Combining the likes of Classic Rock, Folk and Americana while adding in characteristics of the Grateful Dead and other avant garde stylings, this band has captured the minds and hearts of people all over. The band consists of members Jon Cumming on Banjo, Dobro and Vocals, Michael Dion on Guitar, Harmonica and Vocals, Jed Rosen on Upright Bass and Vocals, as well as JT Lawrence on Mandolin and Vocals. The connection between these members is a sight in itself. Jon Cumming and Michael Dion are the two writers for the band, both having their own unique styles that they make blend oh so well. These guys have performed amongst many of the greats and actually won the Folk/Americana/Roots award in 2012 from the New England Music Awards.
While touring around the country these guys have had the opportunity to open for Levon Helm, David Grisman, Railroad Earth, Grace Potter, Trampled by Turtles, and big time jam rockers moe.. Creating a style all its own, this act has been able to cause a big stir and have gained amazing notoriety in the Bluegrass scene. There are a bunch of live recordings available of this fine band on archive.org. One that I would like to recommend is from May 4th, 2012 at the Triumph Brewing Company in New Hope, PA. Although it”s an audience recording, it picks up the vibe of how the audience interacts with this stellar act. There are a few covers, notably an upbeat version of the Grateful Dead”s “Dupree”s Diamond Blues,” that takes off with a wonderful kazoo solo. Also another noteworthy cover of John Lennon”s “Let It Be,” which the band takes in a completely different direction, creating a new song altogether. This show didn”t just have cover songs to make the night great, but also a plethora of originals were played as well.
Songs like “Long Way Home” and “Boom Boom Boom,” really show the differences in the writing capabilities of Cumming and Dion. “Long Way Home” written by Jon Cumming is a sweet melody driven number, that tells a beautiful story of traveling home. This song really capitalizes on all the instruments in the band, utilizing every members potential to create a story of their own. “Boom Boom Boom,” written by guitarist Mike Dion, takes you to the other side of this “Zoograss” adventure. A raspy voice with jug band thumping from the upright bass creates a knee-slapping frenzy that makes it easy to catch a groove and cut a rug! These are only two songs that this band has written. With 3 albums under their belt and numerous tours, this band is a MUST SEE for any fan of other Bluegrass acts like Railroad Earth, Yonder Mountain String Band or Hot Buttered Rum.
-Archive.org Link for the May 4th, 2012 show at the Triumph Brewing Company- http://archive.org/details/hdatz2012-05-04.mk41.wideortf.flac16
LMNR: Hey guys, thanks for taking the time to do this with me.
HDATZ: Hey Jason, no problem thanks for having us.
LMNR: Was the intentions of the band to get this big? Did you think you would be doing shows in multiple cities?
HDATZ: I think our intention was to play the music we discovered, and play it alot. In the beginning i dont think we thought much more about it. Mikey would get us gigs around town, and we would show up and play and just have the time of our lives. We rarely rehearsed and just learned on stage from playing live and taking chances. Eventually, we did realized we were making strides and progessing and were actually able to travel around and fill rooms, which is really cool. Its been growing since and we hope we can continue to turn people on to our music.
LMNR: Have you guys had the chance to write any new material recently? How do you go about that? Do one of you write a song and bring it to the table, or is it a group effort?
HDATZ: Yes we we recently finished laying tracks for 12 new original songs. Mike and I wrote a majority of tunes on this one, and JT wrote an original instrumental tune. So yes we have alot of new material. We are in the process of writing more and just went over a couple of new songs at the last rehearsal. Typically the way it works is Mike and I will bring a tune in its most conceptual stage; the hook, chords, intros, outros, the basic framework of the song, and we will run it by the rest of the band. And from there its a group effort to sculpt it or carve it like a block of wood into something cool. JT and Jed have great musical minds and come up with tons of great ideas to add spice to a song. Recently we added Nick Heys on the keyboards and he is now adding to the effort as well, so its a really cool process. I have a lot of faith in the band”s ability to take an idea and craft it into something pretty solid.
LMNR: Do you have a favorite musician or band that you like to cover? Do you like to make the covers more your own style?
HDATZ: I don’t think we have any one favorite band we like to cover. I mean we cover some Dead, Petty, Hendrix, Beatles, Doors, Nirvana, some old bluegrass standards and such, so we like to have variety. And ya, when we do covers we like to make em up our own while staying as true to the song as possible. Jed sings a pretty cool version of “Foxy Lady” we do which always seems to go over well with the audience.
LMNR: Who are some of you favorite Bluegrass bands on the scene today? New or old.
HDATZ: Jatoba is a great 3 piece string band out of Vermont. Great band and good friends of ours. Like us they are not traditional bluesgrass, but they stay true to it. Cabinet is another great string band out of PA. We have done a bunch of festivals with both of these bands and they tear it up for sure. The Infamous Stringdusters are a great band too. We did part of their tour last year in the North East. Yonder Mountain, Hot Buttered Rum are really killing it these days. For the older bands we listen to Monroe, Rowan, Hartford, etc.
LMNR: Your fanbase seems to keep growing quite readily, is there a reason for this outside of your great music? Anything a fan has ever done for you guys of note?
HDATZ: I think it’s just people talking and us making sure we keep them interested. I mean we do attempt to strategize somewhat to build in markets and keep it growing. Our manager at Great Northeast, Ben Jaehne, does a great job of keeping us on point and keeping the ball rolling. But its not an exact science. There are a million reasons for things going one way or another. But ya try your best to make things work in our favor. Its not easy and is probably one of the harderst ascpects of music as a business in my opinion. Anything a fan has ever done for us? Thats a loaded question isnt it? I think letting us crash at their place has often been a favor fans of ours like to extend to us. There is always something a fan gives you in some way, either in the form of words or something else. Its happens often and is always humbling.
LMNR: Do you have any rituals you do before a show? Anything in particular you do while on the road to a show?
HDATZ: I dont think you really want to know the answers to either of these questions. Next….
. But ok seriously, we really dont have a pre-show rituals other than standing around, waiting to go on, and making sure we don”t get up each others asses about anything right before the show. On the road to the show, we do most of our set lists in the van. And we sing a lot. We sing and play and arrange in the van. There is a video on, Youtube I think, of Jed, Jt, and I at Mandolin Brothers in Staten Island singing this old standard “Bye Bye Blues.” We had been singing that one in the van for a few weeks and its now part of our regular set list. So we get a lot done on the road. Except we don”t sleep much.
LMNR: What makes you guys different from the other touring acts in your genre?
HDATZ: Well we just do our thing and that”s what makes us different from other bands in our genre, just like they are doing their thing which makes them different from us. We fall into this catagory of bands that is bluesgrass but not bluegrass. We call what we do Zoograss. The other bands have their own unique sounds, but we all still pay homage to the roots of the music without signing on the dotted line. And I think thats what is different about all of us that fall into that basket. It”s new and fresh and pretty cool I think.
LMNR: Any words of advice for a younger generation of pickers?
HDATZ: Don”t stop. Think outside the box but dont be dumb about it. And practice. Just always practice. And be respectul. Respect other musicans and writers and pickers and promoters and people in general. Music brings people together, so don”t be a dick about it for any reason.
LMNR: What show are you guys most excited for on this upcoming tour? Why?
HDATZ: The Mighty High Music fest in May is going to be pretty cool with Dark Star Ochestra and David Grisman and a bunch of other really cool acts. Playing the Knitting Factory in NY with Cabinet in April, which will be cool. And we have some shows in Wyoming and Kentucky this summer which will be cool to go to some new places and see if we can turn people on to what we are doing.
LMNR: If you had one original song to choose for new listeners to get into the “ZooGrass” style, what would it be? Why?
HDATZ: Hmmm. Maybe “Mercy of the Sea.” It”s a great song that Mikey wrote and it contains alot of very typical “stuff” we do that defines our sound. I could name a few more but I think someone would get the point by listening to that one.
LMNR: Last question: One of my friends caught you guys in the parking lot at Mountain Jam a few years ago and stopped to listen in for a while. Is this something you like to do regularly? Has it gotten you fans with this approach?
HDATZ: Oh god I think I remember exactly the night you are talking about. We did that frequently early on and still do it today. But as our schedule becomes more complicated its alot harder to do. But when the mood strikes us we will start picking anywhere. It”s one of the great benefits of being in a string band. And yes it has rewarded us with new fans. We still have people that come up and tell us about a time we picked at their campfire or they saw us in the parking lot somewhere.
LMNR: Thank you guys so much for taking the time to answer these questions! Hope to see you at a show soon!
HDATZ: Thank you Jason. Take care.
HOT DAY AT THE ZOO UPCOMING SHOWS
07 11 Fri One Longfellow Square Portland, ME
07 18 Fri A Bear’s Picnic Roaring Branch, PA
08 02 Sat Sterling Stage Sterling, NY
08 09 Sat Backwoods Pond Fest Peru, NY
08 16 Sat Ocean Mist S Kingston, RI
08 30 Sat Mountain Jamboree McGaheysville, VA
09 19 Fri Autumn Equinox Croydon, NH
09 27 Sat Triumph Brewing Co New Hope, PA
10 04 Sat Crossroads Music Series N Andover, MA