By Rob van Alstyne
By Zach McCormick
By Emily Eveland
By Jack Spencer
By Michael Madden
By Reed Fischer
By Emily Weiss
By Emily Weiss
It's rare for a band to have a firm set of beliefs and be brave enough to take a stand and express them. It's even rarer for a band to dedicate every bit of their art to such a pursuit, and especially to do so without overwhelming the power of their music. Local trio Zoo Animal have managed just this over the past couple of years, a fact made all the more remarkable considering their minimalist aesthetic and Christian faith aren't exactly tailored to the secular and often excessive world of rock music.
But this band wouldn't have it any other way.
"That's why I make music, to challenge people. I hate saying it because it sounds pretentious, but we're not a party band, I'm not your aid to go numb," says Zoo Animal's vocalist and guitarist, Holly Newsom. "Artists are supposed to engage people, not numb them. Musically, lyrically, I want people to feel engaged, and, especially performing, if I'm not engaged by my own music I'll feel dirty."
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Such an unflinching vision has earned Zoo Animal a reputation for live performances that are both aggressive and cerebral, intended to make smoky barrooms stop and take notice. "I feel like as we've played people have come to expect something intense and so they're ready for it, and even if someone hasn't seen us before they're like, 'Oh,'" Newsom says.
The band's new, self-titled album marks a step forward in capturing the sound and vision they've built their live reputation on. With drummer Thom Burton recruited since the recording of their debut full-length, Young Blood, and he and bassist Tim Abramson now sharing many of the songwriting duties, Zoo Animal also sees the trio coming into its own as a group. "[Thom and I brought] different structures, how the songs were put together. I came up with a lot of bass parts that turned into songs that Holly wrote on top of, as opposed to her writing and me coming up with a bass part," Abramson says.
The songs are spare and dark with a noticeably rougher edge than their predecessors. The first record's sparkling melodies have transformed into a grittier, more percussive sound, with the rhythm section carrying much of the music. Newsom's lyrics are more clipped and abstract, giving her dewdrop drawl a foreboding circumspection. And the minimalism that was so evident before has been brought into even starker relief.
Zoo Animal's music is also defined by a muted religiosity (Burton is the sole non-Christian in the group). They've managed to avoid being pigeonholed as a Christian band, a label they've deliberately distanced themselves from, in large part due to an ability to weave those beliefs into a larger set of themes that are accessible to people of all dispositions. Yet Newsom and Abramson also show refreshing candor in considering their relationship to Christianity.
"I think a lot of the church in America's history has been separate, tried to distance ourselves from everybody else," observes Abramson. "A bunch of the popular discourse around religion is so antagonistic—'Let's point out the worst of both sides'—and both sides do it. [So] it's like [Zoo Animal] are trying to be mediators between different cultures."
As Newsom explains, there's another sort of spiritual mediation that lends the music its most visceral and captivating powers.
"When I'm writing music at my apartment it affects me immensely. It's like me having a conversation with God," she explains. "Why are our shows intense? Because I'm being intimate with God in front of a room full of people, and that is a very intense thing. If I say I want to be engaged in the music [when playing live] that means I've got to go back to where it came from."
On Young Blood, these sentiments were grounded in faith. But such feelings are largely missing this time around, the fractured, fragmented lyrics filled with anxiety and seeming paradox. From the troubled sense of friendship and obligation in "Worker Bee" to the cryptic metaphors for home in "Folded Hands" and the lingering conflict between living virtuously and missing out on life that courses through "Bad Seed," Zoo Animal, for all its simplicity, creates a complicated and problematic world without easy answers.
Newsom admits that this new sense of conflict, which adds considerable depth and authenticity to this collection of songs, arises directly from real-life experiences.
"I came from this super-conservative small town where there just came a liquor store a year ago and they tried to burn it down," she says. "Moving to the city and being swallowed up in music was sort of like, 'Whoa,' like kind of crazy to me.
"I'm not going to lie: As far as my faith is concerned, I've never struggled as much with it as I have the past couple years—and I'm not about lying in my art. Fundamentally I am where I was before, but my relationship with God has changed," Newsom continues. "I collided with the world and now it's like, 'Okay, where's the bruises?' The record's definitely a bruised me."
ZOO ANIMAL play a CD-release show with Red Pens, His and Her Vanities, and Hildur Victoria on FRIDAY, MAY 28, at the 7th ST. ENTRY; 612.332.1775