No lions, tigers, or bears; the band Zoo Animal's name is far from the cages of formerly wild creatures. Behind the trio of soothing instruments lies a meaning much less obvious to the average listener. Guitarist and vocalist Holly Newsom shyly explains the name as it correlates to her "real" home being in Heaven as opposed to on Earth; the analogy is to an animal's real home not being a zoo. Uh oh—religion. A scary combination of words to any music writer, "Christian band" never signals a product deserving of a second listen. Thank God the band of animals agreed.
"We don't call ourselves a 'Christian band,'" bassist Tim Abramson clarifies. "The Christian-music industry usually means cheesy and artificial. We're just asking people to see things in a different way, but we're not preaching."
A quick earful of Zoo Animal's peaceful sound won't immediately cue thoughts of Jesus and Mary, but a closer listen to Newsom's lyrics may call attention to the faith-based feelings behind the melodies. Whether or not you personally want to pair the music with religion is your decision. Drummer Thom Burton is the non-Christian in the group, and says he has no problem with his bandmates' religious affiliations quietly finding a way into their music.
"All musicians and artists write what they know, what's inside of them, and therefore I can completely back it," he says. "It resonates with me because it's very personal. If you believe in the things you write about, whether I too believe in them or not, it's the emotion behind them."
Zoo Animal's first full-length, Young Blood, is full of light reflections, perfumed hints of summer breeze, and chilled winter evenings in deep thought. Abramson describes their music as "minimalist grunge-pop," a soulful combination of melodies and bare bones with a rock hinge. Tracks like "My Lord," "Kitchen," and "Hold Tongue" paddle softly through deep, watery bass, floating on sweet humming guitar, sometimes surprising with a rocky chorus or stark halt.
Newsom's voice is the hook. Hazy and laced with vintage twang, it almost whispers at the end of some phrases, while contrarily resonating with power and conviction at others. She may be only 23, but there's an old soul residing beneath that ribcage.
Newsom had been playing solo for years under her maiden name, Holly Hanson, but eventually realized that she wanted her backing band to have more artistic input.
"I didn't want my bandmates to be bored by something I wrote. I thought they should be able to play something they wrote as well," she says. Today, Newsom writes the foundation to most of the band's songs and asks the guys to add their personal touches.
"I will purposefully come to practice with a song disjointed so the guys can help me make it better." She smiles as the sun sets on a beautiful summer evening, bees pollinating the flowers behind her. "Zoo Animal's philosophy is from me, but the aesthetic is from the rhythm section. They make us cool."
The band members agree that they aim for a more minimal sound from creation to presentation, letting simple inspirations drive the points they aim to make both musically and lyrically.
"Even if the point is weird," adds Burton.
"Or we don't know what it is," Abramson smirks.
While Newsom keeps in mind that nothing under the sun is really new, she pushes herself to recycle old ideas and reformat the familiar. When she's writing new material, Newsom gives herself rules, like using only two chords, forcing simplicity to yield creativity. The bottom line for Zoo Animal is avoiding repetition and challenging the audience to a battle of inner thoughts.
After the band finished a song at a recent show, the audience sat in silence, their eyes fixed on the three stage inhabitants, their faces a mess of confused looks. While some bands might take offense at the reaction, Zoo Animal's members were ecstatic.
"We love it when the bar quiets down and people are really listening," Abramson says.
Newsom's lyrics aren't always straightforward, and careful listeners are definitely rewarded. Unfortunately, finding a crowded bar full of devoted ears isn't easy.In a city full of party bands, Newsom wants people to be able to listen to their music and have a good time without the aid of a chemical.
"In a bar, music becomes the supplement to what people are doing—drinking and talking. But not us. We want people coming to the show who want to watch us play. It's a hard thing to ask for in the 21-plus crowd."
Does this mean they're scouting out quieter venues? Ones with pews and stained glass?
"No. We're not living in a Christian suburban world and that's who's running that music scene," Newsom says. "I get nervous playing in a church. They think we sound really weird."
ZOO ANIMAL play with the Blind Shake and Sicbay on FRIDAY, AUGUST 28, at the 331 CLUB; 612.331.1746