SCAD Radio gets on the phone with influential metalcore group Zao’s lead guitarist Scott Mellinger ahead of their performance at 2017 A.U.R.A Fest in Savannah, GA.
Zao, who released their first full length album All Else Failed in 1995, are credited as one of the pioneers in the metalcore genre which bridged metal music with hardcore punk. Scott has described Zao as “an extreme metal band with very introspective lyrical content”.
Since their inception in 1993, Zao has released ten full length albums, four EPs and a two-disc DVD documentary, whilst garnering an international fan base. The group are back after a 5-year hiatus with brand new album The Well Intentioned Virus.
Kush at SCAD Radio: For those who haven’t heard of you, would you say that there is album that serves as a good entry point into Zao’s music?
Scott Mellinger of Zao: To be honest with you, I think the newest one is probably one of the best because it does have little indications of what we’ve done in the past. I mean, I guess our main ‘hit’ record (though I don’t really think we have a ‘hit’ anything). Liberate Te Ex Inferis is the record that I think people point to. Funeral of God is another one that I think people point to. So those two, and this new one as well.
Kush: Alright sounds good, so what are Zao’s plans going into the new year?
Scott: I mean, kinda just staying the course, playing as much as we can. We are in the process of doing some recording so we plan on having something, probably EP size, released by the end of the year. That would then go into funding the next full length album which probably would be out sometime 2018.
K: And I know you guys have been in the scene for a while now, so what would you say are the most exciting things happening in metalcore at the moment?
S: Well, I think there is a resurgence, that I’m seeing, in kind of a DIY ethic that was there when we started. I think a lot of people are seeing – I mean when we kinda bowed out a little bit I think that this music is the closest it’s ever been to the forefront of metal. So some of the bands we toured with back in the day, like Lamb of God and Killswitch Engage, have seen and blossomed into the next wave of metal, like the bands that people look to. I think, though, there’s bands like Code Orange, and even Nails, and some of these other heavy influenced hardcore metal bands are starting to kind of do things their own way and I’m really excited about that.
I mean even for us, we just released our own record, so the internet and some of the social media aspect of it has given some of the bands a little more of a voice than they would have had before. I still think some bands won’t get heard through it. There’s a lot of bands out there, but I think a lot of people are trying to take it and do their own thing with it.
K: And on the other hand, are there any recent trends in metalcore that you’re not a fan of?
S: Ooh, well, I [laughs] maybe this is because I’m biased because I’m not a good looking dude, but I was a little – you know, it was a little awkward to watch bands play this style of music and kinda put a lot of emphasis on their look. I didn’t necessarily imagine or foresee this style of music accepting that, because I always felt like hardcore really came from punk. And punk was kind of a, you know, shunning of people being a certain way or looking a certain way. It was kind of just for misfits and people that felt like outcasts.
So, yeah, I guess the one trend that surprises me is that there are a lot of bands out there that are under the metalcore, or whatever, moniker and they’re kind of look like – there’s like a look to them? [laughs] Which is a little strange, but whatever man. I’m to each his own. If you like it, do what you got to do. I listen to all kinds of weird s**t, so it doesn’t matter.
K: Absolutely. [laughs] So I know Zao recently came back to making music after a fairly long hiatus and so what were some of the challenges associated with returning after such a long time?
S: I think the biggest one for us, and this is more of a self-imposed one, is that when you come back from any more than a five year thing when you’re a band that’s been around as long as we have, we were really cognizant of not becoming nostalgia, you know? I mean I don’t know if there’s a way to combat that really. The way we felt was the best way to combat that was to release a new record and pour our hearts into it and make it as good as we can so people would recognize that the new is just as good as, if not better than, the old. But we were really, really kind of aware of the chance – because there’s a lot of bands and I don’t poo poo it or anything, like I think it’s great.
There’s some bands coming back and doing reunion tours of records that I love, so I’m like all for it, whatever they want to do. But we’ve always been the kind of band, and the type of people that don’t like to do that. I don’t like to do that. I don’t like to rest on the past and don’t like to use the past as something that could move you forward. I like using the present to move us forward. So, we were more into the idea of writing new material and getting back out there with the strength of the new material.
K: And speaking of the new material, some of the songs on your new album The Well Intentioned Virus come from a very personal space, I’d say. Did this make working on the album any more difficult? Or did it prove to be artistically liberating for you?
S: I think artistically liberating. I think Dan (Daniel Weydant, lead vocals) especially but all of use this band as a catharsis. You know, all of us go through bad things. I’m lucky enough that I found something like playing music to help me get through some of these tough things. And I use my guitar playing, my songwriting, as kind of a tool to help release some of that sadness, frustration, whatever. I know Dan does the same. It’s cheap therapy for us. [laughs] You know, you could just go in and funnel a lot of that emotion that you have in the writing. And then those songs – it can be tough.
I know for Dan, Dan will write lyrics that are extremely (emotional) and maybe have happened to him at one point in his life. So when he has to revisit that when he’s singing the songs, if you’re not in the right headspace it could put you into maybe a little more depressed state. But I think he looks at it as like his way of getting that emotion out of him and liberating himself on that sadness or whatever it is. So we try to – I think we really do – we really focus on, just, putting all that emotion into something and then releasing it and that’s kind of what helps us through our daily lives, you know?
K: Yeah, absolutely. And I know Zao has gone through a variety of lineup changes over the years since the band’s inception. Has this made it difficult to retain the band’s identity in your opinion?
S: I don’t think so. The one nice thing, because I noticed there’s a lot of bands that go through lineup changes and I really do think the main reason for lineup changes is more of just where people are in their lives. So financial state is really important. If you can’t support yourself or if you can’t give up a 9 to 5 job to do a band, there’s nothing wrong with that. It just, it is what it is. So I think, you know, in Zao’s situation there were times where we were trying to be a full 8 to 9 month touring band and some people couldn’t do that. It just wasn’t viable. We make something, but it’s not enough to support a family, if that was your plan, or if you have a family already or whatever. If people leave the band for some of that situation, I don’t think there was a lot of animosity with people who have left the band.
And really, if you think about the way the band has gone, you had that original incarnation of it that left one member to kind of build it back up again and since that, I mean Zao really hasn’t changed much. I think Dan is big reason for the success Zao got when he had joined the band and I don’t think the band really looked – as long as Dan’s involved, me and Russ (Russ Cogdell, rhythm guitar) have been in it a long time. Even now, with Marty (Marty Lunn, bass) and Jeff (Jeff Gretz, drums), they have been pretty consistent members and are going to be consistent members from here on out. Since 2005, everyone has been pretty stable for probably the longest time of our band. But I still do see the band as a big – with Dan being a one of the biggest parts of it. So, since he’s there, me and Russ, like I’ve said, have been there for a while – I see the band in two phases, sort of. And we’ve been in that second phase for a pretty long time.
K: And do you think that there are any benefits to changing a band’s lineup?
S: I think so. I think that a new member can give you a whole different perspective. That’s one thing always tried to do. You know, any time there’d be somebody new – we’re not the type of people that are real apprehensive about having people have a voice. So, when a new member would come in, we would always be willing and open to hear their ideas to what songs can do and where songs can go. Jeff’s been a huge help. I mean, Jeff, just in his abilities – he is a trained musician. His eclectic style and what he listens to has really helped us trying to move forward as a band.
I think it can reinvigorate you if you have new members that are really excited. They can also kind of put the focus back on the whole of the band. The longer members are in, they start getting their own little ideas and they become insular and stuff. And so, you’ve got this new guy that maybe brings the focus back and “Oh! This is what we’re trying to do as a band!” So, yeah, I think having new members can help.
K: Despite no longer being classified as a “Christian band”, do you feel that the beliefs from your earlier works influence your material in any way?
S: Eh, maybe. Me, personally, I’m an atheist. I’m probably the more that than anyone else in the band. But I know all of us have kind of changed a lot of the viewpoint on that stuff. I think Dan has always, since he’s been in the band, called out the hypocrisies in religion. And, now as he’s gotten older, and a little more open to other things, maybe he’s sort of closed the chapter to that part of his life. He still sees what great there can be in Christianity and religion and what horrible hypocrisy there can be. He still does sing about seeing some of that stuff.
But, at the same time, as a band, that’s the one thing I hope separates us, because there’s a lot of bands out there that don’t have any kind of religious background or they don’t have any or want any religious overtones in their music or any of that stuff and they rally and they fight Christianity, which that’s something we’re never going to do. I mean, I like to have people open minded and as long as they’re cool with the way I am, I’m absolutely cool with the way they are. So, we’re not the type of band that’s ever going to fight Christianity or be against it in any way. And we totally appreciate those type of fans. So, I would say there’s still some. A little bit of it in there.
K: Yeah absolutely. Over the years, I’ve noticed that Zao has had a focus on just open mindedness in general, not just religiously, you know?
S: Yeah, mm hm.
K: It’s just been something you’ve fought for.
S: Yeah, yeah, we’ve always done that, even when Zao was considered – I mean people would call us the Christian band. There’s a lot of intricacies with that. And it wasn’t just black and white for us. Ever. So when Dan would write about it, a lot of the time he would write about it was to call it out. It wasn’t necessarily to be up there and preaching saying you should be this. It was “Hey, you guys are doing this and you’re telling people one thing and doing other things behind closed doors.” So, yeah, we’ve always had that weird fight with it. [laughs]
K: [laughs] And, just to close things out, what can we expect from Zao’s set at Savannah’s A.U.R.A. Fest this coming February?
S: Well, we’re totally understanding of what people like and we do understand that people pay very, very good money to come see a band play songs they remember. So, we’re never not going to play older songs. We’re definitely going to do a lot more new stuff, too. I think the record has been received well enough that we’re really – we’re extremely excited. We love the new songs. We can’t wait to play those. So I think you’re going to still get a good balance of new and old. And yeah, I just think you’re going to see five older dudes up there giving their heart because this is what their heart’s all about. [laughs]
K: [laughs] Alright, awesome! Thank you so much for taking the time to talk.
S: Oh dude, my pleasure.
K: Thank you so much.
S: Yeah, my pleasure dude. Thank you.
Be sure to catch Zao performing at 2017 A.U.R.A Fest in Savannah on February 18, 2017 at the The Gardens of Ships Of The Sea Maritime Museum.