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The love affair began over a fuzzy guitar lick topped with a greasy organ swirl. Keyboardist Nicole Laurenne and guitarist Michael Johnny Walker were in a band rehearsal when the other musicians stepped out for a smoke. Walker noticed a fuzz pedal that hadn't been used during the session. So, he stepped on it.
"And she put a Farfisa patch on the keyboard," Walker recalls, huddling around a flaming heater outside a Central Avenue watering hole. "That night, we heard those two sounds together and we were grinning like idiots."
The couple went home and dug through their vinyl collection, spinning underground '60s scene shakers like The Animals, The Seeds, The Sonics, and The Ventures.
"The two of us walked away from the rest of what was going on and said we're going to do this the way we want it," Walker adds.
Thus began the foundation for The Love Me Nots, a vintage-sounding garage rock band with a passion for rough edges, raw vocals, swirling organs, and that "dirty Kinks guitar sound," Laurenne says. The Love Me Nots broke worldwide almost from the start: In 2006, they posted a song on MySpace and it quickly garnered radio rotation in England.
"It's trashy garage rock," Laurenne says. "It's not quite garage; it's not quite as pristine as [radio] rock. It's kind of a vicious, tear-your-head-off lo-fi sound."
Festivals, world tours, and a handful of albums followed in rapid succession, but in early 2012, a change was needed, something to challenge the musical senses while putting the brakes on the speeding train that is The Love Me Nots. Enter Zero Zero, an "electro-fuzz" trio, with drummer Nick Ramirez, that mixes modern beats and dance-pop grooves flavored with those same retro sounds The Love Me Nots are built upon.
"After seven years together, we needed some time off," Walker says.
"We just took this little break so we could write something new and revamp, work on fresh ideas, and not kill each other," Laurenne adds matter-of-factly. "There are lots of songs we write where we think, 'That's just not a good Love Me Nots song. It's just not going to carry in that form.' I think that's part of the reason why Zero Zero evolved, because I had these other songs in my head I was dying to try out. They have poppier lines, thumpier kick drums, lots more electronica, and stuff like that."
Where The Love Me Nots thrashed, Zero Zero glides. Where The Love Me Nots swirled, Zero Zero bubbles. Laurenne's vocals are breathy, airy, and clean — though that throaty edge sneaks out occasionally. Syncopated backing tracks push the beat and add atmosphere.
Walker's guitar is tight, controlled, and direct, though appropriately fuzzy in spots. The drumming, mostly machine-made, is straight ahead with few frills, offering a flat landscape to build upon. Some tracks are dance-floor ready, while others practically beg for an L.A. remix. In short, Zero Zero sports a crisp sound with spacey pop elements in stark contrast to The Love Me Nots.
"In the studio, we've never done any records like that — all programmed and with electronic drum parts," Walker says.
"For Michael, [the two bands] run together more; they are very different experiences for me. But I think he's a bit bored in Zero Zero," Laurenne adds honestly. "Love Me Nots is very guitar-oriented, and Zero Zero is not as much."
"They're similar enough to me because of the way I play," Walker agrees. "It's typically ragged. I'm not a good clean-guitar player. It's a little trashy. It really lives in The Love Me Nots, but not so much on the Zero Zero album. Nicole was a trained musician and can separate. She can go from cranking the Farfisa through the [Fender] Twin [amplifier] and walk away from that and go to Zero Zero, which is a much stricter sound."
For Laurenne, those differences are a positive, creating new hurdles to music-making.
"I was classically trained [in piano], and one of the things I learned was that you play to that metronome and you don't budge. You bring that fire to where you're supposed to bring it," she says. "It's been really nice for me getting back to the whole musicality of this because it's very disciplined. Zero Zero has to be very disciplined. It's a great challenge."
Such back-and-forth banter was typical of our hour-long interview. Together since 2005 and married in 2008, it's easy to see why Walker and Laurenne can make music together. Their honesty is as refreshing as their instincts where music's involved. Laurenne might offer up a lyric, only to hear Walker say, "It needs more blood and sex in it." On the other end, Walker might create a riff that Laurenne flatly says "sucks, and tell me to fix it up or something . . . We're always going to the same place, but we're taking different roads. We're the most teamy, teammating team I know," Walker says, rolling his eyes and laughing.
"But he's right," Laurenne adds with an assuring smile.
While Laurenne, tonight dressed in black leather jacket, skinny jeans, and high leather boots, with dark liner highlighting her eyes, works by day as a criminal courts judge in Gilbert ("Didn't some guy ask, 'Are you the rock 'n' roll judge?'" Walker chides), Walker, casually decked out in mostly black with plaid button-down, quit his graphic design job at AZ Central to focus on music. He spends his days in the home studio, working on guitar lines and recording mixes.
"When she said, 'Learn how to record, how to make records [at home],' it made sense to me," Walker says. "I was in a bad job that was bumming me out, bumming out the house, so that's what I'm doing now. I had a month to learn before we made this record."
His one daily goal is erasing things off the to-do list scrawled on a giant chalkboard sitting in their kitchen.
"Unfortunately, sometimes it has eight things and I only get one," Walker says, grinning. "I'm sure more will be added tomorrow."
The duo are gearing up for a busy March performance schedule, stating that Zero Zero as a live experience — which includes drummer Ramirez — takes on a grittier reality compared to the clean lines of Mayday, the debut album.
"They are two different animals," Walker says. "The guitar playing on the record is pretty controlled, and live, I don't know how to not do what I've always done. It's louder. We use the song as a core, and then when we play it live, we embellish it."
"The live show is more rock," Laurenne agrees. "We didn't have it in our heads going in, but that's just where we gravitate . . . When we get on stage, we like to come out of our shell and turn it up."
Though Love Me Nots fans mostly have ignored Zero Zero, the band has proved popular with a mix of indie rock and electro fans that "get the whole dance floor thing — the lasers and that vibe," Laurenne says.
Laurenne and Walker, however, are not satisfied with where Zero Zero currently resides, and are constantly tweaking the sound.
"The original idea, we didn't quite nail it. I had an idea of what it wanted to be, but it just didn't turn out that way," Walker says.
"I thought it would have the broader appeal than I think it does," Laurenne says, then adds confidently, "But it's still an infant, finding its feet and learning what it wants to be when it grows up."
That's something worth waiting for.