The Zoo aims to put reggae music on top, plain and simple. The musical drive is clear for the four members of the latest band to spring to life in the Phoenix desert. The four men come from different walks of life, and different regions of the world, bringing with them a diverse musical culture.
Like the members themselves, the band is still young, and the early process of building the reggae empire that they crave is the hardest, and most tedious. But their collective amiable nature and devotion to their music may be the recipe to success for guitarist/vocalist Liam (Lamb) Levinson, vocalist Ben (TaSa) Tasa-Bennett, bassist Julian (Juju Stone) Weinstein, and drummer Austin (Meto) Moore. They know what they want, and believe in working hard to get it. They've already deemed their movement the Zoo Nation.
On Friday, The Zoo will take the stage with several other local acts from around the Valley at the Marquee Theatre in Tempe. Recently, the band was featured as a top three finalist in The Proof is in the Pudding contest, which gives young local bands an opportunity to play alongside the musical icons featured in Alice Cooper's annual Christmas Pudding event.
In the days leading up to The Zoo's inaugural appearance at the Marquee, Up on the Sun traveled to North Phoenix to visit the Zoo headquarters and sit down with the band. Cigarette smoke lingered above the circle of lawn chairs occupied by Lamb, TaSa, and Juju Stone as they joke with each other, laughing along in unison, while telling the story of The Zoo with confidence--their aspirations, their city, and of course, the Zoo Nation.
What are your thoughts on the Proof is in the Pudding contest? Juju Stone: It's a good competition to be in because it exposes us to a variety of people who normally wouldn't listen to reggae music. I think for the most part, a lot of people like the feel of it because we are not traditional reggae.
What made you guys pick the name The Zoo? Lamb: It all started with this music group I was a part of called Welcome to the A.M. My friend Tomer and I used to make this electronic music with guitar, and then I started making music with TaSa. One day I woke up and looked at my alarm clock with a Zoo York sticker on it.
We said, "We should start a collective called Welcome to the Zoo." We wanted to work with people and make different music. Eventually, we decided to form a band and shorten the name to The Zoo.
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Tell me about The Zoo. Anything you want a new listener to know about you guys. Juju Stone: [thinking hard] We are... very... unique because of our writing style. Not many bands can write a song as quickly and efficiently as we can. Not only do we have a lot written, but we can just freestyle. I'll start doing a baseline and then Lamb will start a freestyle. Then Meto will fill in on the drums and there you have a song.
Lamb: We each have very different inspirations. Juju Stone sounds like he could be Flea from the Red Hot Chili Peppers when he plays bass. Then TaSa and I are really influenced by the reggae feel and also hip-hop from the 90's. Meto is really into Incubus and the more traditional rock style of drumming. Putting all of that together, you would think it wouldn't work, but somehow it does.
TaSa: The really cool thing about The Zoo is that we are in it for the long run. We're really trying to get big with our music. We want everyone around the world to hear us and we want to play with other big reggae bands. And we practice and practice. With the amount of effort that we put into it, it's exciting to see where it's going to go.
What are some of the influences that have inspired the band? TaSa: I would think the Dirty Heads, Sublime and some of The Beatles. [Looks at Juju Stone and Lamb] You guys really like the Beatles.
JuJu Stone: Yeah we do! Too much for our own good! Lamb and I essentially became friends over The Beatles when we were in youth group. We realized we were the biggest Beatles fans in the entire world, minus our fathers.
Lamb, who is your ultimate guitarist? Ultimate guitarist. Hmmm. Well, I would have to say Bradley [Nowell] from Sublime. While bringing that reggae feel, he could still solo like a motherfucker!
Juju, the best bassist in your mind? Hands down has got to be Flea from Red Hot Chili Peppers. I learned how to play bass in an unconventional way. I found this YouTube video of Flea giving instructional tips on how to play bass and I just listened to that for three, four, five, six, 11, 12 hours. I said, "I want to be him."[laughs]
And TaSa, you're favorite lyricist and hip-hop artist? Andre 3000, because he's been crowned the best lyricist.
Are you going to beat him? TaSa: It will take time. [laughs] How did you get into playing music? TaSa: I got into music through basically just listening to it in my headphones. My family would say they were going to put me in American Idol, and that's not what I wanted to do. I'd rather just be in a band. It just happened to be around the same time that I was finding my range and Lamb and I started writing songs together.
Lamb: It started when I was eight years old and living in Israel. My brother and mom moved back to America and the one thing my brother left me was his guitar. I started taking lessons and started writing songs. Actually, some of The Zoo songs are from back then.
Juju Stone: My parents were in a local band together called Blue Laws when I was born, so I was brought up to appreciate music. I started playing guitar in a metal band called Steel Clad Fortress. They told me I wasn't good enough to play guitar in their band, but I could be the bass player [laughs]. So I bought a $100 bass on Craigslist and was playing in the metal band. Then, I met Lamb through a few people in that band and started taking bass seriously.
How many of you are from Phoenix? Lamb: TaSa and I both are actually Israeli. We have a lot of Israeli inspiration in our music, and we even sing in Hebrew sometimes. Freshmen year of high school I made it out to Phoenix.
TaSa: I was actually born in California, but yeah most of my family is from Israel. I moved to Arizona when I was six.
Juju Stone: I'm from here.
Let's talk about the music scene in Phoenix. Your likes and dislikes? Juju Stone: The reggae scene is so vibrant in California, but the Arizona scene is cool too. There is appreciation for reggae in Arizona. So, if you're a new band then it's kind of cool to start from a place like Arizona where not so many people know there is a reggae scene. We can build off of that and start our own scene instead of following another. With dislikes, I think it's probably like every place right now where a lot of people are interested in listening to EDM and not live music.
Lamb: There are a lot of great venues around here that are really nice to see shows at, but at the same time there are some high ranked people at those places who do a lot of talking and promises. The first show we played at, the main guy that worked there promised us a show with our favorite reggae band and it never happened. That would be a dislike.
TaSa: Since it's so small in Phoenix right now, it's a good opportunity for a band to come out of nowhere and show Phoenix that they can represent them. Sometimes you don't know who to trust, or how certified some of these promoters are, or if these venues are going to be right for you. It's definitely important to trust people who believe you can become big.
Going further into what you guys were just saying, describe what it's like trying to make a name for yourself in Phoenix? Juju Stone: Playing a lot of local venues is good. We will rarely pass up a show people offer. Even if they are giving us free food. I think the key for us right now is playing a lot of shows, because we have a bunch of material that people like and we need to expose it.
Lamb: I think it's really important for smaller bands to show a lot of pride of where they come from in their songs and talking about your roots. It's important to not neglect that. It's difficult to start out in a place where music isn't as big of a deal, but we are going to try our best and grow into many places and better our odds.
How do you promote yourself to make that happen? TaSa: We individually go out of our way to spread the word to our friends; we hand out flyers around the colleges. Sometimes we will go out on the street and play a set with a hat out for some change.
Juju Stone: We also promote ourselves a lot through social media. We are pretty active on our Facebook. We released our EP, which has gotten positive reviews. Also, we like to hit the college scene and play house parties and spread the word. Making friends with other bands has helped us in the past as well, and we can all share the wealth.
What are some of those local bands that have influenced you? Lamb: We really look up to Katastro, who we are playing with at the Marquee. They started off where we are and they are living in California now and living the dream.
Juju Stone: Fayuca is a band that was produced by some of the same people that produced our EP. We're still in contact and trying to do something with them. They are a good example of someone who started in the Arizona scene and has made it to a national level.
It's definitely important for all these bands to support each other. What do you do to support them and the local scene? Juju Stone: If there is a band we know that calls us up to do a show we will always try to do it. The last one we played with was Headstrum, who also played the Christmas Pudding with us. We're always eager to help each other.
TaSa: Basically going out and seeing other local bands. That's a good way to support the local scene here. Also, networking with other local bands so we can become friends and play shows with them is important.
How long have you guys been performing together? TaSa: With The Zoo, it's been a little over a year now. But the three of us have been jamming for three or four years now.
TaSa: You're going to want to dance!
Juju Stone: Magic. Zoo Nation. I guess I have a bias, but I'd say it's an experience to come to our show. We make an effort to interact with the fans and we're always so happy when people come out to see us. We try to make it special.
Lamb: Yeah, no matter how big we ever get, we will always come chill with the fans after the show. We're not going to be one of those asshole bands that disappear.
Juju Stone: I have a motto. It is two rules. No gig is too small, and you always want to leave with them wanting less [laughs].
Are you guys trying to put a full album together? Lamb: We really want to. It's really just about the funding. We're trying to play shows to raise money to record the album, but it's difficult, you know?
What studio do you use to record? TaSa: In the past, for our Enjoy Being Young EP, we used this place called the Bomb Shelter which is funded by Fervor Records.
Do you have any studio time coming up? TaSa: We have an opportunity to go record with the producers of Sublime and Slightly Stoopid, but it's just time with funding and playing enough shows.
What is the ultimate goal with your music career, and how do you plan to achieve it? Lamb: The main goal is to get reggae to be mainstream again. I want to turn on 97.5 and hear some reggae. When's the next time that's going to happen? We are just going to try to merge the reggae genre with a poppy genre by having catchy hooks to try and make it more appealing to everyone.
TaSa: The ultimate goal is for you to turn on the radio and you hear The Zoo. I want to be able to be heard throughout the world. I feel like we have a great thing going on right now, and I feel like a lot of people would appreciate it.
Juju Stone: I'd say our ultimate goal for The Zoo is to become the top of the reggae scene. I think our ambition and vision is really unique for a reggae band because we have the personnel to make that merge that Lamb was talking about.
Lamb: Other than succeeding in music, we want to start a movement. Having people follow us and spreading our message. Basically like the Dead Heads. We like to call our movement the Zoo Nation.
Juju Stone: Start a revolution, man!
Is this your first show at the Marquee? All Together: Oh Yeah!
That's a big step. So when you play with the other local bands at the Marquee, how are you going to make sure The Zoo is the band people are talking about after the show above all the others? TaSa: We're just going to bring it. We are going to go all out and try to be the most entertaining band up there. We're going to try to be the best all-around band with each member.
Lamb: Well for one, I can guarantee you won't be hearing Hebrew from any of the other bands. On top of that, odds are we are going to be doing some free-styling as a band.
Juju Stone: Guaranteed we are going to be the most entertaining band on that stage. I will slap the shit out of my bass.
Lamb: Like a bad stepchild.
Juju Stone: Yes, exactly [laughs]. TaSa will go crowd surfing [TaSa has a look of surprise on his face at this point] and then Meto will float with his drums into the heavens and play from there with that big grin on his face. Then Lamb will transform into a lizard, and magic will happen.
Lamb: You can refrain from the whole lizard thing [laughs]. The thing that sucks about not having our album out yet is that while yes we have 70 songs, it's hard for people to figure out the lyrics. So, the best advice I can give is to come to as many Zoo shows as possible. The songs on our EP are just a taste, because we have some really good stuff coming out.
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Juju Stone: With those songs on our EP, everybody should buy those songs, or at least illegally download them. I don't care, just listen to them. That's all we really care about is exposure.