Say ZuZu | Interview | New Retrospective Album, ‘Here Again: A Retrospective (1994-2002)’ + ‘No Time To Lose’ (Out In 2023)
Say ZuZu is an Americana rock band from New Hampshire. Originally formed in 1991, Say ZuZu recorded and released nine full-length albums before disbanding in 2003 and reuniting in 2019.
The band’s first release on Strolling Bones Records is ‘Here Again: A Retrospective (1994-2002)’ and includes highlights from the group’s five studio albums recorded during its touring heyday. A new studio record from the band is scheduled for release in 2022/2023 on Strolling Bones Records.
“For those who haven’t met our music before, these are highlights from five records released between 1994-2002. The songs focus on the large internal lives of people in small mill towns like ours. This record also chronicles a decade of growth from a fiercely independent, self-produced New Hampshire band that flew under the radar during the heyday of the 1990s alt-country movement. The title of the record, Here Again, is inspired by a song from our 1994 self-titled record. We’ve always sought to write songs that hold up, personal songs that are durable and can stand on their own in a variety of arrangements. ‘Here Again’ is one of those songs. It’s also a fitting title for a record that’s an opening salvo from a recently reunited band with its first new studio record forthcoming in 2022/2023”.
How does it feel to be back together after 20 years? What occupied your life during that pause?
Jon Nolan: Being back together feels kind of amazing and surreal. Equal measures of deep familiarity, and surprise at the novelty of making noise with people again. IT’S AWESOME, and well timed. We could all use a hefty dose of connection and togetherness these days, no?
As for the in-between times, I stayed involved in music for a long time before shifting to work in the substance use treatment field, where I still am. I booked the Stone Church Music Club in Newmarket, NH for a bit, developed and championed the RPM Challenge while I was the Music Editor for the beloved/sadly defunct Wire NH magazine. I released a few solo records, performed around the region and I opened and ran Milltown Recording Co. (a recording studio) for about ten years. I recorded a bunch of amazing stuff from all over New England. Super fun. All the while, my wife and I were enjoying home roasted coffee and raising the kiddos here in New Hampshire. They can identify The Beatles, and they appreciate Monty Python, so, basically we’re killing it as parents.
Cliff Murphy: Well, there are six of us, so there are a lot of different answers to that question. Generally, a lot of big life events. My wife and I had four kids and moved from Boston to Baltimore. After ZuZu played its 2003 farewell shows, I started a career as an ethnomusicologist and folklorist: making field recordings of traditional music, recording oral histories, and focusing on cultural sustainability initiatives as it relates to folklife and cultural heritage. But mainly, getting married, going back to school, working, and (still) raising four kids. Aside from the two of us (Jon and Cliff), Steve Ruhm has been an airline pilot, Jon Pistey has been an ice rink/facilities manager (including zamboni driving), James Nolan has been a fundraiser, and Tim Nylander has been a project manager for housing construction.
We are very excited about the new release. Tell us how much work went into ‘Here Again: A Retrospective (1994-2002)’?
Cliff Murphy: Sooooo much work!
Jon Nolan: Cliff speaks the truth. Who knew keeping big trunks of tapes in every conceivable format would pay off some day. A monumental effort by the band and the fabulous (and patient) Strolling Bones Records folks. It was worth it, though! It’s already wild watching people online talking about enjoying songs like ‘Broken’, which was largely forgotten on the setlist back in the day.
And that’s not all, you’re planning to release a new album later this year. How much is already recorded and what can we expect?
Cliff Murphy: The whole album has been recorded, mixed, and mastered. As excited as we are about ‘Here Again’ reintroducing our music to the world, the most compelling thing for us has been to make new music together again.
Jon Nolan: Yes, the album is DONE. We can’t wait to share it! We started with 20ish songs that we knew we really liked, we demo’d them, kicked them around on line trading tracks on Pro Tools, flew everybody into Portland, ME, roughed up ‘em and some more, recorded the sessions, drank all the coffee that Tandem Coffee in Portland could brew (so good! Their sticky buns, too, but I digress), listened to the pre-production demos, tweaked some arrangements, handed the pink slip to some great songs (maybe next time, kid), and gathered up twelve songs that we think justified their place on the record (and then some), and then came back to Portland to finish off the city’s coffee supply, navigating a drummer with a broken leg (backwoods skiing!) and a bass player with a brain bleed (he slipped on the ice!). But we got it done, and we’re overjoyed. You always want an artist to think they’re putting out “the best thing I’ve ever done”, don’t you? We feel that way. It’s an eclectic mix of songs and sounds that are a patchwork of timbres and textures inspired by our influences, but we’re broadening the “americana” label a smidge.
You recently shared from the latest compilation, ‘You Don’t Know Me’, which appeared on their 2002 album ‘Every Mile’. It feels that it’s a song that’s close to your heart. Tell us about it?
Cliff Murphy: I wrote that song well over twenty years ago when I was recently single and emotionally raw: the lyrics express what I felt at the time. I was also completely broke and working on a house painting crew with my friend Drew Wyman, who is a great bassist with a deep collection of music. Drew would essentially deejay our work day, bringing great records he thought I hadn’t heard. That experience introduced me to the music of The Faces, and to The Kinks’ concept albums like ‘Arthur’ and ‘Village Green Preservation Society’. We also spent a lot of time listening to Creedence Clearwater Revival’s ‘Cosmo’s Factory’ and ‘Willy and the Poor Boys’. The groove and tone of some of those records found their way into this song. Playing this song with the band always feels good.
“It’s the thing underneath the music that’s the fire”
What are some of the most important players that influenced your own style and what in particular did they employ in their playing that you liked?
Cliff Murphy: I’ve always admired songwriters who make portable music – meaning, their songs can be performed/interpreted successfully by other players. Bob Dylan – whose music is both rooted and poetic – exemplifies this. Willie Nelson and Paul Simon both have a style of singing that feels conversational, even while being beautifully melodic. Both also have their own distinct guitar style, which they apply in very different ways. Willie is also a bit like Sinatra or Whitney or Elvis: when he’s singing other people’s songs, he employs his own phrasing to make a song sound new and authentic to him. Jeff Tweedy and Jay Fararr utilize bands incredibly well to paint backdrops to their lyrics. John Fogerty gets tremendous lyrical mileage out of a very few words. Elvis Costello spits brilliant words out with vinegar. Every Chuck Berry and Bruce Springsteen song is a master class in character development. Hank Williams and John Lee Hooker have an emotional immediacy to their songs that penetrates even the hardest hearts. Paul McCartney and Sam Cooke have a rich vocal tone that I could never achieve but wish I could. More recently, songwriters like Joan Shelly inspire me with a highly visual and poetic style that evokes a remarkable sense of place. Finally, the work that I do as a folklorist – working with people like Irish button accordionist Billy McComiskey in Baltimore – is a daily reminder that our greatest artists can also be our most generous ones.
Jon Nolan: Now, I play guitar and sing, and there are artists of various disciplines that have had a profound effect on my own playing, singing and writing. But, more than the chops or stylistic stuff, I tend to gravitate toward players/singers/producers who favor (from my perspective) connection with the visceral magic of music. I think it’s why no matter how often I put on Little Richard, it gives me goosebumps. EVERY time. It’s why when I put on Chuck Berry’s ‘Too Much Monkey Business’, I feel cooler, like I have a little more swagger, like the first time you get a couple beers in you. Those guys are before my time, but I still feel that! Why? I think it’s because that stuff is like the undiluted essence of Rock and Roll – but it’s the thing underneath the music that’s the fire. The unbridled energy of youth and hope and discovery (and sex, probably! Ha!). Neil Young has made a career out of trying to ride that unbridled energy. Neil doesn’t think in “guitar licks”, he just seems like he’s plugging straight into his soul – point to point wiring – and what you hear is what he’s experiencing. Willie Nelson, too. How else do you get all that classical guitar Django-y stuff woven into country? And his voice! It’s inspiring. Daniel Lanois as producer, too – ‘Wrecking Ball’, ‘Teatro’, ‘Time Out of Mind’, ‘Acadie’ – wow. When that Lanois thing is happening, it feels like you’re being let into something intimate and sacred. Tom Waits’ ‘Mule Variations’ has to be in there for the same reasons. More than anything they’re playing/singing/recording – to me it feels like they’re showing me how to tap in. I’m not saying I can do the same thing yet, but when I do it is when I feel most aligned with music and my own personal expression. It’s a journey to whittle away the fear to get to that.
It would be fantastic if you could remember some words about each of your albums. What are some thoughts that run through your mind when listening to it again?
‘Highway Signs & Driving Songs’ (1995)
Cliff Murphy: I’ve always felt like this is the moment – ‘Highway Signs’, ‘Buxton’, ‘Better Days’, and the ‘Driving Song’ in particular – where the band found its own sound.
Jon Nolan: A turning point for us, musically and experientially. We had recently purchased a school bus (“The Bull”) and retrofitted it as a tour bus. Then we traveled to Franklin, TN to record with a man as generous and warm as he was talented —- Bradley Hartman. Bradley did Willie’s ‘Stardust’, the ‘Honeysuckle Rose’ soundtrack (‘On the Road Again’), some Emmy Lou, Roseann Cash and others. We were beside ourselves. He did great for us, and really made us feel good about what we were doing. He passed this last year. I hope he knew how much he had an effect on us.
‘Take These Turns’ (1997)
Cliff Murphy: We made this record in two weeks, and then embarked on our first three week tour of the Deep South. When I look at pictures of this experience, I see that we were swept up in the romance of road life. Those images and those memories are wonderful. Hearing the album is harder – I can hear that we are a band in transition. The golden moments on this record are the tracks with Dan Dugmore’s pedal steel and lap steel. Also, Jon’s songs ‘Broken’ and ‘This Town’ are two of my all-time favorite ZuZu performances.
Jon Nolan: We were blessed to be with Bradley on this record again, but I agree with Cliff. We were figuring some things out. There are lovely spots and metaphorical clay that we wish we could shape differently now, but that’s how it goes when you make music. You do your best and set it free!
Cliff Murphy: This record is one of the only albums I’ve been involved in making where I don’t ever feel the need to give a new listener context, explanations, or disclaimers. I’m proud of the songs, the sounds, and the performances.
Jon Nolan: This is the first record in our development as artists where we shifted from self consciously “making records” into just making records because that’s what we did. We had a vision and we executed it. I love this record. I’m still super proud of it as well. Good job, 1998, us!
‘Every Mile’ (2002)
Jon Nolan: ‘Every Mile’ is bittersweet for me. I hear us continuing to stretch and grow, musically, but it’s hard to look back and experience this batch of songs without thinking about it in terms of what we were going through. I feel proud of the fact that we brought it, and that we captured a really strong batch of honest songs, and we got to do it at a studio where so many amazing records were cut (Ardent Studios in Memphis). I also feel great that when we split, it wasn’t due to interpersonal or even creative issues. It was just time. The Peter Pan thing wears off. The shine of the rock and roll lifestyle starts to fade and life shows up. I hear those themes in this record. These songs hold up in a way that feels timeless to me.
Cliff Murphy: Similar to ‘Bull’, for me, this is a record I feel really good about. The difference is that ‘Bull’ was recorded during a relatively happy time in our lives. ‘Every Mile’ was hard fought, was recorded in difficult circumstances, and at a time when the demands of road life were taking a toll. While I hear all of that difficulty on this record, I still want to play all 12 of these songs.
What are some of the most memorable gigs?
Cliff Murphy: The first night we ever played in Europe. We played in a 16th Century theater on the edge of the Alps, for a room full of Italians who knew all of our songs. It was surreal, but also the first time and place where the dream of playing music matched the reality of the gig.
Jon Nolan: Oh man! Buy us a coffee and set a tape recorder. You’ll get more gig stories than anyone could ever need. A couple of highlights…Singing ‘Pancho and Lefty’ with Joe Ely and Calvin Russell at a packed festival gig in Italy…countless gigs where we sounded great and played for a handful of people far away from home – The Empty Glass in Charleston, WV, The Nick in Birmingham, AL. Playing the places that always made you feel like family were always amazing – The Hideout in Chicago, Mohawk Place in Buffalo, Casbeers in San Antonio, our home base of the Stone Church Music Club in Newmarket, NH.
Is there still any unreleased material from the past?
Cliff Murphy: Yes, a ton of it. Strolling Bones will be reissuing five of our old studio albums (‘Say ZuZu’, ‘Highway Signs & Driving Songs’, ‘Take These Turns’, ‘Bull’, and ‘Every Mile’) and we are planning to include bonus tracks (unreleased material) with each.
So are you planning to hit the road this year? I’m sure 2023 will be a busy year for you promoting the new album…
Jon Nolan: Yes, we will be playing live shows. What we won’t be doing is touring in our old converted school bus. We’ll be playing the East coast, and hopefully back to Europe.
Looking back, what was the highlight of your time in the band? Which songs are you most proud of? Where and when was your most memorable gig?
Cliff Murphy: The brotherhood of the band is the living highlight of being in Say ZuZu. Singing harmony with Jon. Playing big, loud, crunchy chords with tremolo while everybody else is doing their thing. Making a new record with these guys, rediscovering Say ZuZu as a living, breathing band, is a gift to us. I can’t wait for the new record to be released. Songs I feel closest to are probably some of the deep cuts: ‘Big Blue’, ‘Here Again’, ‘Still’, ‘Independence Day’, ‘Hank’, ‘I Know Him Well’, ‘B&M’.
As for most memorable gigs – that’s a tough one. Playing one time at Barrister’s in Memphis, I remember feeling completely locked into the music, and not caring that it was the worst dump we’d ever played in and there was only one person there. Also, towards the end of our final European tour in 2002 – we played 27 shows in 30 days, and we were completely on fire. Physically, it felt terrible, but musically it felt like we were one.
Jon Nolan: The highlight is having the whole experience. We were, and are a band! That’s a special thing. Also, it’s a weird sensation to arrive at a place in life where you feel like you have an actual body of work. I feel grateful for that. We’ve had incredible shared experiences with one another that we don’t take for granted – even if those experiences didn’t (yet!) result in fame and fortune. Rather than songs, I’ll pick albums: ‘Bull’, ‘Every Mile’ and the forthcoming record ‘No Time To Lose’ due out in early ‘23. Those collections feel like us being us, and I love all the songs on all those records in particular.
Thank you for taking your time. Last word is yours.
Thanks for taking the time to ask us these questions! Thanks for your support! And, for anyone who has made it this far – thanks for your time. Hope to see you out there in the world or the interwebs…
Headline photo: Lauryn Sophia