I caught up with U-Melt keyboardist and vocalist Zac Lasher at a turning point in the band's career. They'd just wrapped up their first run of shows with new guitarist Kevin Griffin‚ while celebrating their latest and strongest release to date‚ Perfect World -- original guitarist Rob Salzar's parting shot with the band.
For the type of music you play‚ for the most part‚ so much of it depends on group dynamics and chemistry. Everyone in the group is of equal importance. Your guitarist‚ Rob Salzar‚ left the band after about six years. You've brought Kevin on as the new guitarist and just finished your first run of shows. I imagine there was a burst of inspiration from how refreshing it is to have a new voice to play with‚ but it must also feel a bit deflating to have the momentum shift from all the chemistry‚ experience‚ tightness‚ etc. you formed over time with Rob. So‚ you just finished your first run with Kevin. How did it feel? Let's hear about the good and the bad. What were the peaks and surprises? What didn't work?
It's been a really interesting few months; that's for certain. Our main goal for the winter tour was to show our fans (and ourselves) that we could still be U-Melt with a different guitarist‚ and I think that ultimately‚ we accomplished that. There were moments throughout the tour when everything seemed to lock into place and it all felt right. Of course‚ those often gave way to other moments when it seemed like we were sliding a bit and trying to find our space‚ too. Our front of house engineer‚ Josh Parrish‚ put it really well when he said that if you get your arm cut off‚ they can't just attach another arm and expect it to work perfectly right off the bat. There has to be a healing process where the graft begins to take. Gradually‚ you get your range of motion back and gradually you re-learn how to do all the things you used to be able to do. It's been like that in some ways. There's a level of trust when you've been creating with the same people for so long‚ you know? Just knowing that everyone has everyone else's back. When you feel that‚ you can really just relax and let the music happen. It seemed to me like it took Kevin a few shows to really feel that the ensemble would always hold him up -- if he stumbled on a part‚ or if he wanted to make a left turn in an improvised section or something like that -- but at some point I think he really started to feel that trust‚ and that's when we really started to function as the true ensemble that this band was always designed to be.
For example‚ we have a song called "The Fantastical Flight of Captain Delicious." It's one of our crazy composed songs that has always been one of our favorite jumping-off points for intense‚ far-out improvisation. In rehearsal‚ and the first few times we played it for an audience‚ it never got to that peak which I was accustomed to. I kept trying to push it farther‚ but it was always falling short. Then there was one point in Albany‚ I think‚ when Kevin momentarily took his lead line into a strange tonality and the rest of us immediately jumped on it and were locked into this new sonic territory immediately. The trust got really strong there‚ and it resulted in this beautiful moment that really fueled the improvisation to go to a height that it hadn't yet reached. It's moments like that you live for as an improviser. Then there's the fact that Kevin had the unenviable task of learning many hours of some very difficult music‚ and he has stepped up with flying colors. It really amazes me that he has pulled it off so well. Of course‚ we've had to truncate the repertoire a little bit‚ and there are definitely songs that have been retired for good‚ and some others that are taking a little break from the rotation. Most of the songs which Rob used to sing lead on are gone‚ just because it feels weird to be singing his lyrics‚ or to even have another voice on those parts. And there are some songs too‚ that he didn't sing on‚ that just seemed wrong with this band. Which is unfortunate‚ as some of them were definitely fan favorites. For example‚ I don't think we'll be playing "Red Star" or "Schizophrenia" anytime soon. Those are both songs that Rob wrote nearly a decade ago‚ and so much in them hinges upon his style of playing the guitar‚ that they just felt wrong when we tried to play them with Kevin. Fortunately‚ though‚ the vast majority of U-Melt's music feels and sounds just fine. Of course‚ Kevin brings a whole lot to the table when he's not just playing Rob's parts. He has a really soulful way of playing the guitar‚ so it gives us a bit of a bluesier‚ Americana vibe‚ and a little less of the classical European vibe that Rob had. He's an incredible improviser and has really been pushing us in some great new directions within our improvisation. We'd fallen into a lot of patterns with our jamming‚ and some stuff had a tendency to get a little stale I think. With Kevin‚ all of our ears are wide open all the time‚ because we never really know what's going to happen‚ so we all just have to open way up‚ play a little less‚ and listen really hard‚ which has made for some absolutely magical moments of musical creation. It's been really great seeing the fans' reactions to it all. Every show‚ a lot of people who've been seeing the band for years‚ and who were worried that they weren't going to like it anymore‚ came up to me and told me that everything's gonna be OK. That meant a lot.
One of my favorite music writers‚ Dennis Cook‚ recently said of your new album Perfect World (on Jambase): "…but like kindred spirits moe.‚ these guys understand the value of creating lasting recorded work. Perfect World is a gliding‚ warmly presented record that puts them some yards past many of their jam peers." The record does have a good sound to it‚ but it feels like whenever the word "jam" gets attached‚ it automatically is a studio record handicap. To me‚ it feels like it's just never going to get to people's ears because of marketing and key words‚ nothing to do with sound. If you take a step back‚ it's all just music. Do you feel frustrated by the business and marketing aspects of it? Like no matter what you do‚ the precedent has been set and you're stuck?
Well‚ making a great record and playing a great live show require two very different skill sets‚ and I think it's not so common to find musicians who are truly able to do both. There are plenty of bands who make fantastic albums that I wouldn't want to see live again. And likewise there are plenty of bands who I love to see live but I'm not fond of their recorded music. However‚ I think you nailed it in that it really is about language and marketing‚ because many bands get written off within the music world because they are considered jam bands. Personally‚ I think that the biggest problem is that the name -- jam band -- as a name for a genre of music‚ is really awful. Now jazz is a cool name. Rock 'n' roll‚ soul‚ funk‚ punk -- those are all cool names that people want to have attached to them as both a musician‚ and as a music fan. But jam band…. not so much. Even indie rock‚ which is as grossly an overused term‚ and equally non-descriptive‚ simply sounds better.
And what are your thoughts on the opposite of it? Meaning‚ the way you've been marketed -- and more importantly what you've done -- thus far has given the band longevity. You play long shows‚ you have loyal fans that will travel to see you play‚ they'll listen to you play for three or four hours in a night. You can continue to do that and not feel like what you're putting out is just some flash in the pan‚ hip-today-gone-tomorrow kind of music.
Well‚ that's the kick‚ isn't it? We share a lot of the same philosophy towards playing live as the great jam band juggernauts‚ which is really a great way to look at playing music. Every show is a totally unique individual with its own peaks and valleys and its own magic. Which isn't to say that there isn't something to the other side of the coin when you go out every night and play a set show that's absolutely perfectly choreographed from top to bottom. But there is a spontaneity -- a beautiful thing that exists when you take the risk -- that it won't be prefect and it ends up being more amazing than anything you could imagine.
You're up onstage improvising a lot. What kind of experiences do you have when it's really working and you're in the state of improvisational bliss? Is it visual? If so‚ what do you see? What do you feel?
For me‚ when it's really good‚ I fall into a Zen-like state of absence‚ when my fingers know what to do and I can disappear and just listen. Listening is my favorite part of playing. When you can just listen and the music is good‚ and it's something that's never happened before‚ and it will never happen again. It's just this momentary gift from the universe for everyone in the room to share. You practice to be able to achieve those moments‚ so that when they come‚ your body and mind are ready to let them happen and not interfere with it.
You play a lot of late-night shows and festival gigs. What's the weirdest shit you've seen from stage?
Man‚ I've seen some shit. People get pretty crazy at festivals sometimes... I've seen people have sex up against the front of the stage while we were playing. That was a bit weird. We once played a place that claimed to be the embassy from another planet. True story.