The Zac Brown Band frontman talks Grohl, eat-and-greets and his eye-scorching new pop band
From ‘Achy Breaky Heart’ right through to Eric Church, US country music – to the untrained ear – seems happy to sit on it’s gently-rocking bronco, tipping its ten gallon to the Lord Almighty and flogging millions of albums in the Trump heartlands, all made up of exactly the same song about blue jeans, breezes, truck tops, radios and the 4th of July, as one sharp-eared online scientist proved.
Then came the Zac Brown Band, who have bemused and delighted country crowds with surprise C&W covers of ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’, ‘Killing In The Name’, ‘Gin’N’Juice’ and ‘Let’s Go Crazy’. They made a record with Dave Grohl cheekily entitled ‘The Grohl Sessions Vol. 1’, and went on to write a song for an Avicii album (‘Broken Arrows’) and fill their 2015 sixth album (and third US Number One) ‘Jekyll + Hyde’ with dance, reggae, jazz and hard rock elements. Now one of the biggest touring bands in America, they’re combining a trip to the UK to play the C2C country festival with a night at the Scala on March 14 showcasing Zac’s new electro side project Sir Rosevelt, which promises to be an audiovisual ultra-pop party.
We cornered Zac in a London hotel ahead of the show to find out what the goddarn’s going on…
Does the UK get country music?
“In my experience I think you do. For us it’s a new challenge. We’re one of the biggest touring bands in the States, and to come back here and go back to the beginning – the first time we came we played to a thousand people, the second year two thousand, then three thousand – it takes us back through our journey we went through in the States, which is a nice challenge to have, to win over the people. We get a chance to prove ourselves. We want to make it count, we want to play in front of as many people as we possibly can, but we have to put the work in, we have to pay our dues over here. It’s nice to have been back enough times to really see the fruit of that.”
By breaking out of the country niche and tackling EDM, reggae and hard rock on your last album ‘Jeckyll + Hyde’, are you trying to make country have broader appeal?
“We just try to make the kind of music that we like to listen to. I definitely think we’re a little more innovative than some people and we’ve been really blessed to have been well-received. Our last album was more of a concept record, to show the range that we could do as a band, from a swing tune to hard rock to country to all of that. You’re gonna have some people that hate what you do no matter what it is. It can be brilliant to one person and other people hate it. You’ve just gotta be comfortable with knowing that there’s people that are going to criticise whatever you do. For us, it’s about being an artist, not a country artist. The labels are there for other people to get their head around what it is but at long as it’s got integrity, as long as it makes you feel something… we have an original sound because everyone’s influences are so different and I love that. I can’t listen to one style of music so I don’t wanna play one style.”
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What can we expect from the more back-to-your-roots new album ‘Welcome Home’?
“’Welcome Home’ is very much a purist kind of record. It’s all the sounds that we can create with our band on the stage – one song was just me and a guitar. We tracked it live and you have to use one tape, so you don’t have the opportunity to go back and polish things and make things perfect. Some of my favourite records are that way, you can hear the humanity in it. After ‘Jeckyll + Hyde’, I’d been listening to some electronic music for a couple of years so it started bleeding into what I wanted to create. Sir Rosevelt was born out of this process, that gives me an outlet for the experimentation and electronica, the things I hear other people doing that I really love.”
So is the Sir Rosevelt project a full-on costumed pop extravaganza?
“People will be really surprised. I’m a big David Byrne fan and if you see one of his shows, and Pink Floyd as well, there’s this incredible visual journey that you go on as well. This is our chance to get to do that. It’s getting to be all the things I don’t get to be with ZBB, but it helped me to get back down to the core of what was the beginning of that as well, so it was very important for me to do both.”
How did you end up working with Dave Grohl?
“I met Dave in a store in LA, he was super personable. We talked about studios. He was just concepting Sonic Highways at the time and I said ‘come use my studio in Nashville’, so we stayed in touch about that. I asked him ‘would you come in and produce a record for us?’ and he said yes. So he came in to do it – we have a real analogue tape system at our studio, one of the only ones still up and running from the ’60s, back when my studio was first started.”
He has a reputation for being rock’s Mr Nice – was that your experience?
“There’s some people where you look behind the curtain into the human beings that artists are and some of them are a little quirky and strange, they might kinda tarnish the perception that you want them to be, but Dave Grohl is everything you’d want him to be and more. The greatest ones usually are. Paul McCartney’s the same way – super sweet, super down-to-earth. With Dave, we got to be friends, and what an incredible creative force. Working with him legitimised the journey of what we were going to do. We were playing Rage Against The Machine in our set sometimes, when we did festivals late at night, when there weren’t a bunch of kids there. Working with Dave and working with Chris Cornell is a dream come true because you look at these people when you’re younger like superheroes. Now you’re getting to be friends with Batman, that’s what it feels like. But they’re real folks, you realise that we’re not a lot different from each other besides all of the accolades. That’s probably the greatest thing about our career is getting to work with all our heroes.”
You’ve played numerous covers of songs from an array of genres – ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’, ‘Gin’N’Juice’, ‘Killing In The Name’, ‘Enter Sandman’ – how do you pick them, and how do you make them country?
“We talk about it, the band throws out ideas and we try to pick something old and something new. I love to try to do a curveball, songs that people might have kinda forgotten about or that people would never think that we would ever play. We just try to interpret it, we do our version of whatever it is. We’ll try it and see if it flies.”
Is it fun being Freddie Mercury or Prince for one song in a set?
“Absolutely. Freddie Mercury was a genius, it took us a long time to come up with a vocal arrangement that did that song any kind of justice at all. He sang sixty vocal tracks on some of the parts of the song! Dissecting Freddie Mercury to where we could perform it, it took a year of working on it in the cracks to figure out what to do. It’s not like you can just buy sheet music and read the parts that are on there. It’s fun paying homage to the people we were really influenced by.”
How was the 2010 Zac Brown Band cruise?
“We did our own festival on a cruise ship – I was a bit of a prisoner on the boat, I couldn’t really get out and about. I had to stay in my room a lot. They put me in a room where they thought the security would be the best but it was a tiny little room and I didn’t have anywhere else to go because you get out and everyone’s sloshed! If we did another cruise like that again, I’d get a big suite and have a nice place to be.”
You’re known for having dinner with your fans before gigs. Does that still happen?
“We took a break from that this year. We usually cook a gourmet meal for the fans, we call it an eat-and-greet. I launched a wine brand last year that’s been really successful so now we do a wine garden, we bring fans in and we have chefs prepare pairings for the wine, so it’s a little different this year, launching the new band. We may return to that but I’m working on a boubon now so we may have a bourbon tasting rig for this next year.”
Did it ever get weird?
“It has before. We had a fan one time that was mentally unstable and you could tell. We’re sitting and eating with people for an hour so people have up-close access to you, they’re standing all around you, if somebody wanted to shiv you, they could. Hopefully that’s not why they’re there! But there was something very disturbed about this lady. I could hear her behind me saying ‘I can’t go back to jail, I can’t go back to jail’. I didn’t know whether or not she was gonna try to grab me and bite my face or something, literally everything was going through my head. That one kinda creeped me out.”
Sir Rosevelt play the Scala tonight