INTERVIEW WITH ZERO HOUR
By Andy Read
With the release of their Towers Of Avarice concept album two years ago, America’s Zero Hour immediately became respected players in the Progressive Metal field.
Based around the considerable talents of twin brothers Jasun and Troy Tipton, drummer Mike Guy and powerhouse vocalist Erik Rosvold, the album is a roller coaster ride of highly intensive riffs, sublime melodies and technical mastery.
We discover that the new album will be ‘dynamite’ – even though it features a didgeridoo. Also, we hear how one top metal band only managed to draw 10 fans to a gig in California; how Jasun’s mum and dad helped their first disk to sell out and why their side project has a ‘cookie monster’ vocalist!
One of the most satisfying parts of listening to music, is when a band you’ve never really bothered with before, comes on stage at a gig or festival and simply leaves you grinning, with a performance that you never expected to even enjoy. Such was the case in the spring, when Zero Hour left the stage at the Headway Festival in Holland. The intensity of their performance and the quality of the musicianship was truly spellbinding and thus their two albums have been an equally big hit on my hi-fi ever since.
The festival, which was followed by a gig in Belgium, was actually the band’s second visit to Europe. It follows an appearance at the Progpower Festival and a short tour across Holland and Germany in 2001. I start off, by asking Jasun how he felt the two most recent concerts had gone.
‘We had a great response,’ he says enthusiastically. ‘We saw a lot of familiar faces, from when we did the Progpower Europe festival a few years ago. The crowd was chanting with us, hands in the air and we did an encore! We love playing Holland and everyone treated us really well.’
The concert certainly featured great renditions of tracks such as Stratagem, The Subterranean and Demise and Vestige. However a major part of the set was given over to a tantalising taste of their next album De-Evolution. Three new tracks were aired under the working titles Track 1, Track 2 and Track 5 (I guess tracks 3 and 4 will eventually appear!).
However, six months later, the band still hasn’t finished the new album. With the tracks played at Headway seemingly in a completed state, I wonder what’s causing the delay.
‘All the music was done and recorded in March and we had literally just finished tracking the new CD a few days before we left for Holland,’ explains Jasun. ‘Erik has been going through some personal problems, family problems and hasn’t been able to get to recording just yet. He has started in the past couple of days. Hopefully we can get it done soon. We want to get it out there as much as anyone else.’
There was apparently a similar delay with the completion of Towers…. With eight months having already passed this time around, it must be frustrating for the rest of band having done their stuff, to still be waiting to hear the end result?
‘It is frustrating but we’re just really excited about the CD. When we did Towers.. we just didn’t know how we were ever gonna beat it. The thing was, we just wanted to stay focused and write a really great album. If it didn’t match up to Towers… then that’s just how it would be. But what is nice, is that we honestly feel that we did better than this time around. The songs are just fantastic. When we listen to it we just think: ‘That’s dynamite!’ It’s exactly what we set out to do.’
‘Now, I just have a feeling it’s gonna be a little while for Erk to get his stuff done – partly because we also critique him, to make sure that the timing and the melodies are all correct. Obviously he writes the lyrics, but when it comes to the melody lines and coming in with the different tempo changes and the odd time signatures, he needs our input for that – we help each other out.’
I’m no musician myself, but I guess Zero Hour’s songs must be quite challenging to put together – there is just so much going on but the band always manages to do it in a pretty subtle way.
‘Nah, for us it’s kinda easy,’ laughs Jasun, ‘cos we think of it all in a melody way. But you’re right, for a vocalist who doesn’t write the music it can be very difficult. We lay down the groundwork and Erik has to put his magic over it. But that’s the way Erik likes it as well. He says: ‘You just write the stuff and bring it to me so I can do the concept and we take it from there.’
From what the band has put together so far, I ask Jasun whether fans can expect another concept piece to be under construction.
‘Yes it is,’ he admits. ‘In short and from what I’m aware of right now, it’s about two tribes. One is suffering in poverty and looks for help from the other tribe. However the other tribe simply backstabs them to grab power.’
Having had two albums to find their feet, many bands find the dreaded third album a bit of a musical crossroads. With the guitar taking it in a far heavier direction, Towers is a very different beast to Metamorphosis, which had more light and shade and where the keyboards played a far more prominent role. I wonder whether De-evolution will continue the development of a more metallic sound or will the band be trying something more experimental?
‘I think it’s definitely a step forward and I think it’s better than the two CDs we’ve done so far,’ opines Jasun. ‘We really dug those albums for the times in which they were done but musically we wanted to make a few changes.’ ‘We’ve got into some Middle Eastern stuff to make it more exotic sounding and we’re using some new instruments like a didgeridoo. There’s also a cinematic piece that’s really film score sounding – a very new age feel.’ ‘Of course it’s always gonna have your heavy stuff – there’s a seven-string song in there, which is really driving but we are also trying to mix it up dynamically. There are a little more clean tones but when it goes to the heavy parts, it goes really heavy.’
With music of the power and quality found on Towers I’ve been surprised that Zero Hour hasn’t been snapped up by one of the larger lebls that deal with ProgMetal such as Inside Out or Metal Blade. Jasun fills me in on a bit of history.
‘Actually Inside Out wanted us for the demo which became Metamorphosis. We went through contract negotiations with them for a year. It was crazy! We also went through it with LMP. There were a lot of a labels, I mean a lot of labels interested – Magna Carta, Metal Ages, Leviathan – plus labels I’d never even heard of that wanted to do something with us.’
‘But the thing is, there’s always a huge difference between what you hear verbally and what you see in writing. You agree one thing on the phone but when you see the contract, it has absolutely nothing about what we had agreed. At some point you just get so frustrated it’s a total mind game mentality. You’ve just got to be strong with it. In the end, we’d had these tracks done for like 12 months and eventually just decided to put it out ourselves.’
So I presume the next album will see the band continuing its relationship with American-based Sensory Records.
‘We did look around,’ admits Jasun, ‘but Sensory gave us the best deal. Towers… sounds amazing but we wanted to go to the next stage in terms of production and make this CD even more dynamic. The nice thing I can say about Ken Golden and the label is that they didn’t have to hear any material first. They just put up the money we needed to record this album. You hear a lot of negative stuff about record labels but Sensory are very fair to us – they give us statements and royalty cheques too which helps!’
So as he’s had the statements I wonder if he cares to tell me how many copies of Towers.. have been sold so far.
‘We sold quite a lot. I don’t wanna give any numbers. There are many bands doing better than us but I’m happy to say it did well for a ProgMetal release.’
But having invested all this time and money into the project, have either the band or the label set a deadline for Erik to finish his tracks?
‘No we haven’t,’ states the guitarist. ‘Unfortunately Erik has some personal things going on and we want him to take care of that first. He says that doing his tracks will help him get into a better place, so right now he needs to take care of a few things.’
The band recently re-released a copy of their infamously hard-to-get-hold-of debut album. I ask Jasun whether this was to meet a demand or was it just a way of keeping the band in the spotlight while fans waited for the new album?
‘Well what’s great about it is we get so many e-mails from people saying: ‘We’re so happy you guys re-issued this album as I never had the chance to get a copy at the beginning.’ We made 2,100 copies of the demo. We probably sold 1,500-1,600 copies and of course a load went for reviews and such like. Hell, even my mum and dad bought copies for five dollars each ‘cos they wanted to give it all their friends and family. I think they were having a battle to see who could buy the most copies. In the end they accounted for about a hundred!’
‘The reviews generated a really big buzz and we sold out really quick. When we went to Progpower in Europe all we had was 70 copies of so left. In two days, we were out easy.’ ‘Anyway, it was done five years ago and it was never available in the stores. When you see how many copies of Towers.. we sold compared to the debut, there are a lot of fans who are missing that CD.’
In addition to new artwork by Travis Smith and an analogue/demo version of Eyes Of Denial, Metamorphosis also has a major bonus in the shape of three tracks (A Passage, Rebirth and Jaded Eyes) that, while recorded for the debut disc, were never released the first time around.
Having listened in particular to the stunning Rebirth, I have to wonder why they were not included originally.
Jasun explains: ‘Both tracks were mixed when we released the debut. Jaded Eyes wasn’t even mixed, it was just tracks. Basically when we were dealing with all these labels, they wanted a CD that was at least 45 minutes. We said ‘OK, we have enough tracks but there are a couple that have not been mastered as we ran out of money’. We needed an advance to do it all, but it just never worked out.’
‘Then a year or so ago, we were getting all these fans asking how to get copies of the debut. Sensory wanted to put it out. We wanted to put it out and so we were able to finish off these things and do the full album.’ ‘Obviously we’re not in this business to make a lot of money. But we really wanted to have the best possible recording for De-Evolution. As a result of putting Metamorphosis out, we’ve had more money available to invest to make it even more of a slamming CD.’
In their Californian homeland Zero Hour has had the chance to support the likes of SymphonyX and LA Guns. So is there a healthy live scene for progressive bands?
‘Dali’s Dilemma used to practice next door to us but they’ve never ever played a live show,’ reports Jasun. ‘Enchant haven’t played locally for a while. We’re actually good friends with their drummer Sean Flanegan, who played on my solo album Night’s Pulse. There’s a band called Maximum Indifference that I’ve heard of, but that’s about it, here in Northern California man.’
‘We do play shows and we do fine. The problem is that it’s really hard to find bands to match us with. We draw really well but once we get off the stage those fans take off. The club owners aren’t big fans of that! But we’ve been fortunate to play some pretty kick ass shows.’
I remember reading somewhere that when Angra came to North California, just 14 people turned out to see them. I comment that it makes the metal scene in the UK look like it’s really thriving.
‘Yeah that’s right. It can be really tough. This girl I know said that Angra also came to near her – maybe Chicago I can’t remember for sure – but just ten people came out for that.’
‘I remember when we played L.A. and they said all the genres of metal are picking up apart from Progressive Metal. It’s actually deteriorating and I think that’s because there’s not enough new bands coming out and making a really good statement. If you were to think of brand new bands off the top of your head, you’re not gonna come up with a big number.’
While they wait for Erik to progress the next Zero Hour, the rest of the band have been getting increasing attention for a side project that started out as just a bit of fun.
‘Yeah it’s pretty cool,’ enthuses Jasun when asked about Death Machine. ‘It’s very different. When we got together with this band we just wanted to get together and play great music. When we’re having down time with Zero Hour, we still like to get out and play. Then out of nowhere we started to get a lot of people coming to our shows. So we recorded a couple of songs and we’re No.1 on the local radio here and then labels started approaching us. Again it was Sensory who gave us a fair deal.’
‘The band has just released its debut album (on Sensory as well). We wanted to do something else so we got a cookie monster vocalist. I guess it can be described as a cross between Meshuggah and Soilwork with a few bits of Nevermore.’
And away from his two band projects I learn that Jasun manages to pay the bills by working as a guitar tutor.
‘Yeah I give guitar lessons. I don’t advertise at all as I get so many students due to our live shows,’ he laughs. ‘It’s kinda cool, when after the show people come up and start chatting about things and when they find out I do lessons as my main job they want to have lessons too. So in a way I do earn a living from Zero Hour after all!’