Louder with Ali Tabatabaee of Zebrahead
13- unlucky for some it may be, but for Los Angeles punks Zebrahead, their thirteenth record is undeniably up there with their best! Bringing a fresh swathe of rousing punk rock insanity to their live shows, the release of ‘Brain Invaders’ has kicked off yet another world tour for the quintet, who are showing absolutely no signs of slowing down any time soon! When their raucous touring party landed at Manchester’s Academy 3, we managed to catch up with vocalist Ali Tabatabaee to dissect their latest release, plus take a look at the legacy of punk music, and find out what happens when you get stranded on tour without a cell phone…
You’ve recently released your new album ‘Brain Invaders’- how have you found people’s responses to the record so far?
So far it’s been really positive! When you’re writing an album, you’re so close to it that it’s hard to gauge how people are going to respond to it, but it’s been really positive so far! We’ve been playing a lot of new songs during our set, and oftentimes when you have a new album and you play the newer songs people don’t know them because they know your older stuff more, but we’ve noticed [people] singing along and singing all the words! After the shows too, when we talk to the fans and stuff, they bring up the lyrics and they tell you ‘oh I really like this because it relates to me in this way’, and that’s always a good way to gauge it, seeing how people can relate to your music.
You have 13 albums under your belts now- how do you go about streamlining that down to a setlist’s worth of songs?
A little bit of it is trial and error- oftentimes we try and play the songs that are a bit higher energy because it’s a live show, so you want to have that energy. You can gauge it by the crowd response- if they’re singing along then you get an idea of what works! We’ve been doing this for so long, so we’ve changed our setlist so many times over the years and tried to hone it down- especially now, because we are trying to play more songs from the new album, so you have to cut some of the older songs, which is tricky. But I think by now, with it being the last day of tour, we’ve managed to come up with a pretty good setlist- well, you tell me after we play!
Do you have any older tracks that you’ve not played live for a while that you would want to bring back?
Always, always! There are always songs that you wish you could play, but it’s tough when you have a limited amount of time, so you’ve got to be kind of discerning when it comes to what you want to play and what the fans want you to play- which is a fine line too, because there might be a song that the band loves, but if it’s not getting much reaction from the fans, then you might have to cut that one.
Would you ever want to do another covers album like ‘Panty Raid’? Who would you love to cover, and what would you hate to have to cover?
We’d never say no! When we did ‘Panty Raid’ initially, we’d been wanting to do a covers album, but we wanted it to be unique, which is when we came up with the idea of covering girl pop singers, because nobody’s ever really done that, so if there’s another cool idea that we came up with that we were excited about, then for sure we’d do another covers album. Who would I like to cover… I’d love to do a Rage Against the Machine cover or something, which would be fun because that’d be super high-energy too! And who would I not like to cover… a band that are really good, so that if you try to cover them you will just never do it justice, like The Beatles- if these guys had their say, it would be Van Halen, you wouldn’t want to cover them!
Being in Manchester, you will probably get requests to play ‘Wonderwall’ tonight!
We should play that then! [Editor’s Note: Sadly, no spontaneous cover emerged that night, though perhaps a seed has been planted…]
Looking at that span of records more broadly, punk rock has always been something of a reactionary genre that feeds off the society that surrounds it- do you still feel punk has that same relevance in this day and age as it did?
Yeah, especially with everything that’s happening now- punk music has always had a political and social aspect to it, and especially nowadays, [society] is so charged in that aspect that punk music is very relevant, and I think for that reason punk music just doesn’t die. It is constantly relevant to people’s lives and their experiences, and that’s why personally I love punk music!
Looking over to touring, who is the last one to be back for bus call at the end of the show?
[From across the room, a quiet ‘Fuck’ from the man himself!]
Nobody has to look after him, he’s always good-
Dan: I never miss bus call!
Ali: He never misses bus call, but if I’m looking at my phone and bus call is at, say, 3, at 2:57 and 45 seconds, I’ll see him walking down the street- perfect timing!
Have you ever left anyone behind?
I got left behind once! We were in the States, we’d gotten to some services and I’d got out to get some food, and I came back and the bus had gone- apparently the bus driver had just forgotten about me! I’d even told him, like ‘I’m just going to get food!”, and he totally forgot! And this was back in the day when not everybody had cell phones, so I had to like just wait there hoping they’d come back, because I didn’t know anything about the city or anything! And eventually someone was like ‘hey, where’s Ali?’! So it has happened!
You guys have a huge Japanese following- how does Japanese gig culture differ from gig culture in the US and Europe?
I feel like wherever you are in the world, punk fans are very similar in their mentality and their vision of things. However, I’d say going to a show in Japan as opposed to England or Europe, [the difference is that] between songs, the Japanese fans are super quiet and really respectful, to the point where for the first show there, after the first song, - they had warned us, being like ‘hey, it’s not that they don’t like you, it’s just them being respectful’ – and after the first song I whispered to my friend that was in the band at the time like ‘this is so quiet!’, and everybody could hear it, it was bizarre! That’s pretty much it, in between songs in Europe and the UK everybody is still going crazy, whereas over there they’re very respectful, they just want to hear everything you have to say. You have to go to Japan, it’s the coolest place in the world- it’s so different, so modern but still traditional- the food is rad, the people are rad, I’d definitely recommend it!
Album covers always intrigue me, and yours in particular really caught my eye with the current fervour in the scene surrounding Tom DeLonge and aliens- when aliens make contact, what will they look like?
I just read this article, two days ago or something that said that NASA believes we’re going to find life forms on Mars, because apparently there was water on Mars before, but they’re saying that whatever organism they’re going to find is going to be subterranean, so they’re going to have to drill for it, and it’ll be some sort of amoeba or something like that, so I don’t think it’s going to be like the space aliens we see in movies and stuff- even though that would be way cooler! I think it’s going to be single-celled organisms or something like that that are buried under the surface.
You never know, your new album could be what calls out to them!
Oh my god, could you imagine- this is what does it!
And, as if it were a prophecy, Zebrahead were indeed joined on stage that night by two full-sized aliens- although, they were aliens who came bearing trays of shots, and who, after taking several themselves as well as sharing them out amongst the band, performed an impressive array of gymnastics, which miraculously resulted in only one of the pair earning a long bloody gash on his head for his trouble! Thankfully, however, everyone else in the tiny black vortex of a venue reached the climax of the evening unscathed, except for their undoubtedly pounding heartbeats due to the seemingly relentless singing, crowdsurfing and circle-pitting! Though Zebrahead may be gazing into an extra-terrestrial future, they proved that their stellar punk heritage is still well and truly rocking!
'Brain Invaders' is out now via MFZB Records.
Check out the video for the opening track from the record, 'When Both Sides Suck, We're All Winners', below: