FEATURES Kings of the Underground By J. Edward Keyes · Photos by Nicole Fara Silver · January 08, 2016
“In the subway, if I play something that’s wack, I can look at people 10 feet away from me and tell that they don’t like it. If I play something they really like, I can also see that reaction and think, ‘Maybe that’s something we should keep.’” — Matt Doe, Too Many Zooz

Leo P. has been punched in the face. At least, he thinks he has. When the baritone sax player for the New York band Too Many Zooz shows up at Platinum Sound — a sleek, low-lit recording studio just off Times Square that smells of an oddly calming combination of weed and incense — he’s sporting a halo of bright red bruises around his right eye and a small cut on his chin. He has no idea how they got there. The last thing he remembers is showing up at his local bar for the last stop on a long night of drinking. When he woke up the next morning, he had a maraschino cherry in his pocket, a memory gap, and a face that was roughly the same shade of chartreuse as his hair. Needless to say, he’s concerned. “Does it look like I got punched?” he asks the small group of friends gathered in the studio. “What do you think,” he asks one directly, “do you think I got punched?” His friend helpfully offers, “You might have just fallen down the stairs.” Leo is not comforted by this theory. “Look at this part here,” he says, pointing to a spot just above his eyebrow. “Does that look like the outline of a knuckle?” He sighs, looks around the room and announces, “Ok, everyone, quick survey: what do you think happened to me last night?”

Leo and the rest of Too Many Zooz – drummer David “King of Sludge” Parks and trumpet player Matt Doe – are at Platinum Sound to record their first full-length, which arrives after three increasingly focused EPs. According to Parks, the album will be titled Subway Gawdz, a nod to their start performing at New York’s Union Square subway station. In March 2014, a video of the trio performing in that same station landed on the front page of Reddit, racking up two million views and netting an enthusiastic tweet by ?uestlove, who said the group’s performance reminded him of the early days of the Roots. And while individually the members try to be nonchalant about the viral success, it’s clearly impacted their lives. A promoter who saw the video booked them for a four-month European tour this past year. They’ve made enough money that their subway gigs – once all-day, occasionally grueling affairs – have now been reduced to one hour a day, a few times per week. And though they are hesitant to admit it, it also affects the way they work. They start their session at Platinum by sketching out an idea for a track called “Donald Krump,” a goofy, semi-political number that would come complete with a video and an original dance. Near the end of the discussion, Doe says, “I think this one could have a shot at going viral.”

More than that, though, the success has affected the group’s mindset. “Ultimately, it did change a lot of things,” Doe admits. “It created a new level of investment for us. It became something different in our heads. It started out as something that I did for fun and bread, but we can really take this momentum and use it, and show people what we want to do musically. It gave us a goal. We thought, ‘Wow, all of these people really enjoyed this. If we take it further and develop on it, we can really do something special.’”

Too Many Zooz by Nicole Fara Silver

Watching that video – the one that ended up on Reddit – it’s easy to see why it caught on. The band’s raucous, almost physical sound builds on the loose template of both New Orleans and Eastern European gypsy jazz, with booming bass drum, somersaulting trumpet parts, and Leo’s fast, frantic baritone sax punching its way across the bottom. Those references aren’t surprising – Leo and Matt are graduates of the Manhattan School of Music, where both were studying jazz, to varying degrees of enthusiasm. (“I like jazz the way I like carrots,” Leo says dryly. “I don’t really like carrots that much — they’re not ice cream — but I like it because it feels good for me.”) But there’s more to it than that: the deep-set, forward-rushing sax and skittery rhythms on songs like “Turtledactyl” and the just-released “Spocktapus” have the same wild cacophony and chest-collapsing rhythms as the most riotous EDM. The difference is that the blazing streaks of sound aren’t coming from computers, they’re coming from human lungs and brass horns. “When you watch a DJ perform, a lot of that is not as physical as what we’re doing,” Matt says. “They’re standing behind a table. We’re out there sweating and making the noises ourselves. And I think people respond to that. And also I think, musically, people are responding to horns and to instrumentation. All throughout the 2000s, up to where we are now, we’ve experienced a lot of electronic music. I think that a large percentage of the people who listen to us like us because there’s that same sense of ‘continuous party’ that you feel with a DJ, but it’s a live performance.”

In concert, the group doubles down on that physicality, and at the center of the show is Leo. He hoists his baritone saxophone – an instrument almost as big and heavy as he is – high up into the air while executing footwork that’s impossibly nimble, twisting his body into corkscrews, grinding his hips, swinging his legs high up into the air. He changes the color of his hair every few months to a different, arresting shade. It’s deep magenta now, but it was bright green on St. Patrick’s Day, and it’s his natural brown in the YouTube video that took up long-term real estate on Reddit. Leo gravitates naturally toward the spotlight, and the rest of the band is perfectly content to let him occupy it. “Leo is the superstar of the band,” says Matt matter-of-factly. “A lot of the people who watched those videos and enjoyed them, enjoyed them because of Leo’s performance. And it’s a full thing: the dancing, the sax playing, the image, the hair. But I like the way that works. Because that may not be who I am as a person, but that is him as a person.”

Too Many Zooz by Nicole Fara Silver

After spending a few hours with Too Many Zooz it becomes clear that who they are on stage is very much who they all are as people. Leo is chatty and almost insistently gregarious – the kind of guy who might, in fact, find himself on the service end of a knuckle sandwich if he happened to drunkenly chat up someone who’d had a very long day. Matt has the calmly articulate personality of a grad school stoner, the kind who’s able to rattle off intricate details of Parliamentary Law with startling precision, even after multiple bong hits. And David is the quiet center, a lifelong musician who jokingly refers to himself as “the black Forrest Gump” for the way he’s found himself an accidental participant in music history. Case in point: after a failed stint as a chef at the Opryland hotel in the late ’80s, he decamped to Portland, Oregon, where he joined the noise band Hitting Birth as a percussionist, banging on scrap metal, electrified shopping carts, and whatever else they could salvage from the junkyard. The band was a hit in the burgeoning grunge scene, scoring headlining gigs and amassing a strong local following. “We were playing very successful shows,” Parks says. “One day, these guys came up to us after a show and were like, ‘We really like your band, we’d really love to play with you guys some day.’ We asked them what their name was, and they said, ‘Nirvana.’” A few months later, Hitting Birth were asked to play a headlining slot on New Year’s Eve at the Portland club Satyricon, and were asked to pick a support act. “We were like, ‘Who do we get to play? Oh, hey — remember that band, Nirvana?’” The two bands shared the bill but, as Parks points out with a wry grin, Nirvana ended up headlining.

Leo and Matt’s beginnings were somewhat less auspicious. Matt played classical piano from the time he was five until he was 11, eventually switching over to trumpet because it was the instrument all of his friends chose in middle school band class. “I was just naturally good at it,” he says. “When I got to high school, all I did was practice.” Over the course of the last few years, Matt has settled into the role of band manager, which suits him. He has an innate knack for structure and planning. When he arrived at Platinum, he did two things almost immediately: calmly, methodically rolled a formidable joint, and then issued an airtight, top-of-head schedule for the night’s recording session.

Like Matt, Leo also began playing at a young age. He started with clarinet, then eventually migrated to baritone sax when he was 17. In high school, he had a gig playing on Carnival Cruise Lines, which he now views as something of a cautionary tale. “It’s a really dark job for people who end up doing it for a long time,” he says. “The performances are hilarious because the [pre-recorded] track is so high, you can’t even hear the musicians. You can basically just improvise the whole time. People would come up to me on the cruise and say, ‘You guys sounded awesome yesterday!’ and I’d be like, ‘You heard a whole orchestra, a chorus and dubstep beats. How did you think all of that sound was coming from us?’”

Too Many Zooz by Nicole Fara Silver

Both Matt and Leo chose to attend Manhattan School of Music after graduation for essentially the same reason: they wanted to move to the city. Both of them found the college stultifying. “It was really modern-jazz heavy,” Leo says. “I was like, ‘I don’t really want to know about the 17th Sharp,’ or whatever. It was so deep in music theory that the actual music was almost a hypothetical. It was more like studying science at that point.” Matt’s experience was similar. “There was just a certain thing about jazz that, for whatever reason, I never really connected with. It was more a thing of, ‘I want to move to New York, and if I go to this college that gives me a scholarship, I can do that for free and my parents will be OK with it.’” After a failed attempt at graduate school, Leo began playing with a percussion group called Drumatics, who had set up shop at the Times Square subway station. One of the drummers in the group was David Parks, whose son would also join them during his summer breaks from school back in Portland. “Drumatics did a lot of member changing and, eventually, Leo became the baritone player,” Parks recalls. “Every summer my son would come, and I would play with him so he could make money to go back to school with. I decided that I wanted to go my own way and create my own style, so I told the Drumatics that my son was coming, and that I was going to be out playing every day with him. Leo said, ‘Hey, I might be into that.’”

The three of them set up shop at the Union Square station on 14th Street, working out a loose, ragged sound that built on a dual foundation of African rhythms, which Parks had studied during a trip to the continent a few years prior, and Leo’s sandpapery baritone work. Eventually, Leo brought along his friend from Manhattan School of Music, Matt, to join them. When David’s son returned to Portland, the three of them continued, spending day after day on the subway platform, perfecting both their sound and their stage presence, eventually settling on a name after being asked repeatedly what they were called. “I wanted to save the name ‘Too Many Zooz’ for myself,” Leo says. “But then we came to a name standstill, so I took it out of my back pocket.”

Their subway gigs turned out to be the ultimate proving ground. “Playing in the subway is like looking in the mirror and being like, ‘You’re fat’ or ‘You’re ugly,’” says Matt. “And that’s a good thing. If you’re comfortable, you’re probably not elevating your game. And the subway is not a comfortable place to play music. You have to demand people’s attention.” David’s view is more pragmatic. “Playing in the subway — it’s like the iPhone: it’s a multi-use thing. You’re paid for practice, you don’t have to pay for a practice space, and you are able to find out what your market is and what your market likes immediately. It’s about creating your own sound and your own scene and your own lane.”

Too Many Zooz by Nicole Fara Silver

“The subway can be an extremely rewarding place, but I wouldn’t say that it’s an extremely pleasant place to play music,” says Matt. “When you play on a stage for 10,000 people, that’s an amazing experience, but it’s not as honest. If you turn the speakers up loud enough, people are fucked up and are gonna dance to whatever. But in the subway, it’s 10 a.m., people are sober and going to work — they’re not trying to hear music. So you have to demand their attention. If I play something that’s wack, I can just look at the people who are 10 feet away from me and tell that they don’t like it. If I play something they really like, I can also see that reaction and think, ‘OK, that part spoke to that person. Maybe that’s something we should keep and utilize.’” It was in the subway that Leo crafted his dance moves and developed his persona, and it was in the subway that the band’s sound was refined. And, taking the long view, it’s hard not to view the subway as a kind of ad hoc market research for what would eventually yield enormous internet dividends. “You can see people’s reactions to your music immediately as you make it, and you can see what makes money,” Leo says. “It’s all ages, all ethnicities, and if you live in New York City you can create a fan base and you get regulars. And then people make videos on their phones and they go viral.” He pauses, then continues, “I can’t really think of viral bands from a video shot on an iPhone. That’s not really a thing that happens. But it happened to us.”

Now that it has happened, the trick is maintaining it. And the band’s interest level varies. “It’s hard to keep it going,” Leo sighs. “We just get so many fucking emails. There’ll be like 900 emails, and only one is a serious inquiry. It’s hard to say what people are connecting with. It just is what it is. It’s just who I am. I hear ‘nice moves’ a lot. And ‘It makes me dance, I like the rhythm.’”

Too Many Zooz by Nicole Fara Silver

Matt’s approach is more philosophical. “There have been things that we’ve done that I think are going to continue the buzz, and they die,” he says. “It’s hard to judge what people want. There are a lot of people interested in what we first sounded like, which was very raw. And then there are people from other areas in the music industry that want to hear us in a more electronic and a more produced manner. We live in a day where it’s not necessarily about what’s good or bad, it’s about — if I’m being honest — the virality. And I’m not interested in being a viral sensation – you can only go so far with that. What we’re trying to do is different. If someone’s interested in that and wants to continue their arc, they’d have to think practically: ‘What are the things from this video that people liked?’ And you dissect it and double-down on those things.”

But that kind of meticulous calculation doesn’t always result in success. And given the fact that the group’s success has been natural — almost accidental — introducing charts, graphs and projections into the process could end up diluting the intangible ingredients that made them so special.

“I try not to think about it too much,” says David. “There’s just no way to explain it. I could try to rationalize it, but I can only explain it as ‘magic.’ There’s no other way to say it. I know from being in other bands that, with this band, there’s no smoke and mirrors. The best part of being in this band is that I just get to be me. It’s almost Zen-like. It’s a simple equation: We show up to play, people respond. Why should we do anything other than that?”

Photos by Nicole Fara Silver
J. Edward Keyes is Bandcamp’s new Editorial Director

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